Fields of spiky agave plants standing to attention with almost military precision, dot the flat landscape of the northern Yucatán. This is the zona henequenera, an area of estates where vast fortunes were once made and lost. Native to the peninsula, henequen or sisal (Agave fourcroydes) is a hardy gray-green agave plant that has been cultivated by the Maya since time immemorial.
Henequen field in the Yucatan
When processed, henequen yields sisal or sosquil, a tough fiber used to make rope and baskets. In the late 19th-century, the demand for rope in international markets skyrocketed with the spread of agricultural machinery, ushering in an incredible boom for henequen growers, to the extent that the plant was known as oro verde or green gold.
Sisal or sosquil, a tough fiber
A Miraculous Gift from a God
According to Mayan legend, henequen was discovered by Zamná or Itzamná, variously referred to as a god, a ruler and head priest of the Itzae, founder of Izamal and divine son of the Supreme Being, Hunab Ku, creator of the universe.
Venerated for his great wisdom, Zamná was also a gifted healer always out in the fields collecting herbs. One day he gashed his hand on a plant with rigid spear-like leaves tipped by a dark brown thorn. One of his furious courtiers started to strike the plant with a stone for daring to wound his lord.
Zamná rebuked him and stopped to look at the crushed leaf and the network of resistant white fibers that had survived the beating. He remarked that life is born through pain and that the plant was a gift from the gods. Thanks to one lowly thorn he had discovered a plant that would be very useful to his people – henequen or ki. He ordered his followers to start growing it from that day forth and they used it to make rope, baskets, mats and sandals.
Rope made of Henequen fiber
Henequen may indeed be a miracle plant; modern-day scientists have discovered more than 80 potential uses for it apart from rope, including medicines, liqueurs, jewelry, fertilizers and even as a substitute for fiberglass.
Yucatán’s Haciendas Switch to Henequen Cultivation
After the Spaniards conquered the Yucatan (1531-1542), they seized Mayan lands and distributed them as encomiendas or land grants to all the men who had participated in the military campaign and then to new settlers. The first haciendas or estates grew corn, cotton or sugar cane or raised cattle while the Maya, who were forced to work for their colonial overlords, still cultivated native plants such as henequen for food, medicinal purposes and to make items of everyday use.
Hacienda in the Yucatan
The first Spanish settlers and their later descendents were oblivious to the miraculous properties of henequen. A combination of factors in the mid-19th century turned their eyes to the plant. The Caste War which exploded in the Yucatán in 1847 took its toll on haciendas as Mayan rebels razed the crops and killed the cattle of their hated white overlords. When the conflict subsided in northwest Yucatán, the economy lay in ruins and estate owners had to find a new crop to replace the traditional cattle and sugar cane if they were going to prevent mass starvation in the area.
Henequen grew quickly and flourished in the semi-arid conditions and stony soils of the area. Technological innovations in 1852 and 1858 gave the area a scraping machine which revolutionized the extraction of the fiber. The henequen spears hitherto laboriously scraped by laborers could now be processed by machine, to the tune of 6,300 an hour. Estate owners began to plant henequen for export.
International demand for rope skyrocketed in the 1870s with the spread of agricultural mechanization in the United States and Europe. Binding machines required ever increasing quantities of twine and sacking and with the invention of the McCormick combine harvester in 1878, the true potential of henequen was revealed and large-scale cultivation began.
The Henequen Boom
At the height of the henequen boom (1880 to 1910), around sixty percent of the state of Yucatán was given over to the cultivation of henequen and there were 1,170 haciendas, some with up to 2,500 Mayan workers and immigrant laborers from northern Mexico, Cuba, China and Korea. The estate owners who became fabulously rich from the cultivation of the plant popularly referred to it as oro verde or green gold.
A handful of families controlled the henequen industry, spending their fortunes on the finest European furniture, tiles and crystal for their estate houses, which they built in a bewildering variety of styles ranging from medieval to Moorish, renaissance to baroque and sometimes a combination of several. They traveled widely, dressed in the latest Parisian fashions, lived in opulent town houses in Mérida and sent their children to Europe to study. In contrast, their workers lived in poverty, permanently in debt to the estate truck shop and presided over by the overseers or mayordomos and the watchful estate manager.
Estate owners regarded their haciendas as their own personal kingdom, and would visit their country home during the year to preside over the festivities for the patron saint of the village. Each estate had its own wells, stables, orchards and fields for growing staple crops such as corn, in addition to a rudimentary school, clinic, shop and even prison cells for unruly workers.
The bubble of prosperity for the hacienda owners proved short-lived and at the end of the World War I, only 200 haciendas survived. By the 1930s’ the industry was in terminal decline, hit hard by the Mexican Revolution, the development of synthetic fibers, new land laws and legislation to protect workers’ rights. One by one, the haciendas were abandoned and fell into ruin.
Small-scale henequen cultivation continues on some estates for the craft industry and the haciendas have seen seeing something of a renaissance in recent years. Increasing numbers of haciendas are being restored as private residences, boutique hotels, restaurants and museums. Crumbling arches, fragrant gardens, antique furniture in the casa principal or estate owner’s house, the chapel, the living quarters of the laborers and rusting machinery, a hacienda visit gives you a fascinating glimpse of the henequen production process and the very different lives led by the plantation owner and his workers.
Henequen production in Hacienda Sotuta, Yucatan
Exploring the Haciendas
Restored Hacienda in the Yucatan
Ready to learn more about henequen and this chapter of Yucatecan history? Here is a selection of haciendas to get you started.
Hacienda Yaxcopoil, Yucatan
A Moorish double arch marks the entrance to Yaxcopoil or “place of the green poplars” in Maya. Founded in the 17th century, it was originally a cattle ranch and at its peak had 11,000 hectares of pastures and henequen fields. In 1864 it was purchased by Don Donaciano García Rejón and is still owned by one of his descendants. The estate house has its original turn of the century furnishings, right down to the brushes on the dressing table and the books and maps in the library.
The machinery used in the production process was imported from Germany and can still be seen in the machine house and the workshops are hidden behind an impressive Classic façade with female statues representing the four seasons. Mayan ruins, including a ball court, dot the estate and pottery, sculptures and other artifacts unearthed in the area are on display in the Maya Room, one of the halls in the estate house.
Henequen-processing machinery in Hacienda Yaxcopoil, Yucatan
Hacienda Yaxcopoil is located 33 km from Mérida en route to Uxmal via on Highway 261.
Hacienda Ochil, Yucatan
Visitors can also watch henequen being processed and craftsmen working during a visit to Hacienda Ochil, another 17th century estate in the Abalá district 36 km from Mérida.
The estate chapel has been converted into workshops where a master jeweler makes the delicate gold and silver filigree pieces for which Yucatán is famous, women weave hammocks and embroider the white cotton dresses known as hipiles and men carve wood and stone. There is also a restaurant serving traditional Yucatecan cuisine.
Hacienda Ochil, Yucatan
Hacienda Teya, Yucatan
Located eight miles (12.5 km) from the city of Mérida on Highway 180, Hacienda Teyá was founded in 1683 as a livestock and corn estate. Unusually for the era, the owner was a woman, Ildefonsa Antonia Marcos Bermejo Calderón y de la Helguera, the wife of the Conde de Miraflores. Powerful women were rare in colonial Mexico.
Teyá was turned over to henequen in the nineteenth century and its prosperous owners enhanced the colonial estate house with neo-Classical-style features, which were even incorporated in the outhouses, especially the machine house.
Hacienda Teya, Yucatan
By the 1970s, Teyá was deserted, derelict and on the market. A Mérida businessman, Jorge Carlos Cárdenas Gutiérrez went to see the property in 1974 and fell in love with it. He bought it and painstakingly began to restore the orchards and gardens with his family, finally starting on the house and other buildings in 1985.
Famous for its restaurant serving Yucatecan cuisine, Teyá is also a popular setting for weddings, conventions and other special events. It has two chapels, rooms for cocktails and banquets and beautiful gardens. A swimming pool by day, the 1905 machine house is transformed into a magnificent ballroom for evening events.
Hacienda Teya, Yucatan
Hacienda Sotuta de Peón
Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, Yucatan
One way of learning more about the area’s henequen heritage is to take a trip that combines a hacienda visit with a tour of Mérida. During the henequen boom, the city is said to have been home to more millionaires than any other city in the world. You can still see the opulent mansions of the henequen barons on Paseo Montejo, the boulevard inspired by the Champs Elysées in Paris and the impressive civic landmarks, such as the Peon Contreras Theater that they commissioned.
The second leg of this journey takes you to Hacienda Sotuta de Peón, a working henequen estate 28 miles (35 kilometers) south of the city in the Tecoh district (take the turn off after the village of Itzincab) along the Convent Route.
Workers handling Henequen - Hacienda Sotuta de Peon
The Sotuta visit includes a ride out to the fields in a traditional horse-drawn wagon or “truck” to see how henequen is planted and harvested. Workers in the machine house show visitors how the leaves were shredded to extract the fiber, dried and combed before being woven into rope and twine and used to make bags and mats. The fiber was packed into bales to be transported by rail to the Gulf coast port of Sisal where it was shipped overseas.
Tour of Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, Yucatan
Visitors can also walk through the restored rooms of the estate house still decorated with the original furniture, French porcelain, crystal and art; see a traditional Mayan home and swim in the crystalline waters of the Dzul-Há Cenote.
Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, Yucatan
Other Haciendas in the Yucatán
Also at the forefront of the hacienda renaissance is Grupo Plan, an award winning Mexican-owned company that has restored a number of haciendas in the Yucatán for sustainable tourism projects. They include Santa Rosa de Lima, Temozón Sur, San José Cholul, and Uayamón and Hacienda Puerta Campeche in the neighboring state of Campeche, all of which are boutique hotels.
The list of estate houses that have been renovated and reopened in the Yucatán continues to grow and now comprises Xcanatún, Santa Cruz Palomeque, Kaua and Hacienda Misne in Mérida, Hacienda Petac, Katanchel and finally Tabi, located in the south of the state.