josh’s birthday getaway (part 1) – playa del carmen

Josh is hands-down the hardest boyfriend to shop for.  The guy has everything and whatever he doesn’t have, he somehow manages to buy for himself three weeks before his birthday (“hey look, I bought myself that thing I’ve always wanted”… “oh, you mean the thing I was going to get you for your birthday?!”  “ohhhhhhh…. oops” – it’s maddening).

My present last year was pretty decent – dinner in the private room at Mozza for him and 15 of his guy friends, plus a massage table and “anytime” massage coupons from me (10 years of piano = strong fingers = killer massages).

This year, Josh’s big 45th 35th – was all about the escape.  We had a crazy-busy year of work, so I wanted to take us somewhere we could fully relax, but also have a little adventure on the side.  And since it was 2012, we needed a nod to the Mayans.

I love Playa del Carmen and a few of my friends recommended Hotel Esencia, a beautiful & ultra-private boutique hotel halfway between Playa and Tulum.  Add on a 2-day jaunt to Havana and we had the perfect combo of relaxation & exploration, luxe & exotic.  And… we would be in the right place just in case the world ended a few months early.

I started planning the trip in October, right around the height of the Mexico drug warlord scare.  While some people might consider this a reason to avoid travel to Mexico, I saw opportunity (no one ever blamed me of being risk averse).   Hotel Esencia was running an insane promo where for a 5-day stay, we’d get a daily $1100 credit at their spa & restaurant.  Have you ever tried to spend $1100 a day at a hotel?  Me neither, but it’s really fun.

Day 1: After a fairly quick flight to Cancun and a 1 hour drive from the airport, we arrived at Esencia’s main gate, a Mayan-style mud hut.  From there, it was a 5 minute golf cart ride through the jungle to arrive at the estate.  By the time you get there, you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.

Esencia is a small boutique hotel that resembles someone’s home, probably because it WAS someone’s home.  The Italian duchess Rosa Ferrari built it in the early 90′s to entertain friends and it has since been converted into a 29-room hotel.

If you believe the marketing materials, our room was actually the main living quarters of Ms. Ferrari.  It was totally gorgeous, probably around 1500 square feet with a domed brick ceiling, huge private terrace, jacuzzi, living room, back patio and master bath.   However, the toilet sitting wide open with no doors in the middle of the bathroom makes me think the duchess was single (or maybe she’s long-term relationship Barbie).

We checked in, dropped off our stuff and headed straight to the spa for the Ritual Esencia de Amor (couples massage), the first of about 20 treatments during our stay.  Unlike most couples massages where they just put you side by side in the same room, this one was special.  First, they stand you facing each other while they “cleanse your aura” with sage and candles.  Then, they push two massage tables together and have you hold hands during your massage.  At the end, they stand over you and read you a poem about your love (at which point I was squeezing Josh’s hand off so I wouldn’t snicker out loud), and then you have a private jacuzzi to relax and enjoy a warm cup of cinnamon tea.  It was 2% cheesy, 98% lovely.

Over the course of the trip, we sampled just about every spa service on the menu (it takes a lot to use up $1100 of hotel credit per day… we were happy to do the research).  If you go, make sure to try the Four Elements Massage and the Ritual de Moka, a coffee scrub & chocolate body wrap.  Yum (yes, I tasted it when the therapist wasn’t looking).

Day 2:  I have a little tradition when I travel – I love to watch the sun rise on the first morning in a new place.  It’s partially jet lag, partially excitement at being somewhere new, but I can never sleep past 5am that first day.  So rather than toss and turn, I take my camera and take advantage of being the first one up.  It always leads to some interesting discoveries…

…such as, stumbling on a light bulb washed up on the beach.  WTF?  In Santa Monica, we get syringes, Nestle crunch wrappers, and the occasional saline breast implant (no joke).  In Mexico, you get seaweed and light bulbs. There’s a dude who comes to haul away the seaweed every morning (that’s him pictured above), but he forgot to take the light bulb.

By 8am, it was already 80 degrees and it stayed just around that temp until sundown.  For the first few days, we did nothing but lay around, read, and take super long walks on the beach.  There weren’t many properties around us (just a couple abandoned places about 1/4 mile up the way), so the beach was nice & secluded, like our own personal Corona ad.

I was a good girl on the trip, I wore lots of SPFs.


On our second-to-the-last day, I decided to make a sandcastle right after going swimming.  By the time I had put the finishing touches on my masterpiece Julius Caesar Attempts to Swallow the Caribbean Sea, the not-so-friendly sun had turned my backside bright pink.  That afternoon’s hot stone massage would turn into a cucumber wrap, and I pretty much looked like the Coppertone baby for the rest of the trip.  Take a look at this work of art and decide for yourself – totally worth the sunburn, right?

Even though we were prepared for total food indulgence, Esencia was probably our healthiest vacation ever… they just made it so easy.  Daily yoga classes overlooking the beach, amazing tart yogurt with fresh fruit compote (we ate this every morning), fresh fish tacos, and seven different kinds of ceviche, which I had at every meal.  It was a pescetarian’s dream.

The main restaurant at Esencia is Sal y Fuego and they do a great rendition of fresh, healthy Mexican cuisine. They also grow many of their own fruits, vegetables and herbs on site, so it’s wonderful taste of local, sustainable Yucatan food.

On a couple of the days, we could only get one spa treatment so we had a lot of our credit left over for the restaurant.  Just how exactly do you spend $600 at dinner?  Easy.  Just invite your friends Don and Dom to join the party.

Day 4: After three days of multiple spa treatments and cabana-lounging, we were totally sick of it.  Ha, no, not really.  You don’t get sick of it.  But we figured we should probably get out into the real world and experience civilization, both modern & ancient.  A 20-minute taxi took us to Playa del Carmen, a cute little beach town that has unfortunately become more like a swap meet in the past 5-6 years.  Fortunately there were still pockets of quaint boutiques, art galleries & restaurants, like Calle Corazon, a pretty street where we picked up a handmade leather bracelet with a tortuga (turtle) charm for Josh, my little turtle.

Day 5:  Late morning, we headed out to Tulum, an ancient Mayan ruin perched on cliffs above the coast, and one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Mayans.  It’s stunning.

Then our driver took us to Aktun Chen for some cenote swimming.  Cenotes are freshwater sinkholes, considered sacred by the Mayans, and believed to be the entrance to the underworld (somewhere, a B-horror movie has started with American tourists going snorkeling in a cenote).

We were fortunate to be the only people in the cenote with our guide, so the experience was serene and surreal.  The limestone stalactites and stalagmites are breathtaking, and the little pockets of sunlight through the roof light up the cave in the most magical way.  I’ve heard there are better cenotes in the Riviera Maya (Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos, for example), but in my book Aktun Chen wins because they have a pet baby monkey.  Nothing beats a baby monkey.

Day 6:  Our last day in Mexico was spent in the cabana, soaking up those last rays of sun, ceviche, guacamole and mango margaritas.

One techno-laced taxi ride to the Cancun airport and we were on the way to our next adventure…

Part 2 – Havana coming soon

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