The area surrounding Merida is scattered with haciendas from the 17th to 19th centuries. After the conquest of Mexico the Spanish crown distributed land to Spanish noblemen, dubbed locally as the ‘Divine Caste,’ and the haciendas built upon the land originally functioned as cattle ranches. The real boom for the area, however, came when the haciendas started to produce henequen. This fiber, derived from the agave plant, was used to make rope and was sold all over the world. Since it was produced from the agave, which is a type of cactus, it was easy to grow in the intense heat of the region and this appealed to the hacienda owners. The fiber was also resistant to pests and decay making it the perfect fiber to use in shipping, the main form of export at the time. Henequen was shipped from the port of Sisal in the Yucatán and became known worldwide as by the name sisal due to the seal on the boxes that were exported out. Merchants would come to Mexico looking for sisal, which initially caused confusion when they were directed to the port and not the haciendas.
The Boom Years
The production of henequen proved so lucrative that it was nicknamed ‘green gold’ and workers were drafted in from as far afield as Asia and the Canary Islands to work alongside the local Maya to increase production. The servants who worked the land, while not officially slaves, were bonded to the land and paid in money that could only be spent within the hacienda. Before the industrial revolution, production was undertaken manually with this thick and strong fiber being shredded and combed manually. The work was intense and many workers were made to labor ceaselessly with little food and water. Workers who were seen to be lazy were whipped or imprisoned in tiny cells until they were prepared to work harder. In the 1860s the first machinery was imported to the haciendas from Europe and production increased in tune with the growing international demand. Profits from the sales skyrocketed as production increased and the money pouring in paid for Merida’s streets and important buildings, which encouraged more people to move to the city.
The boom however was short lived and by 1916 the demand began to decrease due to, among other factors, the invention of synthetic fibers that were cheaper to produce and served similar functions. The Mexican Revolution added fuel to the fire and by the 1950s most hacienda’s had been abandoned and preceded to fall into ruin. The haciendas lay decaying, overtaken by plants and trees until the 1990s when private hotel owners and hotel chains started to show interest. Ruined haciendas began to be bought up and restored into opulent boutique hotels.
One of the first Hacienda hotels was Hacienda Xcanatun, acquired by Jorge Ruz Buenfil, son of noted archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, who discovered of the tomb of King Pacal at Palenque. Jorge Ruz Buenfil and his wife spent six years restoring the hacienda, just outside of the center of Merida into an elegant hotel and restaurant. The Starwood Hotel group then followed suit buying up a number of haciendas across the Yucatan and converting them into luxurious and unique accommodations set upon acres of land with huge, luxurious rooms. All of their haciendas retain original features but boast interesting modern design ideas like a swimming pool that spans across two rooms in the Hacienda Puerta Campeche and a spa in a cave at Hacienda Temozon. Taking renovation to a whole new level is the Chablé resort and spa, due to open in 2016, which boasts a spa sitting within an onsite underground cenote. These haciendas provide a unique and fascinating hotel experience and a chance for visitors to explore the Yucatan further.