Bliss, paradise and no tipping
Maria Mukul washes the family laundry in her village at Pac Chen, Quintana Roo
I'm drifting away and feeling mighty fine about it, I don't mind saying. For the last hour or so my brain's been telling me to "Listen up. It's the air and the breeze, stupid. Relax! Enjoy!" And I'm so far out of it that I actually speak to my inner voice, "Okay, all right, already!"
The weight-lifting couple sipping diet Sprites in the over-sized chaise next to me has raised their eyebrows. If they were me and I was them I'd have done the same.
How could I be any more so? I'm in paradise, totally removed from anything even pretending to be the world I just left. I'm orbiting the planet Ultimate Serenity.
Actually, I'm on Mexico's Riviera Maya at a snazzy upscale resort in day 2 of 4 of an all-inclusive get-away package. I'm on a terrace in a chaise shaded by a huge blue and yellow beach umbrella overlooking the turquoise waters of the Mexican Caribbean.
At the edge of the beach couples sun themselves. Some are hopping in and out of the water. A few are tossing Frisbees. Others are following their bliss, doing Tai-Chi. A tanned trio of tres chic femmes languidly lounge topless. I figure they must be from Cannes or Rio, and I tell myself that I should get off my chaise and maybe get a quote for this story. I skip the idea. I'm too enamored of the bliss surrounding me. Later I learned that going topless is a too-too thing on the Riviera Maya.
High above this panorama, the feet of a para sailor dangle below a red and yellow chute advertising a local drink. The contrast in colors is startling.
The only sounds are those of the sea rushing against the white sands of the beach, a breeze brushing its way through stands of palms and the hushed, romantically haunting strains of Speak Low echoing softly in the background.
At any of the Riviera Maya's upscale resorts, there's always more to do than most people can, or even really want to, do. Me? I just want to b-r-e-a-t-h-e in and b-r-e-a-t-h-e out.
But for those so inclined any of the resorts have gyms with weights to lift, tread mills to run on, tennis courts to whack balls across nets, pools to swim in, saunas to steam in, hot tubs to get hot in and whirlpools to be whirled around in. There also are libraries and business offices for those who never seem to get away or maybe really don't want to, and, of course, gift shops with really lots to google over. At the resort where I was staying, the Royal Hideaway, there was also dark-eyed Lorena Guiterrez and her hands. Her hands! They took me along another path in my stroll through paradise. Actually I wasn't strolling. I was lying down. Lorena was standing at my side and her hands were quietly working at getting rid of all the stiffness, soreness, and stress that I brought with my body.
She stimulated my subcuetaneous circulation, balanced my sebum impurities, oxygenated my toxins and hydrated my moisture. I honestly haven't the vaguest idea what any of that means, and I don't care. But what she did sure felt good.
Later, a waiter interrupted my reverie. "Can I offer you something to drink, perhaps?" he asked.
In another time, in a different environment, in the hectic, hurly-burly in which too many of us live, perhaps I might have snarled at him, but I say "sure, why not." He goes away and I vaguely slip back into my reverie. But after a few sips of a mixed fruit drink, I get to my feet, stretch a bit and wander off.
Playa del Carmen is an old fishing village whose reefs bordering it are home to more than 500 species of fish and turtles. It's been around for years and still is more or less one of those funky "hey, man, what's happening?" kind of places. Over the years it's grown into a popular party town with trendy wall-to-wall shops, hotels and restaurants. It makes for delightfully relaxing strolling. There's not much like it on a late evening, sitting at an outdoor café, a coffee at hand, the buzz of animated conversations, caressing breezes rolling in from the sea, and the theatre-like parade of people on Avenida Cinco, or 5th Avenue. Playa del Carmen is still laid-back and still unpretentious. In its own way, it too, is part of the paradise of the Riviera Maya.
Xcaret is an eco-archaeological theme park, a la Disney. It's just four miles down the road from the Hideaway, so it's an easy place get to. At one time it was a seaport named Pole. Now it has leaping dolphins, a butterfly pavilion, a sea turtle nursery and Las Vegas-style shows of native folkloric dances along with a dressed up version of an ancient Mayan ball game called Pok-ta-pok. In it a ball made of a rubber-like substance and about the size of a bowling ball can only be hit with the hip. The trick is getting it through the opening of a circular "goal" post made of a round rock decorated in stelae-like fashion.
Akumal is known as the "place of the turtles" and is a favorite hangout of the endangered marine turtles. It is one of the Riviera Maya's oldest resort areas. There's a beautiful beach there of calm water rimmed with palm trees curving over it. There are a number of uptown hotels and condos edging along the water. Beach chairs and chaises of all colors and styles, some with accompanying beach umbrellas, invite even itinerant travelers to rest and soak up the air and the breezes.
The area around Paamul is a favorite of snorkelers and divers. It's a place turtles still come to, to leave their eggs.
Sian Ka-an means where the sky begins. It's also where my meanderings in paradise came to an end.
Sian Ka-an is a biosphere reserve of jungle, marshes, mangroves and islands. It's a bit south of the fishing village of Punta Allen. Inside the preserve is Pac Chen, a Mayan village. I got to Pac Chen by way of Alltournative, which just happens to have the only official blessing of the people of Pac Chen to bring tourists to and through their village.
Pac-Chen is where I met Maria Muyil, a 30-something wearing a huipil, which is a woven white dress trimmed with intricate and colorful embroidery. Her family has been in Pac-Chen longer than she can remember. She was doing the family laundry when I got to her corner of the village. She was scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing on a make-shift plank straddling a pair of rock piles, hesitantly smiling sweetly the whole while. I told her, through my interpreter (name to come) that I couldn't speak Maya. She smiled a bit more. I told her my grip on Spanish was muy poquito (very little). She smiled again, a light dancing in her eyes.
Her daughter was standing a bit behind her, closer to their thatch-roofed house. Wild turkeys were gobble-gobbling along the dirt road fronting their home. I was scrambling about figuring out just the right angle for the picture I wanted to do of her doing the laundry. I didn't make a big deal of the plastic bowl of soapy water at my end of the plank. I should have. At the decisive moment for making the picture, I somehow tipped it over, spilling it completely down the front of my pants.
Maria of the hesitant smile howled.
Later, I sat at the end of a pier near a quiet curve of Pac Chen overlooking a lagoon and stayed there a half-hour or so absorbed with the horizon and the incoming tide sloshing at my feet. My pants were dry and it was time to head back to my main pad. On the way back, all I could think about was paradise, paradise, paradise.
Paradise - the sweet clean air, the caressing breezes, the beautiful beaches, and coral reefs, bays and inlets of the Riviera Maya's 75-mile stretch and especially the tranquility, that goes with it - has always been here, longer even than when the Maya ruled. Then it was a commercial and religious center for the Mayas of the post-Classic period (1000-1550 A.D.).Well, it's still commercial and getting even more so. The ancient Mayas would never recognize the place.
I first traveled the Riviera Maya nine or ten years ago. The Cancun-Tulum Corridor (Highway 307), leading to the border of Belize, then was a narrow, rinky dink two-lane road, the sides of it choked with all kinds of palms and mangroves, and mango, avocado and Flamboyant trees.
It was sprinkled with occasional mom-and-pop vendor stands and once-in-a-while restaurants. Travelers were mostly truckers and brave-at-heart tourists venturing southward to Tulum, the spectacular Mayan fortress that hugs the edge of the Caribbean Sea.
Today the corridor is four lanes. Gone forever are all those mangroves and palms, and mango, avocado and Flamboyant trees.
The Riviera Maya is boom-town glorified. Millions have been pumped into it. Millions more are being taken out of it. Hundreds of square miles are yet to be developed with even newer and bigger and more luxurious resorts each ever more wonderful than any that exist now. There's lots of back-slapping for what all this development has done for the local economy.
But there's a lot of concern about what all this is doing to the environment and how the Riviera Maya may get to be little different than the LA freeway, I-4 and shopping malls on bargain basement sales days. Since the first shovelful of dirt was turned over 40 years ago, more than 10 million acres of forests have been whacked away. The reefs, which give the beaches its famed white sands and feed thousands of varieties of sea life unlike any anywhere else, are being destroyed so aggressively that they may be gone in another ten years. Sea turtles and manatees are on the endangered list, and jaguars are hardly ever seen.
If something isn't done soon to protect this beautiful piece of the world, I may never hear my inner voice tell me again that "....it's the air and the breeze." I want to come back here to this paradise. And I'd love for my kids to come here and their kids, too. But if all this goes, as some gloom-saying environmentalists believe, maybe nobody will want to come here. The terrible thought is that while the Riviera Maya may still be here, maybe the paradise it is today will be the paradise lost of tomorrow.
IF YOU GO :
Air travel to Cancun is possible from most major U.S. cities. There are any number of all-inclusive resorts along the Riviera Maya with per night rates ranging anywhere from about $200 for a normal room to $1000 or so for a Presidential Suite. All rates are for double occupancy and depend on the season you decide to go.
For toll-free reservations at the Hideaway Resort call 1-800-999-9182 or check its web site, www.royalhideaway.com).
Other resorts include the El Dorado (800-334-1197, email@example.com);
the Omni Puerto Aventuras Beach Resort (800-The-Omni, www.omnihnotels.com);
Iberostar Paraiso Beach and Iberostar Paraiso del Mar (888-923-2722);
and Allegro Resort Playacar (800-858-2258 ( www.allegroresorts.com).
Less expensive digs include:
the Hotel Club Akumal Caribe and Villas Maya in Akumal; (800-351-1622, www.hotelakulamcaribe.com) at about $100 a night.
Alltournative organizes special tours to Pac Chen and the ruins at Coba. The $85 rate includes lunch. www.altournative.com;
There are dozens of all-inclusive, all-you-can-eat-and-drink resorts along the Riviera Maya, all with their own stretch of beaches with white sand. If you don't want to play tennis, or jump around after a volley ball, or go water-skiing, or para-sailing, swim or snorkel or go scuba diving, there's always the food. You can eat all day long and well into the night, as much as you want and as often as you want.