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Colima's Hacienda Heights

In the mountains east of Manzanillo, a grand 19th century estate is reborn.

July 29, 2001|DAVID B. GOLDMAN | David B. Goldman is a freelance writer and broadcaster based in Santa Barbara

COLIMA, Mexico — In a different life years ago, I spent weeks vacationing in the highlands east of Manzanillo, roaming the highways in a powder blue Volkswagen, eating tortillas and beans at roadside huts and sleeping in hotels for a couple of bucks a night. On the narrow mountain roads about two hours from Mexico's western coast, I'd occasionally come upon what must have been elegant estates, hidden from people like me behind huge carved wood gates, usually with a guard in front. And I'd think to myself, someday ...

Someday turned out to be last April. My rental car wasn't much of an improvement--a hideously yellow Dodge more minuscule than the old VW. But my mission this time was far grander: to finally go behind the estate gates for four nights at the exquisite Mahakua-Hacienda de San Antonio.

Given my gate-gawking of yesteryear, it was a bit ironic that I missed Mahakua's entrance. There was no sign, just unmarked gates and a guard. Once inside, though, I realized the entry was probably the only thing I'd miss. Everything else at this oasis called out for attention: the vibrant gardens, the 12,790-foot Volcan de Fuego (Volcano of Fire) fuming in the distance, the 5,000-acre working farm that surrounds the hacienda.

The word "working" may apply to the ranch, but not the hacienda. The only work here is done by others, unless you consider relaxation to be work. That was apparent when I walked into my second-story room, opened the French doors to the balcony and stood there looking past the lush lawns, up to the wisp of smoke issuing from the volcano. An attendant named Fernando finally interrupted. "What time, sir," he asked, "would you like me to come and light the fireplace?" Such were the "work" decisions awaiting me.

Mahakua has been open since October. The name is derived from the Sanskrit word maha , meaning "great," and kua , part of an Amerindian word meaning "to exist."

With nightly rates starting at $675 single and $800 double--rising Oct. 1 to $800 single and $900 double--Mahakua ought to grant guests a great existence indeed. (The hacienda is run by Amanresorts, which operates 11 other luxury resorts worldwide.)

Such grandeur tends to surprise some visitors, given the hacienda's location: tucked in a valley between the seaside resort of Manzanillo to the southwest and the bustle of Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city, about 21/2 hours northeast.

Indeed, the unassuming countryside around Mahakua seems little changed by time. Roads still wind past vegetable fields, pastures and orchards interrupted only by a few small towns. The largest, Colima, is the capital of the state of the same name and is home to about 120,000 people. The most noteworthy attractions in the town, 18 miles south of Mahakua, are two cultural history museums known for their collections of ancient Indian pottery.

Mahakua stands worlds apart, its own little realm. The hacienda dates to 1879, when a German farmer named Arnoldo Vogel found the cool highlands here to be ideal for arabica coffee and sugar. (The plantation still grows coffee beans, supplying the resort's kitchen and exporting 20 tons a year.)

Vogel built the hacienda, then called Santa Cruz, and developed the farm with his Mexican wife, Clotilde Quevedo de Vogel. During the Mexican Revolution, beginning in 1910, most of the country's large plantations were sacked, but for reasons that are still unclear, this hacienda was spared.

Unfortunately, the reprieve went for naught, and the property fell into disrepair. Not until the mid-1990s did the hacienda, then a private residence, regain its former stature. Amanresorts took over management and marketing less than two years ago, preparing the hacienda for its newest incarnation as Mahakua--less like a traditional resort and more like the home of a friend, albeit a very rich friend with impeccable taste.

The main buildings' 26 guest rooms are set around beautifully landscaped courtyards with arched galleries. The formal gardens were inspired by the grounds of the Alhambra, the 13th century Moorish palace in Granada, Spain.

Water seems to trickle everywhere about the estate. Small streams and tiny canals crisscross into tiled fountains and ponds. The source is an aqueduct built in 1904 to divert water from the Rio Cordoban and power the ranch's electric generator; the aqueduct remains, both as an architectural element and as a practical way of carrying water throughout the expansive grounds.

Next to the aqueduct is a small, richly decorated chapel with an interior trimmed in gold. Clotilde Quevedo de Vogel had the chapel built in gratitude for their good fortune in 1913, when a threatening lava flow from Volcan de Fuego mercifully stopped before reaching the hacienda.

Nearby villages still use the chapel for festivals. During my stay it was deserted, and I found it to be especially peaceful and cool, the perfect place for contemplation in the middle of a warm spring day.

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