Friday, February 27, 2009

Discovering the diversity and beauty of Mexico

From the top: (1) My handsome caballero in the doorway at Starbucks in San Miguel de Allende - in a 300-year-old building! I defy you to find a more beautiful Starbucks. (2) the monument to Father Miguel Hidalgo in Dolores Hidalgo; (3) The MUMMY MUSEUM in Guanajuato; and (4) the beautiful homes on the hills of Guanajuato.

Despite our best intentions, we have not traveled much within Mexico, mostly because we quickly acquired so many pets to care for! Now that we are down to three cats, we found a friend who would house-sit for us, and took off on a bus tour to the central highlands of Mexico - a trip with our friends Harold and Sue (and 28 Canadians!) to Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel de Allende. We discovered a very different and enchanting Mexico.

Our first stop was Guanajuato, high (6500 feet) in the arid hills of Central Mexico. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Guanajuato means "hill of frogs" in the language of the indigenous people there, and is considered by many to be the most beautiful city in Mexico. It is a colonial town, settled in the 1500s because of rich gold and silver deposits. It is a sister city to Ashland, Oregon, my home town!

The city is built on rock, and was originally built over two rivers, which flowed through tunnels underneath the city. However, after years of raising buildings to accommodate repeated flooding, in the mid-twentieth century, engineers built a dam and redirected the river into underground caverns. The tunnels were lit and paved with cobblestones for automobile traffic, and this amazing underground road network carries the majority of cars driving through the city today. It is one of the most notable features of the city.

While it is famous for many things, especially the site of the first revolutionary battle, most people who knew we went to Guanajuato asked us if we saw the Museo de la Momies, or mummy museum. A bizarre place - these mummies are here because their families failed to pay their burial taxes and they were disinterred. A few were added as recently as 1984! Some are wearing tennis shoes!

From Guanajuato, we traveled to Dolores Hidalgo, about an hour's drive. This is the true birthplace of the Mexican revolution, where Father Miguel Hidalgo made the first cry for freedom (el grito - a practice which is now repeated at midnight every September 17 in every town in Mexico by the town's mayor). Dolores Hidalgo is also famous for ice cream, colonial architecture and talavera pottery. We had only a few hours here, and it is a place we yearn to return to for a longer stay.

Just 15 minutes away from San Miguel de Allende, we stopped at the Sanctuary of Atotonilco, another UNESCO World Heritage site. This extraordinary spot has been a place of pilgrimage since colonial times. The church was built between 1746 and 1810. The walls and domed ceilings of the church are filled with 18th Century murals depicting the life of Christ, which are in the process of being restored, a process that has already taken 12 years. Many milagros (miracles) are attributed to this beautiful place, which is a treasure often missed by tourists.

We then proceeded to San Miguel de Allende, another breathtaking colonial city. Following WWII, a core of US veterans settled in San Miguel to attend the art school there, and it has been attracting "gringos" ever since. About a tenth of its 95,000 inhabitatants are foreigners, which makes for a rich cultural mix. The town is full of winding streets and tiny shops and restaurants, begging you to explore them. The colonial architecture feels just like Europe, and the climate (unlike Bucerias) is cool and dry.

We are already planning additional trips to this magical part of Mexico...and considering how we might stay in San Miguel or Guanajuato during the hottest summer months....