Travel: Mexico: The ghost of Rumpelstiltskin

A former working sisal estate in the Yucatn provides hours of peace - interrupted only by the calls of exotic birds. By Alison Criado- Perez

Dawn arrives slowly but noisily in the Yucatn. The blackness faded into grey through the window of my bungalow as a crescendo of squeaks, buzzes and croaks, and the raucous wolf-whistle of some unknown bird, took place outside. I couldn't linger in bed; I had to go and explore. A path led me past tall and elegant palms and through bushy ferns and shrubs. Hands of bananas nestled among dark-green fronds and, high above me, deep yellow papayas hung in clusters. On either side of the path were thousands of hardwood saplings - 75,000 to be precise. This exotic world in which I was wandering had not sprung up unaided. It was the fruit of a Mexican botanist and a Spanish architect.

Monica Hernandez and Anibal Gonzales bought the crumbling and overgrown Hacienda Katanchel on Mexico's Yucatn peninsula a couple of years ago. It was intended as a country estate but the chance discovery of 33 workmen's cottages buried in the undergrowth sparked the idea of turning it into a hotel. These days, the hotel sits at the end of a 4km track with an air of stillness, peace and slightly decayed grandeur hanging over it all. Here was no glitzy, modern luxury, but a more evocative kind of elegance: white linen napkins, silver spoons and ivory-handled fish knives, whirring overhead fans and high ceilings; the luxury of time and space.

Monica's passion for the hacienda came across vividly when I met her on my early-morning stroll. She was already out supervising the small army of gardeners that is kept busy caring for the sapotillas, oaks, silk- cotton trees, cedars and walnut trees. We headed in the direction of the swimming-pool for breakfast, with splashes of colour catching the eye. "Those crimson spires are ginger blossom. And do you see those?" Monica pointed to succulent scarlet and yellow flowers. "We call them beber pajaros - birds' drink - because, in the dry season, the dewdrops collected in them are sometimes the only source of moisture."

A bird with a bright turquoise breast skimmed over the water. "Do you know this tree that we're sitting under?" asked Monica. "It's the chicle tree - the resin was the original chewing-gum." Botany had suddenly become interesting.

The botany lesson continued in the restaurant. The hacienda was once a producer of henequen (sisal) and the restaurant has been converted from the old Casa de Maquinas. Gigantic wheels and crank shafts have been left in position as a reminder that this cavernous building once throbbed to the noise of heavy machinery that crushed and stripped the thick leaves of the henequen agave. The creamy-white fibres would have been hung out to dry in the sunshine before being twisted into the rope that generated such wealth for the hacienda in the 19th century. No wonder that henequen was known as green gold.

But green gold went the way of chicle. It proved no financial match for the synthetic fibres that started to be produced and the Yucatan sisal haciendas slowly sank into decline. A few struggled on; and a half-hour drive brought me to one that still survives - just - as a working hacienda. Behind a facade of ancient pink pillars and disintegrating arches, antique machines still process the agave leaves. The only obvious sign of modernisation is that the machines are no longer powered by the old Made-in-England steam engines. Electricity has taken over.

The noise - and the midday heat - were overpowering as the men come back to work after their lunch break. They had been there since 4am and they still had another three hours to go. I squeezed my way past the thundering machines, trying not to think of what would happen if I lost my footing, and left the workmen churning out fine, strong fibres. Next time I wrap up a parcel I shall think of them.

For me it was siesta time and I headed back to one of the hand-woven hammocks that are slung between pillars on every available patio and veranda at Hacienda Katanchel. In the sultry, silent heat, with the air moved lazily by the overhead fans, I watched a fat gecko crawl languidly up a wall. The only other movement was a bat, unseasonably awake, flying back to join his friends in the rafters. "We encourage the bats," said Anibal. "They keep down the mosquitoes."

The hacienda's eco-friendly policy was in evidence again that evening. As I supped chilled sour-orange soup among the ghosts of the factory workers, and struggled with a decision between sea-bass fillet in ripe mango sauce or chicken breast "bee-belt", a cacophony of frogs started up. I was told that they were left alone to wander around the hacienda because they eat the mosquito larvae.

Monica and Anibal work hard to ensure that everything fits into an ecological cycle. The thousands of trees that they have planted are just the beginning of an ambitious reforestation programme, using the same organic agricultural techniques as the ancient Mayans. The water for the swimming-pool is completely pure, pumped up from old wells in the grounds and filtered back into the land.

The adoption of Mayan techniques seems entirely appropriate on the hacienda. Mexico is full of examples of the layers of history, with one civilisation building on the ruins of a former one. It was not totally surprising, therefore, when the ruins of a Mayan observatory were discovered in the overgrowth at Hacienda Katanchel.

The Mayans could have done a lot of work in their observatory the night I was there; the Milky Way was glittery bright as I strolled back to the Casa del Encargado, my private, terracotta-painted cottage in the jungle. Enjoying the perfume of the limonaria tree, I lay in the hammock and listened to the night music of the rainforest, whose daily cycle was now complete.

Fact File

Getting to Yucatn

Journey Latin America (0181-747 3108) has a fare of pounds 347.30 return on the British Airways Heathrow-Mexico City non-stop. Alison Criado-Perez paid pounds 300 (excluding flights) for a two-night package at the Hacienda Katanchel through Carlson Wagonlit (00 52 5 560 0123). To contact the hacienda direct call 00 52 99 234020 or e-mail: hacienda@mail.mda.com.mx

Getting to Guadalajara

Richard Naisby paid pounds 149 for a Britannia charter from Gatwick to Puerto Vallarta. The five-hour bus journey from there to Guadalajara costs pounds 5 each way. Through South American Experience (0171-976 5511), Continental has flights from Gatwick, Manchester, Glasgow and Birmingham, via New York or Houston, to Guadalajara and other Mexican cities, for pounds 430.

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit