Of course, all beds and bedrooms aren't created equal, which is why I came to the Riviera Maya in November. I wanted to test their charms in three hotels. I started by spending two nights in a canvas "tentalapa" at Kailuum II, just north of Playa del Carmen, for $95 a night, including breakfast and dinner. Then I moved to Cabañas Ana y José, one of a string of funky little places south of the stunning Maya coastal ruins of Tulum, where I stayed for two nights in a $75 room. I finished my visit with a one-night splurge for $480 at Maroma Resort and Spa, one of the most luxurious enclaves on this coast.
In effect, four nights total at modest Kailuum II and Ana y José cost me $140 less than one night at Maroma. But sampling such diverse accommodations gave me a chance to reconsider a crucial question: Can a traveler be as happy in a tent on the beach as at a fancy resort? What are the real experiential differences — including but not limited to sleeping — between high- and low-end hotels?
It was a controlled experiment, in a sense, because the coastline south of Cancún is uniformly lovely, bordered by palm trees, pillowy sand, an ocean usually as benign as a bathtub and one of the world's longest reefs, stretching all the way to Honduras. I visited here 10 years ago and had seen the sights along Highway 307, which connects Cancún to the Mexico-Belize border, so I already knew that nature doled out its blessings evenly.
At Cancún International Airport, I rented a convertible VW bug. It had so many dents and deficiencies — no seat belts, a nonfunctioning parking brake and big gaps between the canvas top and doors — that I should have declined it. But darkness was coming, and I wanted to get to Kailuum II for dinner.
Fortunately, Highway 307 had been upgraded since my last visit to the Yucatán. It's well lighted and has four lanes all the way to Playa del Carmen, with plenty of Pemex gas stations for succor.
Even in the twilight I could tell things had changed since I'd last driven the road to Tulum. What is now called the Riviera Maya used to be where people went to get away from Cancún. Highway 307 is still bordered by the scrubby Yucatecan jungle, but this time I also saw gates to all-inclusive resorts with architecture that apes things as diverse as Maya temples and Versailles. The state of Quintana Roo hopes to build a new air terminal on the Riviera Maya, the number of hotel rooms in the area is expected to increase more than 20% in the next few years and Carnival Cruise Lines is negotiating construction of a port that could bring in 750,000 more tourists annually.
Once the slow lane
It was raining, and I overshot the exit for Kailuum II, ending up in the suburbs of Playa del Carmen, about 40 miles south of the Cancún airport. Playa del Carmen used to be a slow-lane Mexican village with little more than quesadillas and ferry service to Cozumel, but now it's bursting at the seams, all fast food, factories and sprawl.
Kailuum II shares an entrance with La Posada del Capitán Lafitte, the tent enclave's more traditional sister resort next door. From the front gate, a bumpy, unpaved road heads east about a mile through the low, buggy jungle, finally arriving at Lafitte, a pleasant complex of one- and two-story casitas with a swimming pool, favored by families.
With a little help from a Lafitte staff member, I found my way to Kailuum II, where there's no electricity and the reception desk is in a palapa hut. The clerk welcomed me with the news that dinner featured piña coladas as the drink of the day in the honor bar, Kailuum II's special coconut-fried shrimp and chocolate cake for dessert.
When the original Kailuum opened in 1979, no one thought to bill it as an eco-resort, because the concept of rustic, environmentally conscious getaways didn't exist just yet. The gently-go-native ambience and low rates, which included bed and board, appealed to contrarians who couldn't see the charms of Cancún's pricey, high-rise concrete blocks.
A string of vicious hurricanes and lethal yellowing disease, which struck the area's regal palms, forced Kailuum to close. Happily, Kailuum II, which opened in 1999, is like its predecessor, a collection of tidy canvas tents — at 10 by 14 feet, as big as some hotel rooms — scattered across a lovely and still largely undeveloped stretch of beach.
At dinner in the Polynesian peak-roofed restaurant, I sat at a big round table with vacationers from Colorado and California. One couple told me they had vacationed at Kailuum II seven times in the last two years. I would certainly return for a set-menu, family-style meal like the one served that night. It was followed by two beloved traditions: hot chocolate with cinnamon but not too sweet, and refreshing moist, warm towels.
Kailuum II is ravishing at night, illuminated by torches that reveal little more than the wavering shadows of palm fronds. After the yellowing blight, a disease-resistant strain of palms was imported to the Yucatán, now strapping 20-foot trees that have taken root all along the coast.
A staff member took me to my beige tentalapa, entered through a zippered flap. Like the window flaps, the "door" had a canvas layer for protection from wind and rain and one of mesh for air circulation. There was a platform double bed with inviting clean sheets, bedside crates supporting oil lanterns and a sand-floored patio area furnished with chunky wooden chairs and a hammock. I could hear the waves and see the distant lights of Cozumel.
The one thing my tent didn't have was a bathroom. Two bathhouses, with toilets, showers and Mexican tile sinks, are close to the resort's 31 tentalapas and are kept as clean as communal facilities can be. But none of that helps in the wee hours of the morning.
All night long, the wind roared, shaking the tent like something out of "The Three Little Pigs." I had come to the Yucatán at the tail end of rainy season, which usually lasts from September to October but had lingered through November. It showered intermittently. I eventually realized I needed to zipper the tent flaps. It was an eventful night, but I slept between gusts and visits to the loo.
Frankly, it hardly matters if you sleep at night because there's plenty of opportunity for that during the day. One guest told me that while she was reading in a hammock, she had been awakened three times in succession by the thud of her book dropping onto her chest.