Hidalgo was declared a state by Mexican president Benito Juárez in 1848; Actopan didn’t become a city until 1946. Counter-intuitively pronounced ac-TOH-pan, this is a traditional heartland place where fiestas mean cock fights and charreadas, jaripeos (rodeos) and thumping brass bands. Its name is from an Otomí phrase meaning “sobre la tierra gruesa, húmeda y fértil”: that is, “on the substantial, moist, and fertile soil.” It’s a pleasant and friendly town.
Shortly after the Spanish conquest, Catholic friars arrived in the New World to convert the natives. Close to the fallen Aztec capital (which the local Otomí people had helped unsuccessfully to defend), today’s Hidalgo state was one of the first areas to be subjugated. Within a decade the Franciscans had begun erecting the first temple-monasteries around Mexico City. A few years later the Augustinians came, establishing themselves in the high, arid Mezquital Valley, the Sierra Gorda (a mountain range shared by Hidalgo and Querétaro states), and the semi-tropical valleys of La Huasteca, among other places. Less than 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Mexico City and part of the same high plateau, el Valle del Mezquital is named for its abundance of hardy mesquite trees. The area is surrounded by mountains, and its high altitude---ranging from 1700 to 2100 meters (5,577 to 6,890 feet) above sea level---and exposure combine to produce extreme high and low temperatures. Once considered one of Mexico’s poorer agricultural regions, the Mezquital Valley today produces peaches, nuts, apricots, cherimoya, and other fruits as well as beans, alfalfa, wheat, oats, and vegetables. Geothermal conditions produce many hot springs in the area as well as dramatic rock formations such as Los Frailes, a nice place for hiking, mountain biking, camping, and picnicking.
At the southern tip of el Valle del Mezquital, Actopan is known throughout Hidalgo and beyond for its formidable Augustine temple--monastery. Dedicated to the lesser-known Saint Nicholas of Tolentine, the church’s exterior of rosy quarry stone is dignified plateresque style. Inside, worth noting are the big stone baptismal font and the neoclassic altarpiece. The mural paintings in the adjacent monastery are perhaps the most extensive---and impressive---in the state. Repeated in a horizontal band up near the ceiling are a series of motifs in black, red, and white: doves in a nest, a heart pierced with three arrows (symbol of the Augustinian order), innocent cherubs clutching the True Cross, and mythical beasts that represent a plethora of earthly temptations.
Another reason to visit is the Wednesday tianguis, where you can buy a fine cowboy hat, a cheap bra from a rainbow of color choices, or the ingredients for a picnic lunch. The outdoor market is also the place to try the town’s signature dish: lamb barbecue wrapped in enormous cactus pads and slow-cooked in an earthen pit (or over an open fire, or steamed). This carnivore’s treat is especially in evidence on the days preceding July 8, the feast day of San Nicolás de Tolentino.
Actopan is a good base for exploring the cave paintings at El Arco, on the outskirts of town, or las Grutas de Xoxafi (Xoxafi Caves), about halfway to Ixmiquilpan on Highway 85.
Just south of Actopan lies another church admired by the devout and the architecturally enthusiastic: El Santuario del Señor de las Maravillas (Sanctuary of Our Lord of the Wonders). Considered especially milagroso (miracle-working), the icon draws many thousands of pilgrims around his feast day: the fifth Friday of Lent. Visitors stop at this neoclassic, early-20th-century temple all year long, however, to seek blessings and divine inspiration.