When it comes to vacationing in Mexico, sunbathing and tequila shots aren’t the end of the road. With the Caribbean lapping at its eastern shore and the Gulf of Mexico to the north and west, the Yucatán Peninsula offers a different kind of escape, one rich in history, architecture and charm. During ancient times (and well into the early 20th century), the area was essentially cut off from the rest of the world, with few roads providing access to the peninsula. To this day, it remains a rich cultural oasis.
In the early 1500s, Spanish conquistadors divided themselves among three cities: Campeche, Mérida and Valladolid. They weren’t able to penetrate the Caribbean coast, however, so the stretch known as the Riviera Maya doesn’t have the same colonial charm of the old cities. Still, its beautiful white sand — stretching from the tip of the peninsula to Tulum and beyond — has its own appeal, attracting millions of visitors to its unspoiled beauty.
Mahekal Beach Resort
Playa del Carmen
Mahekal Beach Resort is unlike any other property in Playa del Carmen. After a recent $16-million update, it remains true to “old Playa” with a luxurious, bohemian feel. Upon arrival, guests are whisked away from busy Quinta Avenida to a calm, palm-shaded oasis with a 920-foot stretch of turquoise Caribbean shoreline.
Mahekal means “magical” in the still-spoken Mayan language, and the resort lives up to its namesake. It got its start half a century ago, when a family built six thatched-roof palapas for backpackers — long before Playa became a top travel destination and the fastest growing city in Latin America. It retains its authentic feel without the culturally appropriated gimmicks that often plague tourist areas. It’s sophisticated yet comfortable, with three expansive pools, a full-service spa and a beautiful beachfront that offers privacy for those who want it and mingling for those who don’t.
The property boasts a relaxed layout, featuring waterfront and jungle palapas. Locally made hammocks swing in the sea breeze. It feels like a home away from home, with spacious balconies, moon showers and private plunge pools. The cuisine here is excellent, and the interactive lunch at the Mayan Culinary Casita is exceptional. The experience incorporates traditional Mayan rituals, including a shaman blessing, and native ingredients such as annato seeds and the super food chaya.
UNICO 20°87° is situated north of Playa del Carmen on a stunning stretch of beach known as Xpu-Ha. The newest property in this remote area, the resort is reinventing all-inclusive by creating a guest experience with an exclusive feel.
The thoughtful design elements of the 448-room hotel are chic and minimalist yet boast charming Mayan-inspired details. The look and feel throughout the property are the product of a genius collaboration between New York City–based design firm AvroKO and Mexico-based architecture firm Artigas.
It would be easy to spend your entire stay on the expansive grounds, but UNICO gives guests the opportunity to break away with five curated excursions. There are no rivers or lakes in the Yucatán, but the peninsula sits atop three of the longest underground water systems in the world. They have sustained life here for the past 10,000 years and today provide some of the best swimming and diving in open sinkholes known as cenotes.
Led by UNICO’s vacation makers, a guided tour to the Tankah cenotes is both an adventure and a cultural experience. The day begins with jumping into the crystal-clear water while taking in the surrounding flora: trees festooned with massive air plants in shades of blush and green, and a profusion of orange and fuchsia bougainvillea. Lunch is prepared by the Mayan locals and enjoyed under palapas.
Another luxurious feature of UNICO is its opulent spa, Esencia. The outdoor aqua area boasts beautiful blue tiles lining cascading pools, making for an incredibly peaceful and quiet oasis. Pretreatment plunge pools and a steam and ice grotto provide unparalleled rejuvenation. Many of the treatments employ local ingredients for optimum results. The must-try 90-minute Agave Ritual includes a full-body massage, exfoliation, a body wrap and a brightening facial.
Mérida, Playa del Carmen and Tulum
Ideal for extended winter escapes, rentals offer an immersive, secluded experience. Getaways range from bespoke travel to around-the-clock concierge accommodations complete with private chefs and in-home spa services.
The capital city of Mérida has a sleepy, laid-back vibe. The plazas are lined with chapels and cantinas, and on Saturdays, the square comes alive with a central market. Spanish colonial architecture fiends will be endlessly inspired by this ancient city. Pastel-hued, 300-year-old homes — some newly refurbished and others with decaying façades — open onto central courtyards with hammocks swinging over private pools. No trip to Mérida is complete without happy hour at La Negrita Cantina. Once open only to men, the oldest cantina in town now welcomes all with its mescal drinks and lively music.
In Playa del Carmen, the waterfront neighborhood of Playacar is filled with everything from brand-new multimillion-dollar houses to charming hacienda-style villas that were among the first homes developed in this area of Quintana Roo. Properties often feature lush courtyards, blooming gardens and private pools. Large parks containing protected Mayan ruins are peppered throughout the neighborhood.
Tulum offers boho-chic beachfront rentals just a bike ride away from excellent dining at the likes of Hartwood and Posada Margherita. The town has great shopping as well, with can’t-miss boutiques like Cynthia Conran and KM 33. Tranquil Casa Violeta is an ideal stop for yoga, spa treatments and inspirational water vistas. Your friends from New York City will probably be here, too, dressed beautifully and capitalizing on the Instagram-worthy vignettes tucked around every corner.
Read this article as it appears in the magazine.