Yucatán is a land of traditions and culture, and we Yucatecans are always on a mission to show everyone the beauty of our state. That’s right, hospitality and passion run through our veins and have become trademarks of this region.
100 years ago, a local company was the first to take on the preservation of our cultural heritage. They helped position two archaeological zones that are now Unesco World Heritage sites, and placed the building blocks for a regional and national tourism industry. We are, of course, speaking of Mayaland.
Since my family has worked in tourism for three generations, I grew up hearing about the beginnings of this industry in which Mayaland was always leading the way. Discovering Yucatán in the 50s and 60s – a time when my grandfather and father began working in tourism – was an absolute adventure, and this inspires me to this day to offer our visitors an opportunity to see the real Yucatán.
In celebrating Mayaland’s first century, I had the opportunity to speak with two fascinating characters in Yucatecan tourism. The first, don Fernando Barbachano Herrero, is grandson of the Mayaland founder and has continued his family’s legacy in tourism and business. The second, is don Jorge Rosado Baeza is my dad, and a tourism professional and educator that has helped me and hundreds of other young people to discover a passion for hospitality.
Mayaland: The Beginnings
Mayaland’s beginnings actually go back more than 100 years. In 1912, don Fernando Barbachano Bolio had the idea of having an air show and circus in Progreso to help promote his business.
In this year, aeroplanes were already seen as signs of modernity with multiple practical and recreational uses. They were well-received by Yucatecan businesspeople who viewed the new technology as a part of progress. So, Fernando Barbachano Bolio decided to hire two pilots for an air show on February 2, 4, and 5, 1912, the first flights to take place over Yucatán.
This would later inspire his son, Fernando Barbachano Peón to establish the first company dedicated to organized tourism in México, and the Barbachano family would eventually be even more connected to the airline industry. Fernando Barbachano Peón would promote air connectivity and new routes as the representative for Panamerican and Mexicana de Aviación. Later, Fernando Barbachano GómezRul would establish Aeromaya, and Fernando Barbachano Herrero would found Aerocozumel together with Nassim Joaquín Ibarra.
On April 28, 1921, the Spanish photographer and businessman, Francisco GómezRul established the Compañía Impulsora del Turismo a las Ruinas de Yucatán S.A. (Company for the Promotion of Tourism to the Ruins of Yucatán), along with a group of local entrepreneurs. They presented their objectives to the governor of the time, Felipe Carrillo Puerto, which included promotion of tourism development and construction of necessary access roads to Chichén Itzá and Uxmal from Mérida.
As don Francisco GómezRul held a great interest in tourism development, he also petitioned Mexican presidents Francisco I. Madero and Álvaro Obregón to establish an office to help promote the emerging Mexican tourism industry in the United States. Although this endeavor didn’t succeed, he did convince governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto to request the necessary funds to build the highway from Dzitás to Chichén Itzá, inaugurated on July 14, 1923.
On July 15, don Francisco, along with Edward H. Thompson and don Manuel Amábilis, gave the first guided tours of Chichén Itzá, and became the first guides of the area.
The First Visitors to Chichén Itzá and “El Balam”
In 1927, the Carnegie Institution of Washington began its explorations thanks to arrangements made by Carrillo Puerto and the Mexican federal government. After Stephens and Catherwood published their travel chronicles, more and more explorers and archaeologists wished to discover Chichén Itzá, but they weren’t the only ones that wanted to visit the mysterious world of the Maya…
In 1924, Fernando Barbachano Peón – nicknamed El Balam by his friends and colleagues – established Mayaland Tours which organized trips to Chichén Itzá for five to six days. Back then, El Balam was dynamic young man, known for going onto ships personally to find his next clients. He was also reknown for his talent as a publicist since he created the first brochures that promoted the state and Maya culture. “He was the very first person to imagine the Yucatecan tourism industry as we know it today,” my dad says.
These first visitors to Chichén Itzá explored unrestored buildings, trekked horseback through trails, and tried regional cuisine during the day. By night, they stayed at La Casa Victoria, a guesthouse that was close to the site and which Mayaland Tours rented out for its visitors.
Sylvanus Morley, archaeologist and leader of the Carnegie expedition to Yucatán was a great friend of El Balam and would occasionally, alongside his team, welcome the visitors to explain his findings and fieldwork. At this time, Barbachano would also take people to visit nearby villages where they would not only meet the locals, but established lasting friendships, celebrate weddings, and were even made godparents during several Hetz Mecs – what is sometimes referred to as the Maya baptism.
In 1925, El Balam built the first phase of the Hotel Mayaland, the chain’s first hotel, and which, after an expansion in the 30s, would compete with some of the best hotels in the world.
An increase in the number of travelers and the first regular flights to Mérida, along with a growing number of hotel and tour opportunities resulted in a growth of the local tourism sector throughout the 30s. However, as World War 2 approached, it would force the hospitality industry to stop suddenly, but as the war ended, El Balam was ready to bring a new vision to life.
Postwar Tourism and Uxmal
When the war ended, don Fernando Barbachano Peón decided to open up new routes and rebrand his agency under the name Barbachano’s Travel Services – known as BTS back in the day – which promoted itself as “The Oldest and Most Dependable Travel Agency in México.”
Throughout the 30s, Mayaland had already started to take visitors to see Uxmal, but it was only fit for the most adventurous. “At the time, there wasn’t a highway, so first you had to travel to Muna, and from there go through the jungle by car. When you finally arrived at the site, there were no bathrooms, installations; you couldn’t even find a glass of water. So, it was only a day trip and you had to leave before dark,” my dad tells me.
After the Mérida – Campeche highway was built, this all changed and the Puuc Route opened up. El Balam built La Posada Uxmal as a place to eat and rest after exploring the magnificent temples of the area. After, construction for the Hotel Hacienda Uxmal began, and once completed, it would host guests such as Queen Elizabeth II of England, Princess Grace of Monaco, and numerous presidents and celebrities from México and the world over.
They say that El Balam wouldn’t sleep. “He spent his nights imagining and designing every detail of his business. Every tile, every balcony, and every garden were born first from his musings. He had an unstoppable vision of what he wanted,” my dad remembers about the founder.
During the 50s and 60s, El Balam brought his children, Carmen and Fernando – known as Don Efe – into the family business. During these years, they would expand it further to include a new travel agency, Mérida Travel; the representation of car rentals in the entire peninsula for the following three decades, and the founding of Aeromaya in 1965.
Aeromaya was the first low-cost airline in México and connected 23 cities. One of their strategies was the novel “Travel Pass,” which allowed travelers to fly illimited for 30 days to any Aeromaya destination. In this way, they connected tourism in the southeast and the rest of the country, which had historically been difficult because of the country’s geography.
In the 50s, the federal government also began developing the Caribbean and planned to build a highway that went around the island of Cozumel. With this, Don Efe, and his mother doña Carmen GómezRul de Barbachano decided to expand the borders of their family business even further and pioneer in the growth of the Caribbean. They cemented their presence in the area by first opening the Hotel Caribe Isleño, and then the Hotel Cozumel Caribe on the Playa de San Juan.
This new hotel had the most luxurious amenities of the time: air conditioners, King size beds, a pool, and a beach bar. But it also featured a charming Palapa-style roof and palm trees that decorated the entire area, maintaining the tropical paradise vibe. The hotel also featured a dock that was the departure place for tours to the Arrecife de Palancar, a reef known for its natural beauty and abundance of marine life.
Just as is the case with all the Barbachano’s hotels, Cozumel Caribe, had its place in history as the site where Jacques Cousteau and Melville Bell Grosvenor stayed while they developed the industry for underwater observation chambers.
After the death of don Fernando Barbachano Peón in November of 1964, his children: Fernando and Carmen continued to grow the companies. They expanded the Hotel Mayaland in Chichén Itzá, rented the Hotel Panamericana in Mérida to set up the headquarters of Barbachano’s Travel Services, and even founded BTS offices in México City, London, and Miami to maintain direct contact with tourism wholesalers in Europe and the United States. They also continued investing in booming new destinations around the peninsula such as Isla Mujeres, Riviera Maya, and Cancún.
In the 60s and 70s, don Efe’s son, Fernando Barbachano Herrero, joins as the third generation of the family’s tourism legacy. “Because I grew up in Cozumel during the 60s, I fell in love with Playa del Carmen, which back then only had 21 families,” don Fernando remembers. “I bought 1.5 kilometers of beachfront in 1966 when I was 16 years old; and in 1968, I founded a company with a name inspired on the first company started by my great grandfather: Compañía Impulsora Turística de Playa del Carmen, S.A. The name was suggested by your grandfather, don Humberto Rosado Espínola,” he reveals to me.
En 1969 don Fernando Barbachano Herrero created Transportes Turísticos del Caribe S.A. and designed the crossing that is still used today to sail from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel. In 1970, he begins operating the first crossings with a small boat. “I saved up and bought a boat that was able to make the crossing safely in Pennsylvania – it was called Tropic Breeze,” don Fernando retells. On January 6, 1979 he also began operating a successful airline service from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel. “We charged $98 pesos, including the taxi from the airport to downtown Cozumel and transported 100,000 passengers in our first nine months,” he adds proudly.
In 1991, don Fernando Barbachano Herrero also founded Transportes Turísticos Mayaland which had the most luxurious fleet of buses in the country during a decade and provided service to 1000 travelers a day. Today, his company Compañía Impulsora del Transporte de Cancún S.A. de C.V. has the largest fleet of tourism-specialized Mercedes Benz vehicles in the country.
After selling his businesses in Playa del Carmen in 1983, don Fernando Barbachano Herrero went back to the family’s origins by purchasing the Mayaland and Hacienda Uxmal hotels from his aunt Carmen, as well as the Hotel Chichén itzá located in Pisté in 1995. Later, he built The Lodge Chichén Itzá in 1995 and The Lodge Uxmal in 1996 to expand his hotel offerings even further.
Women in Yucatecan Tourism
“I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about the part that women had in our business,” don Fernando adds. He begins by telling me about doña Carmen GómezRul, his grandmother, who had an active role in Mayaland’s beginnings by administrating the hotel and even defended herself against jaguars. Her sister, Anita, and doña Mercedes Herrero Rivas, also were frontline during this project. “My aunt Mercedes even sold her house in Mérida so that my grandfather would have the necessary funding to build the Mayaland Hotel,” he remembers fondly. His aunt, Carmen Barbachano GómezRul was of course the legendary head of the Mayaland Chichén and Hotel Uxmal, as well as Avis Car Rental during three decades.
He also speaks of doña Hilda Cáceres, the general cashier of the Hotel Hacienda Chichén for many years; Jetta Hansen, the first manager of the Hotel Hacienda Uxmal, and Frances Swadener who was aunt Carmen’s mentor in all things tourism. We also can’t forget to mention doña Victoria, the first cook, hostess, and namesake of La Casa Victoria, where the first visitors to Chichén Itzá stayed.
100 Years and Counting
Today, the Barbachano family continues to innovate in tourism. From tours aboard vintage Land Rover Defenders to see the archaeology and vegetation of the Puuc area with their newest company Mayaland Adventures, to Casa Museo Montejo 495 that opened its doors earlier this year.
Mayaland continues to bet on new activities that delight locals and visitors alike. But one thing hasn’t changed: their love and respect towards our state’s historical, cultural, and natural beauty.
“Tourism in Yucatán only has one name: Barbachano,” my dad finalizes. The Barbachano family paved the way for all of those who have found our calling in Yucatán tourism.
By Maggie Rosado.
Maggie is passionate about tourism, writing, and languages and holds a Master’s degree in Translation.
Photography courtesy of Maggie Rosado for its use in Yucatán Today.
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