Strong Tradition

A homey hotel brings back the grand era of the hacienda

By: Patricia Alisau


“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 home.

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 honeymooners.

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 breakfast.

Commission: 15 percent, 20 percent for packages.

Activities: A spa and jogging path; excursions to nearby Monte Alban’s ruins; biking tours; and horseback riding can be booked.