Postcards: Down Mexico Way

Pilots visit Hacienda de los Santos

March 1, 2009

Are you itching for a real flying adventure? Consider taking a flying trip into Mexico. Flying in and out of Mexico is easier than most U.S. pilots realize, fuel is less expensive, and the flying weather is almost always good. There are big westernized resorts and destinations, but there are also quiet resorts where flowers, balmy weather, and historic sites blend with lazy days.

Hacienda de los Santos

Hacienda de los Santos—House of the Saints—is a resort and spa in Alamos, a little town in the state of Sonora in northwestern Mexico. Jim Swickard and his wife, Nancy, of Tucson, Arizona, own the resort. Alamos is 440 nautical miles southeast of Calexico, California, and 330 nm south of Tucson.

Hacienda de los Santos is a luxurious, unique property that is listed in the guidebook Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Only 10 hotels are listed in all of Mexico. And it’s no stretch to say that luxury resorts built in the southwestern United States during the past 20 years are striving for the look that is authentic at this hotel resort. Yet stays at the Hacienda are surprisingly reasonable, especially compared to four- and five-star resorts north of the border.

The Club Pilotos de Mexico

As an enticement for pilots to fly to the Hacienda, Swickard created the Club Pilotos de Mexico. It’s a very exclusive club—member pilots must successfully land at the Alamos airport, they must be PIC when they land, and they must stay at the Hacienda. There are now more than 500 members in the club, which gathers twice a year for four days to trade flying stories, listen to guest speakers, and enjoy the company of like-minded souls. During the March 2008 reunion, Club Pilotos members and spouses arrived in 25 airplanes that ranged from a 1947 Beech Bonanza to a Cessna Citation Bravo.

“My wife and I come here a couple of times a year. This year we’re here for five nights. That’s the best way to do it. A couple of nights is too short for me. There’s a beautiful hangar here for airplanes. I just can’t say enough about it,” said club member Russ Margiotta. Fly-in visitors are given access to the Hacienda’s hangar on a first-come, first-served basis. There is also a full-time watchman on the airport.

During the March fly-in, most of the guests were content to visit with each other, answer the call of the full service spa, catch up on their reading, or relax in the sun by the clear waters of the pools within the Hacienda’s walls. The “Hacendados,” the Hacienda’s own Mexican music quartet, played every evening. Other entertainment included road trips in the Hacienda’s open-air, six-wheel-drive Pinzgauzer all-terrain vehicle to local sites including the ancient mining town of Aduana. It’s there, from an exterior wall of a church that dates back to 1630, that a cactus grows. Believers say that they see the Virgin Mary in the shadow of the cactus.

Day trips usually include a flying expedition to view the wonders of Copper Canyon (Barranca de Cobre), Mexico’s Grand Canyon; guided tours of noteworthy homes in town—a $12 charge is collected to help defray the costs of sending local children to secondary school; and a visit to the state-run El Museo de Costumbres, which provides a glimpse into Alamos’ past. The museum has a special section devoted to Dr. Ortiz Tirado, an Alamos resident who was known as the Caruso of Mexico.

During each pilot’s club week, visiting chefs give cooking lessons from 10 a.m. until noon in the resort’s teaching kitchen. The Swickards’ resort is so compelling, peaceful, and comfortable that many pilots return again and again. Visitors realize they’ve come upon a special place. “My wife and I are from San Carlos, California. We first came to the Hacienda in May 2004. It’s a phenomenal facility. We will be back,” said Bob Dobel, who attended the club meeting with his wife, Marianne.

“I discovered the Hacienda de los Santos in Alamos after attending AOPA Expo in Palm Springs eight or nine years ago and, once I flew down, I haven’t stopped coming back,” said Bob Halvorson of Green Valley, Arizona, and Eugene, Oregon.

Building the Hacienda de los Santos

In 1988 the Swickards purchased the first of the three mansions and an ancient sugar mill that comprise the grounds of the Hacienda resort. Over the past 15 years these have been restored to their former splendor by local craftsmen. Alcoves and secluded patios—many of which gather around small outdoor fireplaces—are tucked into corners and open on small courtyards within the walls of the Hacienda complex. Few things are as intimate or romantic as taking breakfast or enjoying a secluded dinner outdoors at a private table before the warmth of a dancing fire in one of these alcoves. Guests need only ask for these small special treats.

There are only 27 guest rooms. Each has a fireplace and lounging area, is tastefully appointed, and has amenities that promise to please the most discriminating guests. The Swickards have decorated the Hacienda with folk art, carvings, and artifacts ranging from a bullfighter’s suit of lights to retablos, religious paintings on tin. The beautiful restoration of the architecture, the profusion of vibrant greenery and flowers, and the unique and the wide variety of the art and artifacts present a combination that impresses even the most travel-jaded visitor.

Perhaps it’s these surprises, or the courtyards with the fountains and pools, or maybe the explosion of bougainvillea that strikes a counterpoint with the muted colors of the buildings, or the cordiality of the staff—every guest at the March Club de Pilotos meeting had visited the Hacienda before.

Jim Hinnen and his wife, Shirley, retired to Durango, Colorado, after building a successful auto repair business. “We’ve flown our IO-550-powered Cessna 182 down five times in the last 12 months,” said Hinnen during dinner one evening. “For the first time last year, our kids didn’t come home for Christmas, so we spent our Christmas at the Hacienda. It was a real experience to experience Christmas in a small town in Mexico,” said Hinnen.

Silver bricks for the new bride

Silver was discovered in 1663 at Aduana, a small village a few miles west of Alamos. By the eighteenth century the mines had driven Alamos’ population to more than 30,000. Architects and mine supervisors sent from Andalusia, Spain, built palatial Spanish Colonial-style homes. Legend tells of a local silver baron who laid silver bricks at the entrance of his home to celebrate his daughter’s wedding day. By the 1880s the value of silver fell, the mines were no longer profitable, and the town’s fortunes and prospects plummeted.

Alamos was rediscovered on a small scale after World War II. In time it became a restful haven for Hollywood stars and wealthy patrons such as actors Carroll O’Connor, Rip Torn, and Mary Astor—all of whom contributed to the restoration of the existing Spanish colonial buildings. In spite of the influx of gringos, not much has changed. The streets are still narrow and cobbled and, like most south-of-the-border villages, life centers on the Plaza de Armas, the town square. The bell tower of the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Concepcion, a Catholic cathedral that has stood in the center of town since 1786, stands high above the town at the south end of the square.

Pueblo Magico

Alamos is the northernmost of the colonial towns in Mexico and also the northernmost of Mexico’s 23 Pueblos Magicos (magic towns). The Pueblos Magicos program was started in 2001 to identify towns of special historic or religious value. This program channels federal, state, and local efforts toward improving each town’s infrastructure. In Alamos, funds have been set aside to move electrical power and telephone services underground prior to removing the supporting poles. In 2000, 188 buildings in Alamos were added to Mexico’s National Historic Monuments list.

On January 15, 2009, Mexican officials temporarily granted Alamos airport international airport status. This change allows U.S. fly-in visitors to land at Alamos to clear customs, obtain tourist visas, and file flight plans. Previously fly-in visitors to the Hacienda were required to land and obtain these services from airports at Ciudad Obregon or Guaymas before taking off again for Alamos. The international airport status trial period runs until April 1, 2009; check the Hacienda Web site for updates.

In the classic vacation paradox, as the magic of the Hacienda gently soothed each guest, the days flew by. In what felt like no time, 96 hours had slipped by. Dinner companions and new-made friends paused after dinner to share a few brief thoughts and wishes before they eased away to their rooms. Beds have been turned down, small chocolates left on each pillow, and warming fires laid during the evening dinner hour. On Sunday, club members collected addresses and phone numbers before departing for home.

In mid-October 2008, a freak nighttime cloudburst from Hurricane Norbert caused the three rivers that flow through Alamos to rise above flood stage and flow through the village. Relief and rebuilding efforts put the town back on its feet. Less than four weeks later the Hacienda had been restored and was again welcoming guests.

There’s really no need to fly across broad oceans for a chance at peace and quiet at an old world resort—your personal airplane is the perfect magic carpet to this exquisite and surprisingly reasonable spa resort destination.

Steven W. Ells is a former technical editor of AOPA Pilot magazine.

Easy flying into and out of Mexico

Considering flying into Mexico? The AOPA Pilot Information Center online has all the information you need to plan a safe and hassle-free trip. In addition to information such as charts, required documents, and flight operations in Mexico, the PIC online site has detailed information on the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Electronic Advance Passenger Information Systems (eAPIS), which becomes mandatory for cross-border flights May 18, 2009; Mexico’s position on 406 MHz ELTs; and Mexican notam AO313/08 on flying into Mexico from the Caribbean or Central or South America. You’ll also find trip reports from fellow AOPA members about their flights to and from Mexico. Visit the Web site.