For more than 30 years, Armando Canavati lived his father’s dream – working in the family-owned shirt factory in Monterrey, Mexico designing shirts and buying fabric on trips around the world. While in Thailand and other parts of southeast Asia, he was captivated by the variety of fresh fruits and flowers that he had never experienced before.
But, on his vacations, Armando would backpack into the jungle in the Mexican state of Oaxaca to live and work with the Zapotec Indians while learning about the flora and fauna of the jungle.
Finally, in 2003, Armando began living his own dream. He bought 300 acres of jungle on the Magdalena River and began building a botanical garden and destination for those who, like he, are enthralled by the raw beauty of this region.
The result is Hagia Sofia that now includes more than 300 kinds of plants, miles of walking trails, a variety of gardens, forests and waterfalls – all designed and planted by Armando and his staff of a dozen or more gardeners.
Oaxaca, the most biologically diverse state in Mexico, was the natural choice for building his dream. It took Armando and team nearly three years to clear the land and cut trails that highlight established trees and plants while planting new ones to complement the experience.
They planted about 100 mangrove trees because of their ability to hold water during the rainy season and release it to neighboring plants during the dry season. He also introduced teak and bamboo, pink cedar and Melina trees because of their sustainability.
The Flower Trail, identified in the Zapotec language as Nesa Stil Guie, winds for about 1500 feet alongside a bubbling creek and across bridges under the jungle canopy. Abundant growths of ‘Rainbow’ wagneriana (Heliconia wagneriana) flourish beside purple morado orchids (Cattleya skinneri) and other orchids.
A highlight of the path is the massive fern tree and the gentle textile pleasure of a ‘She Kong’ (Heliconia vellerigera), a plant collectors dream with purple backed leaves and woolly pendant flowers.
As we walked, the jungle filled with the call of black-billed magpie and other song birds, accompanied by the click-click of the white-tailed hummingbird and giant hummingbird. Armando told us that more than a dozen species of hummingbirds have been documented at Hagia Sofia and as many as 400 kinds of butterflies.
Hagia Sofia, which translates to Holy Wisdom, boasts nine kinds of banana trees and six kinds of avocados. A rambutan forest (In the family Sapindaceae), a tropical fruit that resembles a hairy covered grape, and numerous mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana) and noni (Morinda citrifolia) fruit trees contribute to the menu served for breakfast and lunch at an outdoor café.
Armando plans on building cabins for overnight guests and a more comprehensive full-service restaurant. He and his wife Lorraina, a yoga instructor, plan to host yoga retreats and other wellness seminars in the future. Admission, which includes breakfast or lunch and all of the time you like to explore the property is 700 pesos or about $35US.
WHEN YOU GO:
Hagia Sofia is located about 30 minutes from the Hautulco International and a similar distance to the hotel district of Hautulco.
You’ll find dozens of good hotels and resorts here, among them the Montecito Beach Village Resort, a 12-acre property designed into the landscape of one of the nine bays that distinguishes Huatulco. Each villa all but disappears into the hillside and foliage, creating a private, remote experience. Pots of basil, mint and other herbs contribute to each villa’s décor while providing flavor for those who choose to cook in their villas or have the chef prepare a meal from his own garden. A medicinal garden is another highlight of Montecito Village.
Just a few miles farther along Highway 200 from Hagia Sofia in the Santa Maria township is the village of Pluma Hildago. Nicknamed by some as Coffee Town, this hillside community is surrounded by 10 coffee farms. The aromatic village includes a number of coffee shops and gift shops from which to purchase freshly roasted, locally grown coffee beans.
Otherwise, Hualtuco is recognized around the world as a surfer’s paradise. Snorkeling, sport fishing and just about any water sport is popular for most who visit the area.
Oaxaca is the largest producer of peppers in Mexico, which means you’ll enjoy them in abundance in just about any dish. Green onions are also typical of Oaxacan cuisine. If you love a good mole sauce, you’ll be delighted to learn that it originates in Oaxaca, as does mescal, a type of tequila.
Featured image: Rambutan fruit / Hagia Sofia
Based in the Kansas City area, Diana Lambdin Meyer and her husband Bruce, both members of the Society of American Travel Writers, always include public gardens and arboretums on their travel itineraries.