Journey into the world of “green gold”
Visiting a hacienda is a fascinating adventure taking you some 150 years back in time to the heart of Mexico’s colonial past. True havens of peace with authentic architecture, the haciendas of Yucatán state are some of the most beautiful in the world. Here’s an introduction to six of the most unforgettable.
The Mexican haciendas date back to the Conquista of the New World in the 16th century, when the Spanish crown granted its deserving soldiers a few small landholdings. These “gifts” were designed to secure Spain’s long-term presence in the conquered territories. Over time, these modest plots expanded into vast, self-sufficient estates dedicated to exploiting the agricultural riches of Mexico: corn, sugar cane, cattle and agave or sisal, which is also known as henequen. This plant’s natural fibres were used to manufacture rope and twine, making the Yucatán wealthy in the 19th century. Rich in this “green gold”, the Yucatecan haciendas competed to have the most lavish architecture and ornamentation to reflect their owners’ success. Although the invention of synthetic fibre in the early 20th century put an end to the supremacy of these agricultural “palaces”, some Yucatán haciendas are now enjoying an incredible new lease of life as luxury hotels, private residences, restaurants or museums. Sheltering more than four centuries of Mexican history within their walls, the haciendas represent precious heritage which has now been reborn.
Hacienda San Pedro Ochil
Hacienda San Pedro Ochil may be the ideal place to stop on the way to Mérida after a visit to the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal. Built in the 17th century, this hacienda was once dedicated to livestock farming, before focusing on maize and then sisal. Today, it is a high-end restaurant where you can enjoy a picturesque lunch and sample some Mexican specialities, including pollo pibil and cochinita pibil. It’s good to know that this hacienda is still a working agave farm. The small wooden wagon or “truc” used to transport the agave to the processing workshops is also still running, although it now transports the restaurant’s guests instead. The site also houses a museum dedicated to the history of rope-making.
Hacienda Sotuta de Peón
Also on the road to Mérida, Hacienda Sotuta de Peón is a must-see for travellers looking to understand how these agricultural properties specialising in the production of henequen operated. It is the last hacienda where you can still see the entire manufacturing process of the precious fibre, from harvesting the agave right through to making the rope. You are transported around the hacienda via a set of wooden platforms pulled by mules – just like the henequen was back in the day. All the machinery dates from the 1900s! Although the hacienda produces far less than it did in the late 19th century from some 3,000 hectares of land farmed by nearly a thousand employees, the tour is still engaging, fun and informative.
Hacienda San José Cholul
Dive into the heart of 17th-century Mexico at Hacienda San José Cholul. Converted into a luxury hotel, this magnificent property is isolated in the Yucatán countryside, a 45-minute drive east of Mérida. When you first arrive, its calming rural atmosphere invites you to indulge in time to yourself. At its centre lies a beautiful cobbled courtyard. All around is vibrant, enchanting nature: the <spectacular tropical gardens are a deep green that blends beautifully with the blue, yellow and red of the buildings’ weather-beaten plastered walls. The colonial architecture has been preserved with arches, columns, dark wooden beams and doors. This hacienda boasts an elegant, authentic, and terribly romantic soul!
Not far from San José lies Hacienda Temozon. Arguably one of the most majestic Yucatán haciendas, it was once the largest in the region, producing the most henequen. Built in 1655, it covered a vast 37-hectare estate! Restored in 1995 and converted into a boutique hotel, this sumptuous colonial mansion is a world in itself. Around the remains of the “green gold” processing plant and the still-intact old machinery, the red and yellow ochre buildings’ architecture seems sophisticated yet simple, in keeping with the manufacturing techniques of the time. Within the very confines of the hacienda lies one of the many cenotes found in the Yucatán region. Formed by rock subsidence, these cenotes have become veritable natural wells with crystal-clear water that you can often swim in. An utterly unique experience!
Hacienda San Lorenzo Oxman
And while we’re on the subject of cenotes, the Hacienda de San Lorenzo Oxman, a few minutes southwest of Valladolid, is home to one of the most beautiful in the area. Roots and creepers cling to the rock, plunging down into translucent water that is bathed in incredible light, yet visitors are few and far between! It offers the ideal opportunity to enjoy a refreshing dip that makes you feel like you’re the only person in the world before you head to the hacienda’s restaurant or to relax on a sun lounger by the pool.
Finally, we have a minor departure from our overview of Yucatecan haciendas with Hacienda Uayamon, located just a few kilometres to the south, in the nearby state of Campeche. Time seems to stand still in this hacienda; vegetation has reclaimed the site around a maze of decrepit colourful buildings scattered throughout. In the middle of this jungle, wide alleys connect the buildings. Built in 1700, this “small town” shelters the remains of a hospital, a school and a church. The haciendas were equipped with all the facilities their workforce needed to live and work self-sufficiently. Although the hacienda is now a hotel, you are welcome to enjoy a quiet stroll around the gardens.