On Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, ancient Maya pyramids and stone temples are shrouded in misty jungle teeming with exotic birds and flowers. Perhaps nowhere are the mysteries of this fascinating civilization more dazzling than at Chichén Itzá’s iconic 79-foot stepped pyramid, where the shifting play of light and shadow cast the apparition of a serpent undulating down its stairs each equinox. Yet, stone ruins aren’t the only treasures nearly lost to the Yucatán jungle. In the 17th and 18th centuries, wealthy European colonists established grand haciendas for growing sugar cane and “green gold,” or henequen, a native species of agave that yields a strong sisal twine.
Like the great Maya sites of the region, the graceful architecture of these haciendas have been rescued from ruin and taken back from the jungle in recent decades, seeing new life as boutique accommodations that honor their multicultural heritage. Named for the patron saint of workers (and travelers), Hacienda San Jose is among the most secluded of these historic plantations, a tucked-away spot to savor between visits to ancient ruins. Here, deep in the jungle, the sense of place is so strong, it’s hypnotic. Maya-style palapas—airy terracotta rooms and suites—cluster around an enticing courtyard, and root-tangled paths lead through flowering archways, past restored factory buildings still embellished with original murals. With all there is to do in Yucatán, this is a serene retreat, where you can engage in ancient Mayan rituals, relax alongside a serene pool enveloped by tropical gardens, and swing in the breeze in a traditional Yucatán hammock.
Staying at Hacienda San Jose offers more than a history lesson: It’s a supremely enjoyable exercise in cultural reparation. Built in 1794 on the backs of indigenous workers, Hacienda San Jose now offers gainful employment with advancement opportunities to local Maya community members, who make up 95 percent of the lodge staff. To wit: the resident chef, Adriel Medina, started his career here as a gardener. Part and parcel to its community-building efforts, the hacienda actively supports Yucatán culture, from encouraging guests to attend local festivals to selling handicrafts made by Maya artisans in the hotel gift shop.
Just as thoughtful was the approach to restoration. The meticulous process maintained the brilliant sky-blue facade of the old factory; murals in the chapel and library; original floors and walls; and crumbling rock structures that provide a sense of history, including an original archway that greets guests at the entrance. Carts once used to move sisal fiber now stand in as decoration in the dining room and gardens. Sacred ceiba trees landscape the grounds. The spa supports local women who preserve traditional Mayan massage techniques, and staffers wear traditional Yucatán garb, such as embroidered huipil blouses and pleated guavebara shirts.
When you reserve your stay through National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, you’ll enjoy an exclusive experience of your choosing. You could choose to go on a guided moonlit walk, spotting constellations in the Yucatán sky and hearing ancient Mayan legends over wine and marshmallows roasted around a fire; or join the hacienda’s bar staff for a guided tasting of fine tequilas, xcabentun (a Yucatán anise liqueur), chocolate, and regional spices, paired with savory snacks from the chef. Or opt to wake up before dawn, enjoy an herbal infusion delivered to your room, and then join the lodge’s gardener as he recites a Maya prayer as the sun rises, followed by a short guided yoga and stretching session.
In partnership with the local nonprofit Fundación Haciendas del Mundo Maya, Hacienda San Jose takes significant steps towards preserving the region’s natural and cultural heritage. An on-site nursery incubates trees for the property’s jungle surroundings, which were heavily deforested during sisal production. Outreach efforts with local schoolchildren emphasize environmental conservation; past initiatives have included educational bird-watching tours to help instill an appreciation for the natural world in the next generation.
Organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs are grown in an on-site garden. The Hacienda is certified by the Rainforest Alliance and minimizes its environmental impact by composting organic waste and closely monitoring water, energy, and gas consumption.
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