Mayapan and Private Haciendas
Tour People... Not!
In general, we are not tour people. We don’t like guided tours and while traveling, have always reserved a special smirk for those herds of people that we see being led by tour guides like sheep following Little Bo Peep. In many cases, the Bo Peep is carrying an umbrella or a stick with a flag on the top or a sign… the whole process just offends our American sense of individualism and we have avoided tours like the rest of the world avoided Mexico during the swine flu epidemic.
But the other day, there we were… waiting in our office for a tour bus to pick us up for a day tour of a few select places in the Yucatan. Granted this was a tour of our choosing and the eight participants were ourselves and our friends… but still. We were a little surprised at ourselves for indulging in what has, up to this point, been studiously avoided. In the end, our desire for a new experience won out over our fierce individualism and we again accepted one of our hard-won truths: Never Say Never.
Let's Get This Party Started
Promptly at 9 AM, the tour van from Catherwood Travels showed up and the tour guide, Julia Miller, came into our office, dressed in the archaeologist’s version of a uniform (khakis and a workshirt). She comes by her costume honestly, as she is a card-carrying archaeologist, has the experience of a female version of Indiana Jones (minus the snakes...) and has the good fortune to be the resident archaeologist for Catherwood Travels, based here in Merida. From the beginning, Julia exhibited patience and a peaceful demeanor around our happy and chaotic group. Getting eight people together at exactly the same time in the Yucatan is a lot like herding cats, but Julia and Juan Luis, the van driver and future Maya language consultant, were happy to wait as we collected ourselves and loaded up almost an hour later than planned.
On the way to our first stop, the archaeological zone of Mayapan, Julia told us about herself. We compared places of origin (all of us were from California, but she is from Iowa), talked about the history of the Yucatan, the Maya and eventually we just stared out the window as the Yucatan countryside streamed by outside our air-conditioned windows.
We pulled up in the dirt parking lot of Mayapan about 40 minutes after leaving downtown Merida and found ourselves one of only two cars there. The entrance cost ($31 pesos each) was apparently included in our tour, so we walked in without further ado to see one of the prettiest, most well kept and most compact of the Yucatan Peninsula’s archaeological ruins.
As we learned from Julia’s intelligent commentary during our visit to Mayapan, this location was one of the last power centers in the history of this area, established after the fall of the powerful leaders at Chichen Itza. It was here at Mayapan that the Cocom family rose to power. The Cocoms were later deposed (isn’t it always the way?), and many structures in Mayapan were burned in the ensuing chaos. The modern-day Powers That Be did not dedicate money to excavating Mayapan until the 1950’s, when work was carried out by various archaeologists supported by the Carnegie Institute. That work was extended and added to in a big way by representatives of Tulane University in New Orleans, and also by INAH, beginning in the 1990's. In 2011, as evidenced by a map at the entrance, only half the known structures have been excavated and exposed to the public.
Today, Mayapan is a very approachable site, with a panoply of interesting architecture and art for the lucky visitor. Unlike Chichen Itza which has become much less approachable now that it is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Mayapan had only one sign that we could see asking us not to climb on a particular structure. All the other structures, including a mini-version of Chichen Itza’s El Castillo, were well-preserved or renovated, and eminently climbable. And climb we did!
We climbed the Castillo there and were treated to a view of the surrounding countryside as far as the eye could see and a cool breeze, reaffirming our personal suspicion that the rulers built these pyramids as primitive air conditioners, to get out of the heat of the jungle. We climbed inside the Observatory, a smaller version of the Observatory at Chichen Itza. Between the two is a cenote which we could not climb into, much to our dismay. Instead we were rewarded with views of stucco sculptures that had been uncovered on the sides of the pyramids. Julia explained to us that these sculptures probably represented the afterlife and that the holes where their heads should have been were found full of the bones of human skulls. Neat!
Other buildings surrounding the castillo sported sculptures of Chac, the rain god and stucco paintings that were cartoon-like in their precision and color. There is even a mysterious grouping of crescent shaped rocks jutting out of the ground in front of the castillo. Julia explained that their use is still a mystery, though they suspect the crescents were used for aligning with the stars.
We’ve been to many of the Maya archaeological zones in the Yucatan by now. Mayapan is by far the easiest one to walk around, even if you don’t want to climb any of the structures. In fact, we saw a woman there with a walker and a cane. The entire area is viewable from the entrance and there are many unique and interesting structures packed into the clearing. According to the map, there is an equal area behind the clearing with as many structures again that have not yet been excavated. While we’re sure the excavation of those is something to look forward to, after an hour and a half of climbing, playing, listening and walking in the sun, we were happy to have nothing more to explore.
White, Wet and Wonderful
Back at the van, sweating and a little parched (though we had each been given a water bottle when we arrived), we were greeted by the driver with a stack of blindingly white and blessedly wet washcloths that had been biding their time in the cooler. There are no words to accurately describe the exquisite relief a cold washcloth provides on a hot Yucatan day… we all blotted and wiped our faces while we enjoyed a quick snack of Cokes and party-size Coronas before we piled back in the van.
Next Stop: Hacienda Itzincab. But First...
Our next stop was a quick visit to a private hacienda owned by Roberto Hernandez, the man who has done more than any other individual to revive the fame and beauty of Yucatan’s haciendas (and one of the owners of Catherwood Travels as well). Run as a private rental, Hacienda Itzincab is located near the lovely town of Tecoh. On a whim, we asked to stop the van so we could look at Tecoh’s lovely church. It was our good fortune that just at that moment, a procession of the saints of that church was emerging from the front door. The wooden effigies were being carried by beautifully-attired townspeople and would be paraded around the block and brought back to their places, where they would rest for another year.
We watched the entire procession emerge from the church and walk past us, with bells ringing and voladores (those ever-present handmade bottle rockets) flying. It was a typical Yucatecan cacophony of noise and color and we had arrived at precisely the right moment to enjoy it all. What luck… or was it? Our Yucatan experiences have always been full of pleasant and mysterious coincidences, and today was no different.
Excitedly chattering about our good fortune in seeing such a picturesque event, we piled back in the van yet again. The entrance to Itzincab was only a few miles away, down a narrow road. When we arrived at the gate, it was opened immediately… we were expected along every step of the way, and yet we never once noticed the driver or our guide talking on a cel phone or any other device. Que misterioso!
Beyond the gate, the entrance continued beneath a canopy of greenery that had Andrinique, one of our guests and a wedding planner by trade, oohing and aaahing about how much her brides would love that entrance. Having been to this hacienda before, we knew that this was just the beginning of the surprises and delights.
When the van stopped, we were greeted by resident workers with cold glasses of jamaica, that slightly sweet red drink made from hibiscus flowers. We were given a tour of the hacienda, which has been lovingly and completely restored as a private house with fourteen bedrooms and bathrooms, two swimming pools, various and sundry sitting and common rooms and a modern kitchen. The oohs and aahs continued as we looked at the original wooden pumphouse with the original pump inside, the lovely and well-kept gardens, the stone steps leading to a hilltop with a surrounding view and the simple, but elegant chapel. We were all imagining weddings there by the time we were done… but weddings aren’t the only thing that happens at Hacienda Itzincab. We were told it has been used for family reunions and we also recognized it as the site of a telenovela we once watched. We felt fortunate that we were able to see Itzincab again and enjoy the beautiful surroundings, but lunch was awaiting and it was time to move on.
Hacienda Tekit de Regil
The plan was to have lunch served for the group at Hacienda Tekit de Regil, another of Hernandez’ haciendas that is managed by Catherwood Travels as a venue for weddings and other events. If you don’t go there for an event or one of these tours, the only other way to see Tekit de Regil is in a book, so we were excited to see this magnificent hacienda.
OK, we admit. The Working Gringos had photographed this hacienda once FOR a book, but we had not been back since it had been finished. And no one else in the group had seen it. The others in the group entered with us through the side gate and were suitably astounded by the view. Their level of astonishment just continued to rise as we toured the three buildings… and even though we had seen it before, we never fail to appreciate the unique beauty of this hacienda.
Since it has been renovated with weddings in mind, Hacienda Tekit de Regil has two bridal suites with adjacent and cavernous bathrooms, situated at either end of the casa principal. There is a kitchen large enough for cooking classes, dining areas inside and out and two swimming pools situated behind the casa principal for maximum privacy. Did we mention that the casa principal is literally dripping with paintings of local flora and fauna… a huge, complex mural that lends its magic to the arcade behind the columns on the front of the building. There’s another, simpler mural on the back of the building as well.
The casa maquina of Tekit de Regil has been cleaned up and left in crumbling splendor. There are large spaces open to the sky but surrounded by century-old stone walls that are lit and planted with palm trees… perfect places for dancing to live music under the stars. On either side of the building, modern restrooms have been installed with dramatic lighting and modern conveniences.
Both of these buildings have a view of the chapel, a perfect replica of a Roman temple. Covered with an authentic chicum finish, the chapel is magnificent and delightfully out of place. Its clean and classical lines lend an air of magic and mystery to this hacienda… as if the whole thing is just a dream. We don’t know about you, but we find it easy to imagine a barefoot wedding in this dramatic building, complete with flowers and candlelight and music. You don't find this kind of romance just anywhere!
Lunch was about to be served, but before we ate, we were invited by Julia to try our hand at making tortillas. One of the ladies had set up the tortilla-making station, and each of us tried to pat and prod a ball of masa into a perfectly flat and round tortilla that puffed up when cooked. A few of us actually succeeded, but all of us had fun and all of us got to eat our own tortillas, with a little bit of salt added for flavor.
Out under the painted ceiling and in front of the magnificent mural, lunch was served, accompanied by all the handmade tortillas that were NOT made by our band of beginners. We also feasted on cochinita pibil, guacamole, beans, pork ceviche, fresh peppers stuffed with crushed pumpkin-seed dip for the crisp totopos (tortilla chips), all topped off with wine, soft drinks and those ever-present Coronas.
After lunch, we retired to the back forty behind the house, donned our swimsuits and frolicked in the swimming pools. After a few minutes, coconut ice cream was served as dessert at the side of the pool, and the Coronas and wine just kept coming. Needless to say, everyone was smiling all afternoon.
Only one of us cried when it was time to go home… but we were all sad to leave. Dinner engagements and other appointments beckoned, so we packed up our wet bathing suits and piled back into the van. The van delivered us to our front door, tired, bedraggled and still a bit damp, but happy.
Yucatan Continues to Delight
It has been months since we have had the time or occasion to go out of Merida and explore the Yucatan Peninsula, and yet again, we were not disappointed. Catherwood Travels delivered an interesting tour with grace, delightful touches of comfort and delicious refreshments. Julia Miller was the perfect tour guide… full of information when you wanted it, and quietly in the background when you wanted to be left to your own thoughts. Our friends were all wonderful in their own unique ways, and all of them were good enough sports and crazy enough to let us take their photo with a washcloth on their heads.
And the Yucatan served up a random variety of sights, smells, sounds, tastes and seductive mysteries which continue to delight us and remind us why we came here in the first place.
Catherwood Travel tells us that a tour like this, with an archaeologist as guide and a lunch, costs about $940 USD. That includes transportation, entrance fees, an archaeologist to educate you along the way, and a meal (with menu options at time of reservation) including drinks. It will cost you less with a guide (bilingual) instead of an archaeologist. They also told us that some people prefer to travel by helicopter than van. We imagine that costs a bit more...
You can book this and similar custom tours at www.catherwoodtravels.com
More about Mayapan on Wikipedia
And be sure to check out our Hacienda Route article and Hacienda photos in the Photo Gallery (link at top right on your screen).