Building the Dream


A boutique hotel has been on our bucket of dreams list for at least a decade. It’s been shaped by our travels around the world and our love of sharing each new home with family and friends. John’s homeland is the Philippines. Mine, Southern California. We met when I joined Peace Corps as an “older volunteer” in 1989. Six years later we met again when I was working for Peace Corps as a trainer in Mongolia and wanted a traveling companion through China. That amazing journey led us to cruising the world together and gathering adventures that we probably wouldn’t have encountered if we had traveled solo. In 1995 John proposed on the Great Wall of China, we married, and since then we’ve lived in Turkmenistan, Romania, Denver, Suriname, and now San Cristóbal de Las Casas. During our years in Colorado, I traveled to other countries on short-term assignments….Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, Bosnia, and Kiribati. Retirement offered us an opportunity to seek more adventures closer to family. In 2009 all of the pieces came together. While some of the pieces have since fallen out of place and we’ve had to find something stronger than Elmer’s Glue and duct tape to keep moving forward, our dream is taking shape, rock by rock and tile by tile. We’ll be ready to welcome our guests in March 2013.

During the time that we’ve lived in Mexico, we’ve gathered treasures from different parts of this beautiful country and Latin America. Huge clay pots from Chamula and Chanal, communities close to San Cristóbal. A wooden mirror that was sitting, a bit neglected, in a business that sells marble in Tuxtla Gutierrez. Copper pots from Puebla along with a beautiful blue antique iron gate with many layers of paint and a bit of wire to hold it together. As you enter La Joya Hotel and let your eyes wander past the malochite garden pool and up to the second story, you’ll see an antique iron balcony from Puebla and tin sconces from San Miguel de Allende. The balcony became our daughter-in-law’s inspiration for the logo she designed for La Joya Hotel. In the kitchen and in two of the guest rooms there are Talavera tiles from Juan Barrios in Dolores Hidalgo. There are old doors from San Cristóbal that serve as cupboards and tables. The León de Cerveza, well, we’re not sure what wall it graced before ours, but the beer was brewed in Veracruz.

The vision of La Joya Hotel is what has kept us going when torrents of rain flooded open rooms, when plaster fell off the walls prematurely, and each time “un ratito” (in a bit) stretched from fifteen minutes to fifteen days. All of our inherited and practiced perfectionism and linear thinking has been tested. And slowly we have mellowed, but not in our anticipation of providing the best hotel accommodations, service, and hospitality in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. We look forward to sharing our love for this community, the joy of walking down the andador and thinking that we must be in a movie set, of sitting on a bench and greeting people who have become our friends. And the people who have worked on the construction site daily to create amazingly detailed fireplaces and door surrounds, to raise stone walls and lay intricately tiled passageways…we have enjoyed and treasured their contributions to our dream.

So, let us share a couple of our visions. Each guest room in La Joya Hotel will have its own personality. Each will be colored by a bit of nostalgia wrapped in elegant fantasies. John will take the lead and describe our luxurious and made-for-comfort rooms.

La Duquesa Blanca (The White Duchess)

Imagine five ripe peaches dancing in a bowl the color of green celadon. Sitting next to it, you can almost smell a cup of fresh milk that has just been whisked into sweet surrender. On the same aged oak table, a casually folded monogrammed Belgian linen that has gracefully acquiesced to the caresses of time. . .

We took this vision to heart and created a room. Or, perhaps we created the room first that inspired the vision. Whatever it may have been, La Duquesa Blanca is sure to charm you with its slightly aged clay brick ceiling and wooden beams and carved corbels that may yet make you think that they were soaked in milk and massaged with honey balm until they glowed.

And the peaches? Well, they may not be in season when you come for a visit but we will surely put something just as delightful in your celadon bowl. Strawberries are always luscious in San Cristóbal, by the way. To cap this experience, your room features a bathroom that will surely bring out an affectionate smile, or merit a wolf whistle when you see the specially designed white on cream Talavera tiles. La Duquesa Blanca features a king size bed that can be easily made into two singles, and a cozy sitting area in front of a wood-burning fireplace. The latter setting, all the better to enjoy one of our many books in one hand while stoking the hearth with the other.

Orquidia Negra (Black Orchid)

Bold gestures and graceful manners. The Push and the Pull. The Swashbuckler and the Cultured Cognoscenti. Drama and irony at its best.

We adopted the Spanish colonial wooden beams and pechos de palomas, nicknamed them Mavericks, and stained them asphalt black. Literally. The locals have a word for it that resonates quite well: “chapopote.” It’s that clump of black tar that you can get for thirty-five pesos per kilo at the corner hardware store owned by the young couple, Victor and Sofia, on Calle Diego Dugelay. Well, our in-house artisans got hold of some clumps of “chapopote,” and did wonders with it. They stirred and stirred the mixture until it shimmered like liquid gold – except that it is black, of course. Forget about the expensive black cherry wood stain. Chapopote looks like black gold when applied on pine. You simply can’t go wrong with a wood staining process that the locals have been practicing for more than a hundred years.

Now that we had gleaming black beams, we focused our attention on the fireplace. Standing next to the glass-paneled window that is veiled in a gauzy curtain is the wood-burning fireplace . . . stately, unabashed, and unapologetic in white. Whoever said that clashing design elements in a room create positive tension and thus facilitate discussion is a genius! And positive and endearing discussions it will be with your significant other as you laze in your sumptuous king size bed or kick back in front of your private fireplace. Oh, did we say bold? We conveniently forgot Grandma’s conventional wisdom regarding mixing colors such as black and blue and listened to our heart. Wait until you see your Mexican Talavera over mount sink in the bathroom. It is quite an exquisite piece if we may say so. Never have swirls of black and scrolls of blue scored a more perfect design knockout than this one.

Sorbo de Amaretto (Sip of Amaretto)

He came into the room and headed straight towards the corner fireplace. His eyes went up past the top of the mantelpiece and surveyed the old artwork. A painting of a king? Maybe a saint. King or saint, this one is different. He knew that the image staring back at him was painted but this piece is quite . . . intriguing. The whole painting is covered in burnished metal save for the face and the raised palm. Tarnished gold maybe? Antique brass, actually. He could see the raised outline of the majestic crown that frames the face of the man in the painting. His eyes traced the outline of the magnificent crown, down to the shoulder of the man in the painting, as his own mouth displayed the possibility of fulfilling the promise of a delighted grin. Ah, discovery!

His young curious mind sated, he walked towards the leather chair and sat down as he let his gaze wander about. “This is beautiful,” he heard himself say. Even the color of the leather chair he was sitting in reminded him of something he couldn’t quite articulate. His father, as if reading his mind, suggested, “Amaretto, my boy. Amaretto,” as he reached for the Bohemian glass decanter on top of the corner table. “This room is as good as a discovery made and a promise fulfilled.”

Postscript: Our Sorbo de Amaretto room celebrates Victor, a real life Mexican boy with slick back hair of no more than nine years, who walked into our living space not too long ago, and looked up and around like a savvy appraiser. His eyes danced among the found objects: antique bowl from Bukhara, 19th century gilded candlesticks from Puebla, and a silver plated monstrance from an abbey in France. “Es bella!” the young chap declared. That was another time and place, on Calle Tapachula, at Helga’s casita. We since have moved into our own space, but we have retained the same design sensibilities that would still make dapper nine-year olds with slick back hair swoon.

Las Columnas (The Columns)

The message reached us in Suriname, formerly known as Dutch Guyana, in December a few years back. It read: “We found six vintage wooden columns salvaged from a house undergoing ‘modernization’ in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Please see attached photos. Shall we buy them?”

We looked at the photos. We printed the attachments. Nice wood. Handsome is the word. Reddish, some smudges of yellow paint. Is that really yellow paint? Or is the yellow tinge only a computer printing problem? Hmm, no carvings on the wood. Wish there were some floral or botanical carvings. . . We avoided making a decision for a few nights and then looked at the photos again. That’s when we saw what we initially missed. What the wooden columns lacked in fancy they more than made up with . . . gravitas! Massive. Tall. Proud. I guess when you already have these three qualities, no need to look for a fourth. Of course it helps that your peerage has a nice ring to it: Juniperus Virginiana. Or in layman’s parlance: Red Cedar.

We bought all six and installed two in your bathroom. We figured that two proud sentinels standing guard as you enter your rain shower area would be a perfect compliment to your carved marble sink bowl and view to the pine-clad hills of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

But that’s just the bathroom. Let’s talk about Jeanne Hebuterne, Modigliani’s common law wife. Anyone who has seen Modigliani’s series of paintings of Ms. Hebuterne must have been mesmerized for a few minutes longer than necessary. Ah, those reds! We used Jeanne’s red skirt as a jump-off point and layered in a little bit of gold, a dash of walnut, a splash of celery green and tied them all up with a creamy white velvet ribbon. Metaphorically speaking. The overall effect: sheer enchantment for the duration of your stay.

La Boheme

We’ve had discussions over several breakfasts, countless Sunday lunches, and hundreds of Hershey’s Kisses spread over two years.  “Can we put a vintage carved walnut French settee in front of the fireplace? It’s not exactly Mexican.”

But what is Mexican? To get a feel of Mexican history and lifestyle, one need only to scour flea markets and the antique shops of Mexico. Maximilian and Carlota of Austria, more than a hundred years ago, certainly did pave the way for the import of crystal chandeliers from Venice, gilded chairs from France, marble fountains from Italy, and everything else that raised a toast to the good life, never mind the provenance nor the country of origin.

We did not get the gilded chairs for you but in true Mexican spirit we will join you in celebrating the joy of living. How about a slab of pink marble that was carved out to form the shape of a giant clam shell and now serves as your bathroom sink? "Very 1940's and very nice," so said Don Carlos in Puebla as he prepared to ship the item. Or perhaps, on a tranquil afternoon you can marvel at the view of San Cristóbal's pine-clad hills and later let the elegant wrought iron canopy bed that Don Lauro of Calle Flavio A. Paniagua has fashioned help you launch the first of your hundred pleasant dreams.

As for the carved walnut French settee in front of the fireplace…Well, we are pretty sure our beloved Aunt Louise would say, "This Charming and graceful piece could not have looked more Mexican in any other setting."