News & Reviews Caribbean & Mexico Mexico Review: Hotel Esencia, Mexico

Isn’t it said that if you’re in a cult, you’re the last to know?  Hotel Esencia seems to have a cult following if the wild enthusiasm of its fans is anything to go by.  Yet, as with most cults, if you’re not a true believer, you find yourself squinting sceptically and sniffing around, wondering what the fuss is all about.  When I asked the Internet where to stay in Mexico, it felt like a Hotel Esencia fan club had hijacked my search, with everyone chanting its name in unison as if trying to summon it.  Upon arriving, I was expecting to find the guests sipping ceremonial Kool-Aid.

Maybe that’s why it was so quiet.

Nestled between the lush jungles and the pristine sands of Xpu-Ha Beach, Hotel Esencia is on one of the most beautiful stretches of the Caribbean coastline in Mexico’s Riviera Maya.  Originally built as a private residence for an Italian duchess, the property was transformed into a hotel that has become a firm favourite of celebrities and apparently anyone with a strong opinion and internet connection.

The setting truly is really the selling point: a lush jungle backdrop collides beautifully with a spectacular beachfront.  While not technically private, it offers an exclusivity that’s about as good as it gets in this part of the world.  The gardens are a lively sanctuary, home to iguanas, turtles, and peacocks, with manatees visible in a neighbouring lagoon.  Come nightfall, the property shifts atmosphere dramatically; torches light up to create a mature, enchanting vibe.

The major downside is the sargassum, but they’re clearly focused on cleaning it up – in as much as they can.  And the amount of mosquitos.  My god, the amount of mosquitos.  The moment you step away from the beach and venture into the jungle – home to their gym, spa and Beefbar restaurant – you are entering a war zone.

Yummy, yummy Dengue.

Getting there

While travel often comes with its share of unpredictability, the one constant at this hotel was the relentless nickel-and-diming.  It appears their reservations team majored in the Art of the Steal.  Unlike most properties that bundle basic amenities into their rates, here, everything seemed to have a price tag—so much so, I expected to see a line item for the air we breathed on the final bill.  This experience really underscores the unpredictable nature of boutique hotels—sometimes they’re kind, sometimes they’re kind of douches.

The experience started to sour before we even arrived when we found ourselves in a seemingly endless loop of waiting to be collected from Belmond Maroma, with no word on the delay.  The staff at Maroma ended up doing the detective work to find out what was happening.  Finally, an hour late, our ride showed up.  The driver was apologetic and tried to explain the mix-up, while Hotel Esencia seemed to adopt a policy of deciding that forgiveness can only be achieved when it’s forgotten….and completely ignored.  When we finally arrived it was pissing it down, which nicely reflected my mood.  Still, they gave us a temporary room whilst we waited for ours to be available.

Room

Upon entering our room, we were greeted with kids’ colouring books and soft toys, including a lizard reminiscent of the real ones lounging around the property.  The welcome amenities promised “fruit,” and true to their word, there were two apples.  Just two.  Legally sufficient, but morally, surely that means they’re burning in hell.  A printed note from the owner was also there to make everything feel highly personalised…

Then they specify that for breakfast, you can have either a hot drink or juice and one main course per person.  For a property meant to make you feel at home, it certainly achieved that – by feeling as cold and heartless as my great-grandmothers.  Small acts of generosity make you feel welcome.  Here, they act like a frat party once trashed the place and have the principal from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on the case.  The minibar was included (except for alcohol), so that was something.

Our Master Suite, in the original main house, near the beach, filled me with a sense of smug satisfaction.  Not because the room was great but simply because we avoided the jungle-side accommodations.  Anything in the jungle would have been awful.  Not only the lack of views but the abundance of mosquitos would have made it feel more like a life-and-death situation than a holiday.

The room is simple, smothered in white, and has a rustic, unpolished feel. The decor is a masterclass in blandness, mixing understatement with a hefty dose of “meh.” It is the kind of room that makes you curse the gods for the curse of fully functioning eyesight.  Ok, it wasn’t that bad. The room was perfectly adequate—comfortable but desperately in need of a makeover.  It struck a delicate balance between being unremarkable and not outright depressing.

Our room was on the third floor, with views of the ocean, grounds, and main pools.  Mostly the gardens, though.  The impressively high ceilings ranged from 3-4 meters in most areas, soaring to about 8 meters in the living room, creating a wonderfully airy and spacious atmosphere—perfect for echoing your complaints into the void, just as they’d want it.

The room’s quirks included those maddeningly esoteric light switches that seemed to have a mind of their own, allowing you to turn off only select portions of the room.  Beside the bed was an iPod (for those born in the streaming era, feel free to look this ancient relic up), which, in a twist that shocked no one, didn’t work despite its grand ambitions as a sound system.  As for privacy, the lack of soundproofing meant we could hear every hallway passerby.  How’s a man supposed to enjoy his broken iPod in peace?

The suite’s best features are found outside: a plunge pool and a convenient storage nook where drinks and pastries were quietly delivered each morning, to avoid disturbing us.  Inside, the suite was designed as an expansive open-plan space, with the only separations being the bathroom and a generously sized wardrobe for luggage—a welcome change after the storage famine at Maroma.

The suite featured two balconies: one larger, jungle-facing balcony that we never used and a smaller one ocean-facing with a plunge pool.  Safety wasn’t exactly the balconies’ strong suit, with gaps wide enough to lose a small child through.  The plunge pool could be heated to 48°C.  Just how I like it—listed on my preference sheet as “approaching the surface of the sun.” With no bathtub, the pool was ostensibly the next best thing, although its lack of privacy meant you wouldn’t really want to use it as one unless you fancied an audience.

Facilities

The main house combined a games room, business center, and library into one multifunctional space.  Here, they offered complimentary afternoon tea daily from 4 to 6 PM, though the offerings sometimes felt a bit like leftovers.

In front of that, the two swimming pools: one for adults only and a heated family pool, both adjacent to a yoga pavilion and beach bar.  Just beyond, the beach stretches, though staff were visibly battling the persistent seaweed—fighting the good fight to keep the sands inviting.  There’s plenty of shaded seating, although securing a spot can require an early morning dash.  As I need to keep emphasising, the beach is the joy of this property.  The rooms may not be much to look at, but they’ve managed to create this real elegance when it comes to the outdoor areas.

Tucked back in the jungle is a well-equipped gym.  It’s an eclectic mix of equipment ranging from TechnoGym to various other brands, including a Peloton bike.  It’s more than adequate for a workout, and just a minute’s walk from our room.  Officially, the gym opens from 6 AM to 11 PM, but my inner rebel enjoyed a 5 AM session.

The spa is a standout, beautifully arranged in a circular layout that repeats certain elements for a harmonious feel—featuring two hot tubs with closable doors, two steam rooms, a refreshingly cool plunge pool, and two infrared saunas.  It’s immensely relaxing just to stroll through.  Lucie decided to take a spa treatment here, which involved me stepping up as a husband…and letting her take our sleeping one-year-old with her in the stroller.  It resulted in having a foot in her face half the time.  This is what takes being a parent without babysitters, or a decent husband.

Service

Hotel Esencia proudly boasts of not having room numbers.  To find our room we had to count which floor we were on.  All very charming and made to make you feel like you’re at home, except for the fact that everywhere we went we were asked our room number.

As I oft repeat: boutique properties either excel at service or get it all kinds of wrong.  Here it was mostly the latter.  It didn’t feel either professional or warm and the fact no one ever ever approached us over the car situation says it all.  There were a cacophony of service blunders and missed opportunities.

Time keeping was not their forte, with breakfast being setup half an hour later than advertised and housekeeping showing up over three hours later than requested.  Hitting the button for room service collection proved to be an exercise in futility as no one turned up to clear our trays.  Attempts to secure babysitting services were met with a bewildering inability twice over.

Often getting service was more of a workout than the gym.  I don’t care to meet management, but they can add a real sense of personality to a property and they remained as elusive as a shadow, never once making an appearance.  For a property with such a following, I was expecting substantially more.

Morning pastries and drinks, consistently arrived late, and sometimes incomplete.  Post-checkout, the hotel was quick to notify us of items we supposedly left behind, only to discover the items were theirs to begin with—a fitting end to a series of service missteps.

The only glimmer of competence came from the concierge desk, which stood in stark contrast to the food and beverage service.  Orders were frequently incorrect, and bizarre excuses were offered, from a sudden shortage of bananas and avocados to lost drink orders.  Even a simple request for a fruit plate with strawberries turned into an odyssey of delays and disappointment and a misunderstanding of what fruit is.

They comped the return transfers after we complained, which was at least decent.  The manager passed on his regards but never bothered to see us.  Our parting gift was a box of beautifully presented nuts—much like the hotel itself, stylish and elegant on the surface but, ultimately, lacking any substance.

Food

The food here is notably better than the service, though that’s not setting the bar particularly high—it’s like being more charming than Buffalo Bill.  They have three restaurants, which is quite impressive for a property of this size: Mistura for Mexican fare, Taiyo serving Japanese cuisine, and Beefbar, which, unsurprisingly, specialises in meat.  They even have dedicated vegetarian menus.  Taiyo offers ocean views and beachside dining, while Mistura is conveniently next to the family-friendly pool, allowing you to mix and match orders from both menus.

Our first lunch was a bit of a disaster, with three mix-ups in our order.  Everything comes with an automatic 20% service charge and they still have the nerve to ask for an additional tip.  The poke bowl was passable; the chicken dish for dinner was forgettable, but Lucie liked it enough for me to trade her for the pizza, which turned out to be a decent save.

Breakfast is an all-order affair—don’t expect any complimentary bread or pastries here.  The menu spans several pages, from eggs to Mexican dishes, and the usual suspects like pastries, granola, and French toast, sprinkled with some “immune-boosting essentials” like juices.  The menu is more extensive than at Maroma but falls short in quality.  The Japanese offerings were a mixed bag: the sashimi was predictably subpar, the tuna tartar was just okay, but the hiramashi with a Mexican twist was a pleasant surprise.  And yes, I know I should stop grumbling about prices, but $20 for two slices of salmon sashimi in Mexico feels like theft.  It totally explains why Benicio del Toro felt such hatred and desire to kill everyone in Sicario – I felt exactly the same way after that bill.

The dinner-only Beefbar restaurant boasts a classy interior with a bar and an enchanting outdoor dining area complete with hammocks—an inviting setup if you ignore the fact that dining in the jungle turns you into an all-you-can-eat buffet for mosquitoes.

The Good

  • Nature
  • Spa

The Bad

  • Service
  • Generosity
  • Food, for the most part
  • The seaweed didn’t gently float its way there, to show up requires some rough oceans at times, and that was on display during our stay.

The Luxurious

  • Setting
  • Beach
  • Uniqueness

Rating

Good

Conclusion

Having recently made its debut on the “World’s 50 Best” hotels list, Hotel Esencia hasn’t just created hype; it’s inflated expectations like they’re trying to launch a spy balloon into orbit.  It’s tempting to cut them some slack—if you arrived without such lofty expectations and simply embraced it as a quaint place to unwind, perhaps it wouldn’t be so disappointing.  But no one held a gun to their head and forced them to enter.  Another guest told me how much they loved Hotel Il Pellicano, and Esencia reminds them of it – I don’t think they realised what they were saying to me.

The thing is, for all my criticisms, I can actually see the appeal.  Let me make it more appealing.  Firstly, don’t come with young kids.  Secondly, don’t look at Belmond Maroma, which is better (and will be significantly better when their kids club and tennis courts are back up), but doesn’t have such a unique product with a rich history.  Thirdly, come here if you’re a couple looking to do nothing.  If you meet this criteria, I wouldn’t say you’re insane to stay.

There’s an undeniable charm to the property, with its inviting spa, pristine beach, and vibrant wildlife.  Surprisingly, it grew on me over time.  I thoroughly enjoyed the delightfully warm plunge pool and the heated main pools, appreciated the overall calming atmosphere, and admired the setting.  I see its charm, yet I also see how it could be so much more.  Staying here feels a bit like staying at someone’s home, where you might not want to make a fuss or have high expectations, but you can still enjoy it.

Maybe they spiked my Kool-Aid.

In Summary

  • Kids Friendly

    There is no kids club. I would not suggest coming here with younger children.

  • Best room

    Where Hotel Esencia fails me is the location of their villas, being so far away from the beach.  This seems a random trend I've seen in Mexico and Caribbean, where people value privacy and starring at a tree, apparently, over an ocean.  I guess that's the downside to beaches being public.  

Master Suite starts from $3,000 per night

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 2nd May '24

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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