For less than the price of many an urban hotel room in Mexico -- indeed, sometimes for less than $50 -- a couple can spend a night in baronial splendor at an elegant hacienda hotel. These grand country estates can provide everything from memorable weekends to magnificent vacations.
Haciendas are to Mexico what manor houses are to Britain and chateaux are to France. They stand as monuments to a more gracious age, but they are more than museums doubling as inns. Hacienda hotels primarily are resorts.
In most cases, they are wonderful resorts. Rooms tend to be huge, grounds ample. Several hacienda hotels have golf courses. Most feature tennis, and frequently riding horses are available. All have swimming pools.
Many of these properties are hundreds of years old, and more than a few trace their origins back to the time of the Conquest in the 1600s. They make a nice option for anyone who is a trifle bored with beaches.
Haciendas are in reality ex-haciendas. In their day, many were vast estates, some of them the size of kingdoms, bigger than Holland or Belgium. Agrarian reform in Mexico brought an end to all that, and the spreads usually were converted into communal farms. It is the old palatial mansions of the owners that have been turned into hotels.
Palatial mansions they are indeed, for the hacienda era was one of conspicuous consumption. Each hacendado (hacienda owner) tried to outshine his neighbors in lavishness. In Spanish colonial times these gentleman farmers managed to buy aristocratic titles for themselves. When the country became a republic, they bought everything else, spending their estates into bankruptcy.
The era of hacienda plantations crashed to a close with the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. In the years that followed the age of hacienda resorts was born.
Most are rather near Mexico City, which is both good and bad: good because they are easy to reach, at least from Mexico City, and bad because they get crowded. The majority of guests hail from the metropolis, families driving out on weekends and convention groups moving in the rest of the week.
Still, the variety is such that choosing a hacienda can be difficult. Here are some choices:
The Galindo: About 100 miles north of Mexico City, the Galindo goes back to the 16th century and is a veritable museum. Legend has it that Hernan Cortes presented the property as a gift to his Indian sweetheart, a lady known to history as La Malinche.
At the Galindo colonial flavor abounds, with the remains of an aqueduct forming part of the interior decor. Furnishings are fashioned in the hacienda's own workshops, and flowers are cut daily from a nursery on the property. Luxuriously restored, the Galindo has 160 suites, six tennis courts, a stable of riding horses and 18 holes of golf.
Breakfast is served by the pool at La Terraza or in La Bosque Grande, where decor is an arresting trompe l'oeil. El Florentino, with its gourmet specialties, is open weekends. Cocktails are served both in the Lobby Bar and at El Caballito. The Galindo is top of the line in price, with a suite for two (all accommodations are in suites) going for $120. Telephone: (00152-467) 20050.
La Estancia: Directly on the Queretaro Highway, this resort is 95 miles north of Mexico City, a little closer than the Galindo. La Estancia is slightly smaller (110 rooms), a bit less posh and considerably less expensive than its neighbor.
There are six tennis courts, putting greens on the premises and 18holes of golf nearby. Riding horses and pony carts take guests for excursions into the countryside. Vines cascade over stucco walls and birds call from the grassy courtyards.
Within, ceilings are vaulted or lined with hand-hewn wooden beams. Many walls are painted with murals. Furnishings are classic colonial-style masterpieces of the craftsman's art. Hearty meals are featured in the Steak House restaurant. Guest rooms are large and comfortable, fitted out with hearths, for nights sometime get chilly in these parts. Tariff for a double room is $60.
The Galindo and La Estancia are just north of San Juan del Rio and are about a half-hour's drive from Tequisquipan, in the heart of the Queretaro wine country. These two towns are fascinating places to explore, as is historic Queretaro City. Telephone: (00152-467) 20120.
Jurica: On beyond Queretaro City and about 135 miles from Mexico City, this hacienda was the prize received by Juan Sanchez de Alanis, conqueror of the region, and dates to 1551. The hotel is part of a country homes development.
One of Mexico's most attractive haciendas, the 184-room Jurica has an 18-hole golf course, two illuminated tennis courts, twin grass badminton courts, a cement skating rink and, of course, a swimming pool. There is even a small zoo as well as riding horses for exploring nearly 40 acres of grounds. There are two bars -- one in a 16th century granary -- and a restaurant that never closes. Room service is available around the clock.