CHICHEN ITZA, Mexico — I sat down on a stone and looked down--at trees, and nothing but trees, going on and on out of sight. It seemed to me that this wasn't a country to live in at all with the heat and the desolation; it was a country to die in and leave only ruins behind. --Graham Greene, "Another Mexico"
If Graham Greene had stayed at the Hotel Mayaland he might have come away with a better impression of the Yucatan Peninsula, particularly because the place feels as if it sprang fully formed from the imagination of the British novelist.
According to the Mexican government tourism office, every Mexican president since Lazaro Cardenas has stayed here, as have Princess Anne, presidents of Yugoslavia and East Germany, cabinet ministers of France and Italy, numerous movie stars and the Queen of Holland.
Yet from the outside, the four-story, ocher-colored structure on the edge of the Chichen Itza ruins looks like a crumbling, generic Third World building. It was built on land bought from Edward Herbert Thompson, the Harvard archeologist and American vice consul to Mexico who first recovered jeweled artifacts from the ruined city's Sacred Well.
The hotel expanded gradually since construction began in 1922. Only inside the ornate, wrought-iron gates does the magic begin. Everything about the interior of the hotel, which opened in 1930, suggests a bygone era, or at least the set of an exotic movie: high ceilings, tile floors, heavy mahogany furniture, wooden louvered windows, inlaid door jambs and lintels.
The desk clerk assures anxious visitors that there is no air conditioning because none is necessary, and he is correct. Ceiling fans, balconies and wide, open walkways between the rooms keep the temperature quite satisfactory for resting and sleeping. Neither are alarm clocks necessary; the tropical birds in the surrounding jungle wake you soon after the sun is up.
The staff of the 64-room hotel, all dressed in white, make plain in a way that is at the same time subtle and charming that they are not at all impressed with the dozen or so off-season, low-rent guests who have come to visit the Mayan ruins in the off-season.
They go about their business in an efficient manner, nonetheless, including regular off-key serenading of guests taking drinks on the main veranda at dusk, and later, from a second-floor balcony overlooking the dining room, those having their evening meal.
Long Pants Required
Dinner is served at 7:30 and men are required to wear long pants. The only jarring note, apart from those produced by the trio of musicians, is provided by a grotesque, colorful mural portraying mythic Maya figures, Christ and severed heads, which dominates the room.
As if the hotel was not sufficiently dramatic, our visit was punctuated by a nighttime thunderstorm that briefly knocked out the lights and power. Candles were quickly placed on dinner tables and service continued uninterrupted.
Not far from the dining room, on the grounds of Mayaland, is a giant Mimosa tree, so large that its limbs shelter a grove of full-size Royal Palms. Beneath the tree, lounging or slinking along the paths leading to the thatched-roof cottages that are part of the complex, are a pair of sinewy felines that look more like ancient Toltec jaguars than hotel house cats.
Apart from the ambiance, the best thing about Mayaland is its proximity to the celebrated Chichen Itza ruins. The top of the Maya "observatory" is framed by the arch of the hotel's front door, and a ticket booth to the grounds is a right turn out the gate and, literally, a minute's walk away.
Five minutes more along the brown gravel path, lined by whitewashed rocks, takes you to the foot of the great pyramid Kukulcan, which the Spaniards called "the castle." The view in all directions from the top of the restored stone mound, as Greene observed elsewhere in Yucatan, is verdant jungle for unbroken miles.
Mayaland's location enables visitors to tour the extensive grounds of Chichen Itza in the morning and late afternoon--avoiding the year-round, brain-battering, midday sun--and is also convenient for taking in the nighttime son et lumiere show near the great pyramid.
In the mornings, before the busloads of tourists arrive from Cancun and Merida, skinny young Maya boys--who will later peddle little stone deities called Chacmools--play baseball not far from the court where their ancestors played a ritualized ball game that sometimes ended in a sacrificial beheading.
Midday is a good time for a refreshing swim in the hotel's small pool, as classical music wafts out of a public address system, or for a siesta in your room.
In our room the tightly-made twin beds were each covered by shocking pink bedspreads made of coarsely woven cotton. The curtains had embroidered roses, curtains that sealed off light from the private balcony. The white-tiled bathroom was spacious and old-fashioned, but featured balky plumbing.