Queretaro, Mexico: Living, Breathing History
By Sarah B. Hartshorne
First of all, it’s pronounced kerr-EH-ta-row, with an emphasis on the second syllable. And it is a state in the center of Mexico, whose capital is Santiago de Querétaro, although everyone refers to it as simply Querétaro.
This vibrant city is only a two-hour drive from Mexico City, which makes it a popular tourist destination for Mexicans. It has yet to capture the attention of the average American tourist, but I hope its new international airport will help change that.
During our trip we took a walking tour of Santiago de Querétaro, visited a newly discovered archeological zone called El Cerrito, visited a Friexenet winery and camped at El Jabalí, an ecotourism campground.
After a night in the mountains, we were whisked away to a gorgeous hotel in Bernal, which is known as a magical town and is featured in many classic Dolores Del Rio films.
As I traveled throughout this state, I sensed a strong attachment to the past bonded with an even stronger desire to constantly change and grow.
The Past and the Future
Santiago de Querétaro can, at first glance, seem like it is stopped in time. The historic part of town is pristinely preserved, and there are more cathedrals and convents than you can shake a stick at.
Their history is very important to the residents of this city; it was the site of many historic battles, home to famous Mexican dignitaries, and was the nation’s capital on three separate occasions.
But this city’s history is a tumultuous one, full of change and innovation. And that’s an important part of its personality: it is always looking to the future and bringing life to its living, breathing history.
A great example of Santiago de Querétaro’s past and present coming together is the Querétaro Institute of Culture and the Arts. This organization is housed in a fully restored cathedral.
There are a lot of cathedrals, convents and temples in this city. But this particular building stands out, as it was the last stop of a well-known local figure, Emperor Maximilian I, before he was executed by Republican forces led by Benito Juárez.
They also have installations every month, and the art is modern, innovative and definitely worth a look if you’re in the city. It’s a great way to learn more about the Mexico of today in a place of its past.
Querétero’s local pride runs deep: most stores carry work of local artists. We were lucky enough to take a tour of the studio of a local artist. Suenos de Carton is a factory that manufactures statues used in traditional celebrations and ceremonies.
The statues are made of a material that’s like a heartier papier mâché and they have become incredibly popular. The artist ships all over the world and they range from simple little figurines to ornate life size statues. Their largest one was over 12ft tall.
The studio has a wonderful feeling: paint and glitter everywhere, skeletons and mermaids slowly coming together. Their figurines are available for sale all throughout Querétero and they’re a great souvenir.
El Cerrito is a recently discovered pyramid that lay, unseen for hundreds of years under a respected Mexican family’s estate home. Now, the house itself is a precious antique, and the archeologists do their best to preserve it as they unearth this fascinating ruin, which dates back over 2,000 years.
Not much is known about the inhabitants, but they’ve found evidence that they practiced dentistry, elaborate sacrifices and sophisticated agriculture. Tours are available every weekday except for Tuesday, free of charge. Personally, I couldn’t help but chip in at the end. The people there are doing good work.
The Friexenet Wineries are less than an hour’s drive from Santiago de Querétero and it is well worth the drive. Friexenet is known in the states for their reasonable priced sparkling wine, but they make a variety of white and red wines as well. They also offer tours of the winery seven days a week.
I found myself forgetting where I was for much of the tour: the expansive fields with the misty mountain in the background and the laughing employees carting bottles all create a very European scene. But the wines we tasted were uniquely Mexican: earthy, fresh and a little spicy.
Land of the Lost
Venturing outside of the city leads to further surprises. El Jabalí (the ecotouristic camp) is so far removed from civilization it can only be reached by four wheeler or truck. It feels like the Land of the Lost with the fog playing over the uninhabited mountains and jungle, and their resident peacocks crowing.
But in other ways this place is incredibly modern and forward thinking. It’s completely solar powered, and has an innovative running water system that conserves heat and water. The food is organic and responsibly farmed in the nearby towns. And it is delicious: homemade, authentic Mexican fare.
“Camp” is a bit of a misnomer for El Jabalí, just as “tent” is not the right word for their lodgings. Yes, the walls are canvas, but it’s on a sturdy wooden frame with a bathroom that any Manhattan interior designer would covet.
Each tent has high ceilings and comfortably fits several beds. Meals are held in the rustic main hall, which overlooks the mountains and the river. The vista is untouched; the roads blend into the mountain, and the towns are built around nature.
Not For the Faint of Heart
While the accommodations are perfect for even the most pampered princesses, the trip down the mountain certainly is not. Consider this a disclaimer: it is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. It has to be made either by pickup truck or ATV, and the road is rocky, narrow, steep and constantly twisting and turning. Even the most seasoned travelers might find themselves a bit queasy.
To make matters worse (or, as I thought, more exciting) said road is sandwiched between a wall of rocky mountain face and a sheer, vertical drop. One of our ATV riders flipped her four-wheeler and seriously scraped and bruised her hip. No permanent damage, but one hell of a scare. Another woman was so sickened and rattled by the trip down she needed whiskey to stop shaking.
To be honest, I thought it was great. It was dirty, difficult, and dangerous, but how many people can say they’ve ridden a four-wheeler down a mountain and across a river? To an ecotourism Eden, no less?
The ride is long (two and a half hours) and can be scary, but if you’re prepared, don’t have issues with motion sickness and have a sense of adventure it can be a great experience. Besides, the drivers are absolute pros, and they swear they haven’t lost a truck or ATV rider yet.
Once you’ve made it to the camp, there’s a lot to take your mind off the ride. Kayakers of all skill levels have the river to take advantage of (be sure to let them know you’re interested in kayaking when you make your reservation), and there are beautiful trails in the area. In the evening, campfires and giant marshmallows are a perfect end to the day.
If you’re looking for quieter activities, there’s an abandoned Mission that’s a 15-minute drive from El Jabalí. It’s been abandoned since the Cristero War in 1926, when the government ransacked the building and murdered all the priests who refused to surrender.
The building is still intact and a local organization offers tours during the week for a small donation, which funds the preservation and restoration efforts. The building is beautiful, and it offers a unique history of the area.
Most people at the camp and in the surrounding towns don’t speak English, although many of them are currently taking classes to change that. Nonetheless, bringing a dictionary, brushing up on your Spanish beforehand and learning some relevant vocabulary certainly wouldn’t hurt.
We were lucky enough to have a native speaker in our group who was able to translate, but I got along fine on my own with high school Spanish. It’s a great place for solo travelers, young couples and adventurous families to explore.
A Magical Boulder
Another advantage of this camp is its proximity to Bernal. It’s about an hour’s drive, and Bernal is the perfect respite from the excitement at El Jabalí, and it has some excitement of its own.
Bernal is known for its magical properties: a huge percentage of their population lives well past 100, and the locals attribute this to the town’s namesake, the bernal or boulder that is visible throughout the entire town. It is, in fact, the third largest boulder in the world.
Despite this less than thrilling claim to fame, Bernal is a wonderful place to explore and stay. There are hiking and driving tours of the nearby natural wonders for people of every skill and fitness level, and wonderful shops and restaurants.
The lodgings are limited to only a few hotels, but the one we stayed in was world class, with the kind of service I only see in small towns.
Wool and Gorditas
Bernal is known by the locals for its wool and its gorditas. A gordita is characterized by its thicker than usual tortilla, which is cooked on a skillet, and then stuffed with a kind of stew of chicken and peppers. It is delicious, and stands out amongst typical Mexican food.
The wool stands out too: it is thicker and the craftsmanship is superb. Be sure to leave room in your suitcase, because the stores are chock full of handmade sweaters, ponchos and beautiful blankets, and they’re cheap!
Our group found out firsthand that the best thing after a long day of shopping is a gordita.
We only saw a fraction of Querétaro, but I saw enough to see how diverse and exciting a state it is. Much of Mexico’s tourism is focused on the coastline, but there is a lot of fun to be had away from the beach.
The capital is rich with beautiful architecture, fascinating history, international cuisine and five-star hotels. And the rest of the state has a lot to offer every kind of traveler, especially those interested in adventure and socially responsible travel.