With margaritas in hand we tour the buildings, then sit down to a divine dinner prepared by Roberto Solis, owner-chef of one of Merida's top restaurants Nectar. After working under acclaimed chefs in England, Japan, Denmark, and New York City, he has developed a skilled touch in preparing local ingredients in novel ways. Our meal is a series of delightful surprises (like a quail breast relleno in a rich mushroom broth) in gorgeous surroundings we have all to ourselves.
Uxmal and Lunch in Ruins
We head out early to Uxmal, trying to beat the heat more than the crowds, which are never all that thick here. This site is in many ways more interesting than the other Mayan locations in the area though. With some hills around it as you get an hour away from Merida, the topography adds drama to the soaring buildings. Here you can still climb to the top of one of the pyramids — though not the steep and smooth Pyramid of the Magician you see as you enter the complex.
Alfonso Morales takes us through the structures, begun around the year 700, but most built between 850 and 925, when the city was at its peak of power. Although this is my third visit to these ruins, I learn much more than before and see the carved images in a new light. He explains the interactions of corn, water, the gods, and the ruling elite, pointing out carvings that depict bloodletting in some very painful places. With skulls, feathered serpents, and snakes everywhere, there?s a feeling of underlying violence in the long building facades. Chaac the rain god needed constant attention and appeasement.
As the sun reaches the baking point, we are met at the exit by our driver, who has chilled towels and water for us. We hop into our large air–conditioned van and head to a secret spot that?s going to be a surprise.
We pull up to the ruins of an abandoned church. We walk by local women cooking tortillas on hot metal plates over a smoking fire, then are greeted with cold drinks from waiters as we see a long table set up for us. It's an enchanting setting for a meal, quiet and with the sky above it where a roof once stood.
After lunch we get another surprise though: there's a small set of Mayan ruins on site, a pyramid and other unexcavated structures on the grounds. A shaman with indigenous features and clothed all in white clothing greets us. He then conducts a blessing of the site, speaking in his own local language. Miller tells us you can?t get a shaman to just do a "demo version" of their practices for travelers. It must be a real ceremony with the proper sequence and burning herbs in order to avoid upsetting the gods of nature. This same ceremony has been done since the time of the Olmecs, she tells us, hundreds of years before Christ. She explains that in order to do any excavation here, the local shaman would need to be called in, to ask permission from the rain god before digging.
Relaxation Time in the Haciendas
We return to Hacienda Temozon with some time to enjoy the facilities. I choose to lounge by the pool, a dramatic rectangle with the main building at one end and the old henequen processing building at the other. In the latter much of the old machinery is still in place, a steampunk collection of giant wheels, pulleys, and levers. In the heyday of rope making before synthetics came along, haciendas like this produced incredible wealth from the sisal fibers, equipping ships and factories around the world from the tough fibers coming from the spiky agave–like plants.
Now one corner of that building is a nice spa, a manifestation of the transition from an agri–industrial economy to a service one. Two of my fellow travelers book massages and are thrilled with the treatments, which incorporate local ingredients and techniques that pre-date the building of Uxmal and Chichen Itza.
That night we travel to another impressive building in the Catherwood domain: Hacienda Itzincab Camara. This is a 14-bedroom country estate that is only available for private rentals, not as a hotel. We have another impressive dinner here with beautiful food and good wine. A local children's dance troupe in full regalia performs festival dances for us. It's a magical ending to a too–short three–day overview of the best of the Yucatan state. The service has been exemplary and the facilities beyond my imagination. I?ve been here before, touring one of the most intriguing and mysterious parts of the Americas, but this time I feel like I've finally seen the wonders of the Yucatan at their full potential.
If you go:
You can fly to Merida on United, Delta, and several Mexican airlines, or Catherwood can arrange ground transportation from Cancun or the Riviera Maya — with several stops to choose from along the way.
Catherwood Travels runs tours on itineraries of three to ten days, but since most journeys are done with private groups, almost any aspect can be customized to suit. They also stage unforgettable destination weddings, corporate retreats, and multi–generational tours.
You can book rooms at three haciendas ringing Merida at the Starwood Luxury Collection site or at TheHaciendas.com. For more information on renting out the private ones not operating as hotels, see PrivateVillasAndHaciendas.com.
Story and photos by Timothy Scott