Join three generations as they tour luxurious plantations in Mexico's Yucatan province and contribute to sustainable tourism in the process.
As someone who travels frequently and is blessed with both parents and in-laws who are healthy and adventurous, we have more than our share of great multi-generational family vacations. So it was with trepidation that my mother announced one day that she would like to host our family to Christmas holidays. We’d sailed together in Belize and combed the flea market in Havana; fished in the Everglades and canoed in the Hamptons, toured Lake Placid, Berlin and southern California, always with an active focus. An invitation to spend a week at two exclusive manor houses in Mexico, former sisal plantations transformed into luxury resorts that merited being among Starwood’s Luxury Collection, made me a little nervous.
After all, it was Christmas, height of the season and top dollar in Mexico. My husband would want to hike, my 13-year-old son would want to sleep or listen to his iPod, and my parents would want to see everything there was to see. I was somewhere in the middle, happy to oblige all interests while trying to find a balance between being obligated to heed my parents’ wishes — because they were my parents and because they were paying — and making it a special Christmas holiday for my own family.
I needn’t have worried. When we all weren’t sleeping late and lounging around these luxurious rural hideaways, we were listening to music, playing cards while the minivan listed over unpaved, unmarked roads past Mayan ruins, slipping mouthfuls of Yucatecan food off each other’s plates at the endless round of meals, sampling virgin piÃ±a coladas and margaritas at each stop. I guess after all those years of family road trips, no one was going to ask, “Are we there yet?”
Haciendas of Southern Mexico
Much like the salt trade in the Caribbean, the production of the sisal or henequen plant during the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought prosperity to northern Mexico. The demand for ropes made from its natural fibers was so great that many former estancias turned their grazing lands to the cultivation of sisal or henequen, the cactus-like plant from which the fiber was made. The “green gold” of Yucatan made these landowners so wealthy that they built huge haciendas, plantation manor houses, as well as out buildings to house families, servants and labor bosses.
In restoring and making public a number of the haciendas in the states of Campeche and Yucatan in southeast Mexico, philanthropist Roberto Hernandez and the Banamex Foundation (Banamex-Citigroup is still a sponsor) had many goals: preservation of Mexico’s agricultural heritage; investment in the hospitality industry; promotion of the local handcrafts; and most importantly, creating sustainable tourism communities whose facilities would provide jobs and income to the Mexicans around them. The Haciendas of the Mayan World Foundation has accomplished many of his early goals on the way to realizing the last and most difficult one — but that’s what makes a tour of the luxury haciendas so interesting.
Bernard Wyss, former general manager for The Haciendas of the Luxury Collection, told us, “ I have never run a property where making money is not the goal.” Instead, the hacienda’s managing company, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, charges their on-the-ground management with fulfilling the Foundation’s vision to raise the living standards of the families whose lives revolve around these vast properties.
Call it sustainable tourism to the Nth degree.
Hospitality – The Ultimate Luxury
The Starwood properties provided an ideal set up for our family reunion, because the haciendas were quiet and elegant enough to entertain an older crowd, and close enough to the region’s sites to generate plenty of activities. We stayed in two very different ones, the intimate, Bali-inspired Uayamon and the industrious Temozon, because their locations offered varied sightseeing options. At each, both our families had beautiful rooms with an outer patio where we could visit and discuss plans. The daily gourmet desayunos and elegant dinners of sophisticated continental and Mexican cuisine were relaxed, informal times to catch up at the beginning and end of the day.
Ours is a family that doesn’t like being fussed over and no one ever did — the staff just tried to anticipate every need. Whereas at Temozon there was nothing we couldn’t ask for, at Uayamon, we were always surprised to be offered something we didn’t expect.
Uayamon – A Zen-Inspired Hacienda Style
Pulling up to Uayamon late one night after a hair-raising trek from Merida, we found a cheerful team waiting with fruit punch and candles to escort us to our rooms. The dozen tranquil casitas, with floor-to-ceiling shutters and deep plunge pools, were more reminiscent of the romantic Balinese resorts we’d stayed in than of colonial Mexico. As remote as it seemed, other families with school-age children and honeymooners from Mexico City strolled the cracked stone pathways and shared the terraced dining area.
During the chill, damp days we would gaze at Uayamon’s Zen-like pool, surrounded by the decaying, vine-choked columns of a 17th century machine factory. Our son was happy not to be busy; he read on the hammock under the room’s palapa shaded patio and explored the jungle looking for short-cuts to the dining room and stables. My parents wandered into the spa and discovered that some of the massage therapists were descendants of Mayan healers who had been trained by the Foundation as licensed masseuses. Whenever we ran into the discreet staff, they were always friendly, remembering our son’s dining preferences and helping him with his Spanish pronunciation.
We were off to an irritable, slow start the sunny day we decided to conquer the stunningly intact Mayan ruins at Edzna. The Uayamon receptionist insisted on preparing a picnic and, in synchrony with the arrival of our minivan, crisp white boxes filled with delicious club sandwiches and fresh fruit, and a cooler of soft drinks and bottled water, met us at the circular driveway.
Displaying the same sense of hospitality, the caballero who guided me and my husband on a horseback tour of a nearby papaya plantation, introduced us to two women working in the field who wrapped up a fruit and insisted we take it back to the hotel.
The classic multi-hued, one-story seafarers’ rowhouses in the walled city of Campeche has earned its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On an outing from Uuayamon, we spent the afternoon wandering its lanes, trying to peek through wrought iron gates, slipping into tourist shops selling Mexican lace and poking our heads into the small art museums. A visit to the restored Starwood Hacienda Puerta Campeche and a drink inside at the bar brought the city’s 18th-century heyday to life.
That evening, Uayamon’s then-manager, Jana, arranged to borrow a DVD player from another hacienda so that we could watch a film my husband had brought. It was Adam Sandler and Penelope Cruz in “Spanglish,” the story of a single mother who fights her way from Mexico to Los Angeles to become the housekeeper of a dysfunctional Beverly Hills family. Little did we know that one of the actresses was a huge Mexican soap opera star, and Jana had invited other guests to join us in the conference room, providing elegant seating, blankets and a barman pouring champagne throughout the screening.
Touring the Haciendas
It’s easy to catch hacienda fever, so when we learned that five plantation restorations had been funded, we decided to visit them all. Starwood is justly proud of representing these distinctive lodgings, and each publishes its own tour guide filled with sightseeing ideas, great maps and lots of historic detail. Unlike many of our previous “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” journeys, each hacienda created an opportunity to get to know a small region in great depth.
From our second base at the large, deluxe Temozon, we made an excursion to lovely little Santa Rosa, with just 11 rooms tucked into a restored great house. A mature garden, snaking vines and flowers enclosed the patio where we dined on tortilla soup and fresh limon. Sensuous and sophisticated in the Mexican style, five of Santa Rosa’s suites share one pool, which makes it a favorite getaway for small reunion groups. The high occupancy rate and involvement of the local populace, both as artisans and hotel workers, make it a model of sustainable tourism.
Another day, we headed out across the Yucatan to Celestun to see the flamingo preserve. The women laughed and laughed at the men in our group who refused to stop for directions; instead, the husbands clutched the lushly illustrated Hacienda brochure and tried to feel their way to the preserve along miles of rutted dirt roads and fields pock-marked with crumbling haciendas. The drive paid off with a wonderful power boat ride to the middle of Lake Celestun, where hundreds of vivid shrimp-hued flamingoes took flight, revealing a rich black underbelly that startled us all.
All ages can appreciate the Mayan archeological site at Uxmal, which we toured under moonlight as we waited for the evening sound n’light show to begin. The rousing story of this civilization’s rise and fall was accompanied by corny narration and a score of clashing kid-pleasing cymbals and Mayan chants.
One bright morning, we stumbled along the back roads, exhaust pipe clanking on the speed-diminishing topes, to the Hacienda San Jose, 45 minutes east of Merida. This 18th-century plantation had a combination of square bungalows interspersed with Mayan-style, thatch roof round houses with their own plunge pools, all stuccoed with a Frida Kahlo palette and surrounded by lush gardens. San Jose hosted the largest number of families with children over the winter holiday period, as evidenced by the many splashing in the long pool and playing with the hammock suspended over one end.
On the return drive to Merida, we stopped at the Hacienda Parador Ochil for lunch, the only restored property without guest rooms and not a part of the Starwood group. However, Ochil’s wonderful restaurant of Yucatecan specialties occupies the tiled patio of a former great house that is worthwhile seeing. The restored chapel has a fine crafts shop, five small outbuildings house workshops for regional craftspeople, and renovated worker housing has become a museum space exhibiting the glass and weaving of contemporary artists.
Delightful Temozon – Hacienda at Work
Both haciendas that we chose easily accommodated our family, though younger kids would be happier at the livelier Temozon. In addition to 88 landscaped acres surrounded by thousands of once-cultivated acres, a sprawling great house and restored out buildings, Hacienda Temozon offers families a zero-entry reflecting pool leading to historic factory rooms, workout facility and pool table.
Even the mellow spa was open to children. Our teen son and his grandmother (surprised to find well trained therapists at such a small and isolated place) were both treated to the “best massage of their lives.” In fact, since our visit, the non-profit Fundacion Haciendas del Mundo Maya has trained enough of the local Mayan people as sobadores, or therapists, to offer wellness massage and facial treatments based on Mayan techniques at each of the haciendas.
Temozon’s attached rooms are so large that despite being clustered around the open gardens, each felt very private. Our son could peruse every outdoor patio quickly in search of his grandparents or the geckos that velcroed themselves to the burnt umber walls. The staff of highly trained local villagers was plentiful and gracious. At breakfast, our waiter would explain the special Mexican dishes artfully displayed on the buffet, then bring samples of his favorite items without being asked.
Among the amenities that interested our son was a delightfully stubborn donkey named JosÃ©. He spent part of every day finding an apple (there are big bowls of fruit in the dining room and spa if you’ve eaten your way through the delicious complimentary fruit in your room), then would take one out to the back garden and look for JosÃ©.
Near his corral were enormous, partially restored, 1870’s-era machinery rooms for processing the sisal. It’s there we met Mr. Harbich, the general manager at Temozon and hotelier for all the Starwood haciendas. He explained to us that farmers would harvest the pencas or henequen leaves from the fields, throw them into a miniature cargo train, then unload them here to at the “stippers” to extract and dry the fibers used in making rope.
Mr. Harbich spoke about the philanthropic nature of the hacienda project, and the owner’s policy of using Starwood staff to train locals, who could support each hacienda’s surrounding community with their hotel jobs. At his suggestion, our whole family enjoyed a very fun “train” ride in which JosÃ© pulled a freight car fitted with seats along the hacienda’s historic tracks, all the way to the local swimming hole or cenote. Straight out of a Botero painting, two Mayan gardeners in white cotton outfits and broad-brimmed white hats sat in front to “drive,” while the five of us sat on big silk cushions. To go uphill, the cart drivers would take turns encouraging or yelling at JosÃ©, “Vamanos!?”
Whenever we began to go downhill, the gardeners would put their hands on JosÃ©’s rump and push him forward. As soon as the cart began to overtake him, JosÃ© would jump off the tracks and out of the way, pulling us off the tracks too. It’s certainly our funniest memory from a trip filled with many.
We had learned how our travels could contribute to the local community. Our son suggested we visit the hacienda’s ateliers and watch the craftspeople at work there.
The tiny village outside Temozon’s walls, once teeming with thousands of day laborers, now houses less than a hundred families. In one restored bungalow, a woman sewed clothes and applied the embroidery to collars and cuffs. At another, a man was working on leather accessories. Next door, a few women sat weaving strands of dyed sisal into weavings, hot plates, welcome mats, small purses and decorative souvenirs. We bought many small gifts of locally-produced soap, sisal soap dishes, place mats and shower scrubbers while our son looked through the stock until he found a miniature of JosÃ©.
Getting to the Haciendas of southern Yucatan is not always easy. The nearest international airport is in Merida, itself a historic town with a wonderful market; it’s about 90 minutes’ drive away and is worthy of an overnight stay. There is a smaller domestic airport at Campeche, about 20 minutes’ drive from that hacienda, and many visitors fly in through Mexico City.
The Luxury Collection also represents haciendas on Mexican’s west coast and each honors its past with restored housing and informative historic displays. Luxury has its price, and in the winter high season, rooms with one king size bed start at US$318/N and up, plus 22% in taxes. Book ahead for the holidays; low and shoulder season packages include fourth night free deals and significantly lower rates. Book through your travel agent or with the Haciendas directly (888/625-5144; www.starwood.com ).
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