The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us. – Edward Abbey
We arrived at the Yucatan Peninsula at night. Our driver had picked us up at the Cancun airport equipped with a sign that read The Baileys’ and a playlist he described as ‘Pop’ that featured Celine Dion’s The Heart Will Go On, Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You, and Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse Of The Heart. After less than an hour to our hotel in Tulum, I turned my bright eyes to the secluded, subtle entrance to Hotel Esencia, a gravel road with a small white stucco building to the side with a big bowl of fresh coconuts. A large gate was opened for us and our driver dropped us off at a small thatched roofed hut where we were welcomed by the hotel staff. There was no ‘front desk check in’ at the hut just cool air and the smell of lavender. From there a golf cart winded its way down gravel roads until we came to a beautifully lit path where our concierge was waiting on us. As we walked along paths that snaked under the moonlit sky amidst a jungle of trees, it felt as if we were trekking through to a simpler time away from the noise of the world. With each turning path a new smell from lavender to jalapeno to citronella.
We came upon white buildings discreetly shielded with lush tropical vegetation. Our suite was located in a 2 story white building hidden behind palm trees, aloe vera plants, and macadamia nut trees. Sliding glass doors opened into a stark white stucco room with a stucco based king bed. The suite also possessed a large bathroom, private plunge pool beneath the vegetation and stars, and stocked with wine and a big bowl of papayas, bananas, and mangoes freshly picked at the resort.
First on our agenda, a night stroll near the beach before dinner. We discovered hermit crabs the size of my fist drudging their way along the paths and we were told a family a spider monkeys had taken residence recently at the hotel.
We dined at the main restaurant of Hotel Esencia under the palms. I had the Warm Octopus Salad which was so fresh and so delicious while my husband enjoyed the Tampiqueno Style Filet with refried beans, chicken enchilada, Poblano fajitas, and a deep fried Serrano with an assortment of Yucatan sauces. In ordering a margarita there was no need to emphasize no sugar or sour mix, because tequila, fresh squeezed lime, and salt is just how they serve it.
After dinner it only seemed like the appropriate thing to do to make our way down to the beach, kick off our shoes, and go for walk. The moon was so bright and almost full dancing over the ocean surface. With sand between our toes we headed back to our suite where we had an appointment with our private plunge pool. As soulfully intoxicating as Esencia was at night, our eyes had yet to see the sun shine on this 50 acre lush property situated upon one of the most pristine beaches you will ever see. The property was once own by an Italian Duchess whose home is now the main house and focal point of Esencia.
There is no mistaking when the sun is rising in Tulum because nature comes to life – birds singing, monkeys calling, so many wild noises fill the air. I wanted to see if we could catch the sunrise and in the 6 o’ clock hour did just that. East over the peninsula the sun rose above the ocean like a big orange ball. Our morning stroll on the beach also revealed beautiful bright blue clear water, white sand that felt like a soft mattress under our feet, washed up pink seaweed, fish jumping above the waves, and sea turtle nests tucked away near our hotel (one nest hatched 45 baby sea turtles while we were there.) I wore my bathing suit down to the beach and had to stick my feet in. The water felt wonderful and beckoned for a swim, I couldn’t imagine a better way to start each day.
At 7 o’ clock each morning coffee awaited us on our balcony. One morning a noise on the roof revealed a Coati (a part raccoon, part monkey creature) making its way among the trees. Each morning we had breakfast by the pool starting with tropical juices and fruit followed with chilaquiles or huevos rancheros or Mexican eggs. And with each morning the iguanas also begin lining the pathways to bask in the sun. In this natural sustainable paradise it is easy to see why humans and animals alike never want to leave.
The beach at Esencia not only offers relaxing loungers under your own palapa (thatched roofed canopy) on beautiful white powdery sand, but also access to the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world. Every guest is given snorkel gear and can swim right out from the beach and snorkel. What I like to refer to as a ‘Snorkel Out, Snorkel In resort’. For further snorkeling and diving tours the hotel can arrange a trip for you that would leave from a nearby marina. While snorkeling we saw damselfish, jacks, hamlets, surgeonfish, brain coral, anemones, and more.
Yoga is offered every morning adjacent to the 2 pools. The Esencia spa offers treatments based on Mayan rituals with ingredients made from the hotel garden. For an afternoon treat try a jalapeno margarita made with jalapenos from the hotel garden or fresh coconut juice and rum served in the freshly plucked coconut from the coconut palms on the property. Our favorite meal at Hotel Esencia was ceviche, so fresh, so satisfying, and so simple. Sustainable simplicity is practiced at Esencia everyday. Plus with only 29 rooms spread across 50 acres you almost always feel like you have the resort to yourself. One of the first nights of our stay was the Super Moon, we sipped wine and watched poolside as the moon made its way from pink to orange to yellow then bright white in the sky.
With the Tulum ruins close by, cenotes, Spider Monkey reserves, and more, it is a must to plan some day trips and experience more of the Yucatan world around you. The ruins are about 20 minutes from the resort and a taxi can take you there. Entrance into the ruins is about 6 dollars person. It is quite a beautiful site to see these ancient structures towering across the landscape sitting high upon the cliffs with turquoise waters crashing against the rocks below. Other nearby ruins that are a must see, Coba about 45 minutes from Tulum. After our trip to the Tulum ruins we headed to the town of Tulum which is less than 10 minutes from the ruins. We ate at a delicious little place right on the main strip called Don Cafeto where a mariachi band was playing. Don Cafeto served up Escabeche a combination of pickled jalapeno peppers, carrots, and garlic – heaven to my palate. We shared their shrimp and fish ceviche and even tried the Jugo Verde, a green juice that with every sip seemed to run goodness through your veins. There is also a sign at Don Cafeto’s that reads, “We only use olive oil to cook with.” An absolute must eat in Tulum is Hartwood. Hartwood is set in an open air restaurant located on the jungle side of Tulum’s beach road operating with the use of solar panels as its only source of sustainable energy. All food preparation is executed by hand with no use of electrical appliances. Hartwood sources all local products from fish, seafood and pork to farm raised produce with a menu that changes daily. Another yummy casual option Los Aguachiles, order the Tostados de Ceviche de Pescado and try the guacamole which will be some the the best you will ever have.
For a fun excursion we took a two day trip to the city of Valladolid turned into an overnight stay and was one of the most enchanting and memorable excursions of my life. In researching our trip I came across information on the Coqui Coqui Perfumeries located across the Yucatan Peninsula. I had heard of Coqui Coqui Perfumes through Vogue Magazine but had not realized that their perfumeries and boutique hotels were all over the Yucatan, the one that intrigued me the most was in Valladolid where a one room immaculately decorated suite set above the perfumery. Valladolid is an inland city on the peninsula located about an 1 and 30 minutes from Tulum, settled in 1545 by Spanish conquistadors atop the Mayan town of Zaci. Valladolid is known for its beautiful architecture and natural beauty including cenotes (naturally occurring sinkholes with water for swimming) that are located right outside the city’s perimeter.
After having a quoted price of $800 round trip for private transportation from our hotel in Tulum to Valladolid, I started researching travel websites for recommendations on transportation to Valladolid. What each site kept recommending was to take the bus. The American in me hesitated as the mere mention of the word ‘bus’ brought about odd smells and images of stained seats, but the adventurer in both myself and my husband thought this could be a cool experience and won out. A taxi took us from our hotel to the bus station in Tulum, the ticket staff does not speak English at all so you will need to know the name of the city you need to go, how many tickets you want, and how to translate pesos to dollars. 2 tickets to Valladolid from Tulum $20 and what we found at the bus station impressed us further. Every transportation employee was dressed in a coat and tie, they were all very friendly, and at the station you are surrounded by a variety of people including young and older Americans who are traveling just like you. When our bus arrived the attendant called out Valladolid, passengers boarded, and in less than 15 minutes we were wheels rolling. In an hour and 15 minutes we were in Valladolid all the while watching Captain Phillips in subtitles. The bus station was 2 blocks from Coqui Coqui Valladolid. Tucked away down a beautiful cobblestone street, Calle 41a, lined with pastel buildings is Coqui Coqui Perfumery and Spa. From the moment you open the door you are in love, maybe it’s the charm, maybe it’s intimacy of the place, or maybe it is the Yucatan inspired scents that fill the air. The manager of Coqui Coqui spoke fluent English and was so helpful. Upon check in you receive the key to the whole building. The only way to enter your one room upstairs retreat is through the perfumery. Located behind the perfumery is the majestic open air spa towering into the sky with cascading drapes flowing in the breeze. You can experience wild honey or clay treatments. Stairs lead to your suite where a platform bed, tile floors, footed bath, lavish bathroom, sumptuous decor, outdoor plunge pool, and chandeliers welcome you. The suite has two outdoor areas one with the plunge pool overlooking the courtyard and spa and the other a large balcony overlooking the city of Valladolid. On the bed was a box of goodies including their Tabaco and Orange Blossom scents with a hand written note. After the squeals of joy subsided over the beauty, charm, and utter coolness of our haven in Valladolid, we hit the streets.
A side note on Valladolid, most people are of Mayan descent so the primary language isn’t Spanish it is Mayan, secondary language is Spanish which means you may feel lost in translation at times. The streets are filled with food carts selling drinks, fruit, and ladies selling homemade tamales in doorways. Many women are dressed in traditional Mayan dress – a white dress with colorful embroidery.
Just before a rain storm we ducked into La Casona a large restaurant with courtyard and beautiful altar. They served a Yucatan buffet which was filled with chile rellenos, tosatodas, tamales and all the salsas a girl could wish for, plus Dos Equis came with the buffet. After the storm we walked some past the beautiful colonial architecture the city is known for including its colonial churches and cathedrals including Convent of San Bernardino de Siena and San Servacio. We discovered a chocolatier making chocolates the ancient Mayan way as well as a tequila museum near the hotel. For dessert we stopped in Conato Restaurant which was tucked away passed the town square on Calle 40. Valladolid is a walkable city which means no need for taxis although you can rent bicycles and explore the city that way as well, a hostel near the hotel rents bicycles by the hour and by the day for a very reasonable price. The great thing about visiting Valladolid on a Sunday night it is when the town square comes alive with street performers, art displays, dancing, music, and on this night, even fireworks. We watched the fireworks from our balcony and even later into the night we could see fireworks from our plunge pool shooting into the sky from all over the city. As guests of the Coqui Coqui it was a nice treat to go downstairs and play perfumery, we sampled the perfumes which are truly irresistible. I have never been a perfume person per se, but these scents all inspired and created by Yucatan plants are unlike any perfume you have ever experienced. Just like the Coqui Coqui Residence the perfumes are intoxicating and naturally sexy. It was a magical night in a magical place.
The next morning we woke up to sounds roosters crowing all over the city and sounds of the jungle all around us since a forest of trees outlines the city. Waking up early we found the streets silent of cars and footsteps. We ventured just a few steps from the hotel and found a courtyard restaurant serving breakfast and had one the best meals of the trip, Chilaquiles topped with eggs sunny side up. Back at the hotel we sipped coffee on the patio before getting ready to venture to a nearby cenote called Oxman. We took a taxi as it was 10 minutes away more by bicycle. The Cenote Oxman opens at 9am and is located behind a brightly colored yellow and red hacienda. After walking through the open hacienda you see the cenote hole. As you get closer you see the depth of the cenote and the deep blue water. A cenote is a natural sinkhole where the limestone bedrock has collapsed exposing the ground water underneath. A staircase leads you down into the cenote. Arriving early we had the place to ourselves besides of course grounds keepers. A rope swing allows you to swing out and jump into the clear blue water and for those who dare, like my husband, a platform at top allows to to dive over 60 feet into the cenote water. We brought our snorkel gear too and discovered the trees we thought were growing out of the water were actually growing into the water. After an hour at the cenote we ventured back to the hacienda where we were served tequila shots with chile pepper, a toast the man willing to jump from the top of the cenote.
We had asked our taxi to return in an hour so he was waiting on us at the entrance,. Feeling refreshed and alive after having such an awesome new experience, we headed back to our refuge at Coqui Coqui for peaceful enjoyment of our private retreat.
Another must do in Valladolid, a visit to the Mayapan Distillery. Tequila has to be made from blue agave in the Jalisco state, however Mayapan is also made from blue agave it just has to be called by a different name. The distillery produces very tasty agave liquor.
With 2 more days at the beachside paradise of Hotel Esencia waiting on us, we again payed $20 total for our 2 bus tickets and headed back to Tulum. The excursion to Valladolid gave a taste of the Yucatan I had never experienced and one I will never forget.
I realize why I love the Yucatan Peninsula so much – wherever you are, you are surrounded by natural beauty and mystery. Everyday in the Yucatan can be magical whether its spying a spider monkey in a tree, drinking from freshly plucked coconuts, seeing moonlit sea turtle babies making their way to the sea, lying under a palm on a white soft sand beach, snorkeling with tropical fish just a few steps from the beach, or diving into a cenote – this world of wonderment created by God, not man, is there to explore, enjoy, learn from, and respect. The Yucatan, Eden on earth.