Holidays in the Highlands: Querétaro and Guanajuato

The wintry morning brace of Mexico City, over two kilometers above sea level, dissuaded my rise from bed, but I was determined to go.

The bus for Querétaro departed before noon. It crawled through the congested traffic circulating around the north station. A row of slender cottonwood trees stood along the length of the terrace dividing Lázaro Cárdenas, one of the principal highways veining the peripheries of Mexico City. The bus passed cyclopean refineries rising from deep, dry valleys slumping at one side of the highway and rising from the other.

The dry season left the northern soils dusty and tanned, grown with sparse brushwood, only few of the trees and cacti still green. Hills became better defined along the west by northwest path to Querétaro, climbing them to the capital's bus station, installed in an arid, remote pan southeast of the metropolitan area itself. After three hours on the road, I arrived at the station and boarded a taxi. The urban center sprawled across the depression visible from the route along the overhead crest. A cluster of ornately tiled domes atop baroque churches huddled around the colonial center.

Abuela, my grandmother, lived in a suburb across the city, well toward its northwest corner. When I arrived at her one-story house, she opened the front yard gate, and I hugged her before bringing my luggage inside. ... I went to sit at the dining room table, draped in a long, laced tablecloth. A slight air of cigarette smoke lay suspended above.

Though my grandmother was a fortnight shy of eighty-one, her gestures suggested the demeanor of half her age. Reared in the aristocratic echelons of post-revolution Mexico City, she kept the etiquette and stature of a bygone bourgeoisie. Her straight, svelte posture was better than mine. Clad in a modest black skirt and a black sweater with a central register colored like stained glass, she dressed as if ready for a night at a four-star restaurant. For now, however, she brought a jar of instant Nescafé and a package of Canadian maple cookies for an afternoon snack.

For my earliest visits to Mexico City, my family lodged at Abuela's mansion, a posh abode whose upper floor of bedrooms, each for my father and his brothers, connected to the lower floor by a polished stone staircase. My father's relatives included nobility, clerisy, and millionaires. This was Abuela's upbringing, as it was for my father. And yet little over two weeks ago I was mildly shivering in my old jacket at a dining table as José and I ate hot, leaf-wrapped chichikilli tamales in a house built with mud-daubed walls and beside a bamboo-walled kitchen with a dirt floor. In my many visits to Mexico I have dwelt among its richest and its poorest. Hell, I've been its richest and its poorest.

The next day I explored Querétaro's historic district. After navigating the often daunting uniformity of narrow, cobblestone roads and multi-colored city blocks, I oriented myself according to a few key landmarks, such as the gothic spires of the Congregation Temple and the bronze statue of the rattle-legged Chichimec dancer near Zenea Park, the great square in the district's center. For most of my visit I actually remained at the Regional Museum of Querétaro, across the street from the park.

The museum was refurbished from the former cloisters of the adjacent Temple of San Francisco, one of the state's most well-known churches for its bold orange facade, glowing like a block of orange sherbet under the cloudless sun. The temple was crowned with the high relief of Saint James, astride victoriously upon his white horse, trampling a beheaded Moor in the final downthrow of the Reconquest, the medieval campaign to reclaim Spain from the Hebrews and Muslims. The museum centered on an open courtyard with a circular font, framed by two stories of arcaded halls beneath rows of radial floral vaults. Its numerous displays included polychrome schemes on pre-Columbian ceramics, meticulous geometries upon the robes of wooden Baroque saints, and variegated cotton shawls of today's Otomí. The museum's historical and cultural breadth enthralled me for my four hours there. And the day was clement enough for it. I then crossed to Zenea Park.

Completely bedecked with life-sized dioramas of biblical scenes for the Christmas season, the park was crowded with onlookers, devotees, and passersby. The smoothed, painted papier-mâché sculptures recreated the Garden of Eden, the Annunciation to Mary, the arrival of the Three Kings, and the Nativity itself, the culmination of the biblical events narrated among these lavish sets. Many of the figures were painted and dressed as Otomí, even Adam and Eve. A whole scene was dedicated to Otomí women and children celebrating Christmas with a piñata and other play amidst houses painted in sharply contrastive hues of indigo, pink, and green.

And then there were the devils. The greens of the park's northeast corner were propped with painted sculptures of collapsed gothic arches; peering infernal fumaroles; and engorged, pestilent vermin. A cadre of life-sized maroon devils, replete with folded bat wings, spindly chins, and hooked horns, stood among the corners in proud poses, pointing at passersby to entice them from biblical truth - all amidst a perimeter of crimson poinsettias. And toward the center of the corner greens, in front of a short border of deciduous trees, slumped the caped archfiend, lord of powers and principalities, upon his beige calumniator's throne, standing between lone columns perched by coiling rattlesnake and crawling scorpion. To this day I have not seen a grander public monument to the fallen. And it was my first step down the ghat descending to Styx, which I would paddle in full by morrow. Then I would plunge into Hades.


The following morning I went to the bus station for a day's travel to the city of Guanajuato. Because the state of Guanajuato, Mexico's geographic center, neighbored Querétaro to the northwest, the drive itself shouldn't have been terribly long except for the many stops along the route.

Earth: The high, rounded hills of the Querétaro horizon became the jagged, creased mountains of Guanajuato, blanketed in emerald brush.
Wind: Gusts raised dry dust, earth, and sand from tired paths of dirt and pavement.
Fire: Swidden fires blazed across dry lowland pasture, patched with hot char.
Water: The untroubled surface of Lake Ignacio Allende spread from the roadside shore to the horizon, where it abutted the highland artisan city of San Miguel.

The bus climbed the last mountainous slopes surrounding the city of Guanajuato. Sharp, cragged peaks were crenellated around the dense city center, finely checkered in assorted pastels of many homes and buildings. From the bus station I took a microbus to the center, whose route traversed a heavily congested maze of tunnels cutting through outskirt mountains and beneath surface streets. I dismounted toward the city's center and rode another microbus up the slope leading to the Museum of the Mummies. The museum's esplanade enjoyed a vista of the ravine in which most of the city was seated.