Tell a group of travel writers and bloggers that you’re booked at a Banyan Tree hotel, and watch what happens. Eyes go big like saucers. Mouths drop open like elevators whose cables have been cut. That, at least, was my experience last month.
The Banyan Tree Mayakoba —about 40 minutes south of Cancun in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo (also known as the Riviera Maya)—was the first in the legendary family of luxury that I’ve settled into. When I arrived two weekends ago, I carried with me these unexpectedly lofty expectations of my contemporaries. When I left, I did so without hurry and with a knowing smile. Now, I get it. The Banyan Tree Mayakoba, I can now say, is extraordinarily fit for a high-end, warm-weather escape.
At Mayakoba, I felt far, far from home. I spent much of my time in a state of near-meditative calm. In distilling this down, I’ve arrive at three things the Banyan Tree Mayakoba delivered in exceptional quality:
- Sleep — I slept so, so well. So did my girlfriend, who came with me. In doling out credit for this, we surmised that the walled-off privacy of our villa (see below) was good for nothing if not uninterrupted nights. Also relevant: the lingering scent of lemongrass in the air (the scent actually changes daily, but it’s forever lemongrass in my memory), 24/7 access to starlight swims in our private pool, and days of beating Yucatán sun.
- Private pools — To do private pools well is, essentially, to offer them at all, and maybe to maintain in them a comfortable water temperature. The Banyan Tree did both. There is no better way to start, finish and accent great days than with private pool swims beneath a big, foreign sky.
- Water — Mayakoba is a self-sufficient, walled-off world woven of interlinking canals, with enough magic to summon memories of Venice (like this place…). Water is everywhere. Its stillness and slow ripples set the slow pace of days.
A little background: What is Mayakoba?
The hotel itself is a quarter of the Mayakoba resort, the synthesis of four luxury hotel properties—the Banyan Tree as well as the Fairmont, the Rosewood, and the Andaz—around a rocky, jungled web of Caribbean-facing mangroves and waterways. It is a “triumph of conservation” according to its own website, an achievement for its architects as well as the “biologists, geologists and engineers” also attached to the project.
On its eastern perimeter, Mayakoba includes the soft sands and stocked reefs of the Riviera Maya. But it is the property to the west, most visible as six miles of snaking, ecologically rich lagoons, that distinguishes Mayakoba from traditional Caribbean retreats. Around these lagoons, and by way of a boat shuttle that picks up guests in the lobby every ~45 minutes, the overlapping worlds of the four Mayakoba hotels are woven into something uniquely bigger. My stay at the Banyan Tree Mayakoba, for example, granted me free run inside the serene Banyan Tree campus, and then—via boat shuttles traveling through the habitats of sea turtles and crocodiles—deeper escapes at pearly beaches, oceanside pools, and sushi-tequila pairings beyond the capacities of a single hotel. As far as you can travel by boat, everything can be charged to your room.
In considerably more detail, below is how and why I came to so appreciate Mayakoba and its Banyan Tree:
The rooms, which are villas with private pools
Lodging at the Banyan Tree Mayakoba is available in the form of 121 private villas, each of which is steps away from its own pool. It’s the only property in all the Riviera Maya that can say this.
We stayed in villa 411, a lovely hideaway in the entry-level category (Bliss Pool Villa; from $416/night in summer and $839/night next week) that’s just off the central landing. The bedroom is given shape and character by a tall, sloping ceiling of maybe two stories, leaving plenty of room to sprawl out and breathe—or sit in a number of different chairs simply because you can. The bathroom—also huge—welcomes you with two sinks, partitioned shower and toilet, a walk-in closet, little bags stuffed with limitless high-end toiletries, and its own annex: an outdoor bathtub, squared in beneath a wall of candles and—each night after sundown—a starry, unpolluted sky.
Tip: The bathtub fills slowly, as in over the course of an hour. Play with the handle a bit to optimize the flow rate out of the tap before leaving it to fill.
The natural lighting is fantastic, which matters more in a place that is constantly beckoning you outside. Two sets of glass sliding doors welcome the sun’s rays unimpeded, and when open, offer separate ways to walk directly into your pool. Also outside are a canopied bed, terraced seating and a hammock, which I need say nothing more about. Villa 411 is a world of its own. Book a higher-end villa, and I imagine the outside world will only slip further out of focus.
Tip: A Sanctuary Spa Pool Villa comes with a mangrove-view roof on which guests receive daily in-villa massages.
For two nights, villa 411 was all ours, this world within a world framed in stillness by mangroves. The sleep was superlatively restful, which as noted above has a lot to do with the privacy we were afforded with our villa. But let’s not gloss over the bed, which will go down in bed history. Soft, but not too soft. Long and wide, bleeding into open space on three sides. And the pillows: squishy, cold, with weight.
Tip: There’s a pillow menu, from which you can swap the default arrangement for whatever suits your head. But I can’t imagine an item on that menu that could be better than what we slept with (the default).
If you stay at the Banyan Tree Mayakoba, you’ll have a private pool. That’s the major item in the pool category, but be advised that there are more pools to float in. The pool above, for example, which looks out onto Caribbean waters, has a swim-up bar mixing signature drinks. So does the serpentine main pool below.
Inside or outside the confines of your villa, you’ll spend a lot of time in the water. And for the most part, you’ll feel like you’re the only one in it.
The sand of the Riviera Maya is regarded as some of the world’s softest. It is certainly among the softest I’ve set bare feet to. The water is a mosaic of familiar Caribbean turquoises and emeralds, and I floated in its warmth without much regard for dangerous currents. (Do regard currents, though.) If you snag a cabana, designated people will bring you drinks and stuff. The one unusual feature of the private Banyan Tree beach—part of the Sands beach club, if you’re telling a golf cart driver where you’d like to go—is the prominence of “whales.”
The “whales” are sandbags set in place as part of a multi-faceted effort to restore life to the coral reef. So many parties in hospitality and tourism around the world have had a hand in damaging our reef systems. The Banyan Tree Mayakoba, it appears, is fighting back. You can still snorkel, too, through a shimmering world of color about a hundred feet off shore. Soon, you’ll even be able to “Adopt-a-Coral” and swim out to your new buddy with a project-assigned snorkeler. Here, in a snapshot, is the Banyan Tree Mayakoba: the trickle-down of world-class Banyan Tree standards in both meditative luxury and targeted neighborliness.
The bikes: free and easy
Outside of each villa is a set of bikes. When you stay in a Banyan Tree villa, the bikes outside are yours for the extent of your stay. There are golf carts and boats available to take you pretty much anywhere, but why not ride a bike? If you decide to bail at any point, you may do it without recourse; your bike is tagged with the number of your villa, and a presumably very fit staff member will peddle it back home for you. This is a fantastic touch.
Connection by boat
I have alluded to this already. With four hotels, a championship golf course, an area designated for archery, a replica mission town that hosts a weekly farmer’s market, and an entire ecology of live-in creatures, Mayakoba is massive. There’s a lot of land and leisure to navigate, and you can do it by bike or the ever-running golf cart shuttles (they call the long ones “limos”). Or, you can take the Mayakoba Connection, a free water-based shuttle service that picks up in the Banyan Tree lobby.
Wait by the water, or at any of the other seven stops on the route, and boats of elegant, lacquered wood will eventually arrive to take you on. You’ll pass sea turtles and crocodiles, and you’ll float through narrow bends of jungled land where the vegetation reaches out to touch you—all on the way to the beach for a piña colada. It’s one of the truly unique features of the Banyan Tree Mayakoba (and its three neighbors).
Fact: There are more than 200 species of flora and fauna within the Mayakoba.
More water wonder
Take a tapas cruise. Let a chef prepare a private dinner beneath the moonlight, on a boat, with an Ixchel experience. Get berated by science in context on a loop through the water worlds of Mayakoba with a resident biologist. Or take the Mayakoba Connection a whole lot. However you do it, get out on the water while staying at the Banyan Tree Mayakoba.
There’s plenty to eat at the Banyan Tree. And in the larger Mayakoba, there’s even more. Food is everywhere, and though it is not all Mexican, all six of my meals were delicious, genuinely—which I appreciated given the prices attached to some of them. Among the culinary highlights:
- Breakfast — The breakfast spread includes the likes of hot-off-the-pan omelets and deep cheese boards, but it is given strength by an infusion of local flavors. The breakfast quesadillas, for example, are made to order and stuffed with concoctions I can only approximate describing (I loved the spicy mushroom filing with cheese and guacamole). There are clay pots steaming with Mexican coffee, Mexican hot chocolate and atole (sweet, with milk, vanilla, cinnamon…), and fresh juices (from fruits tendered nearby). Two quesadillas, an atole and a green juice were the bedrock of two slow, lovely mornings.
- Saffron — The signature Banyan Tree restaurant serving Thai food cooked by a Thai chef. Our favorite among those we tried. Upon arrival for dinner, you cleanse your hands with a towel wet with basil-infused water. In the warm, evening air of the Riviera Maya, you sit at a quiet table for two, or perhaps four, projected out and above the still water as near-spa music plays softly. The sky is full above. From my tasting menu, I will hurl superlatives at the pepper-garlic prawns and the sweet curry soup, while across the table, it was all about the signature pad Thai my girlfriend ordered. Phenomenal. There’s also a rice guy who meanders among tables with a smile filling plates with favorites from the house rice menu (which includes blue jasmine rice).
- Cello — Formerly Tamarind, a Mediterranean restaurant. Now going full-bore Italian as Cello. I had a truly wonderful filet, cooked with delicate hands, set atop some fantastic mushroom gnocchi. Get that and the prosciutto-burratta-fig appetizer. Also, the “sound architecture” is marked for a full renovation.
- Oriente — The space that houses the breakfast buffet also does dinner, steakhouse-style. I can’t speak to the flavors, but I was able to see into it from across a Venice-like channel while eating a lovely steak at Cello (above). From that, I am going to say this place is probably good.
- Sands — The beach club, known as Sands, is a chunk of beach and adjacent sun-soaked property. It’s far from the lobby, around which the headlining restaurants loosely congregate, and it includes Sands, which shells brick oven pizza and cocktails and such right beside the beach.
- La Copa — A bar in the lobby serving drinks and Mexican food including excellent guacamole.
- Haab — Here, things take a turn for the interesting. Twice a week, as I understand it, you can opt to eschew conventional dining and eat like the Maya approximately did. There are ceremonial drinks, a feast sewn direct from the land, songs and chants that non-participatory guests will hear, and magic in the way that international hotel brands do not always succeed in manufacturing.
- Ixtel and a tapas cruise — Two means of eating on a boat softly navigating the spindly web of mangrove channels.
- Punta Bonita — The only non-Banyan Tree restaurant we ate at and a fixture at the Rosewood. By golf cart, it was seven minutes from the Banyan Tree lobby to Punta Bonita on the Rosewood premises. The ceviches here were excellent. Really, so good. The shrimp aguachile—with raw shrimp, lime, onion…—was one of the better things I’ve ever chosen to eat. It’s also important to mention that at one point during lunch here, a guy wearing a shirt tagged with “Champagne O’Clock” announced it was “champagne o’clock” and walked around handing out free champagne.
The spa—and the “Rainforest”
At Mayakoba, the Banyan Tree brand’s roots in Asian wellness philosophy are taken seriously. The staff is Thai and Indonesian, exclusively, and treatments are bound to the deft and deliberate consideration that has made legend of Banyan Tree spas worldwide. Massages, for instance, are taken in private, over-water cabins. Time in these cabins includes an extra 30 minutes for complimentary juices, snacks, and an opportunity to let the usually fleeting content you feel after a massage linger a little longer. Loyalists return again and again to Banyan Tree properties for restorative spa realignment. At Mayakoba, guests of the other three boat- and bike-linked Mayakoba hotels—and of unaffiliated others in the region—congregate around the treasure chest of treatments on offer.
From experience, I can speak to one unique note: the Rainforest, a Banyan Tree original. With every booked massage (ahead of time, at least), you gain free access to a relaxing Rainforest hydrotherapy treatment. It’s eight rooms/steps with names like “Arctic Storm” and “Tropical Rainbow” and a lot of hot-cold-hot, plus therapeutic pressure. After an hour, you feel jellied and fantastic, at least for someone who has not yet had a massage. And then, if you’ve booked one, you get a massage.
Within the sprawling world of Mayakoba is a functioning town square: El Pueblito. There’s a swooping mission-style church, a weekly farmer’s market that draws local vendors, a cooking school, and four food-based outlets each operating on behalf of one of the four Mayakoba hotels. The Banyan Tree’s outlet is all about juices and smoothies.
I had a nice juice of carrot and ginger, but there were too many other storylines at the Banyan Tree Mayakoba for me to reserve much space here for El Pueblito. On to the next…
I rode a number of golf carts, but I didn’t play golf, partly because I am pretty bad at it. That said, Mayakoba’s El Camaleón course is the type to make terrible play more tolerable. It’s the only one in Mexico to host an annual PGA event, the OHL Classic at Mayakoba. Greg Norman also designed it. On another Mayakoba visit, I’d like to play a round.
The “Stay for Good” initiative
We’re winding down here, so a note on the larger implications of my stay:
Mayakoba’s ecologically dense setting was born for a Banyan Tree, a hospitality brand for whom existence in harmony with the environment is practically canon. The opening of the first-ever Banyan Tree hotel in 1994, in Phuket, Thailand, is an almost folkloric tale of environmental rebirth. It goes like this:
- The founding husband-and-wife team purchases a dramatic swath of Thai coast “punctuated by lagoons of the most intense cobalt blue” for a luxury property
- Before development can begin, it is discovered that the drama of the colorscape is owed to the single-minded former tenants, who mined tin
- 70,000 trees are planted in an effort to restore the land to life
- The land is restored to life
- The Banyan Tree Phuket opens on healthy soil with emboldened sustainability goals
In 2017, these sustainability goals manifest most visibly as the brand-wide “Stay for Good” initiative, which aims to amplify the positive resonance of each Banyan Tree hotel throughout its surrounding environment. At the Banyan Tree Mayakoba, guests are provided the means to lend a hand (or dollars) in the name of hospitality training (with guaranteed employment), World Environmental Day, World Food Day, and more. You can read more about what “Stay for Good” means at the hotel here.
Nearby: Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza, former Mayan stronghold and one of the NewSeven Wonders of the World, is about two and a half hours by car from Mayakoba. It’s about the same distance, a little shorter maybe, from Cancun. It’s in a category of places I am resigned to visit in a life in pursuit of rare scale: in terms of physical size (like Angel Falls, barren Arctic landscapes, and the Burj Khalifa), physical beauty (like the Karakoram range, the British Lake District and most of Kyoto) and in terms of history/age (Joya de Cerén, the Great Pyramids and Valletta, Malta). Chichen Itza, like many on the list, checks more than one box, and it was worth the visit. Even the jabbering of tourist crowds was more tolerable than expected. The Templo de Kukulkán, most of all, is a truly remarkable structure.
Make the trip, either from the Banyan Tree Mayakoba (talk to the concierge) or direct from Cancun with a car or Viator accompaniment.
Getting to the Banyan Tree Mayakoba: via Cancun
Cancun International Airport (CUN) fields direct and often inexpensive flights from cities across the US and Canada. From the airport, it’s about 35-40 minutes by straight, coast-hugging road to the Mayakoba gate, and a little more than that if there’s traffic. You can arrange transport through the Banyan Tree Mayakoba, or grab a shuttle. Just know that you may get overcharged if you walk your business into the chaos waiting outside the CUN arrivals hall.
For more on the Banyan Tree Mayakoba, visit banyantree.com/en/em-mexico-mayakoba. Book direct for $60 vouchers.