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
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The Independent Culture
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:

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.