To visit a hacienda in Mexico is to experience its colonial time. Hacienda Yaxcopoil south of Mérida has been renovated and turned into a museum. A rare chance!
The hacienda shaped Mayan community structure and its geographical boundaries. Originally an appendage to an existing community, in the end it became a community in itself and contributed to an increase in the Maya population. But the Maya did not have it easy.
Let's start from the beginning. Hacienda Yaxcopoil (YASH-coh-poh-EEL) is a Yucatán plantation located near Merida and dating back to the 17th century. The name Yaxcopoil means “the place of the green alamo trees” in Mayan and was named after the Mayan ruins nearby.
Today hacienda Yaxcopoil is a museum with a restaurant and it offers some accommodation on the site. We came to the hacienda with my husband in September 2017 when visiting the Mayan ruin sites on the Puuc Route, such as Uxmal, Kabáh, Sayil, Xlapak and Labná. It is a quick visit, but a memorable one. It is lovely to mix your trip, stepping from ancient times to the colonial period.
The ranch was acquired in 1864 by Don Donacio García Rejón and his wife Doña Monica Galera. Originally the estate covered about 22,000 acres. The ranch experienced real growth during the boom of henequén cultivation for the production of sisal, around the 1850s to the early 1900s. Henequén was then called 'green gold' and it made many millionaires in Yucatán. Henequén rope, called sisal, was used for everything from rigging on ships to carpets.
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 and some artefacts. However, today's production in the world is much lower (as synthetics are more in demand). The same applied to Hacienda Yaxcopoil. Over time, due to continuous political, social and economic changes, the estate has been reduced to less than 3% of its original size. The ranch has been passed onto the descendants of the original owners and they have opened it as a museum.
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 is done in a mechanical way, see my video. 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.
You can clearly feel that the hacienda was the central part of the Mayan village and all the locals would have worked here in the past. Haciendas were basically built as self-sufficient communities and covered all the 'needs' of the local Maya. In other words, haciendas were re-creations of the existing Mayan community in an orderly and nucleated fashion. They had the main house for the hacendado (hacienda owner), some modest dwellings for the workers and their families, the school and the church (or a chapel), patrons and fiestas, complete with fireworks and processions, by the time of Independence (1810). The owners produced their own currency and the workers could use the coins only in the hacienda shop. Needless to say, they were pretty exploited and practically worked without a wage.
This is because the labourers were charged for the rent of their small houses, treatment of illnesses, attendance at school or church and fined for a variety reasons, such as breakdown of machines or lack of discipline. In essence, this was a true European feudal system. Even today, you can feel a huge difference between the wealth of the Spanish owners and the Maya in their humble houses in the village of Yaxcopoil.
The main house (casa principal) has high ceilings, elongated rooms (all connected to each other) and the original European furniture. The furnishings from the late 19th century are presented tastefully, transporting you back in time. You really feel the colonial times here. The reception room is presided over by two oil paintings of the original owners and the photos of the current owners are in the adjacent rooms.
There are some impressive buildings at the back of the property, certainly worth the effort. The receptionist may have to open them for you. This was certainly our case when we visited. If the staff accompany you, they will expect a tip.
The workshop and storehouse buildings are beautifully decorated with neoclassical columns and sculptures representing the seasons of the year. Casa de Maquinas (Machine House) has huge machinery used to process henequén (such as shredding machines with gigantic belts and pulleys).
In the machine room, which is maintained in good condition, there is a German diesel motor made by Körting (Hanover) from 1913. The engine was used until 1984, when the production of henequén fibre ended. There are other plantation buildings at the far end of the central square: the school, the hospital, the store, and some houses for the workers. In the orchard area you can find a well with a US-made motor and pump from the early twentieth century. We were told this was still in use today, supplying water for daily demand.
Yards not used to grow henequén were fitted with drying racks and the fibres were subsequently pressed into bales and stacked in warehouses. 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.
Narrow gauge trains transported both the leaves and bales on networks of rails to the Gulf of Mexico seaports of Sisal and Progreso, ready for international export.
One of the halls of Yaxcopoil is called the Maya Room. It displays numerous archaeological relics of the Classic period (250-900 AD) found in the Mayan ruins of Yaxcopoil. The ruins are located near the hacienda within the jungle. Apparently the ruins consist of numerous unexcavated pyramids, a court for ceremonial ball games, and stelae, which are scattered in an area of about eight square kilometres. Well, you can see the stelae in the hacienda's Maya Room.
They are not dated and I can only presume that they are of a local ruler. There is a range of old ceramic plates and metates on display as well. A metate is a ground stone tool used for processing grain and seeds. They were typically used by women who would grind lime-treated maize. After all, the Mexican tortillas are pretty ancient.
The accommodation consists of a guesthouse with a nice veranda and a hammock, which sits in the gardens. The guesthouse has two double beds and is equipped with a refrigerator and a coffee machine. However, it was not clear to us if they lock you in there for the night, when the museum is locked at 6pm. Worth exploring as it is certainly different from staying in a hotel room. You would have the hacienda to yourself, so to speak.
Not many haciendas survive till today. Those that do, have mainly been turned into luxury hotels.
So turning Yaxcopoil into a museum offers a rare opportunity to experience colonial times without a high cost.
Opening hours: 8am-6pm. On Sunday till 3pm.
Entry fee: 100 pesos.
How to get there:
Hacienda Yaxcopoil is part of the Hacienda Route south of Mérida and is also on the Puuc Route. The hacienda is located about 33km south of Mérida, on Federal Highway 261, at km 186.
The cheapest way to get to Yaxcopoil is to use the colectivos (minibuses). The colectivo stop in Merida is located on the side of the Mercado Lucas de Galvez that is on Calle 65 between Calle 54 and Calle 52. Ask for the colectivo that goes to Uman. Once you are in Uman, on the west side of the park across from the entrance to the church you will need to get on another colectivo that will take you to Yaxcopoil. It will stop directly across from the entrance to Hacienda Yaxcopoil.
There is also a bus that can take you to Yaxcopoil. Look for Autobuses del Mayab at the terminal of the ADO, two blocks from San Juan Park.
Mix & Match:
You can also combine it with the ruins of Uxmal, half an hour away. Or any other ruin on the Route Puuc.