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Wellness Road Trip: Grand Velas Riviera Maya & S.E. Spa

Wellness Road Trip: Grand Velas Riviera Maya & S.E. Spa

S.E. Spa thrives under the guidance of Spa Director Maria Leticia Fernández, who incorporates Wellness for Cancer training into every treatment, for every guest.

I’ve had a long love affair with Mexico, a land of vibrancy in color, texture, and depth. For me, it is also a hub for those seeking physical, mental, and spiritual wellness. I visit regularly to practice yoga, connect with nature, and reset my perspective. I relish diving in cenotes and taking part in ancient rituals performed in a temazcal, a carefully constructed sweat lodge used for cleansing, purifying, and connecting with the natural world, mother earth, and all of its inhabitants.

Luckily for me, some of the ancient tenets of these rituals are folded into the spa offerings at choice properties throughout Mexico. Recently, I visited Grand Velas Riviera Maya & S.E. Spa, which featured staff that have been trained and certified by Wellness For Cancer, a well-respected worldwide leader in cancer training. Before arriving, I was interested to learn how the Wellness for Cancer program was incorporated into the warp and weave of this property’s programming.

Grand Velas Riviera Maya, which opened its doors in 2008, is rare in that it is an all-inclusive property that holds a AAA Five-Diamond rating. It was recently named the “Best Spa in Mexico” by the 2018 Food and Travel Reader Awards and one of the world’s most luxurious spas by Forbes Travel.


After a relatively quick plane ride from icy Chicago, I landed in sunny Cancún, which sits at the intersection of the wild and infamous Yucatán Peninsula and the Caribbean Sea on Mexico’s eastern coast. After picking up my rental car, I headed south for an hour on I-307 to the S.E. Spa within Grand Velas. The entrance to Grand Velas is a sight to behold. A magnificent series of moulded white slabs emerge from a pristine pool of water several city blocks long. At the midpoint of the pool is a bridge that leads to the main security gate. After receiving the OK from the guard, I cautiously made my way down the windy, jungle-flanked lane to a footbridge that led to the main spa.

When I reached the front desk, I was immediately greeted by the exuberant spa director, Maria Leticia Fernández. Her eyes beamed as she held her arms aloft to greet me with warmth and friendship. I liked her immediately. Leticia spoke quickly and with conviction, and she explained that she provides regular training to her employees to ensure they are constantly evolving to meet the needs of their clientele. 

Before my visit, I studied up on Leticia and her mission. Knowing that she had been trained by Wellness For Cancer, I expected her to be well-educated on cancer care in the spa environment. What I did not expect was for her to be so deeply invested—Leticia shared a few personal stories about her own experience with cancer, not as a fighter but as a supporter, and I can tell that these experiences have given her an incredible sense of empathy. Many times I find that spas can seem impressive on paper, almost boastful, but the difference between a good spa and a great spa comes from behind the scenes, in the leadership and training of the property employees. Leticia works diligently to ensure her staff portrays the same compassion, warmth, and sensitivity to all clients—those with cancer and without.


For Leticia, cancer is personal. She treats both her guests and her staff like family. When speaking about interacting regularly with those recently diagnosed with cancer, she gently but matter-of-factly told me, “We cry, we always cry—perhaps it is about release.” Leticia is very familiar with the dangers of isolation and disempowerment that can accompany a diagnosis, so she is determined to facilitate meaningful connections. 

We both agreed on the power of touch. Often, people feel isolated by their diagnosis. Leticia is not afraid to hug her clients when they need it, and she understands how a warm and reassuring hand can put anyone at ease. Leticia puts the patient first, not their diagnosis. This can also be seen in the way Leticia has adjusted the lexicon of the intake questionnaire, something I found to be unique of S.E. Spa. Instead of asking patients if they have cancer, the questionnaire asks questions about recent surgeries or treatments, which allows clients to reveal their diagnosis on their own terms.


The spa itself is massive and optically stunning. The entrance opens to reveal a large, three-story atrium with skylights. An impressively large glass wall runs the length and height of the entire spa, revealing the jungle outside. This concept—bringing the outside world in—is presented in 40 of the treatment rooms which overlook or abutt the wild vegetation outside. Immense waterfalls flank the east side of the lobby, dropping precipitously into a shallow pool, which is part of the hydrotherapy circuit, or the “Water Journey.”

Hydrotherapy circuits seem to be all the rage these days. Typically, an attendant will escort you through a series of stations, alternating steam with dry heat, hot water to cold, and pressurized for a gentle force. According to its website, the S.E. Spa water journey strengthens the immune system, flushes away toxins, and revitalizes the senses. Hydrotherapy stations at S.E. Spa include a clay room, ice room, polar pool, a cinnamon-scented sauna with hydrotherapy jets, and rain showers.

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As we explored the spa, Leticia explained that a holistic approach is central to all service options at S.E. Spa. Mexico’s ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations had an intimate understanding of the healing properties of certain sacred plants and herbs. Elements of these traditional medicinal therapies have either been adapted or given a modern twist, like during the Bacal massage, which utilizes hot corn cobs in lieu of hot stones. Other locally sourced, exclusive concepts include an aloe vera massage, an organic honey experience, the Pixam Kan massage and the Nik Te Ha aquatic massage. All of these treatments use ingredients found naturally in the jungle surrounding S.E. Spa. 

S.E. Spa does not promote some spa treatments over others for people with cancer. Rather, the spa considers the needs and desires of each client and adjusts each treatment accordingly. This is another way Leticia’s Wellness for Cancer training shines. Wellness for Cancer preaches compassion and understanding that people are not defined by their cancer—they visit spas to rest and rejuvenate like anyone else, and it’s up to facilities like S.E. Spa to be flexible in their treatments, considerate with their language, and sympathetic to each patient’s motivation for booking a stay at a spa.


Given its glut of offerings, S.E. Spa has a dedicated spa concierge department that can tailor a spa treatment, or even an entire spa vacation, to one’s specifications and goals. Good thing, too—the international spa industry is booming. The ability of a spa, or a spa chain to survive and thrive with today’s high expectations is premised on its ability to constantly evolve. This means that it must be focused on providing new, diverse and increasingly sophisticated rituals of bliss. As my tour of Grand Velas came to an end, driving back down the winding access road, I remember feeling tickled. This spa and its management really did deliver.

With cancer rates steadily on the rise, sophisticated, future-minded spas are responding to this market and expanding their services to accommodate this population. Individuals who are going through or recovering from cancer treatment are most in need of these treatments and services, so long as the providers are educated on technique and engagement, like Leticia and her staff. Grand Velas Riviera Maya & S.E. Spa is the place to go for individuals in treatment or recovery from cancer who don’t want to be reminded about their recovery status—they want to be treated as just another spa-goer, looking for a little rest and relaxation.

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