Colima's Hacienda Heights

David B. Goldman is a freelance writer and broadcaster based in Santa Barbara

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.

Because of the 5,000-foot elevation, the climate is temperate, usually warm but not hot, with highs in the upper 70s and low 80s in spring and summer. (June to October is rainy.)

When valley breezes weren't enough, I cooled off at a 115-foot-long tiled pool, removed from the main house and surrounded by blooming bougainvillea, giant birds of paradise and Manila palms. Blue and yellow finches darted overhead, and green and blue parakeets flitted over the water. Lazing about the pool required one of those Mahakua decisions: Do I lie facing down-valley, enjoying a view of mountains immersed in a tropical haze, or do I point myself toward the volcano?

A tennis court and a small horse arena weren't far away, but some guests' only form of exercise is the walk to one of Mahakua's dining spots. My favorite was the upstairs terrace of the main house, where the tables were set by a roaring fireplace.

Other times I ate at the pool pavilion, the downstairs terrace or the indoor living room, which had high barrel-vaulted brick ceilings, a wood-and-brick floor and murals of Volcan de Fuego and its dormant brother, 13,993-foot Nevado de Colima.

The cuisine was eclectic, including rack of lamb and poached salmon as well as Asian dishes. But the most pleasing meals were authentically Mexican. One night the chef made salsa from scratch at my table, mixing roasted chiles, garlic, onions, tomatoes and cilantro in a mortar. Another evening I got a hands-on lesson in making tortillas on the grill.

These dinners were preceded by superb hors d'oeuvres: sopitos , corn shells with shrimp, served on the downstairs terrace as the sun went down; or chicken satay offered in the gallery, which doubles as a gift shop selling locally made textiles, jewelry and ceramics.

Breakfasts were best of all. They tended to be regional: frijoles charros , with beans, onions and sausage; chilaquiles , a dish made with tortilla strips, chicken and salsa; and fresh juices and fruits, such as papaya and pineapple. Much of the produce (most of it organic) came from Mahakua's farm, which also produces asiago, Gouda and other cheeses.

No one would classify Mahakua as a bargain. And I'd have trouble justifying the eye-popping rate by simply saying it included all meals, afternoon snacks and evening appetizers, as well as laundry service and airport transfers from Manzanillo or Guadalajara. Or that all beverages--wine, beer and liquor--are included too.

But, dare I say, the experience was worth it. My room was large--about 600 square feet--and airy, with an arched ceiling, wood floors and a spacious bathroom. Furnished with giant armoires, hand-woven rugs and one-of-a-kind Mexican ceramics, the space was elegant yet comfortable. And despite the relatively remote location, guests enjoy modern conveniences such as telephones with international access in each room.

But these were minor details compared with one of Mahakua's biggest selling points: the beautiful and varied terrain, the thousands of acres accessible only to hacienda guests and still wild enough to require a guide in some parts. (Activities such as mountain biking and guide-led hikes are included in the room rate.)

In the hills behind the ranch, I hiked with a guide, naturalist Lupe Ayala, through small, lush valleys of ginger, giant bamboo and banana. Sunlight streaked through the forest to the narrow dirt roads below, which led to small lakes, waterfalls and dozens of scenic picnic sites. The volcanic ridges on the horizon were bronze and green with tropical vegetation. Cormorants, egrets and blue herons flew overhead.

This area is a transition zone between the dry and the tropical, Ayala explained. Coyote, fox, armadillo, peccary and deer roam these mountains, she said. Some occasionally come down into the hacienda gardens, eager to nibble on the flowers, though I saw no evidence of that.

For a bit of novelty, one popular day trip from Mahakua is the half-hour drive south to the town of Suchitlan, known for its curanderos-- witches or curers. I guess the trip holds the promise of adventure regardless of whether one actually has an ailment in need of curing.

With directions provided by the concierge, I set off to find a curandera but didn't have much luck. She was out that afternoon. Rather than search for another, I drove about 15 miles south to Comala, a town whose main plaza is dominated by Los Portales, a series of outdoor restaurants set under high white arches. On the west side is a twin-spired cathedral; on the other, the Palacio Municipal, or City Hall.

Mariachis strolled the wide walkways, and drinks were served with succulent regional snacks: small potato tacos, little seviche tostadas, plates of guacamole and pickled pigskin.

My favorite spot was a corner spot called Fundador, where the drink of choice was ponche , a sweet alcoholic punch made with local fruits, including pomegranate and tamarind.

The trick is to get to Comala after the busloads of Manzanillo day-trippers have departed. Two o'clock was good, providing ample time before the restaurants close around 6.

Back at Mahakua, the lazy life got to be so easy that on the morning of my departure, just rousing from a poolside lounge to finish packing was a chore. I had waited years for my first peek behind these hacienda gates. I won't wait nearly as long for my second.


Guidebook: Hacienda in High Style

* Getting there: The airport nearest Colima is in Manzanillo. From LAX, Aero California and Alaska fly nonstop; Mexicana offers connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares start at $357.

* Where to stay: Mahakua-Hacienda de San Antonio, Municipio de Comala, Colima 28450; tel. 011-52-3313-4411, fax 011-52-3314-3727, Nightly rates are $675 single, $800 double; starting in October, $800 single and $900 double. Includes meals, drinks, activities, airport transfers. Add a 10% service charge.

Lodging alternatives in the area include Hotel Ceballos, Portal Medellin 12, Colima, Colima 28000; tel. 011-52-3312-4444. Located on the city's main square. Double rooms start at about $63 a night.

Maria Isabel Hotel, Blvd. Camino Real 351, Colima, Colima 28010; tel. 011-52-3312-6262. About $60 a night double.

* Where to eat: Meals were included at the hacienda. But a day trip did take me to Comala, where Fundador was a good place for drinks and snacks. Portal Progreso 5, Centro Comala; local tel. 3315-5888.

* For more information: Mexican Government Tourism Office, Mexican Consulate, 2401 W. 6th St., 5th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90057; tel. (213) 351-2069,

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