A Spanish nobleman arriving at the gates of Temozón in the 17th century would have received a generous welcome. The sprawling estate was owned by Don Diego de Mendoza, descendant of the great Francisco de Montejo, who conquered the Yucatan for the Spanish crown and founded the colonial city of Mérida. It was one of the region's most important livestock haciendas, and there, as in other working estates of colonial Mexico, visitors could be sure, as one traveler wrote, of "a hearty welcome and good fare."
Afternoons were spent in leisure, smoking cigars with the hacendado or drinking mescal. Dinners were lavish, and if the traveler were fortunate enough to arrive for a saint's day, or a harvest festival, the celebration would stretch deep into the night.
Today's visitor to Temozón would feel no less welcome. The flowering gardens and cobbled pathways recall the same genteel life of aristocrats and nobles. Leisurely strolls and lavish dinners are still the preferred way to pass the time, though you can just as easily swim some laps in the pool — or get chauffeured to a nearby archaeological site for an intimate tour of Mayan ruins.
Since its two-year restoration was completed in 1997, Hacienda Temozón Sur has been enjoying a second life as a luxury hotel, offering guests a chance to experience the romance of a hacienda life which thrived in Mexico for hundreds of years.
Temozón is hardly alone. Thanks to the efforts of preservationists and investors who have spent the past decade rescuing hundreds of crumbling properties from ruin, the hacienda is enjoying a renaissance.
"There's something that touches your soul when you think about the history in those walls," says author Karen Witynski, who, with husband, Joe Carr, has documented a number of restorations in books like “Casa Yucatan” and “The New Hacienda.”
She recalls working with preservationists a decade ago, when they had just begun to "discover these old architectural treasures, in a dilapidated but graceful state of decay." The faded estates evoked an important chapter in the history of colonial Mexico — a chapter that Witynski, like many others, was eager to preserve.
The haciendas were part of an ambitious land-grant scheme by the Spanish crown begun in the 16th century, as a way to reward conquistadors, Spanish nobles and others for their loyalty to the king. Most were operated like small city-states, run by a powerful hacendado — a man whose economic and political clout could often be felt as far away as Mexico City.
The haciendas were self-sufficient communities; they boasted churches and general stores, hospitals and schools. As many as 1,000 people might have lived on a single estate: administrators and foremen, priests and clerks and schoolteachers and the countless Indian and mestizo workers who were virtually held in bondage to the landowner.
For centuries the haciendas dominated the economic and political landscape of Mexico. They typically focused on a single agricultural product, which varied from one region to the next. Mescal flourished in Zacatecas; sugar in Puebla; agave in Jalisco.
It was in the Yucatan, though, where henequen, or sisal, was the principal crop, that the hacienda enjoyed its golden age. A rapidly expanding global market in the second half of the 19th century created a surge in demand for the fiber rope derived from the plant. Prices soared, and the profits that poured into the Yucatan gave birth to the nickname for which henequen would become known: oro verde, or "green gold."
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It’s A Snap: Travel Photo of the WeekWith the movement toward synthetic fibers after World War I, though, the henequen market collapsed. Revolution shook Mexico in 1910, and angry protests against the feudal hacienda system hastened its demise.
Across the country, the once thriving haciendas were ransacked and razed; others were abandoned and left to decay. Most would remain untouched for decades.
It was one such property that Americans Chuck and Dev Stern discovered on a visit to the Yucatan in 2000. The hacienda — an 18th-century cattle ranch which turned to henequen production in the 1800s — was buried in the jungle on the outskirts of Mérida, like an ancient Mayan ruin. The roof was crumbling; in places the jungle seemed to have swallowed the property whole. "It was in terrible, terrible shape when we bought it," says Dev Stern. "Our son thought we were crazy."
But where others saw a lost cause, Stern saw potential. "It was a jewel that had so many historic features" not lost to time, she says. The marvelous stone arches and arcades were still intact; so, too, was a stone aqueduct once used to irrigate the henequen fields.
After three years of restoration, Hacienda Petac began its new life as a luxurious vacation rental — a five-room hacienda home sitting on a sprawling, 80-acre estate, fully staffed and rented out in its entirety. It was a remarkable transformation from the crumbling ruin that sat there just three years before. But as Stern recalls, "We just saw something there that nobody else saw."
It's A Snap! Readers' best shotsMuch of the hacienda revival was driven by the vision of billionaire banker Roberto Hernandez, who began buying up dozens of Yucatan properties in the late-1990s. Hernandez has had a long love affair with the region, and was quick to see its tourist potential — not just on the bustling beaches of the Riviera Maya, but in the interior, with its colonial cities and Mayan ruins shrouded by jungle growth.
Many of the properties he purchased are being restored as second homes, while five were converted into luxury hotels. Those properties, which together form the Starwood-managed Luxury Collection, include some of Mexico's most opulent haciendas.
"The ambience is like living in the 19th century, but still receiving high-end luxury accommodation," says Walter Harbich, General Manager for The Luxury Collection. "The idea is to restore the original designs, the paintings and the decorations … [but ] we draw a line where the historical part ends and the luxury experience begins."
At Hacienda Santa Rosa de Lima, for example, original architectural features, like colorful floor tiles and soaring ceilings with exposed rafters, are combined with modern comforts like A/C, WiFi, and a meticulous attention to detail that extends from the fine china and glassware to the polished service.
Writer Witynski notes that the designers helping to restore the haciendas "are using old, traditional elements, but with contemporary comforts and contemporary flair." At Hacienda los Laureles in Oaxaca, that might mean combining a 21st-century spa with the traditional Mayan steam bath, or temazcal.
At Hacienda Uayamon, an old building past the point of restoration wasn't razed — it was turned into a swimming pool. Floating beneath the weather-stained, moss-covered walls, circling a column that wouldn't look out of place at Chichen Itza, it's easy to feel as if you're swimming through history itself.
It's part of the distinctive restoration work that typifies the hacienda today. "They are looking back but looking ahead at the same time," says Witynski, "and coming up with this provocative design that people really connect to."
The point is that the design not only restores the hacienda to the spirit of those original estates, but preserves it for future generations. As Stern, of Hacienda Petac, notes, "We're stewards of the hacienda. It's had a long history, and it will have a continuing history, and we're just part of it. ... We try to remember that we're really guests here."