By Sue McGarvie and Blaik Spratt, Clinical Relationship Therapists, Travel Journalists
A poll of people in the baggage line up at the Cancun airport suggested most of the arrivals (direct from Ottawa via Westjet) were staying at one of the many all inclusive or big box resorts along the Cancun strip. With great beaches, warm weather and an easy four hour flight from Eastern Canada or the US, Cancun is a popular holiday destination.
We had made other arrangements. We jumped into a pre-arranged taxi ($80), and headed the two hours down the Mayan Riviera coast to Tulum. Known as the “eco coast”, Tulum is home to a few large resorts and many of small, six to 20 room boutique hotels. It is an area of authentic Mexican feel, lots more wilderness, and a bohemian, Jimmy Buffet laid back lifestyle. Many of the Tulum resorts have an emphasis on being green, which is new to Mexico.
We stayed at the adult-only Azulik resort, one of the three resorts that makes up Eco Tulum (along with Zahra, and Copal resorts located side by side). Azulik has 15 private villas ($260-320 a night), Zahra has 22 more traditional rooms, and the large Copal has 47 different kinds of cabanas. Copal’s huts range in size from family quad size, at $250 a night to a small at $35 a night without a bathroom. It was what we would call “high end beach camping”.
Tulum is in the heart of Mayan (or native Mexican) country. This part of the Yucatan is home to beatnik travelers, authentic Mexican music and amazingly fresh and healthy food. The Eco Tulum concept is to provide huts on the beach, and blend in as closely as possible with the natural environment. In fact, the whole resort fits into the landscape better than anyplace we’ve ever visited. There are no lights, no outlets (so leave your hair dryer at home), and a generator powers a ceiling fan during the day. The rest of the time you are feeling a bit like you are in an episode of Gilligan’s Island. If you are looking for an accessible, convenient, well groomed hotel- this isn’t it. Azulik is the opposite of a “big box resort” and we heard again and again how much guests were looking to stay anywhere but at one of the typical all inclusive’s. Each hut was unique, the pathways were made of sand and the stairways to climb into the hut were not for anyone with a disability. Some of the stairs were downright scary, but they had muted lighting at night, and the area had a very safe feel. Despite any drawbacks, the rooms were beautiful, clean, entirely made of wood, and offered a beach that would rival anywhere in the world.
The huts are incredibly romantic. It has the South Sea feeling, built on stilts over the rocks right at the ocean’s edge. It is the romance holiday everyone imagines. Think white sand, turquoise water, iguana’s lazily sunning themselves on the rocks outside your deck, canopy bed with mosquito netting, and a huge bathtub made out of a hollowed out tree. We watched the moon come up over the deck while we soaked in our outdoor tub, and star gazed on a suspended swinging deck bed that allowed a clear view of the sky and ocean. The wind blows constantly from the sea, and the waves ranged from gentle to spectacular during the week long visit. It would be an astounding place to be in a mild storm.
Azulik resort took the eco theme seriously. The resort has recycling boxes (including one for batteries), located at regular intervals. Azulik, and the joining Copal both had a clothing optional beach. Although not advertised, when asked, the front desk said clearly “that nudity was allowed on your decks, and on both beaches”. We estimated that a fifth of the beach users were either naked or topless. We certainly didn’t feel self conscious or frowned upon in any stage of undress on the beaches.
Azulik is the perfect spot for eco-minded honeymooners. Azulik does many weddings performed by Mayan holy men, and the ceremonies are absolutely unique. They are comfortable doing same sex, and pagan weddings as well. With no power you had evenings bathed in candle light, and two swing beds made for cuddling. In keeping with the green theme, you can rent a bike and easily cycle the four kilometers into Tulum for dinner or shopping. Six restaurants and some stores make up the Boca Paila cluster where Azulik is located. The small hub of stores, hotels and restaurants gives you a sense of authentic Mexico and community, but is not enough to disturb the tranquil feeling of being alone in your eco-hut.
The downside of no power is that you had to set up your candles in advance of going for dinner otherwise you returned to pioneer-like blackness. It is a way to get in touch with your circadian rhythm (we were in bed by 9 pm and up with the sun). We found the candle light too dim to read by, and would strongly recommend packing flashlights or head lamps for walking. The nights are cool by the beach, and with the wind blowing easily through the thatched huts, we were never too hot, but were often too cool. The wind made it the only place to be cold in Mexico in April.
One of the most notable things about Azulik is their Mayan Spa. A large spa, with massage villas scattered throughout the jungle and in elevated spaces overlooking the beach, the Mayan Spa was the most unique spa we’ve ever seen. They had both a Shaman and holistic healer on staff. They only use organic products, and many of the treatments are done with natural plants picked from the spa garden just before treatments. They are specially known for their traditional Mayan Temascal. A Temascal is a native sweat lodge that has been used for both healing and ritual purposes in Mexico for thousands of years.
Apparently Temascals are all different depending on the Shaman performing the ceremony. Azulik’s Temascal was so popular that groups of people came from all over to participate in the three hour ritualized cleanse. For the experience, imagine a clay hut that can fit up to 10 people inside with a fire pit in the middle. The shape of the clay structure and its meaning is to symbolize the womb and the re-birth after the Temascal experience. The Shaman does a smudging with copal bark (the sacred tree), for an initial cleanse. Throughout the Temascal, he used different herbs in conjunction with red-hot stones, misting, chanting and singing to cleanse the body and spirit. The Temascal goes through several “rounds” and at the end of each round, you can choose to stay or leave. During the pause between rounds, more rocks are added to the pile, increasing the heat of the Temascal. It was an interesting three hours, and really added to the uniqueness of the eco holiday.
Besides taking in spa services, or lounging on the Azulik beach (although it really is spectacular) you have a plenary of options if you feel the need to escape. You can do so easily (and safely) on your own or with one of the guided tours. You can cycle to the Tulum ruins (the locals suggest getting there before 10 am before the tour buses roll in), arrange snorkeling or dive trips, or do one of the organized tours to the big adventure parks. These include ziplining, four wheeling, cave diving, and paintball courses and were the Disney-like theme park adventures one would expect being this close to Cancun.
In keeping with the eco-theme of this trip, we opted to go on the Sian Ka’an community tour. This tour absolutely made our trip. Sian Ka’an is a protected natural reserve of 630,000 hectares that crosses traditional Mayan land and is now a UNESCO heritage site as well as a wildlife reserve. Sian Ka’an Community Tours is an international success story. Many Mayan’s had been living in “reservation-like” communities in the jungle without a source of income. Many Mayans didn’t speak Spanish (only their local Mayan dialect), and despite vast knowledge of the jungle and various biospheres, they were just eeking out an existence. With the help of a couple of non-profit NGO’s (including Equator Initiatives) that help indigenous peoples with sustainable development, the Mayan community near the Sian Ka’an reserve got together and started a business giving tours. All of the money from this low cost tour ($99 per person including lunch, snacks, park fees, and transportation) stays in the community.
Our seven hour tour included a guided hike through secluded jungle ruins. And adventure into an underground Mayan passageway built in 300 BC (where we got up close and personal with some fruit bats). We then went into the jungle on the Mayan reservation where we tasted edible roots, burned Copal bark, and burned dead termite mounds as a bug repellent. In the middle of the jungle walk was a 17 metre lookout tower where you could see over the tree top canopy. The end of our hike took us to the edge of a shallow, turquoise fresh water limestone lake. After a snack and washroom break we were taken in boats through the 1000 year old man made canal used for trade routes, across another lake and to the edge of a flowing river. Amidst tiny fish hiding in the mangrove roots, we donned life jackets and floated effortlessly three kilometers in a magical natural water ride. A crocodile-free area (the water is so clear that the croc’s avoid it as they can’t hunt effectively in the visibility), the river flowed at four kilometers an hour for 28 kilometers to the sea. During our section of the river we saw vultures, a variety of multi-coloured song birds, and tropical fish. We got out of the water to a hot, beautifully presented Mexican lunch, and then we piled into the van for the short drive to the cenote.
A cenote is an underwater sinkhole. A freshwater entrance to the Yucatan’s underwater river system. The Mayans feel that the Cenotes are magical, enigmatic and unique in the world. They were once the only resource for fresh, safe water in the local Yucatan jungle. There are over 3,000 cenotes in the Yucatan peninsula, with only 1,400 of them documented. They are all different, and the one we visited was like a small, clear lake filled with fish. It was like swimming in your fish tank. We were able to snorkel, and see the entrance to the underwater caves that are so popular with divers.
Although Azulik’s private villas are adult only, both Zahra and Copal welcomed children. There wasn’t the typical children’s activities, but older kids would have loved the Sian Ka’an tour. As well, with local excursians that include a reptile zoo, manatee and dolphin feeding tours and more cenote caves that include some of the world’s most spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, there are many adventures to keep the kids (and adults) from being bored.