Las Joyas de Mexico
Hotel El Fuerte
by Lynne Doyle
Lynne Doyle is a longtime Mexico File subscriber and contributing editor from Maine. The object of the Las Joyas de Mexico feature is to highlight for MF readers some of the lesser-known but most rewarding of Mexico’s geographic, human and artistic treasures. Lynne can be contacted at LinfordD@aol.com
By and large, unless you are waiting to get on the train to cross the Copper Canyon, there isn’t much reason for anyone to be in the hot and dusty village of El Fuerte in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Populated primarily by Mayo Indians, this area of Mexico just doesn’t have a whole lot to offer to tourists beyond fishing, hunting, watching the many varieties of hummingbirds, and the fact that it calls itself the Gateway to the Copper Canyon (if you don’t want to go all the way to the city of Los Mochis on the Pacific coast). Since the best scenery doesn’t start on the coast, many people elect to start their trip closer to where the canyons begin, hence El Fuerte does get its share of folks hanging out for a couple of days.
El Fuerte has a branch of Universidad de Occidente (the main campus is in Los Mochis), as well as a reasonably picturesque zocalo with pretty light fixtures and a bandstand, the Iglesia de Sacred Heart and a small curve of Rio El Fuerte trailing on the outskirts of town. Unfortunately, this river that is home to many species of birds and fish when it is running, is often almost totally dry, due to the blistering heat and humidity of the region. However, should you find yourself in this town of 30,000 people, one thing that almost makes it worth it is the drop-dead gorgeous Hotel El Fuerte. Let me qualify – this is not by any means a resort – no massages or spa facilities, no beach, not even a pool. What this place has is history, color, and phenomenal food, and lots of it. And if you have any interest in traditional Mexican architecture, Hotel El Fuerte will be a marvel to you.
El Fuerte is a town whose most desirable properties are owned by just a few very wealthy families – in the early days of the town, these families were silver barons. Today, they are cattle ranchers and owners of massive agricultural conglomerates. The town’s few impressive colonial-era mansions remain in the hands of these families, and the origins of Hotel El Fuerte start here as well. The legend goes that one prominent family owned this lovely hacienda overlooking the river, but when the silver gave out, then moved into the countryside and took up ranching, leaving the building to decay and fall down. In the 50’s, all that remained reasonably intact were the stables and part of the surrounding walls. One of the daughters of the family felt the need to move back into town and made a valiant start at rebuilding the structure. However, she didn’t get too far until she met and married a wealthy Texan who had come to town to fish. Together they reconstructed as best they could – which is very good indeed – the original structure and lived happily in it for several years. Then as the Canyon became a major tourist destination, they decided to add to the hacienda and turn it into a hotel while at the same time retaining its original design and traditional flavor.
They did such an amazing job that it is impossible to determine where the original structure ends and the added rooms begin, and the whole is a magnificent experience. All the rooms are decorated with hand-painted murals and borders, Mexican tile is everywhere, and the charm of the courtyard fountains and plantings is indescribable. Furnishings are of authentic colonial design and many are genuine antiques, and the artwork throughout the buildings is striking. The cozy atmosphere of the dining room is enhanced by the owner’s personal collections of Mexican folk art and European china, as are the main salons, one of which sports furniture reflecting that period of Mexican history dominated by the French influence. Family photos are scattered throughout the public areas of the hotel as well, giving visitors the impression that they are guests in someone’s home, which in many ways, they are. The wealthy Texan died a couple of years ago, but his wife remains somewhat of a moving force behind the organization of the hotel even though she spends part of every year at their home in Texas.
The management of the hotel, being well aware of the lack of entertainment in the town, is amazingly creative in their efforts to amuse their visitors. There are regular folkloric dance performances on the terraces and in the courtyards, and staff members regularly conduct tours into outlying Mayo villages. We took advantage of one excursion given by a native of the village in question, Teheuco (meaning “under the blue sky” in Mayo), population 900, mostly farmers living on ejido land. The town has an old Adobe mission built in the 1500’s by the Jesuits on their way to California and destroyed during the Revolution, with a newer Catholic church built in 1937 right next to it. The church has no regular priest, but one comes from El Fuerte for weddings, baptisms and funerals.
Tehueco has a town leader, or mayor, who is responsible for teaching Mayo customs and traditions to the village children, and we were treated to a performance of the traditional Danza de la Ciervos by a family of grandfather, father and son. There is also a town shaman who deals with the medical issues of the villagers. The most important holidays in this village are Santa Semana and Day of the Dead, during which upwards of 4,000 people from surrounding areas flock to the festivities.
Hotel El Fuerte staff is also gracious about escorting guests through the center of the town to see the zocalo, church and some historical buildings, and just up the hill, there is a reconstruction of the original Spanish fort that protected the town that houses a museum cataloging the colonial history of El Fuerte.
I’m not going to blather on – pictures say it so much better. Suffice it to say, rooms are spacious with very comfortable beds, the air conditioning is gratifyingly arctic, and the traditionally Mexican food is terrific. Every corner of every part of the hotel is a vignette of beautiful Mexican style and color. Enough said –