Secret Hotels of the Riviera Maya
South of Cancun, we found 8 hideaways--from simple casitas on the beach to a villa once owned by a drug kingpin--to suit every mood.
Hotel Tierra Maya
"We weren't looking to move, but I began dreaming about this place. One night, I asked my husband, 'Honey, could you live the rest of your life in the Caribbean?' He replied, 'Is a four-pound robin fat?' " And that, roughly speaking, is how Kim and David Calkins began their journey from 20 years of innkeeping in Texas to running the Hotel Tierra Maya outside Xcalak (pronounced shka-lak) at the southern tip of Costa Maya. A six-hour drive from Cancun, Xcalak has remained virtually untouched by the booming development further north. Along the town's main drag, there's a restaurant and a small grocery store with a pay phone, but no banks or ATMs. Kim and David bought their place two years ago, inheriting a loyal group of guests who return year after year for the excellent fly-fishing, diving, and snorkeling in the area. The Calkins weren't about to change a winning formula. They made some improvements (doubling the restaurant to 40 seats to accommodate visitors from nearby resorts, replacing all the mattresses, etc.), but otherwise, the six rooms are the same, simply done with sunny yellow walls, terra-cotta-tile floors, ceiling fans, and balconies that overlook the Caribbean. The Calkins loan out bikes and kayaks at no charge, sell snorkel gear, and will happily arrange guided fishing trips. (A four-hour excursion costs $160 for two and includes a boat, guide, bait, tackle, and refreshments.) But Tierra Maya is also ideally situated for anyone who just wants to lie low. It's stocked with a supply of well-worn paperbacks and old copies of National Geographic, which guests can thumb through while loung-ing on chairs scattered around the lawn or on the thin band of beach just beyond the grass. As Kim says, "A lot of people don't want to be in the corridor," meaning the popular and sometimes crowded stretch from Cancun to Tulum. "Even when we're full, it's real quiet here." 800/216-1902, tierramaya.net, from $80, includes breakfast.
Balamku Inn on the Beach
The rough-hewn fishing village of Mahahual has a split personality: Beach bars buzz with activity when a cruise ship is docked in the small port, but otherwise, its sandy streets are quiet and tourist-free. While kayaking the short distance from Balamku to a nearby reef for an afternoon of snorkeling, consider the vagaries of life: You wouldn't be here now if, in 2000, a road-tripping Canadian couple hadn't missed the exit for Punta Allen. That's how Alan Knight and Carol Tumber ended up in Mahahual for the night. (Alan thought it might be pronounced "ma-ha-ha.") The next morning, they met someone with beachfront land for sale and made an offer on the spot, despite the fact that they'd only been dating for about a year. Balamku opened in 2003, and Carol calls it "a small, totally ecological retreat," pointing out that even the soaps and shampoos are biodegradable. There are two individual whitewashed palapas and a trio of two-story palapas (with a suite on each floor) for a total of eight rooms. They're all decorated with Mexican artwork--paintings, sculptures, and masks--and most have wireless Internet access. A breakfast of fruit, eggs, pancakes, and Chiapas coffee is served in the bright dining room. The hotel doesn't do dinners, but two restaurants highly recommended by Alan and Carol are less than a five-minute walk away. 011-52/1-983-839-5332, balamku.com, from $75, includes breakfast.
SIAN KA'AN BIOSPHERE
Driving down a dirt road in the 1.3-million-acre nature reserve called Sian Ka'an, visitors might not understand why the park has a Mayan name that means "where the sky is born." The thickly wooded biosphere is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and home to over 300 bird species, 100 types of mammals, and nearly two dozen archaeological sites. Among sea grape plants, geiger trees, and coconut palms, CESiaK (short for Centro Ecológico de Sian Ka'an) is on the high point of a narrow strip of land. After guests climb to the tiny crow's-nest level of the main building and look out over the vast expanse of Caribbean to the east, the Campechen Lagoon to the west, and the biosphere to the south, with a great swath of sky overhead, the name Sian Ka'an finally makes sense. Rooms at CESiaK are rustic--really no more than large tents, with screened windows, set on raised wooden platforms. Each has a porch (hammock included) with views of either the sea or the lagoon. The rooms aren't wired for electricity, but they are equipped with candles and battery-powered hurricane lamps. Shared bathrooms are next to the main building, where Mexican meals are served in a cheerful dining room. But the most comfortable spot is the main building's terrace, where guests can look out over the beach and admire the stealth-fighter cormorants and the more lumbering, cargo-plane pelicans on their takeoffs and landings. Though that's entertainment enough for many, other daytime activities can be arranged through the hotel--everything from fly-fishing in the reserve's saltwater lagoons to kayaking and bird-watching tours. 011-52/984-871-2499, cesiak.org, from $70.