New wave Mexico

by Francesca.Syz

Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula offers one of the loveliest stretches of coast in the Caribbean - and the choice of hot places to stay has never been better

It's a few decades since the first wave of hippies descended upon Mexico's pristine Yucatan Peninsula, to sleep on the beach and dance around ancient Mayan ruins at Tulum in the moonlight. Things are a little different now: today Cancun is a sprawling city that many would say has been ruined by mass tourism, and the tiny fishing village of Playa del Carmen, around which the original scene centred, is the fastest growing city in Latin America.
But the coast running south between Cancun and Tulum is still gorgeous, with sugar white beaches fringing impossibly turquoise waters, and a new breed of luxury hotel is revitalising a coastline that looked, for a while, like it had been swallowed up by package tourism for ever.
First wave
The ‘Mayan Riviera’ is no stranger to the small luxury hotel. Its first opened just north of Playa in 1995. Built by architect and diving fanatic Jose Luis Moreno, Maroma Resort and Spa was a blueprint for the future. It struck just the right balance of 'rustic chic' and incredible luxury, while remaining true to its Mexican setting. Moreno sold it to Orient Express in 2003 and since then it has been expanded and overhauled but is still considered one of the finest resorts on that coast. Hot on its heels came Paraiso de la Bonita, the love child of another architect, Carlos Gosselin Maurel; Ikal del Mar, run by a group of young, refreshingly offbeat entrepreneurs; and Deseo, by Rafael Micha and Carlos Couturier, the design fanatics behind Mexico’s hip Grupo Habita hotels. That’s when things went quiet.
Then, in 2008, things suddenly took off. Today, most of the action is taking place on the strip of coast running south from Cancun to Playa del Carmen and it seems everyone wants a piece of it. Notably, Adrian Zecha, the hotelier behind Aman Resorts, has snapped up a presidential compound on which he is building Nizuc, due to open in 2010, and Brad Korzen of LA-based Kor Hotels, is developing several properties there as we speak.
Probably the most hotly anticipated new resort has been the 128-room Mandarin Oriental Riviera Maya. Dazzling white in the Caribbean sunshine, the company’s first Mexican resort is a temple to sleek minimalist design, with a fantastic spa and several excellent restaurants. It attracts chic couples from Mexico City, girlfriends from California and New York and big extended families from Miami.
Right next door is Mayakoba, a big development of four boutique resort hotels that fan out along the beach, on land riddled with natural lagoons. The first to open was the Fairmont (December 2006), then came the family-orientated Rosewood (February 2008); Banyan Tree opened at the beginning of 2009 and, finally, Kor Hotels will open an outpost of their Viceroy brand there in 2010. Developers claims to have struck the perfect balance between man and nature and that everything, including its Greg Norman golf course, has been designed in the most thoughtful, ecological way possible.
North of Playa del Carmen, Ikal Del Mar was bought by the Kor Group and re-branded Tides last year. A small hotel geared towards couples, it is built in the local rustic style and has an entirely different vibe. The Kor Group has given it an all-round refresh and soon 12 new suites will be added to the existing 30. In 2010, the group plans to open another Tides in Playa del Carmen and, in four years, another in Tulum.
The original owners of Ikal del Mar went on to buy a white stucco beachside villa further down the coast towards Tulum, from an Italian Duchess called Rosa. They transformed the villa into the 30-room Hotel Esencia. Hurricane Wilma delayed its launch until 2006 but today it is a delightful little retreat that works well for any combination of guest, from couples to families with older children. There’s a laidback efficiency that permeates everything, privacy for those who want it and a friendly scene for those who don’t, and there’s usually someone at the bar getting the tequilas in.
Meanwhile, in downtown Playa, Rafael Micha and Carlos Couturier have opened the 15-room Basico. It attracts a hip LA/Mexico City crowd who lounge around the pool in kaftans and big sunglasses, sipping cucumber martinis.
Looking ahead
Officials predict that there will be 110,000 hotel rooms along this once sleepy stretch of Caribbean coastline by 2025. The new president Felipe Calderon has now signed legislation prohibiting ‘any activities affecting the wellbeing of Mexico’s coastal mangroves and promoting sustainable development and protecting wetlands and mangroves’. While this seems totally unrealistic, as it prohibits the building of practically anything and construction will clearly continue, it is at least sending out a message that now is a time for more thoughtful development and that quality not quantity is the way forward.



After several years on the features desk at Conde Nast Traveller, Francesca Syz decided to pursue a freelance career as a travel writer in 2005. Today her work appears in a whole range of publications from Conde Nast Traveller and BA High Life to House & Garden and Elle Deco. Francesca is also travel editor at Psychologies Magazine.