Into the Mystic

Once an Undisturbed Strip of Land Stretching along the coastline of the Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Quintana Roos, Mexico, the Riviera Maya has recently been discovered as an ideal vacation destination. Not surprisingly, the area is a hot spot for those who want to relax on pristine white-sand beaches while inhaling the Caribbean air. It is also a perfect escape for the more adventurous in search of scuba diving on the Great Maya Reef and touring the cultural and archeological treasures of the Mayan people, Indians who developed one of the most advanced civilizations more than 2,000 years ago. Because the Riviera Maya has so much to offer, hotels and resorts are finding ways to accommodate visitors' diverse interests by combining the area's cultural history with first-class accommodations and spa experiences unlike anywhere else in the world.

Paraiso de la Bonita Resort & Thalasso

Luxury and indulgence reign supreme at Paraiso de la Bonita Resort & Thalasso, a 90-suite beachfront resort located just 12 miles south of Cancun, which boasts the only certified thalassotherapy spa in North America. The 22,000-square-foot Thalasso Center Spa offers guests a place to experience the healing and relaxing benefits of thalassotherapy, which incorporates seawater, marine algae, and mud applied through different techniques. Although the spa offers a full range of services including body treatments, massages, and facials, thalassotherapy is ranked most popular among guests. "Most of our visitors are seeking to try out thalasso treatments because they know this is our expertise and what differentiates us from other resort spas," says spa manager Jenny Loria. "Many guests have yet to visit a certified thalasso spa, even though they have visited many spas before." Among the treatments guests gravitate toward is the Seaweed Body Treatment ($116, 25 minutes), which includes covering the guest's body with a poultice of micro-blasted marine algae that absorbs into the skin to revitalize tissue and allow the body to expel retained fluid.

Below: The Thalasso Center Spa features an interior Jacuzzi in which guests can unwind. Middle: Outdoor treatments are performed in the spa's saltwater pool. Bottom: Upon entering the resort, guests are treated to a breathtaking view of the Caribbean Sea.
Below: The Thalasso Center Spa features an interior Jacuzzi in which guests can unwind. Middle: Outdoor treatments are performed in the spa's saltwater pool. Bottom: Upon entering the resort, guests are treated to a breathtaking view of the Caribbean Sea.

The 16-treatment-room spa includes an indoor Jacuzzi, an open-air seawater Jacuzzi, steam rooms, saunas, wet rooms, private facial areas, and a large outdoor seawater hydrotherapy pool with an ocean view. In addition, the Couples Spa Cabin allows guests to receive side-by-side treatments while watching the waves gently rise and fall onto the powdery white beach. Couples can also relax in a private Jacuzzi and enjoy lunch or dinner on the adjoining sun deck with a double sun lounger.

The spa employs 24 full-time staff members, and all therapists are trained by thalassotherapy experts to perform treatments, which use only Thalgo products. Fresh seawater is heated, treated, and pumped into the spa as the principal ingredient used in combination with marine algae, mineral muds, and other natural ingredients. According to Loria, the spa is popular with guests from the resort, guests from other resorts, and nearby residents alike because it offers services they can't find elsewhere in the area. "The idea of providing the most benefits for the well-being of our customers at the best cost has been our prime concern," says Loria. "Then, for our European connoisseurs, we added more sophisticated and targeted treatments."

Guests at Paraiso de la Bonita can relax by the infinity pool, which overlooks the Caribbean Sea.
Guests at Paraiso de la Bonita can relax by the infinity pool, which overlooks the Caribbean Sea.

Iberostar Paraiso Maya

A great vacation destination for families, Iberostar Paraiso Maya, located 30 minutes south of Cancun, is a sprawling, all-inclusive resort featuring more than 400 luxurious suites, three private pools, specialty restaurants, and access to the nearby Paraiso Lindo resort and its amenities. Guests also have access to the 32,000-square-foot El Spa, an adults-only respite located steps away from the hotel in the Iberostar Playa Paraiso Commercial Center. Guests of the resort enjoy unlimited access to the Humid Area located on the ground floor of the spa, which includes a sauna, Turkish bath, Roman bath, Jacuzzi, and an Olympic-sized saltwater swimming pool with an underwater music system where hydrotherapy treatments are performed. The courtyard features a shallow moat with smooth stones and moving water for additional hydrotherapy treatments, as well as heated lounge chairs. More traditional spa treatments, such as facials, massages, and body treatments, are performed in one of the 28 treatment rooms located on the second floor.

Guests can relieve stress in El Spa's sauna (Top Left), relax in the co-ed wet area (Top Right), and enjoy treatments in the 600-square-foot saltwater pool (Below).
Guests can relieve stress in El Spa's sauna (Top Left), relax in the co-ed wet area (Top Right), and enjoy treatments in the 600-square-foot saltwater pool (Below).

According to spa director Juan José Villaseñor offering guests a variety of treatment options is key. "Our unique factor is that we combine hydrotherapy treatments and indigenous ritualistic treatments," says Villaseñor One such experience, the Temazcal Ceremony ($77, 80 minutes) is performed by a therapist just outside the main facility in an igloo-shaped clay hut heated intensely with hot stones. During the spiritual journey, participants combine music therapy using ethnic instruments with mystical chants, aromatherapy from native flowers and plants, and a specially cured mud designed to bring the body and mind to a state of equilibrium. For night owls, the spa offers the Nocturnal Temazcal Ceremony ($90, 80 minutes) where guests can capture the serenity of the night. "The Temazcal Ceremony is the most outstanding ritualistic service we provide," says Villaseñor "We focus on the importance of local herbs and a combination of aromas and heat, along with indigenous music."

Spa-goers can relax and enjoy the fresh sea air in the spa pool at Fairmont Mayakoba.
Spa-goers can relax and enjoy the fresh sea air in the spa pool at Fairmont Mayakoba.

El Spa employs 54 therapists who perform treatments on an average of 60 clients a day. According to Villaseñor the greatest challenge he faces is constantly improving services and educating guests about the benefits of spa services. The spa is promoted through in-room brochures and television advertisements, as well as informational cocktail parties and through the resort concierge. "We want guests to realize that our spa treatments integrate wellness benefits as well as mental and aesthetic health benefits."

Willow Stream Spa at Fairmont Mayakoba

Located 40 miles south of Cancun, the Willow Stream Spa at Fairmont Mayakoba, the newest spa destination from Willow Stream The Spas at Fairmont, offers guests a luxurious place to bask in the Riviera Maya's natural beauty and the mysteries of an ancient civilization. Opened in May 2006, the 37,000-square-foot 20-room sanctuary keeps tradition alive by incorporating in its design elements materials the Mayans used hundreds of years ago to erect their monuments and temples, such as the fossil stone conchera, the mineral sascab, natural green Guatemalan marble, and wood from the zapote tree. The reception desk is a glass-covered hand-carved Mayan canoe inspired by the traditional transportation used by the Mayans to visit and trade with other tribes. Crystals, which symbolized good luck to the Mayans, are displayed throughout the spa. "Spa guests can experience the Riviera Maya's energy, culture, and history at our spa," explains spa director Maxime Cormier. "Designed with a sophisticated blend of warm, rich hues of plum, wine, olive, and emerald with a touch of maize and chocolate, Willow Stream Spa at Fairmont Mayakoba is reminiscent of the textures, colors, and scents of the ancient Mayan culture."

Guests can unwind in the Spa Great Room at Fairmont Mayakoba.
Guests can unwind in the Spa Great Room at Fairmont Mayakoba.

Mayan influences can also be found in the spa's menu, ranging from Willow Stream Signature experiences to treatments featuring local herbs, essential oils, and extracts. "The menu took months of local research to develop," says Cormier. "Willow Stream is committed to creating authentic and locally inspired spa experiences." One of the most popular treatments, according to Cormier, is the spa's signature couples' treatment, the Yucatan Healing Retreat ($359, 120 minutes), which includes a footbath, a choice of sea and body scrubs, and a choice of body masks selected from local favorites–Mayan clay, cacao, or honey and yogurt. The treatment, which takes place in the private Fuego Suite situated above the treetops under a mangrove canopy, also includes a bath in the soaking tub and side-by-side massages using local oils.

The spa features men's and women's lounges with Swiss showers, steam rooms, and Mexican gardens; a meditation area; fitness facilities; a hair salon; and a retail boutique with a selection of local products, Willow Stream signature products, and offerings from Kerstin Florian, B. Kamins Chemist, Tara Spa Therapy, and Iredale Mineral Cosmetics. In addition to massages, body treatments, and facials, the menu features a range of experiences, such as Under the Mayan Moon ($179, 60 minutes), a secret ceremony for a limited number of guests that takes place once a month during a full moon. During the ceremony, participants pay homage to the moon, which held special meaning for the Mayans. Spa guests are also invited to take a dip in the rooftop vitality pool or relax in the sea-mineral soaking pool.

The entrance to Willow Stream Spa at Fairmont Mayakoba welcomes guests to the property.
The entrance to Willow Stream Spa at Fairmont Mayakoba welcomes guests to the property.

With a full-time staff of 25, the spa accommodates approximately 72 guests a day during peak season, which runs from December through March. As the Riviera Maya gains popularity, Cormier recognizes the need to stay ahead of the competition. Although the spa is still in its infancy, there are plans in the works to expand the menu to create seasonal packages and to also add evening treatments to help guests relax before getting a sound night's sleep. "The spa industry in this area is developing very quickly, so capturing the local market is our biggest challenge," says Cormier.

Aroma Spa at Hotel Esencia

Situated on a two-mile stretch of white sand on Playa Hpu-Ha beach about 45 minutes south of Cancun, Hotel Esencia is an unassuming nature-inspired boutique resort that opened in March 2005. Set on 50 acres of lush green gardens, the hotel features 29 ocean and garden view guest rooms, suites, and cottages. It is also home to Aroma Spa, an organic spa that specializes in the ancient practice of phytotherapy using fruits, herbs, and botanical extracts for medicinal purposes. "Aroma Spa merges the natural world of the Yucatan with the luxury resort experience by incorporating indigenous fruits, plants, and herbs into the spa treatments," says spa director Teresa Buitron. "The spa has its own herb garden ensuring fresh, natural spa ingredients."

Top: Couples can enjoy side-by-side massages surrounded by nature at Aroma Spa. Above: Many of the spa's treatments incorporate local ingredients.
Top: Couples can enjoy side-by-side massages surrounded by nature at Aroma Spa. Above: Many of the spa's treatments incorporate local ingredients.

The 2,500-square-foot palapa roofed spa features six treatments rooms, four Jacuzzis, and two Mayan-style domed steam rooms, as well as a beachside Temezcal Mayan sauna. Massage therapists wear a red chincuete, a woven belt worn to protect them from evil and illnesses according to Mayan custom. In place of lockers, guests place their clothing in a basket, like the Mayans used to do. After treatments, the clothes are returned to them the same way.

With a philosophy that reflects the ancient Mayan culture, Aroma Spa offers guests beauty through ceremonies and rituals, which is reflected in the menu. "Our goal is to offer unique treatments in the most traditional form," says Buitron. "It is very important to us to return to our natural state, to our essence." Among the most popular services is the Ritual of Earth, Water, Fire, Air ($140, 80 minutes), which includes a holistic massage incorporating hot river stones, seaweed, semiprecious stones, and floral scents to allow the guest to expand his or her breathing. An herb garden near the spa is the main source for body treatment ingredients, and each ingredient is selected just prior to being applied to the guest's body. "We carefully choose each one of the ingredients to be used in our treatments," says Buitron. "This is the base of our rituals, according to our ancestors." For facial treatments, Yon-Ka Paris products are used.

Refreshments are available to guests relaxing by the Plunge Pool at Esencia.
Refreshments are available to guests relaxing by the Plunge Pool at Esencia.

With 16 full-time and four part-time employees, Aroma Spa has the capacity to perform 90 services a day. According to Buitron, none of the services on the menu are hard to sell because they each offer such different experiences, but she is constantly searching for new ways to incorporate Mayan traditions throughout the spa menu. "Our biggest challenge has been to integrate ancestral healing techniques with modern methods of relaxation and well-being," says Buitron. "We use organic products as a way to incorporate the same elements that were used hundreds of years ago by Mesoamericans, which is what our guests want."—Nanci McArdle

Suggested Articles

For contemplation and mindfulness, The Mandarin Oriental is going silent for one night.

Spas are addressing mental wellbeing and brain health with revolutionary new treatments that address cognitive performance.

Fashion can be eco-friendly. See how Fashionizer Spa incorporates sustainable habits from production to delivery.