People say they come to the Riviera Maya on the Caribbean coast of Mexico for the beaches, reefs and ruins. What many really mean to do is snooze in hammocks, books collapsed on their chests. Never mind touring Maya archeological sites, snorkeling and scuba. On this 70-mile stretch of coast south of Cancun, there's world-class sleeping.
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 Cabanas Ana y Jose, 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 Jose 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 Cancun 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 Cancun to the Mexico-Belize border, so I already knew that nature doled out its blessings evenly.
At Cancun 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 Yucatan. 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 Cancun. 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 Cancun 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 Capitan 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 pina 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 Cancun'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 Yucatan, 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 Yucatan 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.
After breakfast, I started out strong by walking the beach north to La Posada del Capitan Lafitte, where I swam in the pool and looked into classes at the dive shop. A one-hour $50 massage at Kailuum II sounded better to me. My masseuse, who said I was good at relaxing, was as accomplished as any at fancy spas.
The next morning, I moved about 45 miles south to Cabanas Ana y Jose, knowing what to expect because I had stayed in the simple, comfy mom-and-pop hotel on my last visit.
I hadn't, however, seen Xcaret, a 198-acre Yucatecan theme park near Playa del Carmen that, next to Tulum, is the most popular attraction on the coast south of Cancun. It hadn't been built a decade ago, and even if it had, I'm seldom keen on such packaged-for-tourist places. But, as I discovered , this one is different -- part zoo, botanical garden, aquarium and Maya culture museum, with a sheltered lagoon for snorkeling and an underground river that people float along in life jackets.
I had come too early for the evening show, and it was pouring, punctuated by periods of intense sunshine that made me forget it ever rained, so I didn't float the river. But I saw fascinating scale models of all the major Maya ruins in Mexico, a puma, the heavenly butterfly pavilion and a rest area strung with row upon row of hammocks, far superior to benches for siestas.
Then it was on to Tulum, little more than a bus stop at the threshold of the ruins when I was last there. Now it has two stoplights and a big grocery store.
Boca Paila Road leads from the village to a backpackers' beach haven south of Tulum, made up of a rag-tag collection of small, idiosyncratic cabana resorts that is my favorite Mexican- Caribbean nowhere. I was a little worried about what I would find after a decade of development.
Thankfully, nothing much had changed. This stretch of beach couldn't be called a Riviera by any stretch of a travel agent's imagination. The pavement still yields to rock, mud and potholes several miles short of Ana y Jose, giving it an end-of-the-world air, although Boca Paila Road carries on to the tip of a skinny peninsula in the heart of the remote Sian Ka'an World Biosphere Reserve.
The few changes that had come to 15-room Cabanas Ana y Jose since my last visit were all to the good, including a little swimming pool between three two-story motel blocks and twin low-rise casitas close to the beach, all brightly painted. I stayed in a second-floor double in the building farthest from the water. But it was spacious, with a high, thatched roof, two ceiling fans and a prettily tiled shower in the bathroom. There was a balcony at the front with a white plastic chair and another at the back with a hammock.
Right away, the silence was broken by barking dogs, and I started getting bitten by mosquitoes, touches of authentic ambience you don't get in high-toned places.
The bar at Ana y Jose makes excellent, big margaritas, though the food in the restaurant isn't anything special. I had white fish steamed in foil the first night and huevos rancheros for breakfast. The next morning, I found better fare and morning java at Maya Tulum, a resort down the beach.
At Ana y Jose, you can rent a car or book a tour into Sian Ka'an. The Tulum ruins are close and easy to see, showcasing post-classic Maya architecture from the 10th to the 16th century, set on a dramatic cliff overlooking the Caribbean. You can even take a day trip to the graceful colonial city of Merida about 150 miles west. Or you can just stay put and walk the beach, swim way out and let the waves carry you, like flotsam, back in.
Off-shore pollution leaves a litter of plastic jugs and spark plugs on the beach every morning. Staff members at Ana y Jose clean the sand in front of the hotel so guests don't have to encounter such dispiriting riff-raff, unless they walk the beach, with seabirds and stranded mollusks, at sunrise.
By the time I left Ana y Jose, I had big itchy welts on my arms and legs, compliments of the mosquitoes, and all the T-shirts and underwear I'd packed were dirty.
In this condition, I made a fairly scruffy entrance at Maroma Resort and Spa, a 60-minute drive back up Highway 307, reached through an unmarked gate that looks as though it leads to a private estate.
That's precisely the impression intended by the creators of Maroma, architect Jose Luis Moreno and his wife, Sally Shaw. They bought the 500-acre coconut plantation in 1976 and built a house here, then opened it as a hotel in 1995.
The main building, fronted by a hand-hewn stone door frame from an 18th century hacienda near Merida and a rectangular pool fed by a waterfall, looks like some magnate's Caribbean hideaway. It's fashioned of concrete blocks coated in white plaster and stucco and is all Moorish curves, arches and towers, evocative of Morocco. But the details -- tiled staircases, fountains, thatched roofs, ironwood pillars, reproduction Maya statuary, white stone conchuela flooring with embedded fossil shells -- are Mexican, made largely of materials from the plantation.
A silky reception
Two years ago, Orient-Express Hotels Ltd., owners of five tourist trains, including the Venice Simplon-Orient- Express, and a collection of top-drawer hotels, such as the Windsor Court in New Orleans, bought into the business. Thus, guests -- who have included British Prime Minister Tony Blair and family -- can expect a high level of service, only the best amenities and utter discretion, even if they arrive in a beat-up bug.
I was greeted at reception by Elsa, a pretty young Colombian woman educated in England, dressed in the flowing white muslin Maroma uniform. She didn't bat an eyelash at my disarray, gave me a tour of the resort and then showed me to my room, reached by a curving staircase on the second floor of the main building. I entrusted her with my dirty clothes as she left and was assured they would be returned clean the next morning.
The room was big, with a terra-cotta tile floor, covered choc-a-bloc by natural-fiber, hand-loomed area rugs. There was a sliding glass door leading to a balcony, a walk-in closet offering a white cotton Maroma caftan suspended from a satin-padded hanger and a priceless bathroom with a shallow, semi-oval tub lined in colorful Mexican tiles.
The king-size platform bed abutted a stone ledge that supported a clock, telephone, welcome platter of tropical fruit and ensconced candles.
After the tent and mosquitoes, I was reluctant to leave my room at Maroma. But it was lunchtime and I was hungry, so I took a table at El Sol, the resort's beachfront restaurant, where I ordered a seafood club of lobster, shrimp and salmon on homemade wheat bread. It was altogether delicious, better than the room-temperature martini and unspectacular fajita dinner I had later, though they were followed by a tasty flute of coconut sorbet.
With 24 hours to spend at Maroma, I couldn't sample all its charms. But I lazed by the beach on a thickly cushioned wooden chaise longue, underneath my private thatch-roofed cabana, while attendants proffered tall drinks and towels. I had a massage in a beachfront palapa hut, but it felt to me as though the masseuse was in a hurry to get home and was phoning it in.
A snorkeling trip to the reef is included with a one-night stay at Maroma, but the ocean was too rough to hazard the next morning.
Just before it was time to leave, I sprawled back in bed and ruminated. I'd be nuts to claim I didn't like Maroma best, but Kailuum II and Ana y Jose pleased me perfectly, in their own more modest ways. When you come right down to it, the sun shines, the wind blows and the waves break evenly along the Riviera Maya. And you can have a triple book-drop day, no matter where you stay.
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Mexico's land of the Maya
From LAX, nonstop service to Cancun is available on Mexicana and Alaska, and connecting service is offered on Aeromexico, Continental, American, America West and Frontier. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $399.
Highway 307 provides access to the Riviera Maya, which lies roughly between Cancun and Tulum on the Caribbean coast of Mexico. Playa del Carmen is about 30 miles south of Cancun International Airport; Tulum is 40 more miles south of Playa del Carmen.
Many major U.S. car rental companies have offices at the Cancun International Airport, and all of the three hotels listed below can arrange airport transfers for guests.
To call the Mexico numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 52 (country code for Mexico) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Cabanas Ana y Jose, Plaza Portales, Suite No. 35, SM 28, Cancun, Quintana Roo 77509; 998-887-5470, fax 998-887-5469, www.anayjose.com, has a restaurant, small pool, car rental agency and 15 spacious rooms on the beach about five miles south of the Tulum ruins; 12 are in three ranks of two-story buildings back from the beach; two are oceanfront cabanas, and there's one extremely appealing second-floor suite above the bar. Rates for doubles start at $95 through April 30.
Kailuum II, c/o Turquoise Reef Group, P.O. Box 2664, Evergreen, CO 80437, (800) 538-6802, fax (303) 674-8735, www.mexicoholiday.com, is a beachfront enclave that consists of a peak-roofed dining room and honor bar, two bathhouses and 31 canvas tents with palapa-roofed, sand-floored terraces. The little resort offers tourist excursions and car rental. It is six miles north of Playa del Carmen, next door to La Posada del Capitan Lafitte, which has a pool, dive shop and other amenities Kailuum II guests can use. Rates for doubles are $120 to $140 to April 15, including breakfast and dinner. The resort is closed in September and October.
Maroma Resort and Spa, Highway 307, Riviera Maya, Quintana Roo 77710; (866) 454-9351, fax 998-872-8220, www.orient-expresshotels.com, is one of the most upscale retreats on the Riviera Maya, with 58 rooms and suites set on a 500-acre coconut plantation north of Playa del Carmen. It has myriad swimming pools, a lovely beach, spa, gourmet restaurant, attentive staff and excursion options that include tours of Maya ruins and scuba diving lessons. Rates for doubles start at $400 to May 15.
WHERE TO EAT:
The resorts listed above have at least one restaurant.
Near Cabanas Ana y Jose is a string of small hotels with modest eateries, including those at Zamas Beach Bungalows and Maya Tulum, where the coffee is excellent.
La Posada del Capitan Lafitte, next door to Kailuum II, has a restaurant and bar, but the food at Kailuum II is better.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Mexican Government Tourist Office, (800) 446-3942, fax (213) 351-2074, www.visitmexico.com.
-- Susan Spano