Exploring Mexico's Colonial Cities

Winter 2010 CSANews Issue 77  |  Posted date : Dec 16, 2010.Back to list

 Lively music lured us into the House of Eleven Courtyards in Pátzcuaro, a four-hour drive west of Mexico City. A guitarist and two fiddlers accompanied two young dancers dressed as elderly men with white hair, pink face masks, ribboned sombreros and beautifully embroidered white clothing. As the musicians played faster, the men danced more rapidly, stomping their shoes and canes on the flat stone tiles. The Dance of the Old Men satirizes old Spanish men who sat and smoked, while elderly Indian men fished, collected wood and danced.

The former Dominican convent also houses artisan shops. We watched Beatrice Ortega carefully apply glue to a flower on a lacquered plate. Using cotton, she pressed gold leaf onto the flower. After hours of painstaking labour, gilding flower after flower, her plate is a dazzling work of art. Next door, a craftsman used a massive wooden loom to weave a bright yellow, green, blue and red blanket.

Beginning and ending in Mexico City, our circular tour of Mexico's colonial cities opened our eyes to its rich cultures. Dozens of colonial cities spread across Mexico, but the highest concentration is in the cooler central region. The Spaniards established gold, silver and mineral mines here 400 years ago. Using Indians as slave labourers, Spanish conquistadors became wealthy. Copying 16th- and 17th-century European architecture, they built lavish mansions, opulent cathedrals and theatres. The region's fertile farms fed their emerging New World cities.

Today, many of these cities carry names that reflect their historical past. San Miguel de Allende, for example, was named after a Spanish Franciscan friar who started a mission there in 1542. "De Allende" was added in 1826 to honour Ignacio Allende, an independence patriot who, with Miguel Hidalgo, mobilized his countrymen to revolt against Spanish rule.

Pátzcuaro

Spanish architectural and cultural legacies remain. Artisans combine Spanish techniques and Indian designs to produce beautiful textiles, ceramics and silver jewellery. Pátzcuaro, a Purépecha Indian town, is a great place to see this unique combination of cultures.

Craftspeople sell handwoven hats and carved wooden statues from shops and stands around shady town plazas. We bought plastic glasses of nieve from a vendor and ate the delicious ice cream with tiny spoons as we strolled from one artist's display to another's. More than 60 Purépecha villages surround Pátzcuaro. Each specializes in different handicrafts such as mandolins carved from armadillo shells, sapphire-blue, mustard-yellow and neon-green tablecloths, shiny copperware and hand-painted ceramics.

Pátzcuaro was founded in 1534, before the Spanish conquest. The Purépechas (whom the Spaniards called Tarascans) developed western Mexico's most advanced pre-Hispanic civilization. The town's red-and-white adobe architecture, with red doors and tiled roofs, reflects its Indian heritage as much as the indigenous handicrafts and festivals.

Visitors from around the world come here on November 2 to witness Day of the Dead festivities. Held on Isla Janitzio, an island in Lake Pátzcuaro, the celebration features candlelight vigils at marigold-covered altars in cemeteries, folkloric dances and a parade of decorated canoes.

The lake is famous for whitefish, which fishermen traditionally caught in butterfly-shaped nets. We enjoyed the fish at El Tarasco Restaurant in Posada de Don Vasco. The Tarascan soup, made from white beans and chipotle chilies and topped with fried tortilla strips and cheese, was equally tasty.

Strolling along cobbled streets, we viewed the town's attractions, including the 16th-century adobe La Compañía Church. Near the Basilica, the Museum of Popular Arts and Industries showcases arts and crafts. Vendors in the Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra market sell Purépecha handicrafts at reasonable prices.

Morelia

Green ivy-entwined stone vases overflowed with pink bougainvillea at Villa Montaña, our hotel in Morelia, 58 kilometres northeast of Pátzcuaro. Jacaranda blossoms fell like purple confetti on stone pathways that wove between raspberry-red villas with tiled roofs. Locally made statues and ceramics adorned wall niches. A panoramic view of Morelia spread out below the hotel. When the sun set, like a glowing tortilla in the west, golden rays illuminated the city's colonial buildings.

We began our tour of Morelia's UNESCO-preserved historic centre at the State Government Palace and baroque-styled cathedral. In the gilded and cherub-filled 18th-century sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, we watched a bride and groom exchange vows below an ornate dome. Afterwards, we visited the candy and handicrafts market, which displays a mind-boggling assortment of sweets. Sold in bricks, cellophane wrappers and pretty baskets, traditional Mexican candies are sweeter, gooier and more flavourful than North American sweets. Moreover, they contain no artificial flavours or preservatives.

Mexican candy-making history dates back to the 16th-century Spanish colonial era, when Franciscan and Dominican monks planted orchards of European fruits like apples, plums, peaches, pears and quince. Local families, who helped harvest the fruit, often found themselves with a surplus, which they had to preserve quickly before it spoiled. They boiled the fruit with sugar, stirring it in large copper pots, until it became a thick paste or ate.

Like many dulcerias (candy stores) in Mexico, Dulces Morelianos has been owned by the same family for generations. The Torres family began making candies here in the 1890s. Morelia's most famous candies, Morelianas, are tortilla-shaped dulces de leche (milk candies) which taste like caramel. Visually, the most impressive dulces are the crystallized whole figs, plums and strawberries, and chunks of yam, melon, pumpkin, pear, pineapple and orange. 

Red, green and topaz-coloured ates are a popular dessert when sliced and served with slices of fresh white cheese. Most dulcerias sell rompope, an eggnog-like concoction accented with rum. Mexicans pour it over Jell-O™ and rice pudding.

We sipped rompope after a delicious dinner of Aztec salad and beef sirloin with green tomato salsa in San Miguelito, a restaurant, bar, museum and art gallery in the southern end of Morelia. At night, tiny white lights, fountains and palm trees decorate the exterior. Inside, no two rooms are alike. San Miguelito collects crafts from various Mexican states. Antler chandeliers, life-sized angels and madonnas decorate the main dining room. Made from wood, steel, rock and bronze, the tables are all different, as well as the crystal, tableware and chairs. One table's base is a half-ton marble horse. Nearly all of the furniture, arts and crafts in the restaurant are for sale.The restaurant features a special corner for women unable to find a partner. 

Although the name, Rincón de las Solteronas, translates as "Spinsters' Corner," owner Cynthia Martinez assured us that it works equally well for bachelors. More than 250 statues and paintings of St. Anthony surround the tables. They range from dime-sized to the height of the room. Because St. Anthony is the patron saint of unmarried women, single females kneel, pray and sign the book of Petitions and Miracles. According to Martinez, the statues remain upside-down to motivate St. Anthony to complete his Cupid tasks. Does it work? "We have several marriages confirmed with photographs and testimonies in our books," she claims.

Guanajuato

Love was in the air when we visited the Mexican colonial city of Guanajuato, 193 kilometres north of Morelia. So was the fragrance of flowers. During the annual spring Flower Festival, young men offer bouquets of red roses to señoritas strolling around Union Jardin, a tree-filled park. Held on the Thursday before Holy Week, the festival attracts all ages. Parents buy toys for their children from street vendors. Families use flowers, candles and fruit to decorate altars to La Virgen de los Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows), the patroness of miners. The altar competition is a highlight of Dolores Friday, the following day.

Guanajuato exudes romance at other times of the year as well, for it was the home of Anna and Carlos. Their story is as tragic as that of the other star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. According to the legend, Anna, the daughter of a rich family, lived on one side of the street, while Carlos, a poor miner's son, lived on the other. The balconies of their two houses were so close that they could lean out and embrace. Anna's father didn't want her to marry a poor man. 

One day, after he spotted her kissing Carlos across the balconies, he threatened to kill her if he caught them again. She didn't believe him. A few days later, he saw them together. Drawing his knife, he stabbed his daughter. She extended her arm so that Carlos could give her one last kiss before he killed himself.

One evening, we climbed up and down steep staircases squeezed between stone walls illuminated with wrought iron lamps. (Guanajuato's picturesque buildings climb the sides of a river chasm like colourful children's blocks.) Near the Plaza de los Angeles, we found the Alley of the Kiss with its almost-touching balconies. Tradition claims that lovers who don't kiss on the third step of the narrow staircase below will have seven years of bad luck. Those who do kiss will have 15 years of very good luck. Needless to say, we ensured that our future would be very fortunate.

Melodic guitar music and love ballads resounded from the walls of the city's historic centre, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988. Everyone within hearing distance followed the music to its source, a street parade of estudiantinas, clad in red, gold and black velvet Spanish troubadour costumes. Guanajuato is a university town, and its students serenade listeners to earn pesos to pay for their education.

The following morning, we rode a tram up to Pipila Monument, which pays tribute to El Pipila, a miner who contributed to Mexico's struggle for independence. It offers a spectacular panoramic view of Guanajuato. The city was originally built over the Guanajuato River, which flowed through underground tunnels. A dam has since redirected the river, so the stone-walled tunnels are used by vehicles to enter and exit the city. Underground tunnels also allow pedestrians to cross from one side of the city to the other. As a result, the best way to get around is on foot or by walking, taxi, bus and tourist trolley.
Guanajuato produced nearly one-third of the world's silver in the 18th century. 

The nearby La Valenciana mine offers tours in Spanish. The Ex-Hacienda de San Gabriel de Barrera, where silver was once processed, is now surrounded by 17 tranquil gardens. We strolled up the pink bougainvillea-lined steps of the garden of San Francisco, over the bridge in the Japanese garden and past the cacti and giant ceramics in the Mexican garden.

San Miguel de Allende

Plants adorn roofs, restaurants, patios and parks in San Miguel de Allende, 92 kilometres east of Guanajuato and 276 kilometres northwest of Mexico City. Numerous Canadians and Americans come here in winter. Many take cooking courses and study Spanish, painting, music and other arts at schools, including the Instituto Allende and the National Institute of Fine Arts, known locally as Bellas Artes. The mild climate, cultural attractions, great dining and friendly local and ex-pat residents have enticed many Canadians to make the UNESCO World Heritage city a permanent home.

Bells of the 18th-century Church of San Francisco resounded over the old colonial city as we ambled along cobblestone streets, peering into the courtyards of pumpkin, bubble gum-pink, lemon and cobalt-blue stucco buildings. In one, we discovered a charming restaurant that served frosty margaritas and delicious Aztec Soup, made with chicken, tomatoes and chili peppers, topped with avocado, crispy tortilla strips, cheese and fresh cilantro.

Street vendors sold ice cream and toys in the shady El Jardin plaza, where we relaxed with local residents on wrought iron benches. A statue of the Franciscan monk Fray Juan de San Miguel - who founded the city in 1542 - stands in front of the beautiful pink-stone Parroquia (Parish Church) de San Miguel Arcangel. Art also beckoned from galleries, the courtyard of Bellas Artes and the walls of Instituto Allende, where a large colourful mural depicts the history of Mexico.

Querétaro

Colonial architecture also highlights the UNESCO World Heritage city of Querétaro, 60 kilometres southeast of San Miguel de Allende and a two-hour drive northwest of Mexico City. For orientation, we took a wooden trolley guided tour past the towering arches of the 18th-century aqueduct, which bisects the city. Peering through one of the 30-metre-high arches of the aqueduct, we spotted an Internet café. Built 280 years ago, the aqueduct still looks new. Its 74 arches support a 1,280-metre canal that carried water until 1944.

The 19th-century-style trolley departs several times daily from the Plaza de Armas, one of the city's main squares. (Make sure that you book one of the English tours if you don't speak Spanish.) Route A visits the Hill of the Bells historic site. Route B travels through the old colonial town. Both routes stop at Casa de la Corregidora, the bell- and flag-topped Governor's Palace. Here, Mexicans planned their revolt against Spain in 1810.

Another highlight of Querétaro is the Santa Cruz Monastery, which was built by Franciscan monks in the 17th century. Bells, crosses and pots of red geraniums crown the pastel yellow building. On a guided tour, we learned how cold water from the aqueduct was funnelled through pipes to cool the building and preserve food. The monastery was a fortress for the retreating Spanish army. Inside its garden is a tree that grows cross-shaped thorns.

After the trolley tour, we strolled into the old city, where pots of geraniums blushed crimson against tangerine buildings. In shady plazas, children gathered around vendors selling colourful balloons and plastic toys. Melodies from a music box, hand-cranked by a sombrero-clad man, entertained us as we shared a helado (ice cream) at an outdoor café.

Hot pink and purple pushcarts line Andador Libertad, a pedestrian street. Craftsmen and women, many of them wearing equally colourful clothing, sell huge clay rosaries and handmade opal-and-silver jewellery. Restaurants serve Spanish, French, Cantonese, German and Arabian food, in addition to pizza, steak, vegetarian and Mexican cuisine. La Mariposa sells baked goods and Mexican candy, as well as Mexican dishes like enchiladas. In another Mexican restaurant, we watched a woman frying tortillas and stuffing them with beans and cheese.

Although Central Mexico's colonial cities lack the beaches of the country's coastal resorts, their traditional cultures and charm more than compensate. The more we saw of Mexico's colonial cities, the more we wanted to see. We resolved to return to Mexico to enjoy the culture, food and festivals of other colonial gems such as Dolores Hidalgo, San Luis Potosi and Puebla. But one additional visit won't be enough. With more than 100 colonial cities, Mexico has much more to discover.

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RESOURCES

Mexico Tourism Board: www.visitmexico.com has information on Mexico attractions, accommodations, weather, cuisine and festivals, with maps, a 
Mexican peso converter and links to airline, bus line and car rental agencies. The website also has links to Mexican state and city websites and a list of travel agents in your area who specialize in Mexico. Alternatively, phone 1-800-44-MEXICO (1-800-446-3942).

Barb & Ron Kroll publish the trip-planning website: www.krolltravel.com