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On the Riviera Maya, lost in a land of Nod

Along the Yucatan Peninsula's Caribbean coast, where ruins and beaches are the draw, a good nap is a good nap, whether in a hammock or a cushy king.

February 15, 2004|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

Playa del Carmen, Mexico — People say they come to the Riviera Maya on the Caribbean coast of Mexico for the beaches, reefs and ruins. What many really mean to do is snooze in hammocks, books collapsed on their chests. Never mind touring Maya archeological sites, snorkeling and scuba. On this 70-mile stretch of coast south of Cancun, there's world-class sleeping.

Of course, all beds and bedrooms aren't created equal, which is why I came to the Riviera Maya in November. I wanted to test their charms in three hotels. I started by spending two nights in a canvas "tentalapa" at Kailuum II, just north of Playa del Carmen, for $95 a night, including breakfast and dinner. Then I moved to Cabanas Ana y Jose, one of a string of funky little places south of the stunning Maya coastal ruins of Tulum, where I stayed for two nights in a $75 room. I finished my visit with a one-night splurge for $480 at Maroma Resort and Spa, one of the most luxurious enclaves on this coast.

In effect, four nights total at modest Kailuum II and Ana y Jose cost me $140 less than one night at Maroma. But sampling such diverse accommodations gave me a chance to reconsider a crucial question: Can a traveler be as happy in a tent on the beach as at a fancy resort? What are the real experiential differences -- including but not limited to sleeping -- between high- and low-end hotels?

It was a controlled experiment, in a sense, because the coastline south of Cancun is uniformly lovely, bordered by palm trees, pillowy sand, an ocean usually as benign as a bathtub and one of the world's longest reefs, stretching all the way to Honduras. I visited here 10 years ago and had seen the sights along Highway 307, which connects Cancun to the Mexico-Belize border, so I already knew that nature doled out its blessings evenly.

At Cancun International Airport, I rented a convertible VW bug. It had so many dents and deficiencies -- no seat belts, a nonfunctioning parking brake and big gaps between the canvas top and doors -- that I should have declined it. But darkness was coming, and I wanted to get to Kailuum II for dinner.

Fortunately, Highway 307 had been upgraded since my last visit to the Yucatan. It's well lighted and has four lanes all the way to Playa del Carmen, with plenty of Pemex gas stations for succor.

Even in the twilight I could tell things had changed since I'd last driven the road to Tulum. What is now called the Riviera Maya used to be where people went to get away from Cancun. Highway 307 is still bordered by the scrubby Yucatecan jungle, but this time I also saw gates to all-inclusive resorts with architecture that apes things as diverse as Maya temples and Versailles. The state of Quintana Roo hopes to build a new air terminal on the Riviera Maya, the number of hotel rooms in the area is expected to increase more than 20% in the next few years and Carnival Cruise Lines is negotiating construction of a port that could bring in 750,000 more tourists annually.

Once the slow lane

It was raining, and I overshot the exit for Kailuum II, ending up in the suburbs of Playa del Carmen, about 40 miles south of the Cancun airport. Playa del Carmen used to be a slow-lane Mexican village with little more than quesadillas and ferry service to Cozumel, but now it's bursting at the seams, all fast food, factories and sprawl.

Kailuum II shares an entrance with La Posada del Capitan Lafitte, the tent enclave's more traditional sister resort next door. From the front gate, a bumpy, unpaved road heads east about a mile through the low, buggy jungle, finally arriving at Lafitte, a pleasant complex of one- and two-story casitas with a swimming pool, favored by families.

With a little help from a Lafitte staff member, I found my way to Kailuum II, where there's no electricity and the reception desk is in a palapa hut. The clerk welcomed me with the news that dinner featured pina coladas as the drink of the day in the honor bar, Kailuum II's special coconut-fried shrimp and chocolate cake for dessert.

When the original Kailuum opened in 1979, no one thought to bill it as an eco-resort, because the concept of rustic, environmentally conscious getaways didn't exist just yet. The gently-go-native ambience and low rates, which included bed and board, appealed to contrarians who couldn't see the charms of Cancun's pricey, high-rise concrete blocks.

A string of vicious hurricanes and lethal yellowing disease, which struck the area's regal palms, forced Kailuum to close. Happily, Kailuum II, which opened in 1999, is like its predecessor, a collection of tidy canvas tents -- at 10 by 14 feet, as big as some hotel rooms -- scattered across a lovely and still largely undeveloped stretch of beach.

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