Seven Days on the Yucatan Peninsula

by  Jim Sherman | Dec 8, 2008
Tulum / soulsphoto/iStock

The Yucatan Peninsula . . . for some it means exquisite beaches; for others, ancient sites and cultural exploration. My plan was to spend a week there with two good friends, first relaxing at a secluded hacienda, then visiting the Mayan ruins, and finally, taking in the famed Riviera Maya, Mexico’s Caribbean coast.

I have to admit that when I got on the plane (which connected in Houston and then flew into Mérida, the Yucatán’s capital city), I had not done my customary, exhaustive research. All I knew was that I would be going somewhere in southeastern Mexico and that it would be easy enough to figure things out as we traveled. Upon arrival, I rented a Jeep and drove about an hour inland to Hacienda Santa Rosa (from $345/night). The highway narrows to two lanes, then a single lane, and finally becomes a dirt road crossing a vast forest. Passing through tiny villages, I wondered where this “hacienda” could possibly be, and then in the distance we saw a large gate and columns marking the grand entrance.

Hacienda Santa Rosa is a beautiful 18th-century Spanish-style villa with just 11 guest suites that Starwood renovated in 2001. Inside, the staff was waiting to greet us with drinks in hand. It felt as though we owned the place. Starwood also runs Hacienda Temozon (from $345/night), another great option in the region.

At Santa Rosa, my suite had hand-carved wood furniture and its own plunge pool. We ate breakfast and dinner either on the terrace or in the garden. The food there is excellent, and specialties include pollo pibil (chicken in savory achiote sauce, made with the red annatto spice). Coming from New York City, it took a few days to adjust to a slower pace and enjoy the gardens, villa, pool, and hammock siesta. We enjoyed wandering through the nearby villages and the many workshops of local artisans, which produce handcrafted pottery and masks. Take an afternoon or evening to explore Mérida, a lovely Spanish colonial city with dancing at night in the central plaza. But leave an hour or more for the drive back to the hacienda.

For visitors, the main cultural activity in the Yucatán forest, however, is exploring the Mayan ruins. While Chichen Itza is the best known, I feel that Edzna is the best option. It’s not overrun with tourists, and you can actually climb up the narrow steps of the temple and fully comprehend the enormity of this ancient civilization. A guided tour is worth the expense, although you can also see Edzna on your own.

During the second half of our trip down the Yucatán, we took in Playa del Carmen and Cancún. For a family with kids, Cancún may be a great option—it is in many ways a kind of Vegas on the beach (large hotels and restaurants, lots of nightlife, people of all ages).

The Ritz (from $599/ night) is a smart splurge, and try Puerto Madero (entrées from $26) for excellent steaks and fresh seafood.

For something more elegant and international, head straight to Playa del Carmen. (Fly directly into Cancún airport, then drive south about an hour.) A smart splurge is the Maroma Resort & Spa (from $545/ night), a lovely, medium-size upscale property just 10 minutes north of Playa that we have chosen for one of our Smart Luxury Awards. Maroma doesn’t allow children, so a good option for families is the Gran Porto Real (from $377/night) on a beach minutes from town. You can enjoy a wide array of water sports in Playa del Carmen, as well as fun day trips to Cozumel, which is renowned for scuba diving.

Playa, as the locals call it, is picturesque, its main pedestrian street, Quinto Avenida, lined with cafés, restaurants, and bars. The town comes alive at night, and the mix of Europeans, Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans makes for a vibrant atmosphere.

The Yucatán Peninsula offers an unrivaled mix of culture, relaxation, and adventure. It is in many ways the perfect winter escape.

From the Winter 2008/09 Issue of Sherman's Travel magazine.

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