As I made my way through thick jungle vegetation, I caught a glimpse of a crumbling stone wall slowly being overtaken by creeping vines and alamo trees. The wall surrounded what must have once been an elegant courtyard. It was part of a larger hacienda, one of the many vast and magnificent estates that had been built with the wealth of Yucatan’s 19th-Century henequen-rope industry, all now a ghost of their former glory.
I chanced upon these ruins while on a motorcycle trip across the Yucatan Peninsula. I’d expected the focus of my bike expedition to be the area’s better-known claims to fame, its cenotes and ancient Maya sites, but a local guide led me off the main roads and into the lush jungle to show me another layer of Yucatan’s history and heritage: the abandoned henequen haciendas.
Though few travellers know of them, there are hundreds of these haciendas in the peninsula, many of them spanning thousands of acres. They once symbolised the peninsula’s wealth and power but were abandoned in the 1950s after a sudden downturn of fortune. Some of the ruins are visible from the side of the road, while others require the keen eye and local knowledge of a guide; and whereas some have been left for nature to take back, a few have been reclaimed for a second life.
Over the course of two days, I mapped out a 165km loop of backcountry roads just south of Merida and drove my motorcycle to four different haciendas, each with their own unique history and in states varying from broken-down decay to beautifully renovated.
As I passed the town of Homun, some 60km south-east of Merida, the highway gave way to sleepy settlements where the streets were still unpaved, and the jungle had woven itself into the roads. The heat and humidity were punishing, and the stillness of the countryside felt eerie as I approached the first historical hacienda on my makeshift trail: Kampepén.