Beyond the tourist meccas of Cancún and Chichén Itzá, Mexico's eastern peninsula reveals itself--with striking architecture, elegant haciendas, and mysterious ruins that few outsiders have discovered
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.)
The convent's atrio is remarkable, a great lawn enclosed by 75 arches and said to be the largest churchyard in the world after St. Peter's in Rome. The church itself is small by comparison, but equally compelling, with its gold altar and some recently discovered frescoes that were used to indoctrinate the Maya into the rituals of Catholicism. Back outside, I sit under an arch and listen to a teenager with a guitar serenading his girlfriend at sunset. Horse-drawn, painted carriages glide across the main square. In the distance, vegetation-covered pyramids rise like small mountains on the edge of town. I return to Katanchel in time for a moonrise swim.
The next morning, I set off for a swim of a very different sort. Guided by Monica and Anibal and accompanied by an Italian couple and Anibal's African hunting dog Kairo, I am bound for one of the many cenotes, or cave pools, that form a vast network of underground waterways throughout the Yucatán.
En route, we pass chapels with finials in the shape of mushrooms, churches decorated with Mayan gods and symbols, villages of thatched-roof houses that look as if they could be in the South Seas. We soon arrive in Chunkanán, where we come upon a bizarre miniature train resting on narrow-gauge tracks. Called a truc, the train is pulled by a small horse and driven by a 12-year-old Mayan boy. (Trucs were a major mode of transport during the sisal boom at the end of the last century; the tracks still wind through much of the peninsula.) The five of us (and Kairo the dog) climb aboard, and for five jerky minutes we roll through arid fields of agave and cactus toward the mysterious cenote. Suddenly our driver hits the brakes: another truc--carrying a group of cave explorers wearing full scuba gear--has derailed in front of us. We all climb out to help them lift their truc back onto the rails; then they help us carry ours over the same bad bit of track, and we follow the scuba gang to the cave opening.
The entrance to the cenote is like something in a children's book: a great hole in the earth, with a set of steep steps leading to a secret underground world. At the bottom, we come upon a cathedral-like limestone chamber: a pebbly beach edges a pool of crystal water, which shimmers in the faint shafts of sunlight that manage to make their way down here. Stalactites drip from the roof of the cave. Once in the water, I find I don't need a snorkel to make out all sorts of rock formations beneath the surface.
Later we wander around Chunkanán, where kids play soccer on the grassy main street and turkeys strut like peacocks displaying impressive plumage. We watch a couple of villagers spinning out honey from a comb, which they will reuse so that the bees don't have to waste any time building a new one. (Pungent Yucatecan honey is considered some of the world's best, and is frequently used to flavor lower-octane varieties.) As we leave the village, a lovely Mayan woman presents us with fluffy pink flowers and insists we see her garden.
All over the Yucatán, I am charmed by the kindness of the people. The next day, as I poke around the town of Tecoh, a young man named Valentino unlocks the great wooden doors of a coral-colored stone church and proudly points out its twisted-columned altar and fading frescoes, its caracole staircase, and the view from its bell tower. When I offer him a tip, he refuses. Later that same day, at Mayapán, an archaeological site that may be as large as Chichén Itzá but is only just beginning to be excavated, my guides are a group of Mexican boy scouts who are camping just outside the gates. Together we explore the ruins, and the tents where the archaeologists live and work--stumbling over heaps of numbered stones as well as statue fragments that may someday be full-fledged serpents, elephants, rain gods.
Although my plan was to seek out the lesser-known sights of the Yucatán, I can't pass up visiting Uxmal, a sprawling Mayan ceremonial center that flourished in the fifth and sixth centuries. One of Mexico's "big three" restored Mayan sites, Uxmal gets fewer tourists than Chichén Itzá and Tulum because of its relatively remote location, a good 250 miles from the crowds of Cancún.
The drive to Uxmal takes me through a different landscape--the rolling Puuc (meaning "hill" in Mayan) country southwest of Mérida. En route, I stop for a light lunch of Yucatecan lime soup, made with chicken broth and topped with crunchy tortilla strips, at the recently restored Hacienda Temozón. The vast grounds and long pool of this beautiful spot provided a photogenic backdrop when Mexico's President Zedillo hosted President Clinton for a summit meeting here.
Although Uxmal does draw some bus tour groups, who usually stay in nearby lodges, the site is well worth the journey. A triumph of architecture and landscaping, Uxmal has the look of a well-planned city, with each of its major building complexes set on a different level. Great green lawns and clusters of trees separate these neighborhoods. The towering Pyramid of the Magicians--with its distinctive curved sides--is so steep that I feel like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo when I reach the top. The view is literally breathtaking; I'm scared to look beyond the tow rope as I rappel my way back down. Easier to appreciate is the massive Governor's Palace. Six hundred feet long and crowned with an enormous frieze that looks like some surreal mansard roof, it is considered one of the best examples of Mayan architecture anywhere. I'm reminded of the houses Frank Lloyd Wright designed in Los Angeles during his 1920's Mayan-modern period.
Uxmal is only one of many Mayan sites along the Puuc Route. Fifteen miles farther, the fat-columned, flat-roofed temple at Kabah reminds me of the Minoan palace at Knossos, on Crete. Five miles farther on, I discover yet another monumental Mayan palace--with 90 rooms--at Sayil. Beyond that, Labnea stuns with a spectacular stone arch that looks more Mughal than Mayan. I could even press on to see the sculptures and murals in the caves of Loltún, but it's almost dark, so I head straight for Campeche, where I'm spending the night.
The walled port of Campeche, founded in 1540, is the oldest city on the Yucatán Peninsula as well as the namesake capital of the state. Both the city and the state are virtually unknown to U.S. tourists, although Germans and Canadians are starting to discover both. I hadn't expected much of Campeche other than a place to spend the night, so I'm thrilled to find instead a lovely town of narrow stone streets lined with whimsical Neoclassical town houses. All of those in the old quarter were restored within the past few years and painted intense shades of yellow, pistachio, pink, oxblood, ocher, and robin's-egg blue.
I've arrived in Campeche on a Sunday night, and in the lively plaza, festooned with colored lights, an orchestra in a bandstand is playing bouncy Mexican numbers. Little girls in starched dresses and little boys in pressed T-shirts are everywhere. I have a drink and watch the scene from the balcony of Casa Vieja, where a hip young crowd listens to jazz over Cuban dinners.
"Campeche is one of Mexico's best-kept secrets," says Jorge Luis Borroto, Casa Vieja's Cuban co-owner. After spending the next day exploring the restored central city, I have to agree. I even do a little fantasy house-hunting in the up-and-coming barrios of Guadalupe and San Francisco.
Unfortunately, it's Monday, and the museum within the San Miguel fort is closed. I'd hoped to see the mammoth jade funeral mask and other treasures unearthed from Calakmul, another important Mayan site 150 miles south, which is currently being excavated. Calakmul itself is now open to visitors, but it will have to wait for my next visit; instead I head for the ruins at Edzná, a 40-minute ride from Campeche.
The drive to Edzná is a dream of no traffic, no towns--just green farms backed by low hills. The parking lot at the site is empty. I feel like a time traveler coming upon some lost civilization as I stride across a great lawn. A massive set of steps leads to an acropolis and a five-story temple-palace. From the top I see nothing but green fields, blond plains, and, beyond, a thick carpet of jungle in every direction. I sit down and breathe deeply; birdsong fills my ears. Except for a solitary guard across the lawn below, not one other person is here.
To reach the destinations covered in this story, it's best to fly directly to Mérida (through Miami), though more U.S. flights serve Cancún (a 200-mile drive from Mérida, or a 25-minute flight). Rental cars are inexpensive--as little as $35 a day--and available from Avis, Hertz, and Budget at either airport. The highways and back roads of the Yucatán are safe and well maintained, but be prepared to dodge henequen trucks, pedicabs, and wayward farm animals on the smaller roads.
MÉRIDA AND ENVIRONS
Hacienda Katanchel Km. 26, Carretera Mérida-Cancún, Mérida; 52-99/234-020 or, in Mexico, 800/849-3773, fax 888/882-9470; doubles $220 with breakfast. Sixteen miles west of Mérida, with the most unusual and elegant accommodations in the area.
Casa del Balam 488 Calle 60; 52-99/248-844, fax 52-99/245-011; doubles $85. Comfortable though unprepossessing, this hotel's main assets are its location in the center of Mérida and a pleasant, jungly courtyard.
Fiesta Americana Mérida 451 Paseo de Montejo; 800/343-7821 or 52-99/421-111, fax 52-99/421-112; doubles $123. The most luxurious hotel in town: a 350-room high-rise on the posh Paseo de Montejo.
Hacienda Temozón Carretera Mérida-Uxmal, Temozón Sur, Yucatán; 800/447-7462 or 52-99/495-001, fax 52-99/448-484; doubles $275. Like Katanchel, a renovated former cattle ranch and sisal-producing estate with 27 rooms and suites and a magnificent pool, 35 minutes from Mérida.
Hacienda Santa Rosa Km. 129, Carretera Mérida-Campeche, Santa Rosa, Yucatán; 800/447-7462 or 52-99/443-637, fax 52-99/448-484; doubles $275. Another restored hacienda, this one with 10 rooms and suites and a converted chapel that now functions as--yes--a candlelit cocktail lounge. Just under an hour's drive from Mérida.
Villa Arqueológica de Uxmal Km. 76, Carretera Mérida-Campeche; 800/258-2633 or 52-99/762-018; doubles $82. An inviting 44-room inn, operated by Club Med, on the edge of the ruins at Uxmal.
Lodge at Uxmal Km. 78, Carretera Mérida-Campeche; 800/235-4079 or 52-99/762-102; doubles $159. A new hotel, with 32 attractive rooms, two pools, and an enormous palapa-covered outdoor restaurant.
Hotel Del Mar Ramada 51 Avda. Ruiz Cortines; 52-981/62233, fax 52-981/11618; doubles $87. Just outside the city walls, this perfectly adequate but charmless chain hotel is the only game in town.
Restaurants and Cafés
Los Almendros 493 Calle 50; 52-99/285-459; dinner for two $20. A classic Mérida restaurant for Yucatecan and Mexican specialties.
Kinich Kakmó 299 Calle 27; 52-995/40489; dinner for two $20. Sit in the garden and try the regional specialty, poc-chuc: sliced pork marinated in sour orange juice, served with pickled onions and cilantro-tomato salsa.
Casa Vieja 319 Calle 10; 52-981/11311; dinner for two $25, no credit cards. Great Cuban food, live jazz, and a hip crowd.
Chac-Pel 8 Avda. Lázaro Cárdenas; 52-981/31071; dinner for two $27. A fish restaurant known throughout Mexico for its super-sweet coconut-crusted shrimp, served in a coconut shell with apple chutney on the side.
Marganzo 267 Calle Ocho; 52-981/13898; dinner for two $21. The waitresses wear embroidered Yucatecan blouses called campechanas and serve the local specialty, pan de cazón: tortillas stuffed with shredded baby shark.
In Campeche, stop in at Casa de Artesanías Tukulna (333 Calle 10; 52-981/69088), a new showcase for ceramics, black coral jewelry, huipiles (loose-fitting blouses), hammocks, and chic straw bags.