By RICH GRANT
By a stroke of good fortune for the Mexican tourism office, both of Mexico’s revolutions began 100 years apart – in 1810 and 1910 (with the one in 2010 being just one year-long party).
Routes that follow the various military campaigns have been laid out with one leaving from Guadalajara that goes to the three most historic towns of Mexico’s 1810 revolt (against the Spanish rule, for the nation’s independence): Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato and San Miguel. Happily, they are also some of the most beautiful and charming destinations in central Mexico.
Town of Pain … and Ice Cream
Dolores, which means “pain,” is the least attractive but most historic of the three. It was here on Sept. 16, 1810 (a date celebrated in Mexico as the national holiday), that a rather bizarre priest named Father Miguel Hidalgo rang the bell of his church and issued t“El Grito de Dolores” – a call to revolution against Spain. Hidalgo gambled, danced and fathered seven children, but this unorthodox padre is a Mexican national hero, and his fiery, bald-headed image shouting out for independence can be seen throughout the country in countless murals, statues and even at the entrance of San Miguel’s largest disco.
Hidalgo and compatriot Ignacio Allende threw together an army of 80,000 machete-armed rebels, who captured Guanajuato, San Miguel and Guadalajara, before meeting disaster against well-disciplined royalist troops. Hidalgo and Allende were captured, executed and beheaded. Their heads hung in iron cages in Guanajuato for 10 years, until independence was finally won in 1821.
Today, Dolores is much more peaceful. You can visit Hidalgo’s home, see the bell he rang for freedom (the Liberty Bell of Mexico) and visit a museum on the revolution, but most people stop here for ice cream in the pleasant town square. In one of those quirks of Mexico that you just accept, Dolores has become a national center for homemade ice cream. You can get dozens of flavors that include favorites such as beer, tequila, avocado, cheese and even fried pork skin.
If flavors such as corn ice cream don’t appeal, they also have every tropical fruit flavor imaginable, all served at the corners of the square from distinctive stands.
Guanajuato: Color, Color Everywhere
Just 40 minutes from Dolores is one of the great colonial gems of Mexico – the incredible silver mining town of Guanajuato. As much as a quarter of the world’s silver has come from this town. Founded in the 1550s, there are still eight active mines in the area, although their output has slowed in recent years.
The wealth of the hills was poured into fanciful (and colorful) baroque and neoclassical buildings, churches, mansions, parks and homes, that are painted wild colors, from turquoise to brilliant burnt orange.
But it is the location that is truly different. Built in a steep valley, the town spills up the sides of the mountains in twisting cobblestone streets, stairways and alleys that have a real European feel. The main roads of the town are underground – five miles of tunnels that branch off, interconnect and meet up again – all underground. The unique layout, preserved architecture and wonderful pedestrian-friendly center have won Guanajuato a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Jardin de la Unión is the center of the city – a wonderful triangular park of cast iron benches and trimmed trees, lined on all sides with umbrella-filled outdoor cafes. It has the feeling of Italy or Spain. Nearby is the university, the elegant Teatro Juárez and the Basílica of Guanajuato, but it is the plazuelas (the pocket parks) that you will remember. Built wherever there is a flat spot, these little green spaces offer an oasis from the labyrinth of narrow, twisting streets – one of which is so tight, it is called the kissing alley because legend has it that two lovers kissed across the alley from balconies on either side.
In the evening, groups of estudiantiles. (musicians dressed as 19th century troubadours) stroll the alleys, serenading tourists. It’s a little corny, but great fun, though it must drive the local residents crazy to be serenaded every night.
The town has an inexplicable love affair with Don Quixote (there are statues everywhere and a museum) and in October, kicks off a yearly, three-week Cervantes Festival that celebrates all the arts with music and dance in the streets.
Bars are everywhere and inexpensive. It’s no surprise that “Zorro” and “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” were filmed here. This is romantic Mexico, so wildly beautiful and colorful that it’s difficult to believe this is an actual working town of 170,000 people and not some movie set. Ride the funicular to the hilltop for a stunning view at twilight, have a drink at a café around a square, poke in the galleries and shops, and get lost in the backstreet alleys. This is one great town.
San Miguel de Allende, Gringolandia in Mexico
San Miguel is arguably the most Americanized town in Mexico, with a Starbucks and 14,000 (about 10 percent) of the population being U.S. expats and Europeans. But don’t let that bother you – it’s also one of the most beautiful towns you will ever visit.
Founded in the 1542, the colorful colonial town became an artist colony and beatnik hang-out in the 1950s and has been declared a Mexican national monument.
The 24-square block historic center is a dream of earth colors — ochre, yellow, brown, pale green and burnt orange adobe buildings. Some of them are nearly 500 years old; all are adorned with antique wooden doors and line an up and down, hilly maze of cobblestone streets, offset by elegant shops and shop windows … all under the soft, pale light of a 6,000-foot high mountain desert.
Deep Mexico is around every corner. Step in the market or pause outside one of the dozen historic churches and you’re sure to meet an old women begging for centavos. But on the next corner is a courtyard restaurant with a wall of flowers that would be at home in Santa Fe or St. Moritz.
The center of town is El Jardín, the postcard Mexican plaza of cast iron benches and boxed laurel trees, lined with colonnades of arches from colonial days. There are any number of bars here for a Victoria beer and the sunset show when thousands of grackles go crazy, roosting in the trees, as lovers walk by.
The rose-colored, La Parroquia, a Gothic church of crazy spires allegedly inspired by a European postcard, overlooks the square and completes the picture that, Starbucks aside, you’re not in Kansas anymore.
San Miguel has the home of the other beheaded Mexican hero, Ignacio Allende (for whom the town is named). There are galleries galore and museums, but it’s also a great place to just wander and walk, order a tequila “un completo” at an outdoor café, and watch the color of the buildings change as the sun moves lower on the horizon and the hundreds of historic lanterns start to glow. Nobody but the taxi cabs are in a hurry, and even they will pause, briefly, rather than run you down. There’s just time for another “un completo” before the mariachis start playing in the plaza.