Written by Rhodri & Lydia Jones
Are you looking for something different in Yucatán?
Half-hidden in the scrubland of the Yucatán Peninsula are the remnants of a story of power, greed, exploitation and unimaginable wealth. An isolated brick chimney. A peeling Moorish gateway. A rusting rail track among the weeds. A door swinging idly on a ballroom, its faded Chinese wallpaper opening onto the village soccer pitch. It's the story of henequén.
They called it 'green gold' because it made twenty families wealthy. They were the Casta Divina, the Divine Caste. Mérida was reputedly home to more millionaires than any other city on earth. Wealthy on the backs of exploited Maya workers. That history is still visible in the haciendas, some decaying gracefully, some given new life as up-market hotels with geraniums in the old rail wagons. It's a glimpse of an age that disappeared as quickly as it had begun.
It started with an eighteen-year-old Wisconsin farm boy called John Appleby. He invented a machine for tying knots. The story is that he saw a girl throw her skipping rope over her puppy, and when the puppy wriggled out, there was the knot. Appleby's invention was part of a silent revolution in wheat production. In 1830, a bushel of wheat (8 gallons) took three hours to produce; by 1900 that was down to ten minutes.
So young Appleby mechanized the knotting of wheat into sheaves. The question was: the knot in what? Wire was no good; it got into the wheat and choked the new machinery. Manila hemp was better, but grasshoppers ate it. The answer, on America's doorstep, was sisal.
The Spanish colonists originally set up haciendas on land granted by the Spanish government (over the heads of the Maya). At first they raised cattle and the horses they introduced from the Old World. Then there was suddenly this insatiable demand for sisal, to feed Appleby's knotting machines.
Sisal comes from the henequén agave cactus, native to Yucatán and similar to the plant tequila is made from; we know it as 'Sisal' because it was exported from Sisal port of north of Mérida, so that is what was stamped on the sacks.
The Maya traditionally used henequén to make ropes, hammocks, sandals and textiles, but it is a lengthy and labor-intensive process. The plants need to grow for seven years before they can be harvested, and a dozen years later, they're dead.
The indigenous Maya worked on haciendas as virtual slaves, on land that was once theirs, although legally there was no slavery in Mexico. They were always paid upfront in the coinage of the hacienda, and therefore always in debt. If you know the Tennessee Ernie Ford song, Sixteen Tons, it's that: 'I owe my soul to the company store.' It’s a sad story.
If you want to know how it all worked, when the brick chimneys belched smoke and the rusting rail tracks were part of a 2,800 mile network, Sotuta de Peón is your best bet. It's a great day out for adults and children as the tour they offer is very interactive, including a mule-wagon ride along the old rail tracks and a cave swim.
The hacienda and its beautiful colonial house were built by and named after Don Peón as a henequén estate in the 19th century in Tecoh village. To produce on an industrial scale, he owned 13 haciendas. They transported henequén fiber by rail to Sisal port. Don Peón became a millionaire and lived in a luxurious villa in Mérida. But he and the rest of the Casta Divina lost their estates during the land reform of the 1930s, by which time sisal had already been supplanted by plastics and American wheat no longer needed binding. The haciendas were abandoned and fell into disrepair.
A few years ago Sotuta de Peón was immaculately restored by its German owner Adolfo Lubke. I've been back several times; it is that good! Don Alfredo demonstrates how they processed the henequén cactus in the shredder, then dried and combed the fibers, spun them into strings and ropes and tied them into bales. The brick chimney next to the shredder plant was for the steam engine but the current machinery is diesel-powered. I also love the mule-wagon ride along the narrow old rails far out into the rocky henequén fields, a real taste of the countryside.
Out in the fields you will be greeted by ancient but jolly Don Antonio. I learnt my first sweet Maya phrase from him: Ma'alob k'iin, good day! He lived on this farm as a little boy when his parents labored here. He still owns a coin from the company store. I am delighted that the current owner employs him, and other villagers, because finding work in the Yucatán countryside is not easy.
The last adventure of the three-hour tour is a swim in a cave cenote called Dzul Há. In Maya it means 'Gentleman's Water' as only the owners were allowed to swim here. Well, we can all swim there now. If you have never swum in a cave before, here’s a place to start. The underground water is clean and refreshing, filtered through limestone. A wagon bar next to the cenote offers cold margaritas and tequila, which they make here experimentally from henequén, rather than the usual agave cactus. One could not ask for more to round off an exceptional day.
If you want to read more about the extraordinary story of henequén, try this well-researched article by Robert D Temple in the Yucatán Times. But above all, get out there and see for yourself.