Tango Diva : Travel Stories for Women, by Women

by Melissa Josue

I miss kayaking at dawn on the tranquil sapphire waters of Laguna Bacalar. Here, the faint crows of roosters summon the day. Crystal clear waters ebb and flow beneath hammocks swinging from a thatched-roof dock. Fresh tropical fruit and homemade breads beckon from the open-air dining room. Orchids adorn the trunks and branches of abundant trees. There are only twelve casitas generously spaced apart, so you feel as though it is just you, the wide laguna, and the magic of Mexico for you to savor and explore.

I first visited Rancho Encantado seven years ago on vacation with my parents. It was to be, in some ways, our last vacation together as a family before my sister and I moved away to college. My sister and I shared a casita by the water while my parents had the one right next to ours. Each casita was like having your own lakeside bungalow, with a romantic palapa or palm-thatched roof, a generously sized bathroom, fresh hibiscus flowers on the coffee table and nightstands, and two colorful hammocks swinging over a tile patio…all overlooking lush green trees bowing toward what is known as the Lake of Seven Colors.

If high thread count sheets and air conditioning are a requirement for a comfortable stay, this might not be the place for you. (Though, Casa Estrella, the owner’s home on the Rancho Encantado property, is also available for rent on a weekly basis most months of the year, and it is a fully outfitted house.) I enjoy the rustic charm. The barrel of purified water on the table, the colorful Mexican textiles covering the shutter-style windows, the painted murals on the walls, the basket lampshades. Here you can fall asleep to the sound of the lake lapping against the limestone pebbles and the occasional chirp of geckos hiding in the roof.

Breakfast and dinners are included in the modest daily rate, and being one who takes pleasure in eating, the fresh local cuisine served against the backdrop of this little paradise blew away all my pessimistic expectations of “hotel food.” The pristine Rancho kitchen led by Mayan chef Julia Chay offers a selection of local tropical fruit and homemade breads and cereals for breakfast, and fresh regional fish and poultry for dinner, including the best quesadilla, buttery avocados, and sopa de ajo (garlic soup) I’ve ever tasted. Dinners are followed by delicious desserts, like flan or key lime pie. And of course, there’s a full bar with international wines and spirits, and a selection of fruit smoothies that some could be seen sipping over the dock at sunset.

Roberto Chay, a long time employee of the Rancho, remembering my sister and me from our earlier visit, gave us a big hug when we first approached the reception desk years later. The food and service is offered with such care and attention, you feel as though you are a guest in the home of old friends.

Steps beyond the open dining room, facing the blue laguna, is an alcove with an outdoor Jacuzzi. The Jacuzzi, in operation during the high season, sits atop beveled steps against a background of tall palms and potted tropical flowers. The walls of the entrance are decorated with mosaic tile. My sister and I were tempted to sneak out of our casitas in the middle of the night and take a moon bath with just the water against our skin.

I only had one opportunity to wade au naturale into the aguadulce laguna (fresh water lake), and this was in the afternoon sun, behind an enclosed palapa massage hut built right over the water. As Mallina Visarraga, the resident curandera and spa therapist, dropped fragrant, organic oils along the column of my back, I could hear the gentle waters along the dock piles beneath me. Using a delicious combination of honey, salt, and aromatic oils, she massaged my skin with strong yet brisk movements that left me both pampered, invigorated and with baby soft skin.

The Salt Glo treatment, as it is called, is part of the Ix Chel Goddess Treatment, which also includes a warm herbal wrap, Lomi Lomi (Hawaiian Temple Body Work massage) and a facial. But unlike the facials and massages I usually get at my local urban day spa, here at Rancho Encantado, I’m on the shore of a 50-mile wide lake. At the day spa, I show up for an appointment. Here, I participate in a ritual. Here, I let Mallina’s compassionate hands, elbows and forearms knead into quiet oblivion the little hurts that I carried in my calves, my neck, and the small of the back. Here, I could stand unclothed on the wooden steps behind the hut, overlooking the expanse of the laguna, and be rinsed with warm chamomile water before slipping into the lake and letting the waves wash the honey and salt from my skin.

I believe it when they say that Rancho Encantado and the Costa Maya is a magical place, a place where the people live in agreement with the land. Here, verdant vegetation dominates the countryside and slowly but surely conquers the material testaments to human progression, just as trees grow over ancient Mayan ruins still buried beneath the soil. Burly vines make their way up telephone poles and wire. Tall plants brush your car as you’re driving through some of the village roads.

Just months before I returned to the Yucatan region, seven years after I had traveled there with my parents and sister, Hurricane Dean, with winds blowing close to 200 miles per hour, pummeled Quintana Roo’s Costa Maya region. Storm surge and high winds damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings on the Yucatan Peninsula and flooded the state capital of Chetumal.

But you wouldn’t know that Rancho Encantado had just narrowly survived such a devastating and powerful storm. Defiant sprigs of green sprout from where tree branches once grew, and fresh mounds of dirt offer new beds of flowers and brush where plants had been uprooted. It is just as peaceful and breathtaking as I remember it years ago.

When I was looking to visit Mexico for the first time with my family, I wanted to go to place that was away from the manufactured tourist havens of Cancun, away from the Margaritavilles and Johnny Rockets of the world, away from the hoards of vacationers visiting the popular ruins behind plated glass on wheels. I found these hidden adventures to La Ruta Maya at Rancho Encantado.

Twenty years ago, before “eco” was ever a prefix to anything resembling travel and leisure, the primary concern of Susanna Starr, co-owner of the eco-resort, has always been the sustainability of the land and the culture. “We built the Rancho to provide a very special place,” she said. “We are part of one entity. And when we look into the laguna, we see our reflections.”

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For More Information:

Immerse Yourself in La Costa Maya

Becan, Chicanna and Oxtankah

Becan, Chicanna and Oxtankah are a few of the more than a dozen ancient Mayan sites to which Rancho Encantado offers excursions. When I visited these little-known sites, there was only one other couple wandering around the ruins, some of which were still being excavated, so it felt like my family and I were the only ones there.

Becan is an ancient Mayan city that was once surrounded by an artificial moat. See some of the towers around the plaza that were used to make astronomical observations. Chicanna and Becan are both situated in Campeche, the state just west of Quintana Roo. See one of the most important attractions at Chicanna, the entrance to Temple II, which represents the mouth of Chac, the ancient Mayan god of rain and lightning. At Oxtankah, by Chetumal Bay, see how a temple was changed by the arrival of the Spaniards. Learn more at: http://encantado.com/adventrips.html.

Sail the Laguna Bacalar

Laguna Bacalar is the second largest fresh water lake in Mexico. Take a boat from Club de Vela y Ski Bacalar, where you can rent kayaks, go on a boat tour or have lunch and a cerveza at their restaurant, El Mulato de Bacalar, located near San Felipe Fort in Bacalar. Customize your tour and see and hear the legends of the Lake of Seven Colors.

Location: Costera Bacalar and Calle 20 in Bacalar. Open Mon-Sun, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM. $100 pesos/hour for a boat tour for two people.

Tel: +052 (983) 834 24 78

Visit Chetumal and an Authentic Mexican Market

The capital of Quintana Roo is just a 30-minute drive away from the Rancho. Explore the city center at Avenue Heroes and browse the assortment of shops and zapaterias (shoe stores). Sample local exotic fruits at the Market behind The Museum of Mayan Culture. Have lunch on Chetumal Bay in front of the Palacio de Gobierno (Government Palace) at the southern end of Avenue Heroes.

Tip: Siesta is a real thing here. So it’s not unusual to find most shops closed between 1:00 PM and 5:00 PM.

Explore The Museum of Mayan Culture

The Museo de la Cultura Maya features artifacts uncovered during excavation, replicas of Mayan cities and fully illustrated exhibits explaining the customs and cosmological beliefs of a civilization ahead of its time. There are English-speaking guides at the entrance of the museum. Location: Corner of Mahatma Gandhi and Avenue Heroes in Chetumal.

Hours: Tues-Thurs 9:00 AM-7:00 PM; Fri-Sun 9:00 AM-8:00PM. Admission is $50 pesos for foreigners.
Visit http://www.iqc.gob.mx for more information.

Discover the Rio Hondo

The Rio Hondo (Deep River) runs along the border between Mexico and Belize and offers an adventure and opportunity to see herons, crocodiles and iguanas in their natural habitat. If you’re lucky, you might see a manatee! Tours are offered daily departing from Villa Manati on Chetumal Bay. Location: Boulevard Bahia 301 in Chetumal. Tours offered Mon-Fri at 11:00 AM; Sat. 10:00 AM; and Sun. at 8:30 AM, 11:00 AM and 1:30 PM. $150 pesos/person.

Tel: +052 (983) 129 32 04.

Visit www.villamanati.com.mx for more information.

Be the Guest of a Mayan Village

Start your day with a homemade breakfast in a Mayan family’s dining room or try your hand at weaving a hammock at 20 de Noviembre (20th of November), an ejido (a government-sponsored land cooperative for campesinos) in the state of Campeche. Tours of this authentic Mayan community can be arranged through the Chicanna Eco-Village Resort in Campeche.

Tel: +052 (981) 811 9192.

Visit www.chicannaecovillageresort.com for more information.

Kayak at Dawn on the Lake of Seven Colors

You can rent a kayak and paddles from the bar in the dining room at Rancho Encantado. Be sure to wear surf shorts or a swimsuit, as the drains in the boat will get you wet. Savor the light morning mist that lingers over the surface of the lake as you step into the warm water and push your boat away from the shore. At this time of day, vapor shrouds the horizon so it is as if the earth and heavens are a single canvas…and you are paddling into the sky.

For more information about the Rancho Encantado eco-resort, spa, and adventure excursions, please visit: www.encantado.com.

Reservations: bookings@encantado.com or 1-800-505-MAYA or (505) 894-7074

How To Get There:

Cancun International Airport is the largest major airport within Mexico closest to Rancho Encantado (about 200 miles south of Cancun).

The Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport in Belize City is the closest international airport to the Rancho (about 100 miles south of Laguna Bacalar).

Then there is also Chetumal Airport, about 30 minutes from the Rancho in Chetumal city. But Chetumal Airport is very small and you would need to change planes in Mexico City to reach Chetumal. As a result, fares tend to be much more expensive than flying into Belize or Cancun.

Rancho Encantado can arrange transfers to the hotel from each of these airports.

Tip: If you want to save hundreds of dollars, my recommendation would be to fly into Cancun and take a first or second-class bus to Bacalar (which is a 10 minute taxi ride from the Rancho), rather than renting a car or hiring a taxi or private coach form Cancun. It is a 4-5 hour bus ride. It only costs $18-30 one-way. And once you get to Bacalar, you can catch a $5 taxi to Rancho Encantado.

Bus it in Mexico, you say?! I know, my mother freaked out, too. But it’s easy. Really. My 21-year-old sister did it alone, and she doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish. Just get your ticket at the bus station in Cancun airport (or go to this Web site: www.ticketbus.com.mx ), make sure you have some pesos on you and bring a Spanish language phrasebook.

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