As we considered where to travel next, the idea of sunny beach days in the Yucatán became irresistible. And because there are no COVID-related requirements to enter Mexico, it’s a convenient and easygoing destination for American travelers. Extending for 75 miles from Cancún to Tulum, the Riviera Maya offers white-sand beaches, ecological reserves, Maya ruins and reefs that are home to sea turtles and manatees, as well as myriad colorful fish. Avoiding the mega-resorts that line stretches of the shore, we went in search of boutique hotels.
Equidistant between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, the 29-room Hotel Esencia had been on our radar for some time. Originally the private vacation villa of Italian duchess Rosa de Ferrari, the property was purchased by Hollywood producer Kevin Wendle in 2014, who transformed it into a hotel that became popular with celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Gwen Stefani. (Fortunately, our forebodings about a trendy ambiance proved unfounded.)
Hotel Esencia is sequestered on 50 private beachfront acres along undeveloped Playa Xpu-Ha, in one of the best-preserved stretches of the Riviera Maya.
On arrival, guests are transported by golf cart through lush vegetation to the main house, which resembles a Mediterranean palazzo. Inside, the grand architecture is enhanced by midcentury-modern Mexican décor, as well as colonial accents. The charming receptionist, Ricardo, encouraged us to remember his name by recalling Ricky Ricardo in “I Love Lucy.” He escorted us around the intimate property, which is sequestered on 50 private beachfront acres along undeveloped Playa Xpu-Ha, in one of the best-preserved stretches of the Riviera Maya. Esencia encompasses two pools (one is adults-only), three dining options, an organic spa and a state-of-the-art gym equipped with a Mirror (an interactive fitness device that streams live and on-demand exercise classes). Meandering along one of the interconnecting palm-lined footpaths from the central house, we had the sense of being a privileged guest at a magnificently exotic estate.
The lodgings are scattered across the grounds in cottages and three larger villas. We were immediately impressed by our Jungle Suite. The dazzling white-on-white interior came with stylish mahogany furnishings, slatted wood blinds, colorful bed throws, flat-weave wool rugs (made by artisans in Oaxaca’s Zapotec community) and electric-blue cushions that accented the seating area of the terrace. Our spacious bath provided dual vanities, a walk-in closet, a deep tub and a large shower room with two showerheads. A door beyond the bath led out to a second terrace with a heated plunge pool, white lounge chairs brightened by canary-yellow beach towels and an outdoor shower. The suite’s minimalist design formed a dramatic counterpoint to the canopied jungle surroundings.
We changed into our swimsuits and headed to Mistura, the hotel’s casual beachfront restaurant. There, grilled seafood, fresh ceviche and the 180-degree views of the aquamarine sea are the principal highlights. Our waiter seemed pleased that we wanted to spend the remainder of our day relaxing under a small Tiki hut on the beach, and after lunch he escorted us to our preferred spot, set an ice bucket on the side table and offered us cocktails. Attentive staff checked on us regularly. Esencia’s private stretch of Playa Xpu-Ha is pristine, and the calm water is ideal for swimming.
Activities at the resort include snorkeling along the nearby Mesoamerican Reef, paddleboarding (the boards were in need of replacement), Hobie Cat excursions and deep-sea fishing. One of our most memorable experiences was a visit to the hotel’s private cenote. We paddled out to a cove inhabited by a group of manatees, and a large individual circled us for a few minutes before heading back into the mangroves. Afterward, we swam in the crystal-clear water.
In the evening, we dined at Beefbar (an outpost of the international steakhouse chain that began in Monte Carlo in 2005). Housed within a palapa-thatched-roof structure set in the center of the garden, the restaurant features hanging gardens and floor-to-ceiling glass windows that fold open, weather permitting. Not to be missed are the tostaditas, crispy corn tortillas topped with Kobe beef rib-eye in a habanero sauce. The dish arrives under a domed-glass lid that, when lifted, releases aromatic smoke.
It is the unexpected details at Esencia that make this property one of a kind. Hot coffee and pastries are delivered to your patio every morning and an elegant afternoon tea is hosted daily. Locally made blown-glass vases and tumblers, along with handcrafted tableware, heighten the property’s sense of place. Tiles from the town of Puebla add pops of color, and in-room iPod docks are preloaded with a “tropical playlist.” A pantry room at the spa displays jars full of local herbs, spices and flowers used in the treatments. And at night, staff light dozens of candles and lanterns around the swimming pools and bars.
Having to leave Esencia was dispiriting. As we got into our car, a staff member handed us a box of housemade dark-chocolate-covered cocoa beans and cold water for our ride. Driving back to the main highway through the jungle, we talked about little other than a potential date for our return.
The intimate size; the postcard-perfect private beach; the house-party atmosphere.
The old-school phone in our room did not work; the lack of staff at the Beach Bar.
There is only one English-speaking TV station.
The next destination on our itinerary, Hotel Bardo, was located in Tulum, a 35-minute drive to the south. The city’s popularity among millennials has skyrocketed over the past few years. However, some new hotels — in quieter parts of town away from the water — seemed as though they might be of interest to Andrew Harper members.
Hotel Bardo may be set quite close to the city center, but it is not easy to find. The streets leading to the hotel are lined with crumbling concrete buildings and colorful fruit stands, and the entrance is marked only by a small wooden sign. Accessed by a gravel path through a bamboo grove, reception turned out to be an open-sided structure beneath a palapa roof, an area that it shared with a pop-up shop selling yoga apparel and flowing bohemian-style dresses. Our visit did not get off to a good start. The two receptionists were standoffish and seemed uninterested in answering our questions, and when we asked to see the restaurant menu and a list of excursions, we were told abruptly to find the QR codes in our room and to let the front desk know via WhatsApp.
Fortunately, a smiling and energetic woman then appeared to escort us to our room. She seemed genuinely pleased to see us and excited to point out the hotel’s amenities. The centerpiece of the property is its emerald-green swimming pool, which is flanked by a rustic lounge with a billiards table, an all-day restaurant and a bar featuring a lush vertical garden, wooden sculptures embedded with shells and dozens of votive candles and candelabras. Our charming guide went into detail about how Bardo is intended to be a “place of introspection and mindfulness.” She pointed out the teepee-like fitness area where yoga classes are hosted daily. Other wellness activities offered include temescal (sweat lodge) ceremonies and sound-therapy sessions using Tibetan singing bowls and gongs. Healing workshops and retreats are hosted throughout the year, with a portion of the income going toward the creation of the Escuela de Sanación Maya (Maya Healing School).
The hotel’s 30 villas measure 645 square feet and feature small private gardens with unheated plunge pools and hammocks. Our lodging’s décor was minimalist in style but came with boho-chic adornments, as if the designers hadn’t quite settled on the look they wanted. The troughlike sink in the bath and outdoor shower were concrete and angular, while the room’s wall hangings and throw pillows featured disjointed layers of patterns and textures. The intention appeared to be to emulate an Aman Resort, but instead the room felt cold and flat. All accommodations lack phones and televisions, as guests are encouraged to unplug; in-room Wi-Fi had been promised, but it worked only beside the pool. Although the hotel promotes itself as a spiritual retreat, we couldn’t help but notice about 80 percent of the guests were engrossed by their laptops and cellphones virtually the entire time.
Disappointed with the property so far, we decided to enjoy a cocktail and light snack at the bar. The bar menu’s appetizers, such as guacamole and truffle French fries, were unoriginal, but the cocktails we ordered, especially the maracuya (passion fruit) margarita made with mezcal instead of tequila, were well-balanced and refreshing. The hotel’s sister property, Una Vida, is nearby, and the restaurant there offers a more enticing menu with cochinita pibil (a classic Yucatán dish of slow-cooked pork), grilled tuna in a cilantro-lime chimichurri sauce and a cinnamon-and-vanilla-infused slow-grilled papaya for dessert. Overall, however, the Hotel Bardo’s brusque staff, incoherent design and expensive tours left much to be desired.
Our outdoor shower; the creative cocktails served at the bar.
The lack of in-room Wi-Fi; the curt and unhelpful staff; the chilly temperature of the pool; the overpriced excursions.
Accessed via tree-shaded walking paths on the estate, the hotel’s sister property, Una Vida, has a welcoming restaurant.
Our next property, KAN Tulum, debuted in 2019 and is located a seven-minute drive from Hotel Bardo. Immersed in a jungle setting, it feels utterly removed from Tulum’s hectic downtown. Developers Sam Gordon and Alejandro Dumas designed the property to be an exemplar of sustainable development, while still providing guests with the conveniences expected of a high-end hotel.
Several attractive treehouse structures contain 42 guest lodgings and encircle a central swimming pool and a private natural cenote with a waterfall. A young woman checked us in and accompanied us to our room. We quickly realized that we were expected to carry our own luggage. This was manageable at first as we walked along flat pathways, but lugging cases up three flights of stairs proved more of a challenge.
Our suite had a Maya-inspired décor with a gray-and-cream color palette and local crafts and handmade furnishings made by Studio Oryx, a Cancún-based design studio that employs reclaimed and recycled materials. A large freestanding tub, plenty of storage space and a private balcony made us feel at home. But we wished there had been a partition between the bedroom and bath — and shampoo, conditioner and body lotion, which were notably missing.
After unpacking, we strolled through the leafy property, passing inviting hammocks and hanging rattan pod chairs. The hotel’s website listed a full range of facilities, including a restaurant, fitness center, spa and beach club. However, at reception we were told that only a small spa room was currently available and that the other amenities would not debut until a second phase of the hotel’s development. This had not been made clear when we made our reservation.
In the morning, we went in search of breakfast, which is served on a platform across the cenote. There, we found glasses of chia pudding covered in plastic wrap baking in the sun, and large jugs of juice swarming with flies. We then waited 15 minutes for a staff member to appear. He explained that there was no menu, but that we could order anything we wanted. In theory, it sounds nice to have unlimited options, but here it felt problematic, given that a restaurant has yet to be built. Fortunately, the chilaquiles, a traditional Mexican breakfast dish composed of corn tortillas, queso fresco, salsa verde and chile sauce, were delicious.
Apparently, the second phase of the hotel’s development will unveil 18 new guest units, including two-bedroom studios with private pools and kitchens, an amphitheater for concerts and a private road leading directly to the beach. At present, I cannot recommend this property, despite the enchanting jungle setting and its creative and original design. KAN Tulum has opened too soon.
The splendid treehouse design; the natural cenote; the charming young staff; the quiet location in the middle of the jungle.
The current lack of amenities; having to carry our own bags up three flights of winding stairs.
The hotel has officially begun the second phase of construction; KAN Tulum is not to be confused with the popular party beach resort, Kanan Tulum. (Some taxi drivers are unaware of the distinction.)
We wanted to spend our last few days in the Yucatán at a property on a beach not too far from the airport. The 41-villa Viceroy Riviera Maya is located a short drive from the Harper-recommended 129-room Rosewood Mayakoba, and it seemed like a potential alternative for those in search of a smaller property in the area. Set outside the village of Playa Xcalacoco, the hotel is reached via a bumpy road off the main highway. In the open-air lobby, we were greeted with cool towels and glasses of lemongrass-infused coconut milk. Check-in was flawless, with the scheduling of the airport transfer, spa treatment and COVID test required for reentry to the United States all handled efficiently.
Our luggage was whisked away, and we were speedily escorted to our room. The stand-alone villas feature lofty thatch-roofed ceilings, Balinese-style furnishings, turquoise-and-chocolate-hued accents, sisal rugs and spacious private terraces with heated plunge pools, crocheted hammocks and double loungers. As we were admiring our temporary new home, our attendant pulled colorful brick-size blocks of locally made artisanal soaps from his bag. He sliced off bars of our favorite ones, which included fragrant rose and fresh watermelon scents.
After settling in, we meandered over to Coral Restaurant + Bar, a casual café overlooking the powdery-white beach, with tables spilling onto a pool terrace. The fare served here, including a traditional Maya lime soup, assorted ceviche and light salads, is simple but tasty. We stepped onto the beach to enjoy our cocktails on one of the suspended daybeds, and a staff member immediately appeared with iced towels and sun hats. The attentive and proactive service impressed us throughout our stay. Unfortunately, rough surf and rocks prevent swimming, though water shoes are provided for those who want them. There are visible remains of the hotel’s wooden pier, destroyed in a recent hurricane, from which guests once dived into the Caribbean.
That evening, we had an early dinner at La Marea, the hotel’s formal restaurant helmed by chef Carlos Zamora, which serves contemporary Mexican cuisine with Mediterranean inflections. The scallop starter in a creamy coconut mole was delectable, as was the soft-shell crab main served in a tamarind mole with roasted cabbage and peanuts.
Everything about the Viceroy was impressive until about 7 p.m., when music started blaring from the property next door, the recently opened Mvngata Boutique Hotel, which was drawing crowds of revelers from Playa del Carmen, a party town 5 miles to the south. The front desk informed us that the hotel was refusing to lower the volume and that the police had been called. We lay in bed until around 11:30, unable to sleep. The next day, the beach was littered with empty beer cups and cigarette butts.
In the afternoon, we headed to the Viceroy’s spa for our scheduled treatment. We were intrigued by the Hunan-Kab (Honey Ceremony), which employs the honey made by the stingless Melipona bee, a species unique to the Yucatán. The property has its own apiary, and the herbal compresses and honey massage oil combined in a superlative treatment that left our skin deeply rehydrated. Yachting, snorkeling and fishing excursions can be arranged, as well as horseback riding, ATV tours, ceviche and tequila tastings and tamale cooking classes.
In many respects, the Viceroy is a magnificent property, but it is wedged between large resorts and is situated on a public beach. The nearby Rosewood Mayakoba, located within a private 1,600-acre development, is the superior option.
The anticipatory and precise service; the unique spa treatment menu; the delicious moles served at La Marea; the wide range of culinary classes offered.
The noisy neighboring properties; the jagged shoreline rocks that prevent ocean swimming; our room’s lack of screened doors.
Beachfront units have better views but lack privacy. The hotel does not permit children under the age of 12.