Centuries-old Haciendas Given Over to Pampering
San Jose Mercury 5/12/04
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Yucatán's New Spas / San Jose Mercury 5/12/04
By Antoinette May

MERIDA, Yucatán, Mexico -- In the lush tropical foliage just outside the open window, two parrots knocked a squawk back and forth while Carolina's strong hands slathered honey over my back. ``An ancient Mayan beauty treatment," she said.

I thought I'd gone to heaven. My digs, once the overseer's cottage of a vast sisal plantation, had been remade into an elegant pavilion. The plantation itself is now a nature resort and spa called Hacienda Katanchel.

The former estate dates to the 17th century, when it was built on the grounds of a Mayan settlement. Roughly translated, Katanchel means ``where the Milky Way passes over.'' The constellations were (and still are) so incredibly clear at night that priests chose this corner of the jungle for an observatory to track their gods' heavenly progress.

Katanchel is part of a trend in Yucatán, one of several former plantations to be turned into a country hotel. These were landed estates, created under a system established in the 16th century by the Spanish king to pay off his conquistadors.

Soon haciendas (a term referring either to the estate or the large lavish home of the owner) made up the largest percentage of the area's agricultural land. Though each was a rural, autonomous social unit, their collective power was enormous.

At first, the estates were cattle Hilles, but the world was changing fast. The United States and Europe needed rope for shipping, and Yucatán had a handy supply of sisal, the fibrous plant used to make rope.

The hacendados discovered wealth beyond their wildest dreams. Turning up their noses at the rest of Mexico, they looked to Europe for cultural standards. Children were educated overseas. And while the Mayans worked the land, the hacendados partied in Paris. A way of life developed a nobility of style as well as birth that in turn produced a feudal system complete with a lower class of laborers.

Eventually, the plantation owners paid dearly for their self-indulgence in a series of uprisings that culminated in the bloody 1910 Revolution, when much of their land was returned to native Mayas. The final blow to the hacienda empire came when nylon rendered the sisal industry obsolete.

It is only in recent years that Yucatán's haciendas, many abandoned and fallen to ruin, have been re-established and reclaimed.

Today, in their new incarnation as inns and restaurants, they may be enjoyed as both working museums of feudal fiefdoms and luxury state-of-the-art accommodations. How often do you get to enjoy that combination?

Hacienda Katanchel
Centuries old, but new on the spa map, Katanchel preserves the splendor of Spanish colonial architecture and ambience. Inside thick, adobe walls, the atmosphere is a bit like that of an ashram. Along with idyllic environment and upscale refinements, there's an emphasis on holistic healing, Mayan wisdom and a strong connection to Mother Earth.

Though Katanchel omits the treadmills, exercycles and weight machines of most spas, there's an Olympic-size pool, plus 740 acres of botanical gardens and encircling jungle with exotic wildlife to explore -- an area that includes pre-Classic Mayan ruins and a cenote, or natural well, long venerated as a source of energy and spirituality.

The 17th-century hacienda had fallen into disrepair and been abandoned for nearly 40 years when architect Anibal Gonzalez and his botanist-archaeologist wife, Monica Hernandez, bought it in 1995.

Guests come here for more than spa treatments. Besides medicinal plant studies and bird watching on the premises, there are excursions to the archaeological sites, a trip to the pink flamingo reserve or a visit to golden-walled Izamal, possibly the prettiest colonial town in Mexico.

Not that the massage treatments aren't worth coming for. They combine organically grown herbs and flowers with modern and ancient techniques. The standard stuff -- massages, aromatherapy, reflexology, acupressure and facials -- is just the beginning.

I got the Honey Body Mask with Flower Petal Treatment, a kind of prehistory beauty ritual, delivered by Carolina Martinez Guzman, the curandera (medicine woman), who wears a jade necklace that, like the treatment itself, is a legacy from her Mayan ancestors.

Carolina begins by exfoliating the body with yellow clay that tingles like a bunch of tiny crawling ants. I didn't care for the sensation at all, but realized the clay was just doing its job. A minute later, the stinging stopped and the clay was removed. Carolina's strong hands massaged me with a rich mixture of honey and flower petals. Honey is a natural antiseptic said to regenerate skin, tone, tighten and hydrate.

This beauty treatment, incidentally, evolved from a prenuptial purification ritual performed for Mayan brides and grooms. The men were covered with fragrant leaves rather than flower petals.

A deep massage with a rich nutritive cream followed, then a thorough spraying with rose water. When Carolina left, I was covered with flower petals and filled with bliss.

Information: (888) 882-9470, www.hacienda-katanchel.com. Hacienda Katanchel, KM 26 Highway Mérida-Cancún, is 20 minutes from Mérida. From Cancún, it's 2 1/2 hours by highway.

Room rates start at $300 per suite and include continental breakfast and transfers from the Mérida airport; online discount rates start around $200. Spa treatments are $25; Honey Body Mask $30.

Hacienda Chichén
This 16th-century hacienda was a residence of Francisco de Montejo, conqueror of Yucatán. Many stones from the adjacent ruin were used in the construction, and priceless carvings are embedded in the walls.

Later, the hacienda was the home of American diplomat and archaeologist Edward Thompson, and in 1923 it became the headquarters of the Carnegie research team that first excavated the Chichén Itza ruins. Each cottage on the grounds is named for an early archaeologist who worked at Chichén Itza.

Information: (800) 624-8451. On Carretera Merida-Chichen Itza, about a two-hour drive from Mérida. Rooms begin at $100.

Hacienda Temozón
Location, location, location. This historic hacienda is within easy driving distance of Uxmal -- arguably the most beautiful archaeological site in Mexico -- as well as the colonial town of Izamal, one of the few remaining sisal factories, the Loltun caves and the Puuc ruins. Presidents Clinton and Zedillo met at the hacienda in 1999. Its 29 rooms are all in original buildings and, in homage to the past, come with Mayan hammocks as well as luxurious beds. The grounds are gorgeous, with a spectacular pool.

A pleasant place to stop for a bite between Hacienda Temozón and Uxmal is Hacienda Orchil, a restaurant in a 17th-century hacienda built on the ruins of a Mayan village. The menu offers a wide variety of Yucatecan favorites cooked in exciting ways. There's also a museum craft shop with interactive displays.

Information: +52 (99) 495001, www.haciendas-mundomaya.com/temozon. At 30 Carretera Merida-Uxmal, about 30 miles from Mérida. Rooms begin around $220 (online discount rates start around $149).

Hacienda San Jose
A "tropical colonial," Hacienda San Jose is a fantasy of arched rooms surrounding a leafy courtyard. This blue-and-white oasis in the center of jungle brush has 15 rooms, each furnished with museum-quality antiques. Charming gardens, with a pool, lounge bar and restaurant.

Information: +52 (999) 910 4617,
Halfway between Mérida and Chichén Itza -- or about half an hour from Mérida -- at KM 30 Carretera Tixkokob-Telanto. Rooms begin around $220.

Antoinette May last wrote for Travel on shopping in Hong Kong.

Copyright © 2004 Antoinette May