By Laura van Hoff
In San Carlos the dramatic setting of volcanic peaks crashing into clear blue sea drew me in to explore by boat and what I discovered was simply stunning. Once again, I was surprised and delighted. And who would have guessed that in the modest town of Hermosillo would be an art museum so wonderful I’d want to go back just to see what its passionate director has up his sleeve next? Again, wow, wow, wow.
Surprising places are just so darn much fun when you had no idea they would hold so many treasures to discover. I don’t want to ruin the surprises for you, but, really…you must know, Sonora offers some very enticing treats and is eager to welcome you with warm Sonoran “abrazos” (hugs).
The Warmth of Alamos and the People
Often described as a smaller and quieter version of San Miguel de Allende before it got crowded, Alamos is a Colonial gem of a Mexican pueblo. Snuggled into the southernmost corner of the state of Sonora in the foothills of the Western Sierra Madre, Alamos exudes a certain grace that can only come from a history of wealth and culture somewhere down the line. Silver and copper mines were big business in Alamos back in the day which left their mark in terms of money flowing through its history. The village was designed by conquering Spaniards to resemble Andalusia and has the classic feel of a storybook Mexico village. The pueblo itself is a Mexican Historical Monument and is up for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Coming into town via narrow streets of cobblestones sets the stage for what lies ahead. The town square has a small park at its center with a classic cathedral beside it. The small and very walkable village holds exactly what you would hope…iron gates stuck improbably into adobe walled compounds to peer through which reveal private gardens and worlds of seductive charm within, street vendors selling yummy treats, happy kids bopping around, super friendly people at every turn, a few special restaurants to linger in and a hotel you never want to leave and feel lucky to have found.
Alamos seems to be blessed with happy people. Warm welcomes everywhere you go, happy kids of all ages running around, a certain joie de vivre that is simply unmistakable.
Hacienda de los Santos
Hacienda de Los Santos offers a stunning retreat to tuck into. Behind its authentic adobe walls you’ll find flowing fountains, mosaic tiled pools with statues gazing peacefully at their reflections in the water, colorful and lush exploding gardens, a sumptuous spa, putting greens and more. Outdoor fireplaces with cozy seating areas are scattered around the upscale enclave offering a private spot to snuggle, read or simply absorb the tranquility.
Several living rooms with fireplaces are thoughtfully stocked with games and books, making it feel like a good friend’s house. One could spend days discovering the impressive collection of art and historical artifacts which are absolutely everywhere throughout the property. An angel flying over the fireplace here, a horseback soldier supervising your shower there. Surprising delights abound throughout the property.
American owners Jim and Nancy Swickard have created an oasis in the heart of friendly, laid back (and very safe) Alamos. For 24 years they’ve offered their warm welcome to locals, dignitaries from around the world, pilots (they have a private hangar and cool club for pilots) and travelers from the US and farther flung parts. It’s one of those places you instantly fall helplessly, madly in love with and want to return again and again.
Each of the 9 Hacienda guest rooms and 14 suites are decorated personally by Nancy with her eagle eye for special pieces. Every room has at least one fireplace and the suites have two or three fireplaces. All in all there are 60 fireplaces on the property, many of which are set into cozy alcoves for anyone to enjoy or in the shared living rooms. There are traditional vibrant Mexican colors popping here and there in all the right places, amidst uber comfortable furniture in rich, earthy tones. All have adobe walls and charming architectural details such as wood beams, stone floors, tiled bathrooms, massive wooden doors and more.
They’ve used local artists and craftsmen to restore and create every inch of this truly magnificent property. At every turn as you make your way around something delightful surprises you. Two arched tunnels connect different parts of the property making it feel like an adventure just to get to your inviting room. The brick tunnel is lined with accolades and articles about the property to remind you that the love affair you’ve just developed with the place is shared by some pretty impressive folks similarly struck by the love bug.
The warm ochre toned tunnel is lit by inset cubes of light and is such fun to be in it’s almost a bonus when you realize you’ve forgotten something in your room and get to slink through it a few more times. It feels a bit like a clandestine version of Alice and Wonderland…a wildly surprising delight to pop out the other side in either direction. A graceful bridge draped in eye-candy magenta bougainvillea connects the main part of the property to the restaurants, cantina and theater.
The cozy spa has a full menu of traditional spa treatments in an adobe walled tranquil space tucked at the back of the property. Prices are reasonable and the treatment rooms are really sweet.
Most evenings there is live solo romantic guitar music for the guests. For special events and groups they can arrange a performance by Ballet Folklorico (a 40 person group from the University of Sonora), La Estudiantina (a 15 person group of young men who are dressed in 18th century Spanish costumes and sing and dance) or a guitar trio who sing Spanish songs.
Hacienda de los Santos has received a long list of well deserved awards, including feature stories in Architectural Digest and AOPA Pilot (350,000 pilot readership for it’s private plane access and pilot club), Trip Advisor Awards 2012 Top 25 Traveler Award Hotels of Mexico (#12) and Top 25 Traveler Relaxation/Spa Hotels of Mexico (#4) and is a stand-out member of the prestigious Mexico Boutique Hotels collection.
The property is clearly a labor of love for the Swickards who purchased the 300 year old hacienda in 1989 and then combined additional parcels to create the sprawling compound which exists today. They are so passionate about Alamos they both received awards from the then Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano and Sonora’s Governor Eduardo Bours for their humanitarian work in Sonora. They received the annual Alvaro Obregon Award which was the first time it had been presented to foreigners in Mexico. You can feel it on the property that these vibrant owners have invested heart and soul into the community and the property.
For group events there is an off-property facility at the airport which can accommodate up to 100 guests in an indoor-outdoor space. Entertainment can be arranged and up to 20 people can travel the short distance by horseback. A fun and funky bus accommodates guests who would prefer to skip the horseback fun.
Private dinners can be arranged around the property on your private patio, in a Colonial dining room, in a covered, cozy outdoor area by the cantina, in a fireside alcove or in the warmer seasons at the Treetop Grill, a private rooftop dining space with bar.
The super attentive staff will make the fires for you and restock wood when needed. In my case I asked stellar staff member, the charming Mario, to light the fires in my suite just before I planned to arrive back in the room from dinner so I arrived to a beautifully lit heavenly abode truly fit for a president. The staff accommodates requests with a gracious warmth so typical of the people in Sonora.
Prices at Hacienda de Los Santos range from $155-$950 depending on time of year with breakfast included. A meal plan can be added on for $45 per person per day in their wonderful restaurants with an open menu choice included. All of the rooms are charming and lovely so you really can’t go wrong here in any price category. I stayed in The Presidential Suite which was my favorite of all the special rooms, with four fireplaces (bedroom, living room, bathroom and outside living space), two lovely bathrooms, wood beams, stone floors and a massive, romantic King bed.
Hacienda de Los Santos
There are three wonderful dining options. The casual Agave Cafe is a lot of fun with colorful art and Mexican doodads hanging everywhere. The more upscale and romantic Santiago’s Restaurant offers several fireplaces, some with tables for two facing them, small rooms with open arches facing onto the courtyard, gilt framed museum quality art and hushed, soothing tones. The outside courtyard has tables under wood-beamed eaves or a sunny open space amongst colorful blooms and the peaceful sound of a sunlit fountain.
The green chili soup is a beauty to behold and is as delicious as it is gorgeous. The sangria comes layered in a tall glass which also tastes as good as it looks. The charming cantina houses Jim’s wildly interesting and coveted tequila collection of more than 500 specimens. How about a $300 shot of tequila for something only found here? Don’t worry, there are also stunners for $3 a shot. He’ll arrange a tequila tasting and a 90 minute class on the origin, creation and tasting of tequila if you’re interested in exploring his collection and learning more.
True to the Swickards’ commitment to using local talent, all of the cooks and chefs at Hacienda de los Santos are from Alamos and schooled under professional chefs from Santa Fe, Tucson and Mexico City. A cheerful green tiled kitchen on the property holds cooking classes by prior arrangement.
Things To Do in Alamos
World class music festival, silver expo, birding and more
Alamos has an annual music festival which draws folks from all over the world because it’s that special. The Festival Cultural Alfonso Ortiz Tirado is held in January and offers everything from Opera to Salsa. The party extends out from the beautiful cathedral theater into the cobblestone streets. Musicians play on excellent stages around town and on street corners.
One of the ridiculously fun things to do is following a donkey with baskets of wine around town, in a big chain of party goers, catching up now and then to get your cup of wine refilled. It’s a remarkably tame and friendly crowd given the donkey-wine traveling fiesta that happens. The best of Mexico’s musicians converge on Alamos for the festival and the entire town comes out for the fun. Arts and crafts stalls line the streets, street food vendors come out in full force to tempt passerby with treats and everyone has a great time. Book a hotel room early if you come for the festival, it’s very popular.
There is also a highly regarded silversmith exposition held every February at Hacienda de los Santos. Accomplished silversmiths from around the world gather to display and sell their work.
If you’d like to explore the beautiful walled compounds ex-pats and residents call home, check out the home and garden tours offered on weekends. The office is on the main road into town to make arrangements.
The area is hugely popular for birders with a staggering variety of winged subjects. Arrange bird watching expeditions with El Pedregal.
Alamos for Pilots
Hacienda de Los Santos is a Pilots Heaven
Hacienda de Los Santos is very popular with pilots for good reason. They’ve got their own hangar at the Alamos airport which can house up to 12-14 aircraft. The ramp capacity is about 50 aircraft. The military has a security post literally outside the door of the hangar so it’s a very safe spot to ditch your ride.
It’s an excellent small modern airport with a 5,000′ paved runway legal for jets up to the Falcon 20 and Lear 45 in size. The operating tower uses unicom frequency for visiting aircraft. Home to “Club Pilotos” (www.clubpilotos.com) organized by Jim Swickard, the hotel hosts a gathering of pilots from all over the world three times a year. It’s a very popular event with the same friends coming back again and again.