Our trusty taxi driver José Luis picked us up from our casa at 8am sharp to drive us the 56ks out to the intriguing Hacienda Mucuyché. It took a while to get out of Centro but soon enough we were in the low jungle scrub of the Yucatan, barrelling down dusty, flat, straight roads in air-conditioned comfort, with our self-styled tour-guide offering a stream of proud local observations, as Ants valiantly attempted to keep up and translate.
Being so flat, there are no discernible landmarks in the Yucatan other than Mayan ruins of course. And, while there are few of those in this neck of the jungle, there are many Haciendas – the grand homes and estancias of the ultra-wealthy ‘green gold’ barons who also built their equally ostentatious mansions along Paseo de Montejo in Mérida in the 18th and 19th Century. Many of these haciendas are now abandoned weathered ruins – a haunting reminder of their owners’ once immense wealth, now dispersed, or lost. Some of them are today private estancias, whilst others have been restored and serve as restaurants and country clubs.
These grand haciendas were built off the back of the boom of the henequen fibre, sourced from the spiky “white” agave plants that thrive in the Yucatan (blue agave is for tequila). Henequen, better known as sisal (after Sisal, the port on the Gulf of Mexico) is used in twine, rope and textiles with many other uses, so with global demand surging the owners of these factories became in their day immensely rich, creating entire henequen dynasties which survive – in reduced circumstances – today.
One of the oldest is Hacienda Mucuyché (Tree of the Turtle Dove in Maya), which dates back to the 17th Century. When the henequen boom finally faded in the late 19th Century, the owner, Don Manuel José Peón retreated back to his city mansion, essentially leaving the house to rot in the jungle. Another family bought it shortly afterwards and it remained in private hands until the 1980s when once again it was abandoned. It was finally rescued by the state in 2012 and thankfully protected, if not restored.
It really is quite haunting to walk around this beautiful dilapidated place. The architecture has in parts a Moorish/Spanish influence with elements of the Alhambra, with some once grand rooms now totally exposed to the elements. There are still traces of the painted patterned walls (coloured with dyes from plants and insects), but – except for a family chapel partially restored with a modern Christ and pews – that’s all that remains – just the bones.