Though I had seen hundreds of photos of Chichén Itzá, I was still overwhelmed when I encountered the spectacular Mayan site for the first time. But I was also disappointed: the photos hadn't shown the bus-crammed parking lot, the theme-park-style visitors' center, and the hordes of tourists that make Chichén Itzá the most-visited archaeological site on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. Alas, my experience at Tulum was similar. The complex of temples and palaces set on cliffs overlooking the Caribbean was breathtaking, but the masses of gawkers nearly ruined the ruins for me. Strapped for sightseeing time on that trip (I was in Cancún for a tourism conference), I vowed that my next visit would take me well beyond the heavily traveled Cancún corridor. Recently--titillated by reports of glamorous little hotels opening in restored Yucatecan haciendas--I plotted my return. Not only would I seek out the hidden Yucatán, but I would do it in style.
I begin my journey 200 miles west of cancún, in Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatán. (There are actually three separate states on the peninsula: Yucatán in the center, Campeche to the west, and Quintana Roo to the east, bordering the Caribbean.) Mérida is an easy shot: a 90-minute hop from Miami. With its low-rise colonial buildings and wrought-iron balconies, the city looks a bit like New Orleans. The resemblance is no accident, since the fiercely independent Yucatecans historically had closer ties with France than with Mexico City. The French influence touches everything from architecture to food--I find some of the best beignets this side of Paris in Mérida's bakeries.
But the city's most impressive monuments are, expectedly, Spanish. The 1549 Montejo mansion, for example, has an extraordinary sculpted façade of sword-wielding conquistadors surrounded by bursts of children's heads; now a bank, the mansion is considered one of the New World's most important works in the flamboyant 16th-century style known as Plateresque. On the other hand, Mérida's main church, the Catedral de San Ildefonso, with its eggshell-white interior of simple columns and coffered ceilings, is so austere that it could have been designed by Christopher Wren.
Mérida, I quickly discover, is a delightfully uncomplicated, safe city, with palmy plazas, secret courtyards, vibrant markets. I walk everywhere, except when I hop one of the many horse-drawn carriages--used by locals and tourists alike--to ride along the Paseo de Montejo through the city's grandest neighborhood. Shaded by tamarind and tropical oak trees and divided by a landscaped boulevard, the Paseo is an architectural sampler of Beaux-Arts palaces, mosquelike mansions, and exotic châteaux. Some of the buildings appear to be abandoned and are in various states of disrepair; others have been restored as headquarters for banks and businesses.
The highlight is the beautiful Neoclassical Palacio Cantón, now home to the Regional Museum of Anthropology, a fine place for appreciating the richness and sophistication of Mayan culture. I marvel at delicate jade figurines, whimsical pottery, and pastel frescoes--all muted blues and pale peaches--that remind me of those of Minoan Greece. I wind up my afternoon with a pleasant meal of chicken tamales, thick french fries, and cold Montejo beer, just a block from the museum on the terrace of the Hotel Montejo Palace.
While there are plenty of places to stay in Mérida--funky inns in the heart of the old town, international five-star spots out beyond the Paseo de Montejo--it's best to hole up in the countryside at one of the new properties created from former haciendas. Among the first of these Mexican country-house hotels, and perhaps the most luxurious, is Hacienda Katanchel, which lies 16 miles west of Mérida at the end of a narrow, two-mile limestone road (called a sacbé) built centuries ago by the Mayans. Most of Katanchel's 740 acres are cloaked by thick jungle. The hacienda had been abandoned for 35 years before Mexico City-based architect Anibal González and his botanist-archaeologist wife, Monica Hernández, bought the property in 1995.
Hacienda Katanchel was originally a cattle ranch in the 17th century, but by the mid 19th century its owners had turned to the lucrative business of growing and processing sisal--a fiber derived from agave plants, used principally in making twine, and named after the Yucatecan port from which it was shipped. (It was the 19th-century sisal barons who built the most spectacular residences on Mérida's Paseo de Montejo.) With the advent of man-made fibers in the mid 20th century, sisal fell out of favor, and most of the haciendas, including Katanchel, went belly-up.
"We liked the fact that no one had done anything to the land for such a long time, because that meant it was free of toxins," says Monica. Initially the couple planned to restore Katanchel, reforest it with plants and trees from pre-Columbian times, and use it as their private country house. These plans changed when, in the process of clearing the jungle, they discovered two dozen outbuildings, most of them workers' bungalows, scattered around the property. "It was like an Easter egg hunt," says Monica. "Little houses were just popping up everywhere. All in all, we found twenty-six of them, plus seventeen wells and two well houses." Rather than tear these down, the couple renovated them along with the main house and an old general store. Monica now envisioned their unexpectedly sizable compound as a conference center for archaeologists and environmentalists. But when a friend from Mexico's ministry of tourism dropped by and saw what they were doing, he persuaded them to turn the hacienda into a hotel.
Today Katanchel is a seductive retreat, with its lawns, gardens, fountains, and an enormous swimming pool fed with organically purified water that smells sweet and feels like velvet. Geese with lipstick-red bills roam the glorious grounds, which are also visited by more than 100 other species of birds; many of these provide automatic wake-up calls. My room, like most of the 39 on the property, is in one of the former workers' bungalows, which are all covered with vines and roses and landscaped with Mayan gardens, patios, and plunge pools.
The centerpiece of Katanchel is the former casa de máquinas, where the sisal was processed. It's a grand colonnaded affair--the sisal barons were often more concerned with the design of their factories than that of their living quarters--which has been ingeniously adapted by Anibal to house sitting rooms, a cocktail patio, and a dramatic open-air restaurant. Here plants grow out of massive columns, and huge canvas awnings, inspired by those of the cafés on St. Mark's Square in Venice, protect guests from the elements.
I could lose myself in Katanchel's luxury for a week or more--hiking along the sacbés to nearby villages, spending afternoons reading in my hammock and lounging on Empire sofas in the salons. But I've come here to explore, so after a day of enjoying the hacienda, I hit the road in my rented VW Beetle.
My first stop is a little-known Mayan site in the village of Aké, less than 10 miles from Katanchel. Pulling into town, I'm greeted by an imposing structure with Roman cornices and ornate balustrades that looks like a pretentious government building in some provincial capital. It turns out to be the casa de máquinas of another hacienda. Even more surprising: the factory is producing sisal again, along with several others in the area, thanks to the current vogue for natural floor coverings.
A short walk from the factory are Aké's Mayan ruins, standing on an acropolis above a beautifully manicured lawn. Some of the structures may date as far back as 700 b.c. Rising from the main building are 48 four-foot-thick columns made of stacked stone slabs. As I climb the steep staircase, it strikes me that the Maya, a famously short people, seemed to design stairs for giants. From the top, I can see pyramids and other hulking mounds that have yet to be excavated. Above me, a glorious blue Yucatecan sky is filled with swirly cotton clouds that appear close enough to touch, and I only regret that I didn't bring a picnic.
Lunch in the garden of the Kinich Kakmó restaurant, in the nearby town of Izamal, turns out to be the next best thing. I graze on taco chips with bean and pumpkin-seed dip, spicy local chorizo, and excellent poc-chuc, a Yucatecan specialty of sliced pork marinated in sour orange juice and served with pickled onions and cilantro-tomato salsa. But the real treat is the town of Izamal itself. One of the most beautiful of Mexico's smaller colonial cities, Izamal caused a blip on the world's consciousness when Pope John Paul II paid it a visit during a 1993 trip to Mexico. Besides cobbled streets lined by yellow houses with elegant arches and doorways, Izamal has a spectacular 16th-century Franciscan convent, built on the base of an enormous Mayan pyramid. (The pyramid was razed "in the name of Spain and the True Church" by the notorious Friar Diego de Landa--the overzealous Franciscan who did his best to wipe out the history of the Maya by burning virtually all of their codexes.)