A 17th-century colonial haven on the Yucatán Peninsula

Bird watching, cookery classes, sunset serenades and sumptuous feasting atop Mayan ruins

Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is known for its powdery sand beaches and breathtaking Mayan ruins. I never saw those. Instead, I spent every waking moment of my Mexican adventure, and many a siesta, within the 250-acre grounds of Hacienda Petac, or House of the Turtle Catcher. This 17th-century former sisal plantation built atop Mayan ruins was stylishly converted around 10 years ago into a private villa, with five expansive bedrooms between the sisal factory building, where the henequen plant was converted into rope (formerly the area’s main export), and the Casa Del Mayordomo, where the factory manager once resided.

A driver was on call for any of my travelling posse who felt compelled to explore Uxmal and Chichen Itza or to swim in the Yucatán’s cenotes (underwater pools) that were the principal water source for the Mayans.I did send him out without me once, to round up some of the region’s renowned hammocks, being too happily ensconced in one to scout around the apparently charming nearby town of Mérida for myself. Anyway, I rationalised that I too was engaging with the region’s rich history as the main house sits on top of one such underground lake. That chilly and chemical-free water now fills Petac’s enticing, tree-shaded pool where I cooled off regularly.

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Not entirely a hammock potato, I took advantage of Petac’s considerable array of on-property activities: rising with the sun for an expert-guided bird-watching trek, chopping chillies into a mean guacamole during one of several cooking classes with the villa’s private chef and going horizontal for a deep and much-needed knead in the thatch-roofed spa. Now back home, on the other side of the world, I can still hear the harmonious notes of sunset serenades by the Trova trio, a local favourite.

Previous guests recommended I snag the Chu Jun, or Woodpecker Suite, for its private waterfall and especially swanky bathroom, but no one will feel slighted by being booked into any of the five equally photogenic alternatives, as all boast 30ft ceilings, Spanish colonial furnishings and hand-painted-tile floors. Service is unobtrusive and flawless thanks to the hacienda’s staff of 24, one of whom overheard me squeal with delight to find a rose-petal-strewn bath on arrival and made sure one awaited me every night thereafter.

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Our group gathered for fresh-fruit margaritas in the Casa Principal, with its Moorish arches, generous verandas and an open bar fashioned from the factory paymaster’s wooden grille. The meals that followed were festive celebrations of homemade tamales, poc chuc (grilled pounded pork eaten with oranges and salsa), and pollo pibil (marinated chicken wrapped in banana leaves), followed by a sweet sorbet made from local guanabana fruit, or a luscious flan.

Despite its colonial setting, Petac also offered us modern essentials, such as WiFi access and mobile-phone coverage, while keeping televisions, in-room telephones and alarm clocks entirely out of view except on request… which I did not.

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