by Eric & Holly Vengroff
Six years ago, in 2011, my wife Holly and I visited the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico to do a tour of a number of sites, beach, resort, historic and cultural. We both came away amazed and impressed. My interest in Mexican travel had increased after an advertising campaign that I helped to arrange on the 50Plus.com website for the Mexico Tourism Board, along with my colleague Michael Hallé, co-founder of Buddha Travel.
Coincidentally, interest in the Yucatán had been increasing at that time, due to a confluence of circumstances and events. First, tourism to the area had been on a steady climb for a number of years, but was increasing due to people looking for more economical vacations following the Great Recession of 2009. Second, the proponents of the “end of the world” theory were becoming more visible, as December 21, 2012, the supposed last day of the Mayan calendar approached. Literature, news stories, and even a feature-length movie were released in anticipation of the big day, which I’m happy to say came and went without incident. Without the benefit of hindsight, we decided to make the trip to see the area and learn of the mysteries of the Mayan calendar and culture while we still could.
Mérida is a city of about 1.2 million today and is the capital and business center of Yucatán state; I won’t go into the details of our landing here — it’s the subject (the city, not the landing) of another blog post. Suffice to say that it was the most pleasant international airport experience we’ve had in a long time.
On this trip, we were traveling from Merida to Sotuta de Peon, a resort within a Hacienda Viva, which is a 45 minute drive from Mérida International Airport and as it happened our arrival was at night. As we exited out of town, the lights of the city disappeared quickly, the darkness only interrupted by the occasional tiny village lit by dim streetlights. The lights of the occasional tienda (store) or a fútbol field broke into view. People on bicycles or just walking across darkened sections of road. It’s fascinating to see the very basic and simple micro-economy that functions within these tiny communities along the route. Homes in this region are of simple construction, including many native palapas or huts. We could see that the rooms often had not much more than a hammock or two and a big-screen TV. Many people forage in the local jungles for firewood for cooking and heating.
Holly offers her account of our arrival at our destination:
“ Arriving at Hacienda Viva Sotuta de Peón in the evening to the quiet and stillness of the hotel under a star-studded night sky was magical. As a city girl who is used to the noise, mayhem and lights of the big city this was a welcome change.
Beyond the historic stone wall of the property and gated entrance we drove into a spacious parking lot which was located right next to the reception area. The circular lobby is open to the outside and has beautiful Mexican tiles and stonework throughout. However, what I found most impressive was the construction of the entry, where large tree trunks, each one different and polished smooth, circle the perimeter of the lobby supporting a large thatched roof made of dried palm leaves, called a palapa. This one looked to be about twenty feet high — a true engineering marvel.”
“The front desk staff were welcoming, helpful and spoke English if required. We then proceeded to our room with the assistance of a bellman who placed our luggage on a trolley and guided the way. The paths to our room and around the property can be a far walk, wind with a variety of stones and concrete under your feet and at night there are no path lights. Therefore, I suggest when you arrive or leave use the services of a bellman and bring a small flashlight.
As we walked along I could see many small cottages known as “cabañas” which turned out to be the hotel rooms. When we arrived at ours we proceeded up a small path which led to our own private covered patio complete with two chairs, a patio table, a lounge chair, a “tanque” or small pool and to my husband’s delight two hammocks. Perfect for afternoon siestas!”
“The entrance to our cabaña was off the patio. We walked into an extra-large master bedroom and gazed upon a king size bed, with crisp white sheets and throw pillows set against a wall of large floral muted blue and beige Mexican tiles. Behind the bed wall was a private dressing area, furnished with a wall of dark wood closets plus the generous bathroom area consisting of a large shower, single sink and private toilet. The entire bathroom area was done in vibrant cobalt blue tiles with an accent band of happy quarter moon faces. The room also had air conditioning, a small fridge, coffee maker, a telephone, a desk, large windows and a dramatic palapa ceiling.”
“The room was comfortable and really had that rustic Mexican style and feel familiar to the Yucatan area in which the hotel is situated. The one thing that was not in the room was a TV. There is Wi-Fi available so bring your iPad or laptop and get ready to watch Netflix.”
When we rose early the next morning we were treated to a more dramatic visual perspective of our location, which was in the middle of a working henequen plantation. Henequen is an agave plant, similar to the blue agave grown in Jalisco state. Unlike the blue agave, where the root of the plant is fermented to make tequila, it’s the leaves of the henequen plant that are utilized to make a tough, durable fiber called Sisal, which is used to make rope, rugs, bags and local handicrafts.
“After a good night’s sleep,” Holly said, “ we awoke to a beautiful sunny morning. As we walked out of our room to go for breakfast we noticed our tonque was now filled with water. We learned that the water was refilled every day and came from the cenote on the property. Wonderfully clean, free of chlorine and great for swimming.”
We went to breakfast in a large, open-air dining room not far from the lobby area that also serves as the bar for the expansive pool area. Greeted by a staff that is conversant in both Spanish and English, as well as a host of other languages, they acquired from dealing with years of international clients at the hacienda, one is quickly made comfortable. Coffee and an assortment of local fruit, bread and pastries are on the table shortly after arrival.
The menu selections are pure Mexican with Yucatán specialties included. Breakfast classics such as Huevos Rancheros are given the local flavor and their homemade picante sauce is made from local habanero peppers –hot but worth it. That said, the kitchen can also make eggs in more traditional ways, with bacon, etc., and has other staples such as pancakes, French toast, granola and yogurt.
“The hotel has two restaurants which are both comfortable and casual. For lunch, it’s a short walk over to the open-air restaurant next to a historic restored hacienda on the property. Both restaurants have attentive wait staff who present you with a menu in Spanish only; not a problem for ordering as they mostly have a basic understanding of English and other languages. The lunch offerings consist of either a buffet selection on busier days, or a selection of four set menus choices when the resort is quieter. All selections we tried were tasty and served well. Dinner, served in the main entertainment area is more limited. Typically there are one, two or three choices of appetizer, main course and dessert. A full bar with some premium brands of tequila choices was very much appreciated. What stood out for me the soups they served. I enjoyed them all. Both lunch and dinner offerings were definitely more Yucatán-styled dishes, but we have been told that expanded menu choices will be offered in the near future.”
Hacienda Viva is an evolving development; it is a working farm, using implements and rope making equipment from a bygone era, and offers daily tours. We had both been on the tour when we visited in 2011 but Holly took it on our recent trip again. One of the elements of the historic hacienda that is still in use today is the horse-drawn railway, which is used for the tours and trips to the cenote at the far end of the property.
“As we walked through the grounds you could see they were well cared for, with native landscaping, accented with natural stone sculptures, Holly said. “The units were placed far enough away from each other to create privacy and each one was painted in warm tones of either yellow, brown or rust.”
Beside the hacienda tour, other activities include horseback riding, a cenote tour, and massages and indigenous therapies, either at the palapa dedicated for this activity, or in your cabaña. To be clear on this point, neither of us were disappointed by activities or lack thereof. This is not the place if you are looking to rent jet-skis, ATV’s or other motorized equipment, nor will you find water slides, boogie boards, noisy music at the pool, kids running and diving from everywhere, etc. There is no boardwalk, outlet mall, or food court in sight. This place is far too cerebral and laid back for that. What you will find, is peace and quiet, an opportunity to unplug and reconnect with yourself, or whoever you brought with you, read a book, or partake in the many cultural, historic, and spiritual activities that can be found in the area. Buddha Travel, which is offering a full schedule of retreats at Sotuta de Peon in 2018, was our guide.