Going to Mexico on vacation? You’re not alone. Millions of Americans will visit Cancun and the Mayan Riviera next year. As demand has grown over the last few decades, former small fishing towns such as Playa del Carmen have turned into international tourist destinations.
Over the years I’ve stayed at all-inclusive resorts, boutique hotels and even properties that cater mostly to Mexican tourists. This week I was invited to stay at the Mahekal Beach Resort and my visit was nothing short of wonderful. Many people imagine a white sandy beach, a hammock, infinity pools, and palm trees when considering a dream vacation. Mahekal delivers that and much more.
Over the years, I’ve found myself avoiding isolated all-inclusive hotels for several reasons. I feel that once you’ve paid for all you can eat and drink, you’re sort of locked into staying at the resort if you’re budget conscious and want to get your “money’s worth”. If you want to grab something from a convenience store or try a different restaurant, you can’t just walk there because many of these hotels aren’t near anything. What I liked about Mahekal was that I got a little of both. I had some meals included with the hotel package, but my plan was flexible so that I could check out some of the local restaurants nearby without paying for food I wasn’t eating.
Mahekal has a perfect location. It’s right on the beach and only a few blocks from Avenida Cinco, the epic Mexican street jammed with hundreds of shops, bars and restaurants. You don’t need a car. If you want to arrange a cenote trip or visit Tulum, the hotel can take care of it for you. If you want to do it like the locals, you can grab a collectivo mini-bus that stops anywhere you’d like along the Riviera.
My room faced the ocean and had a view that dreams are made of. Green coconuts ripened in a wooden box adjacent to my hammock and outdoor shower. There’s something verboten yet ultra-natural about taking a shower outside under the stars or in the Caribbean sun. The bamboo walls give you your privacy, but you still feel connected to nature. There was a beautifully hand-painted plate outside my door that had been created with my name. Fresh flowers were everywhere. The room was picture perfect with a canopy bed and fresh fruit basket. There was a mini-bar and lots of bottles of wine to choose from. Even the toiletries were first class products with great tropical packaging that made me feel excited about washing my hair. It was one of the nicest rooms I’ve ever stayed in. It could have been in an ugly place and I would have probably have still been content in it, but it had a million dollar view and there was nothing not to love.
Some of the Mahekal rooms line a beautiful strip of beach and others are tucked in a lush jungle garden. It’s hard to believe when you are walking through the trees that there is a bustling downtown city within five minutes walking distance.Guests can choose from several bars and restaurants dotting the property. My favorite, Fuego, has a sea to table concept where fresh fish and succulent lobsters are brought from the boat, weighed and sliced on the beach so that they can be grilled to order by the chef. Besides Fuego restaurant, there was another cozy one right below my room with a beautiful pool bar.
There were lots of special culinary experiences created by the chefs during my stay. One evening we were served Mayan coffee where flaming liqueur was poured between fiery steel cruets before it was mixed with rich Mexican Java. It was the sweetest combo of deliciousness that could be served in a cup. We also enjoyed a tequila tasting and got to try Mahekal’s private brand of the agave-based liquor. One of our lunches was prepared in a traditional Mayan fire pit and included fresh grouper mixed with local spices and wrapped in banana leaves. How did we know it was authentic? The chef only spoke Mayan and everything had to be translated. The meal was rustic and upscale at the same time. We couldn’t help from feeling like we were being spoiled, but we were eating food prepared with cooking techniques from hundreds of years ago. All of our food and drink experiences were exactly that. Experiences.
There’s lots of niches scattered around the property that you can explore when you’re taking a break from sun worshiping. One of my favorites is the little ceramic shop where you can pluck an unfinished bowl, plate or plaster animal from the shelf and paint it with whatever colors your heart desires. Once you’ve finished your masterpiece, you leave it with the staff to be fired in the kiln. Something magical happens to your creation between the time you’ve left it and pick it up. My hastily painted fish plate looked like something you’ might find for sale in a souvenir store, not like it was painted while I was drinking a giant margarita. There’s a picturesque courtyard that’s popular for weddings and private dinners. If you’re feeling adventurous you can climb the lighthouse at one end of the property and get a great view of the jungle and beach. There’s movies played on a big screen in the sandbox in the evening. If yoga is your thing, there’s a class available right near the beach in the morning. If that doesn’t soothe your muscles enough, drop into the spa and treat yourself to an amazing massage. In other words, there’s lots to do and it’s unlikely you can get bored.
Mahekal also has a dive shop that can set up your choice of a snorkeling or undersea adventure. We took an excursion with one of the instructors to a local cenote for a refreshing cool swim in crystal clear waters of the Mayan sinkhole while some of my friends visited the ancient ruins of Tulum. It’s also possible to set up a trip to world class diving sites in Cozumel or other good dive spots along the Mayan Riviera. At the end of the day, I went back to my room only to discover the staff had freshened up my room. left me some Mexican sweets and added more beautiful flowers. Yes, there’s a reason they call the resort Magical Mahekal.