A SMART WAY TO TRAVEL
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CEO and president of Cancun-based tour and excursion-providers, Yucatán Holidays, Erika Garcia is pretty excited: “We just learned that Orbitz has listed Cancun as the number one, top global destination!” she exclaims.
“Earlier in May, Cancun had already been listed in the Orbitz Index as second of ‘Top 10 Summer Travel Destinations for 2010,” adds Jesus Almaguer, director of the city’s visitors bureau. This comes as no surprise to Cancun’s Secretariat of Tourism Dario Flota. “We survey the 6 million visitors per year here all the time who say they’ve had unforgettable vacations,” he says. “Visitors from all over the world return to Cancun year after year. And they tell us they feel 100 percent confident about security throughout their stay.”
I know Flota feels the need to mention security due to recent negative press concerning border unrest. But with the tender care afforded us by a special security unit assigned solely to assist tourists, I felt more comfortable than at home! Plus, where else in the world can you find such perfect ingredients for an ideal holiday? Unspoiled, white-sand beaches; warm, Caribbean climate; exceptional hospitality…. Check. But wait. There’s more! “Sure, most of Yucatán Holidays’ guests are coming for a beach vacation,” says Garcia. “But with our vacations, they have so many additional options! You should see a kid snorkeling over the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the longest reef on the continent. Or talk to a couple after they’ve gotten out into the community, learned about the history of the Mayan people and viewed how we live today.”
“I can’t tell you how many people have told me this trip has changed their lives! One couple called me the other day and said, ‘Erika, we can’t go home yet!’” laughs Garcia. “I told them to relax; we can help them.” “Yucatán Holidays makes it easy to add on days to their stay. We do what it takes to protect our resort clients’ interests. With us, their special guests never need to go online, call another resort provider or a travel agent.” The Yucatán Peninsula has supported a sophisticated level of civilization since as early as 1,000 B.C. “We’ve found that visitors want to explore the local history, culture and heritage,” she adds. “Yucatán Holidays is the first local tour provider to incorporate our rich heritage into a sustainable tourism portfolio.”
One of their steps in meeting this commitment is to partner with an alternative tourism agency called Kanché. “Visitors interested in science and nature can take a Kanché tour through protected jungles and mangrove forests and learn about the fascinating history and culture of the region,” adds Garcia. “We are a major supporter of this non-profit, non-governmental group.”
But this is just one layer of the Yucatán Holidays onion I peeled back on a recent trip there. Fresh off the plane, my first stop is to Ocean Spa Hotel in the heart of Cancun.
Day 1: Sensations massage, sensational meal
After checking in, I am treated to an 80-minute-long Sensations massage that turns me into pliable puddles of joy. Lia at Ocean Spa Hotel’s Ya’ax Ché spa uses four different techniques including acupressure, reflexology, lymphatic drainage and body stretching – decidedly therapeutic – to send me to a different plane. Soon I’m humming a restful “Om.”
The next morning I visit the buffet table of the all-inclusive Ocean Spa Hotel’s indoor/outdoor restaurant, where I make the day’s toughest decision: Should I go native with Mexican-styled refried beans, huevos rancheros and tortillas or stick to a made-to-order omelet? Instead, I opt to sample one of the Ocean Spa’s juice therapy concoctions. Wellness is a common theme at Ocean Spa, from activities promoting exercise to restorative spa treatments and healthy food choices. The menu promises that my choice, the ‘Purify,’ an elixir of pineapple, lime, pear, kiwi and even a touch of cactus and parsley leaves, will rid me of unwanted toxins. It sounds perfect.
Thus detoxed, I believe I’m ready for the resort’s morning Latin dance class. Along with several other women and one brave fellow, we all cha-cha, hip-swivel and shimmy through an hour of salsa, bachata, merengue and mambo. (Relax. It isn’t as hard as it sounds.)
Later in the evening, my Yucatán Holidays pals and I attend an impressive evening show at the Hacienda Andalucía. An old-time hacienda that’s been converted into an equestrian venue is a weekly draw for locals and tourists alike. While we enjoy a truly sumptuous buffet, we are entertained by Mexican folk singers and dancers. After we’re suitably fortified, we watch the show as horseback riders demonstrate their skills, balancing precariously on their galloping steeds while performing intricately choreographed feats.
Hacienda Tres Ríos, Riviera Maya, Mexico
“What is your favorite resort in Mexico?” the couple from Pennsylvania asks when they hear how much I travel. There is no hesitation on my part, “This one!” By my second day, I am checked into the five-star Hacienda Tres Ríos, an all-inclusive, luxury hotel located on the edge of 326 acres of jungle and mangrove forest and bordering a strand of beach on the Gulf of Mexico in the Riviera Maya.
I dare any top-rated hotel, anywhere, to beat Tres Ríos for luxury. It would be tough. Plush bedding, tastefully decorated suites, fine amenities, extraordinary service and haute cuisine – Tres Ríos is ready for royalty, Mayan or simply mine. Not to mention, the property was the first-ever purpose-built green resort in all of Mexico and is held to be the model of sustainability, earning top awards from Green Globe, the World Travel Awards and others. (Based in Los Angeles, Green Globe sponsors independently-audited certification that supports Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria, an agreed upon international standard for the sustainable operation and management of travel and tourism businesses.)
Maybe Hacienda Tres Ríos means endless luxury in Mayan?
On a tour of the hotel’s kitchen, award-winning Chef Oscar Orbe shows us how he keeps his seven operations (plus room service) running at top efficiency. We tour through a sparklingly clean, climate-controlled, glass paneled facility as Orbe points out the prodigious division of pastry, salads, sides, meat, poultry and fish. Preparation of each of these is compartmentalized in rooms that surround and pump completed masterpieces into a final plating area that fairly hums with activity. (And, speaking of humming, Norah Jones’ gentle tones are piping throughout the hundreds of square feet of kitchen. Happy people/happy food.)
As in all things ‘Tres Ríos,’ careful planning has contributed to a health-oriented kitchen that’s won notice from the likes of Travel Weekly and Travel Age West. The resulting menus and buffets present diners with an endless variety of healthy choices. Guests are encouraged to experiment with their food selections, much like early hunters and gatherers – ‘molecular gourmet’ cuisine, if you will. Endless luxury is taking time to relish each bite. My friend and I are seated in the kitchen, Italian style, for our reserved private service at the Chef’s Table. While the eating establishments throughout Hacienda Tres Ríos are part of an all-inclusive system, you can reserve a special VIP seating here through the concierge.
Mentally, we gird our loins as three elegantly-dressed starters to a nine-course spread begin to appear in rapid-fire succession. First is a crispy shrimp cake, followed by tender filets of venison and tuna sashimi. Main courses follow: lobster, lamb and beef tenderloin carbonara. Like we could handle it by this time, the piece de resistance is a molten chocolate, phyllo dough basket filled with mamey (similar to passion fruit) sorbet and topped with caramel and chocolate-covered raspberries.
A Mayan view of nature
The next day finds me on the eco-friendly Jaguar Tour exploring the philosophy of Tres Ríos Nature Park – an immense nature preserve supporting 90 species of animals and 120 plant species. The resort has made ecological history by successfully reforesting mangroves, palms and other flora. We get a close-up look at how it’s done at the property’s own nursery where they plant palm trees, mangroves, herbs for the kitchen and other plants and flowers to repopulate the grounds. During planting season, a personal concierge can schedule an opportunity for you to learn how to replant one of these incredible trees and earn a certificate for your contribution.
There are 10 cenotes, or sinkholes, and three rivers. (Oh, as in tres ríos, do you think?) After being assured this one is crocodile-free, we take a plunge in its brackish water and later kayak down one of the rivers. Next, Yucatán Holidays has me signed up for the Sub See Explorer & Snorkel adventure at Aquaworld. Located on the main drag in Cancun, the venue offers everything from scuba diving, snorkeling and fishing, to swimming in Isla Mujeres. I am dutifully garbed in a bathing suit with a light pair of shorts and t-shirt, plus plenty of sun block. First from a glass-bottomed boat and later while snorkeling, we feel truly privileged to spend a day exploring the massive Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. We pass coral garden after garden and see schools of angelfish, damsels, parrotfish, rabbitfish, wrasse and the occasional sea turtle. After swimming, sun and surf, the next day’s itinerary is distinctly inland…I mean, truly “in” land. Four years ago, a landowner was chasing an armadillo, which led him to unearth a rocky entrance to an underground cavern. His discovery, Río Secreto, turned out to be the longest partially flooded cave in the Yucatan Peninsula. While most caves in the region are completely submerged and only accessible by scuba diving, this one is only partially filled by water.
Garbed in ‘shorty’ wetsuits, helmets and reef shoes, we follow as our guide Pablo explains how ancient Mayan priests and leaders would take hallucinogens, enter the darkest parts of the cavern and meditate in the watery dark. As we haltingly tread its Stygian depths, it’s like a mausoleum of those ancients. You can visualize a warrior donning the skin of a jaguar to become invisible, over here. Over there, a priest with a headdress of Quetzal feathers is placing offerings before a shrine.
The spiritual side of Mexico
Our trip west from the state of Quintana Roo to Yucatán’s capital city, Mérida, over featureless jungle-filled flatlands, induces us to snooze in the back seat. We apparently pass through a time warp and awaken several hundred years in the past to find ourselves in the region’s colonial period; only three hours later and we’re in the early 1900s! As we drive down the main boulevard, Avenida Montejo, we ogle dozens of elaborate turn-of-the-century mansions. We visit the city hall – Mérida Palacio Municipal – to view impressive murals relating the Mayan struggle for freedom.
Finally, it’s time for dinner at La Chaya Maya, just before being famished turns into really being famished. Fortunately, we arrive on the early side – 8 o’clock. Very soon waiters are scrambling to bring us lime soup, roast chicken-topped tostados called panuchos and the Mayan version of a corndog, joroches. By the time we finish, the line is almost out the door.
We’re pretty proud of ourselves for having beaten the crowd and head back to our abode for the night – a contemporary, boutique hotel housed in a beautifully renovated hacienda, the Hacienda Sacnicte just outside Mérida. Hipsters of the ilk of Sting, The Police and others have rented this exclusive hideaway. Owned by an Italian architect and his wife, the two have remodeled the 17th century stone manse into an unforgettably serene vacation home to which Yucatan Holidays has access.
Here, they have restored the massive, centuries-old stone remnants of the home and outbuildings of landed Spanish gentry, reverently intermixing antiquities with the contemporary. We ogled all six of the boutique hotel’s suites with their 20-plus-foot-high ceilings, admiring the eclectic décor and noting the designer’s acute attention to detail. Bathrooms are enormous caverns with stonecrafted spigots and huge, sunken stone tubs under open sky. Bedrooms are quiet temples of muted colors with beds swathed in fine linen and walls adorned with unique contemporary art.
A continuous theme of spirituality threads throughout my visit to this part of Paradise and is tied into a bow (or maybe a love knot) in Izamal. Pope John Paul II paid a visit here in 1993 to beg forgiveness for the Church’s wrong doings throughout Latin America. In his honor, Izamal’s buildings are painted Vatican-yellow. Bicycle driven pedicabs and horse-drawn buggies trace streets encircling the Convent de San Antonio de Padua, the first church to have been completed in Mexico in 1549.
Yucatán Holidays’ slogan, “The Power of Paradise,” is appropriate in a multitude of ways, not the least of which is signified by hundreds of ancient Mayan ruins dating from the years 300 to 900 AD. We decide to save the most famous, Chichen Itza, for another day. Instead, we visit Tulum, a collection of lofty stone remains cresting a craggy, 39-foot-high cliff that has shot up out of the Caribbean Sea. Looking down at turquoise and azure waters from this promontory puts me in a worshipful mood.
I’m reminded of all the ways my Yucatán Holidays adventure has touched me. Yes, they’ve all been powerful…uplifting spiritually, engaging experientially. But visitors may need to hurry! According to experts, the Mayan calendar ends in 2012. I pay a parting visit to the ever-gracious Erika Garcia who embraces me and tells me, “Mi casa es su casa. Bring your husband next time and stay longer!”
Original Article: Perspective Magazine
About the Author
Sharon Drechsler (DrechslerCommunications.com), lives aboard a Catalina 470 sailboat, S/V Last Resort, which is currently moored in Los Angeles, California. In addition to operating a public relations firm, Drechsler has recently co-launched SocialMediaServicing.com, content-providers for clients engaged in online networking.