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Mexico's Mayan Beach Resort

Doña Bena Tun, the hotel’s cultural ambassador.

Photo: Del Sol Photography

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.

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