The sound of running spring water and the night noises of the jungle surround me, the toil and trouble of the city far behind.
This long-anticipated journey with my parents – their first to Mexico, and the first stamp on their brand-new passports – had gotten off to an admittedly bumpy start, what with a raucus all-night party in our hotel on the first night, getting lost in the chaos of the city’s Centro Historico, a virulent case of bronchitis for their driver and guide – yours truly – and too many other complications to mention. Had I made a mistake? My ailing father was exhausted – and this trip had been planned as a healing retreat for him.
But as we passed through the colorful towns on the outskirts of Merida and entered the ornate iron gate into the shady front courtyard of Hacienda Petac, I felt the tension dissolve. Marlene, one of more than a dozen Mayan women who attended to our every need during our stay, materialized from one of the three graceful arches of the hacienda with a traditionally embroidered dress, a beautiful smile and a tray of tempting red drinks.
My heart sank – I was sure they coudn’t be on my father’s diet. They almost certainly had sugar in them, and would be another disappointment. But there was Colleen, greeting us with a hug and a rundown of the ingredients: hibiscus tea and orange juice. Pure, simple and delicious. Dad reached for it and downed it, delighted.
It was the first surprise of many that were to unfold in the three days ahead. The two of them shook their heads in amazement as Colleen, the hacienda’s manager, led them on a brief tour of the property and to their choice of rooms, each of them ample and beautiful spaces, filled with atmosphere and lovingly decorated with exquisite fresh flower arrangements everywhere – from the beds to the sinks to the floors to the tiny pockets at front of the bathrobes.
The hacienda itself was a page out of the past, with its graceful arches, leather-backed chairs, lush gardens, antique brick oven and vintage tile floors. The sound of running water that served as a calming backdrop came from a fountain made of a giant chimney. Colleen explained a bit of the history here as my parents admired the crystal spring water falling into the pool below the chimney; this had been a hennequin plantation, and this oven had been used to fuel the fires that processed the hennequin, or sisal, for rope that made so many fortunes in this corner of the world until the rise of the plastics industry rendered it obsolete.
The hacienda had operated at reduced capacity until the ’70s, and lay in ruins for several decades until Houstonians Dev and Chuck Stern discovered its fallen walls and decade columns and envisioned what it could be. Together, and with the help of a Mexican architect and construction crew, they brought it back to glorious life.
“Just amazing,” said Dad.
“It’s just too beautiful to believe,” said Mom.
The death sentence handed down by my fathers’ doctors months ago at the cancer center far behind, they leaned back, looked into each others’ eyes and smiled. It seemed that anything was possible.
A cacaphony of bird calls surrounded us as the sun began to descend, and my parents got settled in their picture-perfect suite as the Mayan ladies prepared a delicious vegan guacamole to enjoy on the terrace until dinner. My parents sampled it and relaxed as the sun went down, rejoicing in their good fortune.
“Is everything ok?” Colleen dropped by to find out.
“More than ok,” said Dad. “I think you’ve got yourself a little piece of Eden here on Earth.”
Back in the classic talavera-tiled Mexican kitchen, a crew of Mayan women, immaculate in their white embroidered huipiles, bustled about preparing dinner. Here again, the staff did not disappoint: a vegan version of tortilla soup, followed by a Yucatecan favorite, pok chuk. Usually made with pork, Colleen had come up with an ingenious substitute – roasted shitake mushrooms, swathed in a savory chiltomate sauce, sprinkled with roasted red onions and wrapped in warm, fresh corn tortillas straight from the comal.
My father kept shaking his head in disbelief. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
That night, the Mayan ladies led them through the gardens down a candle-lined walkway to the spa to soak in the jacuzzi, two childhood sweethearts who had never tired of each other.
The next day was one surprise after another, beginning with breakfast by the pool, vegan huevos rancheros on a flower-bedecked table.
My father had the first pedicure of his life, and was a bit taken aback by it all but delighted to find out how good it felt.
That was followed by a sumptuous vegetable soup and a dreamy massage under the magical hands of Mayan masseuse Maryeli. Then the evening commenced with a command performance by Los Tres Yucatecos, one of the most beloved trova trios on the Yucatan Peninsula all for the three of us.
Melodies and harmonies of regional and national favorites echoed from the ancient stones and classic arches as I quietly translated bits and pieces of romantic ballads for my parents.
Dinner was a spread fit for a king: a flaky, moist filleted sea bass served with roast vegetables and a dessert of baked apples stuffed with maple-drizzled apple, spice and nut filling. For my father, denied a season of desserts, it was heaven. His diet forbade sugar but allowed an occasional low-fructose natural sweetener, like maple, and Colleen had taken it and run with it.
The next day, sadly, was our last. Not to let a moment escape, Colleen learned that my mother is an avid birder and lined us up with an excellent bilingual birding guide, Miguel Mendez, who brought the jungle to life for us. His uncanny birdcalls brought the avian life to us and his sharp eye helped us distinguish them from the branches and leaves.
After another generous breakfast, it was finally time to head off to Chichen Itza and the Caribbean coast – Cancun and the Riviera Maya beckoned. But it was with reluctance that we bade our farewells to each of the lovely faces that had become so familiar. Hacienda Petac had made its mark on us all – and one that we would never forget.