I recently spent a long weekend at the beautiful Hacienda Petac, located near Merida in Mexico’s Yucatán province. This is one of my favourite states in Mexico, a place so jam-packed with sights and beaches and wildlife encounters that you could spend months, if not years, exploring it all.
Unfortunately, however, I only had a day. But I did manage to cram in three fantastic sights on an excellent tour; the Mayan site of Uxmal, the remains of Hacienda Yaxcopoil and X’batún Cenote. Our entertaining and knowledgeable guide was Ralph, a Canadian living in Merida, who runs Lawson’s Original Yucatan Excursions. This is a small outfit that arranges custom-made Yucatán tours including some great options for families.
This was my second visit to Merida, the capital and the largest city in the Mexican state of Yucatán. Once upon a time, this was the richest city in the world. The source of all this wealth was henequen (also known as sisal), fibre extracted from the agave plant used to make a wide range of products including ropes and hammocks. The Yucatán region is uniquely suited to growing agave plants and during the ‘Green Gold’ heyday, countless haciendas sprung up on the outskirts of town to cultivate the crop. Within the city centre wealthy elite built impressive colonial mansions. Although Merida’s golden age has long since gone, there remains an abundance of buildings from this period along the grand Paseo de Montejo Boulevard, a wide, tree-lined street fashioned after the Champs-Élysée in Paris.
Two of the most impressive buildings are the Twin Houses, identical French houses that sit side by side with ornate wrought iron gates and balconies. Their neighbour is the pink Palacio Canton, once the grandest mansion in town and today the Museo Regional de Antropologia (Regional Anthropology Museum).
Merida is a pretty town and an easy place to wander around for a day. Come dusk, however, the crowds disperse and the streets are very (very!) quiet. I feel this is somewhere best explored with a local or friend. City highlights include the Catedral de San Ildefonso, one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas that is located on Plaza Grande. Like many churches in Mexico, this one was built on the site of a former Mayan temple using stone from the temple. Despite its hulking size, however, the interiors are relatively plain – much of the ornate decor was stolen during the Mexican Revolution.
On the south side of Plaza Grande is Casa de Montejo. The building dates from 1549 and was originally housed soldiers. It was later converted into a mansion for the Montejo family and remained as such until 1970. Today it is a bank and a museum but it’s the exterior of the building that is most interesting. Engraved onto the facade are jubilant conquistadors standing on the heads of barbarians, generally believed to represent the Maya.
A walking tour of the Plaza Grande and the city centre takes place every morning at 9am. It’s a good way to brush up on your local history as well as get your bearings around town. The tour lasts between 1.5-2 hours and is free (although a tip is welcome). The tour departs from the Merida Tourism Office on the ground floor of the Palacio Municipal, Calle 62 at Plaza Grande.
Merida for Kids!
There’s not a huge amount to see and do for children in Merida however it is an easy and safe place to visit. Take a horse and carriage ride along the Paseo de Montejo and enjoy the Thursday evening “Serenata Yucateca”. This is one of many traditional Yucatecan song and dance shows that take place in Merida. This one performs inSanta Lucía Plaza at 9pm. The popular restaurant Chaya Maya is a good option for families; the food is tasty and kids can watch women in traditional dress making tortillas. Nearby is Ki’Xocolatl, home to “the best chocolate in the world”. They sell lots of chocolatey goodness including delicious cold chocolate drinks. On Sundays the paseo is closed to traffic and open for cyclists. Join the locals on the Bici-Ruta (Bicycle Route); you’ll see stands renting bikes along the paseo.
Visiting Hacienda Yaxcopoil
Hacienda Yaxcopoil (pronounced yash-coh-poh-eel) was once one of the most important rural estates in the Yucatán. In its heyday, this hacienda covered 22,000 acres, operating first as a cattle ranch and later as a henequen plantation. Most haciendas in the region were abandoned in 1936, however production at Yaxopoil continued until 1988 and only stopped because Hurricane Gilbert wiped out the entire henequen crop.
This was one of my favourite stops on our Yucatán tour and I loved the sheer size and grandeur of the hacienda. Although the hacienda hasn’t been restored it has been well preserved and you can just imagine what it must have looked like in its heyday. That said, working conditions at the hacienda were tough. Yaxcopoil employed some 800 – 1,000 workers who started work daily at 5am and who were expected to pick 2,000 leaves a day.
Tours of the casa principal, the main house, and the well-preserved machine house (casa de maquina) are available although we sadly didn’t have time. The machine house is where the henequen shredding machines removed fibres from the henequen plant. There is also a guest house on the property for overnight stays. Today Yaxopoil is used as a backdrop for films and photos shoots as well as a location for events.
Yaxcopoil means ‘place of the big green trees’ in the Yucatec Maya language and you can see one of these trees still standing in front of the hacienda today.
Hacienda Yaxcopoil for Kids!
Although I didn’t have time for the tour, I think this would be a great option if you’re travelling with kids and a good way for them to understand what life was once like at the hacienda. Likewise, it’s worth stopping by the local tortilleria, which produces thousands of tortillas daily on a special tortilla-making machine.
The Maya site of Uxmal (pronounced oosh-mal) is one of the most important archaeological sites in Mexico and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was bowled over by the sheer size of the ancient city as well as the detail and ornamentation. Uxmal means “thrice built” and it is understood that the city was built over three different periods. The buildings date from between 700 and 1,000 A.D. and showcase different architectural styles. Unlike other Mayan sites, Uxmal is not laid out geometrically and is instead organised in relation to astronomical phenomena.
Interestingly, this was one of the few sites that the Mayans built where there was no obvious water source. It’s thought that they chose this spot for the agricultural soil and then built cisterns and reservoirs for catching and storing water. In it’s heyday, some 25,000 people lived here.
At the heart of the site is the Temple of the Magician, which, according to legend, was built by a dwarf king. If you clap your hands loudly in front of the temple it produces a chirped echo similar to the cry of the quetzal bird. Given its name, it’s tempting to believe that this phenomenon is indeed magic. Our guide explained, however, that the sound is produced because of metal elements in the limestone rock.
Other important buildings include the Quadrangle of the Nuns, the Governor’s Palace, the House of the Tortoises and the Ball Court. And there are still areas of the site that have not been fully discovered.
Getting there: Uxmal is located 62km south of Mérida on highway 261.
Uxmal for Kids!
I’ve taken my children to numerous Mayan sites now, including those at Tulum and Coba, and they usually really enjoy them – especially when we treat the visit as an Indian Jones-style adventure (rather than just another visit to a pile of old rocks!). At Uxmal, the Temple of the Magician is brilliant for kids and most will spend their entire visit clapping! Tales of sacrifices and offerings might be too gory for young children, but older kids find them fascinating. The Ball Court is a hit with children, particularly when they realise the skill involved and that the penalty for losing was often death! One word of warning, as with other Mayan sites, the stairs are steep. Take care walking up and down, particularly with children. Drinks and snack stands are available at the entrance, as well as clean toilets.
Swimming in X’batún Cenote
Cenotes, meaning ‘natural well’ in Mayan, are sinkholes formed by the collapse of porous limestone rock. These natural pools can be found in a handful of places around the world but the Yucatan claims most of them – and many are still undiscovered. The ancient Maya believed that the rain god Chaak, lived in these caves and natural wells.
The water in these pools is usually beautifully clear, having been filtered by the earth. Today they are a wonderful place to swim.
There are four different types of cenotes: Open, Semi-Open, Cave and Ancient. We visited the X’batún Cenote, a small open cenote with a cave system popular with scuba divers (although not me!). Unfortunately, because we visited at the weekend, the cenote was fairly crowded. This meant that the water was not the translucent turquoise that we expected but rather a murky blue. Nevertheless, we jumped in and were delighted to find that a bridal party was in the process of having their photos taken. In the cenote!
X’batún Cenote for Kids!
This is not the best cenote for kids, the slippery rocks make getting in and out of the water a little difficult (bring water shoes!). However, there are lots more of these pools in the region. The best ones for kids are:
- Cenote Dos Ojos (Two Eyes)
Location: Highway 307, south of Playa del Carmen and north of Tulum.
- Gran Cenote (Big Cenote)
Location: Outside major cross-section in Tulum. We visited this one when our kids were aged 3 and 5 and it was great.
- Ik Kil
Location: Roughly 3 miles from Chichen Itza.
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