In the 1960s, the Mexican government used a computer to choose the site for a major new resort in the Yucatán, the thumb-shaped peninsula that protrudes into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. It came up with the current location of Cancún. Since then, the eastern coast of the Yucatán, including, from north to south, Cancún, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel and Tulum, has become one of the busiest tourist destinations in the Western Hemisphere. However, the Yucatán can still be a superb destination for travelers in search of tranquility and unspoiled natural beauty, as well as fascinating Mayan archaeological sites. On a recent trip, we focused on places that have yet to attract cruise ships or chain hotels, beginning with a few days on Isla Holbox and then continuing to the charming colonial cities of Valladolid and Mérida.
For now, easygoing Holbox is a barefoot paradise where casual clothing and suntan lotion are all you need for a low-key vacation.
Located off the northern tip of the Yucatán and reached by ferry from the town of Chiquila, Isla Holbox is a narrow, 26-mile-long island in the Yum Balam Flora and Fauna Protection Area (which is internationally famous for the whale sharks that migrate there each summer and fall). The word “holbox” means “black hole” in Mayan, but the color that defines Holbox today is azure, the hue of the warm, shallow waters that lap its palm-shaded beaches of fine white sand. For now, easygoing Holbox (pronounced ole-bosch) is a barefoot paradise where casual clothing and suntan lotion are all you need for a low-key vacation. It is on the cusp of becoming better known, however, as reports of its beauty are spreading rapidly by word-of-mouth. So now is the time to go to Holbox, especially if you regret not having visited once-beautiful Tulum before it became overrun.
From the airport in Cancún, it’s a two-hour road transfer to the sleepy little port of Chiquila, where you embark for the 25-minute crossing. (Light aircraft flights from Cancún are also available and take 35 minutes.) Holbox’s sandy lanes are lined by thatch-roofed whitewashed houses and plied by electric golf carts, the primary means of transportation, along with bicycles, on this almost entirely car-free island. You may have trouble getting a signal on your phone. Likewise, internet access at all of the island’s hotels is spotty. Initially, this can be frustrating, but soon you realize it’s extremely therapeutic to be offline for a few days and that the world can wait while you enjoy another tamarind margarita or get lost in a novel you finally have time to read.
The rusticity of Holbox means that its hotels often have great charm, but their service can be slow and imprecise. And you’re certainly not going to find pillow menus or 24-hour room service. Located on the easternmost side of the island, the relaxed and friendly 28-room Las Nubes de Holbox is comprised of palm-thatched white stucco casitas set at the edge of the sea. Its relative isolation makes it an excellent choice for anyone in search of tranquility and privacy and who doesn’t mind that the restaurants and shops in town are a 10-minute drive away. The accommodations are set amid well-maintained gardens. Many have sweeping views of the sea and private outdoor seating areas, along with a hammock or two. Their interiors are simple, with cream-colored cement floors decorated with bands of pebbles, a pair of rattan chairs at a wooden table and white curtains hanging at the windows and French doors. Baths come with a single stone basin in a cement counter, a large stall shower — some rooms have soaking tubs — and local organic bath products.
The hotel has a private beach, swimming pools and the Orquídea Spa, which offers massages and beauty treatments that employ locally grown herbs and plants. El Sabor de Las Nubes serves excellent Mexican food and locally caught seafood, including grilled shrimp and rock lobster, and there’s bar service on a wooden deck overlooking the sea, a perfect perch from which to gaze at the spectacular sunsets. Las Nubes also offers kitesurfing, kayaking and yoga, but perhaps its best amenity is a long sandbar that emerges at low tide, which is perfect for a walk or a jog.
Tranquil location; spacious rooms; friendly staff.
Slow and rather disorganized service in the bar and restaurant.
Second-floor rooms have the best sea views.
After two pleasant nights, we moved on to Casa Las Tortugas, a stylish 24-room beachfront hotel in town that was built by an Italian couple who fell in love with the island. Today, Greta Golinelli and her daughter, Francesca, run the property, creating an unpretentious house-party atmosphere that makes this place popular with a diverse, international clientele, including, during our stay, twin sisters from Lyon, Italian honeymooners, two young Londoners, a pair of New Yorkers celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary, a family from Mexico City and a woman and her son from Buenos Aires.
Casa Las Tortugas may be casual-chic personified, but it is not perfect. We arrived on a Sunday around noon to find that our room wasn’t ready, so we had lunch at Mandarina, the hotel’s beachfront restaurant. This has an appealing menu of Mexican food, seafood and Italian dishes. Service from the young international staff was friendly, if rather slow, but we enjoyed our meal and then went for a swim. Eventually, the Spanish woman on duty at the front desk came to tell us that our room was available.
We had reserved a Mastersuite, a spacious room in the steep eaves above the hotel’s small spa, reached by a flight of open-air stairs. These quarters came with a comfortable bed made up with linen sheets, a sitting area, a wooden table and chairs, whitewashed walls, a ceiling fan and a bath with a shower, tub, single sink and local products made with organic honey. There was a small private terrace, but it lacked a sea view.
Having asked to see other accommodations, we found the Ocean Front rooms to be the most desirable. These came with vibrant color schemes — peppermint pink, verdigris, cobalt blue, egg-yolk yellow — and were appointed with Moroccan rugs and ceramics, embroidered throws, seashell chandeliers, nautilus shells converted into lamps and driftwood-framed mirrors; most had small terraces with direct access to the beach.
The hotel has a tiny plunge pool surrounded by a deck and offers guests the complimentary use of bicycles. Aside from the Mandarina, there is a sundowner balcony with a sushi menu, plus a second restaurant, Luuma, across the street, where you sit at open-air tables to dine on delicious seafood and Mexican dishes.
Casa Las Tortugas is not a luxury hotel but a bohemian bolt-hole with landscaped grounds and a beautiful white-sand beach. Although not a destination property, it is a pleasant place to spend a few days as part of a tour of the Yucatán.
Friendly staff; beautiful beach; excellent restaurants.
Room rates are too high for the caliber of services offered; baths need updating; too few sunbeds on the beach relative to the guest count; rooms that border the main street or the lane leading down to the beach can suffer from loud music from neighboring bars.
Book your spa treatments ahead of time, as the spa is small and understaffed.
After a period of blissful relaxation on Holbox, we met our driver at the dock in Chiquila for the two-hour transfer to the enchanting colonial city of Valladolid (population 50,000), which was founded by the Spanish in 1543. As seaside towns like Tulum have become heavily developed, more of the people who first made them fashionable are moving inland to this lovely place, with its colonnades, pastel houses and stone-paved streets.
We arrived at the four-room Mesón de Malleville around noon and were welcomed with warmth and charm. After a cold drink in the plant-filled patio that is the heart of the 16th-century house, we headed to Yerbabuena del Sisal, a four-minute walk away. There, in the airy dining room, we enjoyed a casual lunch of smoked-meat tacos with guacamole, and chiles rellenos (battered and fried green peppers stuffed with cheese) beneath the spinning fans. Afterward, we paid a visit to the adjacent church and former convent of San Bernardino de Siena, which was built by Franciscan missionaries from 1552 to 1560.
Returning to the Mesón de Malleville, we were delighted by the beauty of our Master Suite. The spacious room came with an exceptionally comfortable bed backed by an antique brass panel, a stylish mix of antiques and contemporary furnishings and a black claw-foot tub below a huge picture window. French doors opened to reveal a private walled patio and an outdoor shower. A generous box of locally made Coqui Coqui toiletries included full-size bottles of shower gel and shampoo. (The hotel is the former home of Nicolas Malleville and Francesca Bonato, who founded the Coqui Coqui brand of bath and beauty products, candles and home fragrances, which are based on formulas developed by Franciscan monks. The Coqui Coqui Perfumeria is located just down the street.)
At the Mesón de Malleville, treatments are offered in a garden spa, breakfast and a light lunch are served in the hotel’s café, and dinner is also available by advance request. Beautiful, historical and tranquil, with a friendly and attentive staff, this intimate hotel is an utterly delightful experience.
Gorgeous decoration; pleasant staff; distinctive charm.
The Coqui Coqui Perfumeria is an excellent place to shop for gifts, including scented candles and toiletries made from local plants.
Since driving in the Yucatán is not recommended — some drivers ignore traffic lights, and the police have been known to pull people over for imaginary infractions — and there is no train service, we traveled to Mérida, Yucatán’s largest city, by a private car arranged by the Mesón de Malleville. A fascinating city of 775,000 inhabitants, Mérida was founded in 1542 by the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo y León and takes its name from the town of Mérida in Extremadura, Spain. It was built on the site of the ancient Mayan city of T’Hó. The city boomed during the 19th century, when the production of sisal fiber in local haciendas, used in rope and twine, created many local fortunes. Today, its charm has attracted a thriving expatriate community of retirees, plus creative people working in art, architecture and the culinary professions.
The 100-mile drive west from Valladolid took two hours, and we arrived at the charming seven-room Casa Lecanda at lunchtime. This serene and intimate property, with three patios, was created by the renovation of a colonial mansion. Next to the final patio, which contains a fountain and is planted with palms, there are three rooms with 10-foot ceilings and original beams. Elsewhere, we discovered a plunge pool and a covered patio salon (where breakfast is served) and four more rooms with private terraces. The renovation restored most of the woodwork and tile floors of the original mansion, giving the hotel its beguiling atmosphere of an elegant 19th-century private residence.
The hotel has a pleasant bar that mixes excellent cocktails, and dinner is available by advance request. But since Mérida has become a great food city, it makes sense to dine out. (Oliva Enoteca, an Italian restaurant popular with expatriates, is just across the street.)
Our air-conditioned ground-floor Garden Suite had a private terrace with a wrought-iron table and chairs. Inside, it was spacious and attractive, with three arched windows, a ceiling fan, a king-size bed, a table and two armchairs, and colorful oil paintings by the well-known Mexican artist Malena Peón. A large stone soaking tub was located in a niche below a skylight, while the adjacent bath came with a rainfall shower, double vanities and locally made organic products. Breakfast was excellent, and throughout our stay the staff were utterly charming. We very much regretted that we had arranged to stay at this lovely property for only a single night.
Excellent location; gracious staff; comfortable accommodations.
The pool is more decorative than recreational.
This hotel is often booked up months in advance, so reserve as early as possible. The hotel’s private four-bedroom Casa Tamarindo is ideal for families and larger groups.
It wasn’t difficult to find the 17-room Rosas & Xocolate hotel, since it’s painted a bubble-gum pink that makes it stand out from the elegant 19th-century villas that the sisal barons built along the tree-shaded Paseo de Montejo, Mérida’s most fashionable street. Arriving around 11 a.m., we found the lobby filled with impatient suited businessmen who had just flown in from Mexico City; in consequence, the front desk was overwhelmed. Happily, an observant German-born duty manager picked us out in the crowd and stored our luggage so that we could enjoy our day. Mérida is a delightful city for strolling, so we walked downtown to see its main sites, including the cathedral, which was begun in 1561, and the Plaza Grande, its lively tree-shaded main square.
After an outstanding lunch at Apoala, one of the city’s best Mexican restaurants, we returned to the hotel in the late afternoon. A front desk clerk showed us around, pointing out the small outdoor swimming pool in a shady courtyard, the restaurant with a terrace, a library with a large wine rack and the spa and fitness room. He then ushered us up a flight of stairs to our Xocolate Suite. The room had a vivid cyclamen-colored throw on the bed, a table and chairs, and a window overlooking a courtyard and the pool. The bath came with a walk-in shower, double vanities and L’Occitane products; a sunken cement tub was located in a small open-air courtyard reached via a glass door.
Settling in, we noticed that the room had seen heavy wear and tear. Some of the furniture was scratched, and in general the décor was disappointing after the distinctive elegance of Casa Lecanda. This was the first of several disappointments. Aside from the helpful duty manager, the staff were not well-trained, and those in the restaurant were positively unfriendly. Though Rosas & Xocolate has received breathless reviews in many American travel publications, both staff training and maintenance are seriously deficient.
Good breakfast; well-equipped gym.
Worn rooms; disappointing pool; poorly trained staff.
Chocolate-based treatments are the specialty of the spa; these involve a traditional Mayan 100% pure cocoa paste, said to have invigorating properties.
Though the Yucatán is best known as a beach destination, growing numbers of travelers are heading to the region for its fascinating history and intriguing archaeological monuments. Having decided that a country retreat would be the perfect way to conclude our trip, we headed to the Chablé Resort, a 45-minute drive southwest of Mérida, set on a 750-acre estate surrounded by jungle.
The hotel was created from the ruins of a 19th-century property where hennequin, the plant from which sisal is produced, was once cultivated. Today, the grounds are maintained by 30 full-time gardeners, and the main lodge has been lovingly renovated. The accommodations are provided by 38 casitas and two villas. We were driven to our accommodation on an electric golf cart. There, formalities dispensed with, we settled into our spacious and airy cottage. This came with floor-to-ceiling windows hung with white linen curtains and a built-in sound system operated from an iPad. The indoor double rainfall shower head was augmented by an outdoor waterfall shower. We also found a sitting area with a pair of loungers, a hammock and a plunge pool.
Chablé styles itself a wellness resort, and it makes good on this promise with a superb spa and fitness center, which offers a full program of activities, including yoga, Pilates and meditation classes. The spa overlooks a natural cenote (sinkhole) and offers massages and treatments based on Mayan medicine and locally made herbal products. It also features a temazcal ceremony in a traditional Mayan sweatbox that is intended to achieve a deep purification.
The resort features three restaurants, including Ixi’im, a stunning modern dining room with a huge collection of tequilas and a brilliant modern Mexican menu created by chef Jorge Vallejo. (Ixi’im merits a trip from Mérida, even if you are not staying at the resort.) House specialties include appetizers such as venison tartare with sour orange, habanero and pumpkin seed, and tamales with blue crayfish and a chilpachole (seafood stew) sauce, and mains such as baby octopus with lentils and longaniza (chorizo), and suckling pig with a recado negro sauce (made with burnt chiles) and pickled onions. The second restaurant, Ki’ol (“healthy” in Mayan), serves more-casual dishes such as ceviches and Mexican tostadas.
The Chablé Resort is an outstanding destination property and a great base from which to visit the historic haciendas of the Yucatán, as well as Mayan archaeological sites like Uxmal. The service is flawless and the setting magnificent. It is one of the most relaxing places that we’ve stayed in years.
Fine restaurants; superb spa; outstanding accommodations.
Casitas 30 to 38 offer maximum privacy.