The Yucatan is Mayan territory – temples such as Chichen Itza and Tulum are now well known but the culture and history of the region and its people runs far deeper.
I have wanted to come to the area ever since my imagination was captured by a feature article on the restoration of the ruins of three Spanish haciendas hidden deep in the bush. Today those haciendas, along with two more, are luxury hotel properties, and several others have been restored by the same owners, passionate about the region, into private holiday villas.
The largest city of the area, Merida, is yet a small gem, bustling and authentic but in the beginnings of a boom as a new conference centre is built. Paseo de Montejo is lined with impossibly grand mansions, the legacy of the enormous wealth of the region generated by sisal production from the agave plant. At its peak in the 16th century, the Yucatan was one of the richest regions in the world until the invention of nylon lead to its fall.
The small city houses the oldest cathedral in the Americas, still in use with bells chiming out the call to mass. In the streets, low rise shops and houses are washed in candy colours and horses with red flowers in their bridles draw carriages of locals here and there. New boutique hotels and bars are popping up and in a fine irony, intrepid escapees from the US are making their homes here.
Meanwhile in the countryside, over 1500 haciendas, most attached to long-abandoned sisal producing factories, are dotted throughout the bush. The majority are still crumbling ruins, their brick towers and rusted iron machinery testament to an era of industry long past, ignored by children cycling past or playing football in the dusty fields nearby.
However one enterprising family has been gradually buying up and restoring the haciendas. Some are sprawling luxury retreats, others are family compounds, and there are smaller properties for couples and honeymooners. All of the haciendas have hammock areas – the hammocks are crucial to the success of a siesta and are taken very seriously. I find the Yucatecan priorities most refreshing.
A stay here can involve nothing more arduous than rolling from the hammock to the pool whilst the most delicious guacamole and an ice cold margarita signal lunch and then dinner. However, those who can rouse themselves to explore will be rewarded with swimming or snorkelling in crystal clear limestone cenotes, visiting the ancient Mayan pyramids of Chichen Iza and Uxmal, birdwatching for the many indigenous rainbow species of the bush, and visits to small towns like the gorgeous Ixamal (painted almost entirely in a shade of egg yolk yellow and full of folk art and craft).
As an add on to the craziness of Mexico City, the baroque beauty of San Cristobal, the ancient silvermithing capital of San Miguel de Allende, or the hedonistic Riviera Maya, the Yucatan is a perfect complement, where the age old traditions of the Maya are being slowly rediscovered in an environment of peace and plenty.