A sisal plantation in Mexico
This winter I travelled to Mexico and visited the Hacienda stouta de Peon, a historic sisal plantation and museum. Sisal (Agave sisalana) is the plant material most widely used in rope production a few hundred years ago, when seafaring was at its zenit as the need to transport goods across the globe grew due to world wide industrialisation. Sisal is a strong material that has a unique capacity to withstand wet conditions and saltwater degradation, making it the material of choice before plastic rope was invented.
Before sisal plants were exported to other countries such as Brazil, Yucatan produced 90% of the world market of sisal. No wonder then that it was the mainstay of Yucatan economy and that by 1880 Yucatan was one of the wealthiest states in Mexico. Sisal plantations amassed its owners vast fortunes and was commonly known as the green gold, until the sudden advent of synthetic fiber during the First World War. After that, the decline of the industry was quite swift and devastating, and it is only recently that sisal has made a small and tentative comeback as an eco-textile and natural fiber.
The sisal plant grows in a rosette of sword shaped leaves and can reach up to 2 meters in hight, with a life span of up to 10 years that produces between 200 and 250 commercially usable leaves. Once it comes to the end of its lifespan, it flowers and dies. Propagation is mostly done by replanting the suckers growing in a circle around the base of the flowers.
The fiber is derived through a process known as decortication, where the Sisal leaves are laid on a conveyor belt and crushed, beaten and brushed in a machine so that only fiber remains. As they consist of a lot of water the drying process afterwards was very important and the quality of the fiber was determined of the final moisture content.
Once the fiber had dried, it was pressed and packed and shipped off in large bales containing the fiber of roughly 8000 sisal leaves to other destinations to be processed further. In fact, this is the reason it is called Sisal: the Mexican sisal product was all shipped from a harbour called Sisal on the Yucatan peninsula and as it spread all over the world with the table "Sisal" on each bale the material derived its name hence.
In its heyday the plantation itself would not have had the processing machinery that its museum now exhibits. This has been the personal work of Don Adolfo Lubke to collect and restore so as to show the public the whole process from start to finish. The machines that are on display in the museum are probably quite unique, as they have all been sourced and transported here from all over the world before being carefully renovated. I do admire such dedication to the preservation of local agricultural history!
These pictures show how firstly the fibre is mechanically combed and made into long stretches of continuous strings, and then twined into rope. The rope (seen twining left in the picture below) can then of course be made into any strength and thickness by intertwining it yet again (the machine furthest away in the picture).
To transport the bales of sisal, a miniature railway was set in the ground for carts pulled by donkeys from the production facility to the real railway that went all the way to the harbour of Sisal where ships transported it further out into the world. Today this light railway is used to transport visitors to an underground cave on the grounds where the visitors can bathe if they wish to.
It may look like hot and heavy work for the donkey, but not to worry! The donkeys do not suffer and in fact they spend much of their time walking around in the gardens eating grass while they wait for the visitors to be ready for transport.
As Hacienda Souta de Peon lies off the beaten tourist track, you might want to stay over and for this the hotel has beautiful traditionally built Maya houses and the restaurant has excellent locally prepared food.
For the garden lovers there is even a small and sweet decorative garden next to the reception, and for the history buffs Hacienda Viva the actual plantation owners Hacienda will be a beautifully restored delight. But that is another story for an other travel blogger, as my interest is firmly rooted in the soil and agricultural history!