A Week in Wondrous Yucatán
by Lisa Coleman
Sometimes writers find themselves a bit stuck. We discover a place and a feeling that leaves an indelible impression on our hearts and it so captivates us that we want to write pages upon pages about it again and again. The images are so powerful and the experience so moving that having to encapsulate it into a single article can be difficult at best. The Mexican state of Yucatán is a shining example of one of those places. It doesn’t feel like any Mexico you’ve ever known or seen; it truly is a world unto itself.
Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is known as the “Land of the Maya.” It stands as a tribute to one of the most prolific and fascinating civilizations the world has ever known. The ruins of complex ancient cities are scattered throughout dense jungles and lush rolling hillsides. Vast undisturbed beaches line the coast while magnificent colonial architecture brings the cities to life. The peninsula includes the states of Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Yucatán. And it’s here, in the state that shares its name with the region, that the magic and enchantment of this country are at their most brilliant. If you have a week (or more), this will be an adventure you’ll never forget.
First, you’ll need a place to stay. There are several chains to choose from in Mérida, the capital city, but I prefer to stay about 16 miles outside of town at the extraordinary Hacienda Katanchel. Since Yucatán once flourished as the world’s premiere henequen purveyor (henequen is also known as sisal, the fibers from the henequen plant are used for rope products.) there are countless haciendas in the area that once stood as massive working estates. Some have been transformed into either museums or hotels and Hacienda Katanchel (a little of both) is the finest of the bunch. Built in the 17th century, and situated on 740 secluded acres of pristine tropical jungle, this Spanish colonial masterpiece is unlike any hotel you’ve ever seen. Its 40 unique and luxurious rooms sit quietly amongst extraordinary gardens and exotic wildlife. You’ll be embraced by rustic beauty, exquisite food and unprecedented personal service. Hacienda Katanchel is one of those astonishing properties that fall into the category of “you have to see it to believe it.
Though you may be tempted to spend your days at the Hacienda lounging by the pool or lying in your hammock on your private patio, Yucatán awaits. Many of the great sites and experiences are off the beaten path, so unless you have a real taste for adventure, it may be best to hire a car and English speaking guide to show you the ropes. (The hotel staff will make arrangements for you.) Here are some ideas for your excursions.
Mérida –European in design, yet undeniably Maya, you’ll find horse drawn carriages to carry visitors down tree-lined boulevards past an enchanting mixture of Spanish and French colonial architecture. Elaborate turn-of-the-century mansions still stand as a reminder of the wealth that began here in the 16th century. The main plaza is framed by huge laurel trees, fantastic colorful shops, and lies adjacent to a towering cathedral.
Uxmal – Located 58 miles south of Mérida, this breathtaking Maya ruin is architecturally speaking said to be one of the most significant sites in the ancient world. Founded around 600 A.D., Uxmal (meaning “three times built”) was created in various stages of complex façades and arches, majestic columns, and massive terraces facing broad plazas. The centerpiece of Uxmal is the 100-foot tall “Pyramid of the Magician.” In the same area, you can also discover the ruins of Kabáh, Labná, and Sayil.
Izamal –Just east of Mérida and known as “the yellow city,” this charming town is highlighted by its bright mustard-yellow 16th century Franciscan convent and framed by small, yet intriguing Maya ruins. The convent itself is built atop the base of a destroyed Maya temple and boasts the largest enclosed atrium in Mexico. You’ll be particularly taken by the intimate eateries and the kindness of the townspeople who won’t let you pass without a smile.
Telchac – This absolutely unknown seaside fishing village just might be the highlight of your trip. Houses line the sandy white shores of the Gulf of Mexico and you’ll practically have the place to yourself. Tiny local restaurants offer superb seafood as you watch the waves rolls to shore. It has a mystical feel to it.
Cenotes – Difficult to explain, but amazing to see, a cenote (say-no-tay) is like a giant freshwater well. The Yucatán peninsula is actually a limestone shelf honeycombed with underground rivers, caverns, and sinkholes that create cenotes. They are all over the Yucatán and to go into them and swim in their crystal clear mineral waters is an unforgettable treat.
Sometimes it’s a good idea to embrace the unknown. And so it is with Yucatán.