Mary Heebner
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"Rhapsody in Maya Blue"

Carribean Travel & Life
v.19 no.3, April 2004
2006: Awarded the Silver Quill-Pluma de Plata by the Mexico Tourism Board

see also Mary's Isla Negra Series
see the book On the Blue Shore of Silence
see the Cenote series
Maya blue. If not for that particular hue, I might not have wed the man of my dreams. Years ago, my future husband Macduff, an ardent romantic who claims he'd been pursuing me for 15 years, visited my painting studio and showed me a photograph he'd taken of a Maya ruin overlooking the Caribbean at Tulum. Incredulous that such a color even existed, I blurted, "Take me there!" Stunned and delighted, he did just that.

Another 15 years later, flying over the easternmost tip of the Yucatan peninsula, in the state of Quintana Roo, I again found myself gazing down at a cuff of pure sandy white extending for miles, unraveling like skeins of cotton thread over a globe of blown blue glass. Macduff and I had come to revisit what for us was still one of the world's most romantic places. On this stretch of coast, dubbed the "Riviera Maya," the Cancún tourist boom has spread southward, but with more care taken to ensure that development doesn't overwhelm environment.

Highway 307 runs from Cancún to Chetumal, then beyond into Belize - you can cover the 82-mile Riviera Maya segment (Cancun to Tulum) in around two hours. The clutter of billboards, gas stations, dive shops, cybercafés, mechanics, and real-estate agency signs along the road are the honky-tonk glue supporting this Riviera's pocket paradises. But take any turn seaward (found by kilometer marker plus instructions along the lines of, "a few meters beyond the billboard for Coke, head down a dirt path and drive for three kilometers") and enter a world apart. It's this world we decided to explore, of small boutique oases where quality and sense of place are the watchwords.

Paraíso de la Bonita: Worldly Roots, Maya Charm

The dream of Mexican architect Carlos Gosselin Maurel, built in 2001 for his wife Elisa as an homage to their travels together, this elegant beachfront compound derives its charm from its intimate Yucatecan flavor, though all the 90 suites are named for places they've visited (Biblos, Dakar, Sicily, Bali) and decorated with souvenirs thereof. The eclectic result reminded us of the villa of a refined, well-heeled traveler. The most manicured of the four resorts we visited, its thick russet walls and archways stylistically blend the Moorish Spain of old with its descendant, "Nueva España." Defined as a place where water flows, the garden was the wellspring of the Moors' architecture, and Paraíso is alive with the sound of water--in fountains, ponds with fat, nipping koi, dipping pools en suite, one curvaceous swimming pool, plus another brimming with seawater.

The Gosselins recognized the crystal clear salt water at their toes as a natural treasure, and their 22,000-square-foot thalassic (seawater) spa became the first certified spa in North America to introduce thermal seawater baths and therapy. I knew from experience that the key to a truly relaxing treatment was the assurance of being in skilled hands, and I found the staff here a dream indeed. The Paraíso's other star is La Canoa and two other dining rooms. Cued by the owners' passion for travel, Avignon-born executive chef Fabrice Guisset has created an international palette spiced with the unique flavors of Mexico. Guests are welcome to visit the immaculate kitchen, and we were privileged to witness the unveiling of the new season's menu. Surrounded by a nervous staff, Fabrice tasted a delicate consommé with wild mushrooms, rejected another dish as lacking body, fiddled with the dried-fruit couscous with Puk-Choc onions, added a touch of fresh foie gras to a tender filet of beef. We sampled a green sauce that tasted like spicy pippin apples, and Fabrice confessed with a grin that it was his own invention of chilled tomatillo, avocado and sweet chile, for anointing a dessert of poached pears and strawberries.

After a walk on the beach and swim, we eagerly returned for dinner on the
terrace, where a pair of musicians serenaded us with guitars and bittersweet love songs that transported us to the time we first came to the Yucatán and fell so inescapably in love. As we delectated, the sky lit up like a flickering lightening bug. By the time we were in bed, beneath crisp linen sheets, a tropical rain pounded outside our window.

El Hotel Deseo & Playa del Carmen: Right In the Hip of It All

The next day, some 20 miles south of Paraíso de la Bonita, the town of Playa del Carmen took me by surprise. I have a long-ago memory of toes burrowing in warm sand, frosty drinks in hand, beach aglow in sunset pinks, as we dined al fresco in a snoozy fishing village. To my bewilderment it had grown into a booming city of over 80,000--yet gratifyingly was still holding onto its laid back, highrise-free, beach-town ambience. We walked down to the strand, where boat owners were busy trolling for tourists, beach boys tossed out Coronas, and thatch palapas sprouted like mushrooms after a rain.

Nearby we navigated a street jammed with gringos shopping for "authentic"
Maya beaded necklaces, rugs, even tattoos. Yet despite the hype used to sell tourist-trappings from incredibly bad kitsch to "spiritual-shaman massages,"there are the honest-to-goodness Maya (today some 2 million strong) who've peopled this peninsula for more than three millenia. They've seen much change in the three decades since Cancún was created, and many have become part of the boom, leaving home to seek work as maids and workers in tourism and construction.


Though many used to return to their villages when they could to tend their milpa (cornfields), reconnect with kin, and swap gossip and stories, most ended up abandoning the village way of life; now, many still keep their language and religious traditions vibrantly alive in private and attend their villages' fiestas maybe once a year, but otherwise have adapted to the pace of the barrios along the coastal corridor. Yet if you look into the faces of today's cooks, waiters, and chambermaids, you can still see the portraits emblazoned in stone at Chichén Itzá, Tulum and Cobá.

When we climbed the limestone-tile stairs to our hotel, El Deseo, we learned why we were told it was the hip place to chill out in downtown Playa: we were met by a sleek lounge ringed with a double tier of 15 guest rooms--think ryokan meets beach club, a stage set built for wishes as wispy as gauze to come and then to go. Décor is minimalist-mod, in crisp bedsheet white and cool Maya blue--powder-blue lounge beds with white translucent canopies like children's tented hideaways; the enigmatic stencil "AWAY FROM YOU" resting like a love letter at the bottom of a blue pool; even the house cocktail, the "Martini Azul." Imagine staying up all night and having your own private changing room, just off the floor of a hot nightclub complete with DJ. Ambient-techno music flows from speakers inside and out, day and night, and although we aren't fans of any sort of techno, we found it a continuous undertow that worked on you - gradually pulling me out of my street clothes and into a claw-foot bathtub, then into a sea-blue sarong (one of the gifts clothespinned along a slender cord in our room), and finally emerging onto the bar deck, where finger food and a rainbow of libations flowed along with the music, courtesy of a young Argentine bartender with putti curls crowning a devilishly innocent face.

The debonair manager, Alejandro Rueda, recommended a small Italian trattoria, Casa Mediterranea. Thus it was we found ourselves among tables of chattering Italians as we feasted on an enormous platter of frutti di mare, vino rosso, then espresso, all served by a charming Neapolitan signorina - at we could've been in Positano, not Playacar. Lounging postprandially by the pool, we chatted against a backdrop of candy-pink lighting and black-and-white Mexican film classics silently projected on a screen-size wall, the din of the pedestrian streets below masked by cutting-edge mood music.

Maroma Resort & Spa: Romance, Luxury, Ecology

After a brisk morning walk and freshly squeezed orange juice at Mamita's Beach Club, we headed north to the Riviera Maya's grande dame (at the ripe old age of 28). Another hideaway of amorous origin, Maroma is the vision of Mexican architect José Moreno: to build a home and inn with his future wife, Sally Shaw, who in 1976 was fleeing a Chicago winter, never to look back. On a 500-acre coconut plantation, they began with a small thatched cottage and a table seating ten friends. Like an enduring love, their dream weathered blows including a malady that wiped out the coconuts and a hurricane that blew away the cottage. Yet in 1995, after seven years of rebuilding (and on Valentine's Day, no less), a small jewel of a hostelry arose, José and Sally's "protest against mediocrity," intent on preserving the rich local flora and fauna. Even while growing into a resort of 50 rooms and a spa, it's kept its human, harmonious proportions, incorporating bamboo and limestone chock full of fossils, its thickly stuccoed walls and xit thatching bringing to mind a gleaming white village at the edge of one of Mexico's finest beaches.

Effervescent staffer Heda Chehda greeted us if we were her own personal guests, with a welcoming smile and frosty margaritas. We climbed a spiral staircase to the Mirador, a virtual Santorini of white curves and domes overlooking a vista of blue, then after an exquisite feast upon the likes of grilled lobster in jalapeño-saffron cream again stole away to what we now called "the kissing tower" to watch a million stars dissolve as the moon rose overhead. At dawn the next day we walked the beach, dunes, and a patch of jungle with Maroma's resident naturalist, Ramón Acunyo, who pointed out and explained the ecologically vital sea grasses and mangroves; fauna from warbling
Altamira orioles to coatimundis foraging for insects amid the mulch; and the chí chen tree, a relative of both cashew and poison ivy, oozing a sinister black slime that's untouchably toxic (nearby, fortunately, grows the antidote, the cha 'ka--also called the "tourist tree" as its bark is red and always peeling). We passed chicle and zapote trees, termite nests, beehives--a veritable pharmacopoeia of life that has supported millions of Maya for thousands of years. And it was here, from Ramón, that I finally learned the origin of "Maya blue." On the offshore barrier reef-the second largest in the world-tiny blue-green calcareous algae carry calcium carbonate (aka limestone). When the algae die they leaves a fossil "skeleton" which crumbles along with the reef coral to create the softest, powderiest sand imaginable; then sunlight through the water absorbs all colors except that magical turquoise that first lured me here. To me it seems no less mysterious or romantic.

More than merely luxe, Maroma is highly congenial, with guests returning year after year and comfy patios conducive to striking up conversation. One of our new friends might have been a baroness or a starlet, another a senator or a world-famous diva--but here no one acted like anything other than just a bunch of friendly folks basking at the edge of the jungle beneath a palm-fringed sky.

Ikal de Mar: Poetry in Ocean

We ended our Yucatan idyll with a poem and a song of the sea, at a secluded compound near the village of Xcalacoco ("ikal" is a rendering of n'kai, Maya for song). Our arrival was serendaded by birds down a meandering path lined with stones, tropical trees, and a riot of blooms--past a gentle waterfall, a small cenote, across a curved bridge. A side trail led to our Villa Neruda - named, as are all 29 villas, for a famous poet. "I need the sea because it teaches me," wrote Chilean Nobelist Pablo Neruda; I can think of few poets as romantic, and his spirit suffuses Ikal del Mar, which though compact casts the illusion of being lost in a vast botanic wonderland
leading to a wild, open sea.

That afternoon while Macduff was off taking pictures, I lay face up on a platform at the edge of the beach following my 90-minute "Maya Crepuscular Massage." Eyes closed, I might have been a pink conch snug in her shell, the sea whooshing around me, as my masseur Juan snugly wrapped my mud-slathered body in a warm, soft towel. Drifting on this side of sleep, loathe to rouse myself, I finally sat up like a disheveled ghost, and scurried down the path to the spa, wrapped waif-like in my muddied towel, hoping I wouldn't get lost. At the bridge, a spa staffer greeted me with fresh towels and opened the door to a divine steam bath.

Later in the room, I wondered whither my husband. The phone rang-and it was he, asking me to meet him down at the beach. I went, and spied four flaming torches, and a gauze tent just large enough to shelter a table set for two on the sand, with crisp linens, candles, lobster ceviche, and a full-bodied Monte Xanic Cabernet--all attended by our personal waiter. There, too, was my prince, beaming at having completely blown my mind. In the distance beyond, the highrises of Cozumel and the passing ships seemed like a twinkling mirage. "I am spoiled to tears," I thought.

Hours later, I stared up at a starburst of zapote beams above our head, hung with white netting, as Macduff read me aloud the poem left on our turned-down bed--a different poet each night. It sounded like something about the color blue, and love--and I drifted into delicious sleep.


Copyright © Mary Heebner 2004