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Opulence Without Attitude

Brimming with architectural splendors, San Luis Potosi lacks little but tourists.

October 07, 2001|JEFF KOEHLER | Jeff Koehler is a freelance writer living in San Diego

SAN LUIS POTOSI, Mexico — The young aspiring princess approached as I was eating an ear of roasted corn rubbed with chile and lime. She was selling one-peso contribution tickets toward her campaign for a late spring pageant. She smiled, and I bought two.

It was late afternoon, and I had gravitated to Plaza del Carmen in the center of San Luis Potosi, a city of 800,000 in the fertile plateau of north-central Mexico. The square was festive with vendors selling fresh fruit, papitas (potato chips), bright plastic toys, balloons. Couples and families strolled, chatted and lined the benches. It wasn't a special occasion; this was just a typical midweek afternoon in one of the city plazas.

Watching the princess hopeful saunter off to work her regal smile on others, I realized that there was not another tourist in sight, nor had I seen one all day. Or the previous ones. During the three days I spent here in May visiting friends, I could find no explanation for this. In fact, the city's large, well-preserved historic center full of magnificent Baroque churches and pleasing squares, its rich colonial and revolutionary history, a mild, sunny climate at 6,170 feet above sea level, and excellent food made the tourists even more conspicuous by their absence.

San Luis Potosi is the neglected stop on the wealthy silver route that includes the well-trodden cities of Zacatecas, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Queretaro and Aguascalientes, all fanned out just a few hours to the west and south along a loop from San Luis. In 1592 a Spaniard called Pedro de Anda found silver in Cerro de San Pedro, in the hills a dozen miles to the west. The mine was named "Pueblo de San Luis, Minas del Potosi" after the mother of all mines in Spanish-controlled Nueva Espana, Potosi, in present-day Bolivia.

The silver veins were exhausted by 1620, but the city continued to prosper, thanks to cattle ranching and the opening of new veins. By the 18th century, this was the third most important city in Mexico and the capital of the vast territory that comprised northeastern Nueva Espana, the current northern Mexican states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas, as well as Texas and Louisiana.

Those first 200 years were a rich time for the city. Wide streets were laid out, grand plazas were built and opulent Baroque churches were erected.

San Luis Potosi is called the ciudad de los siete jardines --city of seven gardens--because each of the seven traditional neighborhoods is centered on a plaza so green and leafy that it seems more like a garden. Each is dominated by a church.

I spent most of my time in the flat, walkable central historic district, where most of the interesting sites are concentrated. The focus here is the four main plazas, and I found plenty to do while strolling and browsing in the streets between them.

Plaza de Fundadores marks the spot where Fray Diego de la Magdalena founded his settlement of Guachichil Indians. But he was a Franciscan; the plaza now is dominated by the Jesuit legacy. The Jesuits constructed the church of El Sagrario and beside it, a few years later in 1700, the exquisitely Baroque Loreto chapel. Though the facade of the latter is simple, it contains one of their few surviving retablos , or carved wooden altarpieces. (Much of the Jesuits' work was destroyed after the order was expelled from the New World in 1767.) The Universidad Autonoma de San Luis Potosi, housed in what was originally a Jesuit college constructed in 1653, sits beside the chapel.

A block east is the city's principal square, Plaza de Armas (also called Jardin Hidalgo). People gather here to listen to music, played twice a week in the raised red sandstone gazebo, and also to demonstrate. During my visit several protesters were camped out with banners and loudspeakers, demanding more rights for indigenous people. But far more attention was being paid to the shooting of some scenes of a biographical film about Frida Kahlo, starring Salma Hayek and scheduled to be released in spring 2002.

The square is dominated by Catedral Santa Iglesia, constructed as a parish church and consecrated in 1730. It has twin bell towers, sweeping pink sandstone arches and Carrara marble statues of the apostles, replicas of figures in St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome.

Beside the cathedral is the Palacio Municipal (1830s), outfitted in the republican style that replaced curves with rectangles. Once the bishop's residence, it now houses several government offices, including the tourist information office (which I found helpful) on the ground floor.

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