Thursday, September 19, 2013

Victoria Ryan and Casa Encantada: The Wild Child Comes Home

by Alma Maria Rinasz

Victoria Ryan and Paloma, Photo Credit: Todd McIntosh
“I was a wild child,” Victoria Ryan tells me as we sit in La Compañia, a restaurant in Portal Oriente de Matamoros on a stormy Patzcuaro August afternoon. I laugh. “No really, I was certified by the State of California as incorrigible.”  Victoria Ryan hotelier, painter, sculptor, self-declared hippie and naturalized Mexican, uses a cognate to describe herself. Using a word that means the same thing in two languages, provides some foreshadowing on this, our first meeting. The owner and operator of Hotel Casa Encantada, Ryan has named her hotel using a word that has two meanings in Spanish: enchanted and haunted.  She later explains this duality turned out to be a lot more significant than wordplay. 

Born in Australia and raised on Three Rivers Ranch in New Mexico, she moved with her mother to California after her parents divorced. Later, she lived in New York City where she went to the Brooklyn Museum Art School and in 1992, began her love affair with the picturesque Purepechan city of Patzcuaro. Ryan says that Patzcuaro is much like Santa Fe in the 1930s and 40s. “Patzcuaro is alive and vibrant [and similar to] Santa Fe, a place where people felt they could get away from commercialism and live a purer life.” Writers and artists flocked to Santa Fe searching for this purity and Patzcuaro has offered this same environment to Ryan.  The arts are closely linked to her love affair with Patzcuaro.  A painter and sculptor, her hotel is full of her and other artists artwork  Ryan is in good company as an artist and sculptor. Other artists have come to the area seeking that unadulterated atmosphere that is a part of Patzcuaro’s personality.  Most notably, Judith Deim, who arrived in Central Mexico as a part of a painting expedition funded by John Steinbeck.  An avid art collector, Ryan is proud of the pieces she has from Judith Deim and Tom Hamil.  Both influenced Ryan as a collector and artist.  Ryan and Deim became friends, and she describes Deim as a true gypsy and a “horse trader, wheeler-dealer artist”.  On one occasion, Deim’s had agreed to sell Ryan a painting and then asked her to leave it to be “cleaned up”.  Ryan never ended up with that particular picture as it turned out Deim had promised it to her daughter.  Ryan laughs as she tells the story. “I hung up on her when she told me the painting was for her daughter.”  Later, the two made amends and Ryan recalls Deim with affection and respect.

Front view of Ex-Colegio, Patzcuaro.

Patzcuaro Museum of Artes y Oficios.
Photo Ariel da Silva
Patzcuaro, Portal Matamoros

Patzcucaro vibrancy comes out in lights for the September Independence Holidays

Destiny Calls: Casa Encantada

Casa Encantada, built in 1784, is a colonial mansion that Ryan has painstakingly remodeled into a comfortable B&B boasting some of the only heated rooms in Patzcuaro.  At 7020 feet, this quaint town in the heart of Mexico can get very chilly. With gas fireplaces in every room, goose down comforters, heated king sized mattresses and fluffy flannel sheets, La Casa Encantada delivers on its name: it will wrap you up in warmth and keep you enchanted.

Hotel Casa Encantada, Main Patio.
But Ryan’s home was always so encantada.  There was a time when her home had some unwanted guests.  Ryan had initially intended her Patzcuaro home to be an artist’s retreat.  As she set about remodeling and redecorating, she found herself painting and repainting a particular room.  After complaining to a friend about not getting the color right, her friend told her she should consult a curandera.  “I just couldn’t get the color I wanted. And that was when my friend suggested I seek the help of a curandera.”  A traditional medicine practitioner or healer, curanderas are often referred to as brujas; witches, psychics or mediums.  Their services are retained so they can, through different rituals, clean out spaces (hacer limpias)  and remove bad spirits or energies from people. In the case of Victoria Ryan’s home, the curandera found several spirits.  La Casa Encantada turned out to be somewhat haunted.  “She said there was a starving man, a lonely child, a cook….” Ryan smiles as she recalls the limpia.  All these spirits were then set free with by the curandera’s rituals.  Then, after liberating the home of these spirits, the curandera told Ryan something else about her house.  She told her that her house, La Casa Encantada, was her destiny.  The wild child, it seems, has finally come home.

Victoria Ryan paints

A Prologue to the Prophecy

It is a chilly Patzcuaro evening and Ryan has invited me to visit her in her on-premise apartment.  Earlier that day, as I walk towards Hotel Casa Encantada, the aromas of linseed oil, damp earth and burning ocote greet me.  This evening, as I sit opposite Victoria Ryan, on an over-stuffed sofa, those same smells greet me once again.  Patzcuaro has a particular scent and feel to it and Victoria has not only become an expert at Patzcuaro life, she has become a Patzcuarense herself.  Ryan’s father, Thomas F . Ryan III, was born in Chihuahua. Thanks to the constitutional reform in 1998, children of Mexicans born outside of the country were granted the right to citizenship.  And fortunately for her, being the child of a natural born Mexican gave her the possibility to make Patzcuaro her permanent home.  The secluded nature of Patzcuaro had a real pull on Ryan.  When she first arrived to Patzcuaro she didn’t have a phone “you’d be on the waiting list for years and when I finally got a phone I wasn’t sure if I even wanted it. I ended up disconnecting it and locking it in a closet. That way if I wanted to use it, it would be when I wanted to communicate with someone, not the other way around.”  

Victoria tells me her story with genuine emotion.  Sipping red wine, she holds Paloma in her lap.  Paloma, Ryan’s faithful companion, is a mild-mannered long haired Chihuahua.  Paloma’s personality reflects that of her owner: she is serene and friendly.  Ryan is a mature woman who has all the confidence and tranquility that comes with age.  However, she insists she hasn’t always been so composed. At sixty-seven years old, Ryan has had her fair share of up and downs.  In her wild child days, she would often run away from home.  At sixteen, she gave birth to her first daughter and gave her up for adoption.  As a young woman in New York City she lived a “bohemian lifestyle”, studying art and marrying a writer.  After having her second child in 1972, Victoria adopted her nephew, Thomas Ryan V, after his mother died.  Then, after her divorce, she moved to California,  where she frequently visited Esalen and lived “the hippy life in a tepee.”  She tells me that she hasn’t always been clear on what direction her life was taking yet “my entire life I have had the feeling that I was being led.”  Maybe this feeling of being led is a little of that enchanted-ness that she has been able to recreate in her B& B combined with her own family history. 
Hotel Casa Encantada, second floor view

The Ryan family history reads like something between Taylor Caldwell’s A Prologue to Love and F.Scott Fitzgerald’s TheGreat Gatsby.(Ryan's greatgrandfather was Thomas F. Ryan,)   Drama, excesses, twists and turns, Ryan is quite open about her past and the Ryan family.  “My father was very wealthy and he was an alcoholic. He would go on these binges and find himself married to someone new. He was married, something like, eight times.”  Undoubtedly those experiences left their mark on Ryan.  Raised a Catholic, she now calls one of the world’s most Catholic countries home. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Ryan felt so comfortable in Patzcuaro.  Her Catholic upbringing was a part of Ryan family tradition.  Her great grandmother, Ida Barry Ryan, was a Countess of the Catholic Church, being the only person, a part from the dowager Queen of Spain, Maria Cristina, to have a private railcar chapel.
Casa Encantada Kitchen.
Patamban Pottery complete with original stove.

Her hotel, as it turns out, is suitably named since the town in which it is located is without a doubt enchanting.  Its colonial architecture, shuttered windows, indoor patios, authentic Mexican kitchen complete with Patamban pottery, set the stage for a real Mexican experience.  Ryan’s home feels, smells and is totally Mexican.  Patzcuaro has a particular scent and feel to it and Ryan enjoys telling me all about it.  “There are months’ worth of things to do and see in Patzcuaro”  she raves.  “The ex-colegio is doing a better job than ever at marketing and using all the rooms to showcase art, something they had never done before.” She continues to explain that in the Patzcuaro area, “there is art and artisans, history and archeology and people would be surprised to know how lush Patzcuaro is.”  Yet, she warns that “to live in Patzcuaro you need to be able to entertain yourself.  If someone needs external stimulation you’re not going to find it in Patzcuaro.” 

Photo Ariel Da Silva
Hotel Casa Encantada, is one of the top 25 hotels for service, number one for hotels in Patzcuaro and Traveler’s Choice for 2013 on Trip  It is a true haven and as Ryan puts it, one of the most beautiful colonial towns in Mexico.  It is a destination for anyone who wants to get to know what Mexico is really like.  It is in the heart of the country and Patzcuaro, a town that has been thriving for centuries, is the ideal location to be enchanted.  For more information, please visit 


  1. Beautifully written! Another one of the areas great women written by one of our up and coming talented writers. Great combination!

    Mary Lou

  2. Great story about a great woman! Would love to go back to see Victoria and Casa Encantada... someday!

  3. Hermosa historia, hermosa mujer, realmente un referente en Pátzcuaro! Te extraño, Victoria, amiga!!!!!

  4. Victoria Ryan is one of the loves of my life. I have known her for many years. Her Casa Encantada is a marvel: well run, comfortable, beautiful, and right in the center of Pátzcuaro, which is the beating heart of Michoacán.