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The cart donkey had been hinting at his independent streak all morning. Suddenly he gave a rebellious bray and lunged toward a lily pad-covered cistern, threatening to yank the rail buggy right off the tracks.

"He's not used to working," said Herman Reeling, the general manager of our hacienda-turned-hotel in Temozon, after he wrestled the stubborn animal back on track. "Mostly he spends his days eating."

On this tour of what was once the largest sisal plantation in Yucatan, the donkey was more ornamental than functional. It was a funny moment that illustrated how different life used to be in the region -- for donkeys, at least. Staying at a restored hacienda also offered a chance to delve into Mayan history and culture, and experience what life must have been like for the owners of these working estates.

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A century ago, the region was populated with more than 1,000 haciendas, many of which produced henequen, or sisal, the natural fibre used in rope and textile manufacturing that made Mexico's conquering Spanish rich. The global demand created a sisal boom that peaked during the two World Wars.

The industry drew thousands of Maya to work as farmhands and harvesters, picking the prickly agave plant that became known as "green gold." It turned Yucatan into Mexico's most prosperous state, and the smokestacks of steam-driven machinery could be seen for kilometres, signalling working haciendas that produced sugar cane, cotton and tobacco in addition to sisal.

But the industry died out in the 1950s with the arrival of cheaper synthetic fibres, and the haciendas were boarded up and abandoned. Many fell into disrepair.

Today, some of the most prosperous properties of the sisal boom have been converted into luxury hotels, providing a glimpse into the old-world lifestyle of these colonial estates. Featured in the pages of Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler magazines, the haciendas attract upscale travellers looking for more than a beach holiday.

I arrived past dusk at Hacienda Temozon, a 26-room hotel operated by the Starwood Luxury Collection, and had a quiet dinner on an enormous patio as crickets sang in the night air. It was exactly how I imagined a wealthy hacienda would have been when the Spanish owners and their families dwelled in these magnificent surroundings. In the suites, high ceilings, richly carved furniture and worn stonework created a lazy, country mansion feel. The gardens emitted a perpetual hum from the birds and insects hidden in the well-tended foliage.

After the decline of sisal production, Temozon fell into disrepair. When it was bought in the 1990s by former banking executive Roberto Hernandez (who also owns four other haciendas and two beach resorts on the Pacific), the hacienda, which was originally built in the 1600s on a cattle ranch, was carefully restored. Traditional Mayan building techniques were used, including waterproofing the swimming pool with a coat of chukum tree resin that reflects the sun.

Remnants from sisal production were also revived, including the donkey rail cart that travelled from field to factory.

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After buying the property, Hernandez revived ties to the surrounding Mayan community, hiring 160 people to help open the hotel in 1996. Today, most of Temozon's employees come from surrounding settlements. It was intriguing to talk with staff and hear of their families' transition from sisal work to tourism, a fast-growing industry that allows locals to find work closer to home. (Still, some things don't change.

While the Maya now benefit from local community work programs and employment opportunities, they still answer to a parade of rich tourists filling the haciendas and the millionaires who own the properties).

My interest in these historic hotels had been kindled a year earlier during a visit to Hacienda Xcanatun, 15 minutes from Merida. It was the kind of holiday where the accommodation was the highlight. Original architecture merged with modern, elegant details: high ceilings, hand carved wood furniture, deep Jacuzzi tubs and skylights draped with curtains. As my fiancé and I strolled along lush, overgrown paths that wound through the property, it felt like we were discovering lost archeological sites. I vowed to visit more haciendas on my next vacation.

During a four-day stay at Temozon, the time passed in a mix of relaxation and discovery. I explored the ruined city of Uxmal -- along the Puuc route about 30 minutes from Temozon -- known for its ornate temple carvings honouring Chac, the rain god.

Another day, I took an hour-long tour by horse-drawn rail cart through abandoned sisal fields at a small settlement called Cuzama. The ride stopped at three cavernous cenotes , natural underground sink holes. At each, I descended rickety ladders more than nine metres into the cool darkness of caverns filled with clear green water and stalagmites and stalactites -- once the sites of Mayan ceremonial sacrifices and other rituals.

After reluctantly checking out of Temozon, I headed for Hacienda San Jose, about an hour north of Merida. The isolation and beauty of Hacienda San Jose immediately reminded me of Xcanatun. Enormous trees feature prominently around the property: Their branches spread finger-like over pathways, roots grow on the sides of buildings and in one bathroom a ceiba tree flourished.

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Eleven rooms and suites are spread around the property -- in the old machine room, steward's house and old coach house. Many contained private stone patios with sunken Jacuzzi tubs. Others, called Mayan villas, were modelled after the traditional Mayan oval homes with zacate roofs made from swamp grass.

Chichen Itza, a 2,500-year-old Mayan pyramid that is Mexico's top tourist attraction, is near the hacienda, so the next morning I set out to see it. It was the fall equinox, when shadows cast by the setting sun on the central pyramid form the shape of a serpent (a Mayan symbol of rebirth), which slithers down the side. I sat in the shade with thousands of revellers, some clad all in white, waiting for the snake to begin its shadowy descent. The crowd actually burst into applause at the end.

I spent the rest of my three-day stay at Hacienda San Jose exploring the nearby towns, including the colonial city of Izamal, which is known for its striking yellow façades. The Franciscan convent, San Antonia de Padua, built in 1795 from the stones of a pillaged Mayan temple, is also here.

Since I was visiting San Jose in early fall, I had the hacienda all to myself (a British couple on honeymoon checked in as I was soaking up my last few hours of sun by the pool). I took a horseback tour with Ivan, who raises horses with his father and grandfather, and received the royal treatment in the dining room where two waiters, both named Marcos, ensured I sampled all the traditional dishes on the menu.

On my last day, I visited one of the few working haciendas near the ruins of Ake that still processes sisal. I saw the fields where the wet, buttery yellow threads from the plant are dried in the sun on racks before being carted to another building and sent through a combing machine. Lastly, the threads are spun together into great spools of twine that sell for just 12 pesos ($1.25) a kilo.

"It's hard to find people to work in henequen these days," said my guide, Mario, as we left the production barn. The great mechanical thresher was quiet as the workers had left for the day. An acrid smell hung in the air from the lingering plant juices. "It pays so little and the demand is just not there," Mario said. "Its time has passed."

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Behind us, a tiny river of gleaming green sisal juice, a remnant of the legacy of "green gold," trickled across the floor and out the door.

Pack your bags

GETTING THERE

Air Canada flies to Merida, the capital of Yucatan, several times a week, with connections in Miami or Mexico City. Fares start at about $1,000. The best time of year to visit is November through May, when days are hot and sunny and evenings are cool. A rental car is a good option for travelling between haciendas and archeological sites, as roads were recently repaved.

HACIENDAS

Hacienda Xcanatun: near Meridia; ; 1-800-728-9098. A classic 18th-century estate formerly involved in agriculture, livestock and sisal production, it features 18 airy suites 12 kilometres from Merida and 20 minutes from Merida International Airport. It's also close to the beach of Progreso, the shopping and sites of Merida and the ruins of Dzibilchaltun.

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Rooms start at about $290 a suite. Packages include a three-night getaway for two including airport transfers, complimentary wine and one massage a person starting at $1,500. Mundo Maya packages include guided tours to archeological sites and Mayan villages, breakfast and massage for two. They start at $1,850 for four nights.

Hacienda Temozon: 1-800-909-4800; . Once one of the most important sisal haciendas in the Yucatan, the restored 26-room estate (now a Starwood Luxury Collection hotel) is about one hour's drive south of Merida's airport and is ideal for exploring Mayan ruins at Uxmal and along the Puuc route. Rates start at $240 a night.

Hacienda San Jose Cholul: 1-800-909-4800; luxurycollection.com. An intimate, lush escape about 45 minutes east of Merida. The 15-suite hacienda (also a Starwood property) is close to the archeological site of Chichen Itza, cenotes (sink holes) and traditional Mayan towns. Rates start at around $240.

Hacienda Katanchel: 52 (999) 923 40 20; haciendakatanchel.com. This converted 17th-century ranch is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group. Rates from $265.

Hacienda Santa Cruz: 52 (999) 910 4549; . Rates from about $170.

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