advertisement

Hacienda Sotuta de Peón 

What started out as one man's hobby has grown into one of the best living museums you'll ever see. The owner didn't just restore the buildings, he put the entire hacienda into working order and is now turning out 10 to 15 tons of henequén per month.

You can arrange transportation from any of Mérida's hotels by calling Hacienda Sotuta de Peón at tel. 999/941-8639 or going to www.haciendatour.com. Be sure to get precise directions if you plan to take your own car. After a welcome drink and a tour of the beautiful main house, you'll visit the henequén fields via mule-drawn "trucks," or carts. You get to see harvesting and, later, processing at the casa de máquinas, and learn how to spin the fiber into twine. You'll also learn about the culture surrounding henequén production, visiting one of the workers in his traditional Maya home. Bring your bathing suit because you'll have time for a swim in a cenote on the property. You can also sample fine regional cooking in a restaurant on the premises. Admission is 300 pesos per adult, 150 pesos per child; transportation is 200 pesos extra. Packages are available that combine entrance fee, transportation from Mérida, and a meal. The hacienda is open daily, with tours at 10am and 1pm.

Izamal

Izamal, about 80km (50 miles) east of Mérida, presents one of Mexico's most vivid juxtapositions of three cultures: Ancient pyramids surround one of the largest monasteries the Spanish ever built in Mexico, while contemporary Maya artisans do a brisk trade in their traditional crafts.

The entire city center glows with ochre-yellow paint -- the market, all the colonial buildings, and the massive Franciscan convent of San Antonio de Padua ★★★ for which Izamal is best known. Walking along the colonnades high over the plaza, you know why priests believed they were close to God. The porticoed atrium, reputedly second in size only to the Vatican's, presents a sound-and-light show Monday to Saturday at 8:30pm. Admission is 84 pesos; headphones with English narration cost another 30. Bishop Fray Diego de Landa, who would became infamous for his brutal auto-da-fé at Maní -- burning all the native scripts and later trying to rectify his deed by writing down all he could remember of Maya ways -- leveled a pyramid here to build the monastery and church. Inside is a beautifully restored altarpiece and, among many statues, the Nuestra Señora de Izamal, brought from Guatemala in 1652 and still drawing pilgrims every August to climb the staircase on their knees to plead for miracles.

The Centro Cultural y Artesanal, in a colonial building across the square from the convent, provides an excellent introduction to Izamal's abundance of handicrafts. A beautiful and highly informative exhibition (20 pesos) displays many examples of crafts produced throughout Mexico. The shop sells top-quality hammocks, clothing, and other work of local artists. The center also has a spa and a cafe in the interior courtyard. Follow up with a self-guided tour, available at the center, of folk art workshops in town. A good way to reach them is by victoria, the horse-drawn buggies that serve as taxis here.

Izamal is superimposed over a pre-Hispanic city and remnants of ancient Maya structures emerge through the layer of contemporary life -- forming a retaining wall or the foundation for a church, or as a derelict but recognizable pyramid looming over the town. The largest of the four Maya pyramids enduring in the city center, Kinich Kakmó on Calle 28 at Calle 25 (daily 8am-8pm; free admission), measures 200 by 180m (656 by 591 ft.) -- by many accounts, the Yucatán's largest pre-Hispanic building. Impressing with sheer size rather than fine architecture, it looks like an oddly symmetrical hill, but if you climb the restored stairways on its south face to the temple at the top, you can enjoy looking down on the lofty convent building and spot leafy mounds on the landscape for miles in every direction -- undoubtedly more vestiges of Maya structures. The original city could have tucked the Izamal of today into its pocket.

The easiest way to get to Izamal from Mérida is to take Hwy. 180 toward Cancún. At Km 68, follow the signs for the cuota (toll road) until just past the Kantunil turnoff. Before you reach the toll plaza, the exit for Izamal will be on the left. You'll head north, passing through the villages of Xanaba and Sudzal, for 7.7 km (4 3/4 miles) to Izamal.

Izamal, which had meager lodging options only a few years ago, is enjoying a bit of a boom. Long-standing favorite Macan ché Bed and Breakfast, in the middle of town at Calle 22 no. 305 between calles 33 and 35 (www.macanche.com; tel. 988/954-0287), recently opened a second house suited for families and long-term stays as well as a new building with four quirky, highly designed rooms. Rates range from $42 to $52 for rooms, $90 to $135 for a house. Just east of the city center, on Calle 18 between calles 33 and 35, an Austrian entrepreneur has turned a ranch into Hotel Rancho Santo Domingo (www.izamalhotel.com; tel. 988/967-6136). Bright, modern rooms in a tropical garden house go for $60 to $80, including breakfast, tax, and some refreshments. A small Maya-style house with palapa roof rents for $35 to $50, and a larger house is $110 to $130. A spa and a bar were in the works at press time.

Celestún National Wildlife Refuge: Flamingos & Other Waterfowl

On the Gulf Coast west of Mérida, Celestún is the gateway to a wildlife reserve harboring one of North America's only two flamingo breeding colonies (the other is Ría Lagartos). The long, shallow estuary, where salty Gulf waters mix with freshwater from about 80 cenotes, is sheltered from the open sea by a skinny strip of land, creating ideal habitat for flamingos and other waterfowl. This ría (estuary) is shallow (.3-1m/1-3 1/3 ft. deep) and thick with mangroves. You can ride a launch through an open channel just .5km (a third-mile) wide and 50km (31 miles) long to see flamingos dredging the shallows for small crustaceans and favorite insects. You might also see frigate birds, pelicans, spoonbills, egrets, sandpipers, and other waterfowl. At least 15 duck species have been counted. Nonbreeding flamingos remain year-round; breeding birds take off around April to nest in Ría Lagartos, returning to Celestún in October.

Immediately to the left after you cross the bridge into town is a modern visitor center with a small museum, snack bar, clean bathrooms, and a ticket window. Tour prices are fixed at about 750 pesos for a 75-minute tour for up to six people. You can join others or hire a boat by yourself. In addition to flamingos, you'll see mangroves close up, and you might stop for a swim in a cenote. It's a pleasant ride through calm waters on wide, flat-bottom skiffs with canopies for shade. Don't ask boatmen to get closer to the flamingos than they are allowed to. If pestered too much, the birds will abandon the area for another, less-fitting habitat.

Celestún is an easy 90-minute drive from Mérida. Leave downtown on Calle 57, which ends just past Santiago Church and doglegs onto Calle 59-A. After crossing Avenida Itzáes, it becomes Jacinto Canek; continue until you see signs for Celestún Hwy. 178. After Hunucmá, the road joins Hwy. 281. Continue to the bridge, and you are in Celestún.

Dzibilchaltún: Maya Ruins & Museum

This small archaeological site can be a quick day trip or part of a longer trip to the Yucatán's Gulf coast. It stands 14km (8 2/3 miles) north of Mérida along the Progreso road, 4km (2 1/2 miles) east of the highway. Take Calle 60 out of town and follow signs for Progreso and Hwy. 261. Turn right at the sign for Dzibilchaltún, which also reads UNIVERSIDAD DEL MAYAB; the entrance is a few miles farther. If you don't want to drive, take one of the colectivos lined up at Parque San Juan.

Dzibilchaltún was founded about 500 B.C., flourished around A.D. 750, and began its decline long before the conquistadors arrived. Since their discovery in 1941, more than 8,000 buildings have been mapped, but only about a half-dozen have been excavated. The site covers almost 15 sq. km (5 3/4 sq. miles); of greatest interest are the buildings surrounding two plazas next to the cenote and a third connected by a sacbé (causeway). At least 25 stelae have been found in Dzibilchaltún, which means "place of the stone writing."

Start with the Museo del Pueblo Maya (it closed in early 2010 for repairs and renovation but should be open by the time you read this), which exhibits artifacts from sites around the Yucatán and provides fairly thorough bilingual explanations. Displays include a beautiful plumed serpent from Chichén Itzá and a finely designed incense vessel from Palenque. The museum moves on to artifacts specifically at Dzibilchaltún, including the curious dolls that gave the site's main attraction its name. Another exhibit covers Maya culture through history, including a collection of huipiles, the woven blouses worn by Indian women. From here, a door leads out to the site.

You first encounter the sacbé. To the left is the Temple of the Seven Dolls, whose doorways and the sacbé line up with the rising sun at the spring and autumnal equinoxes. To the right are the buildings grouped around the Cenote Xlacah, the sacred well, and a complex of buildings around Structure 38, the Central Group of temples. Yucatán's State Department of Ecology has added nature trails and published a booklet (in Spanish) of birds and plants seen along the mapped trail.

The site is open daily from 8am to 5pm (museum closes at 4pm). Admission is 107 pesos, including the museum; children under 13 free.

Progreso, Uaymitun & Xcambó: Gulf Coast City, Flamingo Lookout & More Maya Ruins

Puerto Progreso is Mérida's refuge when the weight of summer heat descends on the city. And though it doesn't occur to most U.S. travelers, it is also a gateway to the trove of undiscovered white sands and mangrove-lined estuaries. Except for the vacation homes within easy reach of Mérida, most of the Yucatán's 378 seafront kilometers (235 miles) -- stretching from near Isla Holbox to Celestún -- belongs to some scattered fishing villages, a lot of flamingos, and an increasing number of American and Canadian expats and snowbirds.

Progreso has been the Yucatán's main port of entry since the 1870s, when henequén shipped all over the world. Today, it's a major stop for cruise ships. The cruise business has allowed the city to spruce up the malecón, its 16-block seaside promenade that skims past well-groomed, white-sand beaches. Though the water is green and murky compared with the Caribbean, it's clean, and good for swimming. Fancy restaurants have been added (many sell good seafood), and vendors now ply their wares on the beach, but it's still pretty quiet most of the time. The 7km (4 1/3-mile) pier, which seems to disappear in the distance, became the world's longest when a new section was added to accommodate cruise ships, which dock twice a week. The sea is so shallow here that large ships cannot get any closer to shore.

From Mérida, buses to Progreso leave from the AutoProgreso terminal every 15 minutes or so, taking almost an hour and costing 26 pesos. If you drive, take Paseo Montejo or Calle 60 north; either funnels you onto Hwy. 261 leading to Progreso.

If you have time, a drive east on the coastal road toward Telchac Puerto will reveal the other side of the Yucatán's coast. The shoreline along Hwy. 27 from Chuburna to the village of Dzilam de Bravo is dubbed La Costa Esmeralda (the Emerald Coast), after the clear, green Gulf waters. First up: the sleepy beach town of Chicxulub, about 8km (5 miles) east of Progreso. To winter-phobic northerners, it's a bit of paradise. To scientists, it's the site of a buried impact crater, about 161km (100 miles) in diameter, left by a meteor that smashed into Earth 65 million years ago; it is blamed for extinguishing the dinosaurs and probably created the Yucatán's cenotes. Less than 10km (6 1/4 miles) farther, in Uaymitun, a large wooden tower looming on the right is an observation post for viewing a new colony of flamingos that migrated from Celestún. Binoculars are provided free of charge. You might also spot some of the rosy birds about 20 minutes down near the turnoff for the road to Dzemul.

The road to Dzemul also leads to the small but intriguing Maya site of Xcambó, which was (and still is) a salt production center. Archaeologists have reconstructed the small ceremonial center, including several platforms and temples. A rough-hewn Catholic church, complete with altar, flowers, and statues, rises from some of the ruins. Admission is free.

You can continue on the same road through the small town of Dzemul to Baca, where you can pick up Hwy. 176 back to Mérida or Progreso, or you can return to the coast road and continue east until it ends in Dzilam de Bravo, final resting place of "gentleman pirate" Jean Lafitte. On the way, you'll pass through Telchac Puerto, which holds little interest unless you're hungry for some decent seafood, and the appealing village of San Crisanto, where a group of fishermen will paddle you through shallow canals in the mangroves to an array of newly accessible cenotes (40 pesos).

En Route to Uxmal

Two routes go to Uxmal, about 80km (50 miles) south of Mérida. The most direct is Hwy. 261, via Umán and Muna. Hwy. 18 is a longer, more scenic road sometimes called the Convent Route. You might also make the trip to Uxmal as a loop by going one way and coming back the other, with an overnight stay at Uxmal. Arriving at Uxmal in late afternoon, you could attend the evening sound-and-light show, and see the ruins the next morning while it is cool and uncrowded.

Both of these roads will lead you to the central square in one small village after another, and many lack signs to point you in the right direction. Get used to poking your head out the window and saying, "Buenos días. ¿Dónde está el camino para . . . ?" ("Good day. Where is the road to . . . ?") You might have to ask more than one person before you get back on track. Streets in these villages are full of children, bicycles, and animals, so drive carefully, and learn to recognize unmarked topes from a distance.

Churches on these routes don't keep strict hours but are open daily from roughly 10am to 1pm and 4 to 6pm, so you might want to plan for lunch and a visit to a ruin midday. Ruins are open daily from 8am to 5pm.

Hwy. 261: Yaxcopoil & Muna -- From downtown Mérida, take Calle 65 or 69 west and then turn left on Avenida Itzáes, which feeds onto the highway. To save some time by looping around the busy market town of Umán, take the exit for Hwy. 180 to Cancún and Campeche, and follow signs toward Campeche. Keep going south on Hwy. 180 until it intersects with Hwy. 261 and take the Uxmal exit.

You'll soon come to the town and Hacienda Yaxcopoil (yash-koh-po-eel; www.yaxcopoil.com; tel. 999/900-1193), 32km (20 miles) south of Mérida. The ruined hacienda, immediately identifiable by its double Moorish arches, has been preserved but not restored, making for an eerie but particularly vivid trip back in time. Tours take in the casa principa, with its large lounges and drawing rooms, the extensive gardens, a small Maya museum, and the henequén factory. It's open Monday to Saturday from 8am to 6pm, and Sunday 9am to 5pm. Admission is 50 pesos.

The hacienda is no secret, but few travelers seem to know you can stay overnight in the Casa de Visitas ★★★, a guesthouse behind the manor house that is not open to the public. It is roomy, with a sitting and dining room, and charming, with a patterned tile floor and colonial-style furniture. After 6pm, it's just you, the entire empty hacienda, the deep starry sky, and the utter silence. It's a unique experience that I look forward to repeating, but it's not for travelers whose comfort level requires a front desk ready to snap to attention at any hour of the day or night. The guesthouse rents for $60 a night; another $20 per person gets you a homemade tamale dinner and a hearty breakfast, delivered and served by a local woman in town.

South of Yaxcopoil, the little market town of Muna (65km/40 miles from Mérida) sells excellent reproductions of Maya ceramics, created by artisan Rodrigo Martín Morales, who has worked 25 years to replicate the ancient Maya's style and methods. As you enter Muna, watch for two large ceiba trees on the right side of the road, with handicraft and food stalls in a small plaza under the branches. Turn right, and in about 45m (148 ft.) the Taller de Artesanía Los Ceibos (tel. 997/971-0036) will be on your left. The family works in the back, and only Spanish is spoken. The store is open from 9am to 6pm daily. Uxmal is 15km (9 1/3 miles) beyond Muna.

Hwy. 18: The Convent Route -- From downtown Mérida, take Calle 63 east to Circuito Colonias and turn right, then look for a traffic circle with a small fountain and turn left. This feeds onto Hwy. 18 to Kanasín (kah-nah-seen) and then Acanceh (ah-kahn-keh). In Kanasín, the highway divides into two; go to the right, and the road curves to flow into the next parallel street. Pass the market, church, and main square on your left, and then stay to the right when you get to a fork.

Shortly after Kanasín, the road bypasses a lot of villages. Follow the sign pointing left to Acanceh. Across the street from and overlooking Acanceh's church is a restored pyramid. On top, under a makeshift roof, are some stucco figures of Maya deities. The caretaker will guide you up to see them and give you a little explanation (in Spanish). Admission is 25 pesos. A few blocks away, at some other ruins called El Palace de los Stuccoes, a stucco mural was found in mint condition there in 1908. Exposure deteriorated it somewhat, but it is sheltered now. You can still distinguish the painted figures in their original colors. To leave Acanceh, head back to the highway on the street that passes between the church and the plaza.

The next turnoff will be for Tecoh, on the right side. Its ornate and crumbling parish church and convent sit on the base of a massive pre-Columbian ceremonial complex that was sacrificed to build the church. The three carved retablos (altarpieces) inside are covered in gold leaf and unmistakably Indian in style. About 9km (5 2/3 miles) farther on, you come to the ruins of Mayapán, the last of the great city-states.

Mayapán 

Founded, according to Maya lore, by the man-god Kukulkán (Quetzalcóatl in central Mexico) in about A.D. 1007, Mayapán quickly established itself as northern Yucatán's most important city. For almost 2 centuries, it was the capital of a Maya confederation of city-states that included Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. Sometime before 1200, Mayapán attacked and subjugated the other two cities, leading to a revolt that eventually toppled Mayapán. It was abandoned during the mid-1400s.

The walled city, considered the last great Maya capital, extended out at least 4 sq. km (1 1/2 sq. miles), but the ceremonial center is quite compact. Several buildings bordering the principal plaza have been reconstructed, including one that looks eerily like Chichén Itzá's El Castillo (and also named El Castillo) and another much like the observatory. Excavation has uncovered murals and stucco figures that provide more grist for the mill of conjecture: atlantes (supporting columns in the form of a human figure), skeletal soldiers, macaws, entwined snakes, and a stucco jaguar. With some 4,000 mounds, and only half a dozen in different stages of restoration, Mayapán shows the full spectrum of ruins in their original discovered state, some in mid-transformation and others in stages of advanced restoration. Well worth a stop.

The site is open daily from 8am to 5pm. Admission is 41 pesos. Use of a personal video camera is 45 pesos.

From Mayapán to Ticul -- About 20km (12 miles) after Mayapán, take the highway for Mama on your right, and the narrow road quickly enters town. Some parts of this village are quite pretty. The main attraction is the church and former convent, with several fascinating retablos sculpted in a native form of baroque. Colonial-age murals and designs were uncovered and restored during the restoration of these buildings. You can peek at them in the sacristy. From Mama, continue on about 20km (12 miles) to Ticul, a large (for this area) market town with a couple of simple hotels.

Ticul

Best known for the cottage industry of huipil (native blouse) embroidery and the manufacture of women's dress shoes, Ticul is both an exciting stop and a convenient place to wash up and spend the night. It's also a center for large-scale pottery production -- most of the widely sold sienna-colored pottery painted with Maya designs is made here. If it's a cloudy, humid day, potters may not be working (part of the process requires sun drying). They still welcome visitors to purchase finished pieces.

Ticul is only 20km (12 miles) northeast of Uxmal, making a good alternative to the expensive hotels at the ruins, especially if you want to do the Puuc Route one day and the Convent Route the next. On the main square is the Hotel Plaza, Calle 23 no. 202, near Calle 26 (www.hotelplazayucatan.com; tel. 997/972-0484). It's a modest but comfortable 30-room hotel. A double room with air-conditioning costs 340 pesos. A 5% charge applies to payments made by credit card (MasterCard and Visa accepted). Get an interior room to avoid noise from Ticul's lively plaza. From Ticul, you can head straight for Uxmal via Santa Elena, or loop around the Puuc Route the long way to Santa Elena.

From Ticul to Uxmal -- Follow the main street (Calle 23) west through town. Turn left on Calle 34 and drive 15km (9 1/3 miles) to Santa Elena; it will be another 15km (9 1/3 miles) to Uxmal. In Santa Elena, by the side of Hwy. 261, is a clean restaurant with good food, El Chaac Mool, and on the opposite side of the road the Flycatcher Inn B&B.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.