“Try some grasshoppers?”
The market vendor held out a handful, hoping for a sale. Samples
were free, she said.
I was in Oaxaca City, well known for its cuisine with a few
unexpected twists, that is. Although I politely declined the offer,
I watched customers lining up and buying by the scoopfuls.
Traditions are strong here, not only in the food. Locals
recently mobilized to save the hundred-year-old trees around the
main plaza and, later, successfully barred a U.S. fast-food chain
from opening under the historic colonnades. And the Hacienda Los
Laureles, where I stayed, is as close as you can get to the grand
era of the hacienda. Twenty-foot-high ceilings, antiques, thick
stucco walls and terra-cotta floors evoke the aura and architecture
of a past century.
Opened five years ago, it was the dream-come-true for Peter
Kaiser, who invested his 40 years experience running hotels into
owning his own. He chose a hacienda in a quiet neighborhood above
downtown and got to work.
“It was like being in the country in a city,” he said.
The hotel has 23 luxury rooms spread out in a quadrangle,
keeping to the original design.
Custom-made hardwood furniture and brightly hued local crafts
add to the Mexican feel of the place.
The lush, 9,000-square-foot garden is a real showpiece and
Kaiser’s hobby, a skill dating back to his German homeland where he
designed a garden for former chancellor Konrad Adenaur. And just as
the hotel name suggests, it’s full of laurel trees in full purple
bloom when I was there. As I gazed at the songbirds and
butterflies, the stress of travel slowly began to dissolve. Had I
gone out at night, I would have spotted a resident coati mundi
family as well.
The hotel cuisine is Oaxacan mixed with the chef’s own
ingenuity. I had the regional mainstay, mole (spiced up with
almonds), for dinner one night, which had been prepared in a
cooking class chef Horacio held for hotel guests that morning. All
meals are served in a charming, glass-enclosed restaurant, much
like an elegant bistro. The weekend champagne brunch has just about
become a local tradition.
Oaxaca City’s historic heart is a must-see attraction that will
reward your clients with a look at one of the country’s outstanding
colonial cities. Declared a UNESCO Cultural Site, it’s full of
stately, old buildings turned into shops, restaurants, museums and
galleries. I began with the enormous 17th-century Cultural Center
of Santo Domingo a museum, ex-cloister and richly decorated church.
The Rufino Tamayo Museum, a good place to admire prehispanic
sculptures and artifacts collected by native son, muralist Rufino
Tamayo, was next. Stopping for a break now and then to prevent
cultural overload, I dropped into cafes serving the robust organic
coffee grown in the nearby sierra.
One day, Mexico was scheduled to face Iran in a World Cup soccer
match. The streets emptied to TVs tuned to the game. Even striking
teachers in the main square sat glued to a set on the sidewalk.
Soccer fever replaced protest songs. (The strikers are now gone,
and the town has been peaceful.)
On to the vibrant Handicrafts Market, I spotted Indian women in
indigenous dress selling black pottery, alebrijes (whimsical wooden
fantasy animals), hand-loomed rugs, embroidered clothing and other
famous crafts produced at villages surrounding Oaxaca City. Many of
these crafts are in museum collections in the U.S. Bargaining is
expected and I soon picked up a few embroidered pieces to carry
Back at the hotel, I saved the temascal for my last evening. Don
Ignacio, a shaman, initiated me into the ancient rite, common for
cleansing the spirit. Inside a small, dome-shaped structure by the
side of the pool, he chanted in Zapotec while I rattled a maraca
and shouted. Buckets of ice water were poured over my head as herbs
sizzled on the fire. I shouted out something for sure, because,
afterward, I felt totally at ease and ready for the journey home.
Before I left, chef Horacio offered me an appetizer a deep-fried
cheese ball rolled in ground grasshopper.
“Maybe next time,” I replied.
Hacienda Los Laureles
800-728-9098 Hacienda Los Laureles
Hits: A member of Mexico Boutique Hotels, the
setting is spectacular with gardens ringed by mountains and Old
World service. Cuisine is outstanding and it’s perfect for
Misses: Night owls will have to hit the bar or
go into downtown for evening entertainment.
Be Aware: Long distance calls can be expensive
from your room. Receive collect calls or go into downtown and buy a
Telmex phone card for public phones.
Plugging In: Internet hook-up in rooms,
wireless in garden area, business center.
Rates: Rooms start at $230, junior suites at
$280, and master suites at $360. Suites include a full
Commission: 15 percent, 20 percent for
Activities: A spa and jogging path; excursions
to nearby Monte Alban’s ruins; biking tours; and horseback riding
can be booked.