MERIDA, Mexico — Here in the heart of the Yucatan region relics of the ancient Maya civilization are everywhere. They can even turn up in the walls of your hotel bedroom.
An old sisal plantation dating from the 18th century, Hacienda Xanatun is today an 18-suite boutique hotel just a few miles from the center of Merida, capital of the state of Yucatan. Abandoned for many years after a hurricane took the roof off the main house, it was in ruins when proprietor Tina Baker and her husband, Jorge Ruz Buenfil, acquired the property.
In the course of a painstaking restoration it was discovered that many of the stones in the main building’s massive walls — three feet thick and more than 20 feet high — had been taken from Maya temple sites. When the walls were replastered these stones, hand-cut with primitive tools perhaps 1,000 or more years ago, were left exposed — a reminder that in the Yucatan the ancient past is a visible presence.
Ruz Buenfil, a television producer, is the son of a noted Mexican archeologist. Growing up in Merida he says he was fascinated by the many abandoned and ghostly-looking haciendas scattered over the countryside and dreamed of buying and restoring one. Baker, an American who lived extensively in Latin America as a girl, was working in Mexico City when she met her husband.
Baker says she almost burst into tears when she first saw the hacienda and learned her husband had bought it. “It was a wreck,” she recalls, “and there was a big tree growing where the dining room is now.” Turning it from a near ruin to an elegant hotel took five years and a large workforce. “We were the first ones in the Yucatan to start restoring an old hacienda,” she says, “but the work took so long others opened before we did.”
Besides rebuilding the main house, the couple also went to great lengths to restore its rooms to their original appearance. There is air conditioning but also old-fashioned ceiling fans. All suites have very large bathrooms with showers and whirlpool tubs. Two master suites have enormous carved stone tubs, each with its own waterfall. Bedrooms have either king or twin canopy beds. Traditional Mayan hammocks are available and the hacienda’s original stone hammock hooks are still in the walls.
The hotel’s only television is in the former hacienda chapel, a small building separate from the main house. The chapel is now used mainly for receptions, meetings, and concerts — the latter including performances by the International String Quartet of the Yucatan with violin virtuoso Christopher Collins Lee — and weddings. However, popular Maya-themed weddings, presided over by a local shaman, take place in the large flower-filled garden using a “palapa,” a traditional thatched hut.
Suites in the old house face the garden and are near the main swimming pool. New units, separate from the original building, are grouped around a smaller pool. A spa here offers such distinctly Mayan treatments as a honey and flowers massage and a procedure that supposedly improves vitality by placing heated stones from sacred sites on the body’s energy points.
The tree is long gone from the dining room, called Casa de Piedra (House of Stone) which is what Xanatun means in Mayan. It’s the breakfast room for hotel guests but also a restaurant open to the public. “We wanted it to be a year-round restaurant, “ Baker says, “and a place for local people as well as tourists.” Considered one of the best restaurants in Merida, Casa de Piedra has a fusion menu featuring Yucatan, Caribbean, and international dishes prepared with classic French culinary techniques.
Dzbilchaltun, a small but impressive Maya site — it was an ancient observatory — is just a few minutes’ walk from the hotel. Major archeological sites such as Uxmal and Chichen Itza are easily accessed by car over excellent well-policed and posted highways. The hotel can also arrange guided tours to one or more sites. Also available are tours that offer an introduction to Mayan culture and life with visits to typical villages and an opportunity to meet craftspeople, taste authentic Yucatan food, and even take cooking lessons.