By: Carlos Dragonné
If someone had told me that my weekend would turn up like it did, I never would believe it. What it was meant to be a two day rest in front of the TV, with all the food delivery phones at hand and a vast amount of films to catch up on, ended up as an emergency shopping, a fast packed suitcase – which of course was incomplete as I realized when I was looking for my tooth brush -, a taxi cab at 5am on a Sunday morning and a boarding pass given to me just a minutes before my flight was ready to go. My destination: Merida. The reason: rediscovering a city after 10 years of my last visit and enjoying a destination forgotten because of the short distance between it and places like Cancun or Playa del Carmen and taste what this place has prepared for both the business traveler or the leisure one.
Merida has changed, no doubt about it. It’s no longer that small city I remembered so filled with joy the local people spread on the streets. Of course, this joy is still there, but the streets have became avenues, and there’s a kind of major franchise invasion so the stores we can find every other day in any part of Mexico City are becoming a natural sight in Mérida. But still, you can find spaces where the authenticity and the beauty of a 16th century established colony is palpable. That spirit was present when I arrived to what was going to be my hotel for the next 4 days: Hacienda Santa Cruz. This estate built in the middle of the jungle and located 20 minutes away from the downtown – which enhances the privacy and relaxation mood – was built in the 16th century and you can witness the extraordinary work of restoration that the new owners have started and today it can be appreciated with one of the most nostalgic views of the pre independent Mexico. Surrounding an enormous garden, the rooms of Hacienda Santa Cruz hosts every tourist in spaces time-travel worthy that, once were the rooms of Franciscan monks. Later turned into a henequen farm, the buildings are now fully restored to its magnificence. Every room is different, and are divided into Suites and Doubles, with the extra addition of a room called La Casita (The Little House) that can receive an entire family in which once was called La Casa de los Peones (The Laborer’s House) today decorated with green and natural tones offering an amazing leisure experience.
The owners of Hacienda Santa Cruz arrived to Merida 10 years ago and, after traveling to this place for the first time they heard the call that must people never listen and, of course, never answer. Caroline Franck and her husband Robert were, until then, successful in their branches in Paris; he was a photographer with experience in French movie and television industries, she was the owner of a successful boutique in the center of the French capital. What changed? According to Caroline: “We found what we were looking for a long time. We wanted to twist our life and dedicate ourselves to be together, to create a life different from what we were used to in which happiness was the core of what we do everyday” and, after a trip Roberto took to Mérida that turned out everything but a good experience, while he was counting the hours to get out of México, he discovered in the middle of Santa Cruz Palomeque community this abandoned space and at that moment, he knew that Paris was left behind. Just 5 months after this trip, Caroline sold her boutique and they packed their things into the adventure that years later gave birth to this place. Today, the family has established themselves here and they created a venue worthy of being part of Boutique Hotels Mexico catalog, run by Sylvie Laitre and offering the tourist places where their experience can be completely unique.
Hacienda Santa Cruz also offers Spa services, personalized attention by the owners, a conference room and a menu created everyday in its restaurant Le Creole, by the local young chef Juan Carlos Arce a local chef that has traveled around the world -Shangai was his last place before getting invited back to Mérida by Caroline- and now takes control of this culinary project inspired in the local ingredients and biodiversity products to give the diner a natural menu with the Antillean background of Caroline origins, who was born in Isla Guadalupe, and transmit these flavors into Arce who makes a great fusion with techniques and experience from his travels. You can find the classic Lime Soup or a Duck Magret in Le Creole international driven menu, as the visitors are, according to Robert, “mostly from Canada, United States and France”.
In the afternoon, I took some time to walk the downtown of Mérida, finding many of the reasons why, back in 2000, this city was distinguished as American Cultural Capital, something that only shares with Guadalajara in México. Every week, for almost 20 years, the main plaza holds a popular festivity called Merida on Sunday, in which you can witness the culture of this place watching public regional dances, cowboy events, cultural presentations and artistic exhibitions in the street that shows the world the need to keep the artistic tradition of a city that gave birth people like Armando Manzanero, Fernando Castro Pacheco, Guty Cárdenas, Ricardo Palmerín and many others. The main plaza is surrounded by everything that makes famous this city, from the guayaberas shirts, the textile craftsmanship and, of course, the food among which we can find the panuchos, the cochinita pibil, the black stuffing and the tamal ahogado.
Now, let me tell you something I experienced in this trip and that, days later, chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita from Azul & Oro, pointed to me as a major issue. It is hard, as ironic as it sounds, to find a fine yucatecan cuisine place in Yucatán. Unlike Oaxaca, where gastronomy is a real treasure, Mérida has suffered from a local oblivion in terms of local food, making the task of finding a good local cuisine place almost impossible. The local gastronomy I remember has lost its place with street vendors that offers everything but individuality, and they are almost the same as for mediocrity and disrespect for the product and technique of such an important traditional cuisine.
However, not everything is lost in the culinary subject in Mérida. After leaving behind the fast food restaurants becoming the everyday landscape of what the locals call The New Merida, just 20 minutes away from downtown, in route to Puerto Progreso, there is a culinary oasis in another of the great estates of this peninsula: Hacienda Xcanatun. The owners, Tina Baker and Jorge Ruz, I’ve known them for a while in a totally different environment: the advertising world of Mexico City, as she is a legend in the advertisement agencies as a producer and he is one of the most experienced photographers in the business. But, again, Mérida has that something that can make your life change and, just as the Francks, Tina and Jorge chose to move here -even when Jorge still goes to Mexico City to participate in commercials- and gave birth to Hacienda Xcanatun, an 18th century built farming estate that was rescued by them in 1994, after 14 years of being abandoned. They have turned this place not just into a restored hotel, but a real luxury travel complex with 18 rooms right in the middle of what it looks like an ecological reserve. We took the road inside and we ended up arriving to its restaurant, one of the most successful ones in Mérida. Tina Baker confess that “During the first two years of our opening, it was the restaurant business the one that sustain the whole hotel operation, and not the other way around as it’s supposed to be. We are very proud to be one of the emblematic places of this city”. After the special tasting prepared for Flavors of Mexican Cuisine, you can feel the care for each ingredient and the classic techniques used to present dishes that defend the culinary traditions of Yucatán. And it is not surprising at all that Tina Baker, asked by the ingredients, tells me that she actually has managed to establish a green market that today provides most of the products used in the restaurant.
The afternoon with Ruz and Baker turns into the challenges Mérida is facing in the tourism industry and how this destination can be transformed into a sustainable one. Maybe the first issue that caught my attention was the fact that Mérida is considered a commercial destination, not a touristic one, making the traveling costs considerably higher, which makes more complicated the promotion of Mérida with both the national and foreigner tourists. Likewise, and maybe for the same reason, the waste of opportunities for developing programs of tourism routes and tours have made that the efforts of all those involved end up as isolated efforts, instead of making integral programs that support the reestablishment of a chain of actions that can generate more investment into infrastructure for the tourism industry in Mérida, and a better creation of capital flow into this business. The afternoon goes away in this and, as we finished, I promise them that I’ll be back soon to enjoy Hacienda Xcanatun.
Night catches me walking through the streets of a Merida I can’t fully remember and, at the same time, it looks familiar in so many ways. But I discover that this familiarity comes from what I’ve found in so many Mexico destinations. Over and over, I found a real concern from those struggling to stay as service providers of this industry, as the tourism programs and the institutional involvement seem lost in an indecipherable limbo. And, among this confusion, everyone is just hanging on the effort of making the experience for the traveler enjoyable enough to make them return. Back in Hacienda Santa Cruz, as I watched the starry sky that question pops into my mind again: What is happening in Mexico that we forget the magic of places like Merida? And the answer comes painfully clear. We are letting time pass with excuses and irrational fears that have weakened our position as a tourist leader and soon, if we don’t do something, the streets of Mérida, as so of many other place, will call upon us to shout this oblivion.