dusk near Cuernavaca

dusk near Cuernavaca

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Where the Rich Folks Lived

The late 1800s through the early 1900s was a "golden age" for the city of Mérida.  It is said that at that time there were more millionaires in Mérida per capita than in any other city in the world.  The source of this wealth was a plant known as henequen or sisal, a member of the agave family.  The fibers within the long pointed leaves had been used since Mayan times to make rope.

 Henequen plants

In the late nineteenth century the owners of the large haciendas began cultivating more and more of their land in henequen.  Eventually 70% of the farmland in Yucatan was planted in henequen.  Factories were built on the haciendas to extract and dry the fiber and to make rope.  Ninety percent of the world's supply of rope and twine came from Yucatan.

The landowners became fabulously wealthy from the "green gold" of henequen, and built palatial townhouses in Mérida.  An elegant tree-lined boulevard inspired by the Champs Elysee in Paris was laid out to the north of the historic center of the city.  This street, Paseo Montejo, was lined with the mansions of the millionaires.  

The introduction of synthetic fibers for rope marked the end of the henequen boom.  Most of the haciendas were abandoned.  However, many of the beautiful houses along Paseo Montejo still stand.  Today most are museums, banks or commercial offices, but they still evoke Mérida's Golden Age.  One should remember however that the elegant lifestyle of the era was built upon the labor of Mayan peasants who were little better than slaves.

  These two houses, built in a similar French style of architecture, are known as "Las Casas Gemelas" (the Twin Houses).  They were built by two wealthy brothers.  According to one local with whom I talked, there was a tragic story behind these houses and a curse was placed upon them.  They remain unoccupied.

The most impressive mansion along the boulevard is the "Palacio Cantón", which was the home of railway magnate and governor of Yucatán, Francisco Cantón.
It later became the archaeological museum of Mérida.  The archaeology collection was moved to the newly constructed "Mundo Maya" Museum, and today the palace serves as the site for special exhibitions.    

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