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¡Viva Queretaro!

A colorful past rich in Mexican history (Intrigue! Revolt!) is just part of the charm of this now-mellow colonial city.

November 08, 2009|Christopher Reynolds

QUERETARO, MEXICO — There are plenty of reasons to visit Queretaro, but it's the instability and conflict and violence that finally won me over.

The instability of 1810, that is. The conflict of 1848. The violence of 1867. All set amid 18th century colonial architecture, surrounded these days by commerce and calm.

Coming to this city in Mexico's central highlands, about 130 miles northwest of Mexico City, you get a glimpse of the 19th century days when Mexico was busy breaking free of Spain, losing about half of its land to the U.S., then deposing and executing a foreign-born monarch. All three of those international dramas featured a key scene here.

Since then, even as intrigue and trouble have stalked other corners of Mexico, Queretaro has been quietly growing and mellowing. In 1996, UNESCO named it a World Heritage site.

I headed this way on a brisk October day last year, the headlines at home full of dire updates on crime in Mexico City and drug wars along the U.S. border. But it was simple enough. Fly south. Connect through Guadalajara. Land at the shiny 4-year-old Queretaro International Airport, and ride 20 miles into the old colonial center of town.

Although the Queretaro metropolitan area counts roughly 787,000 residents and its periphery is encircled by busy factories, its historic core is a neighborhood you'll want to walk. (Moreover, Queretaro lies 40 miles from San Miguel de Allende and about 90 from Guanajuato, so it makes great sense as part of a larger tour of colonial cities.)

Once you reach the historic core of Queretaro and jump out of the taxi, a few centuries fall away. My good luck was to jump out at La Casa de la Marquesa.

It's been a hotel only since 1995, but it was built in 1756 as a private mansion, the floors elaborately tiled, the walls covered in stencils, the lobby illuminated by skylight, the halls flanked by carved stonework, the whole place infused with Moorish-Baroque splendor.

I know that sounds like a bunch of travel-writer hooey. That's why I took pictures. The heavy wood door to my room, intricately carved, would open only upon insertion of a big, clunky key that looked like a forgotten medieval movie prop. Inside the room, a chandelier hung from a 20-foot ceiling.

Downstairs in the lobby, a tall, mysterious man in a shiny suit lingered by the door, a grand piano gleamed near the entrance to the restaurant and a worker scurried past in what looked like a French maid's outfit. Graham Greene and Malcolm Lowry could have done some serious writing here, or at least some profound drinking. (Thirteen of the hotel's 25 rooms are in this main building; the rest, a bit cheaper, are around the corner in its Casa Azul area. Pay the extra pesos for the main building.)

Because this region's mountains were the focus of Spanish silver mining in the 16th century, Santiago de Queretaro (almost nobody uses the Santiago part anymore) rose quickly and filled with significant colonial buildings. Later, thanks to the construction of an aqueduct, came about a dozen public fountains, so many that some burbling corners of the historic district might remind you of the fountain-rich piazzas of Rome.

If you're like me, this Roman moment won't last long -- not with the scent of churros rising from the vending carts and the thump of Spanish-language pop issuing from passing cars -- and that's as it should be. Let Queretaro be Queretaro.

The Jardin Zenea, a plaza that dates to the 1870s, is a hub for locals and visitors alike, with dozens of benches, a leafy canopy and a photogenic bandstand. From there you can roam fountain to fountain, passing the curio stands on the car-less walkways or grabbing an exotic ice cream at Tepoznieves, just a few doors from La Casa de la Marquesa.

If you want a bigger walk, head east toward the stone aqueduct, which goes back to the early 1700s. You can't miss it -- it's a long line of 74 arches, up to 75 feet high. To check it out, I walked to the recommended viewing point -- a hilltop chapel that has been redone as the Pantheon of Illustrious Queretanos.

The pantheon property includes the red and yellow tomb where the city's 19th century independence movement heroine, La Corregidora, rests in perpetuity. And the view of the aqueduct, looming over a dusty, honking modern city, was startling. But to catch it at its best, don't show up at midday, as I did. Instead, come late in the day, when the sandstone arches stand out better against the muddled antennas, roofs and power lines.

Now, on to the violence and instability.

First stop: the 18th century Casa del Corregimiento, a short stroll from the Jardin Zenea. It helps to take a minute in advance to digest its back-story. In September 1810, when Spain still ran Mexico, the government magistrate who lived here, Don Miguel Dominguez, got orders from his superiors to crack down on suspected revolutionaries.

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