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Sotuta de Peon

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During the Yucatán’s henequen boom, there were close to a thousand haciendas (plantations) in operation across the state. Today, they’re nearly all in ruins. And in the area surrounding Mérida, only one still manufactures henequen: Sotuta de Peon. We joined a tour of the hacienda which led us through a mansion, the factory, a Maya house in the agave fields, a cenote, and ended at a restaurant serving up Yucatecan specialties.

Hacienda Sotuta de Peon

Our tour started in the hacienda’s main residence, which was filled with antique furniture and framed, faded photographs of the family who once lived here. Like all other henequen plantations, Sotuta de Peon closed up shop after the introduction of synthetic fibers in the mid-twentieth century. It was only recently purchased by a local businessman, renovated and restored to working operations.

Outside the mansion, we were introduced to the henequen-making process. The fiber comes from the leaves of an agave plant, similar to that which produces tequila. We saw both the old, labor-intensive method for producing the fiber and then moved to the more modern machinery. I use the term “modern” in a relative sense; these massive, roaring machines date from the early 1900s. We watched as stacks of henequen leaves were deposited into the machine, which broke them and “combed” the fiber out of the plant’s flesh.

Next, we boarded a cart hitched to a mule and set off into the fields where, at the top of a hill, Don Antonio was awaiting us in his palapa. He’s been living and working at Sotuta de Peon for most of his life and, since retiring from field work, has become a part of the hacienda’s tour. After explaining the process of cutting henequen, he showed us around his home, expressing his wonder and gratitude about his lot in life. Years ago as a simple henequen cutter, he couldn’t have imagined that he’d ever meet so many people from all around the world, and he seemed as interested in us as we were in him.

After saying “ka’a xi’itech” to our new friend, another short mule ride brought us to Sotuta de Peon’s cenote, where we had an hour to swim and enjoy a drink at the mobile “Wagon Bar”. The water was warm, and the underground cenote was more beautiful than we had expected. During our three months in the Yucatán, we saw many cenotes, and kept waiting for one to disappoint us. But it never happened.

Our tour ended with lunch in the hacienda’s restaurant. The food was excellent, and the prices reasonable. The tour itself, in fact, is a major bargain considering everything that it entails. If you have time to visit just a single hacienda during your time in the Yucatán, you’d be well-advised to make it the Sotuta de Peon.

Location on our Map
Sotuta de Peon – Website

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February 15, 2014 at 4:06 pm Comments (0)

The Ruins of Aké

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On the way home to Mérida from Izamal, we swung by the small village and archaeological site of Aké. Requiring a long drive off the main highway, it’s a town which feels forgotten by the march of time.

Ake Yucatan

The ruins are not the most impressive that we saw during our time in the Yucatán, but are found so far off the beaten path that visiting them is quite fun. The site was completely empty, as I would venture is usually the case, and we had the run of it. We climbed to the top of the main structure, the Edificio de las Palastras, and walked along the walls which form the perimeter, all alone under the heavy sun.

Before leaving, we noticed a path leading into the jungle, and followed this for a couple hundred meters to yet another set of ruins. At the top, two deep caves were hollowed out into the rock. Alone in the woods and standing atop an ancient ruin which must have served as a dwelling for Maya holy men, it was hard not to feel the rush of adventure.

Next to the site is an old henequen factory, which we assumed had long been abandoned. But on our way out, we could hear the hum of machines emanating from within. Peering through the window, we saw that the old machinery of this factory was still in operation. Apparently, it’s possible to tour the plant, although this is something we unfortunately didn’t have time to do.

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February 3, 2014 at 2:22 pm Comments (0)

The Three Cenotes of Chunkanán

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Hundreds of cenotes pockmark the earth of the Yucatán Peninsula. Fed by subterranean rivers, these pools once served as sources of fresh water for the Maya, but today they’re primarily used for fun. We visited three amazing cenotes on a popular tour leaving from the village of Chunkanán.

Three Cenotes of Chunkanán

Our trip began in front of the restaurant Dzapacal, where we hopped into a cart pulled by horse along old railway tracks. The restaurant wasn’t hard to find; it’s the only large building in this minuscule town. Chunkanán was once home to one of the Yucatán’s many henequen plantations, and has struggled to survive since the collapse of the industry. The tracks along which our cart was being pulled had been used to transport the fiber to the port of Sisal on the Gulf Coast. After a short ride of about ten minutes, we arrived at the first cenote: Santa Cruz.

At each cenote, our guide allowed us as much time as we wanted, and we took full advantage at Santa Cruz, which we had all to ourselves. This cave was lit perfectly and we were able to float on the cool water, looking up at the stalactites and the swallows that circled them.

The second cenote was near enough to walk to. Dzapacal means “short throat” in Mayan and shares its name with the town restaurant. Without a guide, we would have walked right by this hole in the ground and completely missed it. To get to the water, you have climb ten slippery meters down a pair of ladders. The pool itself is narrow but extremely deep at nearly 33 meters (100 feet), and swimming down here was terrifying. So far from the surface and swimming in a hole that extends endlessly into the earth… who knows what ghastly creatures lurk in the deep?

Three Cenotes of Chunkanán

We hopped back on our cart to reach the third and final cenote of the day, Chelentun. There was quite a crowd when we arrived, but no bother. At over 100 meters (300 feet) in length and 40 meters (120 feet) deep, Chelentun is big enough to share. We dove in, and I went straight down until my ears started to hurt. The water is amazing, stunningly clean and clear, and glows bright blue when hit by the sun. You might think that the water of a subterranean river would be freezing, but it’s actually quite pleasant.

We can’t recommend this tour enough. Be warned, though. To reach Chunkanán, you have to pass through Cuzamá, a neighboring village which is trying to steal the cenote business. Jealous of the success of Chunkanán’s tour, Cuzamá started up its own “Three Cenote” package. Guys with red flags lurk on the road and will aggressively wave you down, even forcing you off the road. They direct you into their parking lot, and will lie about their tour being the only one. We had to be very insistent, even rude, before we were able to continue on to Chunkanán. It’s an awful practice, especially since struggling Chunkanán truly depends on these tours as nearly its sole source of income.

Apart from that bit of unpleasantness, we loved our time in Chunkanán. After the tour’s conclusion, we enjoyed an excellent lunch in the restaurant, and then hired a kid to take us to the ruins of the town’s old henequen plantation. A really fun day out, not far from Mérida.

Location of Chunkanán on our Map

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January 15, 2014 at 3:02 pm Comment (1)

The Life of a Baron in the Hacienda Temozón

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The gate of the Hacienda Temozón functions like a time machine, transporting you to an age when the Yucatán was among the richest areas in the Western Hemisphere. The henequen boom was a period of unimaginable wealth for the Yucatán… if, of course, you were among the lucky few who owned land.

Hacienda Temozón

I’ve always wondered how the ruling elite of grossly unequal societies can justify the abject misery suffered by the common people. I mean, how do they reconcile it, within their private souls? The landowners of the henequen-era Yucatán were no dummies; they were aware that their grand mansions and dainty luxuries were bought and paid for on the broken backs of an oppressed people. How could they sleep at night knowing that?

Most likely, they slept very well indeed… we started to understand that at the Hotel Temomzón, where we lived like barons for one glorious day. In the evening, as the sun was settling down, I stretched out on a hammock overlooking the hacienda’s garden with a tamarind margarita. At that moment, if someone had approached me with the choice to return to the 1800s as either [1] a spirited revolutionary fighting for social justice, or [2] a filthy rich landowner grown fat off the labor of others, there can be little doubt which box I’d have ticked.

The main hacienda building has floors with original tiling, photos of famous guests like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, a billiards hall and a restaurant on the patio. Behind the mansion is a beautiful pool and an old factory, with ancient machinery still in place. We loved walking through these equipment rooms, especially as they’re covered in old-time photos of life during the boom years.

Our room was in the former carpentry building, and I don’t even like thinking about it. It’s depressing that I’ll never be staying there again. The bathroom alone was a thing of perfection. The room was cavernous in size, and had an incredibly powerful shower that immediately turned on at exactly the right temperature. Sigh. Don’t ask me to describe the bedroom… the memory may reduce me to tears.

Hacienda Temozón

We woke early enough for a morning trip to the hacienda’s cenote. Three kilometers away, it’s reached along old railway tracks previously used to transport henequen. Climbing aboard a creaky wagon hitched to a donkey named Paco, we arrived at the pool after a bumpy and fun ride through the jungle. A deep hole with a ladder reaching down about six meters to the water, this was the first cenote we bathed in, and it couldn’t have been more beautiful.

Our day at Hacienda Temozón was everything we had hoped it would be. It’s a luxury hotel, so you can’t expect to book a room on the cheap. But you can expect a relaxing stay in a lovely and historic setting, hearkening back to another age.

Link: Hacienda Temozón

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January 3, 2014 at 5:04 pm Comments (0)
Sotuta de Peon During the Yucatán's henequen boom, there were close to a thousand haciendas (plantations) in operation across the state. Today, they're nearly all in ruins. And in the area surrounding Mérida, only one still manufactures henequen: Sotuta de Peon. We joined a tour of the hacienda which led us through a mansion, the factory, a Maya house in the agave fields, a cenote, and ended at a restaurant serving up Yucatecan specialties.
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