El Carmen is one of western Mexico’s most venerable old haciendas, located 50 kilometers due west of Guadalajara and 10 kilometers from Jalisco’s famed Guachimontones circular pyramids.
I am a guest here today because my wife was invited to inventory all the birds that can be seen on the grounds — and she kindly invited me to accompany her.
At this moment I am writing these words on a comfortable sofa inside one of the magnificent arched porticos surrounding the courtyard. Hundreds of turtle doves, great kiskadees, grackles and robins are singing in the huge rubber tree shading this space, while the soothing melodies of Antonio Bribiesca’s guitar play in the background.
In recent years this old hacienda has been transformed into a hotel, a spa, a gourmet restaurant and a historical monument all in one. This morning we had the pleasure of breakfasting with one of the owners, Mónica Baeza, who grew up in the hacienda and in 1996 took charge of running it.
We were, of course, curious about the history of the place. When we asked Mónica about it, her eyes lit up.
“Would you believe that this hacienda was built by Carmelite monks? It dates back to the 16th century when the Spanish crown bequeathed the land to one Francisco Merodio de Velasco. It stayed in the family for generations until around 1705, when Francisca Figueroa, a widow with no children, decided to give it to the monks who, in fact, are the ones who constructed the main buildings and that beautiful courtyard out there.
“The prior, however, did not want to turn it into a monastery. Instead, he sent the earnings from the cattle and crops to Guadalajara to finance the construction of the famous Convento del Carmen. Back in those days, this finca [farm] was huge. It had 22,000 hectares on which they produced corn, wheat, oats, sugar cane, mezcal and sorghum, just to name a few things.
“Now, along came Benito Juárez and the Reforma. As a result, the Carmelites were expelled around 1856. The Ley Juárez relieved the Catholic church of all its properties. So the Convento del Carmen suddenly became the Ex-Convento del Carmen as it is known today and our hacienda fell into the hands of people who were rich and powerful back in the days of Juárez. After that, it had many owners until it suffered from neglect and was auctioned off.
“In 1964 my mother fell in love with the old place and our family bought it and developed it as a country house. So this is where I grew up, where I played with my friends. Then, in 1996, when my father became ill, we held a family meeting to decide what to do about the hacienda. Well, I ended up in charge of the place, because I raised my hand and said, ‘I’ll do it’.”
Today Hacienda el Carmen has “only” 160 hectares of farmland where they raise sugar cane and corn, but recently Baeza had a huge, modern greenhouse constructed on the property and today, using hydroponics, it supplies all the vegetables served in the restaurant.
Mónica Baeza’s degree is in industrial relations and her principal hobby has long been cooking. When asked how she feels about being a farmer, she sighed. “Agriculture,” she stated, shaking her head, “has more variables than any other business.”
In fact, she decided to transform the hacienda into a hotel in order to help balance things out economically. As for running a hotel-spa, Baeza discovered that “La hotelería is the business of perfection. Everything must be done perfectly from the very first contact with the client until the moment you wish your parting guest a safe journey — you can’t push the rewind button.”
“In the end,” she adds, “our hacienda has become una fábrica de amigos, a place that generates friends.”
Indeed, the extraordinary friendliness of every soul we met at Hacienda El Carmen, whether owner, waitress, gardener or gatekeeper, made us feel completely at home. Human warmth is perhaps Mexico’s most important attraction, but it is not always encountered in hotels.
This hacienda, however, is filled with good vibrations and we even made friends with the ducks and the horses. Truly, “una fábrica de amigos.”
What can you do at the hacienda? Plenty. Just start wandering and you’ll come across cool, shady courtyards with bubbling fountains, wide, wide, stretches of green (including a six-hole golf course), the remains of a long, graceful aqueduct and a small lake where you can go swimming and bathing with the ducks or try sneaking up on the iguanas sunning themselves along the shore.
Wherever you go, whatever corner you turn, you’ll run into relics of the hacienda’s long history, now tastefully transformed into objets d’art, whether old wagon wheels, brightly colored ceramics, ancient paintings or even a life-size wooden statue of St. Francis of Assisi, dating back to the days when brown-robed monks glided along the corridors.
And if you spend the night here, you will enjoy an orchestra of chirping crickets under a huge night sky with unimaginably bright stars, the kind of sky you can only find far away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
And then there’s the food. It is simply perfect. Even if you can’t stay overnight, it would be well worth it just to come for one of these gourmet meals. On top of that, they even have their own “house tequila” called Alebrijes, which is aged right on the grounds.
To me, the most surprising thing about Hacienda El Carmen is that they are not charging a fortune as are so many other haciendas and if you just want to stroll around the place and imagine you are back in the 18th century that, too, can be arranged.
The driving time from Guadalajara to Hacienda El Carmen is about 90 minutes.
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for more than 30 years and is the author of A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area and co-author of Outdoors in Western Mexico. More of his writing can be found on his website.