Down in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, something’s stirring. Away from the flashy beachside resorts that march all the way along the country’s Caribbean coast, from Cancún to the arty, hippy enclave of Tulum, lies another Mexico entirely – a land of romantic, faded haciendas, of sacred pools, of haunting monuments and temples, where the ancient Maya not only survived the Spanish conquest, but retained their language and many of their traditional ways. But while the Yucatán has long had its pyramids, its sleepy colonial towns and its unique circle of watering holes, what is newer and makes a visit all the more compelling is the fact that many of its once-crumbling haciendas have been restored and turned into hotels or private homes that can be rented by the day or week. Almost any of them would make an enchanting base for a journey through this remarkable place.
For the haciendas are much, much more than just somewhere to rest your head. They are an integral part of the region’s history, being to the Yucatán what the plantations of the Deep South were to America. Dating from the days of the Spanish conquest, they were originally mostly cattle ranches, but during the late 19th and early 20th centuries their owners grew massively rich on the proceeds of sisal agave, or henequén (or, as they called it, the “green gold”), which was turned into yarn, twine and rope. The remnants of their prosperous way of life can still be seen everywhere. All down the Paseo de Montejo in Mérida, Yucatán’s capital city, are the huge mansions and palaces that were the townhouses of the henequén kings, now either neglected and crumbling or spankingly restored. So staggeringly wealthy were some of the owners that the haciendas themselves were almost like small towns, with their own chapels, shops, stables, counting houses, schools and dispensaries. Around them, utterly dependent on the hacienda, lived the workers, mostly indigenous Mayan people.
But then came the 1940s and the advent of artificial fibres; the henequén trade collapsed and the haciendas fell into disrepair. There they stayed until, in the 1990s, Roberto Hernández Ramírez – a vastly successful Mexican banker – discovered the region, was enchanted by its possibilities and set about bringing new life to these wonderfully grand and romantic buildings. It is hard to exaggerate how beautiful they are, or the sense of serenity that surrounds them. With their arcades, their terraces and their colonnades, their lush gardens filled with shady trees, they still seem haunted by a vanished way of life. Walk along their paths, watch the sun and the shadows it casts, look at the old ochre-coloured walls and the jungle that encircles them, and you can almost see how it must once have been for those who were privileged to spend time in these extravagantly romantic surroundings. Today, there are huge rooms, comfortable beds, capacious ensuites, restaurants (often on colonnaded terraces), swimming pools and, occasionally, a spa and a tennis court.
But these newly restored haciendas do much, much more than merely provide lovely accommodation for pampered visitors; they are transforming the lives of the impoverished communities around them by offering jobs, clinics and help with education. And then there’s the larger aim – to restore pride and interest in the three‑millennia-old Mayan culture, which the Hernández family saw was alive and well. The descendants of the people who built the ancient cities of Chichen Itza, Bonampak and Uxmal are still living on ancestral Mayan lands. By staying in the haciendas and engaging with the local villages, travellers – the family reasoned – would come to understand the Yucatán better and would feel part of the regeneration.
To understand this story properly, I travelled with a small company called Catherwood Travels (named after Frederick Catherwood, who, with John Lloyd Stephens, journeyed through the Yucatán in the mid 19th century and “discovered” the “mysterious Maya”). A specialist agency founded by Roberto’s wife, Claudia Madrazo de Hernández, it was created specifically to help people explore the Yucatán in a deeper, more immersive way. To wit: there is always a knowledgeable guide – not so unusual at the higher experiential end of things – but for an extra fee, travellers can be accompanied by an archaeologist, somebody with a true understanding of Mayan culture who is likely to have spent significant time working on the site in question, and whose intimate knowledge brings the history alive. (The firm has two resident archaeologists and a network of specialists.)
The journey is carefully planned so that you stay in haciendas that are never more than an hour-and-a-half from some extraordinary site. Most of these are small, elegant hotel conversions and open to other guests. But what sets Catherwood apart is the magical little surprises built in along the way – some of them orchestrated at private haciendas and homes not open to the public. It could be, for instance, dinner at Hacienda San Pedro Ochil, on the edge of an amphitheatre lit by a James Turrell installation that takes a good half-hour or more to witness and might be accompanied by live music – provided on one memorable occasion by Philip Glass, performing his own works. There are also lunches in exclusive places, such as among the colonnades of the now-abandoned (but still beautiful) Hacienda Xocnaceh. Or there are picnics next to sacred cenotes – natural freshwater wells characteristic of the Yucatán. In dry times these were the only access to water the Mayans had, and they regarded them as portals to the underworld.
Izamal, which is about two-and-a-half hours by car from Cancún, is as good a place to start as any. It was a functioning Mayan city when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, around and on top of which they simply built their own cathedral and colonial villas. These days most of the town is painted golden yellow, in honour of a visit made by Pope John Paul II in 1993. The best place to stay is the Casa de Madera, a private four-bedroom villa that comes with its own swimming pool, chef and staff, and is the most elegant of the haciendas in Izamal. The company’s accomplished guides will take you round the city, show you the remaining Mayan pyramids, which gave the Spanish their first glimpse of what extraordinary stonemasons the Mayans were, and can take you to visit the little artisanal ateliers dotted across town. For those who find Izamal on the busy side, Hacienda Sacnicte is 4km outside the town, has 10 bedrooms and transports its visitors to and from Izamal in horse-drawn carriages. It, too (though not owned by the Hernández family and not quite as lovely as Casa de Madera), has the grand, faded beauty that is the speciality of the region.
From Izamal it is about a 20-minute drive to one of the Hernández family’s most extraordinary projects: Hacienda San José Tecoh. Here Cuban-born artist Jorge Pardo was given carte blanche to do as he pleased with the expansive site – which Pardo himself described as being “in the middle of freaking nowhere”. He came up with a series of enchanting buildings and installations, filled with his idiosyncratic art, lighting, furniture, floors and windows, all scattered through the estate among jungly vegetation. San José Tecoh does not tend to be used that much and seems like a wonderfully extravagant private paradise, but through Catherwood Travels and the Hernández family’s TAE Foundation, which manages it, the site can be hired for artistic conventions, lunches and visits.
After Izamal, it is on to the major Mayan sites, of which both Uxmal and Chichen Itza are completely unmissable. Because they are so extraordinary, they are much visited and surrounded by a modern infrastructure of ticket booths, offices, shops and the like: enough to make one long to have been with Catherwood and Stephens when they first came upon these amazing sites. Uxmal is often considered the most beautiful collection of pre‑Columbian architecture in existence anywhere, with all its principal buildings aligned to observe important astronomical events. Its central Pyramid of the Magician, fascinating carvings (many of Chac, the rain god) and beautifully calm and serene Quadrangle of the Nuns are set on a site so vast, it takes some two-and-a-half to three hours to see it properly. Like all the Mayan remains, Uxmal is haunting, compelling and utterly mysterious. It was clearly an important government and religious centre, and was probably a place of pilgrimage. An expert is needed to put it all in context, but with the right guide one soon begins to be awestruck by the sophistication of the architecture and the genius of the astronomists and mathematicians (the Mayans, I learn, were the first of the Mesoamerican peoples to understand the importance of the concept of zero). It’s only in fairly recent times that Mayan script has been deciphered – a Russian scholar in the late 1950s having finally twigged that each written symbol stood for a syllable or word and not a letter – and, as a result, much more has been learnt about their way of life.
Back in the present, the Yucatán capital Mérida has become a mecca for the arty set and yet still retains a sense of calm serenity in among the gracious villas. Rosas & Xocolate boutique hotel on the Paseo de Montejo, with its 17 rooms (three of them suites), swimming pool and profusion of impressive indigenous art (I came away with one of Marcela Diaz’s haunting figures made from sisal), is where Catherwood has found its guests to be particularly happy. A visit to Nectar on Avenida Andrés García Lavin is another must – there the chef, Roberto Solis, served up the best food I had. (Don’t miss the black tempura onions with spicy mayonnaise and coriander.)
But it is in the countryside that Mayan culture still feels most alive. It was Salvador Reyes, a Mexican architect living in Mérida, who put into words what so many visitors come to feel: “I love the Yucatán because here Mayan culture is still a living, real presence in the collective mindset of its rural people, something rare and noble. I’ve learnt great philosophical lessons here – that time is cyclical, ordered by the wisdom of nature and that the concept of perfection is organic.” Spend just a bit of time among its glorious ruins and patrician houses and you, too, will begin to fall under its seductive sway.