Yucatan Spa Route
In 1843, John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood published their book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan - Volume Two. This illustrated journal recounts their expedition along Yucatan's Puuc (pronounced "pook") Hills as they rediscovered the Maya cities of Labna, Sayil, Kabah and the magnificent Uxmal. Years later, other explorers, travel writers, and eventually, casual tourists would follow their trail in what has become known as the Puuc Route, or Ruta Puuc in Spanish.
Seizing on the success of this approach to tourism - a sort of "Hollywood Walk of Fame" for destinations in Yucatan - another route was eventually created, called the Convent Route. This itinerary connects several towns in central Yucatan, like Mani, Tecoh and Acanceh, that boast colonial-era churches.
During our first years living here, and after visiting many haciendas as photographers for a book, we decided to inaugurate our own version of this tradition: the Hacienda Route, and we have told many people and taken many of our own guests on various versions of this route.
Last month, we found ourselves unwittingly following a new route: the Yucatan Spa Route. All of a sudden, the Yucatan Peninsula has become a hot (both figuratively and literally) new spa destination. We were lucky enough to sample a few of the stops along this rather circuitous route that covers a lot of ground and winds its way throughout the entire Peninsula.
The Yucatan Spa Route really has no beginning and, apparently, no end. But since we live in Merida, for the sake of convenience, we'll begin our journey near The White City. Our first stop is Spa Xcanatun. It is located in a somewhat-secret part of Hacienda Xcanatun, 15 minutes north of Merida. We were instructed to go to the front desk, located in a part of the hacienda renovated from the original Casa Maquina. We hadn't been there more than five minutes when we were met by a spa representative who escorted us to a building beyond one of Xcanatun's two swimming pools. The spa is small but well-appointed. In preparation for our massage, we were led into a very nice changing room, where we were given terrycloth robes. There was also a steam shower where we could have rinsed off if we had wanted to.
Our masseuses were dressed in white uniforms and gave us Swedish-style massages. We had ordered the Maya Cleansing Massage, but we don't remember anything different about it from most other massages we've had. We do remember falling into a lovely trance, however, so it is perfectly possible that we missed something!
We could have chosen to have our massage in our room, if we were staying at the hotel, or under a palapa in the garden, which looks like a pleasant alternative. The walls of the massage room were a bit thin and we could occasionally hear other people walking around and talking. So perhaps we would have enjoyed the ambiance a bit more if we had selected one of the other locations. Working Gringa followed her massage with a pedicure, and while it was probably not up to the standards most North Americans or Europeans would expect, everything was done professionally and in a most relaxed manner. We emerged from the experience relaxed and refreshed.
Our massages cost only $540 pesos each and the pedicure was $170 pesos. Spa Xcanatun also offers hot stone massages, exfoliating treatments, facials, acupressure and a Romance couples massage, complete with incense, a perfumed bath and a cup of Xtabentun (honey liqueur made locally).
Our next stop a few days later was in the middle of the Peninsula, at Hacienda Chichen. Just walking the grounds of Hacienda Chichen is relaxing, but we were there to enjoy the first-hand experience of their Yaxkin Spa. There is much more to this hacienda than meets the eye, and Yaxkin Spa is just one of the surprises. The owners are dedicated to preserving the jungles and gardens that surround the hacienda, as well as supporting and preserving the Maya culture of the people who work on the hacienda and live nearby. One way they have chosen to do this is by creating an environment where the Maya can share some of their authentic culture with visitors to the hacienda.The spa is located in a small building in a quiet section of the grounds, surrounded by their beautiful gardens. But the services they offer are not simply massages or normal spa treatments. Beatriz, the spa director, and Belisa, the owner of Hacienda Chichen, have worked together to provide spa guests with Maya whole-body ritual treatments. These are treatments that soothe both the body and the soul. Beatriz's background and training as a Maya x'mem (a female h'men or healer) has given her the expertise to create a treatment based on the rituals the Maya have used for centuries.
We asked for a couples treatment, and stepping into the spa room together, it was easy to imagine we were a priest and priestess being prepared for an important ceremony. Or maybe we were gods, come down for the day from the heavens to enjoy our corporal existence.
We were given sarongs to change into and then called to stand together in front of a deep, stone bowl and a blessing was chanted in Mayan. The bowl was filled with clear cenote water that we were told had been carefully gathered and blessed for the occasion. At the bottom of the bowl were small rocks of different sizes, shapes and colors, which were imbued with special energy. We were instructed to rinse our hands in the cool water, swirling and mixing our energies with the crisp energy of the water, and then told to grasp a handful of rocks from the bottom. We were told that these stones were ours, and we put them aside to take home when we were finished. We were a little surprised by that, and a little embarrassed, as we had taken big handfuls of stones. But as we closed our eyes and took a few deep breaths, all of that was washed away with hand-held bunches of fresh herbs, picked that morning from the selva (jungle) and gently brushed and shaken all over our bodies from head to toe. This is a Mayan cleansing ritual that we have witnessed being performed by both Maya holy men and grandmothers alike.
Meditative music was playing as we lay down on the massage tables and the two women attending us covered us in oils and ointments that smelled delicious. With our eyes closed and our bodies relaxed, we were transported by the scents of chocolate and honey and earth. After our bodies were anointed, the women brought out fresh green hojas de santas (a type of leaf), picked fresh earlier that morning. These hojas are especially soft and when they were placed over the ointment on our skin, it felt like being hugged by the spirit of the selva. Or something like that. It was a new sensation, and a very pleasant one.
After awhile, the leaves were removed and our skin was washed with cool cenote water. The ladies gave us each a slow, energy massage with strokes that felt as if they were pushing our chi through our muscles and up into our heads. Warm stones were then laid on our backs and neck.
Eventually, we woke up... we had been under the Mayan sensual spell for a little over two hours and our minds were definitely in another state. We thanked our masseuses, took our colored stones and went back to our room where we fell into our hammocks like human puddles. Hmmmm, lovely!
The prices at Yaxkin Spa range from $65 to $250 US plus taxes and 15% tips. Services include massages, hair, facial, feet and hand treatments, a couples ritual, a ritual just for brides (Hacienda Chichen looks like a great place for a wedding!) and a Maya sacred cave sweat bath.
After a great night's sleep at Hacienda Chichen, waking up to the birds and taking a quick look around Chichen Itza before the crowds arrived, we moved on towards the coast. On our way, we stopped in the charming colonial town of Valladolid. Valladolid is changing and growing quickly, and we'll have more to say about it soon, but on this day we were there to find the Coqui Coqui Spa. We had heard about it, and were incredulous that a spa would be sprouting up in this out-of-the-way (or so we thought) town.
Coqui Coqui Day Spa actually has two locations, and we were lucky enough to visit both of them. The Valladolid location is on the Calle de Los Frailes, a diagonal street that starts a few blocks west of the main square and ends at the Convento de San Bernardino. Que preciosa esta calle!! (What a charming street!) This street is cobbled and narrow, flanked on both sides by lovely colonial buildings, most of which appear well cared for and some of which are renovated. There are private homes and businesses, and one of the businesses is Coqui Coqui Day Spa.
From front door to the back garden, the Coqui Coqui Spa in Valladolid was the most sophisticated spa environment we have seen here. Pale green and cream walls mix with dark chocolate brown furniture to create a sense of peace and elegance. Esoteric art books are stacked in the waiting room, and a huge framed mirror is propped up against one wall. The building is a renovated colonial, with lovely mosaico floors and high ceilings. In the front reception room, Coqui Coqui receives guests and sells their perfumes, made here in the Yucatan. The perfumes have names like Agave, Cacao and Minoi. They are made with natural essential oils and are bottled in classy square bottles: $600 pesos for the large bottles and worth every peso.
Coqui Coqui is run by a gentleman named Nicolas from Buenos Aires, who has set up a Coqui Coqui location in Valladolid and one on the beach in Tulum. The manager who showed us around the Valladolid location told us that Nicolas' sister, who lives in Buenos Aires, has been training local women as masseuses. She showed us where they were building two outdoor massage and bath areas, with tiled bathtubs sunken into the earth in the middle of the garden. She also showed us the very simple yet elegant massage room, this with a clawfoot bathtub. It was everything Working Gringa could do not to jump right in, turn on the water and stay. But alas, the Coqui Coqui Day Spa was not quite open yet and we had miles of Spa Route to follow.
After a rejuvenating lunch in Valladolid, we continued on to Tulum to spend a few days resting and relaxing in the sun and sea. As it turns out, we were staying in a new hotel next door to the Coqui Coqui Day Spa in Tulum. This one is right on the beach, with the massage room on the ground floor where the open doors invite the ocean breezes and the sounds of gently breaking Caribbean waves. We opted for the signature Coqui Coqui massage, as we're just koo-koo for the smell of coconut. This was a good solid massage, with a lovely smelling coconut oil. Afterwards, we wafted into the little gift shop next door and treated ourselves to one of those perfumes we'd been dreaming about since Valladolid and then drifted back to our hotel room.
Coqui Coqui's website says that massages cost $120 US but we remember paying $900 pesos at the Tulum location. They offer traditional massages, Reiki and Reflexology, as well as skincare and hair treatments, manicures and pedicures and botanical baths. The Coqui Coqui in Tulum also has a few rooms that did not seem unreasonably priced (for Tulum...) and were every bit as lovely as the spa.
There was one more stop on our mini-version of the Yucatan Spa Route: Maya Tulum. This destination has become something of an institution over the past few years, and was selected by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the top ten spas in the world. It is known as a destination for yoga retreats and quiet weeks on the beach. It occupies a perfect spot on Boca Paila, with several palapa rooms built on a sand spit surrounded by water on three sides. Maya Tulum has a vegetarian restaurant (for its guests) and world-renowned yoga teachers parade through Maya Tulum all year, teaching classes in one of their two spacious yoga rooms.
What many people don't know is that Maya Tulum also has world-class massages and in fact, they now call themselves Maya Tulum Wellness Retreat & Spa (and are owned by a US corporation, R&R Resorts, that specializes in wellness spas in beautiful locations).
The massage rooms are nothing more than little shacks built inland from the beach under the palm trees. But each room is individual, so when you are getting your massage, you are alone with your thoughts (and your masseuse, of course). Every time we've had a massage there, the masseuse has thoughtfully lit some incense, put on some quiet music and set up the appropriate towels, sheets, pillows, etc. to make the massage as stress-free and blissful as possible. Both of us have in the past had different kinds of massages there (Thai massage, reflexology, Swedish, etc.), and none have been anything less than wonderful. And one of them still qualifies as "the best we've ever had".
Maya Tulum's website says that massages now run from $80 to $100 US, depending on the duration and type of massage. We also see that they now offer Maya specialties, body treatments (like exfoliation) and facials.
Alas, our version of the Spa Route comes to an end here. Over the past two years or so, the number of spas on the Yucatan Peninsula has grown exponentially. We did a casual review of spa websites on the Mayan Riviera and counted over forty, before even looking at Cozumel, Isla Mujeres or anywhere south of Tulum. Every hotel worth its salt on the Maya Riviera now boasts a spa of one kind or another. There are beach spas, urban spas, jungle spas. We have yet to hear about a spa in a cenote, but we're sure it's just a matter of time. Like Stephens and Catherwood's Puuc Route, which accounted for only a fraction of the Maya cities in Yucatan, our Spa Route is just a peek into a whole new world here. We hope to continue our exploration, and if you have discovered a spa you particularly like here in the Yucatan, let us know!