Just off Highway 261 between Mérida and Uxmal, Hacienda Yaxcopoil (Hwy. 261, 33 km/20.5 mi south of Mérida, tel. 999/910-4469, www.yaxcopoil.com, 8 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Sat., Sun. 9 a.m.–1 p.m., US$4.75, children free) was one of dozens of huge henequen (a type of cactus, sometimes referred to as sisal) estates that dotted the Yucatán Peninsula.
Built in the 17th century, Yaxcopoil (yawsh-ko-po-EEL) grew to encompass 11,000 hectares (27,181 acres), reaching its zenith during World War I, when rope made from the thorny, fibrous henequen plant was in great demand. A visit to the hacienda today leaves much to be desired—guide service or written descriptions for starters—but you can stroll through the grand old rooms, where antique furniture, old photos, and original tile floors give a sense of the life the patrones (landowners) enjoyed.
Don’t leave without visiting the machine room out back, which you may have to ask to be unlocked. There, huge machinery once used to extract fiber from the henequen leaves and bind it into bales still stands. The high brick chimney is from the days of steam power (notice the narrow tubes running underfoot) while the massive diesel engine was added in 1913 and used until the hacienda stopped production in 1984.
Admission to Yaxcopoil is a bit steep considering how little formal information there is, but if you speak any Spanish, definitely chat up whoever is there—many staffers either worked the hacienda, or their parents or grandparents did, and many have fascinating stories.
The history of henequen production—the grandeur of the estates, the cruel exploitation of indigenous workers, the political and economic influence wielded by hacienda owners—is as fascinating as it is little understood.
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition