Paradise On The Mexican Caribbean

A Yucatán Enthusiast Surveys The Riviera Maya From Its Ancient Wonders To Vibrant Night Life
Carola Canto Salas, right, meets with Unico staff.
Carola Canto Salas
Executive Assistant To General Manager, Unico 20° 87° Hotel Riviera Maya

At a resort that encompasses a unique blend of guest services, custom programs, and varied gastronomy together with notable adventure—swimming in cenotes, zip-lining through jungle canopies, tours of Mayan archaeological sites—for singular, immersive experiences, Carola Canto Salas brings a special measure of insider expertise.

A native of Mérida, the capital of Yucatán state, Carola is familiar with the peninsula’s celebrated cuisine, both traditional and contemporary, its rich history, and wondrous natural landscapes and beaches. In addition, her background includes hotel management, experience in Mexico and abroad, and work that has ranged from stints as a pastry chef to wine tourism in Spain’s Basque region. Her profile is ideally suited to Unico 20° 87°, a luxury property that offers a new approach to hospitality, while celebrating the culture and beauty of its particular setting.

One of Unico's pools at sunset.
Unico 20° 87° Hotel Riviera Maya

Located on Mexico’s fabled Riviera Maya, half an hour south of Playa del Carmen, the 448-room resort, rooted in Mayan and Yucatecan culture and hewn to the environment and beauty of the coastal region, is wholly contemporary, still subtly reflecting indigenous elements of design. Innovative service includes a team of dedicated hosts or anfitriones that attend to every guest need or request. This adults-only, seaside property has a range of cuisine in four restaurants, as well as three pools, and a secluded white sand beach. Unico encapsulates a widened dimension of all-inclusive options, from a holistic fitness program—yoga, a fully equipped gym, tennis courts—to water sports, sea kayaking, catamaran sailings, and custom tours throughout the region.

Local Recommendations

Explore The Riviera Maya With Carola Canto Salas

The Riviera Maya and Yucatán Peninsula possess a culture and history with indigenous roots and Spanish influence, both integrated as a part of modern Mexico. Carola grew up amid the region’s timeless natural beauty, cenotes, little-known beaches, and crystalline Caribbean waters. Here, she provides a guide to her beloved region: from archaeological sites, and an astounding biosphere of unique diversity, to buzzing restaurants and bars that capture the imagination and tantalize the palate.

Sensory Appeal

Yucatecan Gastronomy And Craft Cocktails

There may be no better way to the heart of a culture than through food. Unico’s Cueva Siete, or "cave seven," a reference to the seven caves of Mayan mythology, is overseen by chef Christian Bravo, a Top Chef Mexico competitor and the first to lead the resort’s program of invited chefs. Bravo hails from Puebla, a city southeast of Mexico City, with a renowned culinary tradition, and has cooked throughout Mexico and Spain. He brings rich experience to classic Yucatecan dishes, melding locally-sourced ingredients with contemporary, innovative practice. Not to be missed is the cochinita pibil, the region’s traditional slow-roasted pork, marinated in bitter orange juice, and seasoned with achiote seeds. It is accompanied by house-made tortillas that are small and delicately flavorful. Duck l’orange is cooked in a reduction of Xtabentún, an anise liqueur flavored with a special honey distilled from xtabentún flowers that are found in the Yucatán. Beef filet arrives coated in a sauce made of densely flavored xcatic chilies, yellow-green peppers from Mérida.

Craft cocktails are offered throughout the resort. At Cueva Siete, a mixologist will combine tequila or mezcal with such flavors as mango and ginger, tamarind and rosemary, or guava, watermelon, and basil, to fashion singularly refreshing drinks. Elsewhere at the resort, mezcal tastings provide guests with an introduction to this smoky drink, distilled from agave plants, and a hallmark from the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Coconut shrimp at Unico's Cueva Siete restaurant.

Mayan Excursions

Ancient Ruins And Jungle Canopies

As part of its all-inclusive program, Unico offers guided excursions to important Mayan archaeological destinations, including Tulum. Located about 30 minutes south of the resort and built on cliffs 40 feet above the Caribbean Sea—it is among Mexico’s best-preserved coastal sites. Tulum’s environs extend westward into the interior and southward along the coastline, today the site of beachside hotels. The restaurants and bars of present-day Tulum, attract a chic crowd, including international visitors and expats, intrigued by its scale and an essence that somehow seems linked to the past.

Less visited than Tulum, Muyil offers a distinct contrast. Along a trade route for jade, chocolate, honey, and salt that linked the island of Cozumel (part of the Mayan realm) with Tulum and Chetumal in the Yucatán interior, the Muyil Archaeological Zone, 15 miles to the southwest from Tulum, lies on the edge of a protected preserve, Sian Ka’an. The trip takes visitors to the ruins—Muyil was the seat of a civilization that endured for almost 2,000 years. The temple-pyramid known as El Castillo, which towers in the jungle, makes a striking, otherworldly impression. The excursion continues along two lagoons, and into the jungle for a hike. Afterward, visitors float through mangroves down a gentle, freshwater channel created by the ancient Maya.

For those seeking active adventure, another Unico excursion takes visitors into the jungle, first, ziplining among treetops, followed by a swim in one of the cenotes near Tankah, the special crystalline pools and cavern reservoirs characteristic of the Yucatán. The trip includes a canoe ride to visit an indigenous community. For sport enthusiasts, Unico has snorkeling trips along an underground river as well as ziplining along the fastest circuit in the Yucatán.

The ancient Mayan coastal site of Tulum.

A Night On The Town

The Alluring Scene of Playa Del Carmen

Playa del Carmen, about 20 miles north of Unico, is both a beach destination and lively resort town, with a pedestrian thoroughfare steps from the ferry that crosses to Cozumel. Restaurants, nightspots—bars and dance clubs—and shops line or extend from Playa’s Quinta Avenida. Carola recommends El Pirata (5 Calle 40 N.; +52-984-873-1929), one of those spots whose unassuming appearance all but promises delicious, straightforward food: ceviches—octopus, shrimp, conch, and lobster—and the catch of the day, served grilled, breaded, or in a flavorful garlic sauce. For dishes that survey a range of Mexican regional gastronomy, Xavier Pérez Stone’s cooking at Axiote (128 Calle 34 Norte, between Calla Quinta Avda. & 10 Avda.N.; +52-984-803-1727) represents a touchstone. Classics such as chiles en nogada (stuffed poblano peppers with walnut sauce, pomegranate seeds and parsley) contrast with pork shank in black bean sauce, quail in white mole, or bacalao in potato foam. The wine list features small and up-and-coming Mexican wineries and regional craft beer. For people-watching and a variety of micheladas (beer-based cocktails) and botanas (Mexican snacks), Carola is a fan of Las Helodias (Calle 28 Norte between Avda. 1 Norte & Calle Cozumel; +52-984-879-3854), enlivened with vibrant lucha libre décor.

Along Playa del Carmen's lively Fifth Avenue.

Private Escapes

Beaches, Bays, And Lagoons

Carola has a short list of insider getaways—beaches, cenotes, and lagoons—where visitors may be more likely to meet local residents than fellow travelers. Xpu Ha beach is located between Tulum and Playa del Carmen, and only minutes away from the resort, but manages to still seem remote. In addition to swimming, Xpu Ha’s gentle waters make it an ideal place to snorkel and kayak. Akumal, south of Xpu Ha, is a draw for those wishing to snorkel with the Mexican green sea turtle—an experience both exhilarating and humbling. And south of Akumal lies the Bahía de Solimán, a Riviera Maya secret that still feels secluded. Its calm waters are especially good—and forgiving—for standup paddle boarders.

In addition to Tulum and Muyil, the ruins of Cobá, about 27 miles northwest of Tulum, represent yet another distinct glimpse into ancient Mayan civilization. Located around two lagoons, Cobá’s settlements reveal altars, stelae, ball courts, and one of the tallest pyramids in the Yucatán. If time permits, Carola recommends a visit to Lake Bacalar at the southern tip of Quintana Roo. Known as the lake of seven colors because of its extraordinary spectrum of greens and blues, the freshwater lagoon stretches out 30 miles in length and in places is a mile and a half in width. It is a marvelous place for swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving, and one can also enjoy a tour by pontoon boat. The fortress of San Felipe built by the Spanish Crown in the 18th-century is a reminder of the region’s past when the bastion served to protect the region from Caribbean pirates.

A secluded beach in the Riviera Maya.

A World Of Its Own

Wonders Of Nature

The Sian Ka’an Biosphere is a destination in itself. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1989, Sian Ka’an (“Origin of the Sky” in Mayan) is vast: 1.3 million acres of protected territory encompassing more than 20 archaeological sites including wetlands, forested islands, and cenotes. It extends over part of the Caribbean Sea, including the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. It is a biodiversity wonder, with almost 500 species of birds and mammals, howler and spider monkeys, pumas, ocelots, manatees, crocodiles, pink flamingos, and toucans, among others–and 300 types of butterfly and 400 kinds of fish. Various low-impact ecotours provide an introduction to its astonishing wonders.

Mangroves at Sian Ka'an Biosphere.