Throughout the past two decades, Riviera Maya has seen an explosion of tourism. Properties here are often sprawling. Massive pool complexes, a bevy of dining options and wide expanses of beach characterize the destination. Yet, except for minor variations in decor and design, each is pretty much indistinguishable from the next. Except, that is, for Mayakoba, Mayan for “village over the water.” A vacation here feels decidedly different, with resorts laid out over a network of meandering lagoons. Most accommodations are not oceanfront but lagoon-front, which means guests can experience an authentic stay that feels closer to the indigenous flora and fauna than simply watching the waves roll in as you do at countless other hotels. The Banyan Tree Mayakoba is one of several properties in this region.
Banyan Tree Mayakoba features 123 private villages, ranging from one to three bedrooms. Most sit along the lagoon, though some are oceanfront. In the future, the resort is expanding to include more oceanfront villas. All include private pools, and I can attest that this nice-to-have quickly turns into a need-to-have, making check-out day all the more difficult. The fact that I could literally hop out of bed, open my sliding glass door and jump into the pool, which I did on the last morning, was super cool. The pool itself has a clean, geometric and modern design, while the landscaped patio is equipped with lounge chairs and a daybed, each covered by a gazebo, which made for a pretty luxe remote office when I had to actually get some work done.
Inside, villas are decorated in a tranquil design, with hardwood floors, high ceilings and warm lighting. The walk-in closet has ample drawer and hanging space as well as niceties including flip-flops, a robe, slippers, insect repellent, beach towels and a beach bag for guests to use. Other amenities include a selection of pillows, a stocked toiletries kit, CD & DVD player, Bose sound system, coffee and tea making facilities and universal sockets.
It was the bathroom that really wowed me with its island and deep-bowled, Mexican-tiled sink, plenty of mirrors and a ton of space to get ready. The sole outlet was in an inconvenient space for blow-drying my hair, but that was a minor complaint. Another sliding glass door led to my outdoor deep bathtub whose adjacent stone wall was dotted with cubbies and votive candles; coming back for a soak was the highlight of one long day. If you don’t want to draw the bath yourself, call the front desk and a member of the staff will set you up with one of the indulgent options on the menu.
I started each day with a lagoon-front table at the breakfast buffet at Oriente, which includes an enchilada station, rice and beans, huevos rancheros, tropical fruit, freshly pressed juices and mimosas. You can also order off the menu if you aren’t in the mood to serve yourself. Lunchtime options include the casual Reflections Pool Bar, the Beach Shack, where you can nosh on fish tacos and margaritas with your toes in the sand, or Sands, where it was really hard to decide on a ceviche so I didn’t and ordered bowls of all of them. Because Banyan Tree is an Asian hotel brand, one of the signature restaurants is the Thai-focused Saffron. At Mayakoba, Saffron’s setting is a wooden deck overlooking the water, where I enjoyed a fixed-price, multicourse menu exploring the cuisine of several Thai regions, from the iconic green papaya salad of the northeast to pork ribs with honey and black pepper from Phuket. Cello is the newest dining concept, offering charcuterie, Italian fare and wines to match, while The Tomahawk Den is the spot to book if you want to sink your teeth into a chimichurri-topped rib eye and a bottle of grippy Mexican Cabernet. You can even hire a private chef to prepare a barbecue right at your villa or hop on a romantic tapas cruise on the lagoon.
The most unique dining experience here is an interactive dinner outdoors at HAAB. Named for the Mayan Zodiac, inspired by the four basic elements of earth, wind, fire and water and offered three times per week, HAAB brings 16 guests into the jungle, escorted by Mayan warriors brandishing drums and torches. Following a sundown ritual and face painting, the warriors recount stories of Mayan culture and customs and guests participate in the preparation of traditional cuisine that pays homage to how the civilization cultivated their food in fields and forest gardens. An added bonus at HAAB are the bottles of tequila and mezcal set out on the table to sample throughout the evening, some of which are brands difficult to find in the United States. By the end of the night I had made several new friends over mole, mezcal and flan.
Did I actually need anything more than to Bluetooth my Bose sound system to my Spotify playlist, pop open a bottle of Champagne and invite a few friends over for a pool party one afternoon? No, I did not. But one day I jumped in a kayak for a tour of the lagoon, during which our guide pointed out the birds, plants and other local wildlife. He also led us right past one of the crocodiles on property, closely tracked and removed when they grow too large, as well as several entrances from the river bottom to the cenotes, fascinating underground “caves” that open up to a whole other world if you are brave enough to dive down to the great beyond. I also took a boat ride, which departed from a slip adjacent to the lobby and let me take a little peek at the other resorts in Mayakoba.
Because my villa was not oceanfront, I needed to walk, hail or call a buggy, i.e. golf cart, to get to the beach. Once there, attendants were at the ready to set up beach chairs and umbrellas; you can also order cocktails, wine and food directly from your chair. You’ll notice that, depending on the tide and the season, the beachfront can be overtaken with seaweed. Crews seems to be tackling a never-ending job of raking and removing it; when I took a walk to the next property south the beach seemed cleaner.
Treatment rooms at the spa are private and all-inclusive, meaning you can change, shower, relax and get your treatment all in the same private space. I tried its newest installment, The Rainforest Trail, located in the main spa area and combining hot and cold thermal cabins and different experiences. During the Rain Walk I was spritzed with water while walking on acupressure-inducing stones; I slathered on a mud mask in the Aroma Steam Chamber; sweated it out in the Finnish sauna; and eased tight muscles with hydrotherapy jets in the Vitality Pool and Waterfall. While I thought it would be an okay add-on to another treatment like a massage or facial, as a stand-alone experience I found The Rainforest Trail a bit underwhelming.
Banyan Tree Mayakoba
Carretera Federal Chetumal-Puerto Juárez KM 298
Riviera Maya, 77710
Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
tel 855 289 0202
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