A priest. A still-beating heart. Blood flowing down sacrificial steps until it flooded the ground some 30 metres below.
That’s my first mental image of Mayan culture, the museum-soaked memories from my first trip to Mexico when I read that the young and the beautiful lost their lives atop those magnificent steep-staired ruins you see.
It unsettled me, therefore, when he asked me to close my eyes and prepare myself for the Mayan experience.
The air was hot and humid, the chatter of a nearby waterfall mixed with the buzzing in my ears from dehydration and jet lag.
I cheated a little and just looked down.
This, I realised through squinted glances involving damp trainers and palm leaves, was the official welcome to the Viceroy Riviera Maya hotel. He draped perfumed smoke across our (clothed and standing) bodies in the small clearing in the jungle.
There wasn’t a knife in sight.
In fact, I had just begun to let my guard down as I reached my room when the senorita showing me the way pulled a blade from her side the moment she closed the door.
“Soap,” she said and I swayed on my heels.
I had, it appeared, failed in the quest to cling on to sanity.
She wouldn’t give in. “Lemongrass. Oatmeal. Rich deep chocolate?”
It turned out to be another ritual: soap served slippery fresh and sliced on the threshold of your room. It also smelled better than the smoke.
I chose lemongrass, inhaled, and felt some clarity return. I also remembered that the sacrificial victims that the Mayans used to slice were, on a point of principle, extremely young and beautiful. I could afford to relax.
I skipped the tequila samplers and strolled along the beach. Dark clouds rolled past with an almost malevolent majesty and heavy birds glided along the horizon.
And then it was time for my “true” Mayan experience: a massage and signature treatment at the hotel’s Wayak spa.
A sense of unease returned as I was led away from the steam room and jacuzzi and tracked along leaf-lined pathways past a dug-out canoe. I am, my mind begins to realise, coming closer to the sounds of that waterfall I heard on arrival.
This time I am not clothed. And this time I am lying down. I’m no younger nor (let’s face it) more beautiful but but the vulnerability factor most definitely has gone up.
So, too has the curiosity factor, as the scented smoke is followed by a thorough brushing with a broom of herbs and a rub down with an egg. For a brief, panicky moment, I fear I’ve wandered semi-naked into the local Mayan cooking class.
But condiments aside, the massage when it gets going is one of the best ones around. Kneaded, stretched, smoothed and released, my muscles end up with that delicious calm feeling of being back where they properly belong.
There’s still one Mayan trick up the sleeve, though. The towel rub section of the signature dish (which goes by the name of a manteada.) This involves wrapping me up like a tortilla and rocking me from side to side in a peculiarly loosening experience.
And then it is over – herbs, eggs and smoke all gone – and I’m lying by a waterfall wondering how to make sense of it all. Except, I realise, as the sunshine filters through the palms into the space the smoke has left, that doesn’t really matter.
My muscles feel softer, my body relaxed. And though my heart’s still beating, it’s definitely still in my chest. And that, let’s face it, is always something to be thankful for.
This beautiful, eco-conscious beach and jungle retreat is a real treat for the senses. It has 41 villas yet manages to give the impression that only ten guests ever stay here at once. There’s an atmospheric open-air bar and library area, an outdoor restaurant called the Coral Bar & Grill and an upstairs restaurant called La Marea.
You’ll find a lagoon shaped pool but you can easily walk onto the beach or stride along the walkway to dive off at the end. The hotel has a great range of activities – from yoga classes to cooking classes, trips to Tulum and various cenotes, picnics on Playa Maya, and a deep heat Mayan temazcal treatment in some kind of igloo closer to home.
The food is fiery and local, drawing on the passions of head chef Jetzabel Rojas (although staple options of fruit, cereal and plain toast are also available if the spicy jalapeno peppers are not to your taste.) You’ll need a car or some other transport to leave the resort, which is only an hour or so from key sites Tulum and Coba and a fascinating turquoise cenote I’ve yet to write about.
What I Loved
The juice collection at breakfast. Check out the coral smoothies – yoghurt, honey, guava and strawberry.
The handmade, hand-sliced soap
The hammock in my secluded jungle garden
The tequila tasting session – there’s more to this drink than you might imagine
The cooking lesson – more to follow on that
The private nature of the jungle “Royal villa”
The ceviche. And the enfrijoladas. Oh, I just love, love, love this kind of food…
Things To Know
The ocean view rooms also allow other guests to see into your villa
Disclosure. I visited the Hotel Riviera Maya on a complimentary basis for review purposes. I was free, as ever, to write whatever I thought about the experience. Browse around my other reviews to get a general feel for what I write. I’m praising this place because I loved it and because it deserved it. Heaven has a stake in Mexico – at the Hotel Riviera Maya.[box type=”info” size=”large” style=”rounded” border=”full”]
Rates at the Viceroy Riviera Maya from 1st June – 31st October start at USD605 (*GBP373) per night for a luxury villa, excluding tax and service and from 1st November – 18th December start at USD720 (*GBP444) per night for a luxury villa, excluding tax and service. There are various great special offers and deals available all year round on the website
British Airways (ba.com, 0844 493 0787) flies three times a week from London Gatwick to Cancun, return fares start from GBP644.16 including taxes.[/box]
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com