In the central highlands of Mexico are some of the most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico, where the history of colonial rule and Mexican independence can still be felt today. We wanted to see some of these magnificent towns on our way to Mexico City. We left the Paricutin volcano behind us and were glad when we had asphalt under our wheels again.
Our first destination was the archaeological site of Tingambato, where we had a look at the pyramid. The small but very beautiful site is not mentioned in many travel guides and we were the only visitors except for a few local school children. This place is also known as Tinganio, which means “place where the fire ends” in the Purépecha language. This site was built between 450 and 900 AD. We walked leisurely under the avocado trees to the remains of two plazas, three altars and a ball field. It is still possible to climb the 8-metre-high pyramid here, which of course we did not want to miss.
In Pátzcuaro we parked our car at the Hotel & RV Park, a pleasant campsite with many Canadians and Americans who spend part of the winter here. We then took a collectivo to the city centre and were amazed when we got off the bus at Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra. It was market day and the market area was huge. Hundreds of stalls were spread over several side streets and the large market hall and it was teeming with buyers and sellers, children and dogs. We let ourselves drift through the hustle and bustle and enjoyed the atmosphere.
In the church Santuario de Guadelupe we took a deep breath and had a short break before we continued through the streets with beautiful buildings. At the Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, hearts had just been hung up as street lighting and everything seemed already prepared for Valentine’s Day. We had read in the guidebook that pollos placero is a local speciality and we took a collectivo to Don Alfredo’s restaurant, where this grilled chicken was supposed to taste best. When we arrived, we found out that it was already closing at 6 pm, so we were too late. As a consolation, we treated ourselves to a pizza before heading back to the campsite.
Our next stop was Morelia, the capital of Michoacán province. Morelia’s historic centre has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1991. We walked along the old aqueduct that used to help the city get fresh drinking water, up to the fountain Fuente de las Tarascas where we turned left onto Calle Real. In the distance, we could already see the two giant towers of the cathedral rising above the rest of the low-rise buildings.
We strolled along the Avenida Francisco Madero Poniente to the cathedral. But before we visited it, we had to satisfy our hunger. In the Jardin de Las Rosas we not only found many artists exhibiting their various works of art, but also a nice café where we tried the local speciality sopa tarasca.
After lunch, we admired the golden interior of the Iglesia de las Rosas and plunged into the hustle and bustle of the Mercado de Dulces y Artesanias. In this market, one can feast on local sweets and to try them, we bought mango jelly with chilli flavour and sesame chocolate.
At the Colegio de San Nicolas de Hidalgo, we marvelled at the beautiful interior plaza and gallery and took a quick look at the (real) heart of Melchor Ocampo, a former student of this college born in 1814. Ocampo later became a Mexican statesman, but he questioned the power of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico. In his view, the church was sucking the wealth of the indigenous population with high ecclesiastical fees. Ocampo advocated for a free, public and secular education system. He participated in the drafting of new civil laws that led to liberal policies and eventually to an amendment of the Constitution. In 1861 Ocampo was executed by one of his political enemies.
Then it was time to take a look at the large cathedral, which is also the bishop’s seat in Michoacán. The massive church had been remodelled in neoclassical style at the end of the 19th century and was very elegant and not at all kitschy like many churches in Mexico. One of the showpieces is the 4600-pipe organ, which was built in Ludwigsburg, Germany.
In the Hidalgo pedestrian zone, hung with bast baskets and colourful bows, we tried a second speciality of the city, gazpacho artisinales, pieces of fruit sprinkled with cheese and chilli.
Then we let the afternoon slowly fade away and looked for a collectivo for the return journey to the place where we spent the night. Thomas and Sima arrived there soon after. After a few weeks, we had a lot to catch up on in terms of exchanging experiences and general chit-chat.
Our itinerary and that of Thomas and Sima largely corresponded again from now on so we would be hanging out together again for the next while. Our first joint destination was Guanajuato. For the overnight stay we had chosen Morril RV Park which was located on one of the many hills surrounding the city centre. Through travel reports, we had found that getting there was not easy. It was even recommended to drive the last part on a one-way road in the wrong direction to avoid a steep climb through narrow streets. The old centre was built on a lower flat piece and surrounded by a number of hills on which the city continued to grow.
After arriving at the camping site, we first drank a cup of coffee and wiped the drops of sweat from our foreheads because it had indeed not been easy to manoeuvre through the narrow streets. Walking made it a lot easier and so we visited the city on foot for the next two days. Since 1988, this city has also been on the UNESCO world heritage list. We were cheered up again by all the colourful houses in all colours of the rainbow on our way to the old centre in the valley.
We looked at the colourful colonial-style buildings here too. The nice thing about this city is that around every corner there is a new romantic little square with a number of benches where locals gather with the sound of water from the ever-present fountain in the background. It slowly started to dusk which is the sign for the many Mariachi bands to spring into action. Men dressed in traditional attire with an obligatory sombrero on their heads play that typical Mexican music to entertain the passing crowd. Especially in the cute little square Jardin de la Union that is so full of trees that the sky turns green instead of blue, a number of bands alternated and tried to make it a true party. Tired, we decided to take a taxi back to the campsite and end the evening with a drink under the moonlight.
Thomas had read about a viewpoint in his guidebook that he would still like to visit. An extraordinary network of tunnels connects Guanajuato’s old town underground. Some tunnels are more than a kilometre long and are used by cars but are also accessible to pedestrians. At the other end of the Santa Fe tunnel, we walked right back into the Centro Historico in search of the stairs leading up to the Pipila viewpoint. The colourful houses seem to be plastered directly against the mountain with a maze of corridors and streets in between. Eventually, we enjoyed the view over the city with the Basilica Senora de Guanojuato and Plaza de la Paz as the focal point.
The next town we found on our route was San Miquel de Allende, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008. Again, we visited a number of interesting churches and plazas. We found the biggest difference from Guanajuato was that the streets here were slightly wider which gives you more air.
Back in the 1930s, many artists and writers flocked to San Miguel de Allende. The art school Instituto Allende, founded in 1951, attracted even more foreign artists and art lovers. Nowadays especially retirees from the US settled here because of the high quality of life and low cost of living.
We visited the cathedral Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, around which the whole city seems to revolve. In the local mercado, all four of us ate a torta sitting on a bar stool and drank a healthy jugo de naturales after before driving on towards Queretaro.
In the line of colonial cities, Queretaro was, for now, the last one we would visit. We managed to find a quiet place to spend the night in a dead-end street between hospital and church, a 20-minute walk to the centre.
On our way to Plaza de Armas, the heart of the centre, we heard a drum band playing in the distance. The closer we moved towards the centre, the louder the drumming got.
Arriving at Plaza Templo La Cruz, we were surprised by a large crowd in costume moving to the beat of the drums. The drumming alternated with heavy poker beats and was produced by two different ‘teams’. The sound was so loud it sometimes hurt your ears. The dancers too seemed to be made up of two separate groups. Clearly these were indigenious people performing their traditional dances here.
The first team was dressed mainly in brown costumes and carried various types of weapons. This gave us a strong impression that these were warriors trying to impress their opponents. Given the splashes of colour in which the second team had dressed, this looked more like a traditional Indian tribe as we know it. Most of them wore large impressive coloured Indian robes on their heads, and the rest of their clothing too consisted mainly of a motley mix of colours. Some added a unique mask.
In total, we spent two hours watching this impressive show almost open-mouthed. Unfortunately, no one could explain to us exactly why this show was staged on a random Thursday in February and what the thinking behind it was. After a brief internet search, we found out that it was probably a traditional Concheros Dance and ceremony.
The next day, we opted for a guided tour of the Convento de la Santa Cruz monastery to learn more about the religion and its connection with the indigenous people of this area. Unfortunately, the guide was only proficient in Spanish (and we were not) so a lot of information was probably lost.
After that we walked further into the centre and passed several squares where the Plaza de Armas pleased us best. To satisfy our hunger, we went in search of a mercado as in San Miquel where you can usually choose good and cheap traditional food. We chose mercado Hidalgo and ate tasty tortas and gorditas. Then we said goodbye to Queretaro and the colonial towns of Mexico’s highlands.