Paradise on the Mayan Riviera

NIRMALA NATARAJ

“Getting back to basics in the quaint Mexican fishing village known as Tulum is the perfect reprieve for urban dwellers and other travelers thirsty for a piece of paradise — without the muss, fuss or ravages to the earth that thoughtless tourism can sometimes leave in its wake.”

Tulum: A Taste of Another Time

Tulum, the site of a pre-Columbian Mayan kingdom whose ruins cut a striking figure against the blue-green backdrop of the Caribbean Sea, is just a two hour drive from Cancun, on the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula—but this quaint township couldn’t be any more different than its northern neighbor. Travelers in search of adventure, proximity to nature and more rustic enclaves need look no further than Tulum. Unlike Cancun, which resembles just about any westernized industrial town with its high-rise hotels and relentless advertising, Tulum contains a large number of Mexico’s national parks and reserves; and roughly 20% of the area is protected by environmental laws.

Since the early part of the decade, ecotourism developments have made the area an enchanting stopover for outdoorsy travelers and those of us longing for a vacation that brings us closer to nature, rather than making us feel like picturesnapping out-of-towners buying our way through bucolic settings.

Winding Down at Azulik

For travelers in search of a little more than the glossy sand and surf you’re likely to encounter in magazine ads, Azulik, the flagship property of the EcoTulum Resorts & Spa, presents the kind of destination that brings us in harmony with our body, mind and spirit; without compromising its proximity to the lush, untamed jungle environment that flourishes just outside each thatched-roof bungalow.

Azulik, which was established in 2003 at the height of Tulum ecotourism, is a uniquely designed wellness retreat that promotes simplicity and harmony with one’s natural surroundings. Fifteen oceanfront cabanas, perched atop a 20-foot lookout over the sea, are poised for maximum privacy and exposure to the elements all at once. EcoTulum’s other two resorts, Copal and Zahra, are just a two minute walk away, but most will agree that Azulik’s accommodations and ocean adjacency make it the favored resort out of the three.

Azulik’s Rustic, Green Accommodations

The villas themselves are quaint and beautiful, with palapa (palm-thatched umbrella) roofs, shining local hardwood floors, and charming yet modest accents. These include a bathtub hand-carved from the trunk of a Zapote tree, all-natural bath products and beautiful dream-catcher mobiles. Travelers who want to dispense with technology altogether will appreciate Azulik’s no-electricity policy. While the truly busy can charge up their computers and phones in the open reception area; listening to the roar of the ocean on a windswept night, or settling into one of the indoor or outdoor hanging beds by candlelight, will make you happy that you forewarned your friends and colleagues you’d be virtually incommunicado.

We stayed in one of Azulik’s inimitable sea villas, where double-glass doors open onto a large private deck, with a panoramic view of the ocean. The deck’s ceramic-tiled soaking pool is perfect for a lazy day of sunbathing. Wooden beach chairs, a hanging bed (a nice counterpoint to the more familiar hammock), and a private stairway down to the beach all contribute to an idyllic, pastoral setting. If you’re worried about tropical humidity, there’s no need; the open plan makes for just the right amount of cross-ventilation, and sea breezes ensure comfortable, cool nights. There isn’t an unbearable amount of foot traffic on the path outside the villas, but keep in mind that the wooden “blinds” on the window don’t always make privacy an option when others are passing through. EcoTulum has a clothing-optional policy that is largely restricted to the beaches, and there is always an atmosphere of casual comfort that will make shy visitors feel quite at home.

“We found ourselves spending ample time on the property’s pristine, mile-long beach, a stretch of soft white sand that brushes up against crystal-clear ocean water with scarcely an undertow.”

Follow Your Own Clock

There are no clocks or alarms here to rattle the nerves or govern your plans for the day. So much like the area’s Mayan predecessors, visitors learn to rely on their internal clocks and follow the natural dictates of the sun, moon and stars. Entertainment options in the area abound, without a need to venture too far. We found ourselves spending ample time on the property’s pristine, mile-long beach, a stretch of soft white sand that brushes up against crystal-clear ocean water with scarcely an undertow. EcoTulum’s nearby beach bar, which serves cool drinks and appetizers to visitors, is a welcome standby. An array of healthy, delicious, affordable Mexican and international dishes await and room-service options are also available.

Therapeutic Delights at the Maya Spa

One of the wellness treats available to visitors, who want some restorative activity as an adjunct to all the sunbathing, is complimentary yoga each morning at EcoTulum’s onsite Maya Spa. Instructors offer both gentle and rigorous Hatha yoga, and asanas are always complemented by guided meditation and an emphasis on appreciating all the cultural and ecological resources that allow for the perfect integration of spirit and nature. In fact, the Maya Spa’s holistic raison d’être blends traditional Mayan rituals, such as the Temazcal (Mayan sweat lodge) ceremony, with Eastern and Western modalities…from Reiki to dry floatation tanks to romantic in-room couples’ massage by moonlight.

Those guests intent on a special experience will want to opt for the Temazcal ceremony, which is especially popular among honeymooners and couples. A variety of Mesoamerican cultures, including the Maya, took part in this ritual steam bath in order to harmonize with nature, connect with Gods and ancestors, and reach a trance-like state that contributes to overall purification of mind, body and spirit. Similar to the Native American sweat lodge experience, its aim is to transform and to lead each participant on a spiritually uplifting journey toward his or her intent. The Temazcal itself is a small building made from clay, and the interior is symbolic of the womb of Mother Earth. The entrance into the building faces east, towards the sun and the promise of renewal, so the journey into the underworld of one’s spirit (represented by the house) is followed by a new birth, as one re-emerges into the light and promise of the world. Similar to a traditional sauna, water is poured continually over hot stones, sending up powerful waves of heat.

“An array of healthy, delicious, affordable Mexican and international dishes await and room-service options are also available.”

The experience of Temazcal, which I shared with three other people and the ceremony leader, was an intense journey through my spiritual and physical senses. While I experienced fear in the beginning, the ceremony leader instructed us to embrace whatever was happening and simply stay present, even with feelings of discomfort and anxiety. A procession of singing, chanting, creating, releasing intentions into the universe, and remembering to feel every aspect of the ceremony in our bodies, culminated in a beautifully cathartic experience. Most importantly, partaking of the Temazcal reminded me that when you display endurance even in the face of fear and discomfort, you are capable of transcending all obstacles. It was a highly symbolic ritual that was the highlight of our trip.

Eco-Friendly Tourism In and Around Tulum After a couple days of R&R, you’ll want to consider some of the eco-friendly tourism options that abound. Excursions to the pyramids of Tulum, Coba and Chichen Itza are simply a drive away. You can also go snorkeling in the second largest barrier reef in the world by paying a visit to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, located between the towns of Tulum and Akumal. The reserve constitutes 1.4 million acres of conserved land and contains a medley of freshwater canals, tropical forests, lagoons, mangrove wetlands and the 70-mile barrier reef.

Adventurers will also want to swim in the cenotes (freshwater sink holes) and receive a guided tour through mysterious underwater caverns from one of the knowledgeable locals.

International travelers will appreciate a visit to the pueblo of Tulum, where life runs at a slower pace and simplicity is the causa causans of the day. Tulum is home to a host of restaurants, bars and quaint produce markets frequented by the locals. A taste of local culture can be sampled by paying a visit to the area’s gift shops, which specialize in original textiles and pottery. While the local eateries offer a plethora of culinary delights, fine dining on the coast is also available. Our favorites included Posada Margherita, an Italian-owned establishment featuring freshly made pasta dishes, seafood and a host of organic specialties.

Even if you don’t get around to paying a visit to the area’s many attractions, most sojourners will agree that the picturesque beauty and attendant hospitality of Azulik, the perfect bodega in which to rest and escape the amenityglutted locales of more run-of-the-mill hotels, is more than enough for one truly fulfilling vacation.

“You can also go snorkeling in the second largest barrier reef in the world by paying a visit to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, located between the towns of Tulum and Akumal.”

 

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