Yucatan Henequen Haciendas are something I had never heard of. Even more interesting, when I recently read an article about them, I had to look up what “henequen” meant. I had no idea.
Henequen is an agave plant, native to Southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Central America in general. It is similar to the plants used to make tequila and mezcal. Henequen agave was used for making rope by the indigenous peoples of the area, as well as a potent drink called liquor de henequen.
The henequen fibers were so durable that it was ideal for making ropes for ships and agriculture across the world. The henequen industry attracted more US investment than any other region during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It was a period when wheat production and ship building flourished in North America: Yucatan twine was in high demand. As henequen production boomed, the plant earned the name “green gold”, and Yucatan became the richest state in Mexico. By 1915, more than 70% of land in Yucatan was used to grow and process henequen and more than 1,200,000 bales of the plant had been exported.
Yucatan’s Mayan sites are well-known and, even though there are many more still hidden in the impenetrable jungle, very little is known about the Yucatan Henequen Haciendas, which have also mostly disappeared into the jungle. They were built with the wealth of Yucatan’s 19th-Century henequen-rope industry, but are all now a ghost of their former glory.
There are hundreds of these haciendas in the Yucatan, many of them spanning thousands of acres. They once symbolized the peninsula’s wealth and power but were abandoned in the 1950s after a sudden downturn of fortune caused by a diminishing market for rope. Some of the ruins are still visible from the side of the road, while others require the keen eye and local knowledge of a guide; and whereas some have been left for nature to take back, a few have been reclaimed for a second life, and beautifully renovated.
During the boom-time of henequen agave rope production, the Yucatan Henequen Haciendas grew in enormous size and complexity, with sprawling grounds that included plantations, henequen-processing plants, churches, stores and workers’ quarters. In many aspects, they were autonomous countries within the country; some even had their own currency and their own laws.
These haciendas were run by wealthy landowners of Spanish origin who wielded immense power over indigenous Maya peoples, and often forced them into labor against their will.
When the Mexican Revolution happened in the 1920s, it brought significant changes: the exploitation of indigenous peoples became unacceptable, and the new regime’s land reforms broke up the massive estates controlled by the elite few. Most of the henequen fields were confiscated. In addition, the US began looking for alternative sources of rope to free itself from dependence on Mexican henequen. The Great Depression further slowed commerce in the Yucatan. By 1938, Yucatan had lost its dominance in the henequen industry, and the era of wealth ended. The Yucatan Henequen Haciendas fell into poverty, and by the 1950s, most were completely abandoned to the jungle.
Hacienda Kampepén is one of the most interesting sites – it’s something of an open-air history museum. Owned by Desarrollos Turisticos de Yucatan, a group of local businessmen, Kampepén opened its doors for visitors in September 2018 and offers a small campsite and guided walks along a 1.2km trail dotted with ruins, cenotes and caves. Built in 1823, the main house boasts a French-style façade with carved stone columns and flagstone floors. The roof collapsed long ago, and some of the remaining walls are slowly mouldering under vegetation.
“The name Kampepén itself is of Maya origin: it means “yellow butterfly” in Mayan language,” according to Verónica Ondina Torres Rivas, the administrator of Kampepén. “Approximately 40 people live in this locality, most of whom still speak the indigenous language. Our Maya guides offer walking tours and an explanation of the hacienda’s history. They also tell stories, legends and Maya experiences, such as that of the Aluxe and the Huay-pek, a sorcerer who turns into a dog.”
There are other estates that have been given a tourism upgrade, such as Sotuta de Peón Hacienda Viva, which combines a luxurious hotel with a throwback historical experience: a museum complete with real-life henequen processing tours “from leaf to twine”.
Currently, there is no government effort to rebuild, or renovate, the Yucatan Henequen Haciendas. All efforts, whether it’s renovation or transformation into museums, come from private persons or associations.
Several other haciendas are scattered in this area and the adventurous travelers can find their way to them by asking locals for guidance. Some can be reached by buses or hired taxis, others require a 4×4 vehicle or a motorcycle, but their presence is evident everywhere – from overgrown ruins in the thick, dense woods to crumbling old buildings just outside small villages and towns. A story of power, wealth, oppression and ruin is slowly being replaced by one of rebuilding – and remembrance.
Sounds like a “Bucket-list” visit to me.