At This Sustainable Yucatán Retreat, Self Care Also Means Caring for the Planet
A holistic approach to wellness on the Riviera Maya.
I wasn't sure how receptive my body would be to the sound-healing session at Palmaïa, the House of Aïa, a new resort on Mexico's Riviera Maya. I have lived with anxiety for many years; my mind wanders constantly. But I am always open to new approaches to self-care, and I figured, Why not give it a try? I was at a wellness retreat, after all — they should know what they're doing.
As I lay on the ground outside, supported by pillows, I took in the sounds of water, wind, and birdsong around me, but also the resonance of chimes, horns, drums, and gongs, which radiated to the tips of my fingers and toes. For more than an hour, my normally tense body was in a state of extreme calm. And the good vibrations continued beyond the session, setting the tone for my time at Palmaïa. I knew that even once I left, the good vibrations would stay with me.
On a pristine Caribbean beach in the upscale Playacar area of Playa del Carmen, Palmaïa takes an eco-conscious approach to luxury. Founder Alex Ferri was very intentional with every aspect of the resort — including the name, a reference to the palma chît, an endangered tree that grows along the Riviera Maya. The property hopes to one day become a carbon-neutral operation. There are no plastic water bottles to be found. Ferri thinks of wellness holistically: as a goal not just for guests but for the places they stay, the surrounding communities, and the flora and fauna on the property.
When I arrived, I was greeted by one of Palmaïa's "nomadic guides," a roving butler who ushered me through the high-ceilinged lobby, offered me a nonalcoholic drink of fresh mango and ginger, and presented a beaded wristband that acted as my key. The 314 guest rooms, primarily built using locally sourced materials like bamboo and palm, are scattered across five buildings that line the shore, each named after one of the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters of Greek mythology. First-floor suites face the beach, and have swim-up access from one of the property's four infinity pools. Every day, I wiggled my toes in the sand and swam in the crystalline, cobalt-blue water just steps from my room.
Though meat is available on request at Palmaïa's five restaurants, the menus are plant-based — to educate guests about the most sustainable way to eat and show how expansive vegan cuisine can be. Dishes are also designed to promote gut health. Executive chef Eugenio Villafaña, who has trained at both Michelin-starred restaurants and raw-food spots, prepares creative, nourishing plates like charcoal-grilled carrots, plantain and jackfruit empanadas, even classic chips and guacamole. (All were very much appreciated by my vegan husband.) Garnishes are grown in-house, and straws are crafted from stalks of lemongrass.
Another pillar of the wellness concept is Palmaïa's "Architects of Life" program: structured activities designed to encourage spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical well-being, based on both Mayan and Ayurvedic principles. I met with one of the resort's personal growth guides, who goes only by Balder, to explore my wellness goals, and took part in yoga, drum circles, and cleansing baths at the many cenotes that dot the property. Keen to learn about how to better manage my anxiety, I was especially excited to work with Balder and on my ability to be still through meditation and deep breathing.
A stone pathway through the jungle leads to Palmaïa's Atlantis Spa, built with a low-impact approach so as to disturb the surrounding ecosystem as little as possible. (If you're lucky, you might spot the family of spider monkeys that lives nearby from your glass-walled treatment room.) Guests are not constrained by the set treatment menu, and can meet with a master healer to design a personal plan. When I settled in for my treatment — 90 minutes of aromatherapy, hot stones, and leg and foot massage — the scents of essential oils calmed me immediately. Breathing the fresh air, fragrant with salt and sea and lush green jungle, I felt surrounded by nature. The treatment was designed to boost immunity, reduce stress, and help with sleep. From the two-hour nap I took afterward, I would say it worked.
To book: thehouseofaia.com, doubles from $900 all-inclusive
A version of this story first appeared in the April 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Room to Grow.