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On Friday, my first full day in Mexico, we were given a tour of the grounds of the Viva Wyndham Maya, which I've already explained in full detail in last week's installment. But there are other points to mention: there is no Internet access in the rooms, but there's a business center where you can pay 30 pesos (about $3) for 30 minutes. It probably goes without saying, but the hotel staff is extremely international -- most speak at least three languages, and during my time there I met people from Italy, Serbia, Austria, and the Dominican Republic, among others.

Friday's afternoon schedule included a spa treatment at noon, a cooking lesson in the afternoon, and some interview time with Jelena Leposavic, commercial director of Renova, which operates 24 spas in hotels throughout Mexico and others in the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Cape Verde. Friday night we shuttled downtown in taxis to Playa del Carmen, and learned that many of the businesses had only been closed for a few months after the hurricanes hit last fall.

A few hours after breakfast, I was happy to walk over to Renova Spa (www.renovaspa.com), the name means "renew", and spend some quiet, air-conditioned time indoors inhaling soothing aromas (peppermint, eucalyptus, and the like) during my hot stone massage. It was difficult to choose, as the spa offers a variety of massage types including deep-tissue, Swedish soft massage, a back-neck-and-shoulders, and the Renova combination, which incorporates shiatsu, deep tissue and Swedish techniques. Other special therapies such as hot stones, lymphatic drainage, reflexology, and lomi lomi massage are available, along with body wraps and standard salon services such as manicure, pedicure, facials, waxing, haircuts, color, Caribbean braids, and so forth. Some of us on the trip opted for a massage by the ocean, and the spa's "Ocean Harmony" treatment is a massage by the sea at night.

The therapist uses hot stones coated with oil for the massaging, and positions them along the chakras of the body. "The treatment uses the energy of the stones, which can absorb negative energy from the body, to balance your body's own energy," says Leposavic. The thorough, 50-minute experience (small stones were even placed on my eyelids!) cost $90 (USD) and left me relaxed, able to focus on my next activity: a light lunch, followed by a cooking lesson by the pool.

Large bowls of food sitting out in public places are guaranteed to generate curious stares and questions, especially when it's mid-afternoon, right in between lunch and dinner. Viva Maya's sub chef, Victor Jazquez, assembled a ceviche using milar -- a Caribbean fish that's similar to grouper. Scroll down to the end of the story for the recipe.

Later in the day, we met up to depart for Playa del Carmen (www.playadelcarmen.com) for an evening of shopping and dining. We piled into several cabs for the short, cheap ride (about $5 US), and immediately dispersed into various shops. The main shopping street, Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue), is a long, cobblestone promenade that's closed to pedestrians, runs parallel to the beach, and is home to dozens of restaurants, bars, small hotels, and shops. It took a while to find some really good silver -- stores don't typically post prices, partially because it encourages bargaining but also because silver is sold by weight. I managed to nab a pink, mother-of-pearl pendant about the size of a quarter for the equivalent of $30, down from $80, simply by staying interested in other merchandise and conversing in a bit of Spanish with the shopkeeper. The other person from my group was still busy in the shop, and I didn't feel like waiting. However, when I left the store, I expected to encounter some of my travel companions -- perhaps either Helen Freedman from Big Apple Parent (www.nymetroparents.com) or John Searles from Cosmopolitan (www.cosmopolitan.com) -- but everyone had disappeared. Confident, I walked in and out of shops down the meandering cobblestone street, but as it grew darker and a few minutes turned into 20, I was concerned that I wouldn't find the restaurant, let alone the others: none of us had an address. (We were told it was "at the end of the street. Sort of.") And as I rounded the corner and saw how far ahead the road stretched, I wasn't even sure I was on the right street anymore, as there were few signs.

I stopped and asked la policía for some directions. The officer didn't know Viva Café and instead asked about Mambo Café. He directed me to the information booth I had just passed, and the security personnel there radioed to find out where the restaurant was. He pointed to the map and marked the restaurant, and I asked (in Spanish) if it was on the right side or left side of the street. I grabbed the map, thanked him, and within a few minutes I'd run into some of the others, who also had no idea where they were going, but at least they were in it together. I navigated us to the restaurant, which was not easily visible from Fifth Avenue, as it was closer to the beach and the neon sign was obscured by trees. "How did you see that?" asked John. I was looking.

Viva Café is owned by Viva Resorts, so hotel guests can visit for $10 per person and choose from a fixed menu of, yet again, Italian specialties. It had become a running joke that we'd been in the country for more than 24 hours and none of our meals up to that point had been strictly Mexican. Alessandro Stifani, resident manager for Viva Azteca (and whom I'd guessed correctly was Italian), joined us for dinner, so I asked him why there were so many restaurants of that ilk. He said that Playa del Carmen has long been popular with Italians -- tourists and restauranteurs alike. Consequently, it's much easier to find a good Italian restaurant than a good Mexican restaurant in downtown Playa del Carmen; most menus we encountered were in English, Spanish and Italian. (Up to this point our sole exposure to native cuisine came from the buffet: tortilla chips were available in some permutation at nearly every meal, along with taquitos, beans, rice and the like at lunch.)

After a dinner of gnocchi, wine and my first taste of grappa (not as offensive as some have reported), we headed back to the hotel for a good night's sleep. Our Saturday excursion to Tulúm, the only seaside Mayan ruins, began at 8am. We were transported 38 miles to Tulúm and led by a knowledgeable, humorous English-speaking guide who said we could call him Pepe and identified himself as un mestizo. Although we met early, we had other stops along with way in our air-conditioned bus, so we arrived at the walled city of Tulúm (which means fence, trench or wall) in late morning.

Pepe explained the layout and the significance of some of the ruins, which were built between 1200 and 1450 primarily as a place of worship, although some of the members of the ruling class lived there too. As with many old civilizations, many of the structures were built to honor various gods and relate to the Mayan calendar, signaling the importance of agriculture. You can easily spend a couple of hours here and if it is especially hot, bring your swimsuit and walk down to Tulúm cove, a small inlet with a beach.

Around lunchtime, we boarded the bus for Xel-Ha (tel. 998/884-9422; www.xel-ha.com), an ecologically-minded water park about 8 miles north with lagoons, inlets, cenotes, fed by both fresh and salt waters. Here, you can do any number of things or nothing at all; here, too, we finally found our Mexican food. You can swim with dolphins (for about $100 USD), go snorkeling in the small saltwater cove and observe beautiful, brilliant tropical fish, grab an inner tube and float around. Or you can sit under a palapa by the water and relax, or take a nap in en la Isla de las Hamacas (Hammock Island), as Erika Sordo, from Viva Wyndham's corporate office did, or hop on a bicycle for a nature-filled ride. You can store your belongings in lockers, receive a massage, eat at various restaurants (including Mexican!), and cool off with helado (ice cream), which somehow resisted complete dissolution in the heat.

For an overview of the region, including hotels, nightlife, tours and other information, check out the Riviera Maya Tourism Board (tel. 877/7GO-MAYA; www.rivieramaya.com/eng). It lists information on Tulúm (www.rivieramaya.com/eng/en-Tulumarchaeology.htm) which costs 35 Pesos or $3.20 if you pay on your own, but unless you're renting a car already it makes sense to consider a guided tour. At Xel-Ha, admission is $33, but the all-inclusive rate, at $59 for adults, covers admission, use of showers, floats, hammocks, snorkeling equipment, towels, and a locker, along with meals and beverages at any of the restaurants. Incidentally, you can also book a tour of both Tulúm and Xel-Ha through Xel-Ha's site that includes transportation. Our excursion cost $115 per person; you can find similar tours and packages from the Riviera Maya site.

I learned a few things on this trip. I learned that I am capable of navigating an unfamiliar, international airport by myself and not get lost -- a major coup considering I used to foolishly challenge my husband's impeccable navigation skills in all manner of large, amorphous buildings. I learned that I have an uncanny ability to determine a person's nationality (or neighborhood, in the case of Brooklyn), within just a few moments of speaking to him or her. I learned that fluency -- or some semblance thereof -- can save you from getting lost and even earn you some goodwill. I've learned that a woman traveling solo in Latin America must be a red flag for trouble (drug smuggling?), as I was searched twice in the Cancún airport (Thank you, Maria Full of Grace.) I've learned that there are benefits to sweating profusely beyond the obvious pore-cleansing, temperature-regulating. I also learned that time is truly a suggestion in Mexico, although this is true -- or should be -- whenever you vacation somewhere that forces you to slow down. Although I've been home for a few weeks, the lesson has stayed with me: my watch has not kept much time on my wrist.

Viva Ceviche

Though this recipe calls for a significant amount of cilantro and only one jalapeño, the beauty of ceviche is that it is endlessly adaptable to suit individual tastes; the addition of avocado, Chef Jazquez says, is a Caribbean touch. While he used milar, a native fish, he's suggested grouper, which is more easily available in the United States. Removing the seeds from the jalapeño will subdue the heat; leave them in if you like things hot. If you want to double the recipe, it's helpful to remember a ratio of three parts tomatoes to one part red onion, but whatever you do, ceviche should be made with the freshest fish you can find.

Ingredients:

  • 10.5 oz. tomatoes
  • 2 oz. red onion
  • 1 small jalapeño chile
  • 1 small bunch cilantro
  • 12 oz. lime juice
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 3/4 tsp. Tabasco sauce
  • 2 avocados, peeled and pitted
  • 10.5 oz. grouper filet

Wash all ingredients. Cut the fish into bite-sized cubes and wash with ice water. Dice tomatoes and onion, and cut one of the avocados into small chunks. Thinly slice cilantro and jalapeno and mix together in a small bowl. Season with salt, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, two ounces of lime juice, and olive oil. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

In a separate metal bowl, mix the rest of the lime juice and the fish. Leave in the fridge for half an hour. The acids in the limes actually "cook" the fish and in about thirty minutes it will turn white.

Remove both bowls from the fridge. Drain the excess lime juice from the bowl with the fish and mix the fish with the ingredients in the other bowl. Note: If you skip this step, the acids in the juice will taint the flavor of the vegetables. Check the seasoning.

Cut the remaining avocado into four pieces and slice to form a fan shape, as garnish. Serves four as an appetizer, two as a main meal. Serve with tortilla chips.

Viva Café