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Weekend escape to magical Hacienda Las Trancas

The Las Trancas fountain in the open courtyard on a gorgeous sunny day in central Mexico.

The Las Trancas fountain in the open courtyard on a gorgeous sunny day in central Mexico.

After living in Mexico for a year, I’ve been a bit delinquent in checking “spend lazy weekend in gorgeous centuries-old hacienda” off my to-do list. When friend Emily alerted me to her discovery of just such a place north of San Miguel, I jumped at the chance to experience all that a remote countryside hacienda has to offer. This particular spot seems to be best known as an amazing destination wedding venue for many lucky couples from the US & beyond, but they welcome groups of all sizes for whatever timeframe you can spare! Below is an account of our lovely weekend escape, which will hopefully inspire the rest of you to consider Las Trancas for your future lounging-about needs…

A view of half of the landscaped courtyard that's surrounded by the suites (as seen from the roof of the hacienda).

A view of half of the landscaped courtyard that's surrounded by the suites (as seen from the roof of the hacienda).

One of the beautiful flowers scattered around the property.

One of the beautiful flowers scattered around the property.

We departed DF for Hacienda San Joaquin de las Trancas at about 12:45PM on Friday afternoon, with an eye towards avoiding traffic heading north out of the city later in the day. Despite the ongoing construction of a crazy new elevated viaduct along the Pereferico Norte & some additional construction near San Miguel de Allende, we had virtually no problems getting to the hacienda in <4 hours. It’s located just north of Dolores Hidalgo in Guanajuato State (here’s a rough map to clarify). While ~4 hours may sound like a ways, the bulk of it is on toll roads where you can coast along at 80mph (while passersby blow your doors off at 90mph+). Also, you would be amazed how fast the time goes when you have a new friend in your car & have placed upon her the enormous social pressure of creating the road trip soundtrack on the fly with her Ipod, while your husband sits in the back seat shouting “Next song!” every 30-45 seconds. 😉

 

Anyway, the written directions from the hacienda’s website were quite clear & the roads largely well-signed (a rarity for these parts!). Once you turn off at the sign for Trancas (key note: look for it at km marker 100), you’ll start down a lovely well-paved road but then you may become suspicious as to whether you’ve made the right turn when the pavement stops & turns into dirt. Just keep going!!

John pauses shortly after our arrival for a wee rest in one of the many hammocks scattered around the smaller courtyard.

John pauses shortly after our arrival for a wee rest in one of the many hammocks scattered around the smaller courtyard.

We extracted ourselves from the car & entered the lush grounds of Las Trancas. As soon as we were spotted, Gerardo instantly offered us margaritas, chips and guacamole (yum). Kathleen also kindly welcomed us and encouraged us to begin our exploration of the grounds. We scampered off to tour each of the 11 rooms, all tastefully decorated with unique handicrafts, stunning wood furniture, vaulted ceilings, & the majority of which are enormous suites. The four of us in the first carload were quickly seduced by the novelty of the separate-level bathrooms, which I think 3 of the rooms have…. Stairs lead down from the bedroom to a bathroom the size of your average New York City apartment. This is how I was meant to live.

The dining room prepared for our arrival to dinner. Note the cupboards to the right stocked with plenty of wine & margarita glasses.

The dining room prepared for our arrival to dinner. Note the cupboards to the right stocked with plenty of wine & margarita glasses.

 

Our room, Hidalgo, at night. Stairs leading to the bathroom on the left; small patios out the doors to the right overlooked a lovely garden.

Our room, Hidalgo, at night. Stairs leading to the bathroom on the left; small patios outside doors to the right overlooked a lovely garden. There was also a massive desk at the other end of this room, and then a living room with couches/TV/fireplace just through a doorway on the left.

The bathroom hiding downstairs from our bedroom... This extended towards the right to have enough space for 5 people to do yoga on that rug, a huge closet, + 2 chairs as part of the, uh, viewing gallery?

The bathroom hiding downstairs from our bedroom... This extended towards the right to have enough space for 5 people to do yoga on that rug, a huge closet, + 2 chairs as part of the, uh, viewing gallery?

A shot of the horses socializing on Sunday morning. (photo courtesy Alla K.)

A shot of the horses socializing on Sunday morning. (photo courtesy Alla K.)

Wandering into the back half of the building, we discovered a beautiful fountain and open courtyard surrounded by some of the many horse stables onsite (they have 10 horses & 2 burros, and guided rides are included in the price!). We headed off to the right, winding our way back towards the garden where a pool and jacuzzi awaited discovery amongst the fruit trees and flowers. The garden revealed the source of the squash flowers (flores de calabaza) that we would later dine on, filled with potatoes and lightly fried. There seemed to be a vineyard in the works, but it was tough to tell how successful it is just yet.  Circling back around, we stopped to chat with the pretty ponies (and braying burros), and promptly returned for further debate over whether we’d each made the correct room choice. :)

The pool located behind the main hacienda building; jacuzzi is just to the right.

The pool located behind the main hacienda building; jacuzzi is just to the right.

A view over the up-and-coming vineyard out to the mountains in the distance. Some neighbor kids frolic nearby.

A view over the up-and-coming vineyard out to the mountains in the distance. Some neighbor kids frolic nearby.

Here's the wall at the rear of the hacienda that is riddled with bullets. They've not redone/built around this area out of respect to what happened here many moons ago...

Here's the aforementioned bullet-filled wall. They've not redone/built around this area out of respect to what happened here many moons ago...

From a historical perspective, there were plenty of interesting tidbits to be had. Construction on Las Trancas began back in 1567, but it didn’t receive the official “hacienda” moniker until 1709. (Centuries-old? Check.) As elaborated upon on the website, it housed notable visitors during Mexico’s turbulent fight for independence like Father Miguel Hidalgo, whose fav room John & I stayed in. One of John’s top pics from the trip shows a wall on the back side of the property that is riddled with bullet holes, perhaps at the expense of the group of renegade soldiers who hijacked a caravan of silver passing by & were rounded up to be “dealt with”.  There are also some unexcavated tunnels leading out from beneath the hacienda, used by a prior owner for as a secret escape route as needed.

Since we were only there from Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon, we didn’t personally make any escapes out of the village area. However, I could see this being a great spot for a week-long stay due to the proximity of Dolores Hidalgo, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, etc. (hello, Talavera pottery shopping, anyone??) The hacienda offers several activities to keep you entertained at no extra charge (i.e. a surprisingly nice gym, the aforementioned pool/jacuzzi, horserides, mountain biking, and near-constant eating), and there’s also a spa onsite. We took advantage of a horse ride through the cactus-laden terrain– good times had by all.

Bill & Nicole prepare themselves for the horse ride. We later discovered that Bill's horse was even a bigger fan of eating than MY horse, and also like to slowly waddle along until realizing how far back he was from his buddies. Then, a short sprint would ensue. Nicole's horse, on the other hand, would engage in any mean necessary to prevent my horse from passing him in line. VERY possessive of 2nd place, that one...

Bill & Nicole prepare themselves for the horse ride. We later discovered that Bill's horse was even a bigger fan of eating than MY horse, and also like to slowly waddle along until realizing how far back he was from his buddies. Then, a short sprint would ensue. Nicole's horse, on the other hand, would engage in any mean necessary to prevent my horse from passing him in line. VERY possessive of 2nd place, that one...

Here we are fording the river during our ride, . It was almost like we were on the Oregon Trail, except we weren't pulling a wagon & no one had diptheria.

Here we are fording the river during our ride, . It was almost like we were on the Oregon Trail, except we weren't pulling a wagon & no one had diptheria.

Here's me bonding with my hungry horse. I didn't catch his name, but we'll go with Señor Hambre, since he stopped to eat roughly every 2 minutes. Some may say I "didn't have control over my horse"; I will blame the fact I was not given any spurs...

Here's me bonding with my hungry horse. I didn't catch his name, but we'll go with Señor Hambre, since he stopped to eat roughly every 2 minutes. Some may say I "didn't have control over my horse"; I will blame the fact I was not given any spurs...

A couple of our companions also discovered a secret cactus farm/shop just down the hill from the hacienda, where a family sells some of the most amazing cacti (cactuses?) that I’ve ever seen. We bought six of them– this from a girl who’s longest prior flora relationship was with a basil plant purchased at the grocery store & raised in a pint glass for months until it was time for a big batch of pesto. (Wish me luck on this new engagement…)

Here are two of the cactus wreaths sold at the cactus farm/store down the hill from the hacienda. These were absolutely stunning, but need a fair amount of sun so I decided to pass on them...

Here are two of the cactus wreaths sold at the cactus farm/store down the hill from the hacienda. These were absolutely stunning, but need a fair amount of sun so I decided to pass on them...

...and instead purchased these little friends, who have yet to find a home outside of their plastic houses. I love the Mickey-ears cactus. BTW, I will accept wages on how long it will take me to kill one of these.

...and instead purchased these little friends, who have yet to find a home outside of their plastic houses. I love the Mickey-ears cactus. BTW, I will accept wagers on how long it will take me to kill one of these.

One of the tasty salads we had during our meals at Las Trancas. It was actually possible to eat reasonably healthy there, which is saying something for Mexican food. :)

One of the tasty salads we had during our meals at Las Trancas. It was actually possible to eat reasonably healthy there, which is saying something for Mexican food. :)

From a food perspective, I would say the food we had was very good & well-prepared. I wouldn’t say it’s fancy-pants/gourmet, but rather very well executed classical Mexican dishes. We didn’t make any specific meal requests in advance, but I got the impression they would be happy to accomodate any Mexican dishes that you’re hoping to sample. (P.S. Ask for the coconut ice cream. Mmmm.) They also have a wide selection of wines & liquors; we didn’t take advantage too much, since being cheap midwesterners, several of us came prepared with our own wine. However, I did appreciate their super-reasonable prices starting at $7 USD/bottle (and the fact they weren’t annoyed by all the $80 peso crap we carted in). :)

A couple other notable highlights of Las Trancas include:

  1. John prepares for his first spa treatment of the day. He seems to have taken quite well to this pampered life.

    John prepares for his first spa treatment of the day. He seems to have taken quite well to this pampered life.

    The Spa. The hacienda owners have worked with the surrounding village to create/train a coop of women who provide all the spa services onsite. The prices are highly compelling, with options ranging from a 90-minute hot stone massage or facial for a mere $35 USD, and a 60-minute total-body or reflexology massage for $20 USD. You’d be hard pressed to find those treatments in the US for less than triple any of those rates, which almost offsets the cost of lodging if you look at it from that perspective! This spoke to John’s bargain instinct, resulting in this spa virgin having THREE treatments over the course of 2 days (including a facial). All met with his approval. I tried both the hot stone & total-body massages, and found them to be quite effective in relaxing me– most notably when I heard myself almost start snoring during one of them. :)

     

     

     

     

     

  2. The owners are good people. Hacienda Las Trancas opened in its current incarnation just a few years ago under the watchful eyes of Kelley and Stephen, two gringos who entered a more active early retirement than they ever bargained for! Their interest in & efforts to give back to the Las Trancas community is obvious, starting with the 18 people they keep employed full-time year-round. 50% of the income from renting out the hacienda gets put back into the community, via “Proyecto Pueblito” to improve infrastructure & create jobs. The rest goes to back into the hacienda, which I’m sure requires plenty of maintenance to keep it looking so immaculate. So while staying at the hacienda may not be the cheapest weekend outing in Mexico, it certainly helps to know that your money is actually helping local residents instead of lining the pockets of some rich hotel baron!

To that end, you may be wondering how much does all this magical hacienda-ness cost & how can you make a reservation. As I mentioned previously, Las Trancas seems to have gotten a lot of business from destination weddings, family reunions, & other week-long type bookings like those. But much like all of Mexico’s tourism has suffered at the hands of swine flu & narco concerns, so has business at the hacienda. They welcome guests for any length of time you are able to escape, but I would say you’d have the best luck making a weekend-only booking for a couple or small group within a 2-months-in-advance window (since most weddings would be booked prior to then). In that scenario, I would expect to pay something in the neighborhood of $185/person/nite, which is inclusive of all meals, a welcome margarita/guacamole, the activities I mentioned earlier, and a chocolate on your bed each night. 😉

Mmmm..chocolate teddy bears....

Mmmm..chocolate teddy bears....

 

Here I am with Amanda, brave friend who joined us on the trip despite barely knowing a soul! Check her out at http://culturvista.wordpress.com. (Photo courtesy Adam B.)

Here I am with Amanda, brave friend who joined us on the trip despite barely knowing a soul! Check her out at http://culturvista.wordpress.com. (Photo courtesy Adam B.)

I would say the ideal scenario is getting at least 10 folks together, at which point you can reserve the hacienda fully for your group & probably negotiate a better rate. For instance, we brought 15 folks in total & paid $125/pp/nite pre-tax (but they have capacity for up to 35 w/extra beds, etc.). Obviously all of this will vary by season/circumstances/etc., so I would encourage you to email Kelley directly for a quote. One bonus about the layout/size of the hacienda is that it’s very easy to find your own space/not all be on top of each other, so you don’t have to worry much about whether your group is all BFFs or whether you might get maxed out on interacting with Crazy Uncle Dave. Despite us being there with a total of 15 people, we often came out of our room & didn’t see/hear anyone else.

 

A view of the hacienda from across the lake/up a hill during our horsey ride. What narcotrafficante could possibly be bothered to drag weapons over such uneven terrain?

A view of the hacienda from across the river/up a hill during our horsey ride. What narcotrafficante could possibly be bothered to drag weapons over such uneven terrain?

I want to add a few final comments to address any safety concerns that potential visitors may have coming from the US, where the news regularly paints Mexico in an “unflattering” light at best. I can’t think of many places less at risk from narco violence than this random hacienda in the middle of nowhere, Mexico. The countryside is beautiful, with mountains, rivers, plus a huge variety of cacti (cactuses?) and other scrubby plants that don’t make the land conducive to drug traffickers easily scampering around. Also, the nearby gringo-filled community of San Miguel de Allende should serve as further evidence, with large numbers of Americans living calmly without the threat of drug violence.

Like I said, who can guarantee this kind of excitement at Señor Frogs? Note Amanda in the background tying to pretend she doesn't see what's happening.

Like I said, who can guarantee this kind of excitement at Señor Frogs? Note Amanda in the background trying to pretend she doesn't see what's happening.

So maybe this year, consider an alternative to your annual trip Señor Frog’s bar on the beach & your stay in a 20-floor high-rise hotel with 4,000 other foreigners. I promise that a hacienda can have dance parties that are *almost* as wild as what you will find at those beach bars. Feel free to peruse a few more pics below to help seal the deal on your impending trip to Hacienda Las Trancas. Tell them Emily & Julie sent you, and we look forward to hearing how many cactuses you bought. :)

We took a self-guided tour of the hacienda roof, and captured this lovely shot of the sun streaming down with the mountains in the background.

We took a self-guided tour of the hacienda roof, and captured this lovely shot of the sun streaming down with the mountains in the background.

Here's a shot of the Rosa bedroom; the wrought-iron railing leads down to another secret bathroom

Here's a shot of the Rosa bedroom; the wrought-iron railing leads down to another secret bathroom

This lamp was one of the many pieces of furniture I wanted to steal from Las Trancas. Must find special multi-pronged star light hanger dealie & purchase ASAP.

This lamp was one of the many pieces of furniture I wanted to steal from Las Trancas. Must find special multi-pronged star light hanger dealie & purchase ASAP.

Still life, swing and carriage in the open courtyard. Tell me this doesn't reek of "wedding photo backdrop"??? ;)

Still life, swing and carriage in the open courtyard. Tell me this doesn't reek of "wedding photo backdrop"??? ;)

The Sala bedroom was another one of my favorites, with the elegant (and functional!) mosquito netting & gorgeous arched ceiling

The Sala bedroom was another one of my favorites, with the elegant (and functional!) mosquito netting & gorgeous arched ceiling

The other end of the Sala bedroom contained this amazing stained glass window.

The other end of the Sala bedroom contained this amazing stained glass window.

I loved this huge blue/white Talavera sink also found in the Sala bedroom.

I loved this huge blue/white Talavera sink also found in the Sala bedroom.

Speaking of Talavera, here are some of the many types you can buy en route to the hacienda!

Speaking of Talavera, here are some of the many types you can buy en route to the hacienda!

One of the suites is named Capilla (chapel), and is where they hold some of the smaller wedding ceremonies. I thought the room was gorgeous; others were weirded out by the idea of having an altar near-ish their bed...

One of the suites is named Capilla (chapel), and is where they hold some of the smaller wedding ceremonies. I thought the room was gorgeous; others were weirded out by the idea of having an altar near-ish their bed...

I belive this flower is called "Bird of Paradise", or in more advanced circles, "Strelitzia"

I belive this flower is called "Bird of Paradise", or in more advanced circles, "Strelitzia"

I had hot plans for going to the impressively-equipped gym, but all I managed to do was take a photo of it instead...

I had hot plans for going to the impressively-equipped gym, but all I managed to do was take a photo of it instead...

Here's where all the good stuff happens-- the kitchen-- under the careful supervision of Yolanda, Amada, Marta, and Concha. Many pots hard at work heating up tasty goodness.

Here's where all the good stuff happens-- the kitchen-- under the careful supervision of Yolanda, Amada, Marta, and Concha. Many pots hard at work heating up tasty goodness.

I was excited about sighting some random pigs hanging out just outside the hacienda grounds. Rest assured that we carefully examined them for signs of the flu; they have a clean bill of health.

I was excited about sighting some random pigs hanging out just outside the hacienda grounds. Rest assured that we carefully examined them for signs of the flu; they have a clean bill of health.

Me trying to be artsy with wrought-iron hearts.

Me trying to be artsy with wrought-iron hearts.

Emily & I savor our final minutes at Las Trancas, maintaining our pearly-white skin color

Emily & I savor our final minutes at Las Trancas, maintaining our pearly-white skin color

“Am I going to be a victim of violence in México?” Take this simple quiz to find out!

As most of my fellow Mexico blogs have addressed recently, the news coverage around security in Mexico has reached fever pitch in the last few months. A flurry of articles in the US press is sending everyone into a panic, which is only amplified by so-called experts busily spreading fear regardless of facts. Some people are convinced that tourists are being gunned down in Cancun on a daily basis (NOT TRUE!! Reality: drug cartels killed the man who was the area’s “anti-drug chief’), and that rebel armies are seconds away from taking over Mexico City (NOT TRUE!! Reality: I am not aware of any nearby rebel armies, and I reckon that even if they did exist– if they tried to storm the city, they would end up stuck in traffic & probably lose motivation by the time they arrived at any important government buildings).

My recent favorite is an e-newsletter my friend Todd forwarded me from a travel agency in Omaha, NE who specializes in trips to Mexican beaches. The email alert starts off with:

“So, is Mexico Dangerous?? Should I Go there?
If you have plans to visit Tijuana, on the California boarder,
Juarez, Mexico on the Texas boarder, Nogales on the Arizona
boarder, Mexico City or similar cities – don’t go! As the news is
correctly reporting, there are some major drug “wars” between
rival gangs, and who’s going to run the drugs across the US boarder.
There is a travel advisory on traveling to the U.S./Mexico BOARDER
TOWNS, that have the drug traffic problems. On the other hand,
if you’re going to beach locations like the Riviera Maya /Playa del
Carmen area, Cancun, Cabo San Lucas etc., you’re over 1,000
miles from where they are having the major problems. “

Now to be clear, I do not dispute the risks of being a tourist in the towns along the border. (Although I have no idea where the Texas “boarder” is…)  But I love how they throw in “Mexico City or similar cities” just for good measure.  First, given that Mexico City is one of the top 5 largest cities in the world with 20+ million people, what are the “similar cities” in Mexico that you should avoid??? Helpful. Also, what is the basis for listing Mexico City in the first place? Even the State Department Travel Alert for Mexico does not highlight Mexico City as a place to avoid because of violence.

Anyway, what I consider important to remember here is: any city can be dangerous if you’re an idiot. By no means am I trying to make light of the situation on the border, which I fully agree has become disturbingly violent and is wise to avoid as a tourist. But Mexico is a huge country (761,000 square miles, 3x the size of Texas). The drug-related drama on the border is NOT indicative of what you will experience in the remaining 90% of Mexico.

To make it even easier for potential visitors, I have written up a quick quiz to help you determine your risk level for traveling in Mexico. As I said, obviously bad things can happen anywhere, but there are some fairly clear issues that you should consider first.

The Official MidwesternerInMexico.com Quiz for Determining your Risk of Violence in Mexico

(please answer yes or no to the following questions)

  1. I am the head of a powerful drug cartel.
  2. I am employed by a recent drug cartel start-up, and my title is “Business Development Manager, Mexico”.
  3. I cannot leave the house without my 3 diamond rings, diamond stud earrnings, and emerald necklace.
  4. I only travel by limo.
  5. I insist on wearing shorts, sandals with socks pulled up to mid-calf, a Hawaiian shirt, and a floppy hat at all times, while using my obnoxious American “outside voice”.
  6. I have a tendency to flash wads of cash while trying to pay for a $10 peso bottle of water with a $1000 peso bill.
  7. I travel strictly using libre taxis hailed off the street in Mexico City, like the green VW bugs, because I don’t want to pay the extra $30 (+/-) pesos for a safer sitio taxi.
  8. I am a high-level Mexican law enforcement official actively engaged in the fight against drugs and am not on the narco payroll.
  9. I prefer to drive long trips between cities in Mexico only at night, and I am too cheap to pay the tolls to drive on the safe, well-maintained cuota highways.
  10. I insist on going out drinking by myself, getting loaded, then stumbling around the back alleys of Mexico City singing “You are my sunshine” at the top of my lungs.
  11. I sell drugs to a circle of depressed, soccer-moms in a US suburb, and I am traveling to Mexico to take advantage of the crazy dollar/peso exchange rate to find a new dealer for my drug supply.
  12. I am visiting Mexico to conduct a major business transaction for which I intend to convert $20,000 USD into $306,000 pesos in public at the airport currency exchange desk.
  13. I ask taxi drivers to take me on tours past the homes of local drug lords, where I get out of the taxi and take photos from the middle of the street during broad daylight.
  14. I insist on traveling to parts of Mexico City not mentioned in guide books or specifically mentioned as areas full of criminals, like Tepito, a.k.a. the “Thieves’ Market”.

OK, end of quiz! Time to review your score. 

If you answered yes to #1, #2, or #8: I strongly recommend you avoid travel into Mexico, leave Mexico if you are already here, or seriously consider a new line of work.

If you answered yes to #3, #4, or #6: perhaps you have forgotten that you are visiting a country where the daily minimum wage for 2009 is $54.80 pesos. That is $3.58 USD PER DAY at the current exchange rate. Please bear this in mind and stop flaunting your money like a fool.

If you answered yes to #7 or #9: have you checked the exchange rate lately?? During the 8 months we have been here, it has gone from 10 pesos / 1 dollar to 15.3 pesos / 1 dollar. Stop being a cheap ass and spend the extra pesos to pick the safe option.

And finally, if you answered yes to #5, #10, #11, #12, #13 or #14: you are simply not very smart and probably shouldn’t be allowed to travel, period.

I hope this insightful quiz has eased your fears about travel to Mexico, as long as you are not an idiot or a criminal.

In our eight months here, we have been amazed by all that Mexico has to offer and truly hope we have the chance to show more of our friends & family around Mexico City and beyond. I do not feel scared or nervous on a daily basis. I take normal minor precautions and have thus far (knock on wood) been completely fine here in the heart of the action, D.F.  Hopefully our stories will inspire others to travel to Mexico’s amazing cities, towns, beaches, and jungles as well. It is totally fair to be a little worried and take the appropriate extra precautions for travel in an unfamiliar land, but don’t let the craziness of the border drug wars prevent you from experiencing the rest of a beautiful country.

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