Construction called for biologists and hydrologists to design a complex within a massive parcel of nature in the Yucatan Peninsula bordering the Atlantic Ocean that comprised some 1,500 pristine acres of jungles, mangroves and natural canals.
Mayakoba now includes numerous resorts and residences tucked in the forest and connected by narrow cobble stoned roads, bike paths and lagoons. During the building process, plants were temporarily removed, then replanted, and an additional 10,000 mangroves were added into the ecosystem. My four-night stay featured gourmet vegan food, breathtaking water views and stunning nature in a luxury setting.
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Among the resorts in the complex are the Rosewood, Fairmont, Andaz and Banyan Tree Mayakoba. The experience of staying as a guest at Banyan Tree is perhaps the pinnacle of embracing nature and luxury. The grand lobby, private villas and waterfront restaurants are nestled among mangrove-studded canals and forest-lined paths. Banyan Tree, an Indonesian resort chain, displays its Indonesian influences the main areas with Rumah adat rooftops, restaurant seating on floating platforms and bamboo basketweave light shades. If you’re seeking an ultra-luxe eco-friendly property, look no further than Banyan Tree.
I stayed in the secluded Serenity Villa with my husband for a long-overdue couples’ getaway with relaxation and wellness in mind.
Restaurants in Mayakoba
As a vegan foodie, I sought out vegan items on every restaurant and cafe menu. There was no shortage of vegan options to make for a spectacular vacation focused on eating healthy food.
Saffron—Thai Restaurant at its Best
Among the five restaurants at the Banyan Tree, Saffron was the epitome of fine Thai dining with an emphasis on Thai culture. We were greeted by a staff member who poured water on our hands then handed us towels to dry them, a signature pre-meal hand washing ritual. The menu featured the popular Indonesian ingredients tamarind and saffron, included in everything from the cocktails to the sauces to the freshly baked bread, and a vegetarian section with primarily vegan items. We ate:
- Amuse bouche of fresh grapefruit with shredded coconut (complimentary for the table)
- Saffron infused mini bread rolls (complimentary for the table)
- The Virgin Riviera Lemonade Mocktail with homemade lemonade, berries and agave
- Pho Pia Thod – Crispy & fresh vegetable spring rolls with mango sweet chili & tamarind sauce
- Fried Tofu with Semi-sweet Sauce and Cashews—served with mushrooms, carrots, peppers and three type of rice: saffron, jasmine and tamarind.
- Pad Thai Thao Hoo—Wok cooked rice noodles with vegetables, fried tofu & spicy tamarind sauce (can be made without egg)
- Sticky rice (vegan—made with coconut milk), served with coconut ice cream (contains dairy)
Every bite was fresh and highly seasoned–pure luxury of the senses and palate. We were tempted to eat there every night of our stay but knew that other discoveries awaited us.
Cello—Vegan-Friendly Italian on the Lagoon
On our second night, we dined at Cello, the Italian restaurant on the property. We were given prime seating at a solitary table covered with a crisp white tablecloth located on a floating wood-planked platform hovering above the canal. The food was equally as sublime as Saffron. The menu also included a vegetarian section with vegan options. We ate:
- Freshly baked ciabatta for the table with pesto sauce (complimentary for the table)
- Grilled vegetables
- Rich, creamy beet risotto, a seasonal special not listed on the permanent menu
Laguna—Mexican Restauant on Floating Islands
On our third night, we decided to venture off the property and dine at the Mexican restaurant Laguna at the neighboring Fairmont Mayakoba. The property, which underwent a through multi-million-dollar renovation recently, was a splendor to the eyes. The lobby—grand, open air and bustling with activity on a Tuesday night in mid-January—opened up to a view of the five main pools and sprawling, palm-tree studded property. If you’re looking for an affordable, spacious and family-friendly property, the Fairmont is an excellent choice.
We took two different carts, then a five-minute walk past the pools to reach Lacuna, which itself had undergone a repackaging with the renovation. The restaurant seating featured a series of mini floating wood-planked “islands” with tables of two, four or six on each one, with plank-like walkways leading to each island. We arrived early, before the dinner service started at 6 pm. We scored a table for two on one of the islands farthest from the main building, with florescent lime-toned lagoon water right below our feet. I ate some amazing vegan food:
- Corn tortillas with three types of mole—pumpkin, yellow corn and beet (complimentary for the table)
- Guacamole – made by hand in front of us –with house made chips
- Jicama salad with hearts of palm, tomatoes and frisée
- Mixiote – vegan mole bowl with pan roasted potatoes, cauliflower, zucchini, peppers and mushrooms, topped with thinly sliced radish and purple nasturtiums.
At all three restaurants, the sun set in the distance as we talked and ate, casting shadows across the lagoon, bringing depth and distance to the calm, azure water. The lamps and lights strung throughout the dining areas spread an iridescent glow across our faces, the surface of the canal and long-fingered mangroves in the distance. It was a visual mirage of mystery, beauty and warmth. We savored every moment.
Sands Beach Club—A Personalized Breakfast
Our room was situated near the lobby, a mile or so from the beach. We biked along the resort bike/cart path down to the beach to have breakfast at the peaceful and gorgeous Sands Beach Club, a bright airy space that had tables overlooking the ocean. I had an incredible vegan platter of house-made granola, oatmeal and fruit compute, served with fresh berries and tropical fruits. I ordered my latte with soy milk.
One morning, I took a long walk along the beach past the other Mayakoba resorts, then returned to the Sands Club to read on one of the many cozy, oversized lounge chairs. Fresh squeezed orange juice and champagne was set out on a table for guests.
Beach BBQ—Oceanfront Dining
On our last night, we attended a beachfront BBQ that is held every Wednesday night near the ocean past the Sands Club. A chef grilled the entire menu on site, and a smarty-set table was set up for diners. There was plenty of seafood, meat and poultry on the menu, but the chef prepared two incredible vegan dishes for me. I ate:
- Grilled mushrooms and avocado with salsa verde and
- Eggplant stake with caramelized onion and grilled artichoke with cinnamon served on bed of corn elote (Mexican creamed corn)
- Guacamole and chips (for the table)
- Grilled corn and potatoes (for the table)
One day, we biked along the Mayakoba nature trail to two of the other resorts with the Mayakoba complex—Rosewood and Andaz. We meant to bike directly to Rosewood but ended up at Andaz first. Our accidental pitstop at Andaz turned out to be a sign from the universe—the beach club a this affordably-price Hyatt-owned hotel featured an all-vegan café with an impressive array of vegan dishes with international influences. I could barely contain my excitement. I wasn’t very hungry, so it was hard to narrow down my options. We ended up ordering:
- Chia smoothie
- Vegan Caesar salad
- Vegan cheese rice balls
The menu also included lots of different smoothies, a whole grain bowl, lettuce wrap with plantains and soy meat, a squash noodle dish, and vegan kebabs.
If you’re looking for an affordable family-friendly hotel within Mayakoba, Andaz is the way to go.
Restaurants in Playa Del Carmen
A trip to the Yucatán to experience healthy food wouldn’t be complete without a trip to 5th Avenue in Playa Del Carmen, the beach spot of the people where tourists on a budget stay, hang out at the public beach, go shopping for trinkets, and eat out at reasonably priced cafes, bars and restaurants.
To Be—Vegetarian Restaurant with the Best Vegan Moussaka
We quickly discovered To Be, a very casual eatery with one of the biggest vegan menus I have ever seen—and that statement is coming from a New York-based traveler who’s eaten at some of the best vegan spots in New York and Los Angeles. The menu included bowls, three types of empanadas, Mexican themed main courses like Not Ceviche and Isla Roja, tacos, an assortment of salads with quinoa, lentils and greens, plus sandwiches, five kinds of vegan croissants, desserts, fresh juices, coffee and a make-your-own smoothie menu. We ordered the:
- Be Burger—large and filling with vegan mayonnaise and served with French fries
- Rainbow spring rolls – huge, stuffed with fresh vegetables and topped with teriyaki sauce
- Moussaka – delicious; served in a cast-iron skillet with vegan cheese and layers of caramelized vegetables
I could easily have returned dozens of times to try almost everything on the menu.
Worth mentioning, one block further down on 5th Avenue is the Terra Verde Organic Vegan Restaurant—a charming, small space with a few tables, an open kitchen, and decorated plentifully with house plants. The menu is also quite extensive, with a large assortment of bowls, salads, enchiladas, tacos, pasta, coffee, green juices, antioxidant drinks, and more. I didn’t have a chance to try the food but would definitely check the place out next time.
For an excellent, thorough list of vegan food spots in Playa Del Carmen, look no further than this post on the blog Tofu Traveler.
Nature, Wellness and Eco-Friendly Practices
On our second day, we took the complimentary eco-tour, a 45-minute boat ride through the lagoons and canals of Mayakoba. Along the way, we saw sections of the other resorts, scores of long-limbed mangroves, and wildlife at work—crocodiles, baby box turtles, and regional birds like the large-tailed anhinga nesting with its mate.
On my Instagram account, I posted a reel of water scenes from the trip—views from the Sands Club, the Lacuna and beachfront BBQ at dusk, a walk on the beach and view of the lagoon during eco boat tour. Watching moving water is a proven form of therapy; between the pools, ocean, lagoons and canals, surrounding myself with water proved to be the most simplistic form of wellness that needed no words or scheduled visit to a spa.
The eco-friendly practices of Banyan Tree were impressive and didn’t go unnoticed—all water was provided in glass bottles, all towels were reusable/made of cloth, and toiletries in the bathrooms were all filled in ceramic dispensers. Plastic waste appeared to be non-existent.
Hubby and I made a concerted effort to be under scheduled. We spent our time relaxing in our villa pool, having leisurely meals, and enjoying the therapeutic beauty of our surroundings. Discovering healthy food destinations and the layout of Mayakoba were my only other goals—so such so that I didn’t even practice yoga or experience any of the resort’s specialty wellness offerings. And there are many; for those seeking spa treatments or yoga classes, Banyan Tree has no shortage of them. And it goes without saying that the Riviera Maya region of Mexico includes active excursions as well–from Mayan ruins to snorkeling to cave adventures and outdoor adventure parks.
A visit to the Riviera Maya can be customized to any preference—action-packed, beach-studded or therapeutic and relaxing. Mine was decidedly the latter, with a theme of clean vegan eating throughout. While the world at large still embraces wastefulness and irresponsible consumption, this pocket of the Riviera Maya has other ideas—the progressive, conscientious practices at Mayakoba allow visitors to enjoy a luxurious vacation while lightening their carbon footprint, at least a little bit.