The hot, humid air is practically vibrating with gasps from my fellow travel writers, and it’s not just because we’re on the lookout for little furry friends after learning it’s tarantula season here in the Yucatan jungle. It’s because we’ve just arrived at a red carpet 70 feet underground, leading to a cave lit with 1,000 candles and filled with waiters serving margaritas. The cave is called a cenote, and it’s far fancier than its gloomy counterparts, which is why we’re at a loss for words beyond “Oh. My. God.”
This particular cenote (pronounced “say-no-tay”), a sprawling and partially flooded limestone cave system called Rio Secreto, was only discovered in 2004, by a farmer chasing an iguana into a hole, or so the story goes. This region of Mexico is famous for these protected sinkholes — there are thousands of them — formed by the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes brilliant natural wells. And tonight, Rio Secreto is decked out to impress.
I’m part of a group of travel media invited here to attend an intimate performance by a small string chamber ensemble from the local Quintana Roo Symphony Orchestra — its eight members framed by a gaping, vaulted cavern, whose dramatic stalactite formations resemble a giant drip sandcastle turned on its head.
With today’s concert, the first “Symphony in a Cenote,” the Fairmont Mayakoba in Riviera Maya is using the backdrop of this natural wonder to craft a rare experience, transforming a typical tourist attraction into something otherworldly. That’s because when it comes to travel, it’s the out-of-the-blue that moves you, and that you hang onto years and decades later.
In the age of Instagrammable travel, where crowds flock to take the same pics in the same places, the ultimate luxury is doing something surprising — and that almost no one else can do.
Before making the full winding descent into what’s considered the sacred Mayan underworld, our local field guides led us to a shaman who ceremoniously asked the mythological three-foot sprites believed to live in the cenote for permission to enter. With hands on our hearts, we greeted them: “malo’kin!” (hello) and “yu’um bootik!” (thanks).
Legend has it that the sprites, called alux (“aloosh”), emerge from hiding in the evenings, which is why most cenotes are closed then. But with the astounding acoustics the cave offers, a live concert makes perfect sense, albeit a logistical challenge. (Just imagine schlepping down a six-foot-tall double bass without turning into a sweaty mess.)
The Fairmont Mayakoba’s limited-time experience is currently slated to happen less than a handful of times, including once in Jan. 2023. It includes an elegant lagoon-side dinner at the A-list resort, plus cocktails and champagne at the cenote, and costs $250 (U.S.), per person. For an opulent resort add-on, it’s reasonably priced — ringing in at less than an average luxury hotel massage.
The cenote experience kicks off a new Fairmont campaign called “Beyond Limits,” which includes a series of exclusive events rolling out at some of the company’s North American hotels and resorts through March. Among the highlights: at the Fairmont Orchid in Hawaii, you can watch a live ballet underwater; at the Fairmont Century Plaza in Los Angeles, you can see a troupe of gravity-defying performers turn the iconic 19-story building into a vertical dance floor; and at the Fairmont Banff Springs, you can enjoy a pop-up cliffside oxygen bar at 7,000 feet.
The campaign is in line with a broader travel industry trend to redefine what luxury means. For the most part, the wealthier you are, the more exclusive, unusual and unbelievable the experience needs to be in order to truly impress, says Jenny Southan, the editor and founder of Globetrender, a travel trend forecasting agency in London, England.
“Luxury has always been associated with rarity and things that are out of reach for most people,” she says, but in recent years, there’s been a shift from investing primarily in material goods to prioritizing experiences. For the Fairmont Mayakoba and other top resorts, exclusivity is no longer just about championship golf courses, private yachts and award-worthy restaurants.
Four Seasons’ collection of “Extraordinary Experiences,” for example, includes heli-surfing in Indonesia’s G-Land and floating in a private hot-air balloon from Florence to the Tuscan countryside. Other hotels are focused on encounters meant to inspire a reconnection to nature or creativity: The world’s first “wandering hotel,” 700’000 Heures, can arrange uncommon tourist activities such as diving for sea urchins with local fishermen in Ine, Japan. And in Puglia, Italy, experiences at Castle Elvira include spending time with artists Harvey B-Brown and David Scheinmann, who will help guests create their own 3D “meta portrait.”
Tapping into this demand, many elite hotels are recognizing they have an opportunity to lean on their local contacts, Southan adds, “providing access to people and places that others don’t have.”
It’s not hard to see the draw. Nothing about the cenote concert is what I anticipated, including the music itself. Instead of Amadeus and Tchaikovsky, we’re treated to tunes by Adele and Toto. The set list is a mash-up of 14 pop hits, from Gloria Gaynor’s 1970s rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” to Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” a song unabashedly close to my reggaeton- and Latin-pop-loving heart.
The familiarity of the melodies juxtaposed with the oddness of just about everything else, including the strangely fascinating geology, is what makes the whole experience so unexpected.
To top it off, being an up-close observer of a “first” like this makes it even more thrilling — and not just because it’s “a collectible occasion to make us look good on social media,” Southan points out. Whether or not my adventure is documented on the ’gram (of course, it is), the magic is real and once in a lifetime.
Claire Sibonney travelled as a guest of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, which did not review or approve this article.
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