April 8, 2008 -- It took me a year to book my trip to Bikini Bootcamp. While white, cool-sand beaches and crystal-blue warm water sounded like heaven, mandatory bikinis and a camp full of women obsessed with their bodies would surely be pure hell.
When I first read about the six-day Bikini Bootcamp at Amansala, a remote beach off Tulum, Mexico, all I could conjure up were images of toned swimsuit models gracefully sprinting over the white sand, with me lumbering behind them looking distinctly un-sylph like. The pictures on the Web site confirmed my suspicion: this was a camp for beach babes. My friends agreed; they weren't going either.
Instead, I logged on to the Web site every month to read and re-read the sample itinerary. An average day there starts with "a beach or jungle powerwalk followed by a combination of body sculpting, power ab sessions or Pilates, and ends with yoga and meditation. In between there are excursions to the nearby jungle for swimming and snorkeling in fresh water swimming holes (cenotes), visits to Mayan ruins and pampering with beachside massages, Mayan clay treatments, lots of agua de limon and plenty of sunshine."
Eventually, I noticed a session started on my birthday, which I took to be a sign. I took a deep breath and registered. I paid in full ($1,675 plus tax and service for a grand total of $1,954) and bought my $600 JetBlue ticket to Cancun.
I packed my recommended "must haves" – cardio shoes, workout clothes, bug spray, a flashlight, etc. – and ditched my hairdryer since the camp runs on solar power and it uses too much energy.
It's a two-hour drive to Tulum from the Cancun airport, and the camp had a driver waiting for me and few others. The taxi came to $40 each.
Finally we arrived at Amansala, which was pretty as the photos on the Web site with no models in sight. There seemed to be hammocks and hanging beds everywhere around the beach. I unpacked, wore a white bikini (when in Rome!) and white summer dress and headed to a late lunch of grilled fish and salad.
Afterward, the yoga instructor took us on a beach walk and then followed it with restorative yoga. I walked back in the room to change for dinner and finally met my roommate, Sydney, who had flown in from Seattle.
Dinner was delicious – pumpkin soup, grilled fish and grilled pineapple. At "opening circle" that night, we met Melissa Perlman, the co-founder of Amansala who actually lives there with her 2-year-old son Dylan in a small hut overlooking the dining area.
I found out later that night that we had missed the musician Duncan Sheik, who goes to Amansala every year, as well as one of President George W. Bush's daughters and Drew Barrymore.
The following morning started with no alarms – just a friendly wake up bell at 6:45 a.m. At 7 a.m. I joined the group on the beach walk, always completely silent for the first 15 minutes, followed by yoga and then circuit training.
In total, we were a group of 22 women (with some men sprinkled in) with a wide range of looks, shapes, sizes and personalities. On one morning walk, I ended up talking with Kerynne from London who has traveled extensively in Africa and gone to amazing adventure camps.
Midway into the conversation, Ian chimed in to remind us that it was time for "arm blast workout." Groan.
Afterward, I filled up on breakfast (fresh-cut pineapple, papaya, home-made granola, yoghurt, Mayan honey and eggs with spicy salsa – yes, I ate it all!) before the 10-mile roundtrip bike ride to the Tulum ruins. I biked back early with Erin, showered and got ready for my massage with Maria Luisa, which was heaven.
Lunch followed, and then I didn't have anything to do for the next couple of hours but read on the beach. After such peace, I was punished by the bikini butt class with Ian, followed by yoga. My quads felt like jelly and I was famished at dinner, which was grilled fish with veggies and a cooked apple dessert that tasted like apple pie filling.
I woke up again with the sunrise around 5:30 a.m. and chose not to go on the morning walk. Instead, I relaxed on the beach until it was time for morning yoga. Our teacher, half British-half Venezuelan, was superb – not to mention she could easily have been one of the models pictured on the website.
We changed into our bathing suits and headed off in a van to the cenotes – vast underground rivers of pure rainwater that flow through submerged caves. We snorkeled in the underwater caverns, which were incredible. There were lots of silvery fish that brushed up against me and little birds, who nestled in the cavern's crevasses and flew overhead. Then we went into town and I bought an amber rosary and a fossil ring.
I was starving by the time we came back and lunch was the best meal yet: grilled fish with spinach and pumpkin seeds. I had my second massage with Maria Luisa and lay on one of the swinging beds on the beach, contemplating how I could smuggle her back to New York while the other girls were learning African dance.
Sydney and I decided to go to the dining room early and bumped into Melissa's mom, who told us how Melissa had founded Amansala. Over dinner, Melissa herself filled in the rest of the blanks.
Amansala, she said, is from two Sanskrit words meaning "peace" and "water." Devastated by 9/11, Melissa poured her energy into volunteering. Eventually burnt out, she wanted to leave the city and start something fresh. It would be a spa, she decided, at one of her favorite places in the world: Tulum.
Melissa spent all her money ($50,000) in building the beach cabanas and renovating a desolate stretch of beach huts. When there were still workers to be paid after she'd spent her last dime, tensions were tight. Until someone signed up for Bikini Bootcamp online.
Turns out just two people by chance came to stay in her only renovated hut, but slowly through word of mouth, her dream became a reality. "'Build it and they will come,' but boy, was I worried!" Melissa laughed.
Once Bikini Bootcamp was a success, Melissa set her sights on another prize – Casa Magna, the beachfront mansion of the infamous Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar. The huge property had been left abandoned for nine years and while many attempts had been made to take it over, all had failed thus far.
Determined, Melissa found a man whose job it was to (futilely) sweep the abandoned property every day. When she asked him how he was paid, he told her, "Check." She offered him $20 if he showed her his check the next time he received one. He did, and on that check was a telephone number, which Melissa called.
A government official answered, transferred her call to the right person (which she concedes was a miracle) and got the ball rolling. Amansala refurbished Casa Magna in 2005 and has been going strong ever since.
What is the difference between Casa Magna and Amansala? The former is no bootcamp. It's lush and luxurious, and there were rumors of brownies. My Bikini Bootcamp cohorts and I checked out Casa Magna – under pretext of taking a yoga class at there – and it was all true. Still, even with grilled pineapple instead of chewy double-fudge, we felt we had the better end of the deal.
On my last day there, our excursion was a 14-mile (roundtrip) bike ride to a nature reserve where we could kayak in the morning. It sounds like an ideal trip and it nearly was, except for the fact I fell off my bike and scraped my knee, elbow and ankle. It wasn't terrible since I still got to kayak. I returned to Amansala by car, cleaned up my wounds and took pictures of the other bootcampers covering themselves with Mayan clay and honey, a.k.a. "the Mayan Clay Treatment."
At "Closing Circle" that night, everyone spoke from their heart. One woman started to cry when she talked eloquently about her experience. When it was my turn, I spoke about how grateful I was for my health and how I should stop beating myself up about yearning for a "perfect bikini body." Pointing at my injuries I said, "These kept me out of yoga today and I missed out on the Mayan Clay treatment, so instead of focusing on losing those five final pounds, I just want to say thank you for my healthy body."
With all the food I had been eating, there was no way I had lost any weight anyway. But I also gained 21 friends and an experience I'll always remember.
Two of Melissa's favorites, shared here with permission:
Amansala Salad with Ginger Sesame DressingMakes 1 serving.1 cup shredded Napa cabbage1 cup shredded romaine lettuce½ cup shredded carrots½ cup diced tomatoes¼ cup diced avocado1 5-6 oz. piece grilled fish or chicken, choppedGinger Sesame dressing 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
Combine the cabbage, lettuce, carrots, tomatoes and avocado in a large bowl and toss with the dressing. Sprinkle the toasted sesame seeds and serve
Ginger Sesame DressingMakes about 1 cup.½ cup extra virgin olive oil¼ cup balsamic vinegar2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce2 cloves garlic, chopped2 tablespoons honey or brown sugar2 tablespoons peeled and minced ginger1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
Combine the olive oil, vinegar, soy sauce, honey, garlic, ginger, and sesame oil in a blender. Add 2 tablespoons of water. Process until smooth.