I pride myself on having been able to narrow down my accumulated piles of optional clothing & accessories in time for take-off (with help from my mom, best friend Jen, & boyfriend Dan who watched me try on every possibility, twice). This process includes not simply grand scale elimination, but more importantly, priority. When going from your hometown full of belongings & available anythings to a carry-on sized backpack to be carried through less accommodating developing countries, what are the things that will turn su mochila into your world?
I have been carrying around a New York Times article titled “Mexico’s Freedom Trail” since it was printed in 2010, & I am grateful it was chosen to be tucked into my travel journal & taken along for the ride. In it’s pages the author retraces the history of Mexico’s independence from Spain as he wanders the streets where the story took place on the eve of the bicentennial celebration. My interest in the article initially lay in the idea of safety oases & thriving culture existing in the heart of a country I’d heard such negativity about. The descriptive pages definitely did not remind me of my experiences in shady border towns or my second hand familiarity with spring break destinations. Reading this article first helped me to see the soul of this country that we are now getting to know, & largely encouraged the choice to begin in Mexico against what seemed at home to be all common sense. While we certainly haven’t clung as tightly to the history on our path, this story is very much a part of current culture & this region of Mexico dwells safely in it’s wake.
The Spanish stormed into Mexico & are said to have destroyed the thriving Aztec Empire, introduced a new religion, & nominate the native people as slaves in a matter of two years. The details of the conquest are comical as the Europeans initially questioned whether the Mexican population was actually human (luckily the pope cleared the confusion in 1537) & Emperor Moctezuma considered the possibility of whether Cortez might be the Aztec god-king Quetzalcoatl, choosing to wait out any decision-making until he received some omens. The Spanish leaders were ruthless, the Aztec Empire superstitious, & in the blink of an eye the people were under truly foreign rule. The Spanish exploit the country (creatively renamed “New Spain”), making themselves rich off mining & agriculture, rubbing it in deeper with massive haciendas they built across the country. Ironically it was the criollo population (born of Spanish parents in Mexico) that began to resent the higher-upper class Spanish born colonists, stirring ideas of rebellion. These ideas turned to plotting & by 1810 Mexico’s beloved priest/daredevil Miguel Hidalgo cut the red ribbon of revolution. After eleven years of fighting, & the deaths of nearly all the involved heroes, Mexico freed itself of Spanish rule in 1821. Since, the free nation has struggled endlessly with political instability, corruption, violence, inequality/repression, & more than one generally fruitless social revolution- but it’s preferred to focus on the silver lining.Today the Ruta de la Independencia zig-zags between Dolores Hidalgo & Guanajuato– connecting the trail traveled during the rebellion by troops literally collected along the path.
We arrived first in Guanajuato, Hidalgo’s birthplace & where his head was hung along with three of his fellow leaders in a cage for ten years following his death- apparently serving as inspiration & as a reminder to the martyr’s goal. We start our exploration of Guanajuato climbing. Gorgeous tunnels beneath the city’s narrow cobbled streets (former rivers forced to evolve) handle modern day traffic & protect the city’s street level from congestion. We quickly fell for the colorful antiqued town, making our home in a maze of stairs that led to the most perfect of vistas at Casa Bertha. Guanajuato’s streets were a maze of their own & in our first days we often found ourselves accidentally where we’d started after breaking a sweat trooping up & down steep alley streets. The city was once known for its silver & gold deposits, the business that fund the European ambiance people now buzz about. Guanajuato is an UNESCO World Heritage City, a title & responsibility that typically translates into pretty preservation. The buildings in the center are perfectly kept, gardens full of flowers, & boxed stretches of Indian Laurel Trees appear absolutely lush & content. The University of Guanajuato keeps the population young and the ancient city’s conveniences up to date. We melt time wandering- discovering tranquil plant filled plazas up mysterious stone staircases by day, savoring the yellow lit life around the Jardin de la Union at night. Ice cream stands & baked goods offered cheap curbside snacks alongside eclectic patio dining options- all with the option of private marchiachi performances on demand. The view from above the city- a straight shot up from the valley in a vertical railcar- puts it all into blissful perspective. After nearly a week in Guanajuato, we began aching for the one thing the paradise lacked- water. A sweaty hike led to the city’s dam, a bit empty in the country’s dry season, though the adventure seemed to satisfy our need. Feeling a bit too tempted to plant ourselves in the city’s vibe, we reluctantly said goodbye to the twisted streets, reassuring ourselves that we’d return.
Three days passed by us in San Miguel de Allende, this time the birthplace of Ignacio Allende- another leader in the uprising. In the late 1930’s, the city found its calling with the founding of the Escuela de Bellas Artes in an old monastery- where mural painting classes quickly attracted artists. As is often the trend, this artsy retreat has slowly garnered the attention of arguably less creative ex-pats- those seeking a quirky & inexpensive retirement plan. We arrived in San Miguel in the midst of a Cuban festival, drawing the expats & tourists together nightly in the town’s main Plaza, El Jardin, which lies beneath the jaw dropping pink beauty that is the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel. The Mexican locals & wealthy transplants appear to generally operate on opposite planes, but this seems to work for the city. The Mexican culture is alive & well amidst high-end restaurants, accommodations, & galleries. The city itself is so beautiful & full of colonial architecture it was also added to the UNESCO list as a World Heritage Site in 2008. The colors on the slanted streets are rich & come alive as the sun sets at the bottom of town reflecting off the churches & flower lined cobbled hills. A hike to the city’s mirador is well worth the incline & it would be a shame to miss the shady paths of Parque Benito Juarez. Positive contributions of the blended population include a truly peaceful largely open air public library & a botanical garden Northeast of town that was exactly the dose of nature I needed in our third week city bound. We also made our way to the ancient sanctuary of Atotonilco & through the tiny towns paths until finding ourselves in natural hot springs which gushed into an incredible tunnel of rooms with brick domed roofs at Escondido Place. The sanctuary was founded as a spiritual retreat & remains an important retreat for pilgrims every year just before Easter. As much as Mexicans revere the history of their freedom here in the heart, they are equally devoted to religion. The churches of San Miguel are gorgeous- intricately decorated with dangling crystal chandeliers & cool retreats from the midday heat. Personally, I believe the town’s ripest spirituality was found amidst the wildflowers & succulents in the gardens of El Charco del Indigenio where nature puts it all in balance.
The city & transportation hub of Queretaro was our next stop. The busier buzz of the wide streets inspired moments of bliss in the fluffy green Alameda Hidalgo & a day escape to Bernal. One of Mexico’s dubbed Pueblas Mágicos, the quiet town boasts the world’s third largest monolith. The geologist in Dan seemed to connect with the power of the rock, positive energy that draws thousands on the upcoming vernal equinox. It was the empty flower lined streets that charmed me into forgiving the heat & exhaustive transportation, a compromise that will come in handy as we head next to Mexico City*