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|"HACIENDA KATANCHEL IS THE MOST ROMANTIC
AND LUXURIOUS RESORT IN THE YUCATAN"
BRIDE MAGAZINE, Spring, Summer 97.
KATANCHEL IS THE MOST EXQUISITE RESORT-HOTEL & RESTAURANT IN YUCATAN."
"A XVII CENTURY PALACE LOST IN THE JUNGLE
"IT´S A WORLD-CLASS RESORT HOTEL
AND ALSO AN EXPERIMENTAL AND INVESTIGATIVE CENTER FOR CULINARY ARTS"
"EACH DAY, VISITORS AWAKEN TO A WORLD
OF PLEASURABLE POSSIBILITIES. HACIENDA KATANCHEL HAS DESIGNED FIFTEEN
DAYS OF EXCITING EXCURSIONS FOR ITS GUESTS: TO THE SEA NEARBY, TO SEE
THE THOUSANDS OF FLAMINGOES, TO THE MAYAN SITES, TO THE COLONIAL TOWNS.
A WHOLE NEW WORLD WAITING TO BE ENJOYED. "
"SEXY MEXICO..... KATANCHEL IS ONE OF
THE MOST UNUSUAL HOTELS ANYWHERE A TREAT FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO
GET INTO THE TRUE YUCATAN."
"THE NEXT DESTINATIONS CHIC TRAVELERS,
DESCRIBING THEIR NEWEST HORIZONS."
"EL RESTAURANTE CASA DE MAQUINAS DE
LA HACIENDA KATANCHEL HA SIDO RECONOCIDO COMO UNO DE LOS CINCO MEJORES
KATANCHEL IS THE MOST LUXURIOUS OF THE YUCATAN´S COUNTRY HOUSE-HOTELS.
as published by The New York Times
April 15, 2001
Hacienda Katanchel, a Sanctuary in the Yucatan
By Jill Knight Weinberger
At the Hacienda Katanchel, the natural, historical and cultural legacies of the Yucatan peninsula are everywhere in evidence. Within the grounds of this luxury hotel, remains of an ancient Maya pyramid and a cenote, a sacred well, lie close to the elegant 19th-century salons of the estate's former "great house." Windmills are still used to pump fresh well water to guest suites. And, as we would discover, Katanchel's cuisine makes ample use of indigenous herbs, vegetables, and fruit grown in its organic gardens and orchards.
Even the resident mule is a historic detail, my husband, G. J., and I found out when we checked in for a five-day stay in January. "This is Margarita," said Sophie, our escort, nodding toward the creature that was hitched to a tiny wagon train.
Since G. J. is rather inexplicably fond of mules, he was delighted to
make Margarita's acquaintance - and she seemed to reciprocate. At the
Spanish equivalent of "giddyup" ("vamos, chica"),
we set off on a slow, rumbling ride on rails formerly used to transport
henequen - the agave cactus used in the manufacture of rope from the fields
to the estate's processing plant. Typical of Katanchel, the old rail system
has been put to new use with the wagons, just as former workers' quarters
have been transformed into individual guest suites.
The 16 miles we had traveled to reach Katanchel might just as well have been 1,600, for we felt transported to an entirely different Mexico, far from the urban cacophony of cars, hawkers of trinkets, and blasts of Latin pop emanating from every other shop. That is not a complaint (except, perhaps, about the traffic): we loved Merida's energy and color, its churches and busy markets, and its nightly festivals of music and dance. But the sudden immersion into the serenity of Katanchel was more than welcome.
Margarita delivered us to our home for the next few days, a casita named La Capilla (The Chapel), one of 33 suites laid out along the neatly groomed paths that crisscross the 740 acre property. Each is painted a rich burnished red, Yucatan's colonial color, and offset by white trim; each is set within a private, enclosed Maya-style garden of ornamental, medicinal and fruit-bearing plants and trees. The myriad shades of green are brightened by purple bougainvillea and red hibiscus blossoms. A plunge pool is discreetly tucked into a corner of each patio.
Inside, we found La Capilla to be a single, spacious, yet cozy buttercup-and-white room. Its furnishings included: a hand-painted armoire and bureau with pretty latticework doors and a four-poster iron bedstead dressed in crisp white linens. The room contains no television, and there is no radio or air-conditioning unit except on request. Ceiling fans stirred the air, but we had no real use for them since the temperatures - which can easily reach the 80's in the Yucatan in January - ranged from the 50's at night to the 70's during the daytime. The oversize bathroom, with its wide walk-in shower and earth-toned Mexican tiles, was well stocked with biodegradable papaya-based soaps and shampoo.
It would have been easy to surrender this and our successive afternoons
to delicious inactivity - especially with those Yucatecan hammocks slung
across our patio beckoning
Called oro verde, or green gold, henequen fueled the Yucatan's economy - as the elegant mansions of Merida attest - until the development of synthetic materials after World War II caused a rapid decline in the market. Many of the haciendas, including Katanchel, were all but abandoned, a few like nearby Yaxcopoil and Teya, to undergo recent restoration as museums, banquet centers or hotels.
Katanchel's rich bird life invariably provided a soundtrack to our leisurely explorations (and made an effective early-morning wake-up call). Flashes of brilliant blue or yellow or crimson would suddenly appear against the dense greenery, but whether belonging to a turquoise-browed motmot or a yellow-throated vireo, I couldn't say. I dearly wished, though, I had taken my binoculars. I might then have been tempted to climb one of the three observation towers to look out over the jungle canopy, the hacienda's bird census in hand. It claims some 100 species may be seen on the premises, from the buff-bellied hummingbird to the turkey vulture.
As G. J. and I brushed past fragrant jasmine bushes, spiky red-budded ginger plants, and an impossibly lush array of tropical flora, we invariably encountered a small legion of gardeners, all clipping, pruning and weeding the jungle into check. But outside the hacienda's gates, the landscape remains wilder. Tramping along one of Katanchel's perimeter dirt roads, we found ourselves deep in the scrubby untamed jungle until the vistas opened upon fields of henequen plants belonging to a neighboring hacienda. I kept a sharp eye out for snakes, happily spotting none.
The hub of Katanchel is the entirely civilized Casa de Maquinas, the former machine house where the henequen plants were processed. Part of the building has been transformed into an antique- and art-filled grand salon, where guests congregate for predinner drinks and after-dinner conversation. No hint of the machine house's industrial use survives, except, perhaps, in the dining room, which retains the lofty design of the old factory, with high ceilings and open casements overlooking the grounds.
Settling in for late-afternoon refreshments on the veranda of the Casa de Maquinas, G. J. and I would often meet Katanchel's resident owners, Anibal Gonzalez and Monica Hernandez, as gracious and indefatigable a pair of innkeepers as we have met.
Surprisingly, the couple did not buy the crumbling hacienda intending to open a luxury hotel, but rather to establish a plantation of tropical hardwoods, including mahogany, cedar and rosewood. Indeed, some 296 acres are under cultivation on the perimeter of the property, with more to come.
The idea for the hotel, which has 40 suites in all, soon followed, however, and in 1996 Katanchel opened to paying guests. The innkeepers kept the property's original name - a Maya term roughly translated as "observing the stars." The Maya, Mr. Gonzalez reminded us, were great astronomers and the ancient mound on the premises may well have been dedicated to stargazing.
The couple is committed to keeping Katanchel as untainted a natural environment as possible. No chemicals are used to treat the water or the soil, which is enriched through composting. But "going green," Mr. Gonzalez believes, "is not idealistic or impractical. It is more practical, not less." Katanchel's 40 or so acres of organic orchards sustain some 40 varieties of fruit trees alone, as well as herbs and vegetables.
Henequen, however, is no longer under widespread cultivation. "The henequen," Mr. Gonzalez said, "was an ecological disaster for Yucatan." Over the decades, he said, as the land was cleared to plant them, much of the region's natural jungle was displaced and an inhospitable environment for wildlife was created.
During our stay, G. J. and I found that any lethargy the tranquillity of Katanchel threatened to induce could easily be overcome with an infusion of energy from Mr. Gonzalez and Ms. Hernandez. Whipping out a pen, Mr. Gonzalez, who is also an architect, would map out the best driving route to wherever we were headed and jot down the name of a restaurant to try when we got there. And while a visit to the ancient Maya ruins of Chichen Itza was a given, our hosts encouraged us to explore other, less well known towns and attractions.
One of these was Izamal, less than an hour's drive from Katanchel. Arriving on a Sunday morning, G. J. and I discovered a jewel of a yellow-tinted town, a virtual outdoor museum graced by pleasant plazas lined with horse¬drawn victorias.
Long before the Spanish arrived in the New World, Izamal was a Maya ceremonial center. Today five pyramids stand prominently among the colonial-era buildings within a few blocks of the town center. There are many more ancient remains, apparently, in residents' back yards. But the largest of Izamal's pyramids was pulled down in the 16th century, and on its massive base was erected a magnificent monastery, San Antonio de Padua, under the direction of the Franciscan Brother Diego de Landa, whose misguided zeal resulted in the destruction of irreplaceable Maya artifacts and texts throughout the region. Mass was being said during our visit, so we strolled through the quiet cloisters and admired the vast grassy courtyard, called the atrium, circled by graceful porticoes.
We spent the better part of another day driving along the 99-mile-long Ruta de los Conventos - the Convent Route. It was a slow journey that took us through villages and towns in the Yucatan heartland and over countless car-scraping speed bumps. Slowing down, however, yielded better glimpses of the local women in their huipiles, or embroidered dresses. Traffic was sometimes heavy, not with cars but with tricycle taxis ferrying people about town.
We stopped in several towns - Acanceh, Telchaquillo, Mama, Teabo, and Mani - to look at colonial-era churches and convents, some, as in Izamal, built in proximity to ancient pyramids or wells. On that weekday morning, we encountered few worshippers and fewer tourists, although our visits seemed to be noted by any small children playing nearby. More than once, kids sassily shouted "Hola Gringos!" at us, grinning and waving, as we entered the church premises.
Although noteworthy for their lovely bell gables, the largely unadorned, sometimes crumbling facades of many of these churches yielded to simple, often colorful interiors, with their gilt-touched altarpieces - some quite elaborate - and painted icons. In Mama, floral designs in bright pastels adorn the sanctuary walls. But we did a double take as we passed a side altar - possibly dedicated to St. George - dominated by a white-faced figure, sword in hand, whose foot - rests squarely on the head of a prone black figure. Also scary was a carved altar panel we saw in Teabo that depicted people drowning in a sea of bright red flames.
Other excursions from Katanchel took us to the archeological park at Mayapan, reportedly as extensive a site as Chichen Itza, but of which only a fraction has been excavated, and to the seaport of Progreso, where we strolled along the waterfront promenade and lunched on fresh fish.
After all our explorations, we relished our quiet evenings - and our dinners - back at Katanchel. The dining room in the Casa de Maquinas achieves a comfortable but elegant chic with its blend of local crafts and European antiques. That same imaginative combination of homegrown and classic extends to the menu. Yucatecan specialties, like lime soup, are presented alongside more traditional dishes brightened by local accents - the squash mousse appetizer, for example. Among the main courses we sampled were a chicken in bougainvillea sauce (a lovely deep red with a slight floral note), a tender beef filet in tequila sauce, and a salmon filet in a sauce made from chaya, a local spinach like herb. We loved the desserts - a compote of a sweet fruit, ciricote, in English cream, fresh fruits and lighter-than-air isla flotante.
During our last dinner, G. J. and I kept hearing a distinct melodic trill.
"Is it a bird?" we asked our waiter. Listening, he broke into a grin, and pointed to a ceiling rafter. "He's up there, the cuija, the gecko." I didn't mind, as long as he stayed right where he was. Then, too, we wouldn't have minded staying right where we were, enjoying a little longer the creature comforts of Katanchel.
Hidden among the tangled ruins of Mexicos Yucatán Península lies a couples 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 haciendas 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 landscapes gnarled beauty.
"Were right in the middle of all the cultural and natural attractions that draw travelers from all over the world and were 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 cant say theyll 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 citys 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 Citys 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
HACIENDA KATANCHEL as seen in TOWN & COUNTRY
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 haciendas 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, its 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.
"its 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.
km. 26, carretera Mérida - Cancún