A Tale of Two Haciendas
A recent trip led me once again to Mérida, México, a charming colonial city on the treasured peninsula of the Yucatán, 198 miles north of Cancun.
My public love affair with México continues as two friends and I are invited to spend a weekend in two very different concepts of hacienda living.
Nestled among trees bearing pistachios and tropical citrus, three miles inland from the highway leading to Mérida from Cancun from the south and 30 minutes from the north of downtown Mérida rests the enchanting Hacienda Katanchel. When you arrive at the gates of Hacienda Katanchel and set your eyes upon this grand structure, you can’t help but to imagine its splendorous past. The hacienda dates back to a time when families amassed great wealth from raising cattle and harvesting a key crop in the 19th century called “Henequen,” also known as “sisal,” and “Oro Verde” or “Green Gold,” a fiber used to make rope. In the 1950s the world was introduced to manmade fibers that all but erased the growth and expansion of this crop until more recently, when going “green” or being “socially responsible” is now the fashion, and sisal is waging a staggering comeback.
Hacienda Katanchel is indeed a majestic estate that has been delicately carved out from the vast acreage it rests on. Along with the grand house there are 39 individual casitas adorned with their own indoor splash pools, an open-air restaurant transformed from the earlier days when it was used as a processing area for the “green gold,” an Olympic-sized pool which is free of chemicals, as you would expect from an estate where every detail has been organically and extensively thought out, and plentiful sitting or resting areas strategically placed throughout the estate so that one can capture the quintessential essence of nature at its best.
We were invited to Hacienda Katanchel to meet with owners Aníbal González and Mónica Hernández and to learn more about their concept of hacienda living. Although there have been numerous articles written about Hacienda Katanchel’s history and alluring beauty, I was clearly searching for something different that makes this sanctuary in the dense jungle in the Yucatan a paradise. Immediately, I sensed that I found my source of inspiration and focused my attention on an uncharacteristic aspect of a typical hacienda.
They say that next to every great man stands a great woman. Meet Mónica Hernández, wife, mother of three, grandmother of four, entrepreneur, gourmet chef, landscape designer, philanthropist, professional host of Hacienda Katanchel, and the unexpected discovery that inspired this article.
Nowadays, many of the haciendas are run by large hotel conglomerates. Often with hoteliers there is a cookie-cutter template for processes, while guest experiences can vary. The experience that guests receive at Hacienda Katanchel is difficult for any hotelier to emulate. From the very beginning, Mónica takes possession of the hacienda’s guests and transforms their experience into a deluge of affluence for the spirit. In the hacienda’s tastefully appointed suites surrounded by fragrant paths of jasmine, every detail has been carefully thought out.
The menu at Katanchel is light and organically prepared with the indigenous spices and exciting flavors of the Yucatán, with the tranquility and immense jungle as Katanchel’s canvas in all of its splendor.
As Aníbal shares with us his fondest memories of Hacienda Katanchel, through photos of its beginning, its careful reconstruction, and damages from a strong hurricane, Mónica is carefully giving us every detail about the food we are about to consume. She states that it must be as organic as possible, it must consist of as many ingredients indigenous to the area, and it must be light and easy to digest because of the tropical climate of the Yucatán area. She goes on to explain about the gardens that have been masterfully thought out not only for their flowering features, but more importantly how they will complement the surrounding vegetation and of course, Katanchel. She is passionate about landscaping, and her gift for landscape design has caught the eye of many who want to duplicate her success by capturing her love affair with nature, hardly an easy task for anyone. As I try to duplicate in my mind the avocado soup that I have dived into, I am also thinking how my palate will want to return to Playa del Carmen after its gastronomical experience of new aromas and textures it has indulged in and enjoyed.
I come out of my hypnotic state as I listen to Mónica explain that the Irish linens we are using are not only used by her guests but the same ones are used by her family and friends. I realize at that point that I have captured what some have failed to write about, every detail addressed with the utmost care. Guests treated with the same respect and importance as family members.
From the moment we walked through the gates of Katanchel, I felt in awe of what has remained as the Hacienda’s long and guarded history, transpired into something incredibly special and difficult to fine elsewhere in the region and perhaps in the world. I discovered two unique individuals, complementing one another’s passion for their hobbies, their home, concerned for the situation of haciendas in general, the Yucatán state, and their beloved México. While numerous haciendas have been sold or leased to hotelier conglomerates, Hacienda Katanchel has remained a pillar to its glorified past.
At the end of our dinner we say goodnight to our hosts, Aníbal and Mónica, and are given flashlights to help us on our path’s journey back to our casita. We are amazed at the brilliance and abundance of the stars. I remember that Katanchel was thought to be used as a Mayan observatory, given the structures found on the property. As I fall fast into the most peaceful sleep that perhaps I have ever known, I wonder what the Mayans might think of Katanchel if they saw it today. I smile knowing that the Mayans are at peace with Katanchel’s owners, who are preserving the land and sustaining immense varieties of life so that their children and grandchildren will inspire others to do the same.
For more info, see Hacienda Katanchel’s website.
Our next adventure takes us to the Santiago neighborhood of Merida, Mexico, one of Mexico’s beloved colonial cities, to the Hotel Merida Santiago Bed and Breakfast. There, I find another couple passionate about their home, their bed and breakfast, and again, the importance of keeping the idea of haciendas fresh in the mind of their guests. Perhaps not a true hacienda but certainly one that has been depicted from the concept, having the “true” colors of a traditional hacienda, with cool shades of blue, warm golden tones, and rustic terracotta colors, however contemporized it might seem.
It has been said that haciendas imposed a social system similar to the cotton plantations of the US, both producing a profitable and controversial product. Hacienda is considered a Spanish term meaning “estate.” There are more than 170 haciendas in the state of Yucatán, alone.
I had the pleasure of meeting the hotel’s creators, Jan and Rita, a few years back after searching online directories for lodging while traveling through the Yucatán,. I must say I stumbled across this gem within the lovely and colonial city of Mérida, or it found me.
According to Rita, born and raised in the state of Yucatán, when they were searching for a piece of land to build on and to realize their dream of owning a boutique hotel, they had a vision of a hacienda in mind. So, Jan, from Holland, thought it would be fitting to replicate some aspects of the hacienda in the hotel as well as paint the structure with traditional colors. They never dreamed that their passion would take them from virtual rubble, as the building where the bed and breakfast lies was completely refurbished to become the boutique hotel that it is today. Their vision and hard work paid off with a boutique bed and breakfast containing four oversized suites.
From the street, you would never imagine the beauty the lies behind the heavy bolted wooden doors, with intended peep holes, that resemble doors on castles you would find in other parts of the world. When you emerge past the doors you are immediately transformed into a setting of tranquility, never realizing that beyond the walls is a bustling, multicultural city. Your eyes feast on the inviting pool that adds to the colors of the contemporary-styled hacienda, carefully planned and placed within the walls of the beautiful and peaceful Santiago neighborhood.
The suites are spacious, with a Mediterranean feel to them, yet modernized by the contemporary amenities. While beauty is present at every angle inside this tropical haven, once again, I have found the oasis in the tropics that makes this boutique bed and breakfast stand out, it is simply stated – Jan and Rita. Their passion for diversity while maintaining their objective of a “true guest experience” shines the moment you arrive. You are greeted by the both of them and the other significant part of their family, “Gio,” their pet dog, who is every part of the guest experience as the both of them are.
The ample, homemade breakfasts they serve up fresh, with the fruits of the Yucatan, fresh squeezed juice, and sweet breads, only add to their polished skills of hosting guests from all parts of the world. You won’t likely find their hospitality at any hotel establishment. They take the time to genuinely get to know their guests and their guests love it!
For more info see Hotel Merida Santiago’s website.