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Wellness and Wonders in the Mexican Caribbean

by Team Fathom
Massage on the beach in Cancun. All photos courtesy of Quintana Roo Tourism Board.

Produced in partnership with Quintana Roo Tourism Board.

If you were to invent a dreamy vacation destination, the recipe might look like this:

Start with equal parts lush jungles, soft-sand beaches, meandering lagoons, and clear blue seas. Add a sophisticated ancient culture, rich in ritual and tradition; a tasty local cuisine influenced by locals, explorers, and even pirates; stay-a-while accommodations, from tents under stars to luxury villas; a wealth of activities to excite the body and mind; and welcoming citizens proud to share their homeland — and you’ll end up with the Mexican Caribbean.

Of the countless reasons to vacation in Quintana Roo, wellness has jumped to the top of the travel agenda. The region is only too willing to oblige, with an array of options that run the gamut from sporty to spiritual.

Cenotes are nature's best swimming pools.
Paddling around the ecopark Kantun Chi.

Sink and Swim

Sixty-five million years ago when an asteroid struck the earth just off the northwest coast of the Yucatan peninsula, the seismic activity that followed sent ripples through the region’s porous limestone, ripples that formed a network of underground caves, rivers, and sinkholes. These freshwater sinkholes were incredibly important to the ancient Maya, who relied on them for drinking water and considered them passages to Xibalbá, the underworld. The modern word for them, cenote, derives from the Maya term for “natural well,” dzono’ot. The best natural swimming pools nature could have created, locals and visitors have been exploring, worshipping, floating, and snorkeling in cenotes ever since. They really are everywhere — the Riviera Maya alone has 6,000 of them. Some are in public places like theme parks; others are unmarked off a dusty road and best found with the help of a friendly local. The cenotes Dos Ojos, Tajma Ha, El Jardin del Edén, and Tak Bi Ha are especially picturesque with rock formations, stalactites, and every blue in the Pantone universe.

Take a Dip: Speaking of shades of blue, the Hondo River lagoon system on the south end of the Mexican Caribbean connects the Bacalar, Xul-Há, Huay Pix, Guerrero, and Milagros lagoons. Perfect places for nature lovers.

Exploring cenote Dos Ojos.
Diving around Isla Cozumel.

Underwater Marvels

Cenote Dos Ojos is a 125-miles underground cave system best explored by scuba. But take your trusty oxygen tank out into the open waters, and you’ll find even more natural beauty. There are many scuba offerings in the cenotes and along the coast, but the ultimate diving is found around Isla Cozumel. The island’s 40 dive zones are an aquatic wonderland, home to 500 different species of fish, turtles, anemones, sharks, and other sea life that thrives in ten miles of protected reefs. One of the world’s best dive sites, the Cozumel reefs are part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the largest in the Western Hemisphere. With so many options, divers of all skill levels and interests can swim to a site that fits them like, well, like a scuba suit.

Dive In: Some of the best spots include Colombia Reef, Felipe Xicotencatl “C-53” Shipwreck, Palancar Reef, and El Cielo, where you’ll find many starfish lying in the seabed.

PGA Riviera Maya by Bahía Príncipe Golf.
El Camaleón Golf Course.

In the Swing of Things

The world’s golf greats had a hand in many of the area’s 14 golf courses, from Cancun to the Riviera Maya. Jack Nicklaus designed the 27 holes at Moon Golf Club. Greg Norman designed the picturesque El Camaleón Golf Course at Mayakoba, an ecological complex — the course is home to the Mayakoba Golf Classic, Mexico’s historic first-ever PGA TOUR event. P. B. Dye was the architect for the 18-hole, Par 72 Iberostar Playa Paraíso Golf Club. Robert Trent Jones II lent his know-how to PGA Riviera Maya by Bahía Príncipe Golf, a 27-hole stunner that winds through jungle, cenotes, and natural lakes.

Fauna Amid the Flora: If your shot lands in the water, leave it. The crocodiles along the courses don’t make for willing caddies. If you see a local melipona bee, however, don’t worry: They’re stingless, and their honey is especially healing.

Yoga at Amansala Yoga & Wellness Retreat.
Yoga in a jungle palapa.

Turn On Your Inner Light

Yoga and meditation offerings are so plentiful throughout the Mexican Caribbean that even the least spiritually inclined may find themselves lulled into a Zen state on their beach lounger, muttering a silent om while floating in the sea. It’s a wellness contact high! Dedicated yogis will find their bliss at hotels that are seriously devoted to the practice, like eco chic Amansala Yoga & Wellness Resort and Maya Tulum Resort, which regularly host retreats led by world-renowned teachers, but even casual practitioners will be tempted by invigorating morning sessions that greet the sun at Hotel Esencia, where the open-air tree-top yoga platforms overlook the sea, and the many types of yoga practiced at Viceroy Riviera Maya.

Double Your Pleasures: You’re technically not supposed to multi-task during yoga, but you can take your down dogs to another level with a standup paddleboard yoga class in the Caribbean Sea, inside a cenote, or, best of all, after touring Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with nine different eco systems.

Welcoming the day at Palmaïa – The House of AïA.
The Kuxtal Garden at Sense, a Rosewood Spa, at Rosewood Mayakoba..

Head-to-Toe Glow

If you prefer your wellness with a side of incense and a soothing massage, check into a resort that offers transformative experiences that blend cutting-edge practices with Maya traditions, many centered around a temazcal, a sort of pre-Hispanic Indigenous sweat lodge. At Sense, a Rosewood Spa, at Rosewood Mayakoba, treatments include the detoxifying Cenote Temazcal Purification; the cleansing Iztam Herbal Cure, a clay wrap rooted in ancient herbal medicine; consultations with the resident shaman, and an intuitive, immersive sensory ritual performed in in Kuxtal, the sensory spa garden named for the Maya word for “life.” The newly opened Palmaïa – The House of AïA is a vegan-friendly resort with an outdoor jungle spa with programs designed to heal the emotional as well the physical. Their week-long Architects of Life personal grown program incorporates mind (meditation), movement (mandalas), ceremonies (gong baths), and ancient knowledge (dance and drums) with the goal of connecting body and soul. Casa Sandra on Isla Holbox recently launched the holistic program Ahal, named for the Maya word for “awakening” that incorporates osteopathy, Tibetan sound healing, synchrodynamics, and meditation.

Future Wellness: SHA Wellness Clinic in Spain, one of the world’s leading health and medical retreats, is opening their second outpost on Costa Mujeres next year.

The Castle pyramid at Muyil.
Tulum is the only Maya site on the Caribbean Sea.

Oh Me, Oh Maya

You’ve flexed your muscles and realigned your spirit. Time to flex the mind. The Maya culture thrived along the Mexican Caribbean from 2000 BCE until the late 1600s, developing sophisticated systems of architecture, gastronomy, religion, literature and commerce, the traces of which can still be seen today. This year is an ideal time to explore the archaeological sites without throngs of distracting tourists. The most famous may be Tulum, the only Maya city built on the Caribbean. But there are so many to choose from. Cobá in the dense jungle is home to Nohoch Mul, the tallest pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula, but only 5% of the site has been excavated so far. Muyil, one of two dozen archaeological sites in Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, has an observation tower from which you can see bird’s eye views of The Castle pyramid.

History Is Alive: The Maya remain an essential component of the local culture. Get a deeper understanding of their contemporary ways and traditions on an educational and interactive visit to a local community. Practice before you go: yun botik (ee-uun bohtic) is how you say “thank you” in Maya.

Take a Tour

If you'd like to leave the arrangements to the experts (you are on vacation, after all), contact a local tour operator. Alltournative, Aventuras Mayas, Cancun Passion Tours, and Cancun Adventures are the ones to call for many different excursions and experiences — culture, nature, gastronomy, adventure, and more.

Covid-19 Traveler Notes

It’s safe to travel to the Mexican Caribbean, which was the first region in the Americas to receive the “Safe Travels" seal from the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). Hotels, restaurants, and attractions are adopting protocols to ensure travelers’ safety. Travelers to the region should follow all local rules to ensure everyone’s safety.

We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.