The Mexicans have got tourism Down. To. A. Tee. Whatever you want, they’ve got it, and they don’t just do it, they do it really, really well. There couldn’t have been more contrast in my travels so far, from the wilds and Mayan ruins of Chiapas; the indigenous craftsmanship and pristine beaches of Oaxaca; the religious and colonial history and culinary fame of Puebla; the vibrancy of life and juxtaposition of wealth and poverty in Mexico City; the flash and glamour of Acapulco. Just a few hours north of Mexico City, a trip to Querétaro and San Miguel de Allende offered yet another entirely different experience with their clean streets, immaculate parks, pretty plazas, chic cafés and cosy accommodation perfectly tailored to the needs and desires of expats and international travellers.
First stop Querétaro, capital city of the state of the same name. Originally a settlement founded by the Otomí people in the fifteenth century (hence the dolls in the above photo), it was soon absorbed by the Aztecs and then the Spaniards. It reminded me a lot of Oxford with its open air International Jazz Festival; of Brighton with its andadores (pedestrianised streets lined with neat little stalls selling jewellery and bags); and both with the plethora of handsome, bearded, 20-something male waiters. Querétaro is a beautiful city for wandering: there’s a tranquil, cultured air to the streets (unlike the chaos of less touristy areas), and it’s brimming with lovely squares, quality cuisine and interesting museums. Even the taxi drivers seem that little bit higher up the scale of contentment. All in all, it’s very, very pleasant. But this comes at a price: ninety-five pesos (almost five British pounds) for an 80 gram bar of ki’XOCOLATL “directly from the cacao tree groove bean-to-bar artisinal criollo chocolate,” to be precise.
We found our green boutique hostel Kuku Rukú a little disappointing. On arrival they had lost our reservation (shouldn’t complain, we bagged a free upgrade for the night). Despite numerous recommendations we found the hostel breakfast on the stingy and minimalist side, and the attached restaurant wasn’t serving food at all while we were there. No use crying over spilled milk, we soon discovered that there was no shortage of great places to eat. After seven months without a good Full English or anything remotely like it I was disappointed to discover that Sunny’s All English café has now closed, but if in search of comfort you could still head to Bhaji, which serves “the Great British Curries of traditional UK Indian restaurants.” It was very tempting, but we were on the hunt for something a little lighter so headed for the Calle Cinco de Mayo where most of the cafés and bars are situated. There’s a far less distinct line between cafés and bars here than in the UK, so you can still grab a light bite to eat or a coffee without paying ‘restaurant’ prices, and soak in the lovely early evening atmosphere as dusk turns to night. I highly recommend U:La La for bagels, salad and fresh-if-a-little-bitter mango juice; Kaluna café whose very reasonable prices reflect that they are situated slightly off the far end of Cinco de Mayo; and Bisquets Querétaro for a really authentic Mexican breakfast and cantina atmosphere.
Beware: (almost) everything is closed on Mondays. This is mildly irritating, but the lady in the tourist information office was still incredibly lovely and helpful about it. So the museums had to wait until the following day (on Tuesdays, almost apologetically, some offer free entrance). Luckily it’s such a nice city that we quite happily whiled away the day just moseying around. María y su bici is a Mexican restaurant with a few branches dotted around the city, each uniquely decorated in a mix of traditional and contemporary Mexican style décor. I had the most delicious Tamal Maya with Cochinita Pibil (spicy pork) and a jug of Tejate – an ancient drink from the markets of Oaxaca consisting of cocoa, maize, mamey (a Mexican fruit similar to papaya) and corozo (a Latin American nut like a chestnut) mixed with iced and charmingly served in the traditional jícara cups made from coconut shells.
Like all of the Mexican states’ capital cities there are lots of museums and churches, and it’s easy to tick off a handful in an afternoon. Templo de San Francisco is worth a peek, especially as it’s right next door to the Museo Regional: to be honest, it’s no competition for Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology which completely knocked my socks off, but it’s interesting on the state’s indigenous groups and Querétaro’s role in the independence movement and post-independence history. The Museo de Arte is set in an eighteenth century baroque monastery and is home to a great mix of European and Mexican works spanning the sixteenth to twenty-first centuries. Querétaro also boasts an impressive eighteenth century, 1.28km-long aqueduct made of sandstone, Los Arcos, which features heavily in the city’s postcards.
Over-state into Guanajuato, we were eager to visit the famously pretty San Miguel de Allende. In keeping with the Mexican trend for setting cities in deep valleys surrounded by imposing mountains and volcanoes, the approach to the city gives a great view and adds to the excitement of the arrival: San Miguel de Allende’s biggest attraction, its Disney-like church complete with pink towers, La Parroquia, is clearly visible (I won the prize for first-spot) from the highway. Having the name of a notorious prison and a prominent sign at the entrance stating that no refunds can be given once you’ve seen the room had my senses on high alert, but our stay at Hostal Alcatraz was surprisingly enjoyable. The facilities are basic but perfectly clean and pleasant, and the staff very friendly and helpful. I’m surprised that more hostels don’t seem to have cottoned on that a good breakfast is a sure-fire way to a great review.
There isn’t all that much to do apart from shop and eat, but if you’re on holiday that’s a pretty good start. The Mercado de Artesanías offers beautiful Mexican handicrafts and folk art, but its prices are more expensive than you can find for similar items elsewhere so be sure to haggle your socks off. To get a glimpse of ‘real’ Mexico head to the food market, where you can buy a pot of fresh fruit for fifteen pesos rather than paying sixty for a fruit salad in a café. Vía Orgánica is a lovely little restaurant offering organic local produce, and is also engaged in not-for-profit initiatives with local farmers. But the highlight for anyone with a sweet tooth is San Agustín’s hot chocolate and churros. There’s normally a queue outside but it doesn’t take long to whittle down, or you can hustle your way to the front to make a reservation for a bit later that same day. I am a stern advocate of trying different things, but we may have gone there twice in less than forty-eight hours.
San Miguel is surrounded by various hot springs just a short bus ride away. We went to La Gruta which has three small pools, a tunnel and a steamy cave. Entrance is 100 pesos, there’s a café, restaurant, massage parlour and good changing amenities, but it’s very busy, touristy and not as natural as we were expecting.
In summary, don’t go to San Miguel if you’re in search of a really ‘authentic’ Mexican experience, but it’s definitely worth popping by if you’re passing through from Guanajuato to Querétaro. And if you can, leave it to last so that you can spend your last pennies freely (you will want to) without the bitter taste of sore temptation and fear of over-spending.