It was the children’s chocolate massage that finally did it for me. For 30 minutes the under-13 set at Esencia’s Aroma Spa get to pour chocolate over themselves and have a kid’s gentle rub down.
There are other places on Earth with spas, but few have the extensive and sometimes kooky choices of Mexico’s Riviera Maya on the Yucatan Peninsula.
For four days, my friends and I went on a “sacrificial” feeding frenzy of the area’s spas. Pity us … our choices ran the gamut from simple decks under a thatch roof overlooking the ocean in Tulum through hammock sessions with a Maya man beneath us massaging our tailbones with his toes to the most absolutely pampered experiences in the former estate of an Italian duchess.
Sigh — our sacrifices ramped up as we discovered we could be rubbed with rice or honey or aloe or mud and, in between, there were clay baths, sweat lodges, herbal tonics, and the most incredible food.
We started at Paradisus, one of Riviera Maya’s countless mega-resorts scattered along 75 miles of coastline from Puerto Morelos to Punta Allen. This place has 900 rooms split between family and adult-only, with mangrove tours, tequila tastings, and swim-up suites. The signature spa treatment involves rice, which, the spa says, promotes skin elasticity, but, regardless, really, really feels good.
But first, there was a foot bath where my masseuse rubbed my toes with rose petals, followed by the signature rice milk and lavender wrap, then the massage.
Over on the men’s side, instead of aroma therapy, there’s a plasma TV with ESPN along with treatments called “Gentlemen’s Barber Facial” and “Golf Performance.”
While 40 percent of Riviera Maya’s 384 hotels are mega-resorts, not all are. Rosewood Mayakoba has only 128 rooms, each with its own dock stretched along a mangrove canal where the wildlife is amazing. Dozens of anhinga bird nests sat in mangrove roots scarcely inches from the water and barely yards from our noses. Each had a pair of fluffy chicks and below, floating in the water sunning themselves on branches, were literally hundreds of snapping turtles.
Rosewood’s spa signatures are relaxing cacao oil massages and coffee berry facials, along with a dozen little acts of kindness that wind through the day. Chilled towels, or someone who cleans your IPad, or champagne, or popsicles.
For the exotic, there was Xpa at Xcaret (pronounced shhcaret). This place is … well … Disney meets the Maya. Xcaret is actually a mammoth amusement park with its focus on the ocean, the jungle and above all, the indigenous people who are called not Mayan but Maya.
You can snorkel rivers here, scuba, swim with sharks or stingrays and best, see a spectacular show which actually recreates an ancient Maya ballcourt game where the warriors punt a leather ball with their hips.
And, yes, you can get a massage, either on a traditional table (but in a cave behind a waterfall) or in a hammock. Of course, I chose the hammock, which involved a lot of gentle pulling and stretching while I swayed under a palm thatch roof. Alfredo first rubbed my arms and legs with lavender oil and cinnamon cream. Then he got on the ground beneath me and it got really interesting. He started with his fingers, then fists, then used his feet to work his way along my spine.
From there, it was on to the estate of the Italian duchess. Rosa di Ferrari lived here decades ago and eventually turned it into Esencia, a very exclusive, ultra high end boutique hotel with 29 rooms. The architecture blends Italian and Mexican and is exactly what you would expect of a place that caters to high-profile figures of politics, oil, and entertainment.
Fortunately for the rest of us, you don’t have to be staying here to enjoy the spa. The massage I got was way above the best for technique. Maria used steely fingers to find pressure points and dug deep to release the tension. The herbs used … aloe, oregano, rosemary, basil, lavender, lemongrass, lime, and more … are grown on the property.
Tulum: Throwback to Another Time
From here, we headed south to Tulum, a collection of simple inns along the beach with a decidedly post-hippie flavor. Here’s where you find the yoga retreats, the massages under a palm thatch roof overlooking the ocean, the clay treatments, the sweat lodges.
Oh yes, we tried them all.
Mayan clay is caramel yellow and to dilute its strength, Hotel Amansala mixes in olive oil, local honey and a bit of water. Actually, WE mixed in all that stuff, while the slick, warm clay gushed rather comfortingly between our fingers.
Then we slathered each other liberally, walked down to the water’s edge, closed our eyes and floated mentally while our healer, Darlene, guided us through relaxing thoughts, followed by a swim in the ocean to get all that stuff off our skin and out of our hair.
And finally at Hotel Zahra, came the sweat lodge, called a Temascal, led by a Maya shaman. Adrian greeted us with smoke from smoldering copal leaves. Then we crawled into the low dome-shaped lodge, its fire pit in the center filled with red hot lava stones.
There were four sessions, 20 minutes apiece and each increasingly hot. Yes, we gushed sweat. We chanted in an ancient Maya language, following our host’s lead. We yelled a bit on command and I saw flashes of light in the utter dark.
After which, we found one of those fantastic beachside cafes, sampled an endless list of local tasties (shrimp, steamed pork, chicken with mole sauce, an assortment of unnamed fish and an endless supply of mojitos and margaritas).
Hydrotherapy at Gran Velas the next day was almost anticlimactic.
Sigh. — story and photos by Yvette Cardozo
If You Go
Originally called the Cancun-Tulum Corridor, the area that is now Riviera Maya renamed itself in 1997. It then grew from 1,700 rooms in simple hotels to some 384 hotels today with more than 40,000 rooms.
Forty percent of the hotels are mega-resorts, each with hundreds of rooms. Nearly 80 percent are “all inclusive,” meaning a single day rate of usually several hundred dollars covers the room, meals, alcohol, and some activities. Canadians account for 20 percent of Riviera Maya visitors and have doubled in the past few years.
Most hotels and inns with spas allow non guests to buy day passes.
For general information: www.rivieramaya.com
Paridisus Playa del Carmen: www.paradisusplayadelcarmen.com/?gclid=CP3M5LryxrACFUQ0Qgod9xhpXA
Rosewood Mayakoba: www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/mayakoba
Hotel Amansala: http://amansalaresort.com
Hotel Zahra: www.zahra.com.mx
Gran Velas Riviera Maya: http://rivieramaya.grandvelas.com