Sotuta de Peón
Each hacienda has its own history and charm and even its own ghosts. Sotuta de Peón was built as a henequén estate and is now a fully restored hacienda, offering a 3-hour tour, demonstrating the process of the sisal production and a swim in a cenote. A real taste of colonial times...
A hacienda is a ranch for raising livestock or a plantation estate with a dwelling house. It could also be a mine or a factory. A witness to Spanish colonial times and the way things were in Mexico.
There are many haciendas in Yucatán in various stages of decay or renovation, both public and private, accessible and remote. They had a late onset here compared with the rest of Mexico because of geographical, ecological and economical reasons, particularly the poor quality of the soil and lack of water to irrigate farms.
Sotuta de Peón was built by Don Peón as a henequén estate in the 19th century in the village of Tecoh. To produce on an industrial scale, he had 13 haciendas, as a large amount of henequén plants were required for the production of sisal. The hacienda is named after him and was beautifully restored 12 years ago by a German owner, Adolfo Lubke. It looks immaculate! There are horses about; you will really feel you are in the countryside.
We came here in September 2017 with my husband Rhod. We simply loved the place!
We were also pleased to see that the hacienda employs a lot of locals. This makes a change from the past, when the indigenous Maya were practically made slaves at haciendas. The hacienda issued its own coins to pay workers, but they could only be exchanged for goods on the hacienda or at the 'company store', not outside the hacienda. Often the workers were actually in debt to the owner, despite their daily labour, so there is no other word to describe their condition than slavery. There is an old Maya, Don Antonio Ucan, who greets the guests at the traditional Mayan House, out in the fields when you take a wagon ride. He greeted us in many languages. It was so sweet. If he was not employed by the hacienda, he would have no income as the pensions in Mexico are practically non-existent for a lot of people (unless they work in the civil service). He still keeps the tokens that his ancestors earned here at Sotuta.
Haciendas in Mexico were the basis of an economic system begun by the Spaniards in the 16th century, similar to the feudal system of Europe. Like the southern plantations of the United States, haciendas enforced a social system of castes, based on race, with the European hacendados (landowners) as the masters and the indigenas (Mayans) as the slaves. The hacienda owners were the targets of revenge during the Yucatán Caste War, and later, the Revolution.
The era of the henequén boom from around the 1850s to the early 1900s was known as the time of 'green gold'. There was a great demand in the world for sisal and most haciendas switched from raising cattle to producing rope from henequén, a variety of the agave cactus. The demand came from the need for a replacement for metal hay-baling wire that was dangerous to cattle. The type of agave that is used in Mexico for sisal production is Agave Forcroydes (while in Brazil they use Agave Sisalana). Henequén rope, called sisal, was also used for everything from rigging on ships to the placemats and carpets that we use today. Today it is also used for hammocks, sacks, pulp (to make paper), a component in fibreglass, furniture, wall insulation, composition of plastic (to reinforce it), a component of cement (for resistance), biomass as fertiliser and for thermal energy, scratching posts for cats, jewellery, and last but not least, fashionable 'hippie' bags and bathroom products.
Why do we call it sisal? That's a whole separate story, but henequén fibre was exported to Europe from the port of Sisal on the north coast of Yucatán, so 'Sisal' was what it said on the side of the crates. I'll write about it when I get to Sisal.
After the Mexican Revolution and the subsequent invention of synthetic fibres, most haciendas were abandoned to decay in the jungle. In the last ten to twenty years, they have been 'rediscovered' by both locals (some had their haciendas confiscated by the government and later returned to them) and foreigners, and many have been renovated and given new lives. Most haciendas have been renovated into hotels, a few turned into museums.
Sotuta de Peón is a working hacienda. However, they don't produce sisal for sale, only for demonstration to visitors, showing how it was produced in the past. The owner has imported the 'old' machinery from Germany and it all works like new. There aren't many working haciendas these days; the only working henequén hacienda in Yucatán that I have found so far is Hacienda San Lorenzo near the ruins of Aké. That factory is actually in pretty bad shape, but they still produce and sell the rope. Watch out for my post on this hacienda, if you are interested in the colonial life of Mexico.
So what to expect from a visit to Sotuta de Peón? The hacienda has it all. You can take a 3-hour tour, you can stay here for the night (not cheap but luxurious), go horse riding, relax by the pool or in a cenote (on the hacienda grounds) and enjoy a massage.
We came here with my husband just for the tour, in September 2017. First we were shown the main hacienda house (Casa Principal), the largest building, where the hacendado kept his living quarters and where most of the administration occurred. Given that Mr Peón had 13 haciendas, he would not live here, but he would often visit and perhaps stay the night on occasions (there is only one bedroom in his residence). There is lovely European period furniture in this house, very elegant. One can book events and weddings here as the verandas are spacious and can be set up for large parties.
The tour continued with the henequén plant. Henequén processing took place in the machine house (Casa de Maquinas). The fibre is obtained from the leaves. This was done in a mechanical way in the past. Imagine that in some haciendas they were doing that manually. What labour! Next, the fibre is washed and dried. Then brushed, to separate the fibre and clean the impurities, followed by a threading process, to make the ropes. The final spinning process is carried out and we saw a few different machines for different thicknesses of rope.
The tour continues with a wagon ride along a rail track, pulled by a mule, to see the rest of the hacienda (the hotel section with cabañas and a pool) and the henequén fields.
There is a stop at a traditional Mayan house built from wood with a palapa roof (made from palm leaves). This is where we were greeted by Don Antonio. Last but not least, the mule took us all the way to a cave cenote for a swim.
The cenote is very pretty, in a cave, with artificial lighting. It is called Dzul Ha and it means 'Gentleman's Water' in the Mayan language. The guide explained to us that only the owners were allowed to swim there, hence the name. The indigenous Maya were not allowed in. That is sad because for them cenotes and caves are sacred. They consider them the entry to the underworld (where life starts and ends) and they are places of worship for them, where they place offerings to Chac, the God of Rain. Well, instead they got a chapel.
There is a wooden staircase and a platform with a few steps from which you can reach the water. The staff offered us life vests (for no extra charge). Stalactites hanging from the roof of the cave make the swim extra special; they always add a cathedral-like atmosphere. Just imagine swimming in a cathedral! The water is cold and refreshing, about 25°C (this applies to all cave cenotes) and it is welcome in the hot climate of Yucatán, especially at the end of the tour. Outside the cave there are rustic but clean changing rooms and a wagon bar. We had some tequila here, with our mule driver and our guide Miguel.
After the tour we went to see the chapel, a simple and elegant Catholic place of worship. All haciendas had chapels as they were built as village communities, with a school, church and a shop, a self-sufficient entity. That is where the workers lived as well. All the locals were converted by the Spanish to Catholicism but I am sure the indigenous workers also followed their own Mayan religious practices (as many still do today). Often haciendas had a Casa del Majordomo, where the foreman lived, and other smaller buildings for storage and living quarters for the workers.
In the restaurant they serve Yucatecan cuisine, a blend between Mayan and Spanish heritage. We had a panucho, tortilla stuffed with refried black beans, turkey, lettuce, tomato and onion. They have set menus of three courses. Their speciality is papadzules, a traditional Yucatecan dish resembling enchiladas: corn tortillas with a squash seed sauce and hard-boiled eggs, and garnished with a cooked tomato-pepper sauce.
I found this hacienda a fantastic experience. You step back into the colonial times of the last few centuries and have a glimpse of how the Spanish ruled the country, the industries and its people.
- There are two tours a day: 10am and 1pm.
- The tour costs 500 pesos per person. It does not include the meal in the restaurant.
How to get there:
From Playa del Carmen take the highway 180D (the same highway for Holbox island from Av. Colosio or to Mérida):
- Arriving at the highway toll station, follow the sign to Mérida
- Follow the same route (you will see a road sign to Mérida and Itzamal; keep in the Mérida direction)
- At km 20, after the police block (under the bridge) you need to make a U-turn and then follow the Cancún direction exiting towards Mayapán-Chetumal on your right-hand side
- After 24km follow the sign for Tecoh village (by an arch on the right-hand side of the highway)
- At the village of Tecoh go straight to the main square. Turn right at the public minibus station
- Follow this road straight till you reach the village of Itzincab (approx. 12km)
- Follow straight for 2km until you reach the gate of the Hacienda Sotuta de Peón in the village of Tecoh
Mix & Match:
If you want to combine the trip with another hacienda, I recommend Haciena Yaxcopoil. It takes about 40 minutes via the village of Sihunchen (south of the hacienda). You can also combine it with the ruins of Uxmal, an hour and a half away. The best route is via the village of Muna.