The Multi-Millionaires of Merida, Yucatan

Stephen F. Dennstedt

It is reported that at its height (1898 to around 1911) the reign of the Yucatan henequen industry created more millionaires in Yucatan than anywhere else in the world (upon reflection, however, I think this statistic refers to millionaires per capita and not total millionaires). So what is henequen? Henequen is a plant in the agave family that produces a strong fibre that can be turned into hemp and sisal for producing manila rope, twine, string and other natural fibre bindings.

During the Spanish-American War of 1898 the import of raw sisal from the Philippines to the United States was severely restricted, so Yucatan became the de facto go-to source for this natural fibre product used the world over. Within just a few years Yucatan became the wealthiest state in Mexico and again boasted the most millionaires per capita of anywhere in the entire world. The remnants of Yucatan’s glory days can be seen everywhere around Merida (especially along the tree-shaded Avenida Paseo de Montejo).

Today, once privately owned mansions and haciendas have been renovated to house museums, art galleries, restaurants and other cultural venues. You cannot visit Merida without being struck by the beauty of the local architecture. Although the stupendous cathedrals and churches that dot Merida mostly originated with the Spanish in the 1500s the impressive mansions of the henequen magnates are of a more recent generation—primarily early 20th century (1900 to about 1915). Yucatan’s henequen industry quickly died out in the early 1960s when the introduction of synthetic fibres replaced the natural fibres of the henequen plant. Now we are stuck with plastic bindings and other products that are not biodegradable like the hemp and sisal derived from henequen.

Yesterday Shawn and I ventured forth from our small local hotel to visit three former henequen estates, on the outskirts of Merida, known as haciendas. These once privately owned estates are huge and only a few remain in private hands. Most estates are now owned by Banco Nacional de Mexico—some have been renovated as tourist attractions and restaurants, while others are being slowly reclaimed by the surrounding jungle. Our guide told us that at one time there were over 2,000 henequen haciendas around Merida but that only about 20 still exist (and they no longer grow henequen).

Of the three haciendas we visited two had been renovated and one was in the process of being reclaimed by the surrounding jungle—I found the jungle reclamation site to be the most interesting and it gave me pleasure to see Mother Nature taking back what was rightfully hers in the first place. The first hacienda we visited was the restored Hacienda San Antonio Tahdzibichen (that last word, Tahdzibichen, is pure Mayan). The Mayan pronunciation is totally impossible to figure out by simply looking at the letters in the word—you have to hear it before you can pronounce it. The signs along the highway are a crack-up because the Mayan words are so long. Even Spanish speakers have trouble with the Mayan words.

I could have spent the entire day at the hacienda in the jungle—try this word on for size: Uahyalceh. Yep, that was its name. It loosely translates to offspring of the deer or at least that’s what Juan told me. After we left the hacienda in the jungle we headed further into the jungle to a couple of remote cenotes for a quick swim. As our vehicle proceeded down a narrow jungle track we saw a female Coati carrying her youngsters across the road in front of us. Coatis are a Raccoon-like animal and really cute (they are very similar to another indigenous critter, the Kinkajou). Unfortunately, I was not able to snap a shot (I only had my 16-35mm wide-angle zoom lens with me) and they were pretty much hidden by the undergrowth.

The remote cenotes we visited were very cool. They were well off the beaten path and not overrun with tourists jockeying for position. They were open centoes meaning that the limestone ceilings had caved in exposing the deep pools of water to the natural sunlight. Swallows, bats and small fish all call cenotes their home. You can reach the pools by using the rickety wooden stairs or, if you’re daring like my son, you can jump from the rim into the water below. It’s about a 40-foot leap and can hurt you if you don’t land completely vertical. The fella jumping after my son had bad form and landed partially on his back—with great pain I might add. We thought he might be seriously hurt but he seemed okay after catching his breath.

Finishing up our time at the cenotes we followed the jungle track back to the main highway and pulled into Hacienda Ochil (another restored hacienda) for a GREAT and traditional Yucatecan lunch. We were pretty dehydrated by this time (even though we had both consumed a litre of water) and decided to have an ice-cold beer (one ice-cold beer led to three) and by the time the food arrived we were feeling no pain whatsoever. I started with Empanadas con Queso and my main course was Pollo Pibil (both were delicious). The whole meal, including empanadas and beer, came to less than 250 pesos. Another great day in Yucatan: great sights, great people, great food and drink. Today’s temperature update: 95°F with 65% humidity translates to a heat index of 118°F.




3 responses to “The Multi-Millionaires of Merida, Yucatan

  1. Looks like you guys are really enjoying your time together. Beautiful pictures. Please get in touch with me when you get back. Adrian and I really like to see you before you leave again.

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