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Mexico's Mayan Beach Resort

Can a beach resort in the Yucatán help preserve the Mayan way of life?

By Barbara Ascher

The air is silent as doña bena Tun lowers a hen into a smoking pit dug out of the jungle floor in the Yucatán Peninsula. Her student, Noé Bernardo García, the chef at Esencia Estate—a beach resort on the coast—watches intently, wiping the sweat from his eyes and taking notes. Suddenly, the diminutive Tun claps her hands and shouts, “Fuego!” It is an age-old tradition when starting to cook. The chef smiles, but his attention cannot waver, as there are neither written recipes nor measurements: preparing chicken soup the way it has been done in this area for hundreds of years is an undocumented tradition. García has ventured 80 miles into the depths of the selva to observe Tun because “it is central to our guests’ experience,” says Nicolás Domínguez, Esencia’s original operations manager and long-term adviser.

In this era of eco rhetoric, resorts can save a tree and install a solar panel and call themselves “green,” yet bulldoze the culture of the place. At Esencia, not only did one owner tie himself to a tree at a neighboring property to save it but the hotel has also dedicated itself to promoting Mayan culture. The guiding light is Tun, a local mujer sabia (wise woman) and keeper of traditions, whom Domínguez hired to teach the staff how to prepare Mayan cuisine, to bring her ancient herbal secrets to the spa, and to keep indigenous folklore alive at the resort. “Tun is the midwife, veterinarian, healer of plants and people, marriage counselor, and holder of the oral customs for her entire village,” Domínguez says.

This kind of “cultural greening” has become one of the pillars of responsible resorts around the globe, from places like the Masai tribe–run Il Ngwesi Group Ranch & Lodge, in Kenya, to Ecuador’s Yachana Lodge, which funds a high school for Amazonian youth, to the soon-to-open Salt River Devco Marriott, in Scottsdale, Arizona, which will be owned by members of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community. “The tourist industry can be a critical factor in keeping cultures alive,” says Juliette Blevins, codirector of the New York–based Endangered Language Alliance. What makes Esencia so relevant is that it’s set within a stone’s throw of the behemoth resorts that line the Riviera Maya, presenting a new model of preservation in this area. The property—situated on 12 acres 50 miles south of Cancún—was originally owned by Italian Duchess Rosa de Ferrari, who decided to convert her house into a hotel because she abhorred how the area’s high-rise properties often insist that their staffs be “Americanized.” In fact, according to Blevins, “due to intensive contact with resorts where it is often stigmatized, Yucatec, the local language, has nearly disappeared.”

To spearhead the project, De Ferrari partnered with Domínguez, who was attracted to Esencia less for its sugar-white beach (though of course that didn’t hurt) than for the challenge she posed: creating a culturally sensitive property in the heart of the Maya territory. Seventy-five percent of the staff come from nearby villages, and they helped design some of the elements, including the white-chocún spa, which was built using traditional Yucatán construction methods. The resort is also decorated with local crafts, like a frankincense-filled clay pot (recommended by a visiting shaman to keep bad spirits away).

The result is refreshingly authentic and works in harmony with luxury. Each of the 29 thatched palapas is air-conditioned, wired for technology, and designed for privacy, hidden within an enclosure of native trees. Most of the rooms have plunge pools that extend from the terrace where breakfast appears each morning. You might well think you were the only guest, and be tempted to take to your hammock and never emerge. But then you’d be missing out on a spa treatment with Lulú Cervantes Álvarez. Tun taught her massage techniques used long before modern transportation, when Mayans trekked great distances. “Upon arriving at their destination they were massaged,” Álvarez explains. “It was worth the hundred-mile walk.”

Tun also brings the spa staff into the jungle to collect herbs and berries, shave small pieces of bark from the trees, and dig roots from the sun-dappled undergrowth. “Just beware of the chaya,” Tun warns. “If you don’t ask the plant’s permission before picking it, it will sting you.” Back in her kitchen, the group works with mortar and pestle to blend the harvest into potions for treatments that guests claim have cured everything from insomnia to sexual lassitude.

In a similar fashion, gardener José Villanueva incorporates elements of the surrounding jungle into the resort’s lush landscape. Ramóns (the “trees of good vibrations”) line pathways, and the round, white fruit of the ciricote tree is cooked up as dessert. In perhaps the most thoughtful example of caring for nature, Villanueva recently transplanted an ailing potted tzintznalli palm “because it was unhappy after its spouse had died,” he says. This is all precious knowledge, says Blevins, “because when you lose a culture, you also lose an ecosystem.”

And Domínguez isn’t stopping here. Now that Esencia offers one of the most authentic experiences short of living in Doña Bena Tun’s village, he’s hard at work on Hacienda San Antonia Chable, in Mérida. Scheduled to open in November 2011, it will be a spa destination for guests who want to steep themselves in the local culture and nature. He smiles as he reveals a secret that really isn’t that big of a surprise: “Doña Bena will be resident healer.”

Barbara Lazear Ascher contributes to the New York Times and the Financial Times.