Saturday, April 30, 2011

Wanderings: A Quiet Getaway at The Pickled Onion

I am sometimes a bit contrary and often find myself swimming against the tide. During the two weeks' vacation for Semana Santa, a large part of the population of Mérida goes to the coast to escape the heat and relax. The result is that all accessible beaches are jammed with people. Tens of thousands of people. Many of these folks' idea of relaxation conflicts with mine. While many here enjoy the Easter vacation with music, food and liberal quantities of beer, accompanied by large numbers of family and friends, I am much more able to relax and "vacation" some place where it is quiet and uncrowded.

In pursuit if my idea of vacation, this past week I put some distance between myself and the crowds-and-loud-parties beach holiday scene. I chose Santa Elena, located a bit more than an hour from Mérida between Uxmal and Ticul, in the interior of the Yucatán, as the site for a peaceful two-day retreat. I stayed at The Pickled Onion B & B and restaurant. In sync with its un-Yucatecan name, the place is a little bit different.

If you are arriving on the Mérida - Uxmal - Ticul highway, when you get to Santa Elena you need to follow the signs that direct you to Campeche. Just on the outskirts of the pueblo on the Campeche highway, at a tricky three-way intersection, you'll see the giant red onion sculpture that marks the entrance. What you'll find is not fancy, and not plain. It's just right. The modest, slightly-quirky Mayan-style cottages are new, clean, and nicely appointed, with beds and hammocks, fans, fresh linens, and clean, modern bathrooms.
The pool is new and long enough to swim laps in, with a nice view of the gardens, planted with palms, neem, flamboyants, flor de mayo (plumeria), blue agave, maguey, cactus and other native and drought-resistent trees, shrubs and plants. My favorite feature of the pool is the hammock strung above the water under an arbor full of maracuyá vines. It's a great spot to keep cool, and one of the beauties of this place is that there are only three cottages, so you'll rarely have to wait to use it. It's always pretty quiet. If you can't quite manage to stay disconnected from the outside world for a day or so, there is WIFI, although when I was visiting, service was sporadic. [There also is free public WIFI in Santa Elena's plaza.]

The Pickled Onion is the creation of Valerie Pickles, an Englishwoman who lived many years in Canada before moving to Ticul, Yucatán a few years ago to teach English. When the job was over, she didn't want to leave, so she bought this land in nearby Santa Elena and opened her restaurant. Over time, she says, she has gained a great respect for the Mayan people of the area and their way of life. She commented to me that she feels very fortunate to live in the area and have her business here. On the About section of her blog, she writes, "There is a more connectedness to nature, people, a way of life far different from the big city. The word magical has been used so many times with the tourists that pass by the restaurant and stay a few nights."

Expanding: Owner Valerie PIckles supervises work on a new guest house at The Pickled Onion.

The restaurant menu features Mexican and Yucatecan specialties, plus American-style sandwiches, burgers, fries, and delicacies such as berry cheesecake, home-made banana bread and coconut ice cream. It also serves iced and hot espresso drinks, beer and liquor. If your tastes on a hot afternoon run to Cuba Libres or gin and tonic, Valerie can probably whip one up for you. My favorite restaurant offering is the breakfast, which is included in the cost of a room. It includes liberal servings of fresh fruit, plus juice, coffee, banana bread, toast, granola and yogurt. Eggs and other hot breakfast dishes also are available.

The rental cottages idea took hold when restaurant customers began asking where they could spend the night. Now it has become the kind of place where folks sometimes arrive planning to stay one night, and find they like it so much that they decide to stay over a day or two. And there are many reasons to stay. Santa Elena is nestled right in the heart of the Ruta Puuc, known for its numerous archaeological sites including the famous and unforgettable Uxmal, caves, haciendas, and for its many opportunities for contact with traditional Mayan culture. 

Santa Elena's church and plaza. The blue sign announces recently-installed wireless internet.

Santa Elena itself, although not the largest attraction in the area, is worth looking around. This is a very traditional and ancient Mayan town, whose imposing Spanish church looms over the landscape from atop a rocky outcropping. It's worthwhile taking a little time to walk around the centro, where the church, colonial-era buildings, some with Mayan carved stones visible in the facades, interesting locally-crafted sculptures of traditional Yucatecan dancers in the square and the mummy museum are the chief attractions. I tried to see the mummies, found in the church crypt some years ago, but both times I stopped by the museum the attendant was asleep at her desk. It was very hot that afternoon, and I didn't have the heart to awaken her. It's a small pueblo. The mummies have been there for a few hundred years, at least. I decided to visit them another time and headed back to The Pickled Onion for a swim and my own siesta.
The Pickled Onion is a comfortable and convenient, economically-priced base for exploring a fascinating region of Mexico. It's also a restful destination in itself. Valerie and her friendly staff do what they can to help their guests have the experience they are looking for. Valerie can also recommend a reasonably-priced local guide (more about this in a future post or see the website) for those interested in exploring off the beaten path or visiting with a Mayan family.


  1. You should see the mummies. It is a small display. Certainly no Guanajuato. But well worth seeing -- especially linked as they were to a bit of local hucksterism linked to Maya myth.

  2. Steve, not that I need an excuse to return to the area, but I like the idea of telling people I am going to Santa Elena "to see the mummies." And I will go back. There's lots more to do in the area, and I enjoyed staying at Valerie's place.

  3. We really enjoyed meeting Valerie and dining at the Pickled Onion when we visited Santa Elena three years ago. It's great to know about the cottages - I don't know if they were available when we were there.
    The mummies are definitely something to see. Very strange.

  4. Debbie: The next time you are around here, you definitely should visit the PO if you want to look more closely at the Ruta Puuc. There's lots to see, even if you have been there before. I am going to write more about it in a post to come soon.

    Yes, I should have been persistent about seeing the mummies. At least that's what everyone tells me. Next time, I'll visit them.

  5. This place sounds and looks really cool. I know I would love it!

  6. June, it's a very nice spot. I was pretty content just hanging out for a couple of days and a couple of nights and not really doing much. It is easy to get to from the city, has an off the beaten track atmosphere, but it's definitely not roughing it.

  7. I read somewhere that the Punic hills were captured islands. The soils there are dark, rich and deep, not very common in the northern Yucatan. Have you made the drive out to Isla Arena?

  8. Norm, don't know anything about Isla Arena. Fill me in...

  9. I was out there Easter Sunday 4-5 years ago, place was packed with Mayans, Linda and I were the only Gringos. A pretty off the beaten path kind of place. Take the 180 south out of Merida, bear right at the turn off to Maxcanu, on to Halacho. Look for the sign for Takuche going west, there is a little jog at Tekuche but as I remember there was a sign for Arena there. It is scrub and mangrove swamp except for a spring along the road that has pay swimming about half way out-this is where the mangrove swamp starts. Something I noticed in the mangrove swamp: you can see berms from where people impounded sea water to make salt in the past. How much in the past? The swamps show a good deal of gassed off oil from the big spill in the 70s, that alone is worth the trip if your interested in how nature deals with our mistakes and misadventures. Arena is a step back in time place, a class A end of the road trip.

  10. Norm, sounds like my kind of place. I took a look on Google Maps. Looks interesting. Thanks. I'll have to check it out.


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