As the Prior x Cabana Caravan prepares for its 2024 trip to Mexico's remarkable Yucatán Peninsula, host Susana Ordovas shares a postcard from her many visits to the region - a land of faded, decadent glory, crumbling haciendas, tropical landscapes and breathtaking archeological sites.
BY SUSANA ORDOVÁS | CABANA ISSUE 17
In 1517 an ill-fated expedition lead by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba sailed from Cuba across uncharted waters in two warships and a brigantine crewed by a hundred intrepid men. They were in search of undiscovered territory and slaves when they stumbled across a remote and expansive land ruled by the great ancient Maya civilization.
According to legend, when Hernández de Córdoba asked the indigenous Maya where he was they replied in their native tongue that they did not understand his language. Hernández de Córdoba, thinking that their answer sounded like the word “Yucatan”, baptized this wondrous region with that name.
I fell in love with Yucatán when I visited it for the first time almost three decades ago and, although I was only there briefly, I quickly became enchanted with its faded, decadent glory and charm. The crumbling haciendas and breathtaking archeological sites that adorned the lush tropical landscape, as well as the ruined colonial buildings that line the bustling streets of its capital Mérida, revealed captivating tales of splendid bygone eras that enraptured me.
I did not return until many years later and when I did it became clear to me that Yucatán was experiencing a new dawn, a renaissance unlike anything I had ever witnessed. Its forsaken, decaying ruins, remnants of an illustrious past, were shrugging off the effects of a lethargic state and awakening from a century’s old siesta. To understand this isolated region of Mexico, is to understand its history.
For a brief period, around the turn of the 20th century, Mérida was said to house more millionaires than any other city in the world thanks to the mass production of henequen, a fibrous agave native to Yucatán that was used to craft high-quality rope and twine, and to make sacks to transport grain. Henequen was used by the ancient Maya, before the conquest of Mexico, for clothing, hammocks, rope and sacks, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the henequen industry boomed.
The technological innovations of the Industrial Revolution allowed the haciendas to increase their production enormously and keep pace with international demand. As a result, Yucatán experienced a period of astonishing wealth and prosperity unparalleled to anything Mexico had ever seen. At the height of the henequen boom, from 1880 to 1910, there were over a thousand haciendas in the region dedicated to the production of henequen. This agave became known as “green gold” or “sisal”, since all henequen was exported from the port of Sisal.
A handful of families controlled the industry, spending their fortunes on the finest European furniture, china and crystal for their haciendas, which they built in a bewildering variety of styles ranging from Medieval to Moorish, Renaissance to Baroque and sometimes a combination of several. The result of this concentration of unmeasurable wealth can still be seen today thanks to the countless haciendas dotted about the Yucatán Peninsula.
The affluent hacendados of the henequen era also built lavish homes for their families in Mérida. Paseo Montejo, the city’s main avenue which was built to emulate the Champs-Élysées in Paris, boasts impressive ornate mansions and is testament to the incredible wealth that was amassed during those extraordinary times.
In the ’40s, due to the Caste War and the invention of synthetic fibres, misfortune swept over this land of richness and the entire henequen industry plummeted. With no means of economic sustainability, most haciendas fell into disrepair and were slowly abandoned to perish in the unforgiving jungle.
They remained in this derelict state until the early ’90s when, once again, some of them were brought back to their former state of splendour. Today’s Yucatán stately homes and haciendas, many still abandoned and devoured by an indomitable forest and engulfed in a tangle of roots and vines, are a romantic reminder of the difficult, albeit fascinating history of this remote part of Mexico.
This vast, flat land of hidden treasures, where nature and climate are the constant enemies, has resonated with me and sparked my imagination in ways I could not have envisioned. Traveling through Yucatán is an extraordinary voyage that transports you back in time, it’s an escape to a world of dreams and grandeur, comparable to delving into the pages of an exciting children’s book of adventures or opening up a Pandora’s box full of wonderful sights and sounds. Magic is everywhere.
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PRIOR X CABANA CARAVAN
Cabana and PRIOR’s spirit of unlocking beautiful homes leads us to the Yucatán Peninsula, a region of Mexico filled with lush vegetation, rich Mayan history and hidden haciendas. During your five day stay, explore archeological sites, beautifully restored haciendas and the rich architectural and cultural imprint left by pre-Spanish history. You'll meet the local stewards of traditional weaving, wood carving, and embroidery; and taste the unique flavors of the Yucatán’s distinct cuisine.
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