Deep in the fertile Bajío, a heartbeat from the balcony where Father Miguel Hidalgo declared Mexico's freedom from Spain, 450-year-old Hacienda las Trancas offers a contemporary stairway to heaven. In its earliest incarnation, the sprawling estate was a fort on the original Camino Real, where silver caravans enroute to Spain took shelter and the aforementioned priest hid weapons during Mexico's turbulent fight for independence. A century later, Pancho Villa took refuge in its bowels and renegade thieves buried treasure in a spot described in a 19th century letter, signed in blood, that no one has yet deciphered.
Today Hacienda las Trancas sits serene and unimposing in a friendly village nestled against the mighty Sierra Madres—one of the few presidios not destroyed during the Mexican Revolution. Thanks to TLC lavished on it by Stephen and Kelley Wilkinson, a North Carolina couple who gave new meaning to "early retirement" when they purchased the crumbling mansion in 2003 (after googling "haciendas for sale" on a lark), it now resembles one of Mexico's great castles.
With 11 opulent suites, a spa, heated pool/jacuzzi, gym, kitchen, organic garden, stables and vineyards, it's a colorful backdrop for destination weddings, reunions and other celebrations. While offering sumptuous private spaces and ample public areas to unwind and connect, the hacienda also encompasses "escapes" for any chance encounters with weird Uncle Harry or that crazy cousin.
The palatial accommodations, all with canopied beds, seductive baths and vaulted ceilings stretching 12+ feet high, surround a courtyard laced with tropical foliage and hammocks slung from columns and graceful archways. They include The Hidalgo, a honeymoon favorite, where Padre Hidalgo, the "Father of Mexican Independence," stayed when he visited.
Whether you're a newlywed, romantic, history buff or someone just seeking escape with the ones you love, here are seven steps to heaven at a hacienda dripping with history from the era of Spanish colonialism:
1. Reset your clock. Time slows to a 16th century beat at Hacienda Las Trancas. If its three-foot-thick adobe walls and enormous barreled ceilings could talk, they'd tell tales of murder, passion, lust and betrayal. Strolling over cobblestones in the now peaceful courtyard, you may still hear the murmurs of Father Hidalgo and Mexican Revolutionary General Pancho Villa, who inadvertently saved the hacienda from destruction when he camped out on the premises during the war in Dolores Hidalgo.
2. Head for the Heart. Nothin' says lovin' like something from a Mexican oven. Find the heart of Hacienda las Trancas in Señora Yolanda's kitchen. Once a street chef, the ever-smiling Mother Hen of culinary operations now serves up freshly-made tortillas, guacamole, tropical fruit aguas and such regional delicacies as Huevos Rabos de Mestiza (poached eggs swimming in tomato-cheese sauce) and Torta de Papa en Flor de Calabasa (potato pancakes cradled in squash blossoms) using organic produce from the hacienda's garden. At hands-on cooking classes, learn to make your own Sopa de Tortillas (a quintessential Mexican soup made with tortillas, tomatoes, avocado and cheese) and Helado de Mango fresco (mango ice cream).
3. Rev it Up. Cycle through Dolores Hidalgo, the "Cradle of Mexican Independence," where colorful Talavera pottery is plentiful; artsy San Miguel de Allende, fondly known as "Gringo Gulch" thanks to its community of American expats; and charming Guanajuato, a student town brimming with silver trinkets, on a Bike Beyond Boundaries tour based at the hacienda. Enjoy exclusive use of the premises over a Presidents Day Weekend 2012 "Biking Through the Legends of Colonial Villages" adventure that will transport you to the era of Spanish conquistadors yet provide all modern comforts, e.g., WiFi, satellite TV, airport transfers and concierge services by an exceptionally accommodating hacienda staff.
4. Slow it Down. After a rugged ride over desert terrain, soothe tired muscles with a deep tissue or hot stone massage; reflexology therapy or facial. Talented masseuses from the local village run the on-site spa, offering a range of treatments using European spa products, fruits and essential oils augmented with fresh honey, flowers and seeds from the hacienda's 10 acres. All are compelling priced at $20-$35 per session.
5. Soak It In. An afternoon at La Gruta, a nearby thermal hot springs, is a must for hacienda guests. Popular with expats from San Miguel de Allende, the springs draw guests for their medicinal properties, three pools and dark tunnel leading to an Indian Jones-style cave replenished by a soothing waterfall. Relax on the property's expansive lawns and enjoy lunch and local brews at the on-site restaurant. Entrance is 90 pesos you'll never miss!
6. Tie the Knot. What better place to walk down the aisle than at one of North America's most magical, accessible and surprisingly affordable warm-weather colonial castles? If the question hasn't been popped, a stay at Hacienda las Trancas may inspire a proposal! Once committed, avail yourself of full destination wedding coordination through Colorado Springs, CO-based Beyond Boundaries Travel.
7. Ride Into the Sunset.
Saddle up and explore desert flora and fauna on a ride led by Juan Antonio, manager of the hacienda's stables. Trotting by ancient cacti and stray cattle, the seasoned equestrian may reveal legends of the past as you make your way over low streams and desert brush.
Alternatively, hop on one of the hacienda's mountain bikes and peddle through the village, where you may learn how tiny Trancas has been transformed by an American couple whose retirement dream turned into an enduring romance with a community. In addition to creating jobs (all 21 of the hacienda's staff are from Trancas), the Wilkinsons run Projecto Pueblito, supporting local education, village infrastructure, needy families and start-up businesses.