Henequén, or sisal, brought great prosperity to Mexico’s Yucatán at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century that it was called green gold. The fiber, the product of a spiny plant called Agave fourcryodes, was made into rope and cord that were widely used in the flourishing shipping industry.
Haciendas are sort of like the plantations in the southern United States. Haciendas in the Yucatán Peninsula were originally places to raise cattle and maize. Eventually, it was the cactus Agave that was planted extensively in the haciendas of Yucatán.
On a visit to Mérida, Yucatán’s capital, we were recommended by locals to visit haciendas close to Mérida. The grand mansions of Mérida’s Paseo de Montejo, the city’s version of Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma, were built by wealth aqcuired during the henequén boom.
We stumbled on the office of Hacienda Sotuta de Peón on Calle 55 at the neighborhood of Santa Lucia in Mérida’s Centro Historico and easily booked a tour for the next day for our family of four.
Transport and Welcome
We were picked up promptly at 8:45 am in Mérida at the Hacienda‘s office, just a few steps away from our vacation rental. A comfortable air-conditioned van brought us to Tecoh, about 45 minutes away from Mérida.
There was enough time on arrival to put on insect repellant and sunscreen and for the kids to take a bathroom break before our amiable tour guide, Jorge, gathered us.
Our tour group hailed from the US, Germany and Belgium. Jorge addressed our group in English and French and told us what things were called in Spanish and Maya.
Jorge filled us in on the historical context of the henequén haciendas, their rise and fall. With the production of synthetic fibers, there was decline in the demand for henequén. There were also political events: the Caste War and Mexico’s agrarian reform that led the haciendas to deteriorate.
There had been renewed interests in the haciendas around the 1990s and some have been renovated, converted to hotels or restaurants.
Hacienda Sotuta de Peón has been beautifully restored and prides itself as a living museum of henequén.
On the walk to the hacienda‘s main house, we got the answer to the identification of the curious tree with spikes on its trunk: it’s the Kapok or Ceiba tree, the sacred tree of the Maya.
The main house of the hacienda was reminiscent of a French country house with tropical flourishes. The main house, which seemed frozen in time was decorated with glass chandeliers from Murano and tile from Portugal. The mosaic in the kitchen evoked Barcelona. We were told that historically, the Yucatán had closer contact with Europe than the rest of Mexico.
A cool breeze wafted through the veranda; it would be nice to just hang around here — in a hamaca, a hammock or one of the rocking chairs.
But time to move and see how henequén or sisal is processed.
First, some agua fresca made of tamarind and hibiscus, refreshing on a hot and humid summer day.
Jorge introduced Daniel to our group. He showed us how henequén used to be processed by hand. The “combing” and braiding of the fibers were pretty tedious manually – although the children in the group enjoyed trying to do it. This would not work for what became a high demand for henequén products.
Machinery led to more efficient processing of henequén. Loads of cut henequén leaves were fed into the machine and voila, precious fibers came out of one end. They were put to dry under the jaguar sun.
The waste? No waste. It became feed or fertilizer.
We rode a truk, wooden platforms pulled by mules over rail to see the henequen fields.
It was a fun ride and got us to the Maya house.
Visit to a Maya House
Don Antonio warmly received our group.
A great story teller, he spoke to us in Maya and Spanish. Language was not a barrier with Jorge around.
Hacienda Sotuta de Peón was only one of the 14 haciendas that the Peón family owned. As a young man, Don Antonio worked for then owner of the hacienda, Don Augusto Peón. The hacienda passed on to Don Augusto’s son after his death. With henequén production becoming unprofitable, the hacienda was closed down.
Don Antonio was awarded land through agrarian reform. He is now retired from farm work.
When the hacienda was purchased in the 1980s, the hacienda became “a loving project of restoration”. Don Antonio became part of it. He showed us how henequén is planted.
It’s a plant that calls for patience: it takes seven years before it produces the leaves that produces the precious fibers. Then for 25 years, it produces the green gold.
Don Antonio showed us into a Maya house and then sent us off with “God’s blessings and protection”.
Swimming in a Cenote
This is the part of the tour that was much enjoyed by our children.
Cenotes are limestone sinkholes that lead to underground pools. There are 8 cenotes in the property and we went to the one called Dzul-Ha. The cool and clear waters of the cenote was so good on a hot summer day. It was hard to convince the kids to go back to the surface, until they heard that the next part of the tour is lunch.
Another ride on the truk and we were in the restaurant.
Lunch did not disappoint.
We had Yucatecan cuisine: cochinita pibil, pollo pibil, papadzules, pok-chuc.
And I tried margarita sisal. The drink is made from liquor, similar to tequila, but produced from the trunk of the henequén plant.
Last stop before boarding the van back to Merida: the hacienda‘s chapel. Weddings are held here.
We headed back to Merida around 3 pm, tired, ready for siesta, but so happy with the day’s cultural experience.
Thanks to the wonderful people who make up Hacienda Sotuta de Peón.
And thanks for reading our blog post!