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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE : The Romance of the Hacienda
Hideaway | LATIN AMERICA

Three Luxurious Guest Ranches--in Mexico, Venezuela and Argentina--Define Gracious Hospitality in Rural Surroundings

September 13, 1998|JONATHAN KANDELL | Jonathan Kandell is a former Latin America correspondent for the New York Times

What a pity that most people seem to have their out-of-body experience under near-fatal circumstances, a feeling of being embraced by a mysterious light as they waken from, say, cardiac arrest. In my own case, it comes much more pleasantly, on a sultry night at a hacienda on the Yucatan Peninsula after a meal of sour-orange soup, chicken in green pumpkin-seed sauce and a few shots of tequila.

The dinner conversation is mesmerizing. Aware that I'm vacationing alone, the owners--a woman who grew up on a hacienda elsewhere in Mexico and her Spanish-born husband--have invited me to join them at their table, along with an American naturalist, a Danish anthropologist and a Yucatecan weaver, all of them regular visitors living nearby. Talk of unexplored Mayan ruins and exotic wildlife blends with the mellow, romantic strains of trova, the music of Mexico's Gulf coast. We part reluctantly hours later in a chorus of yawns.

Heading down the dark, wooded path to my regal guest quarters, I'm surrounded by the blurry shadows of bats--just the right eerie touch. I stop and glance back at the surreal spectacle of the dining room set on a veranda and restored to 17th century splendor. Then I look up at the firmament. It's ablaze with constellations so vivid that even an amateur can make out dippers and archers and bears. I remember the hacienda owners telling me that the Mayas, such keen astronomers, had chosen this site for an observatory more than a millennium ago.

And that's the last memory I have of the evening. Whether it was the starlight (as I'd like to believe) or the tequila, I can't recall undressing and climbing into a hammock. I wake up the following morning to the cries of a great kiskadee and the soft patter of rain. When I open the blue shutters, the sun has parted the clouds and a rainbow arches over the near horizon. Katanchel, the Mayan name of the hacienda, means "Where we consult the rainbow."

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It isn't often that I get a spiritual rush on a Latin American vacation. Having grown up in this part of the world, I tend to be less credulous, more demanding, than I would be in Borneo or Bhutan. Sure, there are scores of attractive cities from Mexico to Brazil, but urban vacations aren't my idea of relaxation (and soaring crime rates in these areas make me even edgier). Coastal resorts can be soothing, but I rarely choose to fly thousands of miles when there are beaches closer to home. And having visited Mexico's Monte Alban and Peru's Machu Picchu several times, I can report that many of those enticing postcards and brochures have airbrushed the hordes of tourists from the pyramids' steps.

Yet when it comes to staying at a well-run guest ranch anywhere in Latin America, from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, I drop my armor of skepticism. The best of these establishments are not dude ranches in the style of the American West, but cattle, forestry and grain-growing haciendas located deep in the hinterlands, with few other people around. They often trace their histories back to an era when rural oligarchies dominated Latin American society. But their emergence as travel destinations is barely a decade old and tied to hard-nosed economics. Low prices for agricultural commodities, rising overhead costs and tight-fisted government policies have forced ranchers to find ways to supplement their incomes. Like the noble owners of British castles, they have chosen to invite paying guests to their ancestral homes.

Among the many Latin American guest ranches in existence, I have visited a dozen during the last few years. These are three of my favorites. All provide high comfort, fine service and delectable food. But each offers a distinct experience and setting. Hacienda Katanchel is a living link between Mexico's pre-Columbian, colonial and early modern history. In Venezuela, Hato Pinero is a naturalist's paradise, with a startling concentration of wildlife. And La Portena, near Buenos Aires, is the classic ranch of the pampas, where the greatest novel on gauchos, Argentine cowboys, was written.

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