Mayan Paradise

Hidden among the tangled ruins of Mexico’s Yucatán Península lies a couple’s restored treasure – a sublime hacienda for discriminating travelers. BY JONATHAN KANDELL.

When Mónica Hernández and Aníbal González bought what would become their resort on the Yucatán Peninsula three years ago, they knew its history straddled the cosmic and the earthly. The hacienda’s name, Katanchel, is ancient Mayan and means, "Where the Milky Way passes over." At the night, the constellations are so astonishingly clear that Mayan priests chose this corner of the jungle for an observatory to track the heavenly progress of the gods, But for the couple, who relocated from México City in search of more bucolic living, the real magic of this former sisal plantation lay in its location. True, the hacienda buildings were in poor condition, and the abandoned 740 acres of fields had grown wild. Still Mérida, the vibrant capital of Yucatán, was only fifteen miles to the west. The beaches of Cancun were a reasonable two-and-a-half-hours east. And all around were Mayan pyramids and a Spanish Colonial towns convents rising amid the cypresses, bromeliads and orchids that account for this landscape’s gnarled beauty.

"We’re right in the middle of all the cultural and natural attractions that draw travelers from all over the world and we’re close enough to villages that our employees can bicycle here," says Aníbal.

"Our friends back in México City have no excuse not to visit us," adds Mónica.

"they can’t say they’ll get bored here."

Those friends in México City were very skeptical when Mónica and Aníbal announced they were a moving permanently to the countryside. They were amazed that two sane people would actually forsake the cosmopolitan Mexican capital for the isolation and provincialism of distant Yucatán. To them, the couple, fixtures on the city’s social circuit, seemed to be a giving up so much. Mónica is an art restorer and an expert in reforestation. Aníbal is native of Seville, where his grandfather designed one of that southern Spanish City’s most important plazas.

Moving to México a dozen years ago, Aníbal had become a successful residential architect. "Everybody told us we were crazy to leave all that behind, " says Mónica "Now they tell us: You meet more interesting people than we do,"

Having visit Katanchel, I would tend to agree. I just missed a Nobel laureate in medicine, and assortment of princes and barons, and several members of a well-known heavy-metal band ( who came without their instruments, Mónica and Aníbal noted gratefully), but my own extended weekend coincided with visits by an anthropologist specializing in Mayan civilization, an ornithologist who was here


because Yucatán is a major migratory stopover for hundreds of birds species, and chef hoping to pick up some Yucatán recipes for her Napa Valley restaurant.

Food is a major reason to stay at Katanchel. Yucatecan Cuisine is less fiery than other mexican food, still provides a medley of starting yet enjoyable sensations to please the palate. I started off my meals with either a lime soup or a chilled sour orange soup. For a main course , my favorites were pollo en pipian, (chicken breast with pistachio and green pumpkinseed sauce), quail in X´tabentun (unpronounceable, but a kind of liqueur), and sea bass in ripe mango sauce. For dessert, I stuck with the ciricote a local fruit preserved and served with heavy cream, and assortment of tropical-fruit sherbets made in Katanchel´s kitchen.

Much of the produce is organic and comes from the hacienda’s gardens. Fresh-baked bread is brought in from Tixkokob, a neighboring town painted in bright pastels, where Mayan is heard as often as Spanish. The freshest possible fish comes from the coastal village of Telchac, just twenty-five miles north of the hacienda.

Given the importance of food at Katanchel, it’s not surprise that Aníbal has expended his greatest architectural design efforts on the dining and entertaining areas, housed in the Casa de Maquinas, the former plantation factory where agave sisalana cactus leaves were once processed into rope fiber.

When Aníbal began work on it, the building was in terrible shape. Trees had long ago pierced through the ceiling, and their roots were embedded in the walls and floors "I could practically reinvent the structure," says the architect. Taking into consideration Katanchel´s history, he carefully studied old photographs of the plantation house .He consulted local anthropologists on Mayan art. And he dredged his own Iberian memories for insights into the Spanish colonial past. The result is a fabulously restored building with motifs from all the three influences.

The imposing Gran Salón, where drinks are served before and after meals, is furnished with centuries-old wall tapestries, portraits easy chairs and carved tables from Spain, México and India. Next to this room is a den for billiards, a favored turn-of-the-century pastime. Through a broad passageway lies the dinning room , with ceiling fans whirling some thirty feet overhead. The walls are decorated with striking paintings by a local artist. One whole side of the room is an open-air veranda overlooking the garden. At night, the only sound is the croaking of frogs; the only visible movement is the blurry flight of bats. I had them to thank for the near absence of mosquitoes.

I retired to one of the thirty-nine rooms and suites, which under much humbler conditions were occupied by plantation workers. Now, they are furnished with cast-iron frame beds and soft, woven hammocks; dressers and chairs of tropical wood and rattan; and enormous bathrooms. In the morning, I discovered that the main pool is an easy walk away. After a few laps, I sat down in the tree-shaded garden for a hearty Yucatecan breakfast of huevos motuleños- fried eggs on fresh tortillas smothered in tomatoes, ham, cheese, peas, onions, garlic and local spices.

Cholesterol fears had been put on hold. Besides, so many other cardiac- friendly options were available the rest of the morning.

With an archeologist-guide-chauffeur employed by Katanchel, I spent the first day climbing over several ancient Mayan Sites. The high point was Uxmal, a ceremonial center of white limestone pyramids and monumental temples rising from green meadows and surrounded by jungle. Its sober, sharply angled and minimalist design looked so amazingly modern that I could easily understand why the late Luis Barragan, México greatest 20th-century architect, claimed to have found inspiration here for some of his masterpieces. On the second day of sightseeing, I concentrated on the so-called Convent Route, which meanders through a half-dozen villages, to view churches and monasteries build by the Spaniards in the 16th and 17th centuries. I had wondered why they were as big as some of Europe´s largest cathedrals.But after visiting the great Mayan ruins, it made sense that the only way the Spaniards could impress Indian converts with the power of their new catholic religion was to construct churches nearly as imposing as pyramids.

My last day of touring turned out to be equally intriguing, and certainly the most surprising. My guide was Mónica, and our destination , only a half –hour drive from Katanchel, was the tiny architectural site called Aké. Here, one can see dozens of colossal column, the remains of a Mayan Temple.

Next to it is a colonial hacienda and its chapel, and nearby is a hulking sisal processing plant.

Within the perimeter of this tiny site, the multilayered history of México unfolded before my eyes.

"it’s like a having a museum to ourselves," says Mónica, who travels there often. Perhaps not quite. That will have to wait a few years, until to planning and excavation of Katanchel´s own Mayan observatory are complete.

Hacienda Katanchel, 26 kilometers east of Mérida, off the Mérida-Cancún highway, Yucatán, México; (011-52-99) 234-020; fax: (888) 882 9470. Reservations also available through Small Luxury Hotels of the World, (800) 525-4800. May 1- October 31: Rates from $220 to $ 350, double occupancy, including breakfast and transportation to and from the airport. November 1-December25: Rates from $ 300 to $ 550.

As seen in the August 1999 issue of Town & Country Magazine.

location: 26 km. east of Merida (off the Merida-Cancun Highway)
mailing address: Yucatan, Mexico
zip code: 97470
phone: 52 (999) 923-40-20
fax: 52 (999) 923-40-00
fax toll-free within México: 01-800-849-3773
fax toll-free from USA: 888-882-9470