Santo Domingo Izamal
Haciendas are a call from the colonial era. Hauntingly beautiful, they stand in the greens of their tropical jungle, as does the Hacienda Santo Domingo in Izamal.
Haciendas were built by the wealthy throughout Mexico. There were cattle-raising haciendas in the northern part of Mexico, tequila haciendas in Jalisco, mining haciendas in Hidalgo, sugar haciendas in Morelos, lumber haciendas in the state of Mexico. In Yucatán most haciendas (over 1,000 of them) started as cattle ranches and later converted to henequén plantations. This was the case of Santo Domingo.
The heyday of the haciendas in Yucatán was between 1820 and 1930. Some haciendas in Yucatán have been renovated into beautiful luxury hotels, others are museums, some are lived in by locals whose ancestors reclaimed them during the Mexican Revolution. And still others remain unrestored, the witnesses of the 'green gold' boom that made their owners very rich.
In Izamal there are three haciendas, all three witnesses of the henequén boom era, and all three turned into hotels by their current owners: Hacienda Sacnicte Ildefonso, Hacienda Izamal and Hacienda Santo Domingo. They all have their unique charm. While Sacnicte is an elegant luxurious boutique hotel, Hacienda Izamal is a typical colonial hotel, with archways and verandas along its rooms. In contrast, Hacienda Santo Domingo has a rustic feel.
You come here for a romantic ambience in the middle of the tropical gardens despite the fact that it sits within the city of Izamal, a 3-minute drive from the centre of the town. While the 'yellow city', as Izamal is known (because all the houses were painted yellow for the visit of Pope John Paul in 1993), it is also probably the oldest ancient Maya town in Yucatán. It is certainly worth seeing its ruins that are scattered around the city centre, but one should not neglect its colonial history. Apart from visiting the convent, it is great to visit one of Izamal's haciendas.
Today Santo Domingo is owned by Harald from Austria. He settled here with his Mexican wife and renovated the estate. I came here in 2017 with a group of friends from Playa del Carmen after visiting the town of Izamal. We did not stay in the hacienda cabañas (which are affordable), but we pre-booked lunch at this romantic place, including a swim in its iconic swimming pool. Harald was very accommodating. This was very refreshing after climbing the large pyramid K'inich K'ak Moo, a horse ride in town and shopping in the market. It was lovely to have a chat with Harald and the staff service was simply excellent. As was the meal. They offer both Mexican and international cuisine and we opted on this occasion for the latter. I tried to find out from Harald about the history of the hacienda but not much is known.
While the original owners of Santo Domingo are not publicly known, it is possible that all haciendas in Izamal were owned by one hacendado. Mind you, this is my own speculation: I am simply deducing from the fact that each hacendado had to have several haciendas to make the production of henequén profitable.
We know that, for example, the owner of hacienda Sotuta de Peón had 13 haciendas. Not only were a lot of agave plants needed for sisal fibre production but it was costly to run. A lot of investment was required in machinery so it was made worthwhile only by having a number of haciendas. Also, the plantation owners had to build a very extensive (4,500km) system of narrow gauge railways to move the henequén fibre to the port of Sisal, which gave the fibre its name. The ships carried the sisal fibre for further processing into products (such as ropes, carpets, sacks) to Europe and North America. The bales carried the stamp of Sisal, hence the fibre name spread into the world. As for the rails, complete sections of track with steel ties were imported mostly from Europe and from the USA. The small trains were powered by mules, steam engines, electric batteries, and later by gasoline motors. This was far more efficient than animal-drawn carts on the rough dirt roads. Just imagine the cost and the organisation of this enterprise alone. Today you can still see the train station serving all Izamal haciendas, and the remnants of the Izamal steam railway, now disused.
If we were to go back to the ancient times, the hacienda is standing on the land of the ancient town of Itzamná, or Zamná. The conquering Spaniards built the convent and the rest of the city from the stones of the Maya pyramids and temples, as was the case all over Yucatán. It was a symbol of new power replacing the old. Today the ruins are scattered around the city, for example K'inich K'ak Moo is in street 27, Itzamatul in street 26, El Conejo in street 22, Habuk in street 28, Kabul in street 31. Most of the Izamal hotels have some Maya relics too. Santo Domingo is no exception. There is an ancient head sculpture by the pool (a ruler? a priest?).
You can also find a haltún here, an artificial container, rather like a trough, carved in the rock for gathering rainwater.
In colonial times the haciendas used a system of caños, channels dug in cement to carry water for irrigation (see the photo below on the right). These are visible at Santo Domingo; they have a pool that serves as a reservoir for irrigation from which caños irrigate further.
From the ancient history of the place there is an old Maya legend that ties the creation of the city of Izamal to henequén. It goes like this:
Many years ago, in the place where the city of Izamal stands today, a group of pilgrims arrived known as the Itzáes. They were led by a wise and good-natured priest called Zamná, sent by the Queen of the continent Atlante. His name was used as the name of the Izamal town, as he is considered the founder of the city. In translation Itz means 'dew' or 'clouds' in the Quechua Mayan language; and 'divination' or 'witchcraft' in colonial Yucatec. The legendary founding father certainly seemed to have magic in his hands and he was later deified. The Queen of Atlante sent this group to found a new city because theirs, according to the prophecy, was to disappear. Zamná arrived at the land with no rivers nor mountains but they did not find the water that they needed. Luckily, soon the rain began to fall. Zamná went out to find a place to store the rainwater (it would have been handy to have a haltún but these were primordial times). He got close to a plant, and a spine went into his thigh, causing him an injury. To punish the plant, the Itzáes cut off its leaves, and beat them against the smooth, flat rocks. Zamná realised that the leaves were producing very resistant fibres, which would be of great use to his people. He followed the course of the water, until he arrived at a recessed area and founded the great Izamal (the sources date the city to around 750 BC), uniting the power of the rain, the sky, the henequén, and his people.
So what is hacienda Santo Domingo like today? It is very private; we felt hidden from the rest of the world here. Really tranquil, it sits in a tropical garden full of fruit trees. Its icon is the swimming pool with a palapa restaurant and a bar. Maya-style palapas with roofs made of palm leaves are scattered throughout the property and these cabañas serve today as hotel rooms. They have lovely names, for example cabaña Henequén, cabaña Cactus…
The main house, or Casa Principal, is the largest building, where the haciendado kept his living quarters and where most of the administration occurred. The veranda is spacious and that is where we had our lunch, in the shade. Like the rest of the property, it has a rustic feel. Henequén processing took place in the machine house, or Casa de Máquinas, but Santo Domingo does not have one on its current premises (Harald told us it is further from his property).
There are no other 'usual suspects' at this hacienda either, such as a chapel, Casa del Majordomo (where the jefe, or foreman, lived), a school, an infirmary, and the hacienda's own store. This is because by the 1940s, the entire henequén industry went broke and haciendas went into decline. This was caused by two reasons: nylon replaced sisal and Mexico had undergone an agrarian reform in 1937, decreed by President Lázaro Cárdenas. By this decree the hacienda landowners had to give up most of their estate lands that were returned to the indigenous people as communal lands called ejidos. The hacendados were allowed to keep only around 150 hectares for use as private property. No wonder not much is left here at Santo Domingo. The remnants are scattered elsewhere in the nearby land, like the ruins.
Interestingly henequén is still processed today in Izamal, but not for sisal fibre. Unusually for Yucatán, Izamal today has its own distillery, which makes a kind of tequila out of the henequén agave (Agave Fourcroydes). I say unusually, because tequila in Mexico is made in the city of Tequila, in the state of Guadalajara. Yucatán is not a traditional tequila region.
Izamal distillery is in street 33. It is called Casa Izamal and it uses the henequén piña (pineapple) as the main raw material (not the leaves that were used for sisal fibre). They produce Izamal Blanco (white tequila) and Izamal Maduro (gold), which ages in white oak barrels for a period of nine months to achieve a softer and more mature flavour. It is also unique because standard tequila is produced from blue agave (agave tequilana), not henequén (Agave fourcroydes). I must say, it is good to see that henequén is still in use here. If it was fully revived in Yucatán, it would bring to its people so much needed work opportunity.
How to get there:
If you are going by car from Cancún or Playa del Carmen, take the Cuota (toll) Highway and turn off 180D at Kantunil village. The journey takes 2.5 hours.
From Mérida take the Cuota road toward Cancún, and exit at km 48 towards Izamal. The trip takes 45 minutes. Or go by bus; the station is at Calle 67 between 50 and 52, with departures every hour. The cost of the ticket is $27 pesos one way, $54 pesos roundtrip. Also you can take a minivan on Calle 65 between 52 and 54.
Santo Domingo is in street 18, on the corner with street 33.