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The Romantic Yucatán Peninsula

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The Romantic Yucatán Peninsula
With its intimate plazas, old-growth trees, lavish architecture, and fine restaurants specializing in traditional and contemporary Yucatecan fare, Mérida provides the perfect backdrop for a romantic vacation.
By Julie Schwietert Collazo, AFAR Local Expert
Photo courtesy of Yucatan Tourism Board
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    Spa Weekend
    Mérida isn't a city from which you'll need to or want to escape, but for extra privacy and peace, take a weekend trip to the town of Celestún, 60 miles away. Guidebooks call Celestún a "sleepy fishing village," and it's no empty cliché; there's little development of any sort along the long ribbon of white-sand beach. The relative isolation of the town's Hotel Xixim, with private bungalows for lodging and a spa offering treatments such as chocolate- or coffee-based body wraps, guarantees there will be plenty of opportunities to reconnect with your partner. Another option is the Spa at Chablé Resort. Charming Chablé is ground zero for massages that include local history and traditions. Treatments, administered beside cenotes (which the ancient Maya considered these to be portals to the underworld), harness and honor the region’s spiritual legacies on "spa journeys" with themes like flow, balance, and inspiration, and use herbs plucked from the hotel's gardens.
    Photo courtesy of Yucatan Tourism Board
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    The Liqueur of Love
    The Yucatán has one of the most distinctive regional cuisines in Mexico, with most recipes reflecting Maya influences. In addition to Yucatecan classics like cochinita pibil, a pork dish, you'll find unique local liquors, including xtabentún, also known as the liqueur of love. Made of fermented honey, the sweet, anise-flavored spirit has its roots in a dramatic Maya love story. Utz-Colel, an ancient Maya beauty, was jealous of another lovely woman, Xkeban, who was kind and generous. The flowers that bloomed on Xkeban's grave after her death are now called xtabentún, and the nectar from these flowers, which are said to have mild psychotropic qualities, makes the honey that goes into this Yucatecan beverage. Try it—and buy it—at the Casa D’Aristi distillery, which also offers factory tours.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Yucatán by Horse and Carriage
    You'd be hard-pressed to conjure up a more romantic evening than one featuring a carriage ride around Mérida. As horses' hooves clip-clop over cobblestones, your horse and driver will guide you past Mérida's colonial-era architectural highlights—including Casa de Montejo, the cathedral, and Mérida's government palace—and the city's loveliest plazas, where you'll likely spot dancing or other cultural performances, often to the tune of traditional live music. Ask your hotel concierge where you can find the closest calesa (carriage) stand, or head to Paseo de Montejo, where many drivers wait for passengers right on the street. You can also take a carriage in Izamal, where almost every structure is painted egg-yolk-yellow. Once an important Maya settlement, the town now surrounds a 16th-century Franciscan monastery built atop a vast Maya pyramid. The pyramid’s base, still on view, implies an original structure much larger than even Chichén Itzá’s imposing Pyramid of Kukulcán. If you want to visit more pyramids, check out the Puuc Route.
    Photo courtesy of Yucatan Tourism Board
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    Cooking Class for Two
    Every state and region of Mexico has a distinct cuisine, and Mérida is no exception. Much of the cuisine of Mérida and its neighbors on the Yucatán Peninsula is influenced by Maya ingredients, techniques, and recipes, which you can expose yourself to by taking a class at Los Dos Cooking School, the only one in Mexico devoted exclusively to Yucatecan food. Founded by chef David Sterling (who sadly passed away last year), the school offers a variety of lessons, as well as market and tasting tours. Expect to learn about the uses of squash, chocolate, corn, and pork in dishes such as tamales de boda. If one of you loves to cook but the other does not, instructors allow partners to join just for cocktail hour or a meal, as long as you make arrangements in advance.
    Photo courtesy of Eduardo Cervantes/Los Dos Cooking School
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    Set the Night to Music
    You won't have to look hard to find live music in Mérida; almost every night of the week, musicians perform in the city's main square. If you're searching for a more elegant night out, however, check the listings at Teatro José Peón Contreras to see who's playing during your visit. Built at the beginning of the 20th century, the large, lavish theater is home to the Yucatán Symphony Orchestra. It also hosts some of Mexico's most renowned classical musicians, as well as ballet companies. Many of the performances are free; those that are not are reasonably priced, so consider splurging on box seats. If you want to dance to popular music, head to La Negrita Cantina—on weekends the bar grows crowded with twenty- and thirtysomethings swinging to salsa beats and sipping cocktails or ice-cold Montejo beer, which is brewed locally. A great option on the beach is Eladio's Bar in the town of Progreso; margaritas are a very refreshing choice there.
    Photo courtesy of Yucatan Tourism Board
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    Tour Mérida's Colonial Homes
    Mérida has one of the most impressive collections of colonial-era homes in Latin America. The grand facades of these mansions and casonas (big houses) often conceal equally impressive interiors, as you and your partner can discover on the excursions offered by the Mérida English Library. Their El Centro House and Garden Tour, available from November to March, takes guests to four homes in the city's historic center, where you can go behind closed doors to see fully renovated edifices and others that are a work in progress. Perhaps the tour will inspire your own home-renovation project—or even a move to Mérida, which has a large population of expats. Another great spot for architecture is Casa Museo Catherwood, a house dedicated to the works of English explorer and draftsman Frederick Catherwood and American adventurer John Lloyd Stephens. They were the first foreigners to rediscover Copán (in Honduras) and numerous other Maya cities. For an exclusive dining experience in a colonial manse with original floors and large chandeliers, go to K’u’uk, where chef Pedro Evia has taken the spirit of regional food and given it a modern twist.
    Photo courtesy of Yucatan Tourism Board
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    Effortlessly Romantic Dining
    The Yucatán Peninsula has a number of former haciendas converted into luxurious boutique hotels. Many of these have excellent on-site restaurants specializing in regional cuisine or Mexican fare with international influences. The colonial-era settings of these former sisal plantations have an effortlessly romantic ambience, with soft lighting, Spanish-style patios and terraces, and, often, lush tropical plants that provide quiet niches where you can enjoy an intimate dinner. Hacienda Santa Rosa and Hacienda Temozon will both arrange a special romantic experience for couples who want extra privacy and an incredible meal. At Hacienda Xcanatún, ask for a table on the terrace, which overlooks the hotel's garden. Sotuta de Peón is the region’s last working sisal hacienda; visitors here can observe manufacturing processes (and learn about the industry’s not-so-pretty past) while wending through the plantation on mule-drawn-rail-cart excursions that finish up with a dip in a refreshing on-site cenote.
    Photo courtesy of Yucatan Tourism Board
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    Learn to Salsa
    Salsa music and dancing are not indigenous to Mérida, the Yucatán, or even Mexico, but they have been embraced enthusiastically by locals who love to get on their feet. If you want to join them, you can take couples' lessons at Mérida's Astro Salsa; classes are offered Mondays through Saturdays. The environment is noncompetitive, with teachers focused on helping students grasp the basic steps. The school also provides instruction for pairs who want to learn how to dance bachata, a popular and modern style that came to Mexico and other corners of Latin America from the Dominican Republic. Once you learn how, practice your best moves at La Negrita Cantina.
    Photo by Guylaine Couttolenc/age fotostock
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    Horseback Riding
    If the idea of a sunset ride on the beach appeals to you, head beyond Mérida to the town of Progreso, about 30 minutes away. Unlike inland Mérida, whose romantic appeal is primarily architectural, Progreso has a stretch of white sand running along its turquoise waterfront, which provides the perfect backdrop for a horseback excursion. It's also possible to find some options for rides on the sand in the quiet town of Celestún. If you prefer to stay closer to Mérida proper, check out the Club Hípico del Sureste. Outfitters there can customize your experience based on your skill and comfort level, and equestrian beach trips can be planned for sunrise or sunset.
    Photo by age fotostock