Mexicasa: The Enchanting Inns and Haciendas of Mexico
by Melba Levick and Gina Hyams. Chronicle Books, $24.95, 176 pp.
Reviewed by Gale Randall
Gale Randall, a Palo Alto resident and frequent traveler to Mexico, most recently reviewed Nothing to Declare for The Mexico File.
When Monica Hernandez and Anibal Gonzalez bought Hacienda Katanchel in Tixkokob, Yucatan, in 1996, they weren’t quite sure what they’d acquired as the 740‑acre former henequen (sisal) hacienda was a tangle of vegetative overgrowth, its buildings lying in jungle‑enshrouded ruins. Gradually the property was cleared to reveal a once grand estate and Gonzalez, an architect originally from Seville, set about carefully restoring the place. Today Katanchel is perhaps the most impressive of the dozen or so former Yucatecan haciendas that have recently seen new life as comfortable inns, restaurants, and private homes. And Katanchel is but one of the 21 inns and haciendas of Mexico featured in Mexicasa.
Serving both as a helpful guide to travelers seeking pleasant and unusual hostelries in Mexico, as well as a stunning coffee‑table book for dreamers, Mexicasa is a gorgeous compendium of colorful photo spreads and informative text on these diverse properties. The properties range from the quirky and folkloric Casa de Espiritus Alegres in Marfil outside Guanajuato to Cortes’ historic Hacienda de Cortes in Cuernavaca, and to several noteworthy inns of the Yucatan. One could plan a leisurely vacation or, more practically, vacations around Mexicasa, perhaps concentrating first on inns of the colonial north like Espiritus Alegres in Guanajuato, the Casa de Sierra Nevada in San Miguel de Allende and La Casa de la Maquesa in Queretero, the city where the unfortunate Emperor Maximilian was assassinated in 1867. There would be a sojourn to Cuernavaca outside Mexico City to stop at the resplendent inn of the peacocks and flamingoes – Las Mananitas – and of course at Cortes’ restored hacienda. A trip through the Yucatan would comprise another itinerary.
Each of the haciendas and inns has a history and these stories are woven into the text. The venerable Camino Real of Oaxaca, a.k.a. the Ex‑Convento de Santa Catalina, where Gregorian chants waft through the former convent’s courtyards at breakfast time, once stood as town jail and city hall. But I’m particularly partial to the story behind La Casa de la Marquesa of Queretero. In 1756 a Spanish nobleman was smitten with a nun of the Franciscan order of St. Clare who supposedly rejected his advances but asked two favors of him – that he build an aqueduct to bring water to the people of Queretero and construct the most beautiful house in the city. The resulting mansion – La Casa de la Marquesa today – was eventually occupied by the don’s wife but rumors persist to this day that a tunnel once connected the manse’s cellar to the nun's convent.
Contact information for the inns and haciendas is included in an appendix to the book. Photographer Melba Levick has produced over 35 books on travel, architecture and design. Gina Hyams has also written the “Day of the Dead Box.”