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A Journey Into Paradise

Henequen & the Yucatan Peninsula

15 January, 2014

Used by the Mayas for centuries to make clothing,hammocks,rugs and string,Henequen is still an important part of the Mexican Caribbean's heritage – and future.  Also known as “sisal hemp,” Henequen is found throughout Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and looks much like a small cactus. Its processed fibers are used to make rope for baling hay,cables that tie ocean freighters to the docks,and hammocks,among other useful items.

During the mid-1800s,factories were established throughout the region and Henequen products were shipped all over the world. Many formerly empty parcels of land were transformed into Henequen growing areas,which led to the Yucatan producing more than 90% of all rope and burlap bags that were used all over the entire world,transforming the region into one of the richest in all of Mexico by the late 1880s.

Henequen haciendas flourished during this time period,with many families enjoying lives of lavish wealth. Many of these prosperous individuals settled in the town of Merida,which is the present-day capital of Mexico's Yucatan state. Many of the fabulous colonial homes the Henequen cultivators built along the coast during the late 1800s and early 1900s are still visible here today,lining glamorous streets like Merida's Montejo Drive.

Much like the thriving silver industry that could be found in the mountains of Mexico at the time,however,the Henequen industry suffered greatly due to the economic and political unrest of World War I. Although it enjoyed a brief resurgence during World War II,the rise of synthetic materials and Henequen being grown in Brazil,Madagascar,Manila and Tanzania effectively brought the industry to a close in Mexico during the mid-1900s.

However,the 1970s saw a new use for the plant become popular,with the advent of the alfombras rugs that resemble colorful wall hangings,or tapetes. Today,there are still factories in the region that create these traditional decorative items,which are sold in the markets of Merida and other towns throughout the region.