Walking around the Centro Histórico district you’ll mostly see charming low level square casas, often arranged higgledy piggledy, calle after calle. I love their individual expression of colour and style – most conforming to the pastel brights against limewashed weathered walls, whilst others rebel and shout out to the world ‘look at me!’ – I particular love these.
But on certain calles, and not surprisingly, around the Paseo Montejo district, you’ll find impressively large French inspired mansions, grand stately homes and elegant palacios all as a result of Mérida’s ‘green and gold’ henequen boom of the late 19thand early 20th Century.
The barons of henequen brought their wealth to the bright lights of the city, living their lives in magnificent opulence. So much so that by the early 20th Century, Mérida had more millionaires per capita than any other place on earth. I know, that’s hard to believe right. But apparently, it’s true – such was the global demand for sisal at the time.
But it was the Mexican Revolution of 1910 that brought the boom to an end. New land reforms were introduced that broke up the henequen system. Productivity dropped dramatically and the price of the henequen fibre went through the roof. America, the biggest consumer, refused to pay the exorbitant prices and went elsewhere, effectively killing the henequen industry in the Yucatan.
Such was the steep decline of the industry that by the 1950’s the countryside around Mérida was a graveyard of abandoned haciendas. Sadly, this rapid decline in fortune was also reflected in the city, with the once grand mansions falling into states of disrepair and, in some cases, total abandonment.
On my walk up to Avenida Colon and over towards Colonia García Ginerés I discovered mansion after mansion in architectural styles ranging from French Renaissance to Art Deco to the more blocky functional 40’s and 50’s, sadly many of them locked up by rusting chains with their once lush green lawns now brown bare dust bowls.
However, there’s light at the end of the henequen tunnel. Many of the country haciendas have been restored to their former glory or are in the process of being brought back to life through increased tourism and their close proximity to cenotes and Mayan ruins. Meanwhile the global desire for natural fibres has seen a resurgence in the local fortunes of the henequen industry.
The restoration boom has hit Mérida too. The once run-down casas are being restored in loving detail with pasta tiled ‘carpets’ now a must have showpiece. The mansions and large stately homes are also being fastidiously restored to their once former glory albeit in another guise, yet another luxury boutique hotel perhaps. Almost every calle in the Centro Histórico district, particularly in the fashionable barrios of Santa Lucia, Santiago and Santa Ana have restoration projects on the go, so always worth a sneak peak in through an open door or window to see the pasta tiled carpets anew and a glimpse of a yet to be filled swimming pool.