Secret Hotels of the Riviera Maya
South of Cancun, we found 8 hideaways--from simple casitas on the beach to a villa once owned by a drug kingpin--to suit every mood.
Posada Que Onda
Even though it's now thickly settled, Akumal, Mayan for "Place of the Turtle," still has room for turtles, which return each spring to lay eggs in nests along the very beaches where they were hatched. It's the oldest resort town in this part of Mexico--a former coconut plantation with an extraordinary coastline that was rediscovered by a diving club in 1958. Akumal has maintained the easygoing style that first attracted those divers to its waters. It has also been popular with families because its shallow, sandy bays could have been designed with kids in mind. The same could be said of the Posada Que Onda: Half of the hotel's pool, for instance, has a built-in shelf that kids can play on. (Adults use it, too, sitting in water from the waist down under the blazing sun.) Posada Que Onda is not on a beach--the closest, Half Moon Bay, is a 10-minute walk away--but it's just 50 yards from excellent swimming in Yalku lagoon. Guests can borrow the hotel's snorkel equipment and bikes at no charge. Large rooms have cool, white-tiled floors and are adorned with local art and artifacts. Especially spacious is a bi-level suite with two terraces; the upper terrace provides a view of the lagoon and the Caribbean. Kids love the restaurant, too, because it features homemade pastas. 011-52/984-875-9101, queondaakumal.com, from $70.
PLAYA DEL CARMEN
In recent years, Playa del Carmen has become increasingly popular with style-conscious travelers, and the Hotel Básico is designed to appeal to those weaned on Philippe Starck. It's owned by Mexico City--based Grupo Habita, which has the sleek Deseo (a short walk away) in its portfolio, as well as Habita and Condesa DF in the country's capital. In the Básico, interior designer Héctor Galván created a hotel full of exuberant and witty touches, though the place never feels over-designed. There are allusions to Mexican daily life (the soaring lobby is open to the street and doubles as a coffee shop), industry (the drapes are rubber strips), and natural assets (most notably in the references to the sea throughout the hotel). The latter might sound like a recipe for kitsch, but the execution is fresh. The rooftop lounge evokes the upper deck of a ship, two smokestacks included--it'd be a stunning space, even if it didn't afford lovely views of the Caribbean, and the two minipools are perfect for margarita-sipping. Galván fashioned 15 rooms in which a white-linened bed is not only the featured furniture in the room, it's practically the only furniture in the room. Fortunately, the bed turns out to be a kind of Swiss Army knife: There are drawers, a shelf for towels, and storage beneath for stools, a minibar, bottled water, flippers, and a beach ball. Básico gets the basics right, too: air-conditioning, flat-screen TV, DVD player, CD player, and free Wi-Fi. The hotel is not beachfront, but guests get free passes to a beach club, a 10-minute walk away, where there are lounge chairs and umbrellas. Básico is for adults only, which is just as well: It could be difficult to explain to kids why there's a Polaroid camera chained to each bed. 011-52/984-879-4448, hotelbasico.com, from $168.
A few tips about getting around
Some of the hotels closest to Cancun will arrange airport transfers. Expect to pay about $50 each way for Playa del Carmen and $125 for Tulum. But it's far more convenient to rent your own wheels, especially if you plan to explore nearby towns and ruins. There's plenty of free on-street parking in Playa del Carmen; everywhere else you'll be able to park at the hotels themselves.
When booking a car, be sure to choose one that can handle the punishing dirt roads. Highway 307 is the main artery that connects the towns of the Riviera Maya and Costa Maya. It runs south along the coast from Cancun to Tulum, swings inland to skirt the Sian Ka'an Biosphere, and continues all the way to the border of Belize. Often one-lane each way without a shoulder, the road leaves little margin for error. Allow more time than the distances suggest, because construction, accidents, or slow vehicles may lengthen the trip. So could the string of potholes passing for dirt roads that connect some hotels to the highway. A 10-mile drive on the worst of these can take 45 minutes.
Be on the lookout for speed bumps, called topes, which are found frequently in towns. Get gas whenever there's an opportunity--stations are few and far between. Finally, avoid driving at night. Road conditions, pedestrians, animals, and lack of lighting make it hazardous.