Yucatán’s long and storied history of economic boom and bust cycles is nowhere more apparent than in the haciendas that dot the back roads near Mérida in southeastern Mexico. Built in the century following the overthrow of the Maya in the 1540s or in the 19th century, the haciendas – former plantations, really – can be quiet or bustling, abandoned or reconstructed, but they always create a romantic and sometimes mysterious atmosphere. Visiting these rural properties is so popular among tourists on the Yucatán Peninsula that a Hacienda Route driving tour has been mapped out that features well-marked signage on state highways.
In the 19th century, these plantations dominated the world’s production of henequén, which brought untold riches to their owners who created lavish homes for themselves. Henequén, the fiber better known as sisal, was used worldwide to produce just about every rope used on ships and farms, and in factories. The industry collapsed in the mid-20th century with the invention of plastic and the haciendas were abandoned, destroying the local economy. Over the decades, the elegant homes and sometimes even more beautiful processing plants became sad but atmospheric ruins.
By the 1990s, the haciendas’ owners and smart investors realized that the properties represented a golden opportunity to expand tourism on the Yucatán Peninsula. Nowadays, recreated small-scale henequén plantations, museums, restaurants, and hotels occupy the former plantations and welcome visitors from around the globe.
Closest to Mérida is the Hacienda Xcanatun, located 6 miles north on the busy highway that leads to the coastal port town of Progreso. Opened in 2000 after a five-year restoration, this luxury hotel also is home to Casa de Piedra restaurant, which is one of the area’s finest.
Rising just off the toll road between Mérida and Cancún, the Hacienda Teya was built in 1683 by the Countess de Miraflores. It is a popular site for weddings and other special events, where guests can explore the 1905 machine house, spice garden, and San Ildefonso chapel, which houses reproductions of paintings by artists Velazquez and El Greco.
Near Valladolid stands the Hacienda San Miguel, now privately restored and operating “cabañas ecoturisticas.” These bungalows share the property with a still-active chapel and a charmingly noisy flock of turkeys, ducks, and geese.
The three Starwood hotels – Temozón, Santa Rosa, and San José Cholul – offer luxury accommodations in haciendas reclaimed by Mexican billionaire, Roberto Hernandez. They provide excellent home bases from which to explore the region’s many attractions, with first-class dining and spas adding to your vacation experience. U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both visited Temozón and their photos are prominently displayed in the hotel lobby. My pampered stay there, in a former administrative building, is among the fondest memories of my time in Yucatán.
The most evocative of the haciendas is Yaxcopoil, which appears virtually untouched since the 19th century. Once among Yucatán’s largest henequén producers, Yaxcopoil originally extended across 22,000 acres of land and still remains in the same family that purchased it in 1864. Today, the caretaker (who himself used to work in the plantation’s packing plant) leads unpretentious tours through the main house with its imported European furniture, a small museum of Mayan artifacts found on the site, and the looming processing facilities. Several rooms are available for rent and come with meals hand-cooked by the caretaker’s wife.
Hacienda Sotuta de Peon has the most touristic development, with slow-moving horse-drawn rail car rides through replanted henequén fields. Bus tours from Mérida include the ride plus transportation, lunch, and visits to the hacienda’s recreated typical Mayan house, gardens, and cenote, the entrance to an underground river.
Representative of the hundreds of now-abandoned haciendas is Hacienda San Antonio Yaxche in northern Campeche state. The ruins stand near the old Mérida-Campeche highway south of Uxmal and Santa Elena on a two-lane road that leads to the Mayan archeological site of Xcalumkin. You can wander through the decaying main house, its ceiling long since collapsed, and understand just what effort it has taken for Yucatán’s entrepreneurs to restore the beautiful buildings. On the day I was there, a herd of pigs rutted noisily in the former garden.
Hacienda Chichén Itzá possesses what is likely the richest history of all the haciendas. The yellow-painted main house, built as the haciendado’s home in the 16th century, now contains the lobby, restaurant, and library of the famous Hotel Hacienda Chichén Itzá and Yaxchin Spa. The graceful structure, which is constructed of stones from destroyed Mayan buildings, was the center of a wide-ranging colonial economic enterprise, a cattle ranch.
In 1895, Edward H. Thompson, the American archeologist who first explored Chichén Itzá, purchased about 100 square miles of land that included both the ruins and the hacienda. The next generation of scholars, from the legendary Carnegie Institution’s first Mayan Research Expedition, lived in cottages interspersed throughout the reclaimed gardens – hotel guests now overnight in these same quarters. Owned since the mid 20th century by Yucatán’s pioneering tourism family, the Barbachanos, Hacienda Chichén Itzá has once again been reinvented. The hotel has received global recognition for its green practices, preservation of flora and fauna, and support for indigenous Maya education, health, and economic development.
I admit my prejudice: Hacienda Chichén Itzá is my personal favorite. I like it so much, in fact, that I spent a month living there as a volunteer English teacher and gave classes to the hotel’s staff. You can read the story of this amazing experience at yucatantoday.com.
During my childhood in California, I used to make my parents stop at every historical marker that we would drive by on vacation road trips. I guess I haven’t changed so much – a journey with me along the Hacienda Route moves slowly and is punctuated with frequent stops. But – I assure you – we won’t regret making a single one.