Stand beneath a ceiba tree and you’ll feel something hard to explain, a rumble deep in your soul that smacks of otherworldliness. Huge trees, in general, do that. But the Ceiba pentandra, which can soar to heights of 80 feet or more, exudes something beyond immenseness. Expanding horizontally, bulky beyond its main trunk, it has gnarly buttresses, reminiscent of groping hands awhirl. These root-like appendages undulate in spirals around the tree’s ground space, while a leafy umbrella rooftop creates a shady sanctuary as sacred as a church. No wonder the Mayans embraced the tree, indigenous to the Yucatán and other parts of Central America, as their “tree of life,” using it for religious ceremonies, cultural connection, healing, and creation philosophies.
I take time to sit beneath a ceiba growing among the vast 100 acres that compose the Waldorf Astoria Cancún, an urbane-yet-beachside retreat that opened last year. It’s situated in an unexpectedly remote parcel of land just 20 minutes from the airport. With a variety of restaurants, a stellar wellness program, two eye-popping infinity pools, an unsullied crescent of sand, uplifting design awash in local themes and various references to its namesake forefather hotel, the original Waldorf Astoria in New York (such as the elegant Peacock Alley—Mexico style—and a version of the Waldorf’s famous clock, but retooled with Mayan symbols), the hotel promises a breezy, beachy respite from routine.
But back to Mayan healing and the ceiba tree. The Mayans believed (perhaps still believe) that the tree (called ya’axche in Yucatec Maya) connected the spiritual heavens with the terrestrial world, its long vines a pathway for souls on the move. Its limbs reach upward, while its roots twist below, the tree’s architecture like a dancer frozen mid-pirouette. Gracefully divine as metaphor, the ceiba does boast bona fide curative powers. Thanks to camphor found in its leaves and tree bark, it can be both analgesic and anti-inflammatory.
With that in mind, I happily opt for the resort’s Waldorf Astoria Spa Cancún’s White Ceiba Massage, a glorious 80-minute treatment that uses the principles of Swedish massage—long, sliding strokes as fluid as water, manipulated with a flow proven to stimulate circulation, awaken energy, and eradicate muscle stiffness and joint pain. Of course, I’m also intrigued by the name. In Mayan mythology the white ceiba tree was associated with a northerly direction. It embodied the earth element and stood for roots, stability, and grounding—important traits for well-being.
I have had a luxurious day of repose that began with sunrise yoga, including time in a fitness class and hours of lounging. Frankly, I can’t imagine being any more relaxed. I’m wrong. The spa offers guests a deeper version of tranquility. Conceived to showcase the Mayan culture, the elegant haven marries the use of locally made oils, crystals, regional traditions, and fresh herbs and plants which grow on the resort property with a menu that takes advantage of world-renowned, results-driven products. But, by far, the magic of the sanctum is the layout of the space, an indoor/outdoor retreat with a hydrotherapy circuit at its heart. Thirteen of the spa’s 21 treatment rooms comprise standalone cabañas that edge the various spa pools, sauna, and steam area. Most guests arrive early and stay late to take advantage of the stylishly soothing facility.
My treatment room has a private garden complete with plunge pool. Before my White Ceiba Massage, my therapist leads me through the room to the garden where a nest of amulets, copal, crystals, and herbs await. From it she pulls a piece of palo santo, a wood believed to draw in positive energy while deflecting and eradicating all things negative. Chanting what sounds like an ancient prayer, she waves the smoking wood around my body. According to legend, this action purifies the environment and resets its aura. Indeed, I feel something shift. When she offers me a bag of salts and points to the plunge pool, I submerge for a detoxifying soak in the garden where the sound of the waves and chatter of birds and monkeys converge for background music. By the time I receive my masterful massage, I am more than ready to release my physical knots and allow my inner flame to burn brighter.
Sidebar: More indigenous treatments to receive in Mexico in 2024
Conrad Tulum Riviera Maya Resort
Deeply tied to the old traditions of Mexico and the Mayan homeland, Conrad Spa Tulum features a village-like warren of spa cottages anchored by a hydrotherapy palapa. The 80-minute Kinich Ahau Journey pays homage to the god of the sun, often portrayed as a jaguar, an eagle, or a deer, and celebrates the four directions of the universe. A 4-hand massage with hot poultices filled with corn and cocoa seeds (for abundance and creation), it begins with a cleanse of the four points with a bundle of rue, rosemary, and basil. hilton.com/en/hotels/cuncici-conrad-tulum-riviera-maya
Four Seasons Los Cabos Costa Palmas
On Cabo’s lesser traveled East Cape, Four Seasons Los Cabos unfurls as one of the brand’s top hotels. Part of a residential development that includes a top-notch golf course as well as its own marina, the resort has restaurants designed by celebrity chefs, spacious suites, a 2-mile long beach, and a bevy of desert-chic buildings meant to meld into the terrain—all with a hidden-away, remote Old Mexico vibe. Its crowning glory, nevertheless, may well be Oasis Spa, a sensorial complex that draws from its environs. Try a bespoke, 2-day Tata Harper Sensorial Retreat curated for you by the empress of clean beauty. It combines a variety of green-based treatments and the cape’s own nature to heal and restore. Fourseasons/loscabos.com
Grand Velas Riviera Maya
A nearly 40,000-square-foot watery wonderland awaits at SE Spa at Grand Velas, a subterranean getaway situated among the mangroves and designed to emulate the fluidity and curative ambiance of the sacred Maya cenotes. With a water ceremony and water experience circuit, the spa offers a range of profoundly unique, locally derived healing rituals. Running the gamut between illumination and transformation, treatments take advantage of local traditional ingredients, many still used as folk medicine and energetic clearings in the region. Coffee, corn, cocoa, honey, aloe vera, jade, vanilla, nopal, and more stand out as key ingredients in not-to-be-missed modalities. Try the Páak’am Treatment which uses heated nopal paddles, light rosemary oil, and a sunflower cactus scrub. rivieramaya.grandvelas.com