Hidden Gems of Jalisco: Haciendas
I’ve lived in Jalisco, Mexico for more than 18 years, running a 300 acre ranch. I thought I knew it all, having exhibited and sold our purebred animals in every corner of Mexico .
Perhaps then it is my pride that makes me describe the Haciendas of Jalisco as “hidden gems.” They’re not really so well hidden anymore. These amazing, restored historical mansions dating as far back as 1622 have been turned into luxurious hotels. There are eight scattered around the state of Jalisco, always in rural areas or small towns, just waiting to be discovered by the more adventurous tourist. Ranging from $60 USD/per night to all inclusive resort rates of $250/per night, your options are limited only to your budget.
It can be discouraging to try to get off the beaten path in Mexico. Most accommodations out in the country tend to be a bit dodgy, seldom dirty, but noisy, basic and little in the way of the amenities you find in city hotels. What a joy to find that you can now travel around the state into the most beautiful scenery of Mexico and not only find comfortable hotels, but a true experience at the same time.
The largest of the haciendas is Hacienda El Carmen with 24 rooms, set in the middle of its own sugar cane plantation. It is a magnificent structure, built and rebuilt many times, and as one of the most important haciendas in Mexico it has suffered in Mexico ’s tumultuous history. Speaking with Monica Baeza who owns and operates the Hacienda El Carmen Resort and Spa with her family, she says, ”It’s been a long, painstaking 5 year process to slowly restore El Carmen to what it once was. We have finally achieved our goal of making it into a first class hotel while still preserving the feeling of its history.” The former granary has been turned into a full service spa with all kinds of natural healing wraps, massages and hydrotherapy, the gym was once the outside kitchen. Back in 1722 when El Carmen was first built as part of a 5,000 acre estate instead of the 400 acres that now remain, there probably wasn’t a swimming pool and jacuzzi in the garden, but it blends in well, and the semi-tropical climate makes it a welcome addition.
The food is gourmet, Mexican nouvelle cuisine, but dining under the huge graceful arches of the patio, gazing upon the trees as old as the hacienda and the manicured lawns, you could believe you have stepped back in time and are just one of the honored guests of Don Francisco Merodio, to whom the lands were granted by royal decree. A night there firmly transports you back to an era that I thought had been lost. The rooms are all suites, huge with high ceilings and filled with antiques. The more modern services such as wide screen TV, business center, and gift shop have tastefully been camouflaged to not destroy the atmosphere of antiquity. It was enough to impress this travel bum and after a full-service spa treatment and a couple of days transported back in time, I was recharged and eager to move on to the next adventure and see what the other haciendas had to offer.
A different type of hacienda, called a casona, or mansion in Mexican Spanish, is the Hostal Casona de Manzano in Tapalpa. While Hacienda El Carmen is at 3600 ft in altitude, Tapalpa is much higher at more than 6300 ft. The alpine scenery is totally different: pine forests and wooden trim buildings. Tapalpa is a small town, dating back to 1522 when the Spaniards invaded to develop the missions to evangelize the Atlacco Indians. It’s become world famous for the international hang gliding competitions but still remains primarily a weekend destination for upscale Mexican tourists escaping nearby Guadalajara. Casona de Manzano has been in the Manzano family for more than 3 centuries. The present owner, Irma Manzano, tells me, “You have to be a little crazy to start an idea like this. I’ve wanted to throw in the towel more than once in the last five years.” Yet, I see the twinkle in her eye as we sit on the terrace overlooking the Sierra Madres pine forests. The huge wooden beams and carved supporting posts strike your eye first as you enter. With only 10 rooms, there is a feeling of intimacy and elegance here. Set only two blocks from the colorful main square of Tapalpa, it’s a great base to begin wandering around the cobblestone streets with surprises of tiny fountain plazas and views of the high mountains. Irma grew up here and loves to talk about her town and what to see, including the largest waterfall in western Mexico and the mysterious huge boulders and their legends. A historical walking tour of the town is offered to explain the legends of the many little plazas and visit local workshops.
The association of Haciendas y Casonas de Jalisco, has begun offering circuit tours, independent or guided, to entice you to visit more than once. Here’s a rundown of what they have to offer:
Lagos de Moreno: Only 30 minutes from the leather capital of Leon, Guanajuato, Hacienda Sepulved was founded in the 17th century. It’s an intimate hotel with only 9 suites and a recently opened gorgeous spa set in the former granary. Hacienda Sepulveda has a nice stable of 11 horses and trails within the estate. It also offers tours to nearby Lagos de Moreno, an important cultural center of this region, and a city tour of Leon. Once you’re in this beautiful estate it’s hard to tear yourself away to see the local attractions. The gardens, fishing pond and trails were enough for me.
Sayula: La Casa de Los Patios is indeed that with four flower-filled sunny patios, one of which has a beautiful pool. The restaurant serves food prepared in front of you for breakfast, and family recipes all day long. Sayula has many historical churches and buildings to explore, and La Casa de Los Patios offers a special cultural tour taking you to the many artisan workshops there. Located in town, yet completed walled in, everything is within easy walking distance. The hostesses, Rossy and Carmen, are sisters, and their enthusiasm and warm welcome offered me a way to see a town I’ve passed through many times, in a new light.
Tapalpa: Hostal Casona de Manzano, see above description.
Mascota: You have two choices here, both historical mansions, yet restored in different ways. There is Meson del Refugio with two stories of 12 rooms overlooking the main patio and grounds. Just a block from the main square of this little mountain town, it’s a favorite spot for Mexican tourists on weekends, having a full service bar and lovely garden for events. Meson Santa Elena is more intimate, decorated with antiques, truly giving you a flavor of being in a private home. It’s off a side street and offers quiet seclusion and a warm hostess from the Sahagun family to help you find the most beautiful spots in the surrounding mountains. It is only an hour’s drive to Puerto Vallarta and the foreign tourists are just beginning to discover what the Mexicans have visited for years for holiday stays. The lakes and mountains of this area are stupendous and the National Geographic Museum featuring the local petroglyphs and South American pottery found in the area is well done. The two haciendas work together in providing nature excursions and cultural tours to the nearby villages and lakes.
Etzatlan: An easy drive to the major tourist attraction of Tequila, Hotel El Centenario retains its graceful staircase, ironwork and balconies of its original construction in the eighteenth century. Chencho and his wife, Elsa, the friendly owners, can arrange a horse ride (4x4 drive) out to the fascinating Piedras Bolas, more than 200 huge perfectly round rocks scattered through a field and riverbed. Also nearby is the most important archaeological site in Western Mexico, Huachimontones. The town itself is a lovely colonial village with a church and town gazebo with a surprising story.
El Carmen: Here lies Hacienda El Carmen, where I began, and where I shall be tempted to return to get my batteries recharged time and time again. The circuit is completed and I have toured our state of Jalisco in a new light, in more than comfort while discovering nooks I never imagined were there.
A new addition to the association is ranch house rentals. These are self-catering properties rented for a minimum of three days and are set on working ranches. If you thought you were out in the country visiting the haciendas, these will give you a whole new perspective of what the countryside of Mexico really is all about. Bring your sombrero and take off (with a well drawn map!) through the many little trails used to get out into the fields of corn and cattle pastures. Return for a barbecue and roping lessons with one of the ranch hands. Full time cook and maid service is an option, and I couldn’t imagine a better place for a real family vacation, or a peaceful retreat far from any distractions.
I should know, I lived there for 18 years. Over the 18 years, I’ve had countless guests from more than 15 countries and everyone has commented on the magic of the patio in the moonlight overlooking the open valleys and the high sierra of Quila. I love the haciendas and their history, but have been glad to offer still another way of finding the “real Mexico ” in comfort and with a caring hostess. There are presently three ranch houses for rent as part of the Asociacion de Haciendas y Casas Rurales de Jalisco, near Tenamaxtlan, Atengo and Mazamitla.
Welcome home, welcome to rural Mexico.
For lots more information, visit the website at www.historichaciendainns.com. Email:
or call +52-333-623-1603.
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