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A California artist finds a new life, and new fans, in a remote part of Yucatán

An LA artist has become “Monica de Hocabá,” and a bit of a celebrity, in Yucatán

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Lee Steele
Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012. Sign up for our weekly newsletters, so our best stories will appear in your inbox every Monday.
After living all her life in Los Angeles, Monica Petrus has found an entirely new life in Yucatán. Photo: Yucatán Magazine

Trading Los Angeles for a new life in Yucatán would never be easy.

But the payoff has been huge for Monica Petrus, an artist who has become “Monica de Hocabá,” and a bit of a celebrity. 

Her house in Hocabá is her co-star. On the massive walls of its front rooms, Petrus daringly restored its formal and intricate borders, which were gradually disappearing. Petrus restored and even extended the patterns, all by hand.

This could have been a catastrophe in most hands, but Petrus is more than a clever lady with a paintbrush. She has an art degree from UCLA, where she also studied art history. She is well versed in Mexico’s cultural heritage and was clearly well suited to the task at hand. 

Hocabá, Yucatán is a remote town far enough from larger, busier cities to remain tranquil. Photo: Yucatán Magazine

Life in Los Angeles had her working in an office, but Yucatán allowed Petrus to live inside her own art project. Her new life phase did not go unnoticed on social media.      

The exposure on Facebook and Instagram quickly made Petrus known as an artist not to be pigeonholed.

More simply put, she can paint anything to order. Her figurative paintings are abundant. Her canvases include pets, animals in nature and portraits of homes or cantinas. She will embellish barstools with colorful images from Loteria cards. Her large-scale murals contain deeper themes, drawing on Maya or more abstract imagery.

Monica Petrus used unconventional means to find a perfect property in the outskirts of Yucatán. Photo: Yucatán Magazine

Many of her friends here first saw Petrus on television. Her 2019 episode of “House Hunters International,” which the producers called “Off She Goes to Mexico,” was received warmly by viewers. Monica was funny, approachable, affable. The cable show even followed up her story in early 2021 with “The Adventure Continues.” And so it does.   

The storyline was essentially true: Petrus as a single mom, mourning the loss of her beloved father and searching for a new life in Yucatán. And the tight budget. The numbers may have been fudged for broadcast, but she was watching every nickel.  

Monica Petrus worked with the House Hunters International franchise twice to reconstruct her journey to Yucatán. Photo: Courtesy

Petrus took a hard pass on the “restricted zone,” where most foreigners reside. It’s a difficult zone to escape — it would have to be at least 50 kilometers or 31 miles from the coast, leaving just the very landlocked center of the Yucatán Peninsula.

“My budget was absolutely nothing,” Petrus says. “So I went on Google maps, and I drew my line of where I could look.” 

That gave Petrus a handful of towns to explore — from her desk in Los Angeles. 

Hocabá is far from the state capital city of Mérida, but has beautiful countryside and is near gorgeous cenotes. Photo: Yucatán Magazine.

“I would go on Google Street View and go from town to town and I would ‘drive’ down every street, turn left, turn right, scoot forward, turn left, turn right,” Petrus recalls. “I would take screenshots every time I found a house that I liked. I found five or six houses that way, of course, though when I went to look up the Google Street View image, it was three years old. I mean they don’t come here very often.”

So she found a local real estate agent to be her feet on the ground in Yucatán.

“Our heads exploded,” Petrus says, when she and the agent first walked into the Hocabá house. “I mean, I didn’t know what was inside, I just saw the facade from the street.” 

The house she bought had been a sala de fiesta — a party rental that was languishing on the market — but before appeared to have been the private home of an affluent family.  

A front room in Monica Petrus’ Hocabá home is a life-size example of the California artist’s ingenuity. Photo: Yucatán Magazine

One of the first improvements Petrus did was dig a pool out back. 

“This is my favorite splurge,” Petrus said. “Like if I had to have just one thing…” The existing well was too sludgy so she had to dig a new one. 

Already on the property was a wide variety of native trees, many bearing fruit: mamay, caimito, sapote, bitter orange and limón among them.

Petrus soon realized that the house was large enough to accommodate paying guests in an out-of-the-way bedroom. The town is adjacent to Homún, where cenotes are popular with eco-tourists. 

The guesthouse venture was short-lived.

Monica Petrus works on a variety of art commissions. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

“Just as I was ready, that’s when COVID hit,” Petrus says. There was one guest before the pandemic, a woman from Canada who was a photographer. 

“I took her to all the little villages around, and we had a blast,” Petrus says.

But she really came here to be creative, although she had envisioned painting mainly those decorative borders.

“So many people have colonial homes and people are restoring them and maybe they would want some authentic touches here and there,” Petrus says.

Monica Petrus’ lush garden and pool towards the back of her property. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Fans wanted more. When someone requested something more naturalistic — a sea turtle for their wall — “people really liked it.” 

“So I made one little 8×10 sea turtle painting,” Petrus says. “And I put it on my sites and I could have sold that painting 20 times over. I couldn’t believe it.” 

One day, Petrus delivered seven of them by the beach. A customer in Tulum ordered a big one. She also packs custom orders when she flies home to the States.  

“Of course I’ve always painted but who makes a living off that? This is a total surprise.” 

Monica Petrus is ready for her next adventure in Yucatán, and she is accepting offers for her house in Hocabá. Petrus is still taking commissions for artwork, as well. Contact her at facebook.com/MonicadeHocaba.

A version of this article appeared in Issue 1 of Yucatán at Home.

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