Staying at the Hacienda Yaxcopoil is momentarily stepping into a long vanished way of life. Within its walls - half an hour outside Merida, the state capital of Mexican Yucatan - whispers of colonial life remain. There are creaking wicker rocking chairs, humming ceiling fans, gardens behind Moorish arches, peeling paint and monster imported machinery. The Hacienda encapsulates the dark story of the Spanish conquest of the Mayan lands and the subsequent industrialization of henequen.
The henequen plant (sisal in English or kih in Mayan) momentarily made nineteenth century Merida the richest city in the world. The great age of shipping and exploration was underway and the newly industrialized process of pounding henequen to extract its stiff fibre for ropes and sacks had made millionaires of many hacienda owners. Henequen fibres had, traditionally, been extracted by the indigenous Mayan people to make small scale domestic products but the arrival of the Spanish in the early sixteenth century saw widespread confiscation of Mayan lands and brutal dominance of the people. Post-colonization, the land around Merida was originally used for cattle farming until henequen production started its ascendance.
My journey to Yaxcopoil had been full of the incidents that bring a clumsy traveller's day to life. I had caused chaos in heaving, market day Merida negotiating potholed pavements with my wheeled suitcase. I took breakfast in a working men's bar on carrots and beer thanks to my unwieldy use of Spanish, and cuddled up, with what felt like several hundred people, in a colectivo to Uman and then an even smaller one to Yaxcopoil. I stepped through the arches and clip clopped onto the cold, mosaic floor of the reception room to be greeted by the enthusiastic pairing of a housekeeper, carrying keys of fairy tale proportions, and his dog.
At its zenith, Yaxcopoil or, in Mayan, "the place of the green Alamo trees" was a booming 22,000 acres and its worn halls are set as though, the nineteenth century owners, Don Donaciano and Dona Monica had simply popped to mass. The formal rooms of the estate are preserved as a museum playing tribute to the hybrid of cultures that lived and died on the land. Artifacts from the important Mayan site, of the classical period, are displayed in one room whilst administrative documents, china and oil paintings are a reminder of the Spanish family whose descendents still own the Hacienda today.
Through the formal gardens and across a stretch of scrubby grass, which doubles as the village green, is the casa da maquina (machine house) where a gigantic German-engineered henequen machine stands solemnly overlooking the changing hacienda. This machine had arrived in Mexico, by boat, in 1913. In the decade that followed, the Mexican Revolution, saw some of the land requisitioned, back from the Spanish settlers, causing the fortune of henequen to fall and eventually die out, by the 1980's, with the invention of nylon.
|German-engineered henequen machine|
The antique atmosphere intensifies as sunset approaches and the doors to the museum are shut. Behind double green doors, the one roomed guest house is spacious and spotless with large comfortable beds and the same ceiling fans and mosaic floor of the rest of the property. There is a front terrace complete with grill and, on the other side of the room, more doors open to a walled garden where you can pull out a rocking chair and listen to the birds and cicadas serenade you. When the sun has dipped behind the Moorish walls and archways, school is out and the village green fills with children flying kites into the blood orange sky.
Later, in darkness, the caretaker returned with his family and knocked at my door. Dinner was ready. Out on the terrace, the little electric light buzzed as his wife prepared a Yucatan feast of chicken and lime broth, Tamale and guava cake accompanied by a cold coconut milk and cinnamon drink. The meal was full of the earthy and citrus flavours unique to the Mayans and the land that they lost to henequen.
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