Franjipani. Photo Credit: Phyl Doppelt
Hacienda San Angel overlooks the magnificent Banderas Bay, where the Sierra Madre Mountains meet the azure waters of the Bay in a tangle of frangipani, bougainvillea, and yellow trumpet flowers. Staying here will whisk you back in time to the era of Richard Burton, who visited this very spot with his latest wife Suzy Hunt, a gorgeous, long-legged model half his age, closely following his second divorce from Elizabeth Taylor, one year prior.
It was here that in the throes of love, Burton presented his newest bride, with a three-bedroom home, high up in the hills of Puerto Vallarta on Valentine’s Day in 1977. Named Casa Bur-Sus, incorporating both of their names to consolidate their bond, they moved into their lovenest shortly after. Alas, like Richard Burton’s other marriages, this one had an early expiration date, and he and Suzy were divorced in 1982, never to share the retreat with the magical view again.
Casa Bur-Sus, however, continues, now totally refurbished and enlivened under the name Hacienda San Angel. The hotel centers around the original building of Casa Bur-Sus and is now one of the most beautiful small hotels of the world, offering an escape from the hurly-burly of the exterior streets inside its serene interiors and kaleidoscopic landscaped gardens
Casa Bur-Sus was located in a neighborhood known previously as “Gringo Gulch” thanks to the number of ex-pats it attracted from the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It is an exclusive neighborhood, nonetheless, with “forever” views from its place built into the hills above Puerto Vallarta, away from the noise of a still-thriving tourist town.
Perilously winding cobblestone streets, barely wide enough for two cars to pass, climb up the precipitous hillsides of Gringo Gulch, now called Centro, leaving behind the touristy neighborhood known as the “Romantic Zone” of Puerto Vallarta, with its aimless tourists and street vendors selling inexpensive crafts and T-shirts. It’s up and onwards for more airy sights, including Casa Sur-Bas.
Casa Bur-Sus commenced its second life in 1990 when Mrs. Janice Chatterton from San Francisco purchased it from Suzy Hunt, who was now remarried. Mrs. Chatterton enjoyed living in Casa Bur-Sus and used it as her second home, occupying it from May to October. Each year, she would invite her daughter and three grandchildren to join her for a couple of weeks where they would spend time at “Grandma’s house.”
But in 1996, Mrs. Chatterton suffered a terrible loss. Her only son passed away unexpectedly as a result of a motorcycle accident, a tragedy that left her inconsolable. She continued living in California, but her grief was overwhelming in the old places. Two years later she sold her home and departed for Puerto Vallarta to take up permanent residence.
Once settled, she began renovating her Casa Burs-Sus home with historical pieces and religious relics from local churches which were closing down and simultaneously rescuing dogs. It was here that she was able to hide her grief in her two biggest loves: shopping for antiques and saving dogs. The result of Mrs. Chatterton’s passion for acquiring antiques and accessories was not only a consolation for her: it validated the now totally redecorated Casa Bur-Sus. Whoever saw it raved about the way she had refurbished her home, suggesting she should rent the rooms. Tour bus guides approached her with similar suggestions.
Finally, her grief began gave way to the passion of ongoing acquisition and renovation of adjacent properties around Casa Bur-Sus, a catalyst for creating an ever-expanding place for visitors to rent and stay while providing rooms for her treasures and rescues. And, in time, it became what it is today.
The B&B opened in 1999 and was the nascence of what would become Hacienda San Angel. Thus began Janice Chatterton’s first foray into the world of hospitality — no previous experience!
CREATING THE INTERIORS.
Driven by her passion, Janice Chatterton continued to pour her heart and soul into the more recent improvements and worked with a determination to make them as beautiful and perfect as she could — with great success. She had never studied interior design and was not an architect or a real estate developer, but once she began this project, she took on all three roles and continued the acquisition of exceptional furniture and furnishings with the same fervor with an instinctive decisiveness.
Recent searches of the property failed to reveal any leftover architectural drawings and it would seem that she did the revivification using an architectural style known as ” a show of the hands,” describing to the people doing the work how she wanted it to look and relying on their talent to interpret and implement her vision. Fortunately for her, Mexico had and has excellent builders, craftsmen and stonemasons who are skilled in doing just that.
The collections were eclectic and diverse. Colonial Mexican and Spanish Colonial furniture: hand-carved armoires, headboards, dining room tables, and chairs, bells from belfries, candelabras, lights, pottery, porcelains, and handpainted tiles. Once it became known locally what was happening at the house, people began offering her antiques! The real windfall came when Museo Munoz Acosta, Puerto Vallarta’s only art museum, closed in 2003. Janice acquired large oil paintings, armoires, and even a French 16th Century French Gothic steeple that was built into the Francisco Suite.
As was the case with the steeple, as interesting as the collections were, more fascinating was the way Janice masterfully incorporated these antiques into the rooms. I suspect this was also done with “a show of the hands”, as she placed each piece of furniture, hung each artwork, and knew exactly where each collection of tiles would go. As an untrained interior designer, Mrs. Chatterton had a gift of placing her collections, each one in its specific place. Though this is a profession usually requiring years of training, she seems to have done it without even thinking, like an automatic reflex. She just knew!
There are many features that set Hacienda San Angel apart from other hotels: it is the epitome of an anti-chain hotel. This level of furnishings would never be possible in most hotels and it was Janice’s cultivated taste that raised the bar. Most commercially viable hotels would not have a budget for this collection, and as she was also the accountant — as well as the designer and architect — she was free to spend whatever she wanted in the pursuit of her dream!
When the Hacienda was completed, it had twelve guest suites, surrounding the large open-air atrium, connected by bricked staircases and colorful flowerbeds. The entire property has the appearance that it has been there for generations because many of the original features were kept or restored and mature trees and shrubs were included in the new landscaping, blending the old and the new seamlessly.
MEETING THE NEW OWNER OF HACIENDA SAN ANGEL
Driving up the narrow winding cobblestone streets of Centro, I arrived at the hotel located at Calle Miramar 336. The hotel logo was discretely painted on the wall and some antique tiles surrounded the double wooden door with a black iron lamp on either side. At the double wooden door, I found a heavy rope with an instruction to “pull;” I did so and it must have connected with a bell inside.
The bell brought a uniformed member of staff to the door. I was expediently welcomed inside and offered a refreshing iced drink as I sank into a relaxing chair in the covered atrium that connects all the suites. Inside is calm and tranquility as one leaves the outside world and is encapsulated into this magnificent setting, with mature trees, rambling bougainvillea, and perfumed gardenias. Steps lead to different levels, and each level opens up another vista — over rooftops, over the iconic Guadalupe Church, or clear across the Bay of Banderas. Everything is harmonious and it is like a stage-set that has been here forever.
I already knew that Mrs. Chatterton had passed away in 2019 because I had seen an obituary in the press, wherein she was praised for the work she had accomplished in opening and running the SPCA in Puerto Vallarta and saving the lives of thousands of animals. She created a no-kill sanctuary to care for and rehabilitate wounded or sick dogs that was expanded to have a therapy spa and accommodate up to 80 dogs by the time she died. She also created a network of people in Canada that worked with her to adopt dogs there, and from which “orphans” are flown in from Mexico. It is clear, though not as physically obvious at the property, that creating the sanctuary was as important as was the acquisition of antiques in helping her to overcome the loss of a son.
My appointment to view the Hacienda was with Paula Castaneda, who is of course Janice’s daughter. Sitting in the atrium, she related how after her mother’s sudden and unexpected passing in 2019, the family was in shock and overcome with terrible grief at not being able to say goodbye. In the circumstances, Paula had to make a quick decision to upend her life in San Francisco and take over the running of the Hacienda or to let the property go. With no experience in hospitality — much like her mom — she faced a quick learning curve as she settled into her new role.
Paula kindly offered to walk me through the Hacienda. It is staggeringly beautiful, with views in every direction. If it is not a view of the ocean or the mountains out the nearest window, then it is a view over the rooftops of the lush, colorful interior gardens.
A series of outdoor staircases, their bricks worn with age, connect the different levels to the suites, interspersed with tropical flowers and leafy climbers that grow along the walls. Deep burgundy bougainvillea in full bloom had been trimmed to make it manageable, and an ancient white magnolia with a thickened trunk, its perfume wafting in the air, grows near a two-tiered trickling fountain that backs up to an old brick wall.
Each bedroom leads into a living room that opens to an outdoor veranda with lounging furniture to relax and enjoy the views. The common thread that ran through the decoration of the bedrooms was that they each had a handsome hand-carved headboard, a large antique armoire, and an oversize original oil painting. Old Persian rugs, their colors mellowed by age, lay casually on the red clay tile floors.
The beds are made up with fine, white cotton linens that mirror see-through white gauze drapes hung on the windows or billowed in the breeze hanging from the corners of a four-poster bed. No two suites were identical, but each one was artfully curated, and I marveled at the talent of the person who had created this masterpiece of decoration. I felt I was visiting a friend’s home, rather than a hotel.
Throughout there are little vistas and private nooks where one can read a book or sit quietly with one’s thoughts, surrounded by nature. The property has three swimming pools, on different levels, with comfortable chaise lounges surrounding each Each one has fountains, too, and statuary and vegetation clinging to the wall. There is room service all day and this extends to the guestrooms and all outdoor areas.
As for the rest of Mrs. Chatterton’s collection of interesting antiques, they are distributed throughout the Hacienda, from wooden horses that are slightly comical and very “country,” dining room tables and chairs for an outdoor meal, a row of large church bells that are suspended from the roofline and several oversized candelabras in the gardens.
At the end of the day, as the sun is setting, it is as if a switch is flipped and the atmosphere becomes magical. Each tall candelabra’s candles are lit by hand, and twinkling candles line the walkways and steps. Altogether, each evening about two hundred and fifty candles are hand lit, turning the gardens into this magical wonderland.
In the evening I accepted an invitation to join Paula for dinner at the top-tier Hacienda San Angel Gourmet, the in-house restaurant — another exquisite experience. We walked through the candle-lit courtyard, to one of the outdoor staircases with leafy climbers clinging to the walls, arriving at the rooftop level that revealed an expansive open-air dining area. Our table had views to one side across the Bay of Banderas and to the other, the iconic Church of our Lady of Guadalupe. It felt everything was staged, as the sun was disappearing and the moon was coming up on the opposite horizon.
Service was impeccable, and Mexican and imported wines were poured by a knowledgeable sommelier, who shared his knowledge of the wines and made his recommendations to accompany our order. The wine was a Chenin Blanc from Baja California, Mexico, and the sommelier poured it into a chilled glass, frosty on the outside to keep it at its recommended temperature. It was the color of golden corn and was smooth on the palate with a long finish.
The menu is well balanced, serving International and Mexican dishes that are creatively plated on a table set with fine white gold-crested china and handblown stemware. The wine paired perfectly with Chilean Sea Bass, which was creatively plated with baby vegetables and a complementary sauce.
In season, on Sundays, it is also a daytime venue where an extensive brunch is served and outside guests are welcome at the dinners and the brunch.
And then, as if on cue, a band of twelve mariachis arrived to serenade the diners. They were dressed impeccably in white traditional Mexican costumes, immaculately groomed from head to the tip of their shining boots. Each one was a study in concentration as they lifted their musical instruments in unison to begin playing, or do a few dance steps to the tempo of the music.
As the sun was setting, the iconic Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe was silhouetted against a darkening sky, lit by the last rays of the sun, and I wondered to myself, could it be real or, was it my imagination!
This then was my experience of a few hours at Hacienda San Angel, a setting tucked away from place and time, yet perfectly in tune with itself and its surroundings.
WHO VISITS HACIENDA SAN ANGEL?
Hacienda San Angel is for the sophisticated traveler seeking a unique experience in luxury accommodations, where they can escape the commonplace. The hotel is a romantic spot, ideal for couples or singles of any age and, unsuitable for children. It has 12 luxuriously appointed suites and offers five-star service 24 hours a day.
The luxury hotel market is proliferating to keep pace with the demand from people who can afford and expect the best, but many luxury hotels belong to conglomerates, or global brands, that are turning out carbon copies of luxury hotels.
Hacienda San Angel stands out as a maverick in a sea of chain hotels and repetitive design. With a one-of-a-kind design that melds with the setting, it has arrived at its own unique aesthetic, to appeal to the discerning traveler.
The Hacienda San Angel Family.
Established and developed in 1999 by Janice Chatterton, following her death in 2019, the reigns were taken over by her daughter, Paula Castaneda, who has maintained the high standards of hospitality set by her late Mother. The transition appears to be seamless as new and returning guests continue to find their way to Hacienda San Angel, nestled in the hills above Puerto Vallarta. The legacy of Hacienda San Angel has been handed to a new generation to be carried forward catering to its select clientele.
Hacienda San Angel.
All major Airlines connect to Puerto ‘Vallarta, including, United, Delta, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Jet Blue, and Aero Mexico. Take a taxi from the airport to Hacienda San Angel or request a personal driver to meet you at the airport.
There are several tour companies operating in Puerto Vallarta, covering a selection of interesting tours:
English speaking publications: