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.
Don Diego de la Selva
Two-and-a-half miles from the beach, a few blocks south of the town of Tulum, and a short way down an unpaved road, is an unexpected enclave. Opened in 2005, Don Diego de la Selva is owned by Charles Galligani and Stephane Palmieri, life partners who decided, after Stephane's 40th birthday, to leave their native France for the Yucatán. They built their guesthouse with eight rooms; two larger palapas were added in December. In terms of design, they're somewhere between minimal and just plain plain (few decorative touches, no TV, no minibar, no clock radio); yet each room gets plenty of light, six of the 10 rooms have air-conditioning, and all have ceiling fans. The hotel's amenities, including a pretty, blue-tiled pool set among papaya and banana trees, are complemented by the sophisticated dinner-party atmosphere created by Charles and Stephane, who are warm and inclusive hosts. Dinner is a communal affair, and whether it's French or Mexican or something else varies with the chef's mood. One of the best reasons to stay at Don Diego de la Selva is the hotel's proximity to the shops and restaurants in town, since that affords the opportunity to interact with locals. As Stephane says, "If you spend all of your time at the beach, you miss one of Mexico's most beautiful resources: its people." 011-52/1-984-114-9744, dtulum.com, from $65, includes breakfast.
Amansala's Casa Magna
In the mid-1970s, at the southern end of Tulum, Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar built one 14,000-square-foot house for himself and one (rumor has it) for the then-future Mexican president Carlos Salinas. The buildings were abandoned after Escobar died in 1993, and nature--in the form of hurricanes and vegetation--began to reclaim them. They caught the eye of Melissa Perlman, one of the owners of the Amansala resort up the beach. "I would pass the houses daily on my morning walks and finally just started investigating," she says. "It seemed a shame to have the dark, eroding villas on this bright, beautiful beach." One can only guess what Escobar would think of Casa Magna now. A generous amount of concrete was used in the construction of the houses, which gives them a hint of a bunker flavor. Perlman offset that by using vibrant orange and pink fabrics in the chic lounging areas. The 20 guest rooms are enormous and sparsely furnished: Beds are draped with mosquito netting, padded concrete banquettes are softened with colorful throw pillows, and decorative mosaics liven up the bathrooms. Many Casa Magna guests choose to participate in the Bikini Boot Camp program, a combination of exercise, yoga, and massage that became popular at the original Amansala property. It's no surprise then that the restaurant emphasizes healthy choices such as grilled fish and fresh fruit. Though Casa Magna has been given a new life, history still hangs in the air. Eddie Yee, who works at both hotels, is always happy to point out the site of the former swimming pool (it has over time filled with sand and vegetation) and the entrance to a secret tunnel that used to connect the houses. Asked if he thinks there are bodies buried here, Yee replies with a laugh, "I'm sure there are." 011-52/1-984-100-0805, amansala.com, from $185.
Shambala Petit Hotel
Embrace simplicity, counseled the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu, and that idea is at the heart of the Shambala Petit Hotel, a no-frills yet bewitching spot at the southern end of Tulum. The philosopher most in evidence here, however, is Buddha, who is quoted on a sign hanging on the hotel's outside wall. The quote ends with WE MAKE THE WORLD, and that peaceful, world-unto-itself beauty of the Shambala helps it stand out from the string of touristy hotels along the coastline. There is the warm welcome by owner Roberto Hernandez; the carefully maintained beach, with its impossibly soft, white sand; and the small, delightful details such as the tassels and mother-of-pearl ornaments hanging from the white beach umbrellas, and the splashes of orange in the form of throw pillows, beach towels, and pole-mounted flags throughout the property. When people imagine a thatched-roof, swinging-hammock, beach-bum vacation in Tulum, this is the place they dream of, whether they know it or not. The Zen simplicity extends to the casitas, meaning guests get a bed and a ceiling fan, and not much else. The casitas are not decorated at all, but even the world's greatest interior designer couldn't compete with what's right outside the doors. Eight of the ten rooms have private baths, lit only by candlelight. Breakfast is included in the room price; there are numerous restaurants for lunch and dinner within walking distance. Shambala offers yoga classes, meditation classes, and Spanish lessons for those who can drag themselves from one of the comfortable beach mattresses. Tulum doesn't have the nightlife of Playa del Carmen or Cancun, but for those who linger on the beach past sunset to the time when stars appear overhead, embracing simplicity seems like the best advice in the world. 011-52/1-984-807-3894, shambalapetithotel.com, from $110 (with private bath), includes breakfast.