The Heart Of Mexico
I went Mexico with an ignorant judgmental point view. Before going, I did not research Mexico on the web because I did not not want to have any expectations, positive or negative. I had only heard from friends and family “Be careful!”. I decided to go with an “Expect the worst and hope for the best” attitude.
A very close friend of mine, Nancy, who had recently moved to Mexico had been luring me to come to San Miguel de Allende with occasional photos sent by email. It did look interesting and quite beautiful. So i finally decided to go. When I arrived at my Nancy’s hacienda well past midnight, I was met with a margarita, friends and music. There was a “Special something” going on here.
I later found out that “Special something” was real. This town possesses a special magic which in turn possesses you. There are many rational and logical reasons for this magic. The city is located in the center of the country, about 300km north of Mexico City. Perched on the slopes of a long ago exploded volcano looking out onto the vast plains and distant mountains with a large reservoir just below it. The altitude is over 1800m. So you find yourself with a shortness of breath and fatigue. It takes about a week to adjust to the altitude and the time difference from Europe where I reside.
Within a few days, I had already visited a good part of the city by foot with my host. A certain amount of agility had to be exercised to negotiate the large cobblestones of hardened lava with which the streets and narrow sidewalks are paved. Not to forget the very narrow and high sidewalk curbs. Even with several days practice you always end up twisting your ankle at one point or another. The city has been nicknamed “The city of fallen women”. It comes from the fact that when women walk in heels, they eventually fall down.
Because the streets are made of bumpy cobblestones and speed bumps lie everywhere, the speed limit is 20km an hour. And there is not one traffic light in the entire city. Pedestrians have the right of way as do horses, donkeys and trees, which you find growing out of the streets and through the walls of buildings.
The city is also part of the UNESCO world heritage sites because it has preserved its centuries old architecture. Much of it from the 17th and 18th. Its center piece being, The Paroquia. Built in a traditional style in the 17th century and then remodeled to it’s current style by a local brick layer who was inspired by European postcards. Its pink color stands out of the city like the center piece of a cake.
This the historic center of the town with the Jardin just in front of the church shaded by perfectly trimmed cylindrical green trees. Tourists sit on the benches facing the church, locals face the bars and shops that surround the Jardin. Time seems in slow motion because cars cannot drive fast and people walk gently to avoid a twisted ankle. But time also seems to have slowed down in general. Although the streets are filled with shinny cars, the preserved classic architecture cleverly hides modern conveniences such as banks and even a Starbucks.
As you walk the streets you rarely get lost as there is always the Paroquia to help you situate yourself, and the streets are in a grid pattern that either steeply go up or swiftly go down. Crisscrossed with right angled streets to form the grid. This is the rational side of San Miguel de Allende. But the magical elements are made up of something else besides architecture and logic. Because the magic is not just in the beauty of the physical but it is in something you feel. And that feeling is freedom. Although That is probably due to a fact. San Miguel de Allende was the first municipality to gain independence from Spanish rule.
So there is in inherent sense of liberty and independence. Which you can feel as you become acquainted with locals. And the locals here a mix of foreign residents, mainly from North America and Europe. As well as Mexicans and Indians. At one point in its history, San Miguel De Allende almost became a ghost town which was revived with the arrival of foreign artists who slowly colonized the place. Rich Mexicans then started to come from Mexico City and settled in weekend homes away from the bustle of the big city. But a strange phenomena happened here. Because, although many men have come here, there has been a recent wave of immigration of single women.
In many occasions, parties and functions, I found myself to be in a minority of men. It was very strange. So I started to ask women why they chose this city out of all the other places they could have gone. And the first answer was always a rational financial reason. It was cheaper. But then I asked why this city in all of Mexico? And that’s when the word “magic” would come into discussion. They would all admit they were mysteriously attracted to this town like moth to a flame.
There is a theory or legend that the city is built on a huge concentration of crystal beneath the earth. In geological terms, it could be true, but it has not been confirmed. But it still remains one of the myths about the supposed magic that is here.
And out there. Out in the country, about 20km from San Miguel de Allende is a pyramid that has been recently opened to the public. In perfect alignment with the sun, moon and stars, it has stood for close to two thousand years or more. During Spanish rule, it was partially blown up by a Catholic priest. No one is really sure who built it and when. And since a few years ago, it has been in the possession of a wealthy Argentinian Señora. But under Mexican law, all archeological site belong to the Federal Government, so it is now a public monument. Through which you must follow a lava rock cobblestone road on foot to traverse the Señora’s land. But it’s there. Even though there is a good chance you may have twisted you ankle on the road.
As you reach the top and stand on this several thousand year old wonder you can look the rising sun in the east which aligns with the pyramid perfectly every year on the same day. This one of three pyramids open to the public in the state of Guanajuato. And there are hundreds more in the state alone. Hidden under earth and trees in camouflage like a guerrilla army fighter. On our way to the pyramid, my archeologist friend stopped and pointed out a hidden pyramid. It was strategically positioned at the head of canyon looking over the river and facing east. Of course we couldn’t see in! It was just a knoll. But when taking a closer look, you could see the pyramidal form, and imagine a glorious monument overlooking that canyon.
One must not forget another magical element, Tequila. grown from the Agave plant. A large cactus with which the center is aged to a sweet tasting caramel like flavor and then distilled. Although Tequila is indigenous to Jalisco, there are a few producers in the adjacent state of Guanajuato.
We visited a small artisan producer in who was more than happy to explain and demonstrate the process. But before that he shared a bottle of his best to get us in good spirits.
As we sipped the sweet aged cognac like Tequila, Don Javier explained not only the procedures of making great Tequila, but that it cures basically everything. It must be true because our host, beautifully aged and preserved like his Tequila, maintained a fantastic spirit of his own even thug well into his seventies.
We saw pyramids and tasted fine Tequila, but we were also here for another reason. We came to ride! And ride we did! An experience of a lifetime. Having children, I have gone to amusement park and bee on many rides. Growing up in the seventies I have taken many drug related rides. And I have also learned to ride a horse. English style. We were here to ride down the canyon for a barbecue at local village. This is one of the most liberating experiences I have ever lived. I have photographed it and filmed and edited the experience. But it can only show you in pictures and in words what must be felt and lived in the immense open landscape and deep canyon.
We are equipped with fine medium sized horses with Mexican styled saddles. Wood covered with leather in the soft spots. Solid mounts on solid horses. We slowly leave the ranch, who recently refused government sponsored electricity in order to maintain their traditional ways. And are lead over a large plateau dotted with Nopale catctus trees and millions of rocks tossed by the volcano thousands of years ago like a farmer tosses corn kernels in his field. We could see San Miguel de Allende in the distance lying leisurely on the slopes of the once mighty snow capped volcano. We stopped and our trusty horse riding guide, Rodrigo the Vaquero says, “Alright, everybody ready to gallop?” And then bliss in the most extreme form flies in your face with views of deep rolling canyons, extinct volcanoes and your friends riding ahead and behind you at full gallop.
We come to a stop and try to bring our excitement and heart rate to a controllable level, and slowly make our way down the canyon. Only the finest of trained Mexican horses can manage to smoothly negotiate the steep trails. Marred in loose rocks, cactus and solid lava, our horses simply engaged their four-leg-drive and maneuvered the narrow trails through forests of giant Napale cactus trees and other thorn bearing plants which you must carefully avoid.
The bottom of the canyon is just as majestic as the top. From here we see the tops of the Mesa like mountains with the steep cliffs. But we also reach the river. The horses take a break to have drink, just long enough for us to gallop along side and through the river. People with weak souls, stay home. This is pure unbridled excitement to the fullest.
We reach the village on the banks of the river. Our friend Rodrigo has bought a few old farm houses and some land and plans to create an Eco-tourist village to stimulate the tiny village’s economy. He plans to offer unforgettable experiences to people worldwide in a clean and sustainable way and benefit the villagers, tourists and of course government officials. He will succeed. The state of Guanajuato is behind him and will help finance his project. It’s part of the government program to help change the negative image of Mexico due to narco traffic.
Let’s get this straight, most Mexicans do not consume drugs. They can’t afford it, except for a few in the wealthy elite. Mexican families, or cartels only traffic the product to the US. Simply middlemen between the producers and consumers. Locals have told me that with the old government, the Army was involved and had an agreement with the cartels. Everything ran relatively smoothly. Now that has all changed. The government does not negotiate with cartels, it has waged war. And in some areas of Mexico that is the case. Luckily not in the state of Guanajuato, a strict Catholic state and in particular San Miguel de Allende. It is rumored that families of the cartel live there, so it it safe. It is also rumored that the worlds greatest narcotics businessman has a home there. And it is true that ex-president Vincente Fox has a ranch there. I have driven past it.
As I sit and rest my sore ass from our freedom filled horse ride by sipping tequila and eating tortillas stuffed with meat, vegetables and grilled Nopale cactus leaves, I think about coming here again. And I have, and will continue doing so. But before I conclude this story of a little magical city in the heart of Mexico, I must tell you about one last moment of absolute feeling of freedom and magic.
Before I left to go back to my cold European country, my new friend Rodrigo said “We must have a horse ride through the city before you go.” We did have that horsehide. With my best friend and her girlfriend. Rodrigo came to pick us up and took us to his house. After a few tequila shots we went to get the horses a few blocks away. He lives in the city and has a large brick walled pen for eight horses. In his front driveway, we saddled the horses, drank one more shot of tequila and made our way to the with his two German Shepherds following close by our herd of four.
On the way we galloped up Calle Zacateraz, then lingered in the limelight of La Paroquia, before going for another fast gallop up a quiet street. Strolled through Parque Juarez while young lovers listen to the clip clop of our horses. To finally end up at a swinging door cantina for another tequila. As we sipped our drinks, our horses quietly waited outside to take us home at midnight. No worries about driving home, the horses knew where to go. And nothing like another gallop to sober you up.
This experience is one of the greatest rides of my life. The possibility of galloping through city streets is unheard of in most cities. But in the heart of Mexico, in San Miguel de Allende, its streets paved with lava cobblestones it is permitted to have the ride of your life. Which is just one more ingredient that makes San Miguel de Allende so magic. I am forever grateful to Nancy who moved there and invited me to her hacienda. She now has to host me several times a year, for I am also now strangely under a magic spell of attraction.
Photos ©Alexandre Guidetti. Not to be reproduced without written permission.