Daytrip from Izamal

Tags: Chacmay, Chenché de las Torres, Dzoncauich, Mexico

Date: April 26, 2022

On one of our last days in Izamal we went on a day trip to the surrounding area. We decided to visit Oxwatz, an eco-tourism park founded and maintained by a collective of 56 people from the village Tekal de Venegas. In addition to activities like mountain biking, bird/animal watching, camping, kayaking/canoeing and swimming/snorkeling it is possible to visit the on-site archaeological site Xbaatun, which the collective collaborate with archeologists from Spain in exploring and preserving.

Unfortunately, the roads in the nature park are pretty bad and accessible only with a 4-wheel drive vehicle. We had not booked in advance and the vehicle normally used to take tourists to the park was away for repairs so we were not able to visit the park in our small rental car. However, the driving force behind the Oxwatz Nature park, Manuel Chan, did not have other plans for the day and offered to take us on a guided tour to see some of the remains from the period of the henequen boom in Yucatan.

Henequen is the fiber from a type of agave (Agave fourcroydes). The fibers are extracted by soaking, shredding and drying the leaves of the plants and are subsequently used for producing rope and textile for sacks, among other things. The plant is native to the Yucatan peninsula and the Mayans grew and used henequen, calling it Sak ki (white agave). The Spanish also started growing henequen plants in Yucatan because the plant does not require much water or care and grows well in Yucatan’s hostile environment. However, it wasn't until the late 19th century when a combination of various factors turned henequen production highly profitable. 1) Man power was readily and cheaply available due to the crash of the sugar cane industry that happened as a consequence of the upheavals of the Caste Wars in Yucatan (1847-1901), 2) Machinery for efficient shredding of the leaves and production of twine and rope were developed, 3) Huge privately owned properties, haciendas, already existed to invest in machinery and organize the planting and harvesting from vast areas, 4) technological advances enabled the building of a network of railroads for efficient transportation of the fibers to the ports for export and 5) an ever-increasing demand for transportation of people and goods all over the world necessitated increasing amounts of rope for horse-drawn carriages and the ships in charge of most of the transportation. All this came to a head at the outbreak of the Spanish–American War in 1898 when shortage of Manila hemp from the Philippine Islands led to a veritable henequen boom in the Yucatan. Fortunes were made for the owners of the haciendas, making Yucatan the richest State in the Republic of Mexico for a time. In contrast, the workers of the haciendas (in the year 1900, close to 1200 haciendas employed about 80,000 workers) were often being paid in "hacienda tokens" issued by the hacienda owners that could only be exchanged for goods on the hacienda or at the "company store", making the life conditions of the hacienda workers comparable to that of the serfdom of the peasants in medieval Europe.

Like it was the case for the start of the henequen boom, the decline of the henequen production in Yucatan was caused by multiple factors: 1) The development and commercialization of motorized vehicles and ships combined with the later development of synthetic fibers led to a decrease in demand for henequen ropes, 2) many hacienda owners had borrowed money to invest in machinery in the expectation of ever increasing profits, 3) this, combined with the Mexican revolution in 1915 and the social upheaval following it its wake, led to many hacienda owners abandoning their property and 4) The stock market crash of 1929 caused the henequen prices to decline and the following depression caused worldwide exports to decrease dramatically. Finally, in the agrarian land reform implemented by President Lazaro Cardenas in 1937, the henequen haciendas were abolished and turned into collective ejidos. In many cases, lack of experience of how to run a business and poor management by the collectives led to further declines in the industry. Furthermore, competition from other countries like Cuba, Tanzania, Kenya and in particular Brazil meant that the henequen industry in Yucatan had all but disappeared by 1950.

Now back to our guided tour. First Manuel took us to the village of Chacmay, which means red deer or red hoof in Maya. The village has about 450 inhabitants and they live mostly by raising cattle. We parked in the center of town, next to the church and the basketball court. After buying some snacks and water in the local store we walked to the end of town and turned onto a very straight gravel road that passed under an arch-like gate:

The gate marked one end of a road leading from the village to a railroad station about 4 km away. Back in the henequen days, the road would have been used to transport the henequen fibres to a storage building at the railroad station for later loading onto the train. Here we are inside the ruin of the storage room:

Manuel and Félicie in the ruin:

The outside of one of the ruined buildings:

Bjarne taking a rest on a stone wall nearby the station before returning to Chacmay and the car:

Next we drove on to the town of Dzoncauich, which means Cauich's cenote/well. The town is larger than Chacmay with approximately 2,300 inhabitants. While we were there, the town was preparing for la Vaquería, a traditional Yucatec festival with roots back to early colonial times long before the henequen production boomed. The festivals were originally celebrating the cattle branding and the counting of the cattle in the haciendas and ranches. Today, la Vaquería (the word deriving from vaca = cow in Spanish) is still an important celebration and may be the only time of year when the young people who have moved away or immigrated for better work and living conditions return to visit the family.

View from the central plaza towards the town church, built in the 17th century and a classic example of a colonial church. Visible in the left of the picture are a few tents erected as part of the festival preparations:

More tents and a temporary bull fighting arena built from bamboo sticks and palm leaves:

Bull fighting remains legal and popular in Yucatan and many other Mexican states while it is prohibited in others e.g. the neighboring Quintana Roo state. Here is a view from beside the arena towards the church:

La Vaquería traditionally consists of three parts, starting with a mass at the church, then the bull fight and ending with a ball, where the Jarana, a typical type of tap dance (with roots back to Andalusia) is performed.

Our last stop of the day was at the hacienda Chenché de las Torres. Surrounding the hacienda is the small village of the same name. It has about 250 inhabitants. The Hacienda is open for visits but it helped having a local guide around who knew how to locate the person in charge of unlocking the gate to the hacienda. Getting in this way, we were the only visitors at the time.

Chenché de las Torres was one of several properties owned by the Count of Miraflores. The title of count was granted to Pedro de Garrástegui by the Spanish crown in 1689 and remain the only noble title ever granted to a Yucatec subject. It was passed down through the generations until 1944 when the last countess of Miraflores, Candelaria Peón y Peón died in Mexico City. Candelaria was born in 1873 as the only child of the the last count of Miraflores. Álvaro Peón de Regil and his wife Countess Candelaria Peón y Castellanos. She celebrated her wedding to Pedro Manuel Regil Casares at Hacienda Chenché de las Torres on April 30, 1894 and sometime later, a family named Manzanilla acquired the ownership of the hacienda. We don't know much about the Manzanilla family but they probably owned the hacienda during a large part of the henequen boom period. Like many other hacienda owners, the Manzanillas abandoned the hacienda in 1950 at which time the buildings had fallen into disrepair. From 2001, restoration of the hacienda were initiated and has been continued by the current owner. No one lives at the hacienda anymore, but it is sometimes used as a photo venue.

The parents of Candelaria Peón y Peón, Álvaro Peón de Regil and Candelaria Peón y Castellanos were the ones who modified the architecture of the unknown original hacienda main house to resemble a European medieval fortress, including heraldic shields with the family crests of the Miraflores as well as a striking tower close to 20 meters high:

The rather kitchy hacienda house is surrounded by a lovely garden with lots of native plants:

Amazing maze of tree roots. The underground must be pretty hard:

These steps next to a fountain and water basin leads up to a concrete deck with a pool. The large tree in the right of the picture is a mango tree that was full of small ripe mangoes while we visited. We picked a few up off the ground and had a little afternoon snack on the steps leading up to the house:

Our guide, Manuel, in front of what looks like a copy of a Maya carving:

Looking down from the pool deck we could see a large orchard full of fruit trees that were mostly unknown to us:

The grounds contain a lovely chapel built in the neo-gothic style:

Back when the hacienda was inhabited and active the chapel was used by the resident family as well as by the workers of the hacienda.