A Skeptical Traveler Finds Inner Peace—and a Great Vegan Croissant—at a Mexican Wellness Retreat
Hidden on a 14-acre property in the beach-fronted jungles of Mexico’s Riviera Maya, Palmaia encourages guests to look inward and connect with the region’s otherworldly beauty.
It is 11 a.m. and I am barefoot in a line of about 20 people. We’re chasing the hotel’s shaman on a wooden deck beneath a dense canopy of broad-leafed jungle foliage.
“Do not break the connection between the elements!” he warns as he continues beating his drum. He weaves between tree trunks growing through the deck’s planks, carefully avoiding an imaginary channel connecting a small fire burning strongly in a brass bowl, a large quartz crystal poised on a pedestal, and a bowl of water resting on the ground. I shoot my friend behind me a look. She shrugs as she continues keeping pace in our conga line of hotel guests seeking spiritual enlightenment.
My friend and I are in the midst of an “awakening ceremony” at Palmaia, the House of Aia in Playa del Carmen, a new, all-inclusive wellness resort known for its vegan fare and its Instagram-worthy setting in Mexico’s Caribbean-facing Riviera Maya. This ceremony—according to the hotel’s pamphlet—is meant to “move the body’s energy in the right direction to harmoniously activate the qualities of the Self.” As we run after the shaman, he finally asks us to take our places on the meditation cushions arranged in a circle on the deck. Then, he instructs us to put our folded hands to our sternum and tell every person in the group that we “love and appreciate” them. I feel my face grow hot with embarrassment at the thought of telling someone I haven’t even said hello to that I love them. The sticky smoke of copal incense stings my eyes as I turn to a middle-aged woman dressed in beach-ready clothing and squeak out those three words.
Before I left for Palmaia, the House of Aia, I researched the wellness retreat to find out what it might be like to stay there. Besides some videos created by YouTubers, photos on their website, and a few videos on their Instagram, intel on Palmaia is somewhat scarce. Opened in January 2020, Palmaia was founded by hotelier Alex Ferri, the CEO of Sandos Hotels and Resorts, who’s a huge fan of alternative living (think a sustainability focused-lifestyle, health-centric diets, and lots of yoga mats and linen fabrics). Sandos Hotels was the family business that Ferri was born into, and it offers the traditional, all-inclusive experience travelers have come to expect from a Cancun getaway.
Palmaia, on the other hand, is his passion project. The hotel largely reflects 46-year-old Ferri’s own bohemian, plant-based interests and is a place where he hopes guests can find peace from the stresses of everyday modern life. Here, everyone from families with little kids to couples to solo travelers can indulge in deep introspection as well as the usual tried-and-true tropical vacation staples: clear blue pools, yoga, and spa visits among white-sand beaches, broad-leafed taro plants, and royal poinciana trees. Revealing all of Palmaia’s cards online would spoil the fun of discovering it in person.
Staying at Palmaia is unlike your typical all-inclusive resort experience. Of course, guests are welcome to relax by lounging by the beach or pool with a pink drink and a sunhat. But what distinguishes Palmaia is the roster of wellness activities that are available to guests, which the resort calls their “Architects of Life” program. It hopes to be the “most comprehensive personal growth program ever offered at any resort on earth,” and features classes that include yoga, tai chi, meditation, sound baths, soul reading/chakra alignment, and art sessions. Some of the classes, like the cacao ceremony, where participants are invited to drink a cacao- and corn-infused brew, are inspired by ancient Toltec and Mayan practices.
Admittedly, I hadn’t dabbled much in alternative lifestyles before this trip. I’ve never had the patience to meditate, couldn’t explain what reiki is or how many chakras the human body possesses. I do not own a single crystal. I do, however, know my astrological birth chart, but only because that seems to be a legal requirement of women my age who are chronically online. However, I do like to consider myself relentlessly open minded—plus, I can definitely use the rest, relaxation, and time to reflect on self-improvement goals in the soon-approaching new year.
There are 234 rooms at Palmaia, divided among seven white-washed, ocean-facing buildings. Each building has been named after the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters constellation, a reference to twin brothers Hunalhpú and Ixbalamqué who turned into the constellation upon their death in the Mayan sacred text, the Popol Vuhl. All rooms have oceanfront views, and 42 of them are swim-out suites with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors that open up to the property’s infinity pools. Kids are welcome at Palmaia (the hotel even has a wellness program specially designed for little ones), but adults-only buildings and pools are available for travelers who prefer child-free settings.
Once I settled in on my first day, I was immediately struck by how quiet Palmaia is. Besides the rustle of leaves in the forest and the pitter-patter of my feet on the cobblestones, I could hear . . . nothing. The property straddles the boundaries between thick jungle and the area’s famous beaches, which are teeming with natural wonders. One afternoon I spied a spider monkey swinging through the trees and on another, an agouti, an endangered, guinea pig–like rodent trotting across the sand. Perhaps most distinctively, there are four cenotes located on the premises—one is sited on the spa’s dreamy grounds and is available for guests to swim in if they book an appointment.
For the vegan and vegetarian crowd, a stay at Palmaia is a worry-free experience: All five restaurants—LEK, which serves elevated Mexican cuisine; Ume, a dinner spot that pays homage to Asian influences (and yes, they do serve vegan sushi); Mar de Olivo, which focuses on “reimagined” Mediterranean food; Plantissa, a breakfast and lunch bistro; and Su Casa, a beachside dive—at the resort are health-focused and vegan. However, meat, dairy, and eggs can be added to dishes upon request. (I am not vegan so I took full advantage of that concession.) I was surprised by the breadth of dishes the restaurants were able to execute using plant-based ingredients, from the tastiest meatless chilaquiles I’ve ever had to eggs Benedict served with a very convincing and gloriously runny, truffle-based egg “yolk” paired with a side of perfectly crisp and chewy vegan croissants.
The executive chef, Carlos Garcia (better known as chef Charly) is vegan and a pioneer in the field of plant-based cuisine. Ironically, he got his start in the culinary world at one of Mexico City’s most popular steakhouses but decided to adopt veganism in 2016 after considering the environmental impact and moral quandaries of eating meat. I ask Garcia if it’s difficult to make Mexican food, a cuisine famous for meat-focused dishes like carne asada and spit-roasted al pastor pork, vegan.
“Not at all,” he says with a laugh. “It’s so easy. Historically, there were cultures in Mexico that were fully plant-based until the Spanish came.”
During my five-day stay at Palmaia, I planned to attend seven different classes to squeeze the most wellness out of my time. In one, a spiritual guide interpreted my soul (after asking me to say my name aloud three times, the guide offered insight into my metaphysical state with a somewhat enigmatic metaphor about candied apples and making more time for myself) and another where I joined a “Sacred Women’s Circle” to learn all about the witchiness of the fairer sex. But the class that sticks with me the most was the forgiveness circle, which operates with the intention to “release emotions and physical ailments through forgiving others, asking for forgiveness and forgiving ourselves.” I’d been feeling very iffy about attending—I’m not a firm believer that people must forgive those who’ve wronged them in order to move on and truly live a fulfilling and happy life. I think the task of forgiveness can be a heavy burden for the person who was wronged, and sometimes, it’s simply not a possibility.
Nonetheless, I sit upon my yoga mat in the Japanese-inspired meditation room feeling anxious about the experience to come and what would be asked of me. While many of the other classes I’d taken were attended by around 10 guests or fewer, this time, the room is full of people. Our guide sits quietly at the front of the class on a blanket surrounded by the tools of her trade—bells, flowers, and a telling box of tissues—until everyone in the room naturally becomes silent too.
“To start, let’s go around and share what forgiveness means to each of us,” she says.
When people begin to explain what forgiveness means to them, I can hear that I’m not alone in my feelings. One attendee questions who forgiveness is really for, while another from Ukraine shared that she doesn’t have it in her heart to forgive the country that invaded hers. Many people around me are in tears once the sharing is over. We are then instructed to lay on our mats and begin doing breathwork—a process meant to imitate hyperventilation. Our guide begins to sing, mixing together in a crescendo of exhales, cries, and wails. I feel my own eyes grow wet with tears.
As I walk outside and the sunshine hits my face, things seem slightly different now. What is forgiveness and who does it really benefit? I’m still not quite sure. But feeling a kinship and understanding with a room full of strangers on a beautiful beachside paradise? That was an answer to a question that I hadn’t asked but glad had been answered. Though I’m still not ready to tell perfect strangers that I love them, the world around me, weeks later, somehow still feels more tender and understanding.
The closest airport to Palmaia, the House of Aia, is the Cancun International Airport. From there, it’s an 80-minute drive through Playa del Carmen to reach the hotel. Shuttle services are not included with the cost of a stay, but there are many taxis and private cars available for hire at the airport. Palmaia can also arrange transportation to and from the airport for an extra fee.