A day in the life of a Yucatán Hacienda in Mexico
Sometimes certain words get entangled in your mind for no reason at all. ‘Hacienda’ is one such word that ricocheted in my mind until I visited one of them in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.
Hacienda was a large farm, estate or plantation, mostly existed in the Spanish Colonies. It could also be industrial outfits on a large scale. There were many Haciendas in the Spanish speaking countries, especially in Mexico, from the mid-18th century for almost a hundred years. In the beginning, haciendas started as maize and sugar plantations, but later as the economic opportunities from henequen fibres opened thus they became henequen estates.
Haciendas were self-contained organizations with hundreds of workers with their own social-class systems with a pyramidal hierarchy. On top of the hierarchy there were landowners, haciendados, and at the bottom the workers, mostly Maya people. Haciendas had living accommodations (class-based), schools, shops, stables, churches, and jails. There were machines to produce fibres and ropes from the henequen plants. To supplement the Mayan labour, later, in the early part of 1900s, Koreans were recruited to Mexico as laborers to work on the plantations.
The ropes and twines made from Agave/henequen were shipped all over the world mainly from the port of Sisal. Thus, the henequen products are known as Sisal ropes. At the height of the henequen boom, Merida, the capital city of Yucatan Province, became a wealthy town with modern buildings, transportation, etc. There are many prominent Maya towns in Yucatan province.
In their heydays, in the early 1900s, there were about 1200 haciendas in the Merida area. Then, haciendas especially the ones produced the sisal fibres were symbols of wealth and prosperity. Like everything else, new innovations, technologies, and products (the advent of synthetic fibres) made henequen industry obsolete. Most of the haciendas were disbanded and disappeared due to economic reasons. However, in the last few decades, a sort of revival, a revamped interest in haciendas is happening. Many of them are being restored into resorts, and boutique hotels, and some into museums as a testament to their glory days. This turnaround has improved tourism too. The government has declared many of the survived ones as Cultural Heritage.
Welcome to Hacienda Sotuta de Peón!
Our itinerary included a day at Hacienda Sotuta de Peón. This hacienda is located about 35 kilometers southwest of Merida. We traveled via Calle 6, 63, and 49 (part of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro known as the Silver Route). It was a pleasant drive as the countryside, and villages small and large passed by. The lush green bushes, trees, and small-scale farms provided a visual feast. It was a beautiful, bright, hot and sunny day.
The Sotuta de Peón (also known as Hacienda Viva) came into existence in Yucatan in the municipality of Tecoh around the late part of the 19th century. Now, it is a fully-restored living and working hacienda for modern generations to experience. It provides a true window into the hacienda life.
We didn’t know what to expect beyond the guarded gates and the thatched roof welcome center. After purchasing the tour tickets, we waited for our tour guide to join us. Our guide took us through various aspects of the hacienda, stopping at various production stations, operations of a bygone era henequenera farm.
Sotuta de Peon is the only working hacienda left in the Yucatan, still growing, processing, and selling Sisal fibres, ropes, twines, and carpets and other consumer products Not only it is a living museum, it has a small hotel/resort where guests can stay and enjoy the hacienda atmosphere up and close. Hacienda Sotuta de Peon is kept as it was and is living proof of hacienda life.
Visitors are transported from venue to venue across the farm on a wagon (known as Truks) on rails drawn by a pony. This is the same mode of transportation hacienda workers used in the earlier days.
Our first stop was the main house, it is a museum now. Every aspect of the hacienda era is preserved and showcased in it for the visitors. The décor, furniture, accessories, room layout, art pieces, pictures, and furnishings represent the bygone era.
The main house/museum is surrounded by well-kept lawns full of lush, green tropical plants and beautiful flowering shrubs. From the museum, we walked to the henequen extraction building. Here, we witnessed the many steps involved, manual to mechanical, in the production of henequen fibre and ropes. Our English-speaking guide has in-depth knowledge of the process; thus, he explained the steps in detail.
Once the Agave bulbil is planted, the plant takes about 5 to 7 years to mature, and ready for the harvest. Each plant yields about 20 to 30 leaves per harvest: they are from 1 to 1.5 meters in length. The long, green sword-like leaves are bundled and transported to the processing plant. The leaves are fed through a scrapping machine that extracts the henequen fibre, then dried in the sun and bundled into bales and compressed by machines. The process is simple, and thus huge quantities of fibres can be extracted daily. Henequen fibres are woven into ropes by manual method or by machinery. The rope making machines are in an area called Corchería.
The by-product of the scraping, fibre extraction, and the fibre process is mostly water and other plant residues. It is used in the production of fertilizers, animal feeds, biogas, and certain pharmaceutical items.
The Scraper/extraction machine scrapes the external sheathing of the leaves and exposes and extracts the fibre. After the extraction, the fibre is dried and weaved into ropes.
We were amazed to see the efficiency of these old machineries still functional as it was designed over a hundred years ago.
We got on to the pony ‘express’ and stopped at the Maya house. At the Mayan house (Casa Maya), we met with Don who is a descendant of the Maya people. The house with its thatched roof is made of mud and stone walls typical of Mayan houses. Don does not live there, but the house is there to introduce the visitors to the Mayan life.
There are many cenotes in the Hacienda with fresh, and clean water. They are underground springs, pools, and rivers. We visited the Dzul Ha cenote through an opening on the ground and going down a few steps into the cave. The water looked crystal clear and refreshing. Visitors are allowed to swim in it.
After a few hours in the hot, and bright tropical sun, we had a cooled down lunch at the Palapa restaurant with few chilled Dos Equis, fresh Jicama salad, and the regional Yucatan dishes. It was scrumptious and refreshing.
It was an interesting journey into the past. We enjoyed the tour, especially to see the operations of a hacienda in the old-world setting. We witnessed every step of the henequen production process from the plant to the fibre to the finished products using the antiquated, but fully restored, machinery. Visiting the Mayan house and seeing the Mayan artifacts, was another interesting highlight. Meeting Don Antonio, a Mayan grandfather who told us stories of Mayan life in the haciendas and gave us a glimpse into the lives of the Mayan workers. Haciendas thrived due to the Maya laborers. Their living conditions were tough and crude, and minimal. They toiled in the farms in harsh tropical conditions and sustained a poor livelihood. The haciendas represented a feudalistic society.
Don bid adieu to us in Hindi.