Nestled on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, far from Cancún, travelers can find relaxation and adventure at Rancho Encantado where warm, healing waters lap at the shore in an ever-shifting array of iridescent blues and greens.
They call it, "The Lagoon of Seven Colors," but I know there are more. From my hammock, I was tempted to open my eyes and drink in the light patterns playing on the water; but I resisted. The sun and soothing breeze made it difficult to expend too much effort.
Rancho Encantado (which means, "Enchanted Ranch") is a small eco-resort and spa in the southern part of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula; far away from the hustle, bustle and hype of Cancún. Set on the shores of Laguna Bacalar, this was a sacred place for the ancient Maya who called it Xbalamkin (meaning, "Where the sun is born"). They launched their dugout canoes from this very spot to travel up the coast to Tulum, and as far down as Honduras, where merchants traded goods and priests performed sacred ceremonies.
Imagine stepping into a tropical movie from the 1940s or ‘50s (except with a modicum of luxury!). You enter a lagoon lined with swaying coconut palms that are dripping with orchids; filled with orchards of orange, lime and exotic hardwood trees; and punctuated by more than 150 species of multihued tropical birds, which are simultaneously twittering, squawking and screeching.
The 12 private, thatched-palm roofed casitas of Rancho Encantado are decorated with native handicrafts and Mayan murals; and most open directly onto the lagoon. My partner and I enjoyed the best digs on the Rancho: the Laguna Suite (the rate of $285/per night includes a tropical buffet breakfast and a gourmet dinner of Mayan or Mexican fare).
The Rancho’s owners, Ramon Childers and Susanna Starr, provided us with a doorway into the lives of the Maya by inviting us to share in the indigenous culture in a meaningful way. The ancient Mayan cities, as well as the thatched huts of the living, contemporary Maya, offered us intimate, yet contrasting, views of this millennia-old culture.
We visited the ancient Mayan cities of Dzibanché and Kohunlich, and the contemporary Mayan villages of Pueblo Chiclero and 20 de Septiembre. After Mayan shamans blessed us, we entered the jungle, where "chicileros" scampered up tall trees to gather the chicle that chewing gum is made from. We were also treated to savory "comida tipica," the staple food of the Maya, as artisans plied their crafts and demonstrated how they, as modern Indians, sustain their way of life.
One of our side trips took us to a very unusual prison, a place without violence, where inmates can enjoy conjugal visits, and which even features a spa, a language school and a computer lab. The inmates make hammocks, art and handicrafts to sell to the tourists.
Down the road from the Rancho, on the lakeshore, lies the small, quiet 16th century village of Bacalar, which is inhabited by leisurely people, and where tourists can experience some atypical adventures. On the streets, we saw Mennonites in 19th century dress, clip-clopping along in a horse and buggy, and selling ripe tomatoes fresh from their fields. Mayan people often greeted us with the customary greeting, "Ba’ax ka wa’alik" (meaning, "What’s up?"). We soon learned to answer, "Mix bá’al" (or "Nothing!").
In Bacalar, we found the old Spanish fort of San Felipe, which houses a small museum offering enlightening stories and murals about the ancient Mayan civilization, the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, and the European pirates (both male and female) who raided the area in the 18th century, thus making it necessary to build this fort. Depictions of the caste wars, during which the Maya rose up against their conquerors/slave owners, added more insights into the rich, exciting history of this place.
Down the road a little further is my favorite roadside stand, La Petite Crêpe, where a French chef serves up the best chicken-and-shrimp crêpe and a dessert crêpe that is to die for. Plus, they serve lip-smacking good Paella!
The reason why the ancient Maya abandoned this paradise remains a mystery to me. Many modern Mayan people can still be found here, but they don’t live in the old cities of Dzibanché and Kohunlich.
As I watched the full moon rise over the lagoon, I wished I could stay forever. Remaining true to its name, Rancho Encantado enchanted me, indeed.
The best time to visit is during the tourist season from mid-November through the end of April. Rates start at $120 (U.S.) per night for a double room, off season, and $160 (U.S.), tourist season (including breakfast buffet and gourmet dinner).