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.

By Charlie Suisman, Tuesday, Jan 16, 2007, 12:00 AM

CESiaK, inside the Sian Ka'an Biosphere

(John Kernick)

XCALAK

Hotel Tierra Maya
"We weren't looking to move, but I began dreaming about this place. One night, I asked my husband, 'Honey, could you live the rest of your life in the Caribbean?' He replied, 'Is a four-pound robin fat?' " And that, roughly speaking, is how Kim and David Calkins began their journey from 20 years of innkeeping in Texas to running the Hotel Tierra Maya outside Xcalak (pronounced shka-lak) at the southern tip of Costa Maya. A six-hour drive from Cancun, Xcalak has remained virtually untouched by the booming development further north. Along the town's main drag, there's a restaurant and a small grocery store with a pay phone, but no banks or ATMs. Kim and David bought their place two years ago, inheriting a loyal group of guests who return year after year for the excellent fly-fishing, diving, and snorkeling in the area. The Calkins weren't about to change a winning formula. They made some improvements (doubling the restaurant to 40 seats to accommodate visitors from nearby resorts, replacing all the mattresses, etc.), but otherwise, the six rooms are the same, simply done with sunny yellow walls, terra-cotta-tile floors, ceiling fans, and balconies that overlook the Caribbean. The Calkins loan out bikes and kayaks at no charge, sell snorkel gear, and will happily arrange guided fishing trips. (A four-hour excursion costs $160 for two and includes a boat, guide, bait, tackle, and refreshments.) But Tierra Maya is also ideally situated for anyone who just wants to lie low. It's stocked with a supply of well-worn paperbacks and old copies of National Geographic, which guests can thumb through while loung-ing on chairs scattered around the lawn or on the thin band of beach just beyond the grass. As Kim says, "A lot of people don't want to be in the corridor," meaning the popular and sometimes crowded stretch from Cancun to Tulum. "Even when we're full, it's real quiet here." 800/216-1902, tierramaya.net, from $80, includes breakfast.

MAHAHUAL

Balamku Inn on the Beach
The rough-hewn fishing village of Mahahual has a split personality: Beach bars buzz with activity when a cruise ship is docked in the small port, but otherwise, its sandy streets are quiet and tourist-free. While kayaking the short distance from Balamku to a nearby reef for an afternoon of snorkeling, consider the vagaries of life: You wouldn't be here now if, in 2000, a road-tripping Canadian couple hadn't missed the exit for Punta Allen. That's how Alan Knight and Carol Tumber ended up in Mahahual for the night. (Alan thought it might be pronounced "ma-ha-ha.") The next morning, they met someone with beachfront land for sale and made an offer on the spot, despite the fact that they'd only been dating for about a year. Balamku opened in 2003, and Carol calls it "a small, totally ecological retreat," pointing out that even the soaps and shampoos are biodegradable. There are two individual whitewashed palapas and a trio of two-story palapas (with a suite on each floor) for a total of eight rooms. They're all decorated with Mexican artwork--paintings, sculptures, and masks--and most have wireless Internet access. A breakfast of fruit, eggs, pancakes, and Chiapas coffee is served in the bright dining room. The hotel doesn't do dinners, but two restaurants highly recommended by Alan and Carol are less than a five-minute walk away. 011-52/1-983-839-5332, balamku.com, from $75, includes breakfast.

SIAN KA'AN BIOSPHERE

CESiaK
Driving down a dirt road in the 1.3-million-acre nature reserve called Sian Ka'an, visitors might not understand why the park has a Mayan name that means "where the sky is born." The thickly wooded biosphere is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and home to over 300 bird species, 100 types of mammals, and nearly two dozen archaeological sites. Among sea grape plants, geiger trees, and coconut palms, CESiaK (short for Centro Ecológico de Sian Ka'an) is on the high point of a narrow strip of land. After guests climb to the tiny crow's-nest level of the main building and look out over the vast expanse of Caribbean to the east, the Campechen Lagoon to the west, and the biosphere to the south, with a great swath of sky overhead, the name Sian Ka'an finally makes sense. Rooms at CESiaK are rustic--really no more than large tents, with screened windows, set on raised wooden platforms. Each has a porch (hammock included) with views of either the sea or the lagoon. The rooms aren't wired for electricity, but they are equipped with candles and battery-powered hurricane lamps. Shared bathrooms are next to the main building, where Mexican meals are served in a cheerful dining room. But the most comfortable spot is the main building's terrace, where guests can look out over the beach and admire the stealth-fighter cormorants and the more lumbering, cargo-plane pelicans on their takeoffs and landings. Though that's entertainment enough for many, other daytime activities can be arranged through the hotel--everything from fly-fishing in the reserve's saltwater lagoons to kayaking and bird-watching tours. 011-52/984-871-2499, cesiak.org, from $70.

TULUM

Don Diego de la Selva
Two-and-a-half miles from the beach, a few blocks south of the town of Tulum, and a short way down an unpaved road, is an unexpected enclave. Opened in 2005, Don Diego de la Selva is owned by Charles Galligani and Stephane Palmieri, life partners who decided, after Stephane's 40th birthday, to leave their native France for the Yucatán. They built their guesthouse with eight rooms; two larger palapas were added in December. In terms of design, they're somewhere between minimal and just plain plain (few decorative touches, no TV, no minibar, no clock radio); yet each room gets plenty of light, six of the 10 rooms have air-conditioning, and all have ceiling fans. The hotel's amenities, including a pretty, blue-tiled pool set among papaya and banana trees, are complemented by the sophisticated dinner-party atmosphere created by Charles and Stephane, who are warm and inclusive hosts. Dinner is a communal affair, and whether it's French or Mexican or something else varies with the chef's mood. One of the best reasons to stay at Don Diego de la Selva is the hotel's proximity to the shops and restaurants in town, since that affords the opportunity to interact with locals. As Stephane says, "If you spend all of your time at the beach, you miss one of Mexico's most beautiful resources: its people." 011-52/1-984-114-9744, dtulum.com, from $65, includes breakfast.

Amansala's Casa Magna
In the mid-1970s, at the southern end of Tulum, Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar built one 14,000-square-foot house for himself and one (rumor has it) for the then-future Mexican president Carlos Salinas. The buildings were abandoned after Escobar died in 1993, and nature--in the form of hurricanes and vegetation--began to reclaim them. They caught the eye of Melissa Perlman, one of the owners of the Amansala resort up the beach. "I would pass the houses daily on my morning walks and finally just started investigating," she says. "It seemed a shame to have the dark, eroding villas on this bright, beautiful beach." One can only guess what Escobar would think of Casa Magna now. A generous amount of concrete was used in the construction of the houses, which gives them a hint of a bunker flavor. Perlman offset that by using vibrant orange and pink fabrics in the chic lounging areas. The 20 guest rooms are enormous and sparsely furnished: Beds are draped with mosquito netting, padded concrete banquettes are softened with colorful throw pillows, and decorative mosaics liven up the bathrooms. Many Casa Magna guests choose to participate in the Bikini Boot Camp program, a combination of exercise, yoga, and massage that became popular at the original Amansala property. It's no surprise then that the restaurant emphasizes healthy choices such as grilled fish and fresh fruit. Though Casa Magna has been given a new life, history still hangs in the air. Eddie Yee, who works at both hotels, is always happy to point out the site of the former swimming pool (it has over time filled with sand and vegetation) and the entrance to a secret tunnel that used to connect the houses. Asked if he thinks there are bodies buried here, Yee replies with a laugh, "I'm sure there are." 011-52/1-984-100-0805, amansala.com, from $185.

Shambala Petit Hotel
Embrace simplicity, counseled the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu, and that idea is at the heart of the Shambala Petit Hotel, a no-frills yet bewitching spot at the southern end of Tulum. The philosopher most in evidence here, however, is Buddha, who is quoted on a sign hanging on the hotel's outside wall. The quote ends with WE MAKE THE WORLD, and that peaceful, world-unto-itself beauty of the Shambala helps it stand out from the string of touristy hotels along the coastline. There is the warm welcome by owner Roberto Hernandez; the carefully maintained beach, with its impossibly soft, white sand; and the small, delightful details such as the tassels and mother-of-pearl ornaments hanging from the white beach umbrellas, and the splashes of orange in the form of throw pillows, beach towels, and pole-mounted flags throughout the property. When people imagine a thatched-roof, swinging-hammock, beach-bum vacation in Tulum, this is the place they dream of, whether they know it or not. The Zen simplicity extends to the casitas, meaning guests get a bed and a ceiling fan, and not much else. The casitas are not decorated at all, but even the world's greatest interior designer couldn't compete with what's right outside the doors. Eight of the ten rooms have private baths, lit only by candlelight. Breakfast is included in the room price; there are numerous restaurants for lunch and dinner within walking distance. Shambala offers yoga classes, meditation classes, and Spanish lessons for those who can drag themselves from one of the comfortable beach mattresses. Tulum doesn't have the nightlife of Playa del Carmen or Cancun, but for those who linger on the beach past sunset to the time when stars appear overhead, embracing simplicity seems like the best advice in the world. 011-52/1-984-807-3894, shambalapetithotel.com, from $110 (with private bath), includes breakfast.

AKUMAL

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

Hotel Básico
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.