Fantastic ads by Corona, constant in-your-face late night infomercials for Girls Gone Wild videos and the rising toll due to drug violence on the border, fuel a common perception in the United States that Mexico is either too crazy or too unsafe to travel. If you follow a few basic rules and little bit of Spanish, Mexico is one of the most wonderful places to explore, enjoy and experience. Late last year, my wife and I decided to take a slightly less traveled road and took a trip to some historic and colonial towns north of Mexico City. Our destination was going to be the historic and beautiful city of Queretaro, a UNESCO heritage city about 160 miles north-west of Mexico City.
We took a hop at Dallas from Chicago on our way to Mexico City. (You can get to Queretaro from the Leon, Guanajuato Airport as well). Mexico City airport can be confusing for newcomers but things have improved significantly over the last 7-8 years. We took a luxury bus from the Mexico City Airport for Queretaro on the ETN line. The high end buses in Mexico are not very expensive, are very safe and provide top notch service. We paid just $ 23 per head for a 4 hour journey from Mexico City to Queretaro. A sandwich, a bottle of water and a fruit drink, along with extremely comfortable seats was included in the fare.
We had booked our stay at one of the best hotels in Mexico, La Casa de la Marquesa. La Casa was an 18th century gift from a Marquis to his wife Dona Josefa. The hotel is divided into two sections with exceptional rooms, a very nice restaurant serving local Mexican specialties and just a few minutes’ walk from the impressive Plaza de la Armas and other interesting squares and sites in the city.
Queretaro is one of the earlier cities established by the Conquistadores during the Spanish Conquest. The architecture is colonial, grand, beautiful and tends towards the religious. Queretaro is a city made for walking around. You go there to relax, spend a couple of hours in a square, eat some local food, have a beer and then move on to the next square. The people of the city take great pride in their heritage status and history and the city spends a lot of effort in keeping the city clean. The city is spotlessly clean with cleaning crews visible even at 11:00 PM in the night.
Queretaro was definitely the cleanest tourist destination I have seen anywhere in my life. The people in the city are extremely friendly and helpful. Very few people speak English, but a little bit of Spanish on your part will open up doors, bring out smiles and take you a long way. Most of the tourists are Mexicans and people from other Latin American countries as well. We spent a lot of time in the Plaza de la Armas, which is a beautiful square surrounded by restaurants, cafes and bars on three sides. We really enjoyed eating at El Meson de Chucho El Roto and the Restaurant 1810. (1810 is the year of the beginning of the Mexican war of Independence). Both restaurants serve a large selection of Mexican specialties including cactus (nopales), sea food, corn dishes and a very large variety of tequilas and margaritas. One should definitely try a dish served in a molcajete, which is a stone mortar.
If you are vegetarian, both these restaurants will accommodate you. The magic words to say are “sin carne, sin pescado (without meat, without fish or sea food).” Both restaurants have really good artists playing live music and if you are lucky to be there on the weekend, you can get to see and hear some Mariachi music as well. If you are slightly more adventurous, definitely try some Gorditas, made from corn flour in any of the squares. If you want a vegetarian option, the Gordita places are more than willing to do potato and cheese gorditas as well, which are to die for. We made it a point to spend at least half a day in each square, while doing lot of people-watching and engaging in some relaxed conversation. The leisurely hours spent can be great for couples to reconnect and bond and for friends to have a great time.
Queretaro is not just about great squares, good food and drink. There is lot of history to the city, with its museums and beautiful churches. It was also one of the early centers of the Mexican War of Independence and the treaty between Mexico and United States which gave California, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah to the United States was also signed in Queretaro.
One of the landmarks towards the outskirts of the city is the magnificent Aqueduct with 74 gates. It was commissioned to bring fresh water to the city. The walk from the city to the Aqueduct is hardly 2 miles, but it took us almost half a day to get there. We started around 11:00 AM and kept stopping at different places to check out churches, do some shopping for silver trinkets, have lunch and some cerveza. The walk also takes you through the non-touristy residential part of town and it gives you an opportunity to watch the locals up close and personal. We finally reached the viewpoint for the aqueduct after a couple of hours and it is not only an engineering marvel but also a spectacular sight.
Another interesting site to visit is Cerras de la Campana. (Hill of Bells) This is the hill on which the death sentence on Archduke Maximillian was carried out and there is a very austere memorial to the Archduke still there. The hike up the hill is pretty easy and you can also marvel at the huge statue of President Benito Juarez towering over and keeping an eye on this beautiful city.
Queretaro also provides a great experience for shopping for silver. There are literally hundreds of stalls selling different silver items like beautiful earrings, rings, bangles, chains and what not. You could get a lot of good quality stuff without emptying your wallet, provided you do some tough bargaining.
The city is clean, safe and tourist friendly. They even hand out blue sweaters with the city logos to beggars during winter months to keep them warm and looking clean. Queretaro is a great place to learn about Latin and Mexican culture, which is in many ways similar to Indian culture in terms of family values, importance of traditions, spirituality, and extremely friendly people who are fond of music, food and festivals and like to have a good time. We have been traveling to Mexico for almost 7-8 years now, but this was definitely one of the best trips to the country.
Rhishi Pethe works in supply chain management consulting and is currently pursuing a part time MBA at the University of Chicago. His interests outside of work are spending time with his wife, travel, reading, economics, jazz, good food and blogging.