Calle Cinco de Mayo No. 300, Centro, Oaxaca City
In the heart of Mexico's most beautiful colonial city, hewn from the same pale green cantera stone from which the Spanish first constructed Oaxaca five centuries ago, is the city's finest five-star property, the Camino Real.
Built beginning in 1540, under the guidance of Dominican Bishop Bernardo de Albuquerque, and still possessed of an ancient and sacred grace preserved in each elegant archway and faded fresco, this Spanish baroque masterpiece was originally the Convent of Saint Catalina de Siena, home to 400 cloistered nuns. Before becoming a hotel, the ex-convent's sunshine-splashed labyrinth of courtyards, gardens, passageways and chapels was home to a prison, police precinct, art school, night school, and craftsman society. Finally, in 1972, it was transformed into an upscale hotel: the Stouffer Presidente.
El Camino Real took over the property in 1994, refurbishing its faded beauty under the guidance of INAH (Mexico's National Institute of History and Anthropology), whose strict preservation requirements have rendered this hotel one of the world's most beautiful places to stay. To be sure, this commitment to authenticity has compromised some amenities; for instance, Camino Real is forbidden from permanently adapting rooms for wheelchair use, and must instead rely on removable ramps and regular-sized bathrooms for those guests. Some of the less expensive rooms are also rather small and dark, suited to the chaste and humble tastes of maidens who once slept here long ago.
Regardless, even these smaller abodes, blessed with high viga ceilings and huge Spanish colonial windows, have been richly appointed. They are furnished with gorgeous antiques, beds and armoires evocative of Mexico's past--all dark wood and traditional metalwork. But they have been updated with the finest mattresses, bedding, and modern amenities in a royal purple color scheme (including much more modern sofas in the living areas, which seemed slightly out of place among the other polished heirlooms). Delightful hand-tiled bathrooms, with deep tubs, are small but appealing. You are thoughtfully provided with hand-blown glasses (the property's tap water is safe to drink), luxurious personal care products, and plush bathrobes. All rooms also include 21-inch cable televisions, air conditioning (though you may not need it in the naturally cool stone cloister), coffeemakers, minibars, and other modern comforts.
There are five types of room, priced according to size and view. The exterior rooms, with enormous windows (2x3m) that open almost immediately onto the street, are less expensive and often quite noisy. It's worth a few extra dollars to enjoy quieter rooms that open onto the hotel's manifold gardens and courtyards. The most beautiful of these courtyards features an ancient and exquisite stone fountain, Los Lavaderos (the laundry), where the nuns once washed their simple robes in water that still cascades down the mountains via the city's old aqueducts. Today, the staff fills each basin with fresh white cala lilies.
Or follow stone stairs, worn to a soft glow by generations of tiny slippered feet and lit with tiny votive candles each night, to the rooftop gardens. There, yet another interior courtyard offers views of the stars and city, as well as the patios and flowers that surround the hotel's heated, family-friendly pool. Many of the most luxurious suites, each unique in shape, size and dÃ©cor, are located here. Reserve here if you can as these suites offer much more spacious and private environs, as well as even nicer amenities.
The extravagant grounds also offer almost unlimited options for festivities, business meetings, and of course weddings. Many of Mexico's best families begin their lives together here, often enjoying an opulent ceremony at neighboring Santo Domingo Church, then holding the reception here, in the acoustically and architecturally unmatched La Capilla, an enormous space of vaulted ceilings and stone archways that was once the Church of Santa Catalina. This is also where the Camino Real holds its highly recommended Friday evening performance of the Guelaguetza, a Oaxacan tradition that features ten colorful regional dances, accompanied by a live brass band and outstanding buffet dinner.
On other nights, you could visit any one of the hotel's five restaurants and bars, including the cozy Las Novicias, with low wooden chairs and tables surrounded by ancient books from the monastery's former collection, or upscale dining beneath half-millennia-old paintings in Los CÃ¡ntaros, named for a wall of ceramic oil jars found buried beneath the lobby during rennovation. Your buffet breakfast is served in the nuns' old kitchen, enormous ovens still stained by the fires that sustained their religious ardor all those centuries ago.
Even if you don't splash out on a room here, it's well worth dropping by for a drink or meal; free tours are offered at 5pm daily. Of course, this openness somewhat compromises the privacy of the property, the price one pays for staying overnight in what could be considered one of the world's most luxurious Spanish colonial museums.
And, impeccably located at the very center of this beautiful city, this is a perfect base for guests to explore Oaxaca themselves; the concierge desk will be happy to make recommendations and reservations for restaurants, tours, private cars and anything else your heart might desire. And, while other tourists head home after a day of exploring this serene architectural gem of a city to rooms firmly rooted in the modern world, you will sleep here, in the very heart of old Oaxaca, a dream made real in pale green stone so many centuries ago.
Web Address: Camino Real Oaxaca
Total Number of Rooms: 91
Published rates: Rooms $239-435
Review and photos by Paige R. Penland
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