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Queretaro, Mexico

QUERETARO, Mexico — There are plenty of reasons to visit Queretaro, but it's the instability and conflict and violence that finally won me over.

The instability of 1810, that is. The conflict of 1848. The violence of 1867. All set amid 18th-century colonial architecture, surrounded these days by commerce and calm.

Coming to this city in Mexico's central highlands, about 130 miles northwest of Mexico City, you get a glimpse of the 19th-century days when Mexico was busy breaking free of Spain, losing about half of its land to the United States, then deposing and executing a foreign-born monarch. All three of those international dramas featured a key scene here.

Since then, even as intrigue and trouble have stalked other corners of Mexico, Queretaro has been growing and mellowing. In 1996, UNESCO named it a World Heritage site.

I headed this way on a brisk October day last year, the headlines at home full of dire updates on crime in Mexico City and drug wars along the U.S. border. But it was simple enough. Fly south. Connect through Guadalajara. Land at the shiny four-year-old Queretaro International Airport and ride 20 miles into the old colonial center of town.

Although the Queretaro metropolitan area counts roughly 787,000 residents and its periphery is encircled by busy factories, its historic core is a neighborhood you'll want to walk.

And my good luck was to jump out of the taxi at La Casa de la Marquesa.

It's been a hotel only since 1995, but it was built in 1756 as a private mansion, the floors elaborately tiled, the walls covered in stencils, the lobby illuminated by skylight, the halls flanked by carved stonework, the whole place infused with Moorish-Baroque splendor.

I know that sounds like a bunch of travel-writer hooey. That's why I took pictures. The heavy wood door to my room, intricately carved, would open only upon insertion of a big, clunky key that looked like a forgotten medieval movie prop. Inside the room, a chandelier hung from a 20-foot ceiling.

Downstairs in the lobby, a tall, mysterious man in a shiny suit lingered by the door, a grand piano gleamed near the entrance to the restaurant and a worker scurried past in what looked like a French maid's outfit. (Thirteen of the hotel's 25 rooms are in this main building; the rest, a bit cheaper, are around the corner in its Casa Azul area. Pay the extra pesos for the main building.)

Because this region's mountains were the focus of Spanish silver mining in the 16th century, Santiago de Queretaro (almost nobody uses the Santiago part anymore) rose quickly and filled with significant colonial buildings. Later, thanks to the construction of an aqueduct, came about a dozen public fountains, so many that some burbling corners of the historic district might remind you of the fountain-rich piazzas of Rome.

If you're like me, this Roman moment won't last long — not with the scent of churros rising from the vending carts and the thump of Spanish-language pop issuing from passing cars — and that's as it should be. Let Queretaro be Queretaro.

The Jardin Zenea, a plaza that dates to the 1870s, is a hub for locals and visitors alike, with dozens of benches, a leafy canopy and a photogenic bandstand. From there you can roam fountain to fountain, passing the curio stands on the car-less walkways or grabbing an exotic ice cream at Tepoznieves, just a few doors from La Casa de la Marquesa.

If you want a bigger walk, head east toward the stone aqueduct, which goes back to the early 1700s. You can't miss it — it's a long line of 74 arches, up to 75 feet high. To check it out, I walked to the recommended viewing point — a hilltop chapel that has been redone as the Pantheon of Illustrious Queretanos.

The pantheon property includes the red and yellow tomb where the city's 19th-century independence movement heroine, La Corregidora, rests in perpetuity. And the view of the aqueduct, looming over a dusty, honking modern city, was startling. But to catch it at its best, don't show up at midday, as I did. Instead, come late in the day, when the sandstone arches stand out better against the muddled antennas, roofs and power lines.

Now, on to the violence and instability.

First stop: the 18th-century Casa del Corregimiento, a short stroll from the Jardin Zenea. It helps to take a minute in advance to digest its back-story. In September 1810, when Spain still ran Mexico, the government magistrate who lived here, Don Miguel Dominguez, received orders from his superiors to crack down on suspected revolutionaries.

Knowing that his wife liked to hold mysterious literary salon sessions with some defiant types, the magistrate imprisoned her in her room to keep things quiet.

But Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez was a formidable woman. Despite her house arrest, she managed to warn her friends, who were indeed plotting a revolution. Thanks to her tip, they escaped, set in motion the war for independence and prevailed in 1821. These days, she's known and admired across Mexico as La Corregidora.

Given that tale, it's a shame that the Casa del Corregimiento is as drab a historic building as I've ever seen, occupied by dozens of government bureaucrats, as dull as La Casa de la Marquesa is dazzling. I couldn't find a single engaging mural or historical exhibit. The good news is that it's neighbored by two tempting public spaces.

One is the Jardin de la Corregidora, a plaza with several sidewalk cafes surrounding a heroic statue of La Corregidora and a "peace tree" rooted in earth that's spiced with soil samples from around the world. The other is the tree-shaded Plaza de Armas, which includes several more sidewalk cafes. Take a few minutes and maybe have some Aztec soup at La Paloma near the peace tree.

The second stop on the violence-and-instability itinerary: the former convent of San Francisco, which stands next to the towering orange Church of San Francisco, facing the Jardin Zenea. During the fight for independence, Spanish authorities used this building to jail their enemies. Now, the former convent houses the Queretaro Regional Museum and a certain piece of furniture I was keen to see.

In room after room, then down a long, well-polished hall, I found displays on Indian villages, Spanish colonization and city development but not the table I was after. Finally, I asked an employee whether he could point me toward the table where the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed.

He immediately jumped up, instructed me to follow him and led me down a hall to a locked door. Then he pulled out a fistful of keys and opened the door, revealing a long room that's usually open to the public. (It was a slow day.) Then he withdrew to a dark corner, threw a switch, and the lights came on, revealing a long table.

Facing the table, somebody had positioned a sculpture of a weeping woman — probably not a coincidence. Mexico's leaders agreed to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 because U.S. troops had reached Mexico City and were ready to ruin the place if Mexico didn't sign. Some of that paperwork was finalized at this table in Queretaro. Under the treaty, in exchange for about $18 million, Mexico gave up 525,000 square miles of territory, including California and Texas. In many ways, that land transfer at gunpoint is the move that made the U.S. the power it is today, leaving many Mexicans with a bitter taste.

But my friend the museum worker was great. He waited at a distance while I circled the table. No pen imprints on top, no gum underneath, just a wooden rectangle, held up by fancy carved legs, the top big enough for six place settings, upon which world history was rewritten.

The third and last stop on the tour: the Teatro de la Republica, a still-operating theater about a block from the Jardin Zenea. This is where Emperor Maximilian, who attempted to rule Mexico with French military backing for three tumultuous years, was sentenced to death by Benito Juarez's new Republican government in 1867. (This is also where the Mexican national anthem was first performed, in 1854, and where the country's current constitution was written, in 1917.)

For the next part of Maximilian's sad story, you can catch a tourist bus from the Jardin Zenea to the grassy slopes of Cerro de las Campanas, where Maximilian faced his firing squad with eerie equanimity. Legend has it that he offered each of the soldiers a gold coin, asked that they aim for his heart, not his face, and tucked extra handkerchiefs into his breast pocket to minimize the mess. His last words were apparently "Viva Mexico!"

As it happens, I was in my hotel room on my last night in town, pondering Maximilian's final moments and wondering where to eat dinner, when a series of blasts rang out.

Blam!

Blam!

Blam!

Then the church bells started ringing like mad. I tiptoed down to the lobby and peeked out into the street. Nobody was troubled in the least. In fact, most people were headed, casually, toward the noise.

I asked two locals in Spanish what was up. It was a minor religious holiday, they said. And the sound, I realized now, was fireworks. So I followed the fun.

Boys in school uniforms leaned giddily from the top of the Church of San Francisco's tower, hammering and spinning the bells. Other boys set off fireworks. Dozens of local grandmothers, mothers and girls arrived in fancy embroidered dresses, carrying baskets of flowers. They amassed beside the church, beneath a tall statue of an Indian in a headdress, with their sons, husbands and fathers looking on.

A band of fiddlers and guitarists launched into a tune, and they began to dance.

For more than an hour they clapped, spun and promenaded, the church on one side and the Indian statue on the other, that scent of churros and spent fireworks in the air, the moon gleaming through the trees of the Jardin, the guys in the band grinning. It was Queretaro being Queretaro, and it was grand.

The Alameda near Queretaroís historic district offers leafy shade in the city center. - TPN