Questions are welcome before and during the livestreaming hangout. We pay special attention to the tweets on Twitter that have used the #MexMonday hashtag.
Our August conversation will be eclectic, reviewing on-the-ground and under-the-radar attractions in Mexico as well as Mexico on the Web, including social web channels Facebook, Flickr, Google+, Ranker, Slideshare, Twitter and YouTube. We will discuss current and upcoming events, recommended places, travel tips and tours, language classes and favorite foods including chocolate, mole and mezcal.
One of the most colorful celebrations in the Americas takes place in the southern corner of Mexico. This year’s Guelaguetza celebrations will be held on July 22 and 29 in Oaxaca City and surrounding towns.
One of my all time favorite Mariachi songs is called “Volver, Volver.” Loosely translated the title means “Come back, Come back,” and it symbolizes what I feel every time I leave Mexico. My heart always aches a bit and the words to that song run through my head. There is something remarkable about returning to a place that touches your soul. It’s never like the first time; it’s better. There’s a touch of familiarity that gives the impression of being welcomed back home. That’s how I felt about coming back to Oaxaca and Hacienda Los Laureles.
On a map, the state of Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah) can be found about 300 miles southeast of Mexico City. The entire region is filled with both natural and cultural beauty, but the centerpiece of the state is the magical Oaxaca City. Founded in 1532, the city is surrounded by the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range and sits atop a highland plateau some 5,000 feet above sea level. And though the city is densely populated, it remains unusually intimate. Easily explored on foot, it has the warm and inviting pace of a village. There is a certain energy that radiates from the people and buildings, almost as if the past remains in the present. The city is widely considered one of the finest displays of Spanish colonial architecture in the entire country and was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1987. A total of 1,200 historic monuments remain throughout the city and surrounding areas.
The charming and elegant Hacienda Los Laureles is located a quick 8 to 10 minutes from the zócalo (city center). Tucked away in the foothills, this hotel is a real gem. Built in the early 1800s, the property maintains its grand colonial style, while offering all the modern amenities. My first visit to the hacienda was back in 2001, and I was happy to discover it was even more beautiful upon my return. The lush and manicured gardens had matured even more and are now filled with blooming flowers along with huge cypress and mango trees. To add to the natural peacefulness of the grounds, a symphony of singing birds can be heard throughout the foliage.
From the moment you arrive, it will feel as though you are in your own private hacienda. With a total of only 23 guest rooms (including four master suites and presidential suite), the service is very personal. Owner, Peter Kaiser, tells me, “We want our guests to have a unique experience here so the staff is always available to cater to their needs.” Peter has built his reputation on attention to detail and understands the importance of “the little things” that make a hotel experience memorable. Los Laureles is a member of the exclusive Mexico Boutique Hotels group, and received Four Diamonds from AAA. In addition, the hacienda was bestowed with the Tesoro (Treasure) Award from the Oaxaca State Government and an “M” from the Tourism Ministry presented by the previous Secretary of Tourism, Gloria Guevarra. The “M” is for “Modern,” but obtaining it requires exhaustive training and inspection.
Each room and suite has its own look and feel. Keeping true to its historical roots, heavy wood furniture is accented with Mexican handicrafts, bursts of color and fresh flowers. The suites have big, comfortable beds and plenty of space. Everything feels special here. We were in Oaxaca celebrating my 50th birthday, so when we checked in, our bed was adorned with rose petals spelling out “Feliz Cumpleaños” (Happy Birthday). It was such a nice touch. There are small tables and chairs just outside your door are the ideal place to sip some coffee and take in the beauty of the garden and grounds. If you need a bit more pampering, stop into the Le Petit Spa for a memorable massage or refreshing facial. Or, take a spiritual journey in the temazcal. A “temazcal” is a traditional Mexican steam bath similar to the Native American sweat lodge. Los Laureles has a small one on the property that will fit three people. Ask at the spa for details.
Though there are plenty of wonderful restaurants in Oaxaca, I must say that one of the finest in town can be found at the hotel – Los Cipreses. Upon our arrival, we were greeted with a candlelit table set in the garden and treated to an extraordinary meal. In fact, we were so impressed with the service and the food that we ate dinner on the property two out of the three nights of our stay. Chef Horacio Reyes is brilliant. Offerings range from the tasty Camarones a la Oaxaqueña (Oaxacan style shrimp with onion, garlic, mushrooms, tomato, mezcal and white wine) and an expertly prepared Filete de Res del Bosque (Filet mignon with mushrooms and herbs) to the amazing Ensalada de Nopales (sliced cactus with peeled tomatoes, onions and avocado) and the Canasta de Chapulines al Cilantro (basket of grasshoppers with coriander, garlic, onion tomato with guacamole and tortillas). Yes, I said “grasshoppers.” They are a very famous dish in Oaxaca and a “must try.” Don’t worry, you will be pleasantly surprised! In addition, the Chef offers cooking classes that will give you insight into these unforgettable dishes.
During our stay, their was a private birthday party being set up. The tent and tables were festive and flawless. The hacienda is well known for hosting special events, meetings and gorgeous weddings. If you’re looking for an intimate and off-the-beaten-path place for your ceremony, you might want to add Los Laureles to your consideration list.
The hacienda is also a premiere location to use as a jumping off spot to explore the region. The front desk can call for a taxi for trips in and out of the city and arrange any kind of tour (private or group) with an English-speaking driver/guide. Be sure to study up on the area so you know what you’d like to see, but I would certainly recommend the archeological sites of Monte Albán and Mitla, and the artisan village of San Martin Tilcajete.
My return trip to Oaxaca and Hacienda Los Laureles was outstanding. The service was brilliant, the room was perfect and I felt as if I was coming home. This is a place I know I will return to again and again and I know it will always be magical. For more information contact Sylvie Laitre at Mexico Boutique Hotels (firstname.lastname@example.org ).
20 years ago I sat on the shores of Playa la Ropa in Zihuatanejo celebrating my 30th birthday. My dear friend from Switzerland told me she had planned a party on the beach. It sounded great, but since this was a new destination for me, turns out she was the only person I knew when I arrived at my own fiesta. A gorgeous table covered with plates of fresh fish, flowers and gifts came courtesy of the locals – people I’d never met, friends I didn’t even know I had. A trio of musicians stood in the sand and serenaded me with song after song. By the time the evening was over, I had fallen even more in love with Mexico and the extraordinary people that embraced this stranger with smiles, laughter and kindness. It was pure magic. It was pure Mexico.
At the time, I had only been working in Mexico for a few years and had yet to discover the many gifts this magnificent country would continue to give me. Nonetheless, I knew immediately I was drawn to the country’s more off-the-beaten path places: the more intimate locales filled with culture and beauty, and the towns and villages enjoyed by the traveler rather than the tourist. As my 50th birthday loomed on the horizon (and I don’t say that lightly!), I knew in my heart the only place to celebrate this milestone would be my favorite place on earth: Mexico. But where? So many choices, so many memories… it was difficult to pin such an occasion on a single destination. After much contemplating, I decided to make it a combo adventure – my favorite colonial city and a beach town I’d always wanted to see. And so the wheels were in motion for a trip to the state of Oaxaca.
If you’ve spent much time traveling Mexico, you know this country is a chameleon. Every state shows a different color, every region a unique energy, and every local culture a special tradition. The only constant is diversity… And so it is with the Mexican state of Oaxaca. As intriguing as its name, Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah) is one of the most unusual and dynamic places in all of Mexico. On a map, the state of Oaxaca can be found about 300 miles southeast of Mexico City. Its stunning Pacific coastline is home to the remarkable beach resort of Huatulco (more on that later), but the centerpiece of the state is the magical Oaxaca City. Founded in 1532, the city is surrounded by the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range and sits atop an arid highland plateau some 5,000 feet above sea level. And though the city is densely populated, it remains unusually intimate. Easily explored on foot, it has the warm and inviting pace of a village. There is a certain energy that radiates from the people and buildings, almost as if the past remains in the present. The streets resemble a brightly colored painting, enticing aromas fill the air and music abounds… everything looks and feels like a celebration.
When it came down to planning, I reached out to my good friend, Sylvie Laitre, who owns and operates Mexico Boutique Hotels. For me, MBH is simply the best of the best. Sylvie personally chooses each property in the collection and there is something enchanting about staying in a boutique setting rather than a big chain hotel. The service is unprecedented and the feel and experience are completely different. Over the years, as I have become a savvier traveler, I completely embrace “small property” hospitality, attention to detail and personal touch – especially in Mexico.
My birthday digs in Oaxaca City would be at the exquisite Hacienda Los Laureles located just a few minutes (five to eight at most and about $4 USD) by taxi outside the center of town. I had stayed here once before (on one of my first trips to Mexico with my husband), so the property holds special meaning for me. With a total of only 23 rooms and suites, Los Laureles is the ideal combination of traditional Mexican style and classic colonial elegance. You feel as though you are in your own private hacienda, complete with lush gardens, towering cypress trees, outstanding service and one of the best restaurants in town. Nestled in the mountain foothills, the hotel maintains its 19th century charm. The owner, Peter Kaiser, makes it his personal goal to ensure every guest feels at home. The evening we arrived, a “Feliz Cumpleaños” was written in flower petals on our bed, and a candlelit dinner was planned for us in the garden. It was a wonderful beginning to my birthday adventure, and the rest of our stay was equally as flawless. (Stay tuned for a more detailed feature story on Hacienda Los Laureles coming soon.)
The highlight of any trip to Oaxaca is going to be a visit to the majestic archeological site of Monte Albán. Indigenous tribes of Zapotec and Mixtec inhabited the area for centuries and built mighty stone cities that flourished for thousands of years. Over 2,500 years ago, the Zapotecs built the holy city of Monte Albán on a hilltop overlooking the Valley of Oaxaca. The view is nothing short of spectacular and whether you’re an archeological buff or not, this will be well worth the visit. We had a fantastic guide, Suzanne Barbezat, from Discover Oaxaca Tours . She and her husband, Benito Hernández, offer six different day trips around the area, and will also customize excursions to fit your personal needs. Benito is Zapotec and has lived most of his life in Oaxaca City so he offers prolific knowledge on culture, tradition and history. Suzanne comes to Oaxaca via Canada. She first visited in 1997 and fell in love with Benito (and Oaxaca!). She is completely bilingual, holds a degree in anthropology, and is the writer and editor for About.com’s Mexico Travel website . They are quite the impassioned pair about anything and everything Oaxaca, and I recommend them highly. (If you love bird watching, Benito also does birding tours—visit www.birdingoaxaca.com)
After a memorable day at Monte Albán, it was time for the main event: a birthday dinner at the famous Casa Oaxaca Restaurant. I selected this restaurant based on the location (just steps from the Santo Domingo church in the city center), the ambiance (simple and romantic with wood tables and towering white stucco ceiling), the awesome rooftop bar, and of course, the exceptional cuisine provided by world-renowned chef, Alejandro Ruiz Olmeda. Known for his creative dishes, Chef Alejandro has populated the menu with everything from expertly prepared rack of lamb, duck in green agave sauce and venison in yellow mole, to traditional Oaxacan specialties and fresh herbed octopus and grilled fish.Our party of eight enjoyed bottle after bottle of Mexican and Spanish selections from the extensive wine list while listening to a trio of musicians playing Mexican favorites. All was as it should be in Mexico – great friends, great food, and great wine, all wrapped up in cozy restaurant.
All too soon it was time to head south to the beach for the last leg of the celebration. We hopped on Aerotucan’s 8-seater commuter for our 45-minute flight to Huatulco (wah-TOOL-co). You can take a bus or rent a car, but you’re in for six to eight hours of winding roads. Despite the steep price tag, it’s certainly the fastest and best way to connect the cities. Of all the resorts in Mexico, I had never been to Huatulco; lucky for me it looks like I saved the best for last. This 21-mile stretch of coastline with nine pristine bays and beaches was one of the most striking beach destinations in Mexico that I’d ever seen. Anchored by the charming little town of La Crucecita, Huatulco was developed by Mexico’s tourism fund (FONATUR) and was designed to be a major Pacific coast resort community. Nonetheless, it has remained small and almost undiscovered… which, to me, is a good thing.
I had also worked with Sylvie from Mexico Boutique Hotels on a location in Huatulco and she recommended Hotel Las Palmas. After a quick look at their website, and some communications with their amazing staff, it was an easy choice. We were met at Huatulco’s “palapa-topped” airport and were greeted by hotel transportation. The service was spot on from the instant we arrived. When we got to the Dolphin Cove Villa at Las Palmas, it was nothing short of astonishing. I don’t use that word often, but that’s the only description that really sums it up. Our massive 4-bedroom/4-bath villa had an open-air living area, huge kitchen and negative-edge pool overlooking the picturesque Violina Bay and beach. Even though we were there in the dry season it was incredibly beautiful. Owners Ron and Jackie Williams came to Huatulco on a trip from Lake Tahoe in 2001. They took one look at the area and knew they had to realize their dream and build a hotel overlooking the Pacific. Well, their dream turned out to be my dream come true too, as you won’t find many places in Mexico as breathtaking as this. With a total of five casitas and three villas, Las Palmas feels more like a giant private home rather than a hotel. At the risk of overstating the obvious, it was perfect. (Stay tuned for a full feature story on Las Palmas and Huatulco coming up as well.)
Truth be told, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about turning 50. But, I can tell you this: turning 50 in Oaxaca is the way to go. Thank you, Mexico. Thank you for reaching into my soul and giving me so many gifts of so many memories. I look forward to the next 50 and continuing to discover your treasures.