Back to the old hacienda

Once home to Mexico's jute barons, Yucatan's colonial estates now attract a ritzy crowd. Charles Glass goes in search of his family seat

Yucatan's hammocks are as ubiquitous as its ants, even in luxury hacienda hotels. A hammock can be more comfortable than a bed anyway. And it hangs above the ants. I stretched out and closed my eyes, content that I had outsmarted the wee beasties. A minute later, the rope slipped and sent me crashing to the floor. The ants were all over me again. Another night in the tropics.

Alone in Yucatan, I was on a quest to find not insects but family. In the 19th century my great-grandfather, Francis Macari, sailed to Mexico's Caribbean peninsula from Lebanon. He fought in its wars and returned home to die. The relations who followed him to Yucatan, then a remote region unconnected by road to the rest of Mexico, stayed. They were the "lost cousins" of whom my maternal grandmother spoke with great fondness and little knowledge. She called them the "jute kings". In Yucatan, they call jute - from which rope, twine and burlap bags were once made for the world's ships and farms - henequen or sisal, after the port from which the "green gold" was shipped around the world.

I had flown from Mexico City to the walled town of Campeche, the seaside capital of Yucatan's south-west province, and checked into Hacienda Uayamon, an old colonial estate dating back to 1700, and now a luxury hotel. From here I was to begin my search. Yucatan is divided into three parts: Campeche, Yucatan province and Quintana Roo. My pilgrimage through sisal country would take me north to the provincial capital, Merida, the town that sisal built.

Perhaps if I found the "lost cousins", they would help to fill in some of the blanks in the family history. My grandmother had told me that Francis Macari had fought in Mexico's revolutions. He was a soldier of fortune and son of a landowner with too many sons in a Christian village of north Lebanon called Ehden. He died defending the village in hand-to-hand combat with an Ottoman officer. An alluring tale, told to me often during my childhood in California. Perhaps this branch of the family knew whether the village's perennial feuding had sent Francis Macari and, later, their forebears to Mexico.

I was armed only with an e-mail address of a man named Eblen Macari in Mexico City. Eblen answered my e-mail: "Almost all the Macaris from Mexico live in Yucatan. People in Merida are very regional. They hardly travel out of Yucatan." He gave me the number in Merida of José Macari. There was no answer. Appeals to Eblen in Mexico City produced nothing. The Macaris, like the ancient Mayan cities and abandoned sisal haciendas, seemed forever lost.

I followed the henequen trail north in a battered hire car all the way to Merida. The route passed hundreds of old haciendas, where for more than a century sisal was grown, harvested, processed and made ready for sale. The hacienda was, like the plantations of the American South, a self-contained society and a way of life.

The hacendado dominated the caste pyramid, with his administrators below and his near-slave labourers at the base. Each hacienda consisted of the patron's casa grande, a smaller house for the foreman, workers' dormitories, chapel, factory for processing the stiff sisal leaves, a company store where the workers fell into debt, and a jail.

Most of the old haciendas stand empty. A few that still function have reverted to the cattle and corn-growing that preceded the 19th-century sisal boom. Others such as Haciendas Santa Rosa and Chichen have been turned into luxury hotels. It seemed fitting that as I searched for my jute king relatives I was staying in a handful of these renovated estates.

On the road north of Campeche, I came across a crumbling hacienda whose lavish gardens had become so much dust. Wind caressed the cracked walls of a ballroom where young ladies had danced with their admirers, and a tree pushed through the floor of what had been a vast kitchen. Jungle seemed to devour everything in Yucatan - Mayan temples, Spanish cloisters and haciendas alike. In another, a rusted desfibradora loomed over the empty factory. This piece of equipment separated sisal fibres from the plant. Along with the introduction of the mechanical reaper in 1850, the desfibradora did for Yucatan what Eli Whitney's cotton gin had done for the American South - made its planters rich and prolonged slavery for generations. Amid the ruins was little hint that, by 1900, Yucatan was providing 85 per cent of the twine for North America's wheat sheaves, almost all the rope on the world's sailing fleets and most of the burlap bags in which farm produce was shipped.

Every day before setting out to explore another abandoned hacienda, church or Mayan city, I called José Macari in Merida. Every day there was no answer.

I finally reached Merida on a Sunday, when the main square, the Plaza Mayor, was alive for the weekly market. Mayans from the countryside in gaily coloured clothes were selling fresh fruit, handicrafts and sisal rugs. Small bands played Mexican music as worshippers streamed into the Cathedral of San Idelfonso. The city was where absentee hacendados spent most of their lives in grandeur. I saw their mansions along millionaires' row, the Paseo de Montejo. Merida had come back to life after the early 20th-century collapse of the sisal bubble, when competition from Bengal, Java and the Philippines - and later nylon rope - put Yucatan out of business. Things had improved from the 1920s depression as described by Time magazine: "The millionaires of Merida, whose fortunes kept castles in Spain and France as well as along Merida's Paseo de Montejo, went broke. The Camaras turned their mansion at Merida into a hotel. One of the Gutierrez scions ran a gas station. Pepe Castro shined shoes in the Plaza de Armas." Had the Macaris suffered a similar fate? Was that why they cut themselves off from family in the United States and Lebanon? Why didn't José Macari answer his telephone? I hated to leave Yucatan without answers.

The only thing to do was to find a Lebanese restaurant. Presumably, someone there would know the Macaris. A guidebook mentioned Café Alameda on Calle 58 near Plaza Mayor. I asked the cashier if she were Lebanese. "A long time ago, three generations back," she said. Did she know the Macaris? "There are many Macaris in Merida," she said. Which one did I want? Any would do. She called her mother. A few minutes later, she wrote the name Cabalan Macari and his telephone numbers. I called the house.

Cabalan Macari sounded like a Texan, happy as hell to hear from me and ready to meet up anytime. Could I call him at 10 the next morning? Things were looking up. I called Cabalan in the morning, but there was no answer.

I spent the next five days calling Cabalan and José Macari, and they spent the next week not answering. Just as I was about to start the long drive to Cancun and the flight home, my mobile rang. It was Cabalan Macari. He apologised, but he had been called away for an emergency meeting early on the morning we were to speak. He had only just returned. When would I like to meet? Now.

Waiting in a modern hotel north of the centre, I recognised him through the window. The man in cotton trousers and a checked shirt looked like one of my older* *Macari cousins in Los Angeles. At 63, Cabalan Macari had the air of a man who, although he worked hard, had always been comfortable. His paunch spoke of wealth, even in his down-home ranchero outfit. We shook hands and sat down to talk.

When had the first Macari come to Yucatan? His grandfather, also called Cabalan, left Lebanon in about 1900. "He had 10,000 acres in Yucatan. He also built a sugar mill and a refinery and a sugar plantation in Campeche. That was in the 1940s." I was wondering why my grandmother had said they were sisal kings. Cabalan added, "He built the biggest henequen mill, called San Juan, in Merida." So, there was a sisal connection. The United States revived Yucatan's sisal trade during the Second World War, when its Far Eastern supplies of jute ran out. Time magazine wrote in 1947: "A smart Syrian merchant named Cabalan Macari set up twine and rope factories and made a killing."

Cabalan Macari died in Yucatan in 1962, and the Avenida Cabalan Macari was named in his honour. His sons, Anis and Juan, inherited the cattle ranches, sugar business and henequen mill. The government nationalised the mill in 1965, long after artificial fibres had superseded sisal. The family sold the sugar plant 10 years ago. This Cabalan still had the ranch, the largest in Campeche. His son owned a printing press and was director of the local newspaper.

I asked him whether he knew why my great-grandfather, who was his grandfather's first cousin, had come to Yucatan or why he left. He didn't know or care. We exchanged cards and went in opposite directions - like our ancestors.

On my way home, I had to transit Mexico City. Eblen Macari of the e-mails was waiting for me at the airport. He did not shake my hand. He hugged me. His 19-year-old son, also called Eblen, gave me another Lebanese family hug. Eblen was another grandson of the founding Cabalan Macari. His story differed from the one I heard in Merida. He said the old Cabalan Macari had not gone to Yucatan at first, but to Veracruz. By 1920, the revolution had driven him south to Yucatan. He opened his henequen mill and made a fortune.

He had more than the two sons Cabalan told me about. In fact, he had had three wives and six sons. He left his first wife, Cabalan's grandmother, for a Yucatan girl named Lilia Graniel. She was Eblen's grandmother. Why, I asked, had he left Lebanon in 1900? There was some trouble, Eblen said. Someone was killed. He was forced to go.

Was the "trouble" the same as the fighting that killed my great-grandfather? Eblen thought it possible. Were Cabalan and Francis Macari feuding with each other? Eblen was not sure. Yucatan's jungle had devoured that story, just as it had the cities of the Maya and the great haciendas.

WHERE TO STAY: THE BEST HACIENDAS

Hacienda Uayamon
What was once a modest cattle farm, now has ornate hardwood furniture throughout the 12 airy rooms, and a neo-classical swimming pool.
Hacienda Uayamon (00 52 981 829 7527; www.haciendasmexico.com), Km 20 Carretera Uayamon-China-Edzna, Uayamon, Campeche

Hacienda Santa Rosa
By the late 19th century, Santa Rosa (right) was a prosperous plantation, producing mostly sisal with a stock of cattle and horses. It was later taken over by the Santa Rosa co-operative, and work began on its restoration in 1997. Rooms have wooden shutters, tiled floors and outdoor hammocks.
Hacienda Santa Rosa (00 52 999 910 4852; www.haciendasmexico.com), Km 129 Carretera Merida Campeche, Santa Rosa, Yucatan

Hacienda Temozon
Once owned by a relative of Francisco de Montejo - the conqueror of the Yucatan peninsula and founder of Merida - the hacienda was a livestock, corn and sisal estate before being converted into a luxury hotel in 1997. Behind the colonnaded façade lie the guest rooms, which take the name of their original incarnation - pharmacy, school and so on.
Hacienda Temozon (00 52 999 923 8089; www.haciendasmexico.com), Km 182 Carretera Merida-Uxmal, Temozon Sur, Yucatan

Hacienda San José
Although the interior has been given a makeover, original features such as the exposed beams and thatched roof remain.
Hacienda San José (00 52 999 910 4617; www.haciendasmexico.com), Km 30 Carretera Tixkokob-Tekanto, Tixkokob, Yucatan

Hacienda Chichen
Located near the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, Chichen is one of the oldest haciendas in Yucatan. It now features a large outdoor swimming pool.
Hacienda Chichen (00 52 999 924 2150; www.haciendachichen.com), Km 120 Carretera Merida - Puerto Juarez, Chichen Itza, Yucatan

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Charles Glass travelled to Mexico with Steppes Travel (01285 885333; www.steppeslatinamerica.co.uk). A two-week tailor-made tour of Mexico, including return flights from Heathrow to Mexico City, three nights' accommodation at a hacienda and four nights at the beach (including breakfast), costs from £2,050.

The writer flew to Mexico City with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), which is the only airline which flies to the Mexican capital from the UK. Fares start at around £610 return for travel up to the 30 June and from 22 August.

Lower fares are often available using other airlines and changing planes en route; KLM has a wide range of UK departure points for flights via Amsterdam.

STAYING THERE

Steppes can also organise accommodation at any of the haciendas mentioned above.

MORE INFORMATION

Mexico Tourism Board (020-7488 9392; www.visitmexico.com).

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