A day trip with a car and driver that begins in Mérida and includes visits to several of the region’s atmospheric haciendas — built by wealthy 19th-century sisal barons — and the great Mayan archaeological site of Uxmal should be a mandatory excursion in the Yucatán.
The sisal boom began during the 1830s as global trade grew steadily and demand exploded for the strong fibers that can be obtained by processing several of the Yucatán’s native agave species, notably henequen and sisal. These plants had been selected and domesticated by the Mayans and their fibers used to produce rope and twine. The Yucatán was the principal region of production until the 1920s.
By 1880, the “green gold” of the Yucatán had made it one of the wealthiest states in Mexico, and the sisal barons had built sumptuous villas along Mérida’s Paseo de Montejo, as well as mansions on the haciendas where the henequen and sisal plants were cultivated. The latter were magnificently furnished, with chandeliers and furniture brought to Mexico from the United States and Europe. They also carried the heavy machinery needed to process sisal, which is why today you can still spot equipment that was made in Glasgow or Chicago when you tour their agricultural outbuildings.
Sisal production declined with the advent of synthetic fibers during World War I, and it never recovered, although a current move away from plastics has stirred new interest in its use for making fabric and bags.
Among those that are open to visitors, Hacienda Yaxcopoil is perhaps the most interesting and best preserved. This hacienda was founded during the 17th century, and the name “Yaxcopoil” means “the place of the green alamo trees” in Mayan. The estate began as a cattle ranch and was then converted to a henequen plantation. The main building contains a series of large drawing rooms with high ceilings, and the principal reception room displays two striking oil paintings showing Donaciano García Rejón Mazó and his wife, Maria Mónica Galera, who acquired the hacienda in 1864. The oratory holds a painting from the colonial period with the image of its patron saint, Gerónimo de Yaxcopoil, who is still venerated in the pueblo nearby. In the orchard, the water tanks and the well, with their American-made motor and pump of early-20th-century design, are still supplying water for the machine house and the shredding machines.
A 30-minute drive from Yaxcopoil, the most striking feature of Cenotes Hacienda Mucuyché is its double cenote linked by a canal. It was here in 1865 that the Empress Carlota famously swam prior to her departure to Paris to seek help from Napoleon III for her doomed husband, Maximilian I, whom he had installed as the monarch of Mexico. During its 18th-century heyday, the hacienda produced cattle and henequen and also had a distillery. The guided tour includes both a visit to the original building with its gallery of Moorish arches and a swim in the cool waters of the cenote.
From Mucuyché, it’s a 45-minute drive to the spectacular ruins of Uxmal, a complex of awe-inspiring temples that were built by the Mayans around A.D. 700. Considered to be among the most important vestiges of the Mayan civilization, this UNESCO World Heritage site is noted for the size and decoration of its magnificent stone pyramids. The exceptionally well-preserved ruins are covered with ornate friezes. The decoration is especially memorable, with entwined snakes and fearsome fanged and feathered serpents used to create motifs of the rain god, Chaac. Highlights include the five-level Pyramid of the Magician and the huge Governor’s Palace.
Uxmal has been spared the huge crowds that inundate Chichen Itza 125 miles to the east, which makes it a relaxing and contemplative place to visit, as well as an ideal setting in which to learn about one of the world’s great civilizations.