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Exploring the Mayan Riviera

The barefoot luxury lifestyle of Tulum and Isla Holbox in Mexico is now more accessible than ever

Filled with underwater caves, ancient ruins, wild jungle and coral reefs, the majestic Mayan Riviera has seen an explosion over the past 10 years, with tourists in their hordes venturing down to the likes of Playa Del Carmen.

As the dust has settled, a new breed of holiday towns has emerged. In contrast to the mega resorts of neighbouring Cancún, the places to stay, eat and shop in places such as Tulum and Isla Holbox are mostly boutique, eco-friendly and laid-back. To match their easy-going atmosphere, bikes with baskets and drop handlebars have replaced cars, margaritas come in all shapes, sizes and flavours and shops offer dreamy attire, perfect for the relaxed life that comes as part and parcel.

With more than 400km of white sandy beaches hugging the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, it’s easy to understand why Emirates is launching a direct flight to Mexico City, giving the UAE easy access to some of the world’s best diving and snorkelling sites as well as a breathtaking landscape complemented by unique Mayan culture and food and an abundance of beautiful hotels.

Flagged by the famous Mayan ruins and surrounded by beautiful cenotes, the small town of Tulum, less than two hours from Cancún International Airport, has quickly become known for its uber-trendy hotels, fantastic food and excellent shopping. With a single road running from one side to the other, navigating the central district is easy and mostly cruised by bike. The food scene offers fancy options such as Hartwood and Ocumare, as well as fantastic mid-range eateries that offer the same stylish setting, such as Bal Nak and Loco. Beach clubs are in abundance — those looking for a great night out can head to Papaya Playa Project, renowned for hosting some of the world’s best DJs, while the casual cats can consider Nomade or The Real Coconut, where you can while away the afternoon with a cool cocktail and a good read.

If you’re checking into any hotel in Tulum, the reception will most probably consist of a hammock and the bar stools will probably be swings. Papaya Playa Project — a pop-up hotel that decided to stay popped-up — 100% ticks this box.

Spread out over a 900m stretch of Caribbean coast, it possesses a rustic charm, and despite the fact that the indoors sometimes feels like outdoors, the natural, barefoot-luxury approach will have you feeling at home in no time. Renovated by the talented team at Design Hotels, the 85 cabanas and casitas have all been ecologically built with local materials including palapa roofing, wood and plaster walls accompanied by bamboo shutters.

Our favourite abode, The Casas Palapa, placed on the far north of the property, comes with a grand suite on top and a two-bedroom suite and double room below. A lounge with a Jacuzzi, a vast sun terrace, a fully equipped kitchen and a generous 20-person dining table with plenty of surrounding lounge space ensure that you never have to leave.

That being said, the 250sqm Casa Madera is the king of the entire estate, emerging from dense natural greenery to stand on high rocks overlooking the Caribbean Sea.

Another innovative attraction is the activities and art on offer at Papaya Playa Project — all communal areas encourage creative collaboration, and there’s even an amphitheatre on the beach where guests can come together to perform, present or communicate anything they want. There is also yoga, tai chi, massages and mediation to complete the holistic circle.

Once you’ve immersed yourself in jungle, sun and shopping its time to head to the paradise land of Isla Holbox. Located in the North of Yucatan Peninsula, Holbox is part of the Yum Balam Ecological Reserve, surrounded by a lagoon of crystal-clear water and hard sand beaches. Home to flamingos, pelicans, exotic birds, whale sharks and many colourful fish, this island has stood-still over time — dirt roads exist where tarmac normally would and in lieu of vehicles it boasts a mix of club cars and bicycles.

The tiny town makes up a small percentage of the island, flooded with casual cafés and beachside restaurants, small boutiques and tour operators that entice with their numerous sea-born activities. There is so much to see and explore from this tiny isle, from water sports including kitesurfing, kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding to snorkelling, fishing and swimming with sharks — life on Holbox is never boring. There are also horse-riding excursions available, as well as day trips to uninhabited parts of the island such as Punta Coco, Isla Pasion, Coba Catoche (famous for its snorkelling) and Punta Mosquitos.

When it comes to finding somewhere to crash, Casa Cat Ba is our home of choice. Placed smack-bang on the beach, the private five-bedroom hideaway is an exclusive and authentic intimate Mayan-style villa, redesigned with local materials and natural colours in a Wabi-Sabi style. The design of the hotel is elegant, yet minimalist featuring vintage furniture, local handcrafts and worldwide artwork giving the place a home-away-from-home feel. Drinks are served throughout the day from the bar, either by Rosa, the fantastic go-to-person on the property or the owner Colette, who usually serves from 6pm onwards, accompanied by yummy snacks such as homemade ceviche and guacamole.

One of the best things about this cosy abode is the fact that each room has its own private balcony facing the ocean, offering uninterrupted sunset views. Rooms also feature Yucatan Senses amenities and luxury bathrobes. The crème de la crème, the Palapa Suite, is a third-floor penthouse that offers unrivalled views over the clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Why isn’t Mexico at the top of your bucket list yet?

visitmexico.com

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