Features & Images » Travel

Where simplicity reigns divine

Dream of a Retreat to this Hip Mexican Paradise



Seated in Lotus position in a breezy oceanside yoga studio, I'm gazing at turquoise water and focusing on my breath, as a long-haired man strolls across the white sand, drops his sarong, and walks naked into the surf. It's not his nakedness that thrills me as much as it's the perfect thing to happen at this particular moment.

I'm at a yoga retreat in Tulum, Mexico. Attending one of these is No. 7 on my bucket list, slotted between climbing Machu Picchu and writing a hit pop song, so when an opportunity to go to a Kundalini retreat presented itself, I lunged for it, warrior two style. WestJet offers a direct flight from Vancouver to Cancun, making both the trip and my decision easier.

Things were off to a good start when the private shuttle arranged by Rosa del Viento, our first night's hotel, was actually at the airport, with our names scribbled on cardboard, denting my cynicism about Mexican dependability. Although only an hour-and- a-half drive south of Cancun, Tulum may as well be on a different planet. If Cancun is a showgirl, then Tulum is her hippie-loving Woodstock sister. Our driver offers us ice-cold Corona for the trip, and the kilometres fly by.

Tulum's white sandy beach, as blinding in person as in tourist pamphlets, is over six kilometres long and dotted with small, eclectic eco-chic hotels that resemble what the Swiss Family Robinson lived in — thatched roofs, natural materials, bland colours, and dwellings no taller than the palm trees that surround them. Run on generators, there are no pools and waterslides to appeal to the toddler set, so tourists are mostly adults, many of European descent, bathing tops optional. In fact, so are bathing suits. Beside our hotel was a clothing-optional meditation retreat. We awoke to chanting and singing, led, I eventually realize, by the sarong-less hippy in my peripheral yoga vision.

Built in the 13th century by the Mayans, Tulum was a seaport largely used for trading turquoise and jade. The only Mayan outpost built on the coast, Tulum is protected by a limestone wall, whether it was used to keep invaders out or keep in Mayan priests and nobility is debatable.

The Mayans failed to predict the end of the world on Dec. 21, 2012, but they knew how to build a stunning city high on the cliffs of the Caribbean Sea. Checking out the Tulum ruins is a must, as is visiting the local cenotes, water holes in the jungle used by the Mayan's as a fresh water supply and places of worship, a great snorkelling alternative if you're not claustrophobic. You will run into the tourists you were hoping to avoid, but a couple of hours snorkelling in fresh water amongst stalagmites is worth it.

Our retreat was small, with eight guests, and organized by Semperviva, a Vancouver yoga studio owned by Gloria and Scott Latham. Gloria is a rock-star teacher — up to a hundred people pack her classes on mats an inch apart, so having her as our weeklong teacher was like having Tom Brady teach you how to throw a football. A true yogi, she's egoless in her belief and devotion to her practice, and passionate about her desire to share it.

There is no sign marking the Petit Shambala, the small hotel on the beach that is hosting the retreat in the hotel district on Boca Paila, 7.5 km, only a white fence with horizontal two by fours, but our taxi driver knew it regardless.

Inside, the sandy compound is a corridor of Buddhist statues and signed reminders such as dare to dream and side-by-side cabanas, each with its own pristine white footbath, double glass doors and billowing curtains for privacy. The actual yoga studio is in the front of the property on the beach, steps from the half moon of chaise lounges and a sign that explains to beachwalkers what to do in the instance of a turtle crossing.

In some exotic locations, the sunset is a major form of entertainment, but here it's all about the sunrise. Originally named Zama by the Mayans, meaning City of the Dawn, in Tulum dark figures drift out of cabanas before sunrise and roam the beach, waiting for the moment that the dark sky turns to wisps of pink, and a golden ball lifts like the head of a marionette through the low clouds on the horizon.

Unlike Maui or Santa Monica, where stretches of beach double as a highway for power walkers and vacationers, in this bohemian setting there are people walking the beach for the heck of it, and Mexicans selling nuts or jewelry. Vacationers seem more committed to leisure for leisure's sake. Lying on the beach might take all day, whereas in Maui sunbathing gets pencilled in between surfing and tennis. I glimpse a few kiteboarders and paddleboarders during the week, but these are easily outnumbered by visitors lounging in hammocks or sitting at beachside bars.

Semperviva's retreat literature warned not to bring hairdryers, because the generators at the Shambala Petit aren't strong enough, which is the case for most of Tulum. While I wear more ponytails than a grown woman should, I admit I felt a bit shaken by not being able to use a blow dryer for a week. But like applying makeup and wearing shoes, doing my hair was something that didn't seem necessary after a day spent in this low-key beach culture.

If long, hot showers are your thing, you should probably vacation elsewhere. In our cabanas, a delicate plumbing system (you can't flush toilet paper in Tulum) guarantee about five minutes of tepid water from a showerhead that dangles from the ceiling beside the toilet. But considering that all that stands between you and the turquoise ocean is a thatched wall and 15 metres of sugar-white sand, it's adequate. In fact, it's luxurious, just not in the North American way.

It speaks to my approach to life if not my intelligence that I didn't research Kundalini before stepping foot in the yoga studio on the first morning. I prefer to let things unfold, and for experiences to wash over me. Plus, I'm lazy.

In the first class, I didn't know any of the chants or exercises, but Gloria has a way of making everyone at ease, as though it's all about you, in a good way. Positive statements drop out of her mouth like spittle. They seem less scripted, more genuine, than other teachers I've had. Let it go, let it all go, she keeps saying. And I wonder if I should concentrate on one thing to let go of, or all of the things I would be wise to be rid of, but before I can decide we are on to a different mantra.

Kundalini is unlike typical yoga classes where asanas, or poses, are held for varying amounts of time (and in the case of my nemesis, pigeon, an eternity). As much of a mind workout as body, it uses repetitive movements to get energy flowing, because, as Gloria says, your mind can't change your mind. As we pull into our hearts what we want, we exhale and throw away what we don't. You can't be free until you let it go, she says; maybe you don't need more, maybe you need less.

As workouts go, it was more like an exercise class, and less like a stretch of a traditional yoga class. But the mixture of positive messages combined with movements designed to change your Chakra energy — the ecosystems of your body linked to love, wealth, creativity, and sex — made for a great feeling at the end; the Kundalini glow, enthusiasts call it. I missed the blissful feeling of post-regular yoga, but felt noticeably stronger at the week's end, yet lighter thanks to the diet of mostly fruit, vegetables, and fish. Not many people who spend a week at an all-inclusive Mexican resort can make this claim.

Like most yoga retreats, Semperviva's retreat was focused on a healthy detox. Considering my typical daily diet includes a balance of fruit in the form of banana bread, chocolate and wine, this concerned me, but my competitive spirit wanted to give it a try — it was as close to a cleanse as I will come, due to my propensity to enjoy whatever food is easy and close.

Roberto Hernandez, the owner of the Shambala Petit, went the extra mile to present us with fresh, local, healthy Mexican favourites. When I mentioned I was craving chocolate, he arranged to serve us mole, a labour-intensive Mexican sauce with over 20 ingredients, one of which is chocolate, served over chicken, bless his heart.

Although I missed my nightly glass of wine, each meal was served with a different blend of fresh juice prepared onsite, and their inventive salads were works of art, so I did the right thing and swallowed my complaints.

Between meals I snacked on almonds, helping my energy level if not my dreams of Snickers bars, and enabling me to get through the morning and evening yoga sessions without fainting.

On our last night we celebrated our healthy victory by heading to Mateo's Mexican Grill, an open-air restaurant/bar on the jungle side of the hotel district, with a killer Cuban band and waiters who will ask you to dance if you're caught tapping your feet. They boast serving the best fish tacos on earth, but it was their margaritas that had me raving.

This trip was not about the shopping, but aside from the typical roadside tourist traps thick with Mexican blankets, scarves, and handmade bracelets, I meandered into a few beautiful boutiques between yoga classes. Amansala, known for its bikini bootcamps, also has a great store with locally crafted crocheted dresses and a Mayan mud mask that will leave your skin smoother than silk. Mr. Blackbird has beautiful and original handmade, local jewelry, a giant step up from the quality of items people are peddling on the beach.

Mexico has its share of bad press, from violence and corruption to food poisoning, but these complaints seem a long way from the quiet shores of Tulum. Perhaps such notions serve to insulate it from an over-abundance of tourist traffic, helping to preserve its laid-back charm and leisurely vibe.

The only thing to worry about in Tulum is not wanting to leave.