Dazzling colonial cities, mystical pyramids, coral white beaches – Yucatán is not just a dream destination for winter escapes. In the hinterland, the art of hat- and rope-making bears witness to the country’s golden past.

Bécal, in the baking midday heat, looks and feels almost deserted. The only sign of life are two schoolgirls lugging their satchels across the very large village square. Their eyes fixed on the tar in front of them, they do not cast even the slightest glance at the monument on their right: three giant hats made of white stone, from whose midst a jet of water languidly splatters skywards, as if having surrendered to gravity a long time ago.

A young man races towards the square on a rickety bicycle. “Jipijapa?” he calls to us, waving and before coming to a halt. He must have been watching us from a distance. Jipijapa? Miguel (that is what he is called) points excitedly to his head. Of course! Jipijapa is the Mayan word for a Panama hat. The Panama hats are the reason why Bécal, a sleepy hamlet between Campeche and Mérida, is marked on the tourist map.

Photos: Francisco Ac Chi, Ramón Alfonso Celis Perera, iStock

Roosevelt is to blame!

The Yucatán Peninsula does not depend exclusively on beach tourism that sprawls across the eastern coast like a continuous wave. The beaches of Riviera Maya are glorious, the nights short and the sea as crystal-clear as a fresh tequila. But if you truly want to get to know the soul of Yucatán you need to explore the hinterland, where magnificent colonial cities bear testimony to past glories. The Yucatán hinterland is the site of mystical Maya temples. It is also where Panama hats are woven from “paja toquilla” (toquilla palm straw), so finely they can be folded to fit in your trouser pocket.

“Roosevelt is to blame!” Miguel exclaims with a feigned air of anger as we progress on our bumpy rickshaw taxi ride through Bécal. Because, according to Miguel, the hats do not originate from Panama, but from Ecuador. To prove it, he pulls out a heavily creased photograph from his bag: the photograph depicts the 26th US President standing in front of the Panama Canal wearing a white hat, which came into fashion around 1900. From there, engineers and travellers carried it out into the world – and, with it, the name.

In the cool ground

Jipijapa hats have been produced in Yucatán since 1859. Unlike Ecuador, the air is dust-dry, which is why the families have moved their workshops to lower and cooler grounds. “Without the humidity, the straw would break,” Doña Chari explains. The passionate hatter is sitting in her cave, at the foot of a steep flight of stone steps, holding her woven work in her hand. Under the guidance of her parents, she made her first hat when she was just ten years old. In keeping with that tradition, she has passed on her knowledge to her own four children. “The jipijapa are our only source of income, the whole family is involved in making them,” she says. This also means working in the fields: behind the village, 6000 toquilla plants are waiting to be harvested: “The hardest part is making the straw. Everything hinges on its quality.” Quality has its price. A simple hat, produced in two days, usually costs between twenty and thirty euros, whereas a masterpiece, which takes several weeks to make, may cost several hundred euros. And the hats sold at the beach for one or two dollars? “Made in China,” Miguel says and pulls a face. The people of Bécal are not well-disposed towards those who sell cheap imported goods.

Porous like Swiss cheese

More treasures are slumbering beneath the Yucatán soil. The history of some, like the Maya cities, is centuries old, others even go back millions of years: the karst landscape, porous like Swiss cheese, plays host to the world’s largest underwater cave system. Small, circular-shaped pools were formed in many places through the collapse of porous rock: the crystal-clear water of these oases –which are called “cenotes”– is an alluring invitation to swim or scuba dive, whilst the trees above thirstily stretch out their metres-long aerial roots towards the water. As many as eight such wonders of nature, lined up like pearls on a string, can be found along the “Ruta de los Cenotes” south of Cancún. Until about AD 900, they were an important source of drinking water for the Maya civilisation and the gateway to a subterranean world. Divers have discovered sacrificial offerings in the cenote of Chichén Itzá. Nowadays, other rituals are carried out there: many cenotes seek to attract visitors with a mixture of ropes courses and waterparks. As a result, luck and the right tips are called for to enjoy an exclusive and refreshing swim to oneself.

On the agave fields

We journey on east, in search of Yucatán’s “green gold”: the Henequen agave. The agave’s edged, silver-green leaves do not look very appetising – particularly when they are being crushed. The more than century-old straw cutting machine of the “Hacienda Sotuta de Peón” devours the leaves with an insatiable appetite and a deafening noise, crushing it into a fleshy mass that is then frayed. “The old lady manages 100,000 leaves in eight hours,” Don Antonio shouts to us as he loads the masticated bundles on to a cart. His colleague pushes the freight into the yard where workers hang the bundles up to dry.

Don Antonio Ucan Uc is over 80 years old and has been working on the hacienda since he was eight. Nowadays, he tells visitors of the golden era of the farming estates. Back then, the stiff sisal fibre, named after the port on the north coast, was shipped to all corners of the world. “Between 1870 and 1930, Mexico dominated global trade of sisal fibre. Agriculture and shipbuilding desperately needed ropes, sacks and string,” Don Antonio explains. An army of Maya Indios and a handful of landowners lived from the boom - “the landowners somewhat better than the labourers,” he adds with a broad grin.

Yucatán’s golden era

When, as a young man, Don Antonio worked in the fields, the hacienda was a cosmos of its own with feudal structures. “Weeding and cutting the leaves is especially tough work,” he recalls. The leaves are separated piece by piece from the “piña”, the heart of the plant, using a spade of a sorts and applying a great deal of muscle strength. Some of the straw is then used on site to make ropes, bags and carpets using age-old machines that could well be museum pieces. The rest is sold at the market in Mérida. Home to splendid city palaces that bear witness to early Industrial Age wealth, Mérida celebrated its own Belle Époque – until synthetic fibres brought celebrations to an abrupt end around 1930.

Only a few of Yucatán’s roughly 1300 haciendas have survived. Whereas some have been converted into boutique hotels, others are still traditionally run. The “Hacienda Sotuta de Peón” is one of them and offers a combination of open-air museum, tourist resort and production facilities. Visitors who, after a multi-hour guided tour, choose to relax on the red-tiled terrace of the stately home can enjoy the view across the agave fields and let the gentle breeze carry their thoughts back to the golden age. “Production on the hacienda ended as recently as 1985,” Don Antonio tells. The weeds had already started to take over when an entrepreneur purchased the estate, restored the buildings and resumed operations. “Fortunately,” the old man adds beaming. “The hacienda is my life.”

Insider tips

Cenote Manatí: Cenote Manatí (also known as Cenote Tankah) meanders its way through the mangrove like a small fjord. This limestone hole situated eleven kilometres north of Tulum can be reached via a small coastal road; the beach (with a restaurant) is located right opposite it: water travels through a subterranean cave into the sea. A rare and shy type of manatee used to frequent it, to get a nose full of fresh water. Nowadays, visitors can rent a life jacket, lie on their backs and enjoy drifting through a symphony of green and blue.

Highway 307, turn off at “Pavo Real Beach Resort” or “Oscar y Lalo”. Access from the north over a gravel road is reserved exclusively for visitors of “Chamico’s” restaurant.

Did you know that ...

… Mexico has the world’s highest coca consumption?

… the ancient Maya already used the mathematical zero and worked out that the year has 365.2420 days?

… besides Spanish (the official language), 62 indigenous languages are recognised as national languages – only India has more?

… since 1978, only the agave schnapps from the region round the city of Tequila may be called that, whereas the spirit produced elsewhere is sold as mescal?

Text: Alexander Marzahn