How the other Half Lives: History, hot water, and lots of really nice pillows at the Ex-Convento San Pablo
“Honey," coached my husband straightening my coat collar, "this place is pretty nice. Try not to wipe your nose on your sleeve when we’re standing in the lobby.” With that, we were gracefully decanted onto the sidewalk and the driver swept our bags into the elegant gloom of Ex-Convento San Pablo Hotel on Fiallo and 5 de Mayo in downtown Oaxaca. Deep inside the hotel, from the candle-lit patio, the stone fountain purled, diners murmured, and glasses clinked. Sleek women with eyes like deer, and very pointy shoes clicked past us. I dug in my coat for Kleenex.
We had waited too long to make hotel reservations, and Oaxaca was stuffed with Christmas and New Year’s revelers. They had filled up our traditional digs where nose wiping, while sort of icky, is not scandalous, candlelight means the electricity’s out, and muddy Merrells are haute couture. This trip, Ex-Convento San Pablo offered us the last room in town and a glimpse of an up-scale Oaxacan hospitality we may never have seen of our own volition. We stayed for two, high-season days between Christmas and New Year’s for a whopping US $190 a night and then, four days later, both the season and the price plummeted, and the tab for even greater gobs of luxury was barely US$90.
Radiating Old World ambience, the Ex-Convento San Pablo was built in the early 1500s for Dominican nuns and retains a lot of that half-creepy, insane asylum-slash-convent, candle-lit tranquility juxtaposed nicely with modern indulgences like breezy patios and gouts of hot water in cavernous showers. The architecture is a granite and wrought iron chunk of Oaxacan history. Five years ago, restoration painstakingly preserved the convent’s sixteenth century design. Now, three stories of greenery-bedecked balconies rise up from the fountain’ed patio. In the vaulted cloisters, the convent’s original confessional booths are still there, worked right into the massive brick walls, and guests sit on sofas drinking coffee from little cups.
The gracious concierge is happy to show you the original little chapel just off the former sacristy now cozy bar, under the stairs. The chapel he says, was a “a nice surprise” when workers cleared away 400 years of rubble and stucco to reveal green and red curlicues of original murals and adornment on the chapel’s three foot thick walls and lofty ceilings. Today the chapel is used for weddings.
Up broad stone staircases with glimpses of sky and the huge verdigris dome of the neighboring Oaxaca Opera House, pots of geranium and bougainvillea gush over balconies.
Our room was a vast expanse of flagstone that led to a vast expanse of bed. Mounds of pillows rolled away to the horizon. In fact, on top of the mini-bar, beside the caligraphied parchment beer list, was a Menu of Pillows offering the pillow stuffings of your dreams from down to foam.
The Ex-Convento’s bathrooms feature delightful details like hand-made herbal soaps and bedside lamps. The first squares of the Kleenex and the toilet paper were origami’ed into peacocks. We are such proles, we tore them careful off and nestled them among the complimentary organic shampoos on the (also vast) gleaming marble vanity.
In the afternoon, the rooms at the Ex-Convento invite you to slip through the sitting room curtains to the breezy private patio to read and snooze as the hummingbirds nuzzle the bougainvillea. You can hear the hotel staff filling watering cans from the stone sinks and doing the laundry in the old convent kitchens. Gurgling and chuckling echoes pleasantly through the stone tracery. Room service is touted as being available all day, but no one answered the phone in the kitchen. Reclining in that pretty patio, it didn’t seem very important.
In the morning, the breakfast buffet in the central patio offers Oaxaquena cuisine chiliquiles, entomatadas, and black beans, as well as corn flakes, granola, and scrambled eggs with ham. Waiters wield jugs of fruit juice and coffee. As you savor a mug of Oaxacan breakfast chocolate, you can toy with the notion of hiring a hotel car and driver for $13.00 a day.
The Ex Convento’s only sin is noise. And, really, it can’t help it. Despite its best intentions and the installation of not only formidable, rough-hewn wooden shutters, but French doors and then a layer of sliding glass doors to get to the rickety ledge of a balcony, Oaxaca’s streets are noisy, full of putt and clatter, and bus brakes screaming all night. At nearly two hundred dollars a night even peccadilloes like street noise and a five- minute wait for the hot water to show up in third floor pipes, are hard to forgive, but at off-season prices, the ambience and service are fine. Ask for a room in the back, away from the street.
Until now, for us, a hotel room was just a pit stop to stow backpacks and rinse undies while traveling around lovely Oaxaca. Fifty bucks more for sluices of hot water, a vast, clean, and voluptuously pillowed bed, and a breezy little patio make the hotel room itself another example of Oaxaca’s graciousness.