Review by Michelle Chaplow
Why should I stay there?
To experience a contemporary oasis in an unlikely setting: the beautiful Andalucian hilltown of Aracena. A modern minimalist boutique hotel, this boasts an art gallery, gastro bar, superb restaurant, and probably the best-stocked walk-in bodega in town.
This is a small yet stylish urban hotel over four floors, with just seven individually-designed rooms and two duplex suites, in the heart of the stunning Sierra de Aracena, with its oak-covered hills.
Essencia is superb value for money. It's a new hotel, opened in 2015, with friendly, enthusiastic staff, created by entrepreneur Luis Garcia, lovingly decorated by interior designer Mercedes Eirín, and managed by hotelier Ivan López Barrera. GM Ivan works alongside a multi-tasking team, with staff always willing to help each other out, which is refreshing to see. "We are like a small family, ready to welcome our guests. We aim to be the perfect hosts," he says. The restaurant and gastro bar offer excellent modern Andalusian cuisine, with many dishes incorporating local seasonal organic produce.
What kind of person stays there?
Those that are seduced by the rare, winning combination of the following: off-the-beaten-track location, modern interior design, fast wifi, contemporary art and top Spanish gastronomy.
If you love history, you won´t be disappointed, as Aracena has a 12th-century Moorish castle on a hill. If you a seeking a glimpse into "the real Spain", off the classic tourist routes, with authentic local shops, then Aracena is also for you
Wine lovers have their own shop - browse boutique Andalucia wines and gin from the nearby Martes Santo distillery in Higuera de la Sierra.
It is also heaven for hikers, horse-riders and lovers of the outdoors, with many kilometres of well-marked hiking paths for exploring the fabulous countryside with its oak forests, rolling hills, ancient dry stone walls and tumbling streams.
Where is it?
Aracena is a small, charming town with cobbled streets in the heart of the Parque Natural Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche, in a remote part of Huelva province where time has stood still. The hotel is ideally located, one street back from the main square of Aracena.
You can visit the castle and magnificent churches, as well as the marvellous caves, La Gruta de las Maravillas with over 200m of underground passages.
A few minutes' drive away is the impressive natural park with its virgin vistas of beautiful oak-covered hills and many picturesque hilltowns within easy reach, as well as countless activities, such as hiking, horse-riding, caving, kayaking.
Aracena is 83km from Seville, 58km from the Portuguese border, and only 30 km from Extremadura. The nearest airport for international travellers is Seville (94km).
What's it like?
The traditional façade, painted white with black wrought-iron balconies, hides another world inside. Mercedes Eirin and Luis Garcia have successfully combined Andalucian spirit with a flamboyant yet minimalist ambience. Lots of interesting lamps, glass panels on staircase sides, transparent walkway overlooking water feature flowing into the interior gardens and patio, washbasins in barrels, ornate headboards and vibrant colour schemes.
Veronica Alvarez Ruiz is the art director and curator of the works displayed in the hotel, which extend over all four floors. Veronica likes to select work from artists of different disciplines such as photography, fine art painting, sculpture and audio video installations; many of the pieces are for sale.
This is a hotel offering a superb dining experience - we would recommend that you dine here at least once during your stay. As an example, try the organic wild asparagus chips in tempura, or mousse of boletus with caviar de Pedro Ximenez served with homemade orange citrus marmalade.
This is the land of Iberian cured hams, wild mushrooms and goat's cheese. Spain is not known for its confectionery, but this town is the exception - one of the shops, Rufino, dates back to 1875, and you often have queue outside the store to buy their cakes.
The hotel has a small gastro shop and library - all items are very reasonably priced; this is not your usual in-house store with inflated prices. If you enjoy a wine in the restaurant one evening, you may even find it in their little shop to take away and savour at home.
What are the rooms like?
The rooms are compact, contemporary and a little eccentric. As each room is individual, it makes the hotel very special indeed. All have wifi and you can order room service during the restaurant's opening hours.
What should I eat there?
The gastrobar offers a wide selection of tapas - traditional with a modern touch. Most of the vegetables are locally grown and organic.
This area is famous for its wild mushrooms and Iberian ham, so they would be an ideal choice. For example, the mousse de organic boletus is good, as well as the ensalada essencia - caramelized pineapple, goat's cheese, organic tomato and baby leaves with a toasted corn dressing.
Although Aracena is a mountain village, this area is not far from the sea. If you want to try a fish dish with a difference, ask for the boqueron distraido or distracted anchovy with jamon in breadcrumbs like a serranito.
Food is superbly plated - Instagrammers will be thrilled.
An unusual local accompaniment to your dessert would be orange wine, made nearby in the Condado de Huelva DO - sweet wine flavoured with orange.
If you don´t want a huge or pricey breakfast, they offer toast with Iberian ham and fresh tomato puree (the classic Andalucian way to start the day), plus freshly squeezed orange juice, and tea or coffee, all for a very economical price.
What should I see and do in the area?
You can find a wealth of cultural and natural attractions in and around Aracena. In the town itself you can visit the limestone caves with their pools and extraordinary stalactites and stalagmites. The hilltop castle and church are fascinating, and also offer great views of the town. Aracena offers traditional, old-style department stores, and the former communal washing area, once a focal point for social interaction.
Lovers of the outdoors can go cycling, hiking, kayaking, caving or horse-riding, while geologists will be delighted by the Rio Tinto Mines where you can see and learn everything about local mining, from Roman times to the 20th century. For fans of architecture and history, the well-preserved ninth-century mosque in nearby Almonaster La Real has the oldest mihrab in Spain, and is unusual as a rural mosque. Many other villages of the Sierra are a delight to wander around on foot, with their steep, cobbled streets and little plazas - park on the outside as those narrow, windy streets can be tricky drive around.
The word essentia is the Latin for essence - they want you to capture the essence of this boutique hotel. The logo and a huge lamp on the stairway represent a lung - you breathe in deeply the fresh, clean air of the sierra, so that your whole body will feel refreshed during your stay in the hotel.
The hotel's GM, Ivan, started out as a photojournalist working on covering bullfighting for La Razon newspaper. He later went on to study hospitality and worked both nationally in Spain and in Cuba, in hotel management. Ivan loves gastronomy and oversees many creations by chef Miguel Angel del Toro, who is from the capital of tapas, Seville.
Non-residents are welcome to dine at the hotel - eventually they hope to extend the number of guest rooms, but always retaining that boho charm.