This article is from the July 2005 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Las Joyas de Mexico

The Camino Real, Oaxaca

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  

As I sat down to write this column, Katie Couric was on television in the background lamenting the horror that has befallen London today. I had several topics I was contemplating writing about, but given the events of the day, I fell to wondering about the most peaceful place on earth I could wish myself to be. Perhaps not surprisingly, that train of thought led me first to Mexico, and then to the courtyards of the Hotel Camino Real in Oaxaca. 

It has been my suspicion for some time, as I have talked to friends who have visited Oaxaca without a stop at this magical place, that many people avoid it for fear of the astronomical prices connected with the Camino Real chain of hotels throughout Mexico. If so, these folks would not be wrong. This group has some the country’s premier offerings accompanied by correspondingly appropriate price tags. Additionally, most of the hotels in the chain are new, and while beautiful and luxurious in the extreme, are really nothing all that special. However, the Camino Real in Oaxaca was once a 16th-Century convent, and given Mexico’s laws regarding the renovation of historic structures, it retains most of the beauty and atmosphere of its origins.  

Unlike many of Mexico’s regulations, those that govern the restoration and change of use of its colonial-era architecture make the best kind of sense. These buildings may be repaired and made safe, landscaped and improved upon only so long as no part of the remaining original structure is altered in any way. Therefore, what remains of the former Convento de Santa Catalina de Siena’s original courtyards, chapel, frescoes and stone porticos evokes the exact aura one would expect from such an edifice.  

A two-foot-thick stone wall faces the pedestrian-only portion of Calle Cinco de Mayo on which this hotel stands and they prevail throughout the building. There are several different courtyards in addition to the central, flower-strewn area one sees upon entering through the main arches of the registration area. One courtyard to the left, a local favorite for wedding ceremonies and receptions, has a still-functioning original fountain surrounded by abundant flowering plants. It is one of my most favorite things to drink tea at one of the surrounding tables and watch the many white doves that live here play in the bubbling water. Directly behind this courtyard, separated by a long porticoed walkway, lies another courtyard containing the convent’s original lavadero (laundry), an imposing, picturesque stone structure containing huge carved wash tubs and an ancient, intricate drainage system for draining the dirty water.  

To the right of the main entrance is the vast early chapel area of the convent. This room is massive, a full open two stories of stone arch with wrought iron sconces and chandeliers that cast mystical light over the Oaxacan stone floors and the remains of the building’s original frescoes. Used now for weekly Gueleguetza performances and large formal dinners, the chapel when empty has a unmistakable spiritual ambiance that inspires reflection and peace. 

Once through the chapel to the other side, one reaches the furthest courtyard containing the hotel pool. While obviously a new addition to the grounds, the pool area lies in front of the original convent library, now an indoor/outdoor lounge. It is surrounded on two sides by hotel rooms with balconies and arches and magnificent native plantings covering the green Oaxacan stone walls.

My preferred choice of places to spend time and – in my view – the jewel of this place is its central courtyard and the outdoor restaurant surrounding it. There is no adequate description, at least none that I can conjure. I have been there for lunch on sunny, still days when the birdsong and aroma of bougainvillea so overshadow everything else that I have no memory of what I ate. I have been there in the evening when the candles burning in the arches and the nichos cast shadows so mystical that I’m sure I sense the former occupants of the building moving serenely through the galleries. On one occasion, an extremely hot and humid afternoon, some friends and I stopped in for mid-afternoon drinks and sat in the sun listening to Frank Sinatra. Initially, I thought it was an incongruous choice, but as the afternoon wore on and the conversation became more desultory, it became perfect, and to this day remains a special memory of time spent in Mexico. During one Day of the Dead week, my husband and I sat in the shadows of the candles, with the statues and flowers in the nichos nodding over our shoulders as we ate, listening to Gregorian chants, and somehow, that was also perfect. Sometimes during languid afternoons, mariachis stroll the courtyards, creating such an atmosphere of beauty and romance that even the least sentimental are moved, and those occasions are also always perfect. One of the wonders of the place is that you never know what variety of perfection you will find. And the food – when I have been aware of it – is tasty, nicely presented, and very reasonably priced. 

I have to admit that for many of us, the $200-$400/per night price of staying at the Camino Real is cost prohibitive, and also – to me – generally not worth it, since nothing about the modern, beautifully-appointed rooms bring to mind thoughts of anything ancient and mysterious. Although I have to say of my one stay there, the service was beyond miraculous. However, this is a place that warmly welcomes non-guests to any function they have, and the service remains flawless whether you are a guest or not. In my never-to-be-humble opinion, time reserved for at least one meal, or even just a stroll through the grounds, will always be an integral component of a visit to this marvelous city, if only to put you in better touch with its history and origins. An afternoon spent over coffee and pastries, however, will always be a better choice, and is absolutely guaranteed to offer perfection of a kind found nowhere else.