There are places you go on your travels – places everyone tells you to go – simply because someone told you that it’s a ‘must see’. But sometimes these places can be overwhelmingly disappointing.
Like when I lived in Paris and everyone said I had to see the Mona Lisa. What a let down that was – it’s tiny! (Although the Louvre itself is a place to visit for sure.)
Or when we went to New York City and everyone said we had to go up the Empire State Building. We queued for hours and then when we got to the top we found a massive wire fence blocking the view. It was also so crowded people kept elbowing us as they tried to take selfies. We couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
Going where people say you should go = underwhelming
There’s no doubt in my mind that sometimes places a thousand other people recommend are overrated, often simply because a thousand other people have already been there and the place has lost its charm. Yet sometimes people spend so much money on going to these places ($46 to go up the Empire State – common people, it’s just a sky scraper!) that they feel they have to enjoy them. Either that or they have to at least pretend convincingly enough they had a good time (usually by posting photos on Facebook) so that they don’t feel like a fool because they wasted their money.
So when Denis, the owner of the lovely guesthouse we stayed at in Valladolid, told us that we should go check out this guy’s house because it had a lot of art in it, I was dubious.
Would I be tramping around a couple of rooms with a few paintings on the walls and wasting my time? Would the art be mediocre at best and would I find myself wishing we’d spent the afternoon at a cenote instead?
Thankfully, this wasn’t the case at all.
Inside Casa de los Venados
When we entered John and Dorianne Venator’s home, Casa de los Venados, off the main square of Valladolid, my jaw dropped. My mouth stayed pretty much open for the entire four hours we were there, and by the end of it I felt like I had lock jaw and was in need of a cheek massage.
Because get this – John and Dorianne have the largest private collection of Mexican folk art in Mexico. I’m not talking a couple of pieces here and there in each room – they have more than 3,000 artworks throughout their home.
Impressive doesn’t even cut it.
The beauty of Mexican folk art
Dave and I didn’t really have too much of an idea of what Mexican folk art was like before we went. I was thinking Day of the Dead, brightly coloured paintings of skeletons – that kind of thing – but I was seriously wowed by what was on display in Casa de los Venados.
Mexican folk art includes copper, pottery, paper maiche, paintings and sculptures. And whatever medium Mexican folk art is produced in, you can guarantee John and Dorianne have an example of it.
But it’s not just the artwork that’s impressive – the home itself is unlike any house I’ve seen before. A traditional colonial mansion built 400 or so years ago, when the Venators bought it the building was in ruins.
They spent eight years restoring it to its former glory – adding modern touches like an exercise room and a pool – but keeping the thumbprint of the architecture at the soul of the design.
It’s a home that would impress even Kevin McCloud, presenter of Grand Designs. Heck, this house was made for that show!
Oggling the impressive Casa de los Venados
My favourite part was probably the glass-bottomed bridge that spanned the swimming pool, leading from the main courtyard of the home to the outdoor bar. Now that is a place I could easily enjoy a cocktail or two in.
But aside from the fact that there are more than 18 bathrooms in the house, and numerous bedroomed suites, complete with their own gardens and lounge rooms, the house isn’t open for public stays.
In a way, I feel like the Venators are missing a trick here – people would pay hundreds – if not thousands – a night to be surrounded by Mexican folk art in such a historic building. But it’s obvious the Venators neither want nor need the money.
What the Venators have created has come completely from the heart, and it’s something they’re passionate about and have been for their whole lives – art collecting.
John brushed the thought away – he didn’t want his home to turn into a museum and he didn’t want to charge people to look at his collection.
But then his friend suggested another idea – why didn’t he open his home to the public and raise money for charity?
This was an idea John jumped on and it has been a roaring success. The Venators have raised thousands for local charities, from both donations received from visitors and hosting events at the house.
The Venators even had the CEO of PepsiCo Mexico visit, who then donated a large sum to get school children in from the local Mayan communities to learn more about their country’s art history. Some of this donation also went towards setting up computer labs at the local schools.
But John says that the biggest reward has been the way in which the home has opened up their lives to the community – and welcomed so many new friends in.
As we walk around the house, it’s hard to see how you could not be drawn to such a beautiful and creative space.
It’s easy for the obsession of the Venators’ hobby to rub off on you. I’m not sure how much they’ve spent collecting their masterpieces, but these art works will be worth a bomb in the future, if they’re not already.
And I’m pretty sure I have a new favourite art style – Mexican folk art.
What’s the best museum of art you’ve ever been in?
What you need to know:
Cost: Casa de los Venados is free to visit but a minimum donation of US$5 or 60 pesos per person is recommended.
How to get there: The house is situated just off the main square in Valladolid, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. The address is Calle 40 #204 x 41 col.
When to go: Tours are held every day of the year, in both English and Spanish, at 10am.
Carmen: Off a street from the main square in Valladolid, Mexico, lies a unique house – Casa de los Venados. Inside features thousands of art works collected from all over Mexico by American couple John and Dorianne Venator.
John: I came to Mexico as a student in my freshman year of college and I lived with a family in Puebla.
Now later on in life after I’d graduated from university, and started working, I came back to work on a trip, and again I was further bitten by wow this Mexican folk art is so fabulous – it’s just strong, it’s magical, it’s wonderful.
Carmen: John and Dorianne began collecting folk art from around Mexico.
John: In fairness, I really do believe that collecting is a gene – you either collect or you don’t. Why do I collect blue things and you collect red things? It’s because we like them. But Mexican art has this strength, is what I have to say, it’s wonderful.
It’s a feeling – it’s got to speak to us. Now we largely collect Dia de los muertos but we don’t limit ourselves to that. We tend largely to collect ceramics, wood, paper maiche, copper – we have the largest museum quality collection of folk art in Mexico in private hands. The largest collection in fairness is the Panamex collection.
We have over 3,000 pieces. Collecting is an incurable disease but fortunately it’s not fatal. So the answer to the question that people often ask – which is do we still collect – and the answer is yes.
We’re listed as the number one tourist attraction by Tripadvisor.com which I find amusing as we’re not a formal museum and we’re certainly not a business, but we open the house every day for tours in English and Spanish at 10am to help raise money for charity.
Carmen: But of course, this isn’t just any old museum – John and his wife live here.
John: It’s not a museum, it’s a real house, people live here. They not only want to see the art but they want to see the lifestyle. They want to see how we live. We’re all a little bit of voyuers, so we’re also seeing their house, you know? This is the bedroom, this is the bathroom, this is the kitchen. You know so we’re not only seeing the painting on the walls and the sculptures on pedastools and the vases, we’re seeing how people live.
Carmen: And what a beautiful place to live. But Casa de los Venados wasn’t always this way. The Venators bought the home after it had being lying idle for 40 years and spent nearly a decade restoring it to its former glory.
John: It took eight and a half years to remodel it because again it was in ruins, no one had been here for 40 years. The first thing we did was hire 17 men with axes and machetes who worked for almost two months just to cut out the vegetation.
Carmen: The aim of the renovations was to keep the home as close to the original as possible.
John: So our intent from the beginning was to keep the footprint, and to keep as much of the old, simple colonial design as possible. It took almost eight years to remodel it. There were metre thick walls – every time you wanted to run a pipe or to put electrical wires in…
We have 18 bathrooms, 148 ceiling fans and 22 air conditioning systems. It’s 18,000 square feet under roof. The salon at the front of the house is bigger than our apartment was in Chicago.
Carmen: But John says the best part about living here is the way in which the casa has brought them closer to the local community.
John: But if someone was to ask me to write down what my expectations were about living here and our lifestyle, and opened it today, right here with you, and read it, I would have to say that our life here has far met and exceeded any expectations that we had.
We’ve literally made some genuine friendships. You know we’ve been to weddings and birthday parties and anniversary parties – we have literally been made a part of the Valladolid family.