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RELIVE THE ROMANCE OF COLONIAL MEXICO
by Bob Brooke

 

I’ve been riding in a comfortably air-conditioned Mercedes for nearly 75 minutes. My driver, Manuel, is a handsome man in his early thirties, with jet black hair and moustache and skin the color of rich Mexican coffee with cream. We’re headed for the fine old hacienda of Vista Hermosa, now a luxury resort hotel just outside Cuernavaca in the State of Morelos. This isn't the first old hacienda I've visited, and it probably won't be the last. Not too long ago, it was quite possible to ride over a bumpy road or even to travel by horseback, in the spirit of colonial times. Today, we ride smoothly over one of Mexico's finest highways. The volcano, Popocatepetl, shimmers to the east as we ride past irrigation ditches, along the sides of dry barrancas and across vast dry fields to the mile-long avenue of eucalyptus which forms the entrance to the hotel grounds.

We pass old stone walls and water channels of moss-green brick. We enter a gate guarded by two stone towers and find ourselves in a large compound encircled by high walls of incredible thickness. The gatekeeper waves and says, "Adios," that Mexican goodbye which also means how do you do and God bless you.

"Welcome to Hacienda de San Jose de Vista Hermosa," says Manuel in crisp English, as he helps me with my bags. "Welcome to the former home of Hernan Cortes, Lord and Captain of New Spain and the South Sea. As a reward for his conquests, Charles V, King of Spain, honored him with the title of Marques del Valle de Oaxaca and awarded him the patronage and rights over vast land holdings, that take up four of our states, and 23,000 vassals."

I feel like I've been transported back in time. Behind me is the main house, the casa principal and spread out before me is an elegant garden ablaze with purple bougainvillea and red flamboyant. Orchids perfume the air. A massive brick aqueduct arches above my head. Through its arches flows a cerulean blue swimming pool shaded by towering royal palms. There’s hardly a splinter of wood to be seen. Everything is of stone, tile or adobe brick. In the distance is a large domed building, which Manuel informs me was the former sugar mill, now the hotel's restaurant.

Perhaps after mañana, which means tomorrow, there’s no word more common in Mexico than hacienda. Throughout Mexico, broad fields culminate in the facade of a great stone structure. Sometimes it looks like a stockade, sometimes like a palace, sometimes like a monastery. Sometimes it's resplendent and restored as is Vista Hermosa, sometimes it's an utter ruin.

What is a Hacienda?
The Mexican hacienda was a giant farm, under the absolute domination of an individual with powers often running back to a royal grant. Due to the underdeveloped transportation lines, the haciendas had to be self-sufficient. Along with the grant of land went a grant of Indians. As farm laborers they worked the lands and produced their own food; as carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, potters, weavers, they erected the buildings, kept them in repair, and fabricated all necessary tools and utensils. As servants they kept the owner--the hacendado--and his family from ever doing any work. Some hacendados were so wealthy that they could mint their own silver coins with their family's crest.

Sugar cane haciendas developed in the hot climates of the states of Veracruz and Morelos, while cattle haciendas were established on the dry central plains and southward lowlands of Chiapas and Veracruz. Conquistadors founded henequin or sisal hemp haciendas in the arid parts of the Yucatan, and cotton plantations all over Coahuila. Haciendas also developed in areas with profitable iron ore and silver mines.

Residences often had 20 to 30 rooms, on one to three floors, including a salon, music room, billiard room, library, and dining room. Larger houses had two kitchens and two to three patios, with stone fountains, stone or wooden santos (statues of saints), potted plants, flowering vines, shrubbery and fruit and shade trees.

European art graced some homes, others were extremely Spartan, furnished only with a few leather chests, some hammocks, tables, chairs, wardrobes, and a plaster Madonna. With the passing of time, affluent and cultured owners acquired Italian bronzes, stained glass, Gobelin tapestries, and paintings by El Greco, Goya, and Murillo. Elaborate chandeliers hung in the dining rooms, and Venetian cabinets held Sevres porcelain.

The Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries sent from Spain played a key role in the brutal expropriation of lands from the Indians. Consequently, there wasn't a single hacienda without a chapel, with a bell tower or spire.

The Mexican Revolution brought reforms. The former day-workers took possession of the abandoned manor houses and stripped them for building materials. Before long, these symbols of feudalism fell into decay and ruin.

Today, travelers, like myself, can find haciendas in a rural setting, a handful of acres now, abandoned and decaying, with a crumbling mansion, church, chapel, and utilitarian buildings: most are windowless, doorless, roofless structures, lying in silent wait for buldozers to obliterate them. But a movement to preserve these historic structures has gained momentum.

Many of the great haciendas of Mexico, likened to and often built to resemble the chateaux of France, castles on the Rhine, or magnificent Italian villas have been rescued from decay and transformed into hotels, not the highly polished resort type, easily accessible by air, but luxurious out-of-the-way places that plunge the traveler into romantic old Mexico.

After checking in at Vista Hermosa, Manuel shows me to my room on the upper floor of the main house in an area known as the Big Canyon. "In the early days this floor, with its vaulted-ceilinged rooms, was used for storing and drying rice, while the lower level was open to allow horse-drawn carts to load for shipment. Later, this part of the hacienda was used as a monastery to house nuns and priests."

I'm a bit taken back by my room's grand size and its unique 16th century paintings and furnishings. A ceiling fan gently moves the air in the darkened room, as the warm sunlight streams through the louvers on the doors leading to a small balcony overlooking the complex.

After making a final check, Manuel says, "I hope you have pleasant stay at Hacienda Vista Hermosa, Señor."

Haciendas of Hernan Cortés
Begun in 1529 by Hernan Cortés, Vista Hermosa has had a long and tumultuous past. After Cortés' death, his son, Don Martin arrived from Spain to take over the hacienda. He became the leading figure of the time and eventually led a conspiracy against the Viceroy. The hacienda ownership left the Cortés family in 1621 and a series of eight more hacendados ruled Vista Hermosa before Emiliano Zapata and his followers evicted them in 1921, destroying crops and distributing the sugar, leaving it in ruins. Engineer Fernando Martinez found it in 1944 and created this luxurious refuge.

Another former estate and sugar plantation of Hernan Cortés, Hacienda Cocoyoc– Cocoyoc means "Valley of the Coyotes" in the Nuahuatl language–is located nearby. To establish a firm hold on the land, Cortes married, Isabel, daughter of Moctezuma II and built Hacienda Cocoyoc in 1520 as a token of his passionate love for her. He added a chapel and aqueduct in 1600, and in 1613, the Count of Monterrey installed a sugar mill. The overseer of the cane fields lived in the mansion. Later, it became the site of the first Dominican monastery in Mexico.

An arch over an old wooden door at the entrance is engraved with the message: "The Door to the Paradise of America." Considering that the temperature rarely varies from the high 80's at noon to the low 50's at night, the nomenclature, given by Antonio de Mendoza, first viceroy of New Spain, is justified. Rains usually occur in the evening during the summer, thus the mango grove-shaded golf course is always green. Paulino Rivera Torres, a Mexican businessman, restored it to its 16th-century grandeur over 40 years ago. Rooms, in new additions, are more modern. The hotel also features an excellent spa.

Hacienda del Cortés, the Cuernavaca home of Cortés during his stay in Mexico, is one of the smallest and most charming. Also located outside Cuernavaca in Atlacomulco, this all-suite hotel has enough flowers, fountains and history to overwhelm almost anyone.

Known formally as the Hacienda de San Antonio Atlacomulco, it was begun by Cortés, who left it to his son, Don Martin. He made it into the most important sugar plantation in New Spain. It, too, became a gathering place for colonials, who loved to wander about its gardens, filled with somersaulting waterfalls and fountains. Later on, Emperor Maxmillian delighted in visiting the hacienda to take advantage of the fine weather around Cuernavaca. Eventually, the estate fell to the Cortés heirs, the Dukes of Monteleone, who gave new life to the lands. Unfortunately, their success was cut short with the advent of the Mexican Revolution. Today, the heirs to the title of Monteleone are buried beyond the gates. The hacienda sat in abandoned ruin until 1973, when Dr. Mario Gonzalez Ulloa transformed it into this charming hotel.

Other Haciendas
One of the most authentic of the hacienda hotels is the 17th-century Hacienda San Miguel Regla, built by Pedro Romero de Terreros, the richest man in the world at the time. Located in the hills east of Mexico City in the Valle de la Huasca above the town of Pachuca, in the State of Hidalgo, Romero named it after the Province of Regla from which he hailed.. Originally a gold and silver refinery, its former truncated ovens tower over the grounds, studded with oaks and pines, with a lake for boating and rose-lined paths for quiet walks. Graceful arches of the original aqueduct surround the patios and ovens.

Huge red iron doors frame a stone drive leading to a chapel adjacent to the casa principal. Trees, surrounding an old fountain, fill the main square. All 76 units have names. Double rooms lead off the main patio. Suites and villas, scattered throughout the grounds, feature a fireplace. Buffet-style meals, served in a long beamed-ceiling hall of the main house with a view of the garden, are included.

One of the newest hacienda hotels, Hacienda Xextho, in the northern part of the State of Hidalgo, stands far off the main road in the mountains of the Sierra Madre. Founded by Franciscan monks in 1585 but soon taken over by the Augustinians, Xextho means hole in a mulcahette stone in the Otomi language. Long after, it became a private home owned by Arturo and Luce Alvarez Malo, who had nine children.

Xextho’s 25 rooms and suites, all named after parts of historic haciendas–La Troje (grain storage), El Jacalpoor (worker’s house), La Chimenea (the chimney), feature luxurious antique furnishings and cost only $48 to $65 a night!

Haciendas aren't just hotels, but experiences that transform. Each revives and regenerates the energies of all who stay within their walls. Before I go to bed, I take a stroll away from my room and look at the stars; the sky shimmers with thousands of them.

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