What I like about Hacienda Ochil is its historic ambience and elegance. You walk straight into the Green Gold Era of Mexico.
Ochil is a charming hacienda that houses a museum, a restaurant, a gift shop, and the artisan workshops. The property includes a small henequén field, railway and drying area. We came here with my husband in September 2017, after visiting the Uxmal ruins. The hacienda sits on the famous Route Puuc, with several Mayan ruin sites, such as Uxmal, Kabáh, Sayil, Xlapak and Labná. It is a museum today and you can also get a good lunch here. But it is the stroll in its lush gardens that is the best part of the visit.
The haciendas in Yucatán were agrarian organisations established almost immediately after the conquest and during the 17th century. The San Pedro Ochil hacienda first started as a cattle ranch. The first records of this hacienda go back to the 17th century, when Temozón Sur region was registered as the property of Diego de Mendoza, and the mountains of Uayalceh as the property of his brother, Captain Iñigo de Mendoza, who was the Mayor of Mérida in 1649.
In the 19th century the estate turned to henequén production. It is one of seven haciendas in the municipality of Abalá, which produced henequén fibre; the Spanish called it soskil, which came from the Mayan word for henequén fibre: tsots ki. The hacienda henequenera required large staffing for the cultivation of the fields and for the industrial processes. This was a significant change from being a cattle ranch with a low density of labour. Harvesting, drying and combing was all done by hand (in the hot weather!) while scraping, spinning and intertwining the fibres was processed mechanically, with imported machinery.
Approximately 50 families owned 1,462 henequén farms, known as haciendas. As the world demand for the material was enormous, the henequén business was incredibly lucrative for the few rich Spanish owners. The hacendados (hacienda owners) used local Maya, Mexican and Korean slaves. Each hacienda built an entire community, with houses for the labourers (for which they charged rent), a school for their children (for which they charged tuition fees), a church or a chapel (the labourers had to pay for the services as well). The workers had hardly anything left from their salary and they were paid in the hacienda currency, which they could use only at the hacienda shop.
No wonder the locals revolted against the European-descended population, called Yucatecos. The Caste War of Yucatán (1848) changed the existence of the haciendas: many were destroyed. When the Mexican revolution arrived in Yucatán around 1915, some of the hacendados chose to abandon their holdings. Others, who had borrowed during the boom and overinvested, were unable to repay after the bust, when sisal prices declined after the stock market crash of 1929. Between 1868 and 1871 steam-driven machinery began being imported to process sugar, and the machines were also used in henequén plantations.
All of the henequén plantations ceased to exist as autonomous communities with the agrarian land reform implemented by President Lazaro Cardenas in 1937. His decree turned the haciendas into collective ejidos. San Pedro Ochil became one of the first haciendas to be expropriated and handed over to the ejidatarios. In 1956, President Manuel Ávila Camacho revoked this expropriation and the property was returned to the landowners. The collapse of the henequén market at the end of the second decade of the 20th century accelerated its decline. The hacienda was abandoned, ransacked and destroyed.
Today Hacienda Ochil is owned by the Hernandez family, who also own the Starwood-managed haciendas, turned recently into high-end luxury hotels. Roberto Hernandez is the owner of the Mexican bank Banamex. Well, who else could afford such a restoration? In the early 1990s he bought a number of derelict haciendas (Temozón, Santa Rosa, and San José) and turned them into luxury hotels.
The restoration in Ochil preserved the original design, using techniques and finishes from the time of its construction. The stone walls preserve their patina, due to the application of a coating of kancab, an ancient Mayan technique based on red earth and the resin of pixoi, a native tree of the region.
To us, the most impressive feature was the beautifully landscaped grounds. San Pedro Ochil shares its predominant architectural features with the Yaxcopoil hacienda, located in the neighbouring municipality of Umán. These two monumental haciendas resemble each other. They have similar Moorish arches (used as an entrance in the past) and neoclassical influence. The main house was arranged as a single long rectangle.
When you arrive, the road takes you first to a small house, which served as a foreman's house. In other words, the main arch does not serve as the entrance. Don't get discouraged. Continue to a large terrace with a fountain. On your way, there are a couple of old buildings with some old machinery (badly in need of repair). In my view, they rather add a feeling of authenticity to the place. By the ceiba tree (Mayan sacred tree of life) you can see the remains of ancient Mayan carved stones from the original pre-Hispanic Mayan site.
Once you pass the veranda with a fountain, on your right is the main house (used in the past by the hacienda owner) and on your left there is a spectacular amphitheatre, sloping down to a stage (for events) and a cave cenote at the bottom. The cenote is not swimmable but it may be worth going in as there are Maya handprints painted on the cave walls (we did not see them as we did not allow enough time for the visit). The cenote is used as a feature in the amphitheatre setting. It was designed by the American artist James Turrell, who likes to play with light and space. And what a marvel he built here! The amphitheatre gives a somewhat different dimension to the hacienda space.
A lovely veranda with arches sits in the middle of the 'long' main house. One side of the house has been tastefully re-purposed into a museum and the other side now serves as a restaurant.
On the other side of the main house you can take a short stroll in the beautiful gardens with palms, flowers and some henequén plants. The remnants of the rail track can be still seen. Narrow gauge trains transported both the leaves and bales on rails around the hacienda and from the hacienda to the Gulf of Mexico seaports of Sisal and Progreso, ready for international export.
Even the chimney still stands! The chimney had its purpose, because sisal processing was initially performed by steam engines, fuelled by wood or coal. Diesel engines replaced these in the early 20th century.
The restaurant, with indoor and outdoor tables, has a good selection of Yucatecan food. The prices are very reasonable and margaritas are to kill for. In fact, most people come here on their way from Uxmal ruins for lunch and they stroll the hacienda's lush shady grounds while the meal is being prepared.
The gift shop (below left) sells artefacts made by the local artisans in the workshops directly on the site. It is situated in the former chapel of the hacienda. The products are not cheap but they are high quality local crafts such as silver filigree jewellery, limestone carvings and sisal fibre products.
The site is open from Monday to Sunday from 10am to 6pm. We did not pay an entry fee. Nobody asked for it and we did not see any ticket office.
The restaurant takes groups for lunch, in which case there is no entrance fee.
How to get there:
San Pedro Ochil is in the village of Abalá, on the Uman-Muna road from Merida, on km 175 (half an hour's ride from Mérida).
Mix and match:
Along the Puuc Route there are the Mayan ruin sites of Uxmal, Kabáh, Sayil, Xlapak, and Labná, all within a few kilometres of each other. Most people go to Uxmal (half an hour's drive from Hacienda Ochil and then they have lunch at the hacienda). If you are going by car, you could squeeze in one more pyramid; it all depends where you come from and at what time you arrive. If you have time to make it a two-day trip, I also recommend the caves of Loltún (half-hour drive from Labná,) with mural paintings of hands, faces and animal bones from ancient times.