Under the Volcano
Ayapango village, State of Mexico
This is certainly not just any old Mexican ranch. You can’t do it on a backpacker’s budget but it is one of those unforgettable visits. Even the famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera visited here and made one of his first paintings from the hacienda gate under the volcano Popocatepétl.
We came here during our 10-day road trip around Mexico City (DF) in December 2014 . We travelled from DF north to Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende and Querétaro and south to Cuernavaca and Puebla (see the map of our road trip below, right). We did not plan it but we 'bumped' into this opportunity to see Popocatépetl up close and personal. In Cuernavaca we were asking at the tourist office if there was a direct bus to Puebla but five youngsters with computers couldn't give us an answer. Suddenly a Frenchman who had been standing in the background came forward and advised us. Of course there were direct buses. Of course you didn't have to go back through DF.
Louis has lived in Cuernavaca for 15 years. We got talking, back in his own elegant office. He told us a rather magical story about how he had once, quite by chance, bumped into the owners of a hacienda near Ayapango, under the volcano, just as we had quite magically bumped into him. Although we were on a backpacking trip, we agreed to get a private car to take us there and splash out. Call it splashpacking. There are times when dreams trump the budget. No regrets! I will never forget this place.
So let me try and describe it to you. It's a place to relax, utterly. Set among flat fields on a 16th-century estate, it offers great country walks and much more. Its full name is Hacienda San Andrés Hotel Gourmet. It was built between 1535-1550, using the wood of the forests that populated the region around the volcano for the beautiful beamed ceilings in all the cottage rooms. In the past, this timber was also used for the railway sleepers around Mexico City. The estate was built in European style, and some materials, such as flat tiles, were brought here from Europe by Spanish ships. Most of the images are from the hacienda’s facebook, with the permission of the owners (haciendasanandres.com.mx).
We really stepped back in time. The walls are more than a metre thick and everything seems pretty solid. The restaurant has exposed stone walls. There is such elegance in that! You really feel the age of the place and it is truly stylish. The spacious courtyards reminded me of French gardens. Since the visit I discovered that the nearby town of Ayapango is known for its 'French style' (Spanish afrancesado) houses built early in the last century so perhaps my feelings were right. The chapel is a piece of art as well. At first look it is Spanish from outside but very contemporary from inside, with stunning murals by Federico Silva. Certainly suitable for a very stylish wedding. The reception room is a spacious and comfortable living room with sofas (and a globe!) There was another social space in one of the outer buildings, with a large diner and the traditional Mexican equipment that a ranch would need: a horse saddle with blankets, sombreros…
But it was not just the buildings that we took to. The owners, Mr and Mrs Silva, were fantastic hosts and made our stay memorable. They are from Mexico City. He is a film producer and she looks after the hacienda. They not only cooked for us but also dined with us. On our first night they offered us a spa with a traditional sweat bath temazcal, followed by a massage and a glass of wine in the jacuzzi.
The following morning the owners arranged a private visit for us to the foot of the volcano. A seismologist from the nearby town of Amacameca took us in his jeep to the Paso de Cortés, on a paved road, to an altitude of about 3,400m. The name derives from the passage of Conquistador Hernán Cortés and his men. After the battle of Cholula in 1519, he continued north-west into the valley of Mexico and city of Tenochtitlán to confront the Aztecs and their emperor Moctezuma. The legend has it that some of Cortés' men climbed Popocatépetl, lowered into the crater, and brought back sulphur for making gunpowder. We did no such thing; it has not been possible to climb Popocatépetl since it began renewed volcanic activity in 1994. We enjoyed the forest as it was snowing on the day and we had not seen snow for about two years. It was very cold and we appreciated the layers of jumpers that the hacienda owners equipped us with. Interestingly, despite the snow, the volcano was active on the day. Although frankly, we could not see that from our position in the forest.
When we got back to the hacienda, we sipped wine on the cosy restaurant patio (with a little pond, ducks, and a clay heater) and the owners shared their Christmas meal with us and their daughter. It felt like being at home with our own family, genuine hospitality. Their gourmet restaurant offers exquisite cuisine made with local organic products, adapting to the seasonal produce. Their philosophy is 'from the seed to the table'. Trust me, the food was not just home-made, it was truly very special. On this occasion, cooked by the owner himself, not the chef, they served rabbit (cooked with chilli, of course) and a lot of accompaniments. Wild game played an important culinary role even in pre-Hispanic Mexico and is certainly still a part of the culinary tradition in central Mexico.
Although the hacienda is isolated in the countryside at first sight, there are two nearby towns, Ayapango and Amecameca, both inhabited originally by the old tribes of the Chichimeca people. In the 15th century the Aztecs conquered this region. Most of the area around the hacienda is grassland with a few elevations such as Coronilla, Sacromonte, Coxtocán, Retana and the Xoyacán Mountains. There are no rivers here, only a few dry creeks. It is still a land of subsistence agriculture (corn, wheat and cactus) and grazing livestock (cattle, sheep and pigs). We loved our walk around the hacienda. Cactus, cactus, cactus…
After the Conquest, the Spanish destroyed the indigenous temples and shrines here and build Christian churches and shrines on top of them. For example, after the volcano visit our friend the seismologist took us to 'his' town of Amecameca where he moved to live with his family from Mexico City. He drove us up the Sacromonte hill, which overlooks the town and provides great views of both the town and Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl volcanoes. Today, the hill contains the Sanctuary of the Señor del Sacromonte and a chapel dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
In more recent history, the hacienda watched the War of Independence from some distance. Peasant sympathies for the rebels were strong due to the poor treatment of farm workers by Spanish hacienda owners. While the government tried to recruit here for the federal army, most managed to avoid service. However, 100 years later, during the Revolution in 1910, the hacienda became the headquarters of both revolutionary and federal troops at different times (due to its isolation from nearby towns). After the Revolution, two of the nearby haciendas, Retana and De Bautista, were expropriated and converted into five ejidos or communes.
The suites feature volcano views and beamed ceilings, Wi-Fi, living areas and lofts, gas heaters. A 2-bedroom cottage adds a living room with a fireplace. There are no TVs. The owners offer special events, such as family reunions, weddings, graduation ceremony, concerts and even balloon flights. The total capacity is for 35 people.
And before you log off, let me tell you the legend of 'the Smoking Mountain' and 'White woman', as Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl are called in the Nahuatl language. Our guide the seismologist told us the story as follows:
The warrior Popocatépetl was in love with Iztaccíhuatl and wanted to marry her, against her father's will. Her father instructed Popo to first ‘go to war and bring back the head of the enemy’. A rival suitor came back from the front a few months later and told the family that Popo had died in battle. Iztaccíhuatl was so unhappy that she wouldn’t eat, and died of a broken heart. Popo returned a few days later and laid her body down on a funeral table overflowing with flowers. He wept and died of grief. The gods were moved by the young couple’s love and turned their bodies and souls into grand volcanoes.
Popocatépetl is the larger and sometimes shows his anger by smoking and erupting with rage. Iztaccíhuatl (note her shape of a lying woman) is happy to be beside her great lover and remains sleeping and peaceful. It is till today a dormant volcano. I will always think of the two volcanoes with tender memory, remembering their tragic love story.
How to get there:
We came here from Cuernavaca on the way to Puebla, by private car. The simplest way is to drive directly from Mexico City, which is an hour and half away via Autopista Mexico - Puebla 150D and then road 115 to the town of Amecameca. Finally, aim for the village of Ayapongo. The hacienda is just outside the village.
There are also buses from Mexico City to Amecameca and from there you can take a taxi. Take the Mexico City metro to the TAPO bus terminal, which is connected to the San Lázaro metro station. When you step into the circular-shaped central hall of the terminal, look for a ticket booth to the left side that says Sur and Volcanes. Get a ticket for Amecameca. Buses depart every 20 minutes.
You will need to book your night in advance. Reservations: firstname.lastname@example.org. Tel: 5519731675.
Mix & Match:
After a relaxing day at the hacienda, go to the forest under the volcano and/or visit the town of Amecameca. It is a sleepy town with an old church and a main square or zócalo but you can climb a hill west of the town to the Santuario del Señor de Sacromonte, with an excellent view of the town, countryside, and two nearby volcanoes. you may spot alpinists passing through Amecameca on their way to climb Iztaccíhuatl.