Haciendas, Henequen, and Hammocks

Take a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, where you’ll find beautifully restored, luxurious haciendas from a time when a native agave plant was as good as gold.
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Mule pulling cart at Hacienda Sotuta de Peon in Mexico
TRIP TO THE PAST: Hacienda Sotuta de Peon offers tours through their plantation on platforms pulled by mules, transportation used over 100 years ago  (Ellen Clark.)
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Long after the Maya and long before Cancun's crowded resorts lured spring breakers, wealthy landowners built sprawling haciendas in Yucatan's interior. Many date from the 16th century and though most of the 1,200 thought to exist at the height of their popularity have succumbed to demolition or the ravages of time, those that survived remind us of a past life. These remaining haciendas have been transformed into luxury hotels, museums, restaurants, and special event venues where you can step into the Yucatan's storied past without surrendering any of today's modern amenities.

Initially surrounded by vast amounts of land used to raise cattle and grow crops, Yucatan's haciendas followed an economic system commenced by the Spaniards, echoing Europe's feudal system. Local Maya worked in fields and factories for paltry wages or no wages at all and, similar to southern plantations in the United States, there was a strict caste system based on race. European landowners were the masters and the Maya were their slaves.

The 19th century brought about the discovery that henequen—an agave plant native to the Yucatan—contained fibers called sisal that surpassed those of the hemp plant for making rope. It's hard to imagine now, but prior to the invention of synthetics, rope made from natural fibers was a necessary and highly sought-after commodity used for everything from ship's rigging to carpets. Manufacturing it proved very profitable; therefore, when Yucatan hacienda owners found the raw product right in their own backyards they started seriously cultivating the plant, and made fortunes in the process. During the boom years, hundreds of workers tended huge fields containing thousands of acres of growing henequen. Small rail tracks were constructed to enable mules and carts to move the henequen from the fields to the processing plant and then to market more efficiently.

Hacienda buildings were utilized for everything from living quarters to manufacturing. The main house, usually the largest and most impressive, contained the owner's living quarters and the administration offices; a machine house was built for processing the henequen; and other buildings included a small chapel, a house for the hacienda foreman, stables, and smaller buildings used for storage and as living quarters for the workers.

Henequen became known as the "Green Gold" of the Yucatan peninsula, and haciendas flourished as their owners became extremely rich, until shortly after the Mexican Revolution, when the invention of synthetic fibers dealt a crushing blow to the industry. The vast henequen fields were sold and the haciendas abandoned and left to decay in the jungle, until the end of the 20th century when there was renewed interest in the historical buildings and renovations began.

Published: 7 Oct 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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Best Hotels in Yucatan

$81-$97
Average/night*
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Fiesta Americana Merida
$97-$129
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Hacienda Merida - Luxury Hotel - Historical Downtown
$75
Average/night*
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Hotel Casa Del Balam - Historical Downtown
$114
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Hotel Casa San Angel - Adults Only

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