Just Back From

Riviera Maya Report: Hotel Openings, Top Hotel Updates, New Direct Flights, Shopping & More

Indagare senior director Jen Barr is just back from a scouting trip to the sun-kissed shores of Mexico’s Riviera Maya, where she checked out several new hotels, explored Maya ruins and more. 

When I last visited the Riviera Maya for a quick getaway to Maroma, A Belmond Hotel with my husband, my oldest child was 12. She’s 23 now, so you could say I was long overdue for a return visit (this time, she came along with me). And I was curious to experience this particular hotel again after its recent refresh and to check out a few of the other new luxury properties that have opened in the past two years on the eastern shore of the Yucatán Peninsula. Here are a few takeaways from the trip.

Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer for assistance planning a trip to Mexico. Our team can match you with the hotels that are right for you, as well as advise on all our favorite activities and must-see sites.

What’s New: Hotels

Etéreo, Auberge Resorts Collection

Our first stop was Auberge’s Etéreo, one of the three resorts to open since late 2021 in the Kanai complex above Playa del Carmen. (More on St. Regis Kanai, below, although sadly, we were not able to see the new Edition, which opened after we returned home.)

From its name, Kanai sounds a bit like a long-lost Hawaiian island. But in Mayan, it loosely translates to where the sky is born or house in the sky, and is considered the Maya people’s celestial birthplace—and now this development long-in-the-making, just 45 minutes from Cancún airport (and 20 minutes south of Maroma) is a kind of heaven on earth for Mexican luxury resorts, Marriott-style. The gated tropical paradise is home to a trio of new properties spread across more than 1,200 acres of lush mangroves, next to the Sian Ka’an Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s one of the country’s largest protected areas and teeming with wildlife, from green sea turtles and manatees to tapirs, condors, howler monkeys and coatis (a cross between an anteater and a racoon).

Upon arrival at Etéreo, we were offered a brief shaman’s blessing with incense, Mayan chanting and shell blowing, a practice that ties to the ethos of the hotel and reflects the connection to the ethereal (and Maya traditions)—to honor the past, stay in the present, create the future. (It’s one that also suggests that a stay at a luxury hotel can be transformative.) The shaman also places a mini shrine on a small shelf outside your door with a Maya figure and two shells and talismans for an auspicious stay. Touches like these are echoed throughout the resort—in everything from design elements to the menus and activities. Read the full Etéreo, Auberge Resorts Collection review.

The St. Regis Kanai Resort

Just a short taxi ride away from Etéreo, St. Regis Kanai is straight out of an Instagram dream—an ultra-modern beach oasis amid the mangroves. To protect the local flora and fauna, the hotel was made from a series of prefabricated semi-circular pavilions and designed so that all 124 rooms and 19 suites face the ocean. Which means the views are pretty (with a line of crooked Dr. Seuss-like Truffula trees towering in the distance, marking the shore) and rooms are flooded with light, but be prepared to close your curtains for privacy: the semi-circle design of the hotel makes for Rear Window-like views of your neighbors after dark. Read the full St. Regis Kanai Resort review.

Hotel Esencia

A trip to the Riviera Maya would not be complete without stays at Indagare’s top properties. After a visit to the Tulum ruins, we stopped for lunch at Hotel Esencia, an Indagare Index Adored property and saw The Mansion, the lovely new villa that was added last year. Wind along a path and you come upon the bright, clean-lined, effortlessly stylish casa blanca amid the lush jungle; it sleeps eight in four bedrooms and spans three floors and has a good size pool and a rooftop plunge pool and big picture windows with lush palm views from every window. There’s a private butler’s pantry off the kitchen for entertaining prep, along with a downstairs screening room and a speakeasy, as well as a private entrance. Favorite details: the white tiles with blue animals seen around the pool that also liven up the walls in the master bath. And the colorful handwoven blankets from Oaxaca we wanted to take home. Read the full Hotel Esencia review.

Maroma, A Belmond Hotel

At long last, I was excited to return to Maroma, A Belmond Hotel, another Indagare favorite that has been closed for renovations since 2021. Arriving in the early afternoon of our second to last day in Mexico, our driver turned off the highway, pulled up to the security gate and then headed down a narrow road through the jungle, as we wound our way towards the hotel entrance. At least twice, our driver slowed to allow a few curious creatures—coatis (a cross between a racoon and an anteater)—to cross. They stopped and stared back at us before lumbering back into the jungle, their striped tails bouncing behind them. We pulled up to check in. Down the central path through the arch of the white-washed main building, it magically appeared before us—a view of the horizon of blue sea and sky—straight ahead. Just there.

This Indagare Adored property has long been known for its intimate, stylish interiors, good food and relaxing vibes and it’s easy to see why. The resort has added 10 one- and two-bedroom suites with direct beach access (some have private pools and gardens), bringing the total count of rooms, suites, and villas to 72 (19 rooms, 51 suites, two villas)—75 percent have ocean views. Spaces felt authentic and distinctive, with furniture, lighting, textiles, and artwork, glassware, ceramics and miles of gorgeous tiles made in Mexico. The butlers who greeted us were warm and genuine, the beach and restaurant staff and the endearing waiter named Julio, who confided to us that it was his first day. Like Hotel Esencia, it still feels like a one-of-a-kind place, a private residence (fitting, since that’s what both resorts once were). Read the full Maroma, A Belmond Hotel review.

Tulum & Beyond

I was determined to combine our visit to Hotel Esencia with a visit to the Tulum ruins and a little shopping. When I was 18, I lived in Mexico for three months to study Spanish. I went to Chichén Itzá, hiked Popo and saw the Sol y Luna pyramids outside Mexico City, along with Oaxaca, Puebla, Mérida, Taxco, among other small towns long since discovered for their crafts and artisans. Traveling with friends, we detoured to the beaches of Cozumel and Islas Mujeres instead.

On this trip, on the 1.5 hour-drive on Carretera Federal 307 to Tulum, in the morning rush past Playa del Carmen, our guide Roberto, who grew up in Mexico City and was there for the devastating 1985 earthquake, walked us through a brief history of the Mayas in the context of the Aztecs and the Incas. He talked of the Maya people and their mathematical concept of zero, their hieroglyphs and colorful art, their respect for gods, astronomy, the sky, animals and the earth. We talked about how Tulum was built to be a fortress, a religious and political center (and to protect sacred priests). And he showed us how, facing east and surrounded by walls on three sides, El Castillo, its main pavilion, served as a lighthouse and a watchtower, an early gateway and trade center for all of Central America. And we learned how in the span of 75 years, after the Spanish conquest, it was abandoned and its indigenous people were wiped out or dispersed. Today, descendants of the Maya people number 10 million and are spread across Mexico and Central and South America, the largest community of Native Americans north of Peru.

Seeing the ruins in the morning sun, with the Caribbean Sea glistening bright blue behind, it was amazing to imagine this place, long before it was called Riviera Maya, before beach destinations like Tulum, Cozumel and Islas Mujeres drew travelers, before Mayakoba and Maroma and Kanai…. We talked with Roberto about what it might have been like in this walled city—and how much the area had developed, for better or worse over time, and how travel had been changing lives here for centuries.

A few days before, our smart guia Richie at Etéreo had said “I love your company name. You know in Spanish that Indagar means to inquire, investigate or study or look for something?” And I smiled and said, “yes. Explore. Seek. Discover. Always.”

Plus: A Favorite Shopping Find

World By Hand, Tulum
This pretty shop in Tulum

features handmade furniture, pillows, textiles, rugs, lamps, clothing, ceramics, jewelry and home décor (including paintings, sculptures, photography and decorative art from around the world). You’ll find pieces from Nepal and Mexico, Morocco, Haiti and India. There’s an outpost in Mérida. CEO and founder Francia Rábago founded the company to promote cultural diversity, heritage and sustainability through handcrafts. She and her Mom also opened Vivo Tulum, a vegan café next door to the shop, as well as a yoga studio, Vivo Dome.

Logistics

Direct flights to Tulum

United has just announced that it will offer non-stop flights between the U.S. and Tulum International Airport (TQO) with 22 weekly flights from Newark/New York, Houston and Chicago beginning March 31, 2024. And on May 23, United will add daily seasonal service from Los Angeles to Tulum next summer. Delta will add direct flights to Tulum airport from Atlanta in March 2024, with the promise of more direct routes being added in the future.

Airport Arrivals & Getting Around

Cancún: A car or VIP arrival is definitely still recommended for clients flying into Cancún, as there are a lot of people coming at you as you make your way out of customs, and drivers of hired cars (no Ubers here) are not allowed inside. But the airport feels quite modern. Terminal 4, where JetBlue arrives, was added in 2017. My flight from JFK was three hours and 20 minutes and arrived 15 minutes early and I was through customs in less than five minutes; my daughter’s trip from Boston while longer was also early. There was no line at the automated scanners. All three new properties are 45 minutes from the airport, making the trip a breeze.

Tulum: The town was packed on a weekday. Getting around felt safe in taxis, but for guided experiences, a car and driver is still best.

Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer for assistance planning a trip to Mexico. Our team can match you with the hotels that are right for you, as well as advise on all our favorite activities and must-see sites.

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