The butterfly flickered in front of me. It was a monarch, a species that every winter mysteriously flocks from North America to the Michoacan region of Mexico to mate. This particular butterfly helped lead me to Hacienda Mariposas, a wonderful new hotel on 18 acres above Patzcuaro in a fascinating colonial region of central Mexico.
Actually, though, the butterfly was just an image flitting across a Web page. I found it while surfing the Internet in search of places to stay with my wife and two children (ages 6 and 2) for two weeks in January. We needed to escape, and we had enough frequent-flier miles for three round-trip tickets to Mexico (the little one could sit on a lap). So, with the general idea that we wanted not a beach vacation but a cultural one, we clicked our way through the Internet, checking out descriptions of cities and communicating almost entirely through e-mail with prospective hotels.
It was perhaps a foolhardy exercise--neither of us had been to Mexico, though we had traveled widely to Third World countries. But we had just hooked up to the Internet and couldn't help ourselves. So, blissfully ignorant but hopeful, we kept flipping through Web pages until we saw a reference to Guadalajara being the "cultural heart" of Mexico. That sounded pretty good. We kept looking at pages and discovered Guadalajara had mariachi music, charrera (rodeos), colonial architecture and almost year-round 75-degree sunny weather. Bingo. We started looking for small, intimate hotels with suites that would accommodate children and wouldn't cost much more than $100 a night.
A flurry of e-mails later, we had settled on spending our first week in Tlaquepaque, an artistic suburb of Guadalajara, at a lovely bed-and-breakfast called La Villa del Ensueno, an enclave of flowers, birds, fountains and a pool hidden behind a gate on a nondescript street. But then we hit a snag--we had wanted to spend our second week at Lake Chapala, Mexico's largest lake and just south of Guadalajara, but every hotel we e-mailed or faxed was completely booked.
My brother happened to be passing through Washington and mentioned another possibility--Patzcuaro, 200 miles east of Guadalajara. I went back online and did a search for Patzcuaro. This would take us even higher into the mountains--7,500 feet--and bring us close to a different lake, one of the highest in the world. Not only that, I learned that this city of whitewashed buildings and hilly streets had a strong Indian influence and a rich colonial past. It was near the monarch butterfly sanctuaries and, best of all, close to a volcano featured in many of the zillions of volcano books treasured by my 6-year-old. Bingo again.
There were fewer hotels online for Patzcuaro, which is significantly smaller and less touristed than Guadalajara. But I soon located the Hacienda Mariposas and its butterfly Web page. In both cases, the hotels were so new they were not listed in most guidebooks--and yet each had charm and beauty that many tourist quarters lack; the Hacienda was not only a great hotel but a gourmet's paradise. It may have just been beginner's luck, but we managed to use the Internet to plan a great family trip.
Hacienda Mariposas, for instance, is the brainchild of Rene Ocana and his wife, Shelley. They made their fortune in California, where they still have a business, but decided they also wanted to create their own dream hotel, combining fine cuisine with five-star service in beautiful surroundings. The Hacienda is still a work in progress--they've only been open for a year to paying customers after practicing for a year with friends--but it reflects the personality of its owners.
Many hotels in Mexico, for instance, have poor light in the bathrooms. Shelley insisted on extremely bright bathrooms so women could properly apply their makeup. (Rene then installed a dimmer switch for the men.) Rene once was awakened by jackhammers at a hotel long ago, so he requires his workmen to start working only when guests leave and stop when they return. There's no smoking allowed on any part of the property. The hotel's tap water is triple-filtered and chlorinated.
In Tlaquepaque, where we spent our first week, we reveled in the small-town ambiance of an artisan community surrounded by the bustling city of Guadalajara. La Villa del Ensueno, the B&B we found on the Web, is a little oasis that was perfect for small children, since they could wander around and explore the grounds without getting into much trouble. The extraordinarily friendly staff, who doted on our children, only added to its charm. For a small hotel, many of the rooms are spacious and quiet; our suite, for instance, came with two private, sunlit patios.
From the villa, it was easy to hop in a cab and get to downtown Guadalajara in about 10 minutes. The center of Tlaquepaque was only a five-minute walk from the hotel, and we loved to walk down its narrow streets on weekend evenings and wander with the hundreds of townspeople who gathered in the central plaza to watch mimes, listen to mariachi music, nibble on street food and socialize.
We then rented a car and drove to Patzcuaro, arriving at the Hacienda as the sun was setting and the mountain chill was descending. Rene and much of his staff were waiting to greet us as we drove up the hill to the two main buildings. As luck would have it, we were the only people staying that week.
Rene gave us the grand tour. We were staying in a suite with a separate room for the children; none of the rooms is the same, but all have tiled floors, whitewashed walls, high ceilings, wood beams and fireplaces. The beds are covered with thick goose down comforters. The rooms sit off a hallway where another fireplace keeps going constantly--a necessity in the winter, when the daytime temperature often breaks 80 but the evenings can be near freezing.
Soon it was time for dinner, which is served in another building. We walked along a path between the buildings that was festively marked by a score of candles glowing in individual paper bags. Rene proudly showed us his California-size kitchen, and then we went into the huge dining room. As we sat next to yet another roaring fireplace and sipped margaritas, we watched in awe as one of the servers carefully lit each of the 36 candles on the chandelier hanging above the table.
Then there was the food. Wonderful appetizers like quail eggs laid that morning. Entrees that featured authentic Mexican and pre-Columbian dishes made from vegetables grown in the garden and in the local community. Rene took cooking classes at the California Culinary Institute, and closely supervises the cooking.
Every night Rene would join us for dinner and regale us with stories and answer questions about Mexico. He taught us about different kinds of tequila and drew us maps for walking tours of the towns. After having been through a frustrating first week of having to control the children in restaurants--Hugo, the 2-year-old, has little interest in eating--we were able to have the staff feed them early and watch them so we could linger over long meals.
Our first morning, I got up early with the boys and we went with Rene to collect the eggs from the Hacienda's chickens for our breakfast. It was still chilly, but as soon as the sun's rays touched the mountain, the temperature soared. Breakfast was served once the strong sun began to shine on the breakfast table in a rose garden, near a pond with geese.
I found the combination of crystal-clear blue-sky days and cozy, cool nights very inviting, though we wished we'd brought some warmer clothes. The inn, which sits on a ridge that marks the start of the Sierra Madre, has six horses. A ride on one of the horses became part of the children's morning routine.
All this for $85 to $100 a night, breakfast included. The multicourse dinners are $15 a person (no charge for Hugo), including drinks like beer and margaritas (wine was extra).
Rene said most of his guests come by word of mouth--generally Hollywood moguls, Wall Street executives or prominent Mexicans. But he gets about 30 percent of his visitors through the Web site, which he agreed to set up as part of a complicated transaction with the local government. Most people simply fly to the airport at Morelia, about 40 miles away, since round-trip transportation is included in the room charge. In fact, Rene for the first time put up a sign on the driveway just before we arrived, so we could find the hotel driving our rental car.
Patzcuaro, a town with a population of about 70,000, is a bit off the beaten path. But it's a lovely 16th-century city of whitewashed houses, arches and hills. Unlike the aristocratic Morelia to the north, which looks like it dropped from the sky from Europe, Patzcuaro has the feel of a place where time has stopped. There are no tall buildings, or even many buildings that appear to have been built recently. Some of the hotels on the main square date back several centuries.
In fact, a 16th-century bishop, Don Vasco de Quiroga, decreed four centuries ago that certain villages should specialize in particular trades, a tradition that continues to this day. If you want cooper goods, you travel a few miles past the Hacienda to the village of Santa Clara del Cobre. Or if you want furniture or dark green pottery, you travel to Tzintzuntzan, a village on the lake. And so forth for such other things as intricate lacquerware and masks. The Indian markets in Patzcuaro are swamped and filled with goods for the locals, not tourists, though many products from the villages can be found there as well.
Patzcuaro's lake, unfortunately, is rather polluted, and much of the whitefish that once was the city's speciality have perished. (Rene refused to serve us fish from the lake but got it from another source, a difference we could tell when we tried the fish in one of the city's better restaurants; it tasted a little odd.) But you can take a boat ride to the islands in the lake, which is a lot of fun because Indian musicians play traditional songs on the boats to earn money.
The boats will always pause for a little show of a group of fisherman using the once famous butterfly nets (mariposas), a scene which is also depicted on the 50-peso bill. We watched a group of five fisherman use these nets as we headed to the island of Janitzio. They managed to catch one meager fish--and they quickly scurried over to the boat for a tip.
Patzcuaro is also ideally situated for two day-long excursions--the monarch butterfly sanctuaries and the Paricutin volcano. After a lot of deliberation, we decided to skip the three-hour drive to the sanctuaries--where hundreds of thousands of butterflies gather every winter from November to February--because we weren't sure how the children would react to being covered with butterflies. But there was no way we could avoid the volcano because Andre, the 6-year-old, is a volcano fanatic. (The Hacienda arranges these trips, with driver, food and guides, for $75 per adult.)
The Paricutin volcano sprung up 56 years ago in the field of a poor farmer named Dionisio Pulido. It ultimately grew more than a quarter-mile high and covered several villages, including San Juan Parangaricutiro, with thick lava. We drove in one of Rene's bright red Suburbans to a spot overlooking the volcano and the lava flow, where we had lunch. Then, with a couple of guides, we rode on horses several miles down to the doomed village. Andre had his own horse, while Hugo sat in my lap, exclaiming "Neigh, neigh" a few times every minute.
All that's left of San Juan Parangaricutiro are pieces of its church. With Hugo in a backpack and Andre wide-eyed with excitement, we picked our way through waves of hard-rock lava to reach the steeple, and then scampered over some more lava to get to the altar. Touchingly, the locals still place flowers on it every week.
It was truly hard to top that day for our children, but they were able to relive the excitement of riding the horses every morning at the Hacienda. As for me, I was already wondering where our next vacation will be--and which Web page graphic might lead us there.
Glenn Kessler is The Post's national business editor.
DETAILS: Mexico Via the Web
* Patzcuaro. The Web site for Hacienda Mariposas (1-800-573-2386) in Patzcuaro is www.haciendamariposas.com. Rates are $85 to $100, breakfast included; dinner is $15 per person. The airport in Morelia is about an hour away; transf ers to and from the airport are included in the room fee. The Hacienda can arrange trips to the Paricutin volcano and the butterfly sanctuaries, as well as plan tours of the city and local crafts towns. Year round it is warm during the day and cool in the evening; little rain falls during the winter, but rain is heavy in May and early summer.
Many U.S. airlines fly to Mexico City; from there you catch a connection to Morelia on AeroMexico, Mexicana or Aeromar. Depending on the season, round-trip fares can range from $500 to $800 per person.
* Guadalajara. The Web site for La Villa del Ensueno (1-800- 220-8689) in Tlaquepaque is www.mexonline.com/ensueno.htm. Rates are $55 to $90, breakfast included. Tlaquepaque, an arts center with the atmosphere of a thriving little town, is about a 20-minute cab ride from the airport and 10 minutes from the city center, making it a convenient way to visit the large city of Guadalajara (population: 3 million). The temperature is higher in the summer than the winter, but generally it's very pleasant year round.
You can reach Guadalajara on Continental or American Airlines by connecting through U.S. hubs, or you can fly to Mexico City on Delta or United and connect to a Mexican carrier; depending on the season, round-trip fares can range from $500 to $800 per person.
INFORMATION: Mexican Government Tourism Office, 1-800-446-3942, www .mexico-travel.com. For travel warnings on Mexico, contact the State Department at 202-647- 5225, http://travel.state.gov.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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