Insider's Guide to Spas

A Walk Through Mayan Culture

Less than an hour south of Cancun, Rosewood Mayakoba is immense enough to be utterly intimate, allowing abundant opportunities for aloneness.

Becca Hensley

In the ancient healing traditions of the Maya people, ch’ulel, the world’s life force, permeates everything–animals, plants, people, gemstones, and water. Atop my bicycle at Rosewood Mayakoba, I literally feel that buzz. Pedaling along myriad, undulating trails, some edged by jungle, others framed by mangrove swamp, I explore the larger Mayakoba complex, which spreads out over some 600 acres. Here, less than an hour south of Cancun, on the Yucatan Peninsula’s east side, I’ve met plenty of purveyor’s of the world’s infinite energy. There’s that Velociraptor-esque basilisk lizard that sprints across the bike path; those hefty-sized iguanas that refuse to move out of my way, and that mischievous, long-nosed coati, a relative to the raccoon, that gallivants across the golf course with his family.

In the trees, untold species of birds festoon the branches—heron, egret, colorful Yucatan jays, and white ibis. In the lagoon, crocodiles lounge, camouflaged as logs. The resort, immense enough to be utterly intimate, allows abundant opportunities for aloneness. While I’d be able to find a crowd on the white-sand beach or around the main pool, as I ride Mayakoba’s network of nature trails, it’s easy to imagine I’m the only guest at the resort. That feeling multiplies on Spa Island, where Rosewood’s Sense Spa, and a handful of villas, lie amid a verdant woodland. I return to my stand-alone villa there (every room at Rosewood Mayakoba faces the water as an independent suite), park my bike, and prepare to have my personal ch’ulel brought to balance at the spa.

We muse for a bit beside the water, where I think of reflections, how water mirrors the heavens and ought to remind us to always reach for our best self.

Embodying Rosewood Mayakoba’s tribute to nature, Sense Spa, integrates architecturally with the landscape. The main building borders a therapeutic water pool meant to mimic cenotes, the Yucatan’s freshwater sinkholes, considered sacred to the Maya people. Huge windows bring the outdoors to the interiors of the airy lobby and changing area, and a series of trails lead guests to various hidden nooks, each holding independent spa cabins. Paths wind around the actual, on-site cenote,where the occasional bench provides hidden locations for meditation and repose. At one end of the spa’s sylvan setting, the spa’s Sensorial Garden awaits. That’s where I join the spa shaman for the Kuxtal Sensory Garden Journey, a two-hour therapy, designed to balance ch’ulel by connecting me deeply and serenely to nature. Kuxtal means “tree of life” in the Mayan language—and trees surround me. This garden, awash with indigenous herbs, plants, and flowers, augmented by a rustic greenhouse, brings a  melange of perfume to the briny sea and musty tree-covered terrain’s air.

“Walk with me,” says the shaman, and we wander down various trails. In a soft voice, she tells me to concentrate on my senses, to feel the power of the plants, to hear the water, cascading nearby from a tiny fall, to smell the flowers, note the birds in flight, touch leaves and petals. We muse for a bit beside the water, where I think of reflections, how water mirrors the heavens and ought to remind us to always reach for our best self. She tells me that the Maya believed that the body was an extension of the soul. “Our healing must begin inside out.”

We return to the garden and the greenhouse, walking along the sacbe (or white path, the name the Maya called the white-stoned path that led to their temples). There, the shaman explains how the garden showcases native healing herbs and botanicals. They’re organized on a living wall, portrayed to show the seasons of a plant (or person’s life)—seed, sprout, full bloom, and wilting and rebirth. She emphasizes that the Maya people believe the cycle continues many times in one lifetime. Change is inevitable, new phases begin and end. On a table, a Maya map of the earth’s four cardinal points reveals the same directional pattern of the seasons. “Ch’ ulel,” she reminds.

“According to the old traditions, answers come from the universe,” says the shaman. “From plants, rocks, and water. What you choose will give me insight,” she says. “How you connect will tell me what you need.” She has me walk through the garden and pluck  the leaf that most attracts me. I recognize most of them—basil, mint, chamomile—but  go straight to a geranium plant, as if being pulled by an otherworldly power. Next, she asks me to glance at the cardinal map to choose a direction. Unbidden, I pick north, which turns out to be the final direction, where the bloom is most resplendent, before it withers and prepares to grow again. This is not about age or experience, the shaman tells me, but about where you are at this moment, in an ongoing journey.

What she does next fascinates me most of all. She grabs a tome, thick and ancient. It looks like something you’d find in a monastery library—the pages yellowed, full of drawings, charts, words—perhaps incantations. Inside, each herb or flower is matched to a direction on the map. My choices, geranium and north, then, provide very specific information to the shaman—and to me. The information tells her: Where I am now. What I need. How she can harness the healing powers of the botanical to help me.

“The geranium is very good for empowering women,” she says. “Very grounding, very spiritual. You are sensitive on the inside, but tough on the outside. Your doors open quickly,” she says, pouring some essential oil of geranium on my fingertips, telling me to sniff. “We’ll use this for the primary ingredient in your treatment,” she explains, as we walk back through the landscape to a cabana by the water. During my geranium-infused scrub, wrap, and massage, I hear the birds, their song, and the sound of the water creating a lullaby-like euphony. I awaken to a sense of balance, which I desperately want to keep. As if the shaman knows, she hands me a necklace, holding a tiny jar, filled with geranium oil.

“Wear this. When you need it, it’s here for you. Just like the universe.”

Read about 4 More Gorgeous Garden Spas here.





Becca Hensley

Becca Hensley

Based in Austin, Contributing Editor Becca Hensley writes regularly about travel and spas. She believes a good story draws you in like laughter in a crowded room, and challenges you to do it justice. Her work appears regularly in Austin Monthly, Travel Channel, Toronto Star and National Geographic Traveler.