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HACIENDA HOTELS: A GRACIOUS VACATION AND REASONABLE ONE

For less than the price of many an urban hotel room in Mexico -- indeed, sometimes for less than $50 -- a couple can spend a night in baronial splendor at an elegant hacienda hotel. These grand country estates can provide everything from memorable weekends to magnificent vacations.

Haciendas are to Mexico what manor houses are to Britain and chateaux are to France. They stand as monuments to a more gracious age, but they are more than museums doubling as inns. Hacienda hotels primarily are resorts.

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In most cases, they are wonderful resorts. Rooms tend to be huge, grounds ample. Several hacienda hotels have golf courses. Most feature tennis, and frequently riding horses are available. All have swimming pools.

Many of these properties are hundreds of years old, and more than a few trace their origins back to the time of the Conquest in the 1600s. They make a nice option for anyone who is a trifle bored with beaches.

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Haciendas are in reality ex-haciendas. In their day, many were vast estates, some of them the size of kingdoms, bigger than Holland or Belgium. Agrarian reform in Mexico brought an end to all that, and the spreads usually were converted into communal farms. It is the old palatial mansions of the owners that have been turned into hotels.

Palatial mansions they are indeed, for the hacienda era was one of conspicuous consumption. Each hacendado (hacienda owner) tried to outshine his neighbors in lavishness. In Spanish colonial times these gentleman farmers managed to buy aristocratic titles for themselves. When the country became a republic, they bought everything else, spending their estates into bankruptcy.

The era of hacienda plantations crashed to a close with the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. In the years that followed the age of hacienda resorts was born.

Most are rather near Mexico City, which is both good and bad: good because they are easy to reach, at least from Mexico City, and bad because they get crowded. The majority of guests hail from the metropolis, families driving out on weekends and convention groups moving in the rest of the week.

Still, the variety is such that choosing a hacienda can be difficult. Here are some choices:

The Galindo: About 100 miles north of Mexico City, the Galindo goes back to the 16th century and is a veritable museum. Legend has it that Hernan Cortes presented the property as a gift to his Indian sweetheart, a lady known to history as La Malinche.

At the Galindo colonial flavor abounds, with the remains of an aqueduct forming part of the interior decor. Furnishings are fashioned in the hacienda's own workshops, and flowers are cut daily from a nursery on the property. Luxuriously restored, the Galindo has 160 suites, six tennis courts, a stable of riding horses and 18 holes of golf.

Breakfast is served by the pool at La Terraza or in La Bosque Grande, where decor is an arresting trompe l'oeil. El Florentino, with its gourmet specialties, is open weekends. Cocktails are served both in the Lobby Bar and at El Caballito. The Galindo is top of the line in price, with a suite for two (all accommodations are in suites) going for $120. Telephone: (00152-467) 20050.

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La Estancia: Directly on the Queretaro Highway, this resort is 95 miles north of Mexico City, a little closer than the Galindo. La Estancia is slightly smaller (110 rooms), a bit less posh and considerably less expensive than its neighbor.

There are six tennis courts, putting greens on the premises and 18holes of golf nearby. Riding horses and pony carts take guests for excursions into the countryside. Vines cascade over stucco walls and birds call from the grassy courtyards.

Within, ceilings are vaulted or lined with hand-hewn wooden beams. Many walls are painted with murals. Furnishings are classic colonial-style masterpieces of the craftsman's art. Hearty meals are featured in the Steak House restaurant. Guest rooms are large and comfortable, fitted out with hearths, for nights sometime get chilly in these parts. Tariff for a double room is $60.

The Galindo and La Estancia are just north of San Juan del Rio and are about a half-hour's drive from Tequisquipan, in the heart of the Queretaro wine country. These two towns are fascinating places to explore, as is historic Queretaro City. Telephone: (00152-467) 20120.

Jurica: On beyond Queretaro City and about 135 miles from Mexico City, this hacienda was the prize received by Juan Sanchez de Alanis, conqueror of the region, and dates to 1551. The hotel is part of a country homes development.

One of Mexico's most attractive haciendas, the 184-room Jurica has an 18-hole golf course, two illuminated tennis courts, twin grass badminton courts, a cement skating rink and, of course, a swimming pool. There is even a small zoo as well as riding horses for exploring nearly 40 acres of grounds. There are two bars -- one in a 16th century granary -- and a restaurant that never closes. Room service is available around the clock.

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While touches of the colonial era are to be found throughout the hacienda, rooms are modern and quite comfortable. Many are equipped not only with videocassette players but with computers as well (guests should bring their own films and programs, however). Accommodations for two at the Jurica start at $90. Telephone: (00152-467) 21081.

San Miguel Regla: Also to the north of Mexico City, but in this case via Pachuca and the old Pan American Highway, San Miguel Regla is special. Among other attractions, it is a remarkable value. New as hacienda resorts go, San Miguel Regla dates back only 250 years, to the time of Pedro Romero de Terreros, first Count of Regla. Don Pedro, who once offered to pave the road from Veracruz to Mexico City with silver if the King of Spain would consent to ride over it, is best remembered as the philanthropist who founded what now is Mexico's national pawnshop.

While pleasant, San Miguel Regla is far from lavish. It does have the distinction of being the only really first-class hotel in the state of Hidalgo, yet is the least expensive of the hacienda resorts in the Mexico City area. Nestled by a lake in a cool pine forest, it is a place simply to relax and perhaps catch up on some reading.

There is, of course, a pool along with riding horses available and boats for rowing about the lake. Huasca, the nearby village, is pretty but a rather unexciting place. Pachuca is a surprisingly attractive provincial capital, but saying that about says it all. A double room at San Miguel Regla costs only $45. Telephone: Ask operator for Huasca, Hidalgo 00002.

Cocoyoc: Largest of all the hacienda hotels (325 rooms) and closest to Mexico City (about 50 miles heading south toward Cuernavaca), Cocoyoc is in many ways the most sumptuous. In addition to three pools (plus 24 smaller pools by the master suites) there are nine holes of golf on the premises and an 18-hole course close by. The Hacienda has three tennis courts of its own and 15 available at Lomas de Cocoyoc, a weekend homes development.

The resort has five restaurants, including one for children and another where children are barred; three of the dining rooms are open weekends only. Evening entertainment is provided in the lobby bar as well as in a night club and a tiny discotheque. Most rooms are Cocoyoc are somewhat Spartan, but the splendid Spanish colonial architecture of the buildings and handsome setting make up for all that.

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The Hacienda Cocoyoc dates to 1560, when it was begun as a sugar cane planation. Fanny Calderon de la Barca visited there in 1833 and wrote about it in "Life in Mexico." The troops of Emiliano Zapata ravaged the property during the Revolution, but in 1968 it was restored and opened as a resort hotel. Rates for a double room start at $75. Telephone: (00152-5) 550 4422.

De Cortes: On the outskirts of Cuernavaca, about 60 miles from Mexico City, the cozy Hacienda de Cortes claims to have been founded by the old Conquistador himself. It, too, was sacked and burned during the Revolution, then rebuilt and refurbished before being opened in 1980 as a hotel. It's tiny, with only 21 rooms; recreational facilities are limited pretty much to swimming and tennis, yet a golf course and bridle paths are but minutes away. Rooms are luxurious, the setting is elegant and exclusive. Meals in the resort's one dining room are outstanding. Next door is Sumiya, the Japanese palace Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton imported as a hideaway; it now is a restaurant. A double room costs $85. Telephone: (00152-73) 15 9944.

Vista Hermosa: Roughly halfway between Cuernavaca and Taxco (about a two-hour drive from Mexico City), Vista Hermosa dates to 1529 and also claims to have been founded by Cortes. Indeed, it remained inthe family until 1621 when a grandson sold it to a religious order. Also destroyed during the Revolution, it was restored and opened as a hotel in 1947, the first of Mexico's hacienda resorts.

The setting at the Hacienda Vista Hermosa is beautiful, although the furnishings in the 120 rooms are somewhat tawdry. Along with 18 holes of golf and miniature golf course, there are tennis, squash and badminton courts; a bowling alley; billiard room; and the requisite swimming pool.

Bars are attractive. There is a discotheque and usually live entertainment on the weekends. Food in the dining room is rather ordinary. Room service is available.

Close by is beautiful Lake Tequesquitengo, the Xochicalco archaeological ruins and the vast Cacahuamilpa caves. Rates at Vista Hermosa start at $75. Telephone: (00152-73) 47 0492.

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Cocoyoc, Vista Hermosa and the Hacienda de Cortes are south of Mexico City and close to Cuernavaca, which is an additional attraction. The climate is considerably warmer than in Queretaro. Also, Cuernavaca is a community noted for its excellent restaurants, appealing shops and weekend night life.

San Gabriel: In Guanajuato, this is one place to which guests can fly, taking Aeromexico or Aeromar up to Leon and catching an airport van for the 40-minute ride to the hotel. A town so picturesque it has been declared a national monument, Guanajuato is one community where a car is not needed; the streets are almost too narrow to drive through.

The hotel itself is new, built next to the San Gabriel Hacienda, which now is a museum. Restored a decade ago, this museum reflects hacienda life at its height toward the end of the 19th century. The hotel next door, while it has a pool, scarcely qualifies as a resort. It is, however, a pleasant place to stay while sightseeing in Guanajuato. With a tariff of $45 for a double room, the San Gabriel is an outstanding value. Telephone: (00152-473) 23900.


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