Archeologists say that the Mayans had an understanding of the concept of zero roughly a thousand years before Europeans. Twelve-month calendars and written languages are fantastic, but being able to wrap your head around the notion of nothingness is a feat that modern civilizations take for granted.
Yet it’s an idea that Mexican descendants of the great culture — the Mayan stronghold once stretched from the Yucatan Peninsula, through Guatemala and down into what is now El Salvador and Honduras — still firmly grasp to this day.
When Forbes Travel Guide recently ventured down to Playa del Carmen, a portion of Mexico’s famed Riviera Maya that flourished with Mayan life well before Christ, we encountered a people who fully understand zero, albeit now in a hospitality-focused sort of way — with inspired hikes through ruins and irresistible snorkeling adventures, travelers have zero excuses for not having a good time; thanks to culinary styles that have equal dashes of tradition and trends, there’s zero chance of ever going hungry; and in detail-oriented resorts, there’s zero reason why your autumn escape shouldn’t center around Playa del Carmen.
Playful Cancun has its unquestioned hotel draws, but something about Riviera Maya’s more tranquil tone speaks to seasoned travelers. Mahekal Beach Resort, one of the finest overnight options in Playa del Carmen, dips its toes in both worlds. The property, which came off a $16 million renovation in 2015, is the sort of place where you can linger for hours without judgment on your private hammock before finally deciding to join in on the beachfront party at sundown.
But even before you’ve had your first chance to hit the conga line, the resort lulls you into a sense of calm without ever lifting a finger. We’d say it happens right when you open the door to the lobby, but there is no door there; instead, you’re greeted with a calming open space equipped with a fireplace, bold floral and fruit arrangements, and hosts handing out wide smiles and “Welcome Home” greetings.
Once you check in, follow rock paths through a village of palapa-roofed structures to your room or suite. Inside, units are adorned with wood carvings, ceramic turquoise sinks and, depending on the size, outdoor terraces, giving the spaces a sense of home. (Don’t mind the native laughing gulls flying by your window.) The place feels even warmer with a hand-painted sign with your name on it hanging at the door. It’s a personal touch that could have easily gone gimmicky in the wrong hands, but here at Mahekal, there’s zero chance of that happening.
Even outside of the rooms, the Playa del Carmen hotel keeps its eye for detail ever sharp. The March-opened, 2,500-square-foot Revive Spa features Mexican accents on the walls while herbal foot therapies and other Mayan-inspired practices fill the treatment menu. Mahekal’s activity calendar is stuffed with watersports (snorkeling excursions set up through the onsite Vida Aquática Dive Center promise a few turtle encounters), fire pit gatherings and an art studio where you can paint your own souvenirs.
The Mayans’ innovations with irrigation and gardening are some of the most profound on record. The same can be said for their architecture. If you’ve opened a history book in the last century, you’ve seen images of the Yucatan’s famed temples. While some places in Central America have been overrun by vegetation and unforgiving sunrays, hallowed shrines of limestone like Tulum (roughly an hour from Playa del Carmen) have been relatively well preserved, affording you the visuals to go along with all of the stories you’ve read on the culture.
Tulum is the third-most-visited archeological site in Mexico. Many people come only equipped with an app and a map. While you could certainly learn some things going at it alone, a smarter approach would be to allow Mahekal to organize a proper tour of the treasure-filled area. Going this route betters your chances of getting a guide to teach you about the Mayan-Aztec connection and daily Mayan life. Tours last a few hours, but the knowledge gained from the visit is hardly calculable.
The haute cuisine
Tulum is a tourist magnet, meaning you’ll find all sorts of simplified bites near the landmarks. In the midst of the commotion that is Tulum’s zona hotelera (hotel zone), though, you’ll see La Vita é Bella. The property’s main restaurant does get its share of selfie-stick handlers — maybe it’s the great view of the Caribbean or the fact that cats walk around the sand-covered ground — but it somehow shakes the stigma of being a tourist trap.
When you order your whole fish, however, have a little patience; depending on how backed up the kitchen gets, it may take a little while for your order to get to the table.
Back at Mahekal, things are a bit more refined. The way that executive chef Crescenciano Nerey’s team prepares herb-macerated Chilean sea bass at Fuego is remarkable. How the kitchen at Las Olas whips up crepes packed with peppers and carrots is also tremendous.
Still, the onsite dining experience that proves most lasting is the unique Mayan Culinary Casita, the property’s twist on a chef’s table that tips its toque to cooking practices of a long-lost time. Here, cooks take you on a lunchtime journey back to a period when locals dug fire pits and filled them with clay pots stuffed with fish and other meats.
Enjoy the succulent proteins with a traditional soup, handmade tortillas, Mexican desserts along with all of the recipes so you can, hopefully, replicate the experience back in your own kitchen.
Just a short walk from the resort is La Cueva del Chango, an all-day establishment that will remind you of a Rainforest Cafe, if it were, well, in a rainforest. With rich plant life and chirping birds all around your breakfast table, nibble on rancheros, empanadas or chilaquiles while you plan out your day. Note: the place gets even wilder once tequila enters the picture around dinnertime.
The offerings on Playa del Carmen’s Avenida Cinco (Fifth Avenue), only a couple of blocks from La Cueva del Chango, should satisfy any other dining needs. A lively outdoor shopping area with trinket-hawking shops, jewelry boutiques and a few choice eateries, Avenida Cinco comes alive when the sun sets.
One of the hottest places on the strip is La Fisheria, a modern seafood restaurant with a soft ocean blue floor and a hard-to-top roster of fresh catches. If it’s available, try the delightful mahi mahi served over yuca, grilled peppers and tomatoes.
Those same garnishes have grown around the area since the Mayans roamed the Yucatan many centuries ago. After a few bites (and, possibly, a sip from one of the cayenne-drizzled cocktails), you’ll realize there’s zero opportunity to leave unsatisfied.