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Casa Vieja–Mexico City, Mexico

Eugenio Sue 45, Polanco, Mexico City, Mexico

"Charming," "intimate," "colonial" are not words usually associated with Mexico City hotels, especially the better ones. For years, glass–and–concrete towers with ample parking set the standard for luxury. But that changed when the small but sumptuous Casa Vieja came on the scene, forcing tourism officials to revise their ranking system and invent a whole new classification: categoría especial, or special category.

With its rustic stone–and–stucco facade, plant–filled balconies, and delicate wrought–iron gate opening onto an antique–filled foyer, Casa Vieja is the kind of prototypically plush colonial–style retreat San Miguel de Allende is famous for––only it happens to be in Mexico City. Nearly 15 years after it first opened, the capital's original boutique hotel still manages to surprise guests, and induce passersby to do a double take, with its unabashedly anti–urban aesthetic, a gleeful tribute to Mexico's Old World heritage.

Casa Vieja

Casa Vieja's colonial feel is all the more surprising when you consider there was no 18th–century mansion to convert. Well–known TV anchor Lolita Ayala (a south of the border Katie Couric) and her then husband built the 10–suite refuge from scratch; he designed, she decorated, scouring Mexico's meccas of folk art for one–of–a–kind finds and relics to adorn the guestrooms and public areas. Made of polished stone tiles inlaid with hand–painted Talavera ceramics, the floors at Casa Vieja demand as much attention as the art–filled alcoves and walls.

The clientele is mostly European, thanks to Casa Vieja's inclusion in Johansens, the hotel directory of choice for well–heeled Continental globetrotters (it's the only Mexico City hotel to have earned a write up); about 25% of visitors are from the U.S. The guest book is filled with effusive thanks from personalities on both sides of the pond, from Mel Gibson to Bono, from Alizée to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and from Gwen Stefani to Thierry Mugler, who described his temporary residence as "a home out of a fairy tale." Latin American movie stars (Diego Luna spent his wedding night here), pop idols (Shakira, Luis Miguel) and heads of state (Mexico's current president) round out the list of personalities who have overnighted. Why are media magnets consistently drawn to Casa Vieja? Because "for us, discretion is of the utmost importance," says Sales Manager Martin Morales. "From check–in to check–out, our lips are sealed; plus the hotel is darling and it's in Polanco, which is very important."

Nestled in the heart of the city's posh residential and commercial district of Polanco, Casa Vieja is within walking distance of Mexico's Rodeo Drive, boutique–flanked Avenida Presidente Masaryk, and top–notch restaurants, which may explain why dining at the hotel isn't as spectacular as the setting. The cozy and gorgeous top–floor terrace restaurant offers alfresco seating with a view and abundant greenery––all hard to come by in this city––as well as warm, attentive service and a changing menu of hits and misses. A recent lunch featured a superbly fresh mango salad with just the right amount of cream cheese to offset the fruit's tanginess. The tortellini Bolognese that followed arrived cold, was whisked away with reassuring speed, and brought back promptly. Our waiter, it turned out, far outperformed the dish. Ask for water, and you'll get Voss, an expensive Norwegian import with pedigree. Ask for tea, and you'll get Lagg's, a Lipton of dubious origin. Rather than conclude that no one is minding the store, I suspect the majority of guests at Casa Vieja are salad eating coffee drinkers big on water. Customarily, they breakfast in, disappear for the rest of the day, and return in the evening for a nightcap in the now magically transformed terrace ablaze with lanterns and twinkling lights. Room service is adequate, if not indulgent, with service from 7 am to 11 pm, Monday to Friday, and from 8 am weekends.

Each lavishly decorated suite, or "casa," is named after a Mexican artist, is equipped with a kitchenette and sitting area, and decked with enough artwork to keep you browsing for the duration of your stay; even in–room refrigerators double as canvases, displaying hand–painted reproductions of works by the chosen artist. To the left of the hotel's intimate street–level entrance is Casa Frida Kahlo, a festival of color and texture, with tawny and indigo sponge–painted walls framing hand–carved wood furnishings from Central Mexico and canopied beds covered in hand–embroidered textiles from the southern states. Directly opposite the foyer, Casa Diego Rivera is just as rich. It's undeniably romantic, if you can overlook the fact that a door, lovely as it is, is the only thing separating you from the lobby and everyone in it. For a tad more privacy, opt instead for Casa Jose Maria Velasco, with its "refrigerated" landscape of the Valley of Mexico dominated by a billowing volcano, or better yet, Casa Lola, the luxuriously spacious Presidential Suite. Whichever you choose, you'll be surrounded by enduring images of a Mexico that's unique and inimitable.

Web Address:
Total Number of Rooms: 10
Published rates: $300 to $950

Review and photos by Shooka Shemirani.

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