Homey Haciendas

These classic ranches enjoy a second life as modern-day hotels

By: By Anne Burke

The Details

Hacienda Chicen 
Hacienda Katanchel
Hacienda San Antonio Chalante
Hacienda Santa Cruz
Hacienda Xcanatun
Starwood Luxury Collection Haciendas
Turkey and all the trimmings south of the border? For every three nights booked starting Nov. 24, the luxurious Hacienda Xcanatun near Merida offers guests a free Thanksgiving dinner plus a fourth night free. Guests will stay in a superior room with 18-foot beamed wooden ceilings, hand-carved furnishings, antiques and a private veranda strung with hammocks.

The setting for the Nov. 27 Thanksgiving feast will be Xcanatun’s Casa de Piedra restaurant. On the menu is traditional American fare along with Yucatecan favorites, such as relleno negro, stuffed turkey drenched in black sauce, and salbutes de pavo, puffy deep-fried tortillas stacked high with lettuce, turkey and onion.


Hacienda Xcanatun Master Suite // (c) Hacienda Xcanatun
Hacienda Xcanatun Master Suite

The architecture of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula conjures images of mighty Maya pyramids and beautiful baroque churches. Less familiar to tourists, however, are colonial-era haciendas, dozens of which have been rescued from ruinous decay and restored as luxury lodgings.

Long popular with Europeans, haciendas are catching on among American tourists looking for a holiday and hotel drenched in the Yucatan’s rich and colorful history.

"More affluent travelers from the U.S. are looking for cultural experiences, and when they stay in a hacienda, it’s like staying in a little bit of history," said U.S.-born Cristina Baker, who, with husband Jorge Ruz, owns and manages Hacienda Xcanatun on the outskirts of Merida, the Yucatan state capital.

Haciendas began life as small farms and livestock ranches in the 16th century. In the 19th century, these ranches took shape as immensely profitable centers for the large-scale cultivation of an agave cactus called henequen, whose fibrous leaves were processed into rope and baling twine. Local Mayas, working in conditions not unlike those of plantation slaves in the antebellum South, supplied the labor.

Such was the worldwide demand for henequen fiber, also called sisal, that the spiny-leafed plant came to be known as oro verde or green gold. Wealthy
hacienda owners erected gloriously appointed manor houses with extra-thick walls and high ceilings to temper the summer heat. Surrounding the owner’s casa principal were casitas, outbuildings, a spacious machine room for the processing of henequen leaves and perhaps a chapel.

In the 20th century, land reform and the introduction of synthetic fibers brought an end to the glory days of Yucatan haciendas and many were abandoned to the jungle. In recent decades, industrious entrepreneurs cast a fresh eye at the crumbling, jungle-choked facades and envisioned magnificent hotels that would attract tourists to a part of the Yucatan overshadowed by beach resorts in Cancun.

Today, dozens of haciendas are enjoying a second life as five-star accommodations that ingeniously blend the old with the new. Architecture and trappings — graceful arches, neoclassical columns, double wooden doors, exposed-beam ceilings and carved-wood furniture — pay homage to a long-ago era. Modern-day amenities, such as shimmering pools, luxurious spas and restaurants helmed by world-class chefs, tip a hat to the tastes of 21st-century travelers.

Many haciendas are set amid dense, sub-tropical foliage deep in the Yucatan countryside. Driving through an arched gateway that is typical of a hacienda entrance is like entering a jungle Shangri-la — at once mystical, enchanting and full of surprises. At the Hacienda Temozon, located southeast of Merida, guests can indulge in a Maya-influenced massage in the dreamiest of settings: a dimly lighted cave surrounded by twinkling candles and a natural, crystalline pool.

Federico Moreno-Nickerson, director of Caribbean and Mexico product development for luxury wholesaler Classic Vacations, said Yucatan haciendas appeal to adventuresome clients who adhere to an early-to-bed, early-to-rise ethos. While it is certainly possible to lounge poolside all day, the countryside is ripe for exploration.

Within easy driving distance of many haciendas are the ancient Maya cities of Uxmal, Chichen Itza and Ek Balam, colorful villages such as Izamal, the eco-biospheres at Celestun and Rio de Lagartos, and underground rivers and pools known as cenotes.

While most haciendas are located in the state of Yucatan (which lends its name to the peninsula), others, among them the beautiful Hacienda Uayamon, are in the neighboring state of Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico side of the peninsula.

The 28-room Hacienda Temozon is the largest of five haciendas owned by a Mexican company called Grupo Plan and managed by Starwood Hotels and Resorts as part of the hotel chain’s Luxury Collection brand. Grand in scale and regal in ambience (Mexico President Felipe Calderon hosted President Bush here), this hacienda has a long and low profile, painted in a burnished red typical of the era and accented with white moldings. With 11 rooms, Hacienda Santa Rosa, southwest of Merida, is the smallest of the five Starwood-managed haciendas. Romantic in feel is Hacienda San Jose, with nooks for private dining and guestrooms with palapa-style roofs.

Hacienda Xcanatun is a good choice for clients looking for a country setting close to the big city, which, in this part of the Yucatan Peninsula, can only mean the lively Merida, population approximately 1 million. Xcanatun (pronounced ssh-kana-toon) dates to the late 1700s and was a working hacienda until the 1960s, after which it was abandoned by its owners and all but destroyed by Hurricane Gilbert.

New buyers Baker and Ruz spent five years on a painstaking restoration. The result is exquisite. The architecture is neoclassical and the furnishings of heavy wood. Throughout is decorative wrought iron that betrays the French influence pervasive in the Yucatan during the 19th and 20th centuries. Walls are painted in the mineral pigments typical of the colonial era. The hacienda’s Casa de Piedra Restaurant is as popular among locals as tourists, testament to the authenticity of the cuisine.

Guests at Hacienda Xcanatun enjoy privileges at the recently opened El Jaguar Golf Course, just 10 minutes away. At the spa, a Maya therapist, trained by her shaman grandfather, incorporates ancient healings into treatments.

Luxury haciendas are indeed pricey but there are a number of inexpensive alternatives. Hacienda Katanchel is a short drive from the delightful town of Izamal, famous for the ubiquitous egg yolk color of its buildings and the many Maya pyramids that stand amid colonial-era buildings. Also close to
Izamal is Hacienda San Antonio Chalante. The owners keep 15 trailhorses and guests can saddle up to explore the ruins of Maya pyramids and a 16th-century Franciscan convent. Just 10 minutes from the Merida airport is Hacienda Santa Cruz.

Many visitors are combining a hacienda stay with a couple of days of sun and sand in Cancun or the Riviera Maya. It’s easy to do so by purchasing an open-jaw ticket into the small airport at Merida and flying out of Cancun, or vice versa.

Clients can travel between Merida and Cancun via hired car. A cheaper alternative is one of the first-class, air-conditioned coaches that travel frequently between the two cities.