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16th-Century Mexican Hacienda Reminds Visitors of Earlier Opulence

May 05, 1991|JANE WILKIE | Wilkie is a free-lance writer living in Amherst, Mass. and

CUERNAVACA, Mexico — Mexicans have a flair for the grand--set in motion, perhaps, when the pomp of Isabela's Spain met the dramatic architecture of the Aztec and Mayan cultures of pre-Columbian America.

You can experience the extravagant lifestyle produced by this marriage of cultures by following the trail of Mexican haciendas built in the 16th Century by the conquistadors. One of the finest is an estate that once belonged to the conquistador Hernando Cortes, "the conqueror of Mexico."

Called Hacienda Vista Hermosa, it was established by Cortes in 1529, only 10 years after his first landing on the coast of Mexico. The estate was part of the vast territory of land granted to Cortes by the King of Spain as a reward for his conquest of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma. Cortes built his palace in Cuernavaca and then, near peaceful Lake Tequesquitengo, founded Vista Hermosa.

The hacienda was originally a complex of buildings and grounds, similar in purpose to a Southern plantation. It was a center of social life, culture and economic activity in the area that is today the state of Morelos in the south-central part of the country. Local Indians, who had been subjugated by the Spanish conquest, provided the agricultural labor needed to run the sugar plantation and refinery Cortes established there, and the household labor that supported the conquerors' extravagant lifestyle.

Cortes lived there for 27 years and it remained in his family until 1621. In the Mexican Revolution of 1910, it became a target of Emiliano Zapata and much of it was left in ruins. Later, the majority of the land was distributed to the local people.

Finally, in the 1940s, hotelier Fernando Martinez bought the hacienda with plans to bring it back to its original grandeur. By most accounts, he succeeded in making it the crown jewel of his three hotels, which include the Hotel Plaza Reforma in Mexico City and the Hotel Cantamar Las Americas in Acapulco.

Today, Hacienda Vista Hermosa is a splendid resort for well-to-do Mexicans, and Europeans and Americans. An hour and a half by toll road south from Mexico City or a half-hour from Cuernavaca, it is a reasonable distance from the capital for a weekend escape or for a stop on a travel route beginning in Mexico City. The hacienda provides the opportunity to enjoy a royal lifestyle in magnificent surroundings--more than 100 spacious, handsomely appointed rooms, gardens of hibiscus and bougainvillea filled with singing birds and fountains, and diversions fit for a king.

We stayed at the hacienda this past January with our 5-year-old son, retracing the route of a honeymoon trip we took in the 1970s. My husband first discovered the hotel in his college days when he and his brother explored the country as background for their later careers as Latin American specialists. Back in the early '60s, the peso-dollar exchange made it possible for even financially struggling college students to live like kings.

Mexico is still a bargain. Our suite at Hacienda Vista Hermosa, number 102, cost $100 per night for the three of us and it was magnificent. Our two-room suite took full advantage of the five-foot-thick walls and 20-foot-high ceilings of the old stone hacienda. Arched doorways led to balconies where one could overlook the palatial grounds. The spacious bedroom was furnished with mahogany sleigh beds and a 10-foot-high armoire that added to our sense of stepping into a grander past. Portraits of distinguished ancestors gazed down at us from gilt frames on the walls.

We were given a tour of the honeymoon suite, then unoccupied, by one of the many grounds attendants. The mixture of old and new seemed as if it would be reassuring for anyone undertaking the ancient institution of marriage in today's uncertain times. The suite contained a formal sitting room; above it was a window balcony off the sleeping room. The honeymooners had the choice of swimming in their private indoor pool or entering the tiny chapel next door through a private passageway. The brass double bed seemed small in comparison to the grand scale of the apartment, but an appropriate choice for young lovers who would want to hold each other all night. And the small private garden was the perfect place to create the intimacy of domestic life the next morning.

Meals here are sumptuous. Forget your diet. The breakfast buffet was my favorite. I could have made a meal from the perfectly ripened papaya, melon, pineapple and strawberries, if I hadn't decided to taste the caldron of heavenly spiced beans. They were incredibly good and had me going back for more helpings then I like to admit. Our 5-year-old went for the tried and true: corn flakes and banana, or scrambled eggs and pan dulce . My more adventurous husband filled his plate with sweet tamales, intriguing mole casseroles and bacon. We did not need to eat again until dinner.

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