The Spirit of Mayakoba
The Spirit of Mayakoba
From honeybees to whale sharks to grasshopper gorditas, experiencing the Riviera Maya means letting nature take the lead.
By Joanna Fox
Photo by Dominique Lafond
Honeybees swarm around the crowd in dizzying numbers, but no one looks worried. They’re quite small, about the size of a common housefly. One disappears up my sleeve and I laugh.
Normally, opening a hive surrounded by unprotected onlookers would be a terrible idea. But this is not your average apiary. We are on the Riviera Maya in Mexico, home to endangered melipona bees, famous for their exceptional honey and the fact that they don’t sting.
A local Mayan biologist has just pried open one end of the hive, fashioned from a hollowed-out log and sealed with a plug of round wood and beeswax. Inside, paper-thin pods form a natural barrier, each honey-filled balloon pressed up against the next. The presentation in a sheltered garden at the Fairmont Mayakoba resort’s Willow Stream Spa comes on the heels of a honey-collecting ceremony performed by a member of the nearby Chunhuhub Mayan community. The melipona bee is sacred to the Mayans. Its pollen and honey have been used for thousands of years as medicine to treat everything from cataracts to skin infections and even infertility.
“We have the melipona beehives here because we want everyone to know that these bees are endangered,” explains spa director Roselia Flanders. “These bees can only fly five kilometers, so if we cut down the jungle and they can’t find flowers, they will die. We want to create a consciousness about the bees and about the Mayan people.”
The hives are just one of the many projects undertaken by Fairmont Mayakoba with the aim of preserving local cultural traditions and the natural environment. The initiatives have set the resort apart in the Mayan Riviera and earned it several accolades, including recognition as a Rainforest Alliance Verified hotel, but the commitment to the natural world is best observed at ground – or canal – level.
Located within 240 acres of tropical forest intersected by trails, meandering waterways, mangrove trees and beach dunes, Fairmont Mayakoba feels as much like a sprawling, private nature reserve as a luxury resort. Mayakoba means “village over water” in Maya, and the property sits on one of the largest underground rivers in the world. These cenotes, or subterranean caves, are revered by the Mayans. They release fresh springwater into Mayakoba’s seven miles of canals, creating a brackish habitat where fresh and salt water meet.
I get a firsthand look at the property’s five ecosystems from the canopied backseat of a lancha boat as it winds its way through a network of canals.
“Once you’re in Mayakoba, you respect the rules,” explains my guide, Francisco, as we glide silently along. “No fishing, no diving and no feeding the animals.” I look out at the protected mangrove forest (a natural barrier against hurricanes), the mangled trunks twisting their way out of the water and up the banks, and search for signs of some 300 species, including fish, turtles, birds, crabs, iguanas and crocodiles. Francisco helpfully points them out as we pass: a group of tiny turtles clambering onto a nearby rock, a cormorant stretched out on the limestone bank. As a school of fish swims alongside the boat, I get ready for the next day’s animal encounter.
Bright and early the next morning, I meet Alonso Ortiz in the hotel lobby and he quickly ushers me into an awaiting van for the drive to nearby Cancun. Ortiz can’t contain his excitement: We’re going to swim with whale sharks. He’s Fairmont Mayakoba’s ecology and corporate social responsibility (CSR) manager, overseeing all of the property’s environmental and social initiatives, from recycling and coral reef programs (see p. 76) to working with the local communities and villages.
Our excursion today is only possible at certain times of year, when the whale sharks migrate to warmer waters. “It’s something very unique to this area. Whale sharks are the biggest fish in [the world], averaging 12 meters long,” Ortiz says. He can see the idea of swimming with something so large frightens me (despite my bravery in the face of bees), so he assures me they feed on plankton. “Don’t be worried, they’re really friendly. They swim very slowly and they’re just looking for food. We’re way too big for them anyway!”
Once in Cancun, we board a small boat with our guide, Sebastian, and head out into the expanse. Things move slowly at first, until somebody suddenly spots the sharks. The boat pulls ahead of them as we hurry to strap on our flippers and snorkel gear. Sebastian tells me it’s illegal to touch them, but, if I swim close enough to their dorsal fins, I will be swept up in their wake and can glide along behind. As he pushes us into the cerulean abyss, my fear dissolves into complete wonder as this enormous creature emerges, its skin a dark shade of gray with glowing yellow spots and stripes. We swim along together, my shoulder two inches from its side. On the boat ride back to shore, Ortiz and I smile at each other, exhilarated and speechless.
“I’m a really bad Mexican. I don’t drink tequila and I don’t dance!” says Daniela Daniel, as we sit down later that evening at La Laguna, one of the hotel’s four restaurants. Daniel is the public relations manager and she’s joined me for another rare (up until now) treat – a beer tasting. “This is an experience for our guests to try a handcrafted beer from a small company representing Mexico, with ingredients from Mexico,” she says.
The Calavera microbrewery is based in Mexico City, and their award-winning beers range from Witbier, a light, Belgian-style wheat beer flavored with coriander seed, to a dark imperial stout made with chilies. Each beer is paired with a perfect bite of food – grouper ceviche, prosciutto with brie, a smoked blue marlin tostada – and it’s a refreshing reminder that there’s a lot more to drinking culture in Mexico than margaritas.
After sampling four beers, I have enough liquid courage to tackle the next tasting: insects. Although Daniel recounts fond childhood memories of buying bags of dried grasshoppers on the streets of Mexico City and snacking on them like a bag of chips, I’m slightly wary. When our insect degustation arrives, it’s plated beautifully: a mini blue corn gordita is overflowing with dried grasshoppers, ant eggs are folded into a tiny taco, and the maguey worms (the ones you find at the bottom of a mescal bottle) are fried with garlic and served with a creamy jalapeño sauce. “I never thought I would say this,” I tell Daniel, between bites, “but I definitely recommend the ant eggs.”
On my last day at Mayakoba, I’m invited back to the Willow Stream Spa to experience the Honey in the Heart treatment. The name comes from a Mayan blessing: “All good things. No evil. Honey in the heart. Thirteen thank-yous.” It’s designed not only for relaxation, but to teach guests about the melipona beehives and other nature programs. After being covered with honey and wrapped up, rinsed and massaged, I’m given a cup of the coveted light gold liquid. The taste is delicate, floral and slightly tropical – like all honey, it’s a reflection of the surrounding environment. The Mayans say honey reminds us of the sweetness in life. As I look over the breathtaking Mayakoba expanse from the rooftop deck of the spa, this small sip is also a reminder of the importance of preserving it.
Fairmont Mayakoba is situated within 240 acres of lush, tropical forest intersected by crystal-clear waterways, nature paths and a stunning oceanfront. Its sprawling design means tranquility is paramount, with 401 rooms featuring both beachfront and lagoon casitas. Set apart from the hotel, Fairmont Heritage Place, Mayakoba, offers fully furnished three- and four-bedroom luxury residences for sale.
Through a brand-new Fairmont partnership with world-renowned chef and restaurateur Richard Sandoval, El Puerto, Brisas, La Laguna and the Lobby Lounge area have been redesigned to introduce four completely new culinary experiences. From Latin fusion to contemporary Mexican cuisine, Sandoval aims to create memorable meals that are as appealing and diverse as the hotel itself.
Home to Mexico’s PGA Tour, El Camaleón boasts an impressive 18-hole, par-72 golf course that ranges from spectacular seaside greens to mangrove-lined fairways. Solo Buceo is one of Cancun’s most trusted outfits for snorkeling and diving, offering tailor-made excursions and friendly, experienced guides.