Great Adventure

A Grown Woman’s Guide to the Yucatán

by Allison Hatfield
Sian The author, at left, with new friends in Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Photo by Ryan Gray / courtesy of G Adventures.

YUCATÁN PENINSULA, Mexico — I was a five-year-old in pigtails the first time I saw Mexico. My brother was a months-old infant in an umbrella stroller. My mother: a twentysomething bravely casting about for a life she would never hook and land.

With my aunt and her Mexican boyfriend, we journeyed by car one afternoon from Los Angeles to Tijuana. As day turned to night, we strolled the sidewalks along the bustling Avenida Revolución. What I remember most from that trip are the glowing white larvae heavy at the bottoms of bottles of mezcal, photogenic burros striped like zebras, and a long line of vehicles anticipating their border-crossing into the United States. 

These details sparked more curiosity than the flying Dumbos I saw that same week at Disneyland. Though equally contrived, the souvenir shops overflowing with colorful sombreros, lively bars spilling out música norteña, and famed zonkeys ready for their close-ups were somehow different. They ignited my imagination and lifelong love of Mexico. 

I have since traveled there many times. Most recently, I visited at the end of the most difficult year of my life. (It’s a tale as old as Eat Pray Love — and though my watershed relationship and the events that followed involved more felony arrests and less spaghetti than Elizabeth Gilbert’s, I would like to leave it at that.)


By the time I boarded my flight to Cancun in April, I’d been dislocated and disoriented for more than twelve months. I’d cried my way through nearly a dozen states and hundreds of hours of video calls at my corporate job. Uncontrolled sobbing and overwork are both trauma responses, and I was delighted to be emerging from a tearful mania just in time to tour the ruins and cenotes of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, as part of G Adventures’ launch of The Geluxe Collection.

The new premium offering from the Toronto-based tour operator features curated itineraries designed around physical activity, deep cultural exploration, meaningful interactions with locals, one-of-a-kind accommodations, and elevated dining. Geluxe Collection tours are built for solo travelers 18 and older seeking adventure, ease, and a hint of luxury, according to G Adventures director of product development Samantha Couture. In other words, they are built for people like me: middle-aged women who want authentic experiences in parts of the world they haven’t seen, a nice bed at the end of the day, and hand-picked restaurants they didn’t have to research, with tipping and logistics handled by someone else.

The Geluxe Collection comprises 45 trips spanning 26 destinations. It covers the globe, from South Africa to South America, Japan to Jordan, Greece to the Galapagos. Prices vary widely according to location and length of trip. You can spend from $2,500 to more than $14,000. Airfare is not included. A knowledgeable G Adventures guide, called a chief experience officer (CEO for short), and local guides for excursions are. I can say with confidence after eight days in the Yucatán: These trips are worth every penny.

Safe Landing

The Cancun airport is well-suited for arrivals and departures. It’s also good for people-watching. Though a translucent neon green biketard isn’t my style — I wore the signature confection of a small dressmaker from Dallas — I did appreciate the pluck of the woman who paired it with a bedazzled cowboy hat and not much else. She looked ready for the special brand of celebration for which Cancun is known.

The G Adventures tour began an hour away. Our group met on the roof of the Thompson Playa del Carmen Main House. The hotel’s infinity pool was refreshing and the breakfast was tasty, but I wouldn’t want to attempt to sleep there again. 

In hindsight, I’d likely have been better off if I’d allowed myself to be lured into Coco Bongo by the handsome man at its doors. Described on its website as a “nonstop party with amazing impersonations, wild shows, and state-of-the-art audio and video equipment,” the club has a raucous late-night scene that would no doubt have been more relaxing than my room overlooking hookah lounge Purple Kingdom. The earplugs provided by the hotel were no match for the Afrobeats pulsing until 3 a.m.

Luckily, Playa del Carmen was only a port of call.

Photo by Allison Hatfield.
Valladolid after dark. Photo by Allison Hatfield.

The Heart of the Matter

Our true first destination was the pre-Hispanic city of Chichen Itzá. I thought I’d already been there, but I was wrong. It’s easy to mix up your Mayan ruins, and years ago, I relegated “piles of old rocks” to the same category as Gothic churches: I’ve seen plenty.

I had not, however, seen Chichen Itzá. I had not stood inside the largest ballcourt in Mesoamerica where winners (or losers?) of the onomatopoeic pok-ta-pok game were beheaded. I had not moved slowly around the corner of El Castillo to watch a stone snake undulate segment by segment down its stairs. And I had not heard the sound of the revered quetzal bird, created by clapping while standing in front of the pyramid. When our guide demonstrated the ancient phenomenon, emotion overcame me and I burst into tears.

I was all smiles during lunch at the home of a Mexican couple who left their service-industry jobs in Cancun to open a restaurant of their own. Our group filled up on homemade tortillas, black beans, guacamole, salsa, chayote, and so much more. The lunch exemplified G Adventures’ company values and how the Geluxe Collection creates meaning at the intersection of simplicity and sophistication.

When 22-year-old Bruce Poon Tip maxed out two credit cards to found his company in 1990, he did so with a mission to positively impact the communities where he planned to take travelers. Under the banner of G for Good, his company has for 30 years built tours that directly benefit the people and places along its routes. In the case of our entrepreneurial host and hostess, the partnership with G Adventures has allowed them to dream bigger dreams than a lengthy commute and small hourly salaries could ever afford. They are currently working on an expansion of their modest home in order to accommodate more diners.

In the colonial town of Valladolid, we checked into charming, adults-only Hotel Le Muuch for the night. Valladolid is one of two Pueblos Magicos in the state of Yucatán. The Mexican government recognizes certain small towns for their beauty, history, or legends. Maybe it was merely a genius marketing ploy to label a bunch of underrated places “magic,” but in the few hours I spent in Valladolid, I fell under the spell of Calzada de los Frailes. Wandering the street, I peeked into trendy restaurants, cute cafes, and covetable boutiques.

A hammocked oasis awaits on the rooftop patio at Le Muuch Hotel. Photo by Allison Hatfield.
The author, feeling very good about this trip. Photo courtesy of Allison Hatfield.


Geluxe Collection trips are a little more inclusive, a little more structured, and a little slower paced than other G Adventures tours. I felt especially glad about the slower-paced part and more than once wondered aloud what a more fast-paced itinerary might look like, because our days started early and were action packed. We often had only an hour or two after arriving at our hotel in the evening to rest or shower before dinner. It was always a lot but somehow never too much.

There are two other things unique to Geluxe. One is what the company calls the OMG Stay.

It’s easy to assume the name refers to an elegant, five-star accommodation. Sometimes it does, but Couture wants to make one thing clear: The OMG Stay is not about the room. What matters is less tangible.

“The OMG Stay is less about the hardware of the hotel — the fancy towels, the fancy soap,” she says, “than it is about the experience at or around the OMG Stay.”

“For example, in Japan, the OMG Stay is in Akita, in a place where there hasn’t been a lot of Western tourism. There, the OMG Stay is around the experience of going to a place where they’re kind of hosting groups for the first time. And it’s on a beautiful lake. It has a view.”

Another good example: Nepal. “We’ve got river rafting with an overnight at a tented camp. So again, not necessarily lush bedding but a really unique experience.”

The OMG Stay is “absolutely comfortable at a minimum,” Couture says, but the wow factor has more to do with access to cultural preservation, local people, or natural beauty such as geological formations or wildlife.

The other unique aspect of a Geluxe Collection tour is the OMG Day that travelers get to select.

For me, nearly every day of the trip felt like OMG — sometimes every hour. 

“That’s great,” Couture says. “That’s what we want. We do hope it’s an OMG Day every day. But the idea behind the OMG Day is choice: You have two choices. One is historical and cultural; the other might be more active, so you can tailor the experience to something you prefer.”

Sotuta de Peón Hacienda Viva was the ideal OMG Stay. Forty-five minutes south of the Yucatán capital city of Merida, the restored mid-19th century henequen plantation comprises 30 cabins inspired by Mayan and colonial architecture. Each has a private patio and a plunge pool. If you’re lucky, it might also include a herd of bleating sheep at sunrise.

We began our time at Sotuta de Peón with an interactive cooking demonstration of cochinita pibil. The Yucatán-style barbecue pork is marinated in citrus juice and annatto seed powder, wrapped in banana leaves, and slow-roasted in the ground. While hot coals transformed the meat into a tender delicacy to be served later, our group learned about the origins of the hacienda as a working farm and factory for henequen, also known as sisal.

The restored main house at Hacienda Sotuta de Peon. Photo by Allison Hatfield.
The Mayan and colonial architecture of Yucatan inspired the cabins at Hacienda Sotuta de Peon. Photo by Allison Hatfield.

I didn’t expect to be enthralled by the process of turning a rangy succulent into fiber used for rope, rugs, and other goods. But thanks in large part to a bouncy Mayan guide who may have missed his calling as a telenovela announcer, I was. With punchy enthusiasm, he walked us through the current operation, which still runs the original equipment invented to refine the “green gold” that in the early 1900s sustained more than 1,000 plantations and made Yucatán the wealthiest state in Mexico and nearby Merida one of the richest cities in the world. I hung on the guide’s every word and vowed to follow him anywhere.

He took us next by mule train through henequen fields to an example of a traditional Mayan home. Mud walls, hammocks, and outdoor kitchens are how many Mayans still live today. 

We then dropped into the property’s cenote for sublime subterranean swimming. Afterward, as the slanted afternoon sun dried our bodies and margaritas warmed our blood, the group concluded that our OMG Stay had, in its first hours, exceeded its billing.

Sisal: before and after. Photos by Allison Hatfield.
Photo by Allison Hatfield.

More Cenotes, Celestún, and a Crocodile 

Scientists generally agree that an asteroid’s impact roughly 66 million years ago, off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula in what is now the Gulf of Mexico, resulted in the extinction of 75 percent of Earth’s creatures. The Chicxulub Crater also formed a vast network of sinkholes and underground caverns in the peninsula’s limestone bedrock. 

Before this trip, I’d swum in the caves and craters filled with incomprehensibly blue water, but I didn’t know anything about the asteroid. I also didn’t know ancient Mayans considered cenotes portals to the underworld, but the dramatic way cenotes reveal the craggy mysteries of what lies beneath the surface makes it easy to see why.

On our fourth morning in Mexico, we explored four increasingly spectacular examples of the formations. Having arrived at the Santa Barbara cenotes before most other visitors, we had them nearly to ourselves. It wasn’t luck but rather strategic timing that allowed for that fact, which underscored the OMG factor on a non-OMG Day. For several hours, we laughed and played like children, diving, splashing, marveling at our good fortune. 

At the on-site restaurant, I ordered papadzules for lunch. Epicurious calls papadzules “the sleeper hit dish of the Yucatán.” I was eager to try it. Basically boiled egg-filled enchiladas covered in pumpkin-seed sauce, papadzules is a hearty vegetarian option. I found it soggy and bland. Salt helped, but I wasn’t convinced.

For my OMG Day, I chose kayaking in the Celestún Biosphere Reserve over the ruins of Uxmal. See my policy about old rocks, plus I love the perspective provided by sitting low on the water, and I wanted to paddle under the canopy of mangroves. 

I didn’t want to paddle close to a crocodile, but circumstances conspired against me. I know what crocodiles can do — I’ve read the internet! — and nothing our 17-year-old Mayan guide could say assuaged my fear of being shredded by the beast. I was glad when we passed by, only feet from her toothy face, without becoming a headline. 

I’d been hoping to see the last of the season’s pink flamingos. Huge flocks fill the biosphere from November through March before moving to Rio Lagartos for mating season. The birds were gone, however, leaving that bucket-list item for another trip.

As scared as I was about my reptile encounter, I was thrilled in equal measure by Playa Norte Celestún. The fishing village reminds me of the Playa del Carmen of 30 years ago: pristine beaches with very few people, thatched-roof restaurants serving the freshest ceviche, teensy hotels without the abomination of air conditioning. I made a note to return soon.

Yep, that's a crocodile. Photo by (a very brave) Allison Hatfield.
The ruins in Tulum. Photo by Allison Hatfield.
The group in Tulum. Photo by Michael Heritage / courtesy of G Adventures.

The Sky Is Born (and Authenticity Has Died)

The Mayans may have built the port that was the tour’s final stop in the late 13th century, but Instagram influencers in the 21st century have claimed Tulum as their own. Take my advice: Avoid #tulum, #tulumbeach, and #tulumvibes.

On the afternoon of our visit to the archaeological site at Tulum National Park, I spotted no such influencing humans. Once again, our CEO’s strategic timing meant we nearly had the seaside ruins to ourselves. I’d seen the old temple blocks of the only Mayan settlement on a Caribbean beach before, and I kind of love them. The beach was closed during this visit for construction of a new staircase down the side of the cliff. Tulum and many areas around it are preparing for the opening of the Mayan Railroad and the influx of travelers expected with it. 

It’s not hard to imagine what the railroad and brand-new Tulum airport will do for the area. Already crowded and phony, the Tulum most visitors see presents the risk of drowning in fringe and feathers. The struggle for authenticity is real.

Finding my room at Nômade Tulum was also challenging.

I was excited to stay at the resort. Only 18 months prior, I’d visited Holbox, home to a second Nômade outpost, for yoga, a tarot reading, and a cacao ceremony. I’d fallen in love with the island and believe my oxytocin haze had something to do with my rave reviews of the hotel. It’s hard to say, but not as hard as locating room 35 at Nômade Tulum. 

Signage is scarce, and after barely winning the fight against the urge to scream “Somebody please help me!” on the third attempt to find my room, I learned that “find the way, find yourself” is part of the Nômade philosophy. Ha! While spinning around in a jungle of treehouses and palm fronds, I found an anxious, angry woman who likes navigational markers. The joke was on me.

You may wonder where your room is at Nômade Tulum. That’s all part of the plan. Photo by Allison Hatfield.

The next morning, there was no hint of that foul mood. Likewise, we left the artificiality of Tulum behind to visit Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. The UNESCO World Heritage Site recognized for its biodiversity and wetlands is a huge protected area where wildlife thrives and sunscreen is forbidden.

After breakfast alfresco, our group boarded two small motorboats to traverse a turquoise lagoon and canals dug by Mayans centuries ago as trade routes. Then, much to everyone’s delight, we stopped at a small dock where we were instructed to remove our life jackets, step into them like diapers, and slip into the water. When teeing up the day, our CEO mentioned a “slow river float.” She undersold the experience, but I too find myself coming up short to describe what came next.

Sian Ka’an means “gates of heaven” or “a place where heaven begins” or “where the sky is born” in Yuatec Mayan. Floating effortlessly through the narrow canal on a perfectly timed current did seem otherwordly. Connected to the past and very much in the present, I felt wonder and a deep gratitude for my life. I think we all did. 

Sian Ka’an has been called a “beacon of sustainable tourism,” and it’s hard not to worry that well-meaning humans drawn to the light will ruin it. Yes, I want to go back and venture farther into the biosphere to see manatees. No, I don’t want so many people to want to do it that it does harm. Yes, I want the local people to make a good living from their land. No, I don’t want money to be the demise of that land, as it has been for so much of the planet. It’s an existential conundrum without an easy answer.

Our guide told us regulations for Sian Ka’an are strict, and tourism stands at about 60 percent of pre-pandemic levels. For years, there’s been talk of limiting the number of visitors each day, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Back on land and before a perfect lunch of fish steamed in a banana leaf, we walked through Muyil, the small, lush site of one of the earliest and longest-inhabited Mayan cities. It was a last chance to learn a little more about the indigenous people who still call the Yucatán Peninsula home.

Vaya con Dios, My Darling

The afternoon found us all flung about on beach beds and chairs at the hotel. It was the rare stretch of daylight hours when there were no other plans for our group. 

That night, we met for a farewell dinner on the beach. As the debut of the Geluxe Collection wound down, white lights twinkled overhead, and fringed sunshades danced in the wind. The chefs at Nômade Tulum were on top of their grilling game, and the hypnotic smell of copal filled the air. 

Only eight days had passed on my most recent trip to Mexico, but time felt expansive. Thanks to expert planning, the generosity of our CEO, and the sweetness of new friends, the trip was abundant, stirring, and full of surprises — much like the country itself.

Photo by Allison Hatfield.

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