The symptoms should have been obvious. I was lying in an oversize Mayan hammock beneath a canopy of thatched palm fronds. My left hand clutched a book. My right, when it was not turning pages, reached for the icy longneck propped nearby. Digging bare toes into sugary sand, I finally acknowledged the reality of my plight.
I had contracted Caribbean lethargy, a mind-muddling condition caused by excessive sun, surf and serenity. For this, I had only one person to blame. It was all my wife's fault.
Dianne is a registered nurse, and with her hospital short on staff, not patients, she had chalked up enough overtime and crisis shifts to send Florence Nightingale screaming for Valium. She desperately craved a break.
"You should check out Kailuum," her colleague, Dr. Roger Mattison, suggested. "It's totally relaxing, different from any other resort experience you can imagine."
He explained that Kailuum, Mayan for "land of the fish," is a rustic retreat located on the eastern edge of the Yucatan Peninsula between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Accommodations are in canvas tents shaded beneath palm-thatched canopies known as palapas.
There are no TVs, phones or faxes at Kailuum. In fact, there's not even electricity. Propane cooks the meals while candle lanterns and tiki torches light the night.
Roger then told her about the price. For less than a dumpster-view room in Cancun, Kailuum's rates paid for accommodations, breakfasts, dinners, taxes and tips. Only lunches and beverages cost extra.
We were soon bound for this nonresort resort. A van met us at the Cancun airport, and 30 minutes later, we were bouncing down a narrow dirt road toward Kailuum and its sole neighbor.
Since we were newcomers, employee David Herrera led us on a quick tour of the property. He started in the giant dining palapa, which stood over two stories tall and looked like it held enough floor space to host a mariachi convention. Eight-person, cloth-covered dining tables stood on one end of the floorless structure. A bar sat at the other.
"See, there is no bartender," David said. "It is an honor system. Use pegs to mark what you take."
He next took us to one of the two bathhouses, Kailuum's only brick-and-mortar structures. On the short sides of the white-stucco building set outdoor sinks and mirrors. A painted "XAVE" sign hung overhead.
"In Mayan, X is pronounced like Sh," explained David. "This is the shaving area."
Four individual shower rooms, marked with a "XAUR" sign, opened on the front of the building. On the opposite side were four individual toilet rooms, also marked with an X-sign. We sounded out its Mayan phonetics with a chuckle.
David took us to our 10x14-foot beachfront tentalapa, which had screened windows opening on all sides. It held a double bed with sheets, pillows and blanket. Candle lanterns set atop night stands, and shelves provided storage space. We even had a throw rug on the canvas floor. With daily housekeeping and nightly turndown included, roughing it has never been so decadent.
We stripped to shorts, grabbed books and headed for the hammocks, which hung between the poles of our thatch-covered porch. Tropical torpor had begun to set in.
A similar malady may have befallen Kailuum's founder, Arnold Bilgore. The American, who worked as a broadcaster in Mexico City, headed for the Yucatan in 1976.
"I don't know if he got a wild hippie idea, but he decided to leave his career behind and go to the beach," says stepson Clint Ball. "He traveled through southern Mexico and into Belize before settling into the area south of Cancun."
At the time, Cancun was new, Playa del Carmen was a sleepy village, and the only resort on this stretch of beach offered little more than a few bungalows. Bilgore persuaded its owners to lease him an empty piece of their beach where he set up a small eco-resort with tents and a restaurant. It became the precursor to today's Kailuum.
"It was originally on the north side," Clint says. "That's where it remained until 1995 when Hurricane Roxanne destroyed it. It was rebuilt again in '99 on the spot where it stands now."
At 6:30 every night came cocktail hour, a time when a staff member mixed up jugs of the day's featured concoction. There, we mixed and mingled with our fellow Kailuuminaries.
The people who come here are a diverse collection of quietude seekers. Ages ranged from student loan to Social Security recipients, and occupations ran the gamut from insurance secretary to district court judge. About half were frequent returnees, gluttons for contentment.
"We discovered the place in 1985 and we've returned every year since," says Denver orthodontist Fred Siersma. "We live a pretty pressured life, but it's impossible to feel pressured here."
Dinner followed. The fixed menu, three-course meals began with either soup or salad followed by a generous daily entree featuring fish, chicken, shrimp or Mayan roasted pork. Those preferring to go meatless received vegetarian substitutes.
Breakfasts were equally generous, with juices, fruits, pastries and cereals offered along with a daily hot entree such as pancakes, huevos motuleños (eggs over a corn tortilla with beans and peas) or eggs McMayan (a sliced croissant stuffed with egg and ham, then smothered in Hollandaise sauce).
Only the coffee, which resembled dregs from a desert diner, tasted horrible. The pots of hot chocolate, however, more than made up for the contemptible caffeine. Even Milton Hershey would have poured seconds.
For those needing activity, Kailuum days can be filled with an array of diversions. Caribbean fishing, diving and snorkeling trips leave almost daily, and the staff will arrange all-day excursions to visit Mayan ruins in Chitzen Itza, Tulum or Cobá. A short taxi ride or a five-mile beach walk leads to Playa del Carmen where a ferry leaves for the island of Cozumel. On the premises, Kailuum offers kayaks for paddling into the surf, and masseuses stand ready to kneed the needy. It didn't take Dianne long to invest $50 from my wallet into an hour-long massage.
"Every bit as good as I get at the spa!" she said on her return. "You should try it."
Instead of the good-hands treatment, I let the cooling sea breeze caress my skin. From my beachside perch, I listened to birds squawking and watched pelicans diving for dinner. Occasionally, I would see a tanker, freighter or cruise boat churn through the channel that separated Kailuum from Cozumel. The famous tourist island loomed 10 miles across the water, and through the humid haze, I could make out some of its massive hotels. Concrete condos are fine at times, but for pure relaxation, catered camping can't be beat. Days spent pretending to be Gilligan never felt so good.
Only twice during our stay did artificial soles sully our bare-naked feet. The first was when we donned flip-flops and walked next door to check out Kailuum's only neighboring resort, La Posada del Capitán Lafitte's. The low-key property offers 62 rooms scattered through a number of two-story units. It boasts a groomed beach, a swimming pool filled with frolicking kids and a poolside bar with a waitstaff ready to take orders.
Although separately owned, the two properties work closely together. If we had felt the need for a chlorine fix, we could have used their pool, and if the Kailuum menu had not been to our liking, we could have dined in Lafitte's restaurant. We only took advantage of the fact that they had electricity to run blenders and ordered a round of frozen margaritas, which we conveniently charged to our account at Kailuum.
Capitán Lafitte has a PADI diving center. In addition to scuba ventures, it offers snorkeling trips to the sea or nearby cenotes, which are freshwater pools that pocket Yucatan limestone. We opted for saltwater over sinkholes and signed up for a trip to the Great Mayan Barrier, second largest reef system in the world. Staring at its kaleidoscope of sea life was like looking into a dentist's aquarium without the anticipation of a root canal.
The following day, we got gussied up in clean shorts, laced up shoes, and taxied into town. Not long ago, Playa del Carmen was a mere fishing village. With tourism expanding on the Riviera Maya, it has developed into a tourism center, but unlike Cancun, it has not been totally Americanized.
We wandered a car-free, pedestrian mall where a few shop owners tried to lure us into their stores with pleas of "one quick look -- we got good prices." Most were content to let us just pass by. We had to practically wake up a sidewalk vendor sitting beside a stack of "genuine, handmade by my family” hammocks. We chose one for home, bargained to half the asking price, and with our purchase in hand, looked for a lunch spot. A plate of nachos later, we headed back to Kailuum, thankful to shuck the shoes.
On our final night, Dianne and I strolled the beach after dinner, enjoying the evening tranquillity. Palm leaves rustled and tiki torches flickered, their orange flames shimmering on the white sand. Across the water, Cozumel glowed with eerie luminescence while tiny stars hung like Christmas lights in the dark sky above. We stood at the edge of the sea, sadly realizing that at this location, Kailuum's days are numbered.
"There is a big resort going in to the north,” general manager Ivan Fuentes told us. When it opens, there will be too many people, too many Jet Skis. Our lease expires in July 2005, and we will move."
The plans are to expand Kailuumcito, a mini-Kailuum located 200 miles to the south near the cruise port of Majahual. This sister property currently offers only eight tentalapas, but they have room for about 25. When they move, the convenience to Cancun will be lost. A 30-minute ride will be replaced by a four-hour drive.
"We're looking into shuttle options," Ivan assured us.
Our final morning dawned. After breakfast, Dianne and I crawled into our hammocks to savor one last dose of slothful lassitude before packing. Digging bare toes into sugary sand, I had to acknowledge the reality of our accomplishment.
We had just completed a Kailuuminating experience, mind-quieting relaxation facilitated by soothing doses of sun, surf and serenity. For this, I had only one person to thank. It was all my wife's idea.
Kailuum closed around 2006, the victim of mega-resort growth in the neighborhood. Kailuum's owners also maintained a similar site named Kailuumcito located 200 miles to the south near the cruise port of Majahual on Mexico’s Costa Maya. The problem was the convenience to Cancun was lost. A 30-minute ride became a four-hour drive. Apparently, not too many people took advantage of that and neither Kailuum nor Kailuumcito exist today.