Live Like a Local: Magical Yucatan

Elliot Serfaty at “El Castillo” in Chichén Itzá.

I was privileged to recently participate in a small study tour organized by Rebecca Slater of Rebecca Recommends, whose client, Catherwood Travels, handles the land arrangements in the state of Yucatan, Mexico.

Our merry group consisted of eight travel advisors from all over the U.S., and we met the first night at the Hacienda Santa Rosa, located between Merida and the archeological site of Uxmal. The Hacienda, like many others we discovered and experienced on this trip, is owned by Catherwood Travels and managed by Starwood Luxury Collection. In addition to the hotel Haciendas, Catherwood owns a variety of properties available for buyouts, as well as a foundation that supports the Mayan arts and culture.

Hacienda Santa Rosa, like Hacienda San Jose that we visited at the end of the trip, is a beautiful, classic hacienda, with colorful walls and traditional tiles, located in a lush garden. The pool area attracts dozens of birds, a feature of Yucatan I wasn’t familiar with — the state is home to hundreds of species of birds, and one advisor in our group was in birder’s heaven.

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The place has been thoughtfully restored, and the staff — mostly Mayan — is lovely, attentive, discreet and very accommodating. Part of the Catherwood project includes some workshops located just outside the hacienda, where local Mayan women keep the traditional crafts alive. We learned how to create objects from sisal, the fiber that made the Yucatan’s fortune in the 18th and 19th century and created those haciendas, for better or worse. What impressed me most about the Catherwood project is the fact that the owners want to keep traditions alive by restoring those grand estates, but are intent on focusing on the Mayan history and legacy — and not on the plantation culture.

A Private Cenote in one of the estates owned by Catherwood Travels 

One day, we had been traveling along bumpy roads for about an hour, when the driver pulled up to a guarded entrance. It looked like the other gates to the haciendas we had been visiting (and staying at) the past few days but, somehow, we all had the sensation that this was something different.

We had arrived at TECOH, a site-specific art project created by Cuban artist and Merida resident Jorge Pardo and owned by Catherwood. After signing releases promising not to post any pictures of the site, we visited the houses, rooms, gardens, pools, etc., that took our collective breath away — not easy in 100-degree weather. Every piece of furniture, every building, and every water feature has been designed specifically for the site by Pardo and his team, who took over seven years building it. While contemporary, it evokes both a sense of mid-century design and local Maya architecture in its use of textures, fabrics, colors, etc.

Hammocks at Hacienda Kinchil

The trip was full of delights and surprises (“Surprise!” became our rallying cry). We were able to visit three private haciendas (available for full buyout), ranging in size from two or three bedrooms to 12 bedrooms, perfect for a small group of friends or a big family reunion. They are all architecturally different, from the traditional to the super modern — almost Scandinavian. They all have a full staff, expansive grounds (from jungle to more manicured gardens), great pools and fantastic cuisine, all local and fresh. As a matter of fact, a world-famous chef who fell in love with the region and its ingredients comes every winter with his family for a few weeks and stays at the most modern of the haciendas in the collection — Hacienda Temchen.

For the next two nights, we were guests at the Hacienda Itzincab de Camara, a beautiful estate, with large grounds, dozens of bird species, and its own private pyramid, at the top of which a breakfast was set up for early risers to watch the sun rise over the Yucatan jungle.

We had a delightful lunch one day, complete with a quartet of musicians in the ruins of a 17th-century church in the middle of the jungle. Another day, we had the surprise of being lunch guests again at yet another private estate, owned by Catherwood Travels, where the centerpiece was a private cenote (those natural, exposed underground water pits one can find throughout the Yucatan). Off we all went swimming, down steep stairs to an enchanted spot, where the sun was reflected on the pristine, and very deep water, while birds were flying around the lush vegetation covering the walls. There was a palpable sense of joy, and one could imagine the sacred Mayan ceremonies that took place there long ago. 

Hacienda Santa Rosa, managed by Starwood Luxury Collection, has colorful walls and traditional tiles, and is located in a lush garden

This was followed by the most delicious lunch, featuring “cochinita pibil”, a dish of pork, achiote and other spices that is cooked wrapped in banana leaves in an underground pit for hours. It emerged as the most meltingly tender meat I’ve ever had. Add to that freshly made tortillas, on an open fire, and you have the makings of a memorable meal.

Our last two nights were spent in the lovely town of Izamal, not too far from Chichen Itza. Izamal was the first town in Mexico to be named “Pueblo Magical,” a designation that now applies to about 35 towns and villages in the country. The great majority of the buildings are painted in vibrant egg-yolk yellow, lending the town a glorious hue. It’s a very charming and laid-back town, and in the center of it, Catherwood owns and operates three houses — a little, one-bedroom gem with a small private pyramid in the backyard, and two larger houses, reminiscent of Moroccan Riads, albeit Mexican in style, that can accommodate up to 12 people each.  All the houses are exquisitely designed and fully staffed.

A Private Mayan pyramid on the grounds of Hacienda Itzincab de Camara

To cap this trip, we were given a last surprise, but what a surprise it was! A private, after-hours visit to Chichen-Itza, led by one of its leading archeologists. We had the site to ourselves in the magic hour when the sun is low, and had the privilege of accessing the Mayan Temple at the top of the Castillo — the main pyramid — via a very steep, “secret” stairway. This was followed by a haunting flute concert at the Observatory, another major building at the site. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

I have traveled pretty extensively through Mexico over the years, but I have to admit that rediscovering the state of Yucatan, in these exceptional conditions and access, will remain one of the highlights of my visits to our wonderful neighbor to the South.

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