Querétaro: A Colonial City in the Twenty-First Century
One of Mexico’s oldest colonial cities, Querétaro has grown exponentially since the late 1980s, when droves of defeños fled Mexico City after the 1985 earthquake. Although today this once quaint and provincial state capital is ringed with bedroom communities and crowded with medical clinics and labs, manufacturing plants, and cars, it is definitely worth exploring. The Old Town has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the number and quality of 17th- and 18th-century buildings, including many churches, monasteries, and mansions.
Also influencing UNESCO’s decision is the fact that the historical center has maintained its original footprint. The Spanish settled one side of town, while the Indians lived on the other. The streets west of Avenida Corregidora (the Spanish side) are laid out as a grid, while the ones on the east side have a less regimented design.
When the Spanish arrived (okay, invaded), this area was heavily populated by indigenous communities (Pames, Otomis, and Chichimecas), and so naturally the conquistadors founded a city here. Rich agricultural lands made it a logical base for farming and a supply center for important mining centers to the north, including Guanajuato and Zacatecas.
Nearly three hundred years later, Querétaro figured prominently in the Independence movement. Revolutionary leaders feigning interest in literature met regularly at the home of Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez (AKA La Corregidora)---wife of the Spanish-appointed administrator---to discuss severing ties with Spain. Querétaro is also the place where Mexico’s short-lived Habsburg royal, the Emperor Maximilian, was tried as a traitor and shot by firing squad in 1867, ending the three-year reign of the Second French Empire in the New World. During the Juárez years, Mexico’s sweeping Reform Laws were in good part drafted here, too.
Despite being the fastest-growing city in Mexico (according to Wikipedia), this is a pleasant place in which to wander, especially on Sundays when traffic lightens and extended families fill parks and plazas. Visit the tidy Plaza de la Independencia (AKA Plaza de Armas), surrounded by restored colonial mansions and government buildings. Facing Jardín de la Corregidora, the house where the revolutionaries conspired to gain independence from Spain is today the seat of state government. Cafes and shops facing these pretty plazas compete with museums and magnificent churches as the place to spend leisure time. A handful of theaters produce music festivals and concerts, dance performances in a variety of genres, and theatrical events throughout the year.
Jardín Zenea is home to the copper-topped bandstand where musicians of various stripes play on weekend evenings. The surrounding scene looks vaguely European, with two- and three-story vintage buildings housing stationary shops, cafés, and perfumerías. Facing it is the rosy red Templo de San Francisco, built in the 16th century soon after the fall of Tenochtitlán.
Pedestrian walkways are lined with vendors selling seasonal apparel, toys, and trinkets. If you get tired of walking, tourist trams (tranvías turísticas) provide an introduction to local history and a visit to the hill, Cerro de Las Campanas) where Maximilian and two of his generals were executed. If you prefer to explore on your own, exhibits at the Museo Regional, Museo de Arte de Querétaro, Museo de Artes Gráficas, and other museums present area history in a variety of media.
Capital of the same-named state, Querétaro is somewhat cosmopolitan but decidedly Mexican; this is a good place to get a feel for a safe and modern colonial city---as well as the surrounding countryside. Mexico’s third-smallest state is an excellent destination for an all-inclusive vacation---but not the kind you’ll find in Cancún.
Soak up history in the state capital, and then move on to Tequisquiapan (Tequis for short) to soak in area hot springs and sample locally produced cheeses and wines. (The town of Ezequiel Montes is famous for its champagne-style wine, but you can get this in more tourist-oriented Tequis, too.) A short distance away, scale the monolithic rock at quaint Bernal, or just shop and enjoy the provincial atmosphere. If you don’t mind narrow, twisting mountain roads, head to the Sierra Gorda to visit the inimitable and wonderfully restored mission churches established by the Franciscans in the mid-18th century.
For an overview of colonial Mexico that includes iconoclastic mission churches, wine and fresh cheeses,
beautiful vistas and attractive small towns, we recommend this diminutive state. Its capital city is the place to start.