Sunday, January 29, 2012

Etzatlán Adventure Part 4: Ex-Hacienda San Sebastian

The Casa Grande of ex-Hacienda de San Sebastian just north of Etzatlán. The long porch, bounded by 14 arched portales, ends at the hacienda's white chapel with its lovely bell tower. Etzatlán lies in the heart the old hacienda country to the west of Guadalajara. To locate the hacienda on a Google map, click here. The turnoff from Highway 4 is a short distance west of Etzatlán, just before you come to Lake Magdalena, the small lake seen in Part 3 of this series. The property is now called Los Dos Hermanos, a rancho owned by a pair of brothers as the name implies. They are gradually restoring the Casa Grande (literally the "Big House"). I never met them during my two visits to the property, but they don't seem to mind the occasional visitor and their workmen were quite friendly on both my visits.

La Casa Grande

View of the Casa Grande from in front of the chapel. The old well in the foreground once produced water for the hacendado (hacienda owner) and his family. The Casa Grande sits on a slight rise, providing a vista of the valley to the east. I first learned of San Sebastian from "Quilocho and the Dancing Stars", a book about Quilocho Retolaza and the ballet stars he assisted in defending their gold claim in the mountains overlooking Ajijic. (See "La Rusa's Gold Mine".) In the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, Quilocho returned from his service in Pancho Villa's army and became a professional hacienda administrator. One place he worked was a hacienda near Ahualulco, a town a few miles east of Etzatlán. While there, he briefly courted the daughter of the owner of Hacienda de San Sebastian. Several nights a week, Quilocho would ride over from the hacienda he administered about 10 miles away. Sitting on his horse outside a barred window of San Sebastian's Casa Grande, he would respectfully converse with his intended bride. She remained inside, behind the bars, with an older female relative hovering in the background as a chaperone. Such were the traditional courtship practices of the very conservative society that populated Mexico's old haciendas.

La Casa Grande's main entrance. Two beautifully-carved double doorways, called "la finca grande" give admittance to a large foyer inside. While the long porch running the length of the Casa Grande might have been used to enjoy the view, the main focus of the house is the central courtyard behind la finca grande. In this, Hacienda de San Sebastian followed the pattern found in most of Mexico's haciendas, according to Carlos E. Parra Ron, Etzatlán's official historian. The Casa Grande is part of a cluster of structures called the casco (helmet). The name fits because the casco contains the nerve center of the whole operation. In addition to the Casa Grande's living areas, a casco would typically include the Capilla (chapel), the administrative offices, the Tienda de Raya (company store), the stables, and the huerta (the owner's personal garden/orchard). Nearby would be some small dwellings for the household staff, called peones acasillados because their housing was considered part of their pay.

A large moth appeared on the wooden doorway as we prepared to enter the Casa Grande. The wingspan was almost 6 inches and the color matched the wood so well that it looked like an intentional decoration until we realized it was alive. During the 16th-18th Centuries, haciendas were the basic economic and political units of Nueva Hispaña, and they continued in that role in the new nation of Mexico during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Prior to the Revolution, there were at least 470 haciendas in my home state of Jalisco. Today only about 120 have intact structures, but many of these now function as hotels, public buildings, orphanages, etc. A few still operate as large farms or ranches. The rest are in ruins.

Fountain in the center of the courtyard. The sculpture rising from the bowl of the fountain represents a cornstalk, with ripe ears protruding on all sides. Since pre-hispanic times, Mexico's most important food crop has been maiz (corn). Lush gardens surround the fountain, and most of the Casa Grande's rooms open onto this central area with access between them not by interior hallways, but by the exterior walkways around three sides of the courtyard. Behind the fourth wall, outside the Casa Grande, was the huerta.

An airy walkway along the east side of the courtyard. Just as the exterior porch is bounded by arched portales, so are the walkways. In all there are 27 such portales throughout the Casa Grande. Despite their beauty, haciendas like San Sebastian had a dark side. The hacendados ruled them like feudal barons. According to Sr. Carlos "their vanity made them believe they were demi-gods...they were little interested in the misery they created, and those who suffered the consequences were the poor people." There was a vast gap in wealth and social standing between the hacendado and his family and the peones who worked for them. Patios with flower gardens and artistic sculptures might be enjoyed by the owner, but the workers lived in squalid, one-room, dirt-floored huts. San Sebastian's records show that 400 peones worked there in 1903. For them, a day's work paid only .37 centavos from which they had to support not only themselves but their families. Most were not lucky enough to be peones acasillados with free huts, so they might well have to pay rent to the hacendado for the privilege of living in their hovels. Such was the structure which underlay the hacienda owner's sumptuous life.

The Casa Grande's dining room was filled with expensive furniture. In the early days, the furniture would have been made by the hacienda's own carpenters. As the wealth of owners grew, they began to import the latest furnishings from Europe. In rooms like this, they entertained their neighbors from other haciendas, as well as socially acceptable travelers who stopped overnight as they journeyed along the old Camino Real (Royal Road) between Guadalajara and the Pacific Coast port of San Blas. This lifestyle would have been impossible had the workers been free to seek better pay and working conditions. The hacendados solved this problem through a clever device created to bind their workers to the hacienda. The Tienda de Raya, or company store, was located within the casco under the hacendado's close supervision. It had a two-fold aim. The overt purpose was profit for the owner from selling basic food stuffs and other necessities to the workers. The markets of the town which sold similar but cheaper goods were a considerable distance away, so the markup could be high. The covert aim was to create debt among the low-paid workers. Encouraged to buy on credit, they often never saw any actual money for their hard work. The hacendado's records always seemed to show them in debt and whether the records were accurate or not, who was to say? The workers were generally illiterate and challenging the hacendado could be a risky business. If the worker tried to leave without clearing the debt, he would be brought back by the rurales (rural police) for severe punishment. At the end of a hard day, it was better to shrug one's shoulders and order another glass of tequila from the Tienda de Raya. Put it on the tab, por favor?

La Capilla

The Capilla was always closely adjacent to the casa grande of a hacienda. The society of Nueva Hispaña and 19th Century Mexico was deeply religious, particularly among the hacendado class. Above, the Capilla is attached to the north end of the Casa Grande, and is dedicated to San Sebastian Martir (St. Sebastian the Martyr). It can be entered either from a door opening onto the porch or from the yard. Unfortunately, both times I visited the doors were locked so I never got to see the inside. According to Sr. Carlos' book, the Capilla is entered through a huge old wooden door, with iron fixtures, including a door knocker and a lock, that are all equally antique. The wooden pulpit and choir area are also original. There is an attached sacristy where the priest could don his vestments. Above it all towers a campanario (bell tower) to call the faithful to worship.

Hacienda San Sebastian's capilla is an elegant little building. The front yard is shaded by trees and adorned with flower gardens. Through the centuries, the occasional priest or bishop stood up for the indigenous people and poor mestizos. However, the church as an institution was closely allied with the ruling classes. In fact, among the vast,  pre-Revolution holdings of the Church in Mexico were many haciendas. The physical proximity of the chapel to the boss' house is a graphic example of the political and social relationship between the two elites. If workers and the poor could be focused on the purported rewards and punishments of the next life, it would be easier to get them to stoically accept the hardships and inequities of this one.

The garden entrance to the Capilla. The framing of this doorway is in the neo-classical style popular in the mid-18th Century. While San Sebastian is close enough to Etzatlán that a priest could ride out to conduct services, if a hacienda was too remote, the priest might live in the Casa Grande. Although not directly an employee of the hacendado, such a priest would be unlikely go out of his way to offend his host by, for example, protesting the conditions of the workers. The hacendado would no doubt be on good terms with the local curate or bishop and could make it hot for such a wayward priest. There was also the example of Father Miguel Hidalgo y Castillo who, in 1811, was decapitated and his head hung from the walls of the Alhondigas in Guanajuato after he roused the poor to revolt against their oppressors at the beginning of the War of Independence. Significantly, prior to his execution, he was excommunicated by the Church.

The bell tower surmounting the Capilla served a double purpose. The bells of the campanario called the faithful to worship, but they also summoned the workers to their tasks in the morning. Later in the day, the bells alerted the hacienda's women to load mules with the food they had prepared for their men out in the fields. At the end of a long day, the bells again sounded, calling the men home. The large bell in the center was nicknamed La Gordera, after the men responsible for yanking the bell cord, called los gorderos. One of these men was known for ringing it before the mid-day food was fully loaded, causing the mule train to set off prematurely and the men in the fields to go hungry that day. Although he usually tried to blame the women for being tardy, he was still remembered bitterly by former peones 80 years after the hacienda was disbanded.

A beautiful palomino horse, saddled and ready, waits for its rider to return. Any self-respecting hacendado kept fine horses in his stable. Jalisco, and much of the rest of rural Mexico, has deep roots in the horse culture. Although some horses are kept by the wealthy for show, they are also considered to be vital working animals by ordinary rural Mexicans . A driver who ventures down any country road will soon encounter Mexican vaqueros herding cattle, or simply traveling from one place to another. Common sounds outside the window of my room where I write this blog include the clop, clop, clop of hooves on the cobble stone streets. One of Mexico's most cherished symbols is the Charro, mounted on a steed like the one above, and wearing his huge embroidered sombrero and silver disks down the side of his skin-tight pants. The old haciendas of Jalisco are where the Charro tradition originated, along with tequila and the mariachi band.

La Casa de Campo

La Casa de Campo, seen from the garden of the Capilla. La Casa de Campo (the Field House), was separate from the casco, but was also an important structure on a hacienda. Here the hacendado met with the peones to direct them on the coming day's work or get their reports from the fields at day's end. This was also where tools and equipment were stored. I was charmed to find beautifully arched portales gracing the front of such a utilitarian building. When I peeked inside, I found large tractors and the other mechanized farm equipment that greatly reduced the need for the hundreds of workers that used to assemble here. Since this hacienda's founding in the 17th Century, its economic focus has changed from time to time. However, maiz (corn) has been important throughout San Sebastian's history. Ground by hand in stone metates, it produced tortillas for the hacienda's workers, provided feed for the animals, and was sold in the markets of Etzatlán and elsewhere. According to Sr. Carlos' book, "Hacienda de San Sebastian", the most important crops in 1905 were--in order of value--maiz, beans such as guasano and frijol, barley, wheat, and potatoes.

Livestock was also important to the hacienda. Cattle, horses, pigs, and sheep were raised. Wool from sheep was an important source for revenue, according to the 1905 records. In this same pasture, I also encountered a goat. Cabrito, or baby goat, is a favorite dish in this part of the country. Early records also show that Hacienda de San Sebastian was well known for distilling and selling tequila as far back as the 17th Century. The drink gets its name from the small city of Tequila on the north side of the nearby Tequila Volcano. Only the liquor from the Blue Agave which is grown here, and fermented, distilled and bottled in this area can be called "tequila." The use of Blue Agave to produce an intoxicating drink goes far back into pre-hispanic times. The indigenous people originally drank pulque from fermented but undistilled Blue Agave. This ancient, mildly-intoxicating drink is still consumed in many rural areas, although beer has largely supplanted it in many places.

The setting of the hacienda is one of great beauty. San Sebastian lies in a lush valley, surrounded by the volcanic mountains seen in the background behind the Casa de Campo. In the foreground, the ever-present bougainvillea arches over a garden wall. The original 17th Century builder of the hacienda is unknown, but the Pachecho family, headed by Manuel Pacheco Calderón, became the owners in the mid-18th Century. He was from Santander, Spain, and the property he bought included 1000 hectares (2.47 thousand acres) of fertile land. At its peak, in the early 20th Century, the hacienda possessed almost 65,000 acres.

Plaza, pond, and workers' houses

A small plaza with a kiosco stands next to the Casa Grande. The plaza is at the south end of the Casa Grande, the opposite end from the Capilla. Here, the pre-Revolution peones would celebrate the many fiestas associated with saints days. Today, their still-poor-but-free campesino counterparts follow some of those same old traditions. In 1865, a hard-driving pair of brothers arrived in the area from Asturias, Spain. They were determined to make their fortune in the still-new nation of Mexico, and they succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Their names were Manuel Fernández del Valle, and his brother Justo. They married two of the daughters of Francisco Martínez Negrete, an important Mexican businessman. The brothers were low on capital, but these marriages allowed access to the funds they needed to start their empire, which ultimately included Hacienda de San Sebastian.

A stream was dammed to create a large pond with a ready water supply. The adobe ruins of an unknown structure stand watch over the hacienda's major water source. While we were there, a local boy and his girlfriend fished the pond with a hand-thrown net. The del Valle brothers bought textile factories, invested in railroads, bought mines, and started the Bank of Jalisco. They were among the founders of the Guadalajara Chamber of Commerce. Everything they touched seemed to turn to gold. By 1914, they had acquired Hacienda de San Sebastian at a price of $350,000 pesos, an amount equivalent to several million of todays pesos. At the time, the primary focus of hacienda was livestock, but it was still producing quantities of maiz, frijol, and mezcal.

Homes of the old peones acasillados are now occupied by their campesino descendents. The adobe structures are small, but tidy with glass windows and flower gardens. In front of one, the pinto horse of the occupant grazed contentedly. The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) was a disaster for the hacendado class. Their peones rose up in vengeance for 400 years of oppression, often killing the hacienda owners. Their casas grandes were looted and 70% of Jalisco's haciendas were left in ruins. Lands were confiscated and distributed to the farm workers and their families. The surviving hacendados were often left with only a few of the casco buildings, if they retained anything at all. 

Three young vaqueros decided to give us a show. We were photographing the pond when I spotted them mounting up so they could deliberately ride through the middle of our shots. We were delighted at their casual expertise, and they obviously enjoyed the novelty of our presence. The property, called ex-Hacienda de San Sebastian after it was stripped of most of its lands, saw its casco buildings deteriorate as they passed through various hands. In 1994, Miguel and Silvestre Ramos Meza acquired the old casco buildings and enough land to create Rancho Dos Hermanos. Over the last 17 years they have slowly refurbished the Casa Grande and some of the other casco buildings, as well as the Casa de Campo. They are developing a functioning farm with the help of the workers living in what is now called simply San Sebastian. Ninety-eight people still live in the old peones' houses. They are evenly divided by sex and slightly less than half are children. The median amount of education among them is 6 years, but Rancho Dos Hermanos is rebuilding a ruined school, using community labor. Things are looking up.

This completes Part 4 of my series on Etzatlán. In Part 5, I will take you on a short tour of Etzatlán's small but excellent museum containing artifacts found in ancient tombs, including some found on the property of ex-Hacienda de San Sebastian. I hope you enjoyed this look at a beautiful old Mexican hacienda. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Etzatlán Adventure Part 3: A tour of the colonial-era Parroquia and the Capuchina Convent

Templo de la Purisima Concepción. It is located on the northeast corner of Etzatlán's Plaza Antonio Escobedo, also known as Plaza de Armas. Construction on the original church on this site was begun in 1527, three years after the Spanish arrived. Like many other early churches it was built upon the foundations of an indigenous temple. La Purisima was constructed under the direction of Franciscan friars. They were the first Catholic religious order to evangelize the newly conquered people. La Purisima became the main church, or Parroquia, for the area. In a previous posting I displayed several more photos of the building's exterior. The church repeatedly played a part in Etzatlán's history. During the Reform War of the 1850s, a group of Federalists holed up in the steeples you see above and fired down upon their enemies, the Centralists, in the plaza below. Most of the Federalists were killed in the skirmish, but their action re-invigorated the Federalists' cause nationally, and they eventually won. During our first two visits, the church wasn't open, but on our third visit we got a formal tour of its interior, as well as that of the Capuchina Convent near the northwest corner of the plaza. In this posting, we'll take a closer look at both of these colonial-era treasures.

A divider with a bench adorns the street in front of La Purisima. The divider was created by a local craftsman who was one of the parishioners of the church. He implanted facing tiles along the sides and base in the shape of animals and other designs, creating a charming and comfortable place to sit in the shade of a tree and enjoy the activities of the plaza scene.

A worker cleans the bronze bust of one of the early Franciscans. Etzatlán's Centro Historico almost seems to glisten from the care taken by the local people. At least two of those whose busts are displayed were martyred during the 1540-1542 Mixtón War. This bloody affair was an indigenous revolt set off by the depredations of conquistador Nuño Beltran de Guzman and mistreatment under the Spanish-imposed encomienda system, a barely disguised form of slavery. The Franciscans were seen by some of the native people as part of that system because the granting of an encomienda to a conquistador required that--in return for the right to demand forced labor--the encomendero would also force the indigenous people to give up their traditional beliefs and be indoctrinated in Catholicism.

Interior of Templo de la Purisima Concepción. The blue and white draperies attached to the columns on the sides were put up as part of the fiesta celebrating the Virgin of Zapopan. This version of the Virgin Mary is highly venerated of Jalisco State and her devotees believe she answers prayers for protection against plagues, storms and other disasters. She was introduced into Mexico by Franciscan Antonio Segovia shortly after the Mixtón War. In later wars she earned the nickname La Generala because she was believed to have helped Spanish forces from Jalisco to win several battles.

The sweetness of Jesus. A statue of the crucified Jesus hangs high above the main altar. This is a very old figure, crafted in the 16th Century from sugar cane paste. The statue used to be taken down and paraded around town during fiestas, but it is so fragile now that it is not allowed outside the church. The substance from which the statue was made also indicates that sugar cane was an important crop in the area at a very early time, as it still is today.

The interior of the main nave is beautifully decorated. The color of the stone pillars and walls lightened up the interior of what could have been a gloomy space.

Painting of the first Franciscans in Mexico. They gather together on the beach as one among them preaches. A laborer watches as the Spanish ships that brought them sail away. The caption at the bottom says "The first Apostles of Mexico." Directly across the nave on the opposite wall is another painting of the same size and framing. This one shows eleven of Jesus' Apostles gathered in a similar fashion. There is a conspicuous blank area in this painting representing the absence of Judas, the man who betrayed Jesus to the Romans. The early Franciscans in Mexico saw themselves as the Apostles of their day, facing the massive job of evangelizing a hostile and idolatrous New World population. The Mixtón War indicates that the indigenous people of Mexico may have seen things a bit differently.

Crypt containing the bones of early Fransican martyrs. This plaque covers a crypt in the wall to the left of the main altar. In the Catholic faith, the bones of martyrs are revered. During the fierce struggles of the 19th Century Reform War, Federalists were enraged by the support the Catholic church provided to the Centralists. At Eztatlán in 1859, this rage was expressed when the local Federalists removed the martyrs' bones from the crypt and dumped them in the street outside the church. A few feet from the crypt, a concealed passageway begins. It leads behind the altar area, and may have been originally connected to tunnels that are purported to lead to the mansions of leading citizens.

Near the exit to the concealed passageway, a Franciscan figure holds a child. In the foreground stands a massive candle in an ornate silver holder. The passageway and its supposed connection with neighboring mansions may have been part of an escape network for Centralists during the Reform War, or it might possibly have figured in the Cristero War of the late 1920s. The latter war occurred when the government attempted to enforce provisions of the Constitutions of 1854 and 1917 that curtailed the influence of the Catholic Church on Mexican life and politics. The Cristero War was waged with ferocity in Jalisco. Many priests were executed, while the religious fanatics backing the Church committed their own atrocities.

A unique religious artifact. This 16th Century stone baptismal font is the first ever carved in Mexico by a native craftsman. It is no longer used and sits in a glass case in the Parroquia's small museum.

A candelabra from the old days. I spotted this when I happened to look up to admire the old wooden rafters that spanned the corridor leading to the Parroquia museum. The candelabra is made of wood and wrought iron and may have lighted this hallway for centuries until it was supplanted by electricity.

San Francisco stands in an interior courtyard of La Purisima. As is typical of his depictions, he is shown with birds on his shoulders. San Francisco (St. Francis) is the patron saint of animals and the environment, among other things. Ironically, he was also the rather dissipated son of an Italian merchant in the Middle Ages and fought as a solder for his native town of Assisi. A vision led him to live with and preach among beggars. He eventually created one of the largest and most powerful religious orders within the Catholic Church. Our guide, Carlos E. Parra Ron, stands beside the statue. Carlos is the official historian of Etzatlán and wrote a delightful little book on nearby ex-Hacienda San Sebastian. It is available in the tourist office. Although there is presently only a Spanish-language version, I read fluently enough now that I have found it a valuable guide not only for San Sebastian but to help me understand hacienda life in general.

Floral relief design on early building block. A large block of stone containing this design lay against the wall behind the statue of San Francisco. It apparently decorated one of the early versions of La Purisima. Carlos pointed out a similar block built rather haphazardly into the exterior wall.

The Capuchina Convent

Steeple of the Capuchina Convent, seen from the roof of Hotel Centenario. One of Jalisco's many extinct volcanos rises steeply in the background. The official title of this church is Monasterio del las Damas pobres, Hermanas Clarisas Capuchinas, de la Divina Providencia y Nuestra Señora de Zapopan (Convent of the Poor Women, Capuchin Sisters of the Divine Providence and Our Lady of Zapopan)This is quite a moniker for a relatively small church, although the original convent was somewhat larger than what exists today.

Entrance to the Capuchina Convent's church. When I first visited, I wasn't impressed by the entrance and didn't bother to go inside. However, first impressions can be deceiving, and I took a closer look on my subsequent visits. The walls on either side of the entrance are plain and unadorned but the towering entrance itself was clearly from an antique period. Santa Clara (St. Clare) of Assisi was one of San Francisco's first adherents. Clare of Assisi was born in 1194 AD and first heard San Francisco preach in 1212 AD when she was 18. Almost immediately, she decided to give up her planned marriage and follow San Francisco. She later founded her own order based on the Franciscan tradition, and eventually both her sister and her mother joined as nuns. In 1958, Pope Pius XII designated her the patron saint of television because she was said to be able to see mass on her wall when she couldn't attend because of illness.

A small cherub-like figure appears on the capital of each column. This happily grinning little figure holds the entrance stonework up like a tiny version of Atlas holding up the world. I always enjoy capturing little details like this, which could easily be missed by a casual glance.

The main nave of the Convent's church. The ceiling was much lower than that of the Parrochia, giving the feeling of being underground. Perhaps it is all the low arches supported by thick pillars. In spite of its tunnel-like atmosphere, the church is surprisingly well-illuminated and didn't require a flash for decent photos.

The main altar is covered by an overhead dome. The style of the altar area is Neo-classic, while the rest of the church interior is Romanesque. To the right of the photo is a doorway, blocked by a huge, solid, and very ancient wood door. Our guides pointed out the antique lock on the door, and noted its age. Old or not, it blocked the entrance to the nuns' quarters, and we could go no further in that direction.

Several elegantly-carved confessionals line the walls on the left side of the church. I was intrigued by the construction of these confessionals. The priest sits inside, out of view, while the person confessing kneels outside and speaks through a grille. Most confessionals I have seen elsewhere conceal both the confessor and the penitent. It seemed to me that this arrangement might tend to compromise the secrecy of the confession.

Jesus, sitting up, in a glass booth. The depiction of Jesus in Mexican Catholic churches is often pretty graphic, showing lots of injuries and blood. I am not religious, but I grew up in a Presbyterian household. In that tradition, Jesus, when seen at all, is always clean and antiseptic. Here, he is shown dripping with blood, but in a rather odd posture. My friends and I paused and stared at this for some time, trying to understand what seemed so strange about it. Finally, someone remarked "he looks like he's talking on a cell phone!" On that rather irreverent 21st Century note, we left in search of lunch.

This completes Part 3 of my Etzatlán series. In Part 4, we will visit the ex-Hacienda San Sebastian, an excellent example of the economic, social, and political structure that controlled Mexico for hundreds of years until it was finally destroyed by the Revolution. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If you would like to comment, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Etzatlán Adventure Part 2: The elegant Hotel Centenario and some great places to eat

The hotel entrance is guarded by a beautifully intricate wrought iron gate. Hotel Centenario faces the southwest corner of Plaza de Armas in Etzatlán's Centro Historico. We discovered the hotel on our second visit to this small colonial city. After our first brief visit last summer, I researched Etzatlán for a blog posting and discovered how much we had missed. In the fall, we paid a second visit and stopped by the Hotel Centenario. We were charmed by its elegance and astonished by its low rates. On our third visit, a dozen of us from the Lake Chapala area stayed here. Everyone loved the hotel and its staff and we all agreed that Hotel Centenario is a very special place, just a Etzatlán is a very special town. To locate the hotel in Etzatlán, click here.

We were greeted by this lovely young hotel employee. Karina gave us a tour of the hotel facilities and explained the rates. As with the other hotel staff we met, she only spoke Spanish. However, Karina was very patient with us and we managed to get the information we needed. Hotel Centenario is owned and operated by a Mexican couple, Ausencio Huerta Garcia and Elsa Imela Quintero del Castillo. The site of the hotel has served many functions since the 18th Century when a wealthy Spaniard built a large home here. After silver and gold were discovered in the mountains overlooking Etzatlán, the raw ore was sent to a mill at the site. The ore was turned into ingots and shipped to Mexico City where it became the silver and gold coins used in Nueva Hispaña's commerce.  In 1913, during the Mexican Revolution, troops under Generals Alvaro Obregon and Luis Blanco used the property as a barracks. In 1914, the site briefly became the official residence of Governor Manuel Dieguez of Jalisco State. During the later 20th Century, the city bus station was located here for a time.

Like most colonial-style buildings, the hotel is built around a central courtyard. A large fountain burbles in the center. There are two floors in the hotel with a total of 10 rooms. On the ground floor, all the rooms open onto the courtyard. The upstairs rooms are reached by the beautiful curving staircase that you saw Karina descending in the second photo. The large door on the left of the photo above leads into the formal dining room. The courtyard provides a delightfully airy, sunny feel. The hotel is stocked on both floors with lots of potted plants and comfortable leather chairs and sofas. Ausencio and Elsa have divided their responsibilities. She runs the hotel with a firm but motherly hand, and the quality of the service shows it.  Ausencio operates the Centenario's small but elegant bar next door. The evening we arrived, he kindly offered everyone in our group a complimentary cocktail.

Leather and wood furniture provides comfortable places to enjoy the ambiance. The rust colored tiles covered the area around the ground-floor courtyard. I dislike overusing words, but elegance comes to mind again and again whenever I look through these pictures. Sometimes beautiful chairs don't live up to their appearance when it comes to comfortable seating, but these certainly do. When Ausencio and Elsa bought the property 9 nine years ago, it was in ruins. They initially wanted to build their family home on the site, but then changed their minds. They felt that Etzatlán needed a hotel worthy of its beauty and history. Creating Hotel Centenario out of the rubble they found was not easy, according to Elsa. Their success is manifested in the photos of this blog posting. Ausencio and Elsa chose the name Centenario in reference to the coins created from the silver and gold ore milled here long ago. The treasure they have created is every bit as real as those old metal coins.

Sharon and Wayne are Lake Chapala "birders". The local birding community tracks the wild fowl that live around Lake Chapala or show up seasonally. I didn't know them before I arranged this trip, but they had heard about it through mutual friends and asked to be included. They were a good addition to our party. In fact, there were a number of people on the trip who had not known each other previously. Everyone got along wonderfully, even when things didn't always turn out quite as expected. Mexico always has interesting and often amusing little quirks. Dealing with these while maintaining a relaxed sense of humor is a requirement for a happy life here.

The rooms were comfortable and beautifully appointed.  Carole didn't come on this adventure, so I took a single room and it cost me only $370 pesos per night ($26.90 USD). Weekend rates are a bit higher, and the larger rooms and suites are more expensive, but even for those the charges were still very reasonable. The rooms on the second floor of the hotel in the front have small, wrought-iron balconies overlooking the street and the plaza. The rest of the hotel's rooms open onto the central courtyard.

The second floor balcony above the courtyard also has a sitting area. Above, Julika (lt.) Anne (middle) and Denis (rt.) discuss the plan for the day. Julika and Denis are married Americans, but she originally comes from Germany and he is from Ireland. Anne is Canadian. For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the foreign community around Lake Chapala is its international flavor. Etzatlán lies at the foot of heavily wooded mountains which can be viewed from here. The balcony also overlooks the courtyard below.

Pam rewarded me with a beautiful smile when she spotted me taking her photo. Pam and her husband Chris are Canadians, but originated elsewhere, as so many of my Canadian friends did. Pam was born in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) and Chris in Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia). They met at a party when Chris was studying for the bar exam in London. After they married, they moved first to Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia), then to South Africa, and finally to Canada. They were very eager to come on this adventure, and turned out to be delightful traveling companions.

Where to eat in Etzatlán?

Hotel Centenario includes a large, formal dining room filled with antiques. The hotel does not include a breakfast as a part of its room rates, but will prepare one (and lunch, too) if guests request it in advance. Since we had a full schedule, it made sense for all of us to eat here rather than to individually scatter around town in search of breakfast. The kitchen staff served up eggs prepared in a variety of ways according to individual taste. I had a scrumptious omelette, along with fruit, toast, juice, and coffee. The charge was $70 pesos ($5.00 USD).

Mi Casa restaurant was an unexpected find. Mi Casa means "my home" in Spanish. When we got back to the hotel from our first day's adventures, I immediately went in search of a restaurant, since the Centenario dining room is not open for dinner. Small Mexican towns are often thin on restaurants because most people eat with their families. In addition, many have too little disposable money to go out to eat, except at small taco stands and the like. I walked all the way around the plaza and scoured some of the side streets with no success. Discouraged, I returned to the hotel. I decided to climb up to the mirador (look-out area) on the roof to enjoy the lights of the city at night. Peering over the edge of the wall to the street below, I spotted Restaurant Mi Casa--right across the street! It lived up to its homey name and served a delicious variety of traditional Mexican dishes. I tried the pozole and sopes. Pozole (po-so-lay) is sort of a thick stew, made with pieces of pork and corn with a tomato base and spiced with chile. Often, Mexicans will prepare a big pot of steaming pozole when they are expecting guests and dish it out as they arrive. A sope (so-pay) is a sort of miniature pizza, about 4" across, cooked by dipping it in hot oil. Sopes come with a variety of toppings including cheese, onions, and ground meat of various kinds. Although the proprietors seemed a bit astonished at the sudden appearance of a dozen hungry foreigners, they recovered quickly and all of us came away with full and happy stomachs.

Just west of town is a lovely lake, the location of another great restaurant. The lake is less than a mile west of town on Highway 4, the main highway that runs along the northern outskirts of Etzatlán. For a Google map showing the lake's location, click here. Like many of Jalisco's lakes, this one has a large colony of lirio, or water hyacinth, an invasive species. Pretty, but fast growing, it doubles its population every two weeks. One plant can become a million separate plants in an amazingly short time. Lirio is also extremely hard to extirpate. 19th Century hacendados brought lirio into the area as decorative plants for their garden ponds and Jalisco has been fighting it ever since. Even so, the lake is lovely and home to a variety of bird life, most especially white egrets.

La Gaviota is one of a string of restaurants built along the lakeshore. La Gaviota (the seagull) is open-air, with a palapa (palm frond) roof. Our guides from the tourist office recommended this place, and it turned out to be an excellent suggestion. The day was crystal clear and sunny, with the deep blue sky reflecting beautifully on the lake.

Once again, an astonished restaurant staff hustled to accommodate us. We arrived about noon for lunch, but Mexicans tend eat their comida after 2 pm, so the staff had to rush a bit to set up for us. No matter, they were clearly glad for the business of 15 paying customers (our 12, plus 2 guides and an interpreter). Everywhere we went in Etzatlán, we were treated royally. With a little help from us, the staff pulled a long row of tables together and soon the waiter was taking orders. There were lots of choices on the menu, but seafood seemed to predominate. Although most of the food was Mexican-style, I noticed that the ubiquitous cheeseburger was also present. The prices seemed very reasonable.

Above, a silent evesdropper swung on his trapeze. There were lots of fun decorations hanging from La Gaviota's ceiling, including this brightly-painted paper maché macaw. This guy looks like a lot of others I saw craftspeople creating in Tonalá, a major crafts area of Guadalajara.

Getting "the scoop" from our guides. Sharon (lt.) listens intently as Juan Pablo Ochoa (rt.) translates for Etzatlán's official historian Carlos E. Parra Ron (middle). As I was setting up for the trip, I decided to see if the Oficina de Turisimo could help. My email exchanges with Lupita in the office seemed to indicate they would, but my Spanish is still shaky. This being Mexico, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. We were overwhelmed by the response. Not only did they provide Carlos, but Lupita came along to make sure everything went smoothly. I had requested a translator and they provided Juan Pablo on the first day and his sister Ana on the second. Both spoke excellent English and were a great help since Carlos speaks no English, although he is very good on local history. Before we all parted company at the end of the trip, we gave them each a generous tip. We had been charged nothing for their services and they had really gone the "extra mile" for us. I also wrote a nice "thank you" email to each of them and sent another to the municipal president thanking him for providing such fine and helpful staff.

Oh! And about La Gaviota's food... This was one of several styles of shrimp served. It tasted as good as it looks. After munching on the antojitos (appetizers) and consuming the main course, we practically waddled out of the restaurant. 

This concludes Part 2 of my Etzatlán Adventure. In Part 3, we'll take a little tour through the Parroquia church and the Capuchina Convent to see their lovely architecture and some of the 16th Century artifacts preserved in these colonial religious sites. I hope you have been enjoying this series so far, and that it spurs you to visit Etzatlán, if you get down this way. If you could like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim