Travel & Hotels

Magical Mexico

By: B. Morgan

Winter Break at the Esperanza Resort

While not as life-changing as hearing, “You have just won the lottery,” having your friends call up and say, “Join us at our four bedroom villa at the Esperanza Resort for Fall Break” is pretty good.  Esperanza (www.esperanzaresort.com) is one of the luxury resorts located in the competitive “resort corridor” area between Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo in the Mexican state of Baja.  Flying from LAX to “Cabo” is convenient, with several major airlines offering service directly or through Los Angeles.

With passports in hand and lap belts fastened, our family settled in for a quick two hour flight.  The air conditioning of the Boeing cabin quickly dissipates in the face of the blast furnace of hot desert wind flowing up the exit ramp as you disembark at the Los Cabos International Airport.  You briefly trundle along the tarmac to find yourself deposited in the immigration control lounge and its Space Mountain-esque line. This is a good time for those of you with “crowd issues” to focus on your breathing exercises. After our luggage inspection we were liberated from the onslaught of “tourist service” runners by a smiling and gracious Esperanza host who grabbed our luggage and whisked us off to a waiting SUV with citrus-scented washcloths and chilled bottles of Voss water to officially return us to the vacation spirit.

A twenty minute drive through the desert brings you to the Sea of Cortez and a golf course seemingly every half mile.  Ten minutes after first glimpsing the sea, the driver pulls you past two guarded gates and into Esperanza’s intimate planter-lined circular drive with several small openings leading into the resort proper.  The resort sits on approximately 17 acres along the coast in the Punta Ballena area a few miles north of Cabo San Lucas.  Upon arriving, your concierge greets you at your car and sweeps you through the porte corchere to emerge into a broad courtyard with a spectacular 180 degree view of the azure sea.  Following your flight and drive, the panorama of the water and the soft rolling symphony of the waves take your breath away.

Our concierge then escorted us to our friends’ villa on the southern “residences” side of the resort (the hotel is on the northern side of the property).  Upon entering the villa we were wowed by the beautiful high palapa ceiling and the spaciousness of the living area which extended out to the expansive terrace.  During our stay, the terrace was our primary living space with a large dining table, chaises for relaxing, a hot tub, a built-in bbq and an expansive view of the sea. On our first day we even caught a glimpse of migrating whales to the delight of kids and adults alike.

During your stay you will not want for good food.  The resort’s diverse dining establishments are under the direction of Executive Chef Sergio Howland, and range from casual pool-side grills to haute cuisine at the main restaurant.  Our pack of 7 to 10 year olds never grew tired of eating at the grill counter while still submerged in the water.

The signature restaurant on the property is “El Restaurante” which has high-end dining with an accompanying price point.  Being perched cliff-side, the restaurant has a dramatic setting and every table enjoys a view. It is definitely worth eating at least one meal there during the trip, whether dinner or breakfast.  We all agreed, however, that the daily grilled fish special at the more casual La Palapa restaurant, also located cliff-side, offers the best value on property for dining.  For a special treat off-property, you should make a reservation for dinner at Don Emiliano, located in the historical downtown area of San José del Cabo (www.donemiliano.com.mx) and order a bottle of Mexican wine with your meal.

While the resort is located on the sea, the beach is not fit for swimming — though it is a nice spot for a stroll. The several pools on the villas-side of the property are well-designed and our kids were never bored as they splashed through waterfalls and hopped between tiers of infinity-edged pools.  The hotel’s main pool is for adults only and is dramatically framed by palm trees set in front of the Sea of Cortez.   We did find, however, that the resort pools seemed a bit understaffed for a resort of this caliber.

In order to be a true destination resort, there must be a world-class spa and in this regard Esperanza surpasses expectations.  Manager José Ramón García set out to create an antidote for the stresses of “regular” life and created a space to escape.  The adults in our group enjoyed various spa treatments and daily access to the yoga studio and exercise facilities.  The spa menu includes too many treatments to list here, but suffice it to say there is a treatment for everyone and everything — even the 10 year old girls went for mani/pedis as a birthday treat.  The Auberge Group, the management company of the property, gives their resort spa directors the discretion to bring in locally-focused treatments and ingredients and Mr. García has taken full advantage of this flexibility.

After checking into the spa, I was whisked away to the men’s locker room.  Not surprisingly, every possible toiletry amenity is available for use after your outdoor or indoor private shower (why is it impossible to replicate the same close shave at home?).   Emerging from the locker room in a plush robe, I was given a menu to review while sitting in the gentleman’s waiting area.  Each spa guest receives an Agua Fresca, a refreshing smoothie made with fresh locally grown seasonable vegetables, fruits and plants.  I sampled the cucumber, parsley and carrot as well as the basil and lime while enjoying the Jacuzzi and accompanying shower built out of rocks next to a cascading waterfall.  At this point I was well relaxed and had a nice “Spa Zen” state of mind.

My therapist then escorted me to a room with a private courtyard to experience the “Damiana Alegre” treatment.  It began with a soak in my private plunge pool and a short nap on an outdoor day bed while accompanied by a combination of gentle music, flowing water and the sweet sound of birds chirping in the distance (I felt like I was living in an Enya CD).  My therapist gently shook maracas by the courtyard gate to alert me of the next treatment phase: a full body exfoliation with amaranth (a native Aztec grain), a body wrap of honey and damiana (a local plant with a slight chamomile-like scent) concluded by an hour-long coconut oil massage to remove the kinks from two rounds of golf.  At the end of the treatment I could barely remember my name, let alone my laptop, Blackberry or pending work assignments.

While a stay at Esperanza is not inexpensive, it fit the bill — happy kids, happy wife and a relaxed me. Thinking back on that week I remember an encounter which sums up our stay. Looking at the cigar menu, my friend noted to the bar manager that the Cuban cigars from the resort humidor were much more expensive than those he could find in town.  She turned with a wry smile and pointed out the difference: we get to have these cigars while sitting here cliff-side at Esperanza, listening to live music and looking out at the sea.  We really enjoyed those cigars.

Oaxaca’s cultural playground

By Charolette Awatea

Oaxaca is a magical and mystical place.

It’s full of history and yet still has the hustle and bustle of the modern world.  My family has been associated with Oaxaca since before I was born.  My parents started doing their graduate school research there back in the late 1960s and my older brother was born there in 1971.  My father has chosen to spend his retirement there, bequeathing me with a stepmother and three stepsisters all from Oaxaca.  My mother has a book on Oaxaca coming out in January.  It was interesting for me to journey back with a group of journalists to explore the city from a tourist’s perspective.  Of course, I will never be a typical Oaxacan tourist but I am fairly ethnocentric and I tend to be more of a beach and fruity drink type of vacationer versus a cultural and historical tourist.  However this trip to Oaxaca really did get me thinking about culture and history and I found Oaxaca to be a wonderful, magical place.

The Mexican Tourism Authority and Mexicana Airlines organized the trip.  Since I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico and being an ethnocentric American, I’ve always steered away from the Mexican owned airlines for fear that they were not as good as our national carriers.  Let me tell you something:  They are better than our national carriers. The experience on Mexicana Airlines was a delight; they even served us a meal.  The fleet is new and spacious — the aircraft has high ceilings and modern fittings, which imparted a feeling that everything was going to be all right, and we would have a safe and comfortable journey, which we did!  Because we were with a representative from Mexicana Airlines, we were treated to their first class lounges in both Los Angeles (LAX) and Mexico City (MEX).  The one at LAX is shared with other airlines and is very nice but fairly standard with snacks, drinks and wifi but the one in Mexico City was very special.  They have massage chairs, xbox, couches, chairs, pods, many different television options, food options and a wine list.  The coloring of the décor is quite pleasant with the light green accents throughout.  The complimentary food was a bit questionable, but the food for purchase was delightful and the staff was extremely accommodating.  Even the planes used from Mexico City to Oaxaca, a brand call Click!, were modern and a welcome departure from the propjets of the past.

Oaxaca is surrounded by mountains and maintains a sense of historical perspective due to the architecture and the people.  While the folks in Oaxaca are not immune to deadlines and constantly blinking smart phones there are a good number of people who could easily be described as country peasants.  They come in from outside of the city and sell their wares, most of which are either food or art — two areas of excellence for Oaxacans.  There is a strong artesian class from the begging child who wants to sell you 2-inch wooden figurines to painters getting $25,000 for a 2’x2’ canvas — artists are everywhere.  Food artists as well.  As someone who regularly dines in such foodie towns as Portland and Los Angeles, I had my best tasting restaurant meal of recent time in Oaxaca.  The chef (Enrico de Rosa) is from Napoli, the pasta was made post ordering and the mix of flavors and textures and general ingredient goodness was extraordinary. All in all, Oaxaca is a place to open up your senses and your soul.  There is a long and rich history of human civilization with ancient cultures such as the Aztecs, Zapotecs and Mixtec’s who battled for control and you can feel that you are in an area with very strong cultural roots.  There are ruins to explore, restaurants to delight and art to devour.

HISTORICAL LANDMARKS
Monte Albán
When I was a child we used to run all over Monte Albán.  My brother and I would crawl through underground tunnels and climb over areas that are now forbidden to tourists — no doubt due to rascals like us tearing up this historic cultural center. Monte Albán was the capital city of the Zapotecs, a cultural group that still exists in and around Oaxaca.  It’s a grand esplanade filled with pyramids, temples, and the famous ball court.  Even back then, they took their sports very seriously with the winners being sacrificed to the Gods.  The high point for the Zapotecs at Monte Albán was during the Classic period from 450 BCE to 700 BCE (before the common era).

Monastery and Church of Santiago Cuilapan
Cuilapan de Guerrero is located some 10 km. south of Oaxaca city.  This is one of the oldest settlements in the Valley of Oaxaca.  Easily visible from the highway, the monastery and church of Santiago Cuilapan was founded by the Dominicans in the 16th Century.  The early date of the building indicates that there must have been a large Mixtec population (another of Oaxaca’s indigenous groups) there.  At the same site there are also ruins of a pyramid which, (similar to all earlier important pyramids) was built as a tomb for an important person or persons.  It is clear that the Dominicans built their church on top of or near the holy ground of the local people — just where their pyramid would have been if the Spanish had not arrived!  The church itself is unique as there is a roofless nave.  Open-air chapels were not common at the time of its construction, but open-air services were common since the local people found indoor ceremonies kept them away from the natural world and their source of the sacred.  Another interesting point is that inside the church you will see not only Spanish decorations but, as well, Mixtec motifs.

Mitla
Mitla is a local Oaxacan town, (officially called San Pablo Villa de Mitla), and marketplace, and has an important Zapotec archeological site which was build around 100 BCE — so, much later than Monte Albán.  The site was occupied until approximately 1521 when the Spaniards arrived.  Its characteristic geometric designs on the buildings are often reproduced in the local Zapotec blankets and rugs woven in various valley villages — especially the village of Teotihuacán del Valle which lies just north of Mitla.

Santo Domingo de Oaxaca
The motherhouse for the Dominican order in Oaxaca and the largest Domican building in Mexico is Santo Domingo de Oaxaca, which lies in the colonial heart of Oaxaca.  Santo Domingo was founded in the 1570s and completed in the mid-1600s.  The building is extremely ornate: a golden baroque interior, a polychrome relief of the Lineage of St. Dominic and a spectacular ceiling of golden blossoms and painted stuccowork.  This tradition of decoration is called the Pueblan baroque tradition.  Also part of the priory is the ex-convento, which is now a world-class museum containing colonial and pre-Columbian art and artifacts along with a great museum store.  As well, the Instituto Nacional de Anthropología along with other national agencies are planning an extensive archives, a conference center and an ethno-botanical garden.  The area surrounding Santo Domingo is completely beautiful. During the week there are concerts in the building (the acoustics are wonderful!), and outside where folks can dance.  There is also a nearby market, which sells exotic Zapotec, and Trique wares.  This place will feed your soul.

Ocotlán de Morelos
Ocotlán de Morelos is another well-known tourist destination, only 30 km outside of the city of Oaxaca.  In Ocotlán you will find yet another Dominican church which was recently restored.  If you are captivated by Mexican art then you cannot miss the exhibit at the home of the late painter Rodolfo Morales.  In addition to being an important painter in Mexico he is responsible for the restoration of the Dominican church.  Also, there is the Biblioteca Morelos, which is a cultural center, which offers concerts, English lessons and intercultural programs.  Try to go on a Friday when you can stroll the local and very large market that takes place there.  You will find great foods, little wooden animalitos and the famous black pottery started by Dona Rosa. You will be captivated!

FOOD
The Market
Located just off the Zocalo (center square), the market is chock full of interesting food, mescal, spices, clothes, shoes and more.  This is where they sell dried grasshoppers, which are used to spice up soups and tamales (they taste very salty).   Like most city center markets, bring cash and prepare to haggle over prices.  The street cooking is really tasty but be sure that you have a strong stomach.  I prefer to douse my tacos in super spicy hot sauce to kill any potential bugs.  Located on 20 de Noviembre which is just off  the Zocalo

Casa de Oaxaca
This is the most upscale and impressive restaurant in Oaxaca. Tableside salsa preparation, exceptionally fresh ingredients and modern cooking techniques produce divine cuisine. It’s a fancy restaurant with an attentive staff, a great option for your special occasion dinner.
www.casaoaxaca.com.mx

Cocina Tipica Napolitana
This is the best restaurant in town.  The owner and chef, Enrico de Rosa prepares each meal to order.  Using the best ingredients available he is trying to redefine what it means to eat Italian food in Oaxaca.  His restaurant is small, perhaps 20 seats, and comida takes a good three hours to enjoy.  At the end of the meal he treated us to homemade Limoncello that was the perfect mix of sweet, lemon and alcohol.  Located in the Calz. Del Panteon 801B in the neighborhood of San Felipe del Agua, Oaxaca.

Hacienda San Agustín
This restaurant is meat paradise.  It’s great for the whole family including vegetarians but the meat eaters with really enjoy the variety and flavor of the carnivorous offerings.  Grilled beef, pork, sausage, cheese — yes, it’s a heart attack on a plate but it’s a really good tasting heart attack.  The restaurant is set on a large family style house complete with a backyard and playground for the kids.  Also spotted were beautiful parrots.
haciendasanagustin.com.mx

Two of the best nueva cocina restaurants in Oaxaca are La Biznaga (Garcia Vigil 512 Centro Historico) and Los Danzantes (Mecedonio Alcala 403-4 Centro Historico)

HOTELS
Hacienda Los Laureles Hotel & Spa
The Hacienda Los Laureles Hotel & Spa is located in an upscale residential area located about ten minutes outside of the center of town called San Felipe.  It’s got a great spa and large rooms.  Built in the late 18th century, the hacienda is surrounded by forest and mountains.  There are gardens, as well as arched and open walkways in traditional Mexican style.  The spa is immediately relaxing and very upscale.  There is a full service restaurant with very good breakfasts.
www.hotelhaciendaloslaureles.com

Camino Real Oaxaca Hotel
This is the most regal hotel in town and is the site of a former convent turned five-star hotel.  Built in 1576, the Spanish Baroque architecture and long tiled walkways make you feel like you are a part of something very special.  Also onsite is the washing well which is located in the courtyard and has twelve stone bowls.  This is where the nuns did their washing up.  Guestrooms surround the outdoor pool and have been redone and offer modern amenities.  The grand ballroom is the old cathedral area and would be perfect for a wedding.
www.camino-real-oaxaca.com

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