The Making of a Mexican
My first time on an airplane was a trip to Cancun, Mexico with a troupe of my crazy teenage girlfriends. I thought I was going to explore new lands, see new culture and breathe in new life; however, what I got was Spring Break with tacos.
I’m so appreciative that I made my way back to Mexico two decades later and have spent a great deal of time in the less-travelled interior. Yes, there are a ton of safety and security travel alerts, and I won’t tell you to ignore them, but I’m sure glad I have because I’ve been able to experience this amazing country in an authentic way…and still get those tacos.
San Luis Potosi
San Luis Potosi (SLP) is the capital city of San Luis Potosi State in northern-central Mexico. About six hours from Mexico City, SLP was beautiful, clean, modern, and safe. The best part was that it was chalked full of culture. Beautiful distinct proud Mexican culture.
You see it mostly in the downtown core of SLP where there are various plazas, colonial architecture, wrought-iron everything and colour. So much colour. There are a ton of museums, monuments and my favourite, churches. I think I visited half a dozen churches in one day, each one more impressive than the last.
Specifically, you will love the cathedral and governor’s palace in the Plaza de Armas. Then there is nearby San Francisco Gardens which has the Templo de Nuestra Señora del Carmen, Opera House and Mask Museum.
There were families and children and buskers and music everywhere…no signs of gang activity, drug cartels, throngs of inappropriate tourists and beer bongs. I shook my head a hundred times, thinking “Mexico isn’t supposed to be like this? Or is it?”
I loved it, so much so that almost every day after work I’d cab it downtown by myself and roam around, get a coffee, sit in one of the plazas, people watch etc. And I felt safe and secure every time. Actually, the only thing you need to be warned about is the churros. If you’ve eaten one, you’ve eaten a hundred. But here, you will eat thousands and your waistline will expand, and you are powerless to stop it. Or so I’ve heard….
And the people…this is where I could ramble for days, so I will be as brief as I can be. They are wonderful and warm and friendly, and I’m convinced, incapable of frowning. They must have some kind of connection to Africa because they’re not much different than the people there. I don’t think I met anyone that didn’t welcome me to Mexico with a kiss and hug, and an offer to help and show me something. Trying to understand why us North Americans aren’t like this more is a challenge. Too busy with all of our ‘things’ to stop and be human with other people is my guess. But I digress…
Since I was there for work, I was fortunate to be taken out by various colleagues who behaved as if their lives depended on their hospitality. I was taken out for a night of dancing and saw an authentic Mexican rock band covering not-so authentic American songs but thankfully some originals too. And let me just say, Mexicans sure know how to shake their enchiladas. I, of course, got right into it, mambo-ing and salsa-ing with everyone and their mother. And they looked just as happy to see me get into it as they were themselves.
Another colleague took me to an outdoor rock concert/festival which was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. There were five or six bands – obviously I didn’t have a clue who any of them were – but it was such a great atmosphere and the beer was cold and cheap. The headliners were Caifanes, Mexico’s answer to The Tragically Hip and clearly loved by everyone as the crowd sang every single word to every single song.
And the food in SLP… fheeeew. It’s some of the best I’ve ever eaten. Visiting a local market was quite the experience because I ate all kinds of fruit that I had never seen in my life…people just kept handing me all this exotic stuff and I kept gulping away. I forget the names of everything I tried, but ya know they all had rolling r’s and ended in a’s and o’s if that helps. SLP is also known for ayenchiladas potosinas, barbacoa, and posole. All recommended, especially my fave, barbacoa. How anyone stays skinny in that city is beyond me…
Aside from needing a cheese and hot sauce hiatus after one month, I could have never left SLP. It broke every stereotype I had of Mexico and was the catalyst for my current love affair with the country. Muchas gracias, SLP…
Real de Catorce
Located in San Luis Potosi State about a two-hour drive from SLP is Real de Catorce. The city is named for 14 Spanish soldiers who were killed there in an ambush by Chichimeca warriors sometime around 1700. Its heyday was in the late 19th century, when it had a population of 20,000 people who worked predominantly in the silver mines. However, when the price of silver plummeted around 1900, the industry died and prompted most residents to abandon the town. Today, there are only about 1,000 residents who cater to the tourists that flock to the Mexican “ghost town” in the desert.
The locals are a mix of Mexican cowboys, wayward hippies drawn to the area’s sacred peyote, and the Huichol Indians – the only people who can legally possess the magical cactus. Walking around town, there was definitely a feel to it unlike any place I’ve visited. A vibe – one part eerie, two parts majestic and one part frickin’ cold as hell despite it being hot everywhere else in Mexico.
It only takes a good hour or so to lap the city but there is still enough to do for a weekend trip. Plaza Hildago is great for people watching, and there are a ton of wonderful little shops for souvenirs. There are a lot of desert activities we didn’t partake in, but they are there as evidenced by the gazillion cowboys lined up at every corner offering “caballos, caballos!”
If you go, I recommend going to the Meson de la Abundancia on the main drag, a restaurant/hotel built in the mid 19th century. I’m all for trying different places to eat, but the food was so good I think we ate three of our five meals there.
Surprisingly, there are quite a few small hotels and hostels there to choose from. We stayed at the Ruinas Del Real, which we picked only because the original place we went to was closed down and some random lady on the street took us there….for a small fee, of course. We didn’t realize that during the shooting of the “The Mexican” with Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Penelope Cruz which was shot in Real de Catorce, Roberts and Cruz stayed at our hotel.
Weeeell, our hotel guy assumed we were there because of that little nugget of info, so he made sure to show us all his “Mexican” memorabilia which was prominently displayed on the walls. We didn’t have the heart to tell him we couldn’t have cared less and just wanted a clean place to stay for the night, so we had to appease him even further by taking the extended tour of the rooms in which they stayed.
And that was that. A weekend in creepy town that I won’t forget (which has nothing to do with the Peyote).
Another gem in the interior is Guanajuato, which is the capital of the state of the same name. A breathtaking city of about 80 thousand people, Guanajuato has rightfully earned its UNESCO World Heritage title in part from its baroque and neoclassical architecture. Over a weekend, I walked the hell out of that city and took in every site imaginable. Even if you don’t cover it with the fervent gusto that I did, you will leave impressed and grateful to have gone.
I stayed right in front of Jardin de la Union plaza which is a good decision if you don’t mind a little debauchery outside your hotel window. This square is definitely the most happening place in town. It’s small but packed with restaurants and cafes and anyone looking to drink and eat their faces off, while listening to roving packs of mariachi bands.
You also have to take the tram up to Monumento al Pipila which overlooks the entire city. I am slightly afraid of heights (okay, deathly afraid may be a bit more accurate) but it was well worth it at the top. Breathtaking, actually. Thankfully I managed to figure out the panoramic setting on my camera because this is the place to take them. And thankfully I like cold beer because this was the place to drink them. There were a ton of little patio bars just waiting to be visited, so I did my tourist duty and enjoyed them all. Your to-do list must also include the Basilica of Guanajuato, and Temple la Valenciana Church, Mummy Museum, Church of San Diego, Callejon de Beso (The Kiss Alley), and my fave, the Juarez Theatre.
And as is the way with the people elsewhere in Mexico, rarely was I not greeted or spoken to about who I was and where I was from. I loves me a good gab, so I felt right at home. I think that’s the whole point in Guanajuato. Mission accomplished.
In the northeastern state of Coahuila, Saltillo sits about an hour or so from the much flashier and balls-ier Monterrey. The city of Saltillo may not have the architectural beauty of SLP or Guanajuato, but the landscape cannot be beat. The flight in provided the best views of the Sierra Madre mountain range. Everywhere you turn there are mountains enveloping the city as if to keep it safe from the outside world.
In terms of sites, there are not a ton of things to do there. I would recommend visiting the Museo del Desierto, which can turn any adult into a kid. It’s an ecological museum that takes you through the different evolutionary periods dating back to the shift of continents and the age of dinosaurs. It has separate pavilions that cover just about everything from the animals to the flora and fauna of the region and has a ton of interactive displays and large (and sometimes creepy) animal replicas. And it wasn’t one of those museums that you can zip through in 15 minutes. It was actually huge and took all damn day to get through.
The downtown isn’t as jazzy as other places I’ve been to in Mexico but once again, I was lucky enough to be with some pretty incredible people who took me to the best of everything, from coffee shops to ice cream parlours to bars to Spanish movies. Some people may need a boat load of activities to keep them happy and amused in a place, but I loved Saltillo for the simple things, the people, the food, the music and the friendships.
Some of my colleagues, one of whom was a dancing machine, took me out for some “real” salsa dancing. I knew I didn’t measure up to the locals but I held my own and I think shocked the shit out of my hosts. One even remarked that despite being from Canada, there was no way that I could be Canadian. Coming from one of my newfound friends, I took that as a compliment and still feel proud I somehow cracked the Mexican dance code with a few simple moves and a mutual love for cold beverages.
And the food….good gawd, the food. I was taken out every other day for “Mexico’s best tacos”, “Mexico’s best enchiladas”, “Mexico’s best gorditas”, and “Mexico’s best fritadas”. If you can kill it, cook it and put hot sauce, lime and avocados on it…trust me, Saltillo-ians had the best of it. And the funny thing was, they weren’t lying. The food was spectacular. Every single meal I ate was spectacular. It’s no wonder I worked out five days a week while there and still gained weight. However, I wouldn’t trade it in for anything. For those meals were had with friends – new friends that I will someday get to call old friends. And for that, I’d have eaten even more.
About an hour bus trip from Saltillo in Coahuila state is the sleepy town of Parras de la Fuente. Surprisingly, this little town has one of the oldest wineries in North America, Casa Madero Winery, founded in 1597. Overshadowed by the vineyards in the Baja California region, Casa Madero is known to produce some amazing wine because of its high altitudes and relatively cool climates. Apparently the wine was known to be so good that during Spanish occupation, King Felipe II actually halted all production because he was so jealous of it. Thankfully, Mexico ended up gaining its independence if for no other reason than the wine started flowing again (I’m kidding, people).
I was once again accompanied (and rescued) by a colleague native to Parras who filled in the blanks when my Spanish let me down. The only disappointing part of the tour was that there was no wine tasting, which was anti-climactic six ways to Sunday. It was even more of a letdown when we found out at 2:05 that the wine shop closed at 2:00. Thankfully there were enough disappointed tourists, and my friend who made a point of saying I came aaaall the way from Canada, so that it was opened up by the staff soon after.
Aside from the winery, Parras has a stellar lookout point at the top of a mini-mountain. If you can endure the incline and stifling heat, the 15-minute jaunt won’t kill you even if it feels like it might. Once at the top though, there’s a cute chapel and a postcard-esque view of the San Lorenzo Canyon and the beautiful town of Parras. Well worth the heart arrhythmia.
Once again the simple things of Mexico led me to see the extraordinary things of Mexico, the people. And the wine. And the food. Ay carumba, the food.