Sunset cocktails at TECOH, the most ambitious project to date by famed Cuban artist Jorge Pardo. This is just one of many exclusive experiences that Catherwood Travels offers its clients.
Transformational Travel in the Yucatán
With Catherwood Travels and Private Haciendas
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel several times with Catherwood Travels, the Yucatán’s only luxury on-site, and every time I’m more deeply moved. They have an extraordinary way of opening one’s eyes, mind and spirit to more than three millennia of Maya culture — combining their insider knowledge with modern, refined comforts.
One of their secrets is exclusive access to a collection of Private Haciendas built during the age of the Yucatán’s fabulous fortunes, when native Agave sisalana, or sisal, was turned into most of the world’s rope. After falling into ruin over the centuries, the abandoned haciendas were rescued by Roberto Hernández Ramirez and his wife, Claudia Madrazo de Hernández.
They fell in love with the once-splendid palaces scattered throughout the Yucatán’s interior while traveling there in the ’90s and began to acquire and restore these historical residences, preserving centuries-old charm while affording exclusive-use guests every modern comfort.
This year Kathy Johns from the Rebecca Recommends team had the pleasure of co-hosting our FAM trip to the Yucatán.The group were just as smitten with the romance of the haciendas and all the “wow” moments arranged by Catherwood: swimming in a private cenote; dining in the beautiful ruins of a chapel while a live string quartet played; and exclusive insider access to Chichén Itzá.
“The buzz word these days is ‘transformational travel.’ It’s difficult to achieve, but this trip worked,” wrote Betsy Donley of Camelback Odyssey Travel “Understanding that the Maya still live today and that the history of their civilization survives in their villages and homes is a transformational experience when done right. Really authentic! Thanks for allowing me to be part of it; you are all so great!”
“The trip went beyond my expectations and did what travel at its very best is meant to do – change you and allow you to see life in a slightly altered way that makes all the difference in the world,” wrote Tina Montana of Valerie Wilson Travel. “For that, I am truly grateful to have been a part of this trip and this wonderful group of ‘hermanas’. I will always cherish the memories made on this trip.”
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Hacienda Itzincab Cámara is the largest property with 14 bedrooms, but it can be opened with a minimum of five rooms.
When you are in the Yucatán, you feel as if you are a million miles away instead of an hour-and-a-half flight from Houston. Catherwood Travels will take you back in time to discover the history, culture, art, food and people of this rich, diverse region.
Our group gathered in Mérida in anticipation of joining our hosts from Catherwood Travels. After a 45-minute drive, we pulled in to Hacienda Itzincab Cámara. The arrival itself is magical, with an arched arbor of trees welcoming us to our home for the next three nights.
Hacienda Itzincab Cámara is three separate time periods all in one space: an ancient Mayan pyramid at the heart of the property; the preserved ruins of the 19th century machine house and chapel; and the beautifully restored 14-bedroom hacienda and three pools with all of the modern luxuries you could ever ask for. It is the largest property, but can be opened with a minimum of five rooms.
At each Private Hacienda you are greeted by friendly staff bearing delicious food and drink. Photos: Laura Madrid.
We dined by candlelight in the jail, which has been transformed into a tranquil spa. Musicians serenaded us as we chatted excitedly about the coming days and enjoyed our first taste of Yucatecan food. Our morning started with a private yoga session on the patio of the main house, and then off to Hacienda Tekik de Regil with renowned historian Humberto “Berto” Gomez.
Over breakfast we learned of the hacienda life from its 16th century beginning with agriculture and livestock to its boom in the late 19th century with the cultivation and processing of heniquen for sisal, and its fall in the early 20th century due to the introduction of nylon ropes and cheaper exporters.
Berto led us around Tekik, an extraordinary property that is perfect for weddings and events with a Roman chapel and multiple event spaces, including reflection pools and an open-air dance floor in the machine house.
Hacienda Tamchen features one suite and three independent villas with private plunge pools.
On a schedule to visit many Haciendas, our next stop was the enchanting Hacienda Tamchen. All of the Private Haciendas have significant water features, but we were mesmerized by the array of swimming pools, lily ponds and plunge pools at this evocative property.
Every turn gave us unique views with water features, clean architectural lines mixed with ruins, colorful hammocks, and a sense of place. In the main house the chef’s kitchen is designed for cooking classes, which can be arranged. We hadn’t eaten for at least an hour, so of course we headed to lunch at Hacienda Cuzumal.
With a group of Type-A personalities asking about the plan, the schedule, and “what’s next?,” we were pleasantly surprised that our “plan” included lounging by the pool, mango margaritas, and lunch at leisure in a setting filled with a sense of place, history and decadence. We acclimated quickly and decided we would never leave our retreat where the staff treated us like royalty with the biggest smiles, and the epic views of the pool and property never disappoint.
Along with one master suite and three independent villas, Hacienda Cuzumal has an outstanding swimming pool, an open-air private cenote, and its own small ancient Maya pyramid.
Our hosts coaxed us away to Hacienda Temozon, with yet another delicious meal. This Hacienda dates from 1665 and is just as beautiful as the others, but different in that it is a hotel operated by The Luxury Collection. With 28 rooms and suites, multiple event spaces, and a staff that is warm as the Yucatecan sun, it is a great option for couples, groups and meetings.
Day 3 brought us further back in time to 850 AD at Uxmal (pronounced Ush-mal) and the Mayan world. Our host was brilliant archaeologist Julia Miller, whose enthusiasm for piecing together the past through Mayan ruins was infectious for the entire group. Layers of stone leave layers of evidence of a past culture built on worship, hard work, and science.
What came next was the most unexpected. Before lunch at Xocnaceh, one of Catherwood Travels private archaeological sites, we were led to the base of the on-site Mayan pyramid. We were all privileged to participate in a Mayan ceremony led by our intuitive, Israel, who swept negativity, pain and suffering away, and brought out light, optimism and joy in all of us.
Our group met an intuitive who led a Maya ceremony and gave readings that lifted our spirits.
We returned to Itzincab renewed and ready for pool time and a rest before dinner. It should be noted that every dining opportunity was a surprise. Because the haciendas have so many unique venues on property, the chef and staff can create magical experiences. On this evening we were asked to join Angelica, our host, in the Chapel. Open-air ruins, candlelight, extraordinary cuisine, and lovely company kept us up late into the night.
Early the next morning, we ventured across the street from Hacienda Itzincab to visit an artisans’ workshop, one of 13 supported by Fundacion Haciendas del Mundo Maya, a non-profit organization created by Roberto and Claudia Hernández. It was created with the commitment to preserve and promote the value and respect for Maya culture, while generating economic and developmental opportunities for the locals.
The workshops employ more than 500 women, sustaining such handicrafts as hand and machine embroidery, horn and stone carving, hammock weaving, silver filigree work, working with seeds and other skills. It was such a warm and lovely experience to learn from these women, and a meaningful way to end our stay in Itinzcab.
Catherwood Travels arranged a meeting with local Maya, who taught us traditional crafts.
Our journey then led us to Mérida, a modern city that has preserved its rich architectural heritage like no other. After touring this vibrant, culture-rich city, we were treated to lunch at Rosas & Xocolate, a beautiful (and pink!) boutique hotel set on Paseo de Montejo. Owner Carol Kolozs shared his vision for the unique and special property while we dined on delicious cuisine at their award-winning restaurant.
Then we headed to Izamal, the famous Yellow City. This is authentic Mexico, not at all touristy, and nearly all of the buildings here are painted the most mesmerizing shade of egg-yolk yellow. Izamal is known for its hills, which are actually the remains of Mesoamerican temple pyramids, and it continues to be an important ceremonial center and pilgrimage destination. Here we had the chance to visit two beautiful haciendas.
Casa de Madera is an eclectically decorated townhouse in a quiet residential neighborhood near the center of town, totally immersing guests in local life. Colorful stenciled walls and unusual wood-frame architecture complement five bedrooms and a fully equipped kitchen; outdoors is a jungle-like garden with pool and lily pond, the perfect place for afternoon cocktails. The back garden and pools at Casa de Madera are a lovely refuge from the sun.
The back garden and pools at Casa de Madera are a lovely refuge from the sun.
Casa de los Artistas is in the middle of the action, just one block from the cathedral. Given its rather modest entrance, guests are astounded by splendid colonial architecture and uniquely designed rooms. There are delightful spaces for relaxing, six air-conditioned bedrooms with private baths, a fully equipped kitchen, an ultra-contemporary swimming pool in the rear courtyard, a rooftop lounge for stargazing and so much more.
Of course, Catherwood Travels saved the very best for last. Despite our sleepy wake-up call at 4 am, we knew our visit to Chichén Itzá at sunrise was well worth the missed snooze. It’s impossible to explain how spectacular and other-worldly Chichén Itzá feels when the sun rises over the pyramids while our guide Hugo literally walks us through ancient history, and no one – really – no one else is there. Chichén Itzá typically hosts over 5,000 visitors a day, and we were the lucky ones.
Visiting Chichén Itzá at sunrise without the crowds is magical, bringing the ancient Maya site to life.
Photo: Kathy Johns
After our overwhelming early morning, we headed to the ruins of Xocempich, a historic ranch, for a refreshing dip in a private cenote. What a treat, and available only to Catherwood travelers! We swam and relaxed for hours in total privacy, enjoying a meal of conchinita pibil – a traditional Yucatecan pork dish slow-roasted in a fire pit and served beneath magnificent old trees.
The end of our trip was near, but we had one last special experience ahead at TECOH, one of Cuban artist Jorge Pardo’s most significant works. It was born as a live work of art in 2011, after five intense and exhausting years of work and dialogue between artist Jorge Pardo and the Hernandez family, who own the hacienda he transformed (as well as Catherwood Travels and Private Haciendas.) The ruins of a 17th century hacienda in the Yucatán, México, which presented the ideal architectural and landscape conditions to create a site-specific work of art. Today TECOH hosts workshops, experimental co-creative processes, aesthetic retreats and transforming dialogues.
After an intriguing tour and a magnificent sunset, we dined with our new-found friends, discussing our great fortune to experience this unique perspective of Mexico. We can’t wait to share this part of the world with others, and are incredibly grateful for our time with Catherwood Travels, Private Haciendas and the warm people of the Yucatán.
Swimming in the refreshing waters of a private cenote is one of the special experiences Catherwood provides.
And yet, for all we did, there was so much more we could have done with more time: lingering in the sun and surf on remote beaches; kite surfing at Isla Holbox (and staying at the beachfront Casa El Cuyo); horseback riding through the jungle; swimming with gentle whale sharks; observing the great flocks of pink flamingos. We weren’t able to explore all the wonders of Mérida, a lively festival city that is rich in the arts and history; it celebrated its 475th anniversary last year.
This Maya wonderland feels a world away yet is amazingly accessible, with plenty of direct flights to Cancún, and even direct flights to the capital city of Mérida from Houston, Atlanta and Miami. Every trip by Catherwood is tailor-made, but here are three-day, five-day and seven-day itineraries so you can see the possibilities.
Our group enjoys a post-cenote glow. We relaxed for hours and dined on pork slow-roasted in a fire pit right at the site.