Ensconced in a gorgeously gardened pocket of jungle, Hacienda San Jose is one of the Yucatan Peninsula’s best-kept secrets. Rescued from ruin and rebuilt with relaxation in mind, its 15 cream-and-terracotta coloured rooms are ideal rest-stops for expeditions to the capital city of Mérida, the ‘yellow city’ of Izamal, and ancient city and new wonder of the world, Chichen Itza.
Noon, but flexible depending on occupancy and subject to a $40 charge.
Double rooms from £189.92 ($262), including tax at 19 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional service charge of 5% per room per night on check-out.
Rates exclude breakfast.
At the hotel
Mayan spa treatments, library, free WiFi in the main building. In rooms: open fireplace, minibar. DVD players are available for a fee.
Our favourite rooms
For that inimitable ‘villainous-landowner-in-a-Mexican-telenovela’ feel, go for the Casa del Patron next to the chapel and relish the private garden, terrace and pool. For something a bit more romantic and intimate, the Mayan Villas are the top option. These round thatched casitas are set apart from the main hacienda building in their own private patch of jungle, have private plunge-pools for midnight skinny dipping, and are fitted with hanging beds that rock you gently to sleep.
Cosy cushioned loungers line one side of the Hacienda’s huge pool. On the other side, colourful fronds of foliage stretch out over the water. A thatched palapa frames one end, offering a shaded space for hammock-snoozing.
The spa’s Mayan masseuses are all from the local towns and have been expertly trained by the Haciendas Foundation to deliver firm-handed stress-evicting massages.
Boots made for walking, books made for reading (and to cover your face with as you’re dozing in a hammock).
Up to two under-12s can stay free in their parents’ room; babysitting can be provided with 24 hours’ notice. The extra guest charge for children over 12 or adults is $50.
Hacienda San Jose uses waste water to irrigate its gardens, grows its own fruit and vegetables and its owners are behind the World Haciendas Foundation, which supports <i>henequen</i> rope-making communities in the Mexican southeast.
The hacienda’s staff will be happy to prepare a private table in the gardens, where you can enjoy candlelit dining à deux, with music on request.
Jungle casuals will do for the day, but something smarter for the evening.
Located in what was once the old factory and is now a stunning colonnaded terrace, San Jose’s restaurant serves a flavoursome combination of Mexican and European dishes, using organic ingredients grown either here or at the other haciendas.
There is a lounge bar that’s open on special occasions, but for most of the time, you can sip cocktails or sup wine anywhere you wish.
The kitchen closes at 9.30pm.
Between 7am and 10.30pm you can have meals, snacks and drinks delivered directly to you.
Manuel Crescencio Rejón in Mérida is the nearest airport, a 45-minute drive from the hotel. It runs limited flights to the US with United Airlines (www.united.com), as well as domestic flights with Mexicana (www.mexicana.com) to Mexico City, where onward connections are available to cities throughout the US and Europe. The hotel is two and a half hours from Cancun International Airport, which is well served by direct flights from the US and some charter services from the UK.
A car is essential for exploring the Yucután Peninsula – there are car hire desks at Mérida and Cancun airports. The hacienda San Jose lies off the Mérida–Tekanto road, which is easily accessible from Mérida Airport and from Highway 180 linking Mérida and Cancun. Free parking is available at the hotel.
Worth getting out of bed for
You travelled all the way to the Yucatan Peninsula. Now, it’s time to relax. Take advantage of the pampering Hacienda San Jose Spa, known for its signature Mayan treatments and use of all-natural products. Indulge in a Ying & Yang treatment to balance your energy or get the signature treatment if you spent a few too many hours lounging beside the pool. The combination of aloe vera, avocado, and chaya will leave your skin feeling moisturized and smooth. After taking a dip in the plunge pool, dry off and go for a bike ride exploring the lush grounds. Feeling more adventurous? Plan a day trip to nearby cities Merida or the ‘yellow city’ of Izamal (named for the vast amount of yellow painted buildings) each about 45-minutes away by car. Take a horse-drawn carriage through the streets of Izamal and visit the homes of local artisans. Wander through the state capital Merida, and spend a few hours museum hopping at the Anthropology and History Museum and the Fernando Garcia Ponce-Macay Museum for contemporary art. Hacienda San Jose can schedule private tours of archeological sites for a chance to dive in Mayan sacred cenotes, or can put you in touch with Catherwood Travels, specialising in one-day adventures. Sign up for an excursion Private Archaeology at Threshold Paradise and venture off on a two-hour ride to Chichén Itzá. Explore the pyramids in the morning and spend the afternoon snorkelling in a private cenote on the ruins of a historic ranch. Catherwood Travels offers a multitude of private tours you can customise and even upgrade for a VIP experience. After a busy day exploring or a relaxing one at the spa, return to the hotel for a romantic dinner date. The hacienda staff will set up a private retreat in the garden for two, where you’ll dine on the blend of regional and international cuisine amidst candlelight in the picturesque landscape of San Jose.
Sitting on the edge of a large outdoor tub wrapped in nothing but towels, listening to the loud clatter of birds and owls in the forest all around us, my fiancé whispered, somewhat incredulously: ‘Where on earth are we?’ I shared his wonderment. We had arrived at Hacienda San Jose after a three-hour drive from Cancun – speeding away from the blazing blue beaches into the dusty Mexican interior: who does that in August? – to decamp inside a pocket of lush solitude that felt impossible remote. We could have been in an African jungle somewhere, or Cambodia. We both sighed and dipped down into the warm water, letting our arms and legs float, looking up into a canopy of green leaves.
Hacienda San Jose is a simple place: 11 rooms and four cottages on a small tract of land that was once a much larger colonial plantation, pared down and then carefully restored and updated to accommodate modern guests. Nothing form the brochure – or along the narrow gravel road leading to its plain entrance – signalled we were about to experience anything exotic. It is, after all, a Starwood Property, part of a familiar chain. Even its designation as part of the group’s Luxury Collection had us hoping for little more than soft beds, high threadcount sheets and a steady supply of top-shelf tequila.
But as we drove onto the grounds in the middle of a summer rainstorm and parked in front of a hut marked ‘recepcion’, we were quickly tipped off to what makes Hacienda San Jose sparkle. A staff member glided up to the passenger side of the car with an open umbrella, to ensure we did not suffer a single drop of rain. Then, before we had hardly uttered our names, she demanded we surrender our car keys and led us on foot down a winding gravel pathway to our room, promising all our luggage would be retrieved from the car and follow, which it magically did.
As the downpour continued, we spent an hour exploring our junior suite, No 3, which was really a cavernous two-room cottage. Painted bright blue on the outside, its heavy, wooden doors opened up into a white-and-blue-tiled bedroom with an exposed-beam, 25-foot ceiling, attached to a bathroom of equally huge proportions. Just off the bathroom, in a small semi-private cove of trees, sat our tub – which was large enough for both of us to sit fully submerged up to our necks, once we decided we were secluded enough to drop the towels.
By the time we reached the dinner hour and stumbled, in a warm bath-induced daze, down to the restaurant to eat, we were beginning to wonder: were we, in fact, the only people crazy enough to abandon the crystal blue Caribbean waters at the height of summer for this landlocked preserve?
Yet it turned out our isolation was just a mirage. All 15 rooms were, in fact, full during our stay. It was just that the only glimpse of the other guests – including a lively French family of eight – happened at mealtime, when the seemingly omniscient hotel staff set up tables exactly according to each party’s size ahead of time.
Nature was the only balky party to the whole enterprise. As delighted as we were by the constant, loud whoops and caws of the birds swooping among the trees, we were less enchanted in the restaurant by the giant, bat-sized moths that fluttered toward our plates. One such moth, perhaps fed up with the perfect serenity of the place, dove purposefully into our dinner candle wax mid-meal and drowned. Yet even the moth suicide incident – a drama we analysed at length as we ate – did not detract from the unusual perfection of the sopa de frijol aguacate (black bean soup with fried corn meal stuffed with spinach, cream cheese and avocado) and panuchos (small round tortillas stacked with shredded chicken, tomato, pickled onions and fried cheese) that we ordered as appetizers, or our smoked grouper and stuffed chicken entrees, or the chilled bottle of Argentinian Malbec that we slowly drained.
Most people come to this part of the western Yucatan peninsula to explore the plentiful Mayan ruins, including Chichen-Itza, the famous regional capital that dates back to the 11th Century, about an hour to the east of the hotel. There are other tourist sites – small beaches to the north, along the Gulf of Mexico; the state capital of Merida, with its beautiful colonial structures still intact – all within a 90-minute drive. Further afield, about 200 miles to the east, lies the go-go nightlife of Cancun, which is also the point of entry to the peninsula for most foreign visitors arriving by air.
But the thing this Mr and Mrs Smith loved about Hacienda San Jose was that it inspired us to do none of that. Instead we sat by ourselves at the pool, taking turns in a hammock strung up across the shallow end, then strolled through the garden before deciding to take another long outdoor bath. The birds never paused in their cooing and chattering, the only sounds breaking the silence. And as we discovered one surprising nook after another – a chapel with candles lit; a tree with oversized roots – my betrothed never stopped asking me, playfully: ‘Where are we?' By the end of our stay at Hacienda San Jose, we had the answer: we were as blissfully far away from civilisation as we had ever been.