Standing next to the rusted gears of a henequen-processing machine, I gazed out at a lonely cluster of the spiky, cactus-like plants in an otherwise empty field. One hundred years ago, countless acres of land in this area around the Yucatán capital of Mérida in Mexico were devoted to the cultivation of henequen, whose fibers were made into rope and twine. The crop was so valuable that it was nicknamed oro verde — green gold — and the ships that carried it away returned laden with European furnishings and luxury goods for the grand houses of the haciendas that grew it.
If the recent economic turmoil has taught us anything, it’s that even the most seemingly permanent institutions can go belly up. In the case of henequen cultivation, the combined effects of the land reforms of the Mexican Revolution and the invention of synthetic fibers spelled the end of the henequen boom after World War I and left many haciendas stripped of their huge land holdings, their houses closed up or abandoned.
More recently, many of these haciendas have found second lives as hotels. Several have been transformed into high-end accommodations with eye-popping prices. (Five of the fanciest are part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection.) But a handful have become interesting and affordable small hotels, each with its own distinct character.
One of these, Hacienda Yaxcopoil, is only 20 miles south of Mérida, but the march of time seems to have come to a halt right outside the property’s ornate Moorish double-arched gate. The buildings have been preserved but not restored, and the place exudes a faded grandeur that is gorgeous and occasionally a little spooky. Each crumbling facade, each overgrown courtyard, each shadowy room is a poignant vignette, begging to be photographed.
By day, the hacienda is a museum displaying the 19th-century furnishings of the owner’s family, who bought the property in 1864. Visitors might walk through the museum and never realize that Hacienda Yaxcopoil (pronounced YASH-coh-poh-EEL) is also a hotel, although one with just a single guest room. Simple yet comfortable, it is tucked discreetly behind padlocked green doors in a separate house in a corner of the property.
At night, when the museum closes, this room becomes a personal refuge miles from any other tourist. And because there is no restaurant on site, and none nearby, the owner, Miguel Faller, offers an unusual version of room service: a woman from the town prepares the meals in her home and carries them over to the casa de visitas.
If Hacienda Yaxcopoil offers the experience of staying in a museum, staying at the nine-room Hacienda San Antonio Chalanté, about 50 miles east of Mérida, feels like visiting the slightly scruffy home of an old friend. The American owner, Diane Dutton de Tuyub, has turned the 880-acre property into a place that reflects her life, her interests and her easygoing hospitality.
“The way Diane has it set up, you look in some of the rooms and you’ll see her family photographs,” said Tom Carey, from Cohocton, N.Y., near Rochester,who has stayed several times at Hacienda Chalanté with his wife, Michaela Cosgrove. “It’s like she’s invited you into her life. But she gives you your space. It’s not like some bed-and-breakfasts, where you get smothered.”
Ms. Dutton de Tuyub owns several horses, and guests can ride with René, the caballero, on the property’s many miles of trails. Bird-watching is another popular activity, and over the years, guests have added to a long list of species spotted on the property. For sightseers, the hacienda makes a good base for trips to the colonial city of Izamal, 15 minutes away, and the Maya ruin of Chichén Itzá, 45 minutes to the southeast.
Travelers looking for a base closer to Mérida have two good options just outside the city’s ring road. Hacienda San Pedro Nohpat, just off the Mérida-to-Cancún highway, doesn’t offer the same sense of remoteness that you feel at both Yaxcopoil and Chalanté. But inside the gates of the hacienda are lovely grounds with green lawns, beds of flowering ginger plants and S-shaped seats called confidenciales positioned in shady spots in the gardens.
The hotel has 10 rooms, 2 swimming pools, 13 parrots, 4 burros and other animals who drop in and stay awhile. Reluctance to depart is a common feeling among visitors, in no small part because of the affable Canadian owners, Iona Chamberlin and J. R. Beug, whose hospitality makes guests feel like part of the brood. They arrange excursions, give travel advice, tell stories and charm guests by bringing Ruby, Buzz and Big Baby, their Amazon parrots, out to the veranda during breakfast.
Hacienda Santa Cruz is a gorgeous property on the road leading from Mérida to the small town of Dzununcan. Robert and Caroline Franck, a French couple, bought the hacienda in 2007, and after 14 months of renovation, opened it as a stylish nine-room hotel that pops with vibrant colors. With an old wagon wheel leaned artfully up against the trunk of an expansive tree and a pint-sized chapel painted deep red with bright white trim, the hacienda looks so picturesque it almost feels like a movie set.
My fiancé, Dan, and I didn’t spend the night at Hacienda Santa Cruz because the hotel, with its nine rooms and suites starting at $169 a night in high season, didn’t fall squarely in the affordable category, especially for Mexico. (The fact that one building has been transformed into a spa featuring a line of Parisian beauty products was an indicator of upscale sensibilities.) But we did stop in for lunch and a look around, and saw that the suites all sleep four, making them good value for families or small groups, especially in low season, when they’re $219 a night.
From the polish of Santa Cruz to Yaxcopoil’s majestic decay, hacienda hotels suit a wide range of tastes. What they all offer is the chance to explore parts of the Yucatán that most tourists, flying in to Cancún for beach vacations or touring Chichén Itzá, never get around to seeing.
PAMPERING INSTEAD OF PLANTING
Flights from New York to Mérida involve at least one connection, commonly in Houston, Miami or Mexico City. You can find one-stop flights starting at $546 on Continental, United or Aeromexico.
Once in Mérida, the easiest way to get to the haciendas is by car, though it is possible to use buses and taxis. The Mérida airport has local and international car rental companies. Prices can be as low as $9 a day, but insurance, which some companies require, will increase the cost substantially.
Hacienda Yaxcopoil (52-1-999-900-1193; www.yaxcopoil.com) rents a room for $60 a night, double occupancy. Museum admission, normally 50 pesos (about $3.70 at 13.5 pesos to the dollar), is included. There are no restaurants nearby, so it’s wise to add dinner and breakfast ($20 a person) when you reserve.
Hacienda San Antonio Chalanté (52-1-999-132-7411; www.haciendachalante.com) has nine rooms for $50 to $80, including breakfast. Dinner can be prepared for guests who request it for an additional $20 a person.
Hacienda San Pedro Nohpat (52-999-988-0542; www.haciendaholidays.com) charges $95 to $195 for its 10 rooms, breakfast included.
Hacienda Santa Cruz (52-999-254-0541; www.haciendasantacruz.com) has rooms from $149 to $249, breakfast included.
NOTE: Prices above might have changed in the last 6 months.
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