Serenity Awaits in Riviera Maya

“I like it,” says my yoga teacher, Sama, after I find a pose that pleases him. I’m practicing yoga on a dock that juts out into the Caribbean Sea at Viceroy Riviera Maya, a cozy-yet-luxurious resort a few miles from Playa del Carmen.

All around us nature is alive with activity: seagulls cry and flap their wings in the sky above, and beneath me aquamarine waves crash on pilings, occasional sprays of surf providing a cool diversion from Sama’s challenging yoga class. I’m trying to stay focused on my poses, but it’s easy to get distracted by the sights, smells, and sounds of nature.

A mother and daughter vacationing together are on mats beside me as Sama leads us through multiple sun salutations—fast, slow, and slower. The slow sequences are the hardest, and my arms and legs are aching from the effort. I tell Sama at the beginning of class that I hope I can keep up. “Just do the best you can,” he says. “That’s how you should do yoga—and life, too!”

Often the universe tells you things you need to hear, and this simple advice hits home. Sometimes I can be too hard on myself, never quite satisfied with my accomplishments, always thinking I should be doing more, trying harder. Sama’s advice resonates, just one of the lessons I learn on this three-day solo getaway.

I came here because I needed to hit the pause button in my life and enjoy a little “me” time, something I think everyone needs now and then. Leaving behind our regular lives and landing in a place where everything is new helps us to reconnect with who we are inside, without distractions.

Viceroy Riviera Maya is an ideal spot for a solo escape. But it’s also perfect for couples and girlfriend getaways, too. Here guests can leave the real world behind, be pampered by friendly, attentive staff, and experience Mexican culture—all in a beautiful jungle environment where all you have to do is just be.

Moments after I check in, I am standing barefoot in the jungle as a shaman waves a smoking sage bundle in front and behind me and murmurs in the Mayan language. This traditional Maya purification and blessing ceremony, offered to resort guests, is said to realign your energy. I close my eyes, inhale the herbaceous scents of the sage, and listen to the shaman’s soothing voice. I feel completely present and in the moment. How do I make this feeling last?

One thing I discover—too late—is I shouldn’t have brought my computer along. After I get settled in my villa, my laptop calls me like a Greek siren with its tempting song, “Check your email now.” I can’t resist, but at least I’m sitting on the patio of my private villa under swaying palm trees as I do a little work. Soon the splash pool nearby becomes more tempting, and I take a little dip in the cool, refreshing water.

The next day I find myself craving water as I experience a traditional temazcal ceremony with a smiling woman named Berenice. Temazcal comes from two Mayan words that mean steam and house, and it’s the Mexican version of sweat lodges used by Native Americans. I’ve always wanted to try a temazcal—both to see what it’s like and also to see if I can handle it. I’m a sauna fan so figure it can’t be too hard.

I soon discover the temazcal is very intense. It’s not just the steamy heat from the stones (called Abuelitas—or grandmothers), nor is it the darkness of the small dome-shaped structure, symbolic of a mother’s womb, where Berenice and I sit during the ninety-minute ceremony. The temazcal is much more than the physical challenge of being in a very small, very hot space. It’s also a personal journey that takes you into yourself, to places where you have buried dreams and grudges and hidden emotions, where you recall people from your past and present, where you ask forgiveness from others and from yourself.

“Everyone has a different intention and different experiences,” explains Berenice later. “It is a really different experience, in which we are in touch with the nature, but most important with ourselves. It is the perfect way to get an emotional and spiritual liberation. I recommend it for couples because it is a nice way to know more about each other.”

Berenice leads me through the four doors, which are like acts in a play, each with a different theme—Life, Future, Present, and Past. At the beginning of each door, Julio, the assistant, brings in a shovel of fresh hot stones (“Welcome, Grandmothers,” says Berenice each time). She tells me the theme of the door and invites me to share my comments. In the Life door, she asks me to tell a little about the important people in my life, living and dead. She does the same in return. “These people are all here with us now,” she says. I feel their presence.

In the Future door, Berenice invites me to talk about my biggest dreams and shares her dreams as well. But there’s a caveat: “We also have to be aware that the future is uncertain,” Berenice says, “and that we have to work and enjoy each day because the present is the only certain time we have.” Another good lesson I have come here to hear.

I speak freely about what’s in my heart and on my mind during the ceremony and feel a sense of freedom and lightness as the temazcal continues. But it is extremely intense, and more than once I wonder if I can make it to the end. Sweat is pouring through my pores, and the hard ground I am sitting on is getting more uncomfortable by the minute.

Finally it’s over. I made it! As we leave the dome-shaped hut, Julio pours water over our heads and necks as we kneel by the entrance. Berenice brings me a cold drink and some cantaloupe. I’ve never drunk or tasted anything so good. As I sit in the shade of a palm tree, eating and drinking, I feel empty but energized. I know the effects of the temazcal will take some time to process, but I’m glad I made it through. I feel reborn.

The theme of rebirth comes up again later that afternoon during another Maya ritual in the Spa at Viceroy Riviera Maya, a signature massage called the Wayak. In a beautiful outdoor space, sheer curtains billow gently in the breeze as a nearby waterfall flows.

My therapist washes my feet and then invites me to lie on my stomach as she rubs an unbroken egg all over my body. Who knew an egg could feel so good! It symbolizes rebirth, my therapist tells me, and I am ready to let my old self go and welcome a new, better version of me. Next she taps my back and legs with rosemary sprigs tied together with rose petals. I love the fresh scent of the herbs and flowers. As the massage begins, I fall into a semi-conscious, dreamlike state and let myself relax completely.

This evening I have another special treat: a chef’s tasting menu at La Marea, the open air restaurant perched on pilings with a tall palapa straw roof that peaks at the top and mirrors the roofs of the resort’s 41 villas. What I love so much about this place is how the buildings blend in with the surrounding jungle. It feels organic, not like big-box resorts that rise up along the beach, packed with noisy guests. The calm, reflective vibe at Viceroy Riviera Maya is a welcome contrast.

As evening falls, I face the east and watch the sea and sky change color. Soon an indulgent parade of food begins, prepared with love by Chef Jorge Ildefonso, who at 31 years old, shows amazing talent as a chef. After an amuse bouche—a sliver of salmon, radish, and coriander—my first course arrives, a flavorful smoked oyster, barely cooked, with a rich birria sauce served on a bed of salt in a beautiful teak box. A sparkling Mexican wine is the perfect accompaniment.

Next I enjoy a beet salad with grapefruit sections and caramelized pumpkin seeds served with a sauvignon blanc. All the wines during the meal are Mexican, many sourced from Casa Madero, a 400-year-old winery, the oldest in North America. I’m pleasantly surprised by the quality of the Mexican wines I taste. Clearly the winemakers have a gift for raising grapes in this rugged country.

The dinner continues with a tuna tartare served with cucumber, jicama, and tortilla bits. It’s salty, sweet, and crunchy—delicious. I take a break after this course and enjoy the soft lounge music playing in the background, the enchanting view of the darkening sea, the breezes that waft through the restaurant, and the glowing candlelight that brightens the faces of my fellow diners who talk softly, laugh, and enjoy the serenity of the moment.

My next course arrives: chaya green risotto with mussels and a topping of crispy beef machaca. The combination sounds odd, but the textures and flavors work well together. A beautiful rosé with just the right touch of fruit balances the dish perfectly. Then the house specialty lands on my table, confit suckling pig served with a rich bean sauce and little dabs of avocado cream on the side. I loved the crunchy skin and the full-bodied cabernet sauvignon from Baja California that pairs beautifully with this savory dish. The signature dessert is a mildly spicy pepper stuffed with chocolate (!) and pistachio filling. It may sound bizarre, but it is a heavenly combination especially accompanied by crunchy amaranth and sweet corn ice cream. Wow, truly a meal I will long remember. Chef Jorge is amazing!

I get to meet him the next day at a cooking demo, one of the many activities offered at the resort. I have fallen in love with La Marea’s appetizer called sikilpak, a salsa made with roasted tomatoes, onions, and pumpkin seeds. So the resort has offered to do a cooking demo for me. In fact, culinary lessons are a popular activity at Viceroy Riviera Maya. Earlier that afternoon I watched guests learning how to make guacamole and margaritas at a colorful table set up in the garden.

Happily, the chef gives me the recipe for sikilpak as well as the delicious beet and grapefruit salad I sampled during the chef’s tasting menu. Another standout dish is served at the Coral Grill and Bar, a casual open-air restaurant nestled beside the pools just a few yards from the sea. Aztec Cake, a lasagna-like breakfast dish, has layers of soft tortillas, tender chicken, onions, corn, sour cream, and tomatillo sauce. I indulge in this hearty breakfast dish twice!

Once a week the Coral Grill and Bar hosts a festive evening celebrating Mexican street food—tamales, empanadas, tacos, quesadillas, nopales, and more—all with a gourmet twist. I sample a quesadilla made with squash blossoms, poblano chili, cheese, and a creamy sauce. The bartender makes me a delicious spicy-sweet Mescal cocktail with cassis, lime, and pureed mango. Yum! The flavors swirl on my tongue as I listen to the Mexican music and relish my last evening in this beautiful place.

The next morning it’s time for goodbyes. The Viceroy Riviera Maya staff has been amazingly friendly and genuinely warm and kind, and I’m sad to leave. As I walk down the path through the jungle past the villas, I keep my eyes out for one of the spider monkeys that live in the resort’s tall trees. I’ve heard them howling a time or two during my stay, a reminder that we aren’t alone in this beautiful jungle paradise.

This welcoming resort embraces the jungle. I feel connected to the rhythms of nature here, as well as ancient Maya traditions, in a unique way. A serene setting, delicious food, smiling staff, relaxing spa, sparkling sea, mellow vibe—what more could you ask for in a vacation? I can’t wait to go back.

For more information, visit

For more of Peggy’s travel adventures, visit

Peggy Sijswerda

Tidewater Women Magazine, Editor & Co-Publisher.

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