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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)

Mérida’s Paseo de Montejo

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One of the best reasons to travel is the opportunity to challenge your poorly-held assumptions and purge yourself of them. A child of the US Midwest, I grew up with the vague concept of “Mexico” as a dry, dusty place where poor people lived simply. This idea was embedded into my subconscious by a lot of factors: mainly, our proudly ignorant American culture, and a media overly reliant on stereotypes. By watching The Three Amigos and Speedy Gonzales, I learned to identify Mexico as a mud-walled hut with chickens pecking in the dirt.

If someone had taken me, as a child, on a stroll along Mérida’s Paseo de Montejo, and then revealed that we were in Mexico, I would have refused to believe it. My brain would have shut down.

Paseo de Montejo Merida

The wide, tree-lined Paseo de Montejo is Mexico at its most extravagant. Along either side of the broad boulevard, mansion after mansion fight for prominence, each more ostentatious than the next. Today, they’ve been converted into museums or banks, but these were once the homes of Mérida’s richest families. As we walked down the long, shaded sidewalk, I could hear the bewildered child inside me screaming “You’re not in Mexico!”

The mansions along the Paseo de Montejo are a product of the Yucatán’s nineteenth century henequen boom. Suddenly among the richest cities in the New World, Mérida put its newfound wealth to good use. No, not by caring for its poor or anything silly like that. I mean the showy, selfish sort of “good use”: by building fabulous homes for the landholders and the elite.

The money eventually stopped flowing, as it always does, but the mansions are still in good condition. We poked our heads into a couple that are now museums and banks, and were astounded by their beauty. At the northern end of the boulevard, our long walk was rewarded by the Monumento a la Patria (Monument to the Motherland): a neo-Maya sculpture built in 1956.

Strolling along the Paseo is one of the most pleasant ways to spend an afternoon in Mérida… especially if your subconscious is holding onto any stereotypes of “dirt poor Mexico” of which you’d like to rid yourself.

Location of the Monumento a la Patria

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November 30, 2013 at 8:03 pm Comments (6)

The Museo de la Ciudad in Mérida

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Found just a couple blocks southeast of the Plaza Grande, Mérida’s grand former post office is now home to a museum which introduces the city and its history.

Merida Museum

We decided to move to the Yucatán because of the Maya ruins, the warm winters and the great beaches. We knew nothing about Mérida itself, and only chose it as a base because it’s the peninsula’s largest and best-connected city. But within almost no time, we had advanced from totally ignorant to decently knowledgeable about our new home. In the first twenty-four hours, we had visited the Cathedral, Palacio del Gobierno, Casa de Montejo, and were now at the doors of the City Museum.

Two days before, I would have had no clue what “henequen” was. Maybe a Dutch beer? A card game? But now I’m like, “God, you don’t know what henequen is?” Totally rolling my eyes.

Merida Museum

From ancient Maya beliefs to the arrival of the Spaniards, the Museo de la Ciudad takes visitors on the same historical journey as that offered by the murals in the Palacio del Gobierno, but more studiously. We were eager to learn about our new home, and gobbled the information up greedily, but I can imagine that those with only a day or two in the city might find it superfluous.

Then again, the museum is free. And even if you have no interest in history, there are temporary art exhibitions on the second and third floors, usually featuring artists from the Yucatán. We saw a fun collection featuring robots in popular culture, and another dedicated to the colorful Maya gods.

Location on our Yucatán Map

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November 17, 2013 at 11:22 pm Comments (0)

Mérida – Capital of the Yucatán

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A gorgeous colonial-era city of nearly a million people, Mérida is the capital of the Yucatán and was our home for three months. Despite its size, it’s mostly overlooked by travelers. In fact, before deciding to move to the Yucatán, we had never even heard of it! But Mérida is an invigorating city filled with historical sights, hectic markets, friendly locals, relatively few foreigners and an impressive cultural life.

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Mérida was officially founded in 1542 by the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo. A Maya city named T’Hó had previously occupied the location, but by the time of the conquest, its pyramids were already in ruins and the remaining indigenous population were living in straw huts. Although Montejo and his men encountered fierce resistance, they were able to quickly subdue and dominate the out-gunned locals.

From the very beginning, the Spanish intended Mérida to be capital of the Yucatán. Its development followed a very structured layout, with a grand central plaza where the pyramid of T’Hó once stood. An enormous cathedral, just the second in the New World, was constructed on the east side of the plaza. To the north, the governmental palace was built. To the west, the Imperial Palace. And a marvelous residence for Conquistador Montejo himself on the plaza’s southern side. With this Plaza Grande as its nexus, the city sprawled out in every direction.

Despite its capital-city status, Mérida remained a relative backwater for most of its history. No highways connected it to the rest of Mexico, and a perceived lack of natural resources held its growth in check. That changed in the late 18th century with the “discovery” of henequen: a high-quality fiber made from agave. The “green gold” brought unheard-of riches to the Yucatán and Mérida expanded rapidly, becoming the first city in Mexico with street lighting and cable cars. Culture flourished, and the downtown was completely renovated. Of course, while Mérida’s lords and ladies were enjoying their exciting new wealth, the Maya (who had been using henequen for centuries) were being exploited worse than ever.

With the invention of artificial fibers, the henequen boom petered out and Mérida settled back into its regular rhythm. The traces of its former glory, however, remain. Mérida has an uncommonly active cultural and intellectual scene and its historic center is one of the largest in the Americas, with beautiful colonial buildings on every block. Throughout the week, there are free musical performances downtown. Crime is rare, with violence toward tourists practically non-existent, and Meridians themselves are about the most laid-back and friendly people imaginable.

Location on our Yucatán Map

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November 13, 2013 at 1:53 am Comments (2)
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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