Why This Hidden Side Of The Yucatán Is Your Next Destination For A Reset

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Why This Hidden Side Of The Yucatán Is Your Next Destination For A Reset

Words by Mr Ashley Ogawa Clarke

14 July 2022

Landing into Cancún airport in 2022 is a bit like queuing for a nightclub. The pulse of dance music that hits you as you go through Arrivals, not to mention the throng of scantily clad people milling around outside with the taxi drivers, is presumably an amuse-bouche, which will, for many visitors, set the tone for the rest of their holiday. Tourists – the women invariably in leggings and crop tops and the men in muscle tees – are funnelled straight from baggage collection to Coco Bongo like a line of wobbly ants that have been dipped in mezcal.

The posterchild victim of Big Tourism, this once beautiful part of Mexico has partied itself into a perpetual hangover, with crime rates up, resorts oversubscribed and a cliché for influencer wannabes to show off about on Instagram. As one friend put it to me recently, “It’s all gone a bit Marbs vibes”. It is not, in other words, the first place you’d look on the map for a destination of spiritual enlightenment, sustainable travel or to connect with nature. But in one part of the Yucatán, that’s changing.

A short drive down the Riviera Maya, you’ll find yourself in a part of the Mexican Caribbean that is ripe for a new kind of travel experience – where you and I might see an endless sea of unspoiled mangrove jungle, luxury developers have spotted an opportunity. The imposing skeleton of the soon-to-be-complete St Regis looms over the landscape like a Wellsian behemoth, and the EDITION – famous for its fashionable outposts in London and New York – also has plans to open this year.

The vibe in this pocket of the world is wholly different to any Tulum tumult, however, and is decidedly aimed at those with the desire – and the means – to truly escape and luxuriate in the wild beauty that this part of the Yucatán has to offer.

Wild Campeche Prawn at Itzam restaurant, Etéreo, Rivera Maya, Mexico. Photograph courtesy of Auberge Resorts Collection

I’m here to stay at Etéreo, one of the first five-star pioneers of this region that opened late last year. Part of the Auberge Resorts Collection, it has 75 guest rooms that are split across eight condo-esque buildings as well as its own private beach, and is nestled in a 500-acre mangrove nature reserve that truly feels like it sits at the end of the earth. Suitable then, in a slightly cheesy but ultimately wholesome way, that Etéreo translates to “ethereal”.

Spirituality is big at Etéreo. When my wife and I pull up in the car they’ve sent to the airport, run ragged from the 10-hour flight, a welcoming committee of staff dressed in white take us in, blowing a conch shell to announce our arrival. Each party of guests is assigned their personal guía, who helps with anything they might need during their stay. There’s no laborious check-in process either; the guía comes with you to your room with an iPad, and is gone within a few minutes.

Families are welcome at Etéreo, but in our five nights here we don’t see a single child – it’s mostly honeymooning couples, or groups of serene-looking friends. Maybe it’s the super-private feeling, the fact that you’re sequestered away in the middle of a lagoon, but Etéreo’s vibe is potently romantic. From the huge wooden boardwalk on the shore to the private pool on the balcony of our room from which you can see the sea of mangroves, everywhere feels like “the perfect getaway” you always hear about, but seldom get to really experience.

The hotel slots into the natural environment with seeming ease, and a lot of effort has gone into preserving the surrounding flora and fauna. A team of in-house botanists cares for the foliage around the resort and also advise on how to conserve the local biodiversity. Each of the hotel’s staggered blocks of rooms are limited to four storeys, and the mangroves – which provide a natural barrier for hurricanes as well as relief from flooding – still take up most of the space. A network of picturesque wooden bridges have been constructed and give the impression that you are “floating” above the swamp.

Lizards, exotic birds and even coatis – a species of raccoon – roam around the area, and rays and sea turtles can be spotted while paddleboarding or canoeing.

The modernist architecture firm Migdal Arquitectos has done an objectively impressive job at seamlessly melding the building with the surrounding jungle – though the hotel is new, it almost feels as though it has sprouted out of the ground. To create the overall effect, the architects utilised local materials such as tzalam wood and chukum plaster, a type of stucco developed by the Mayans that is smooth on the feet. Thanks to its porous nature, it is perhaps the ideal material for the edge of a swimming pool.

The New York-based design studio Meyer Davis is responsible for the interiors, and looked to the “artisanal heritage of Mexico” for inspiration. This means lots of wood and stone in large, tasteful suites that boast private pools, or balconies overlooking the mangrove. You feel as though you are really in the jungle, albeit within an oasis where a crew of friendly staff are on hand to fetch you mojitos.

The hotel’s three restaurants are described as distinct experiences, but they are all within a few metres of one another, and except for the inclusion of Nikkei cuisine (Peruvian ingredients prepared with Japanese culinary techniques), they are essentially variations on the same theme. Thankfully, that theme leaves nothing wanting and is a truly epicurean dive into some impressive food and drink. The Piña Negra – a creation by an in-house mixologist that features roasted pineapple, mezcal, rosemary and charcoal – is excellent, while the cacao and mezcal pairing is a boozy way to learn about the region’s impressive alcohol industry.

The spa, called Sana, is set in a white modernist space flanked with glimmering pools of water. On entry each guest is “blessed” with a ceremony of burning herbs and prayers. There are no ascetic or medical overtones here – instead it’s a place to connect with yourself, and pick up a bit about Mayan culture. The massages incorporate Mayan spirituality with crystals and healing stones, which, far from being wellness hokum, ultimately feels like an authentic insight into the region’s history.

Pressing a piece of onyx into my hand, the massage therapist asks me to “set an intention” for the day. My mind is crystal clear and my belly is full, so I decide that I’ll make an intention to appreciate the moment. And to get the chilaquiles for breakfast again tomorrow.

The best parts of Etéreo, though, are the ones you can’t order from a menu. On one of our last nights, we walk out to the vast, deserted boardwalk to watch the eclipse. The night sky in this part of the world is genuinely breathtaking; a wild heron pads in the shallows nearby, while the wisps of clouds sail under the strawberry supermoon, which is brilliantly bright thanks to the relative lack of light pollution. How long the magic of this region will be conserved remains to be seen, but for now, it’s all there to behold.

I did it Maya way