Most Mexico tourists go to Cancun and the beach resorts: that’s a fact. Travelers might head for colonial cities in the interior of Mexico. Shoppers gravitate to Leon, known for its leather, or Guadalajara, whose satellite cities crank out many tons of fine ceramics and housewares every year. But the simply curious, easily entertained, or genuinely bored head for that most minor of destinations: San Andrés de Salvatierra.
On Saturday, two friends and I headed south in the car while it was still winter-morning cold. Well-armed with tangerines, bottled water, and peanuts, we set off to visit this small town about an hour and a half south of San Miguel de Allende. Salvatierra was recently added to Mexico’s growing list of Pueblos Mágico, a designation that earns it special status and funds to develop tourism infrastructure.
The fields on either side of the highway are mainly fallow at this time of year. A few sported leftover cornstalks or emerald patches of irrigated table crops. Five months after the rainy season, the hills were dry brown and the air tinged with dust. Still, the ring of gray-blue mountains surrounding us was a cheerful sight. The company and conversation were good, and the idea of getting out of Dodge (in this case, San Miguel de Allende) for the day mighty attractive.
We had to drive through Celaya, the third-largest city in Guanajuato state. Celaya has some light industry and shopping in stores such as Home Depot, Walmart, and Costco. It figured in the Mexican Revolution: Pancho Villa was defeated in the Battle of Celaya by General Álvaro Obregón. But our destination was farther south, so we drove straight through the city … well, actually we had to make lots of turns, but our GPS device showed us the way.
About 45 minutes past Celaya, we arrived in Salvatierra, Guanajuato’s oldest city. Capital of the municipality of the same name, it lies in the Valley of Guatzindeo at about 1750 meters (5,741 feet) above sea level. Guatzindeo comes from an indigenous word meaning “place of beautiful vegetation,” although I’m not sure in what language. The Chichimec people who originally inhabited the region were conquered by the Purépecha of Michoacan centuries before the Spanish arrived. Under the Europeans, this region was considered as part of northern Michoacán.
Not long after the Spanish conquest, Franciscan friars built a hospital/school in the town of Guatzindeo. But by the early 17th century, the bulk of the population had died due to smallpox, typhoid, and other introduced diseases. The hospital was abandoned, but Salvatierra (its official name is San Andrés de Salvatierra) was established not long afterwards on the other side of the Lerma River.
In the early years of the colony, Salvatierra was an important way station between Mexico City and points north. Several huge haciendas supplied the region with corn, beans, and produce. Fine fabric was produced here and shipped to Europe and elsewhere. But Salvatierra was never developed like Leon and Celaya, and residents have over the last century abandoned their home town in search of work. Today Salvatierra has about 35,000 people, with roughly three times that many in the entire municipality. Those who have stayed enjoy the slow pace of life and mild climate.
The city radiates out from its large main square, la Plaza de Armas. Vendors sell homemade ice cream as well as frozen strawberries with whipped cream. Facing the square are city hall and the baroque church dedicated to the town’s patron saint, Our Lady of the Light (Nuestra Señora de la Luz). Also called Our Lady of the Valley (Nuestra Señora del Valle), her followers revere a diminutive icon, made in the 17th century of a mixture of corn paste and orchid juice in the Michoacán tradition. The temple’s neoclassic main altar was designed by the well-known architect Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras, born in Celaya.
Other colonial churches in Salvatierra include el Templo de San Francisco and the churrigueresque baroque Templo del Carmen, where you can buy rompope (a sweet, egg-based liqueur) and confections made by the Sisters. At the entrance to town, la Iglesia de las Ardillas is named for the squirrels that hung out there before the temple was built.
With water provided by the Lerma River, the municipality has one of the oldest irrigation systems in the Americas, built by the Spanish friar Andrés de San Miguel. It forms a waterfall and several pools in a city park at the south side of town. We asked many people about this cascada, but no one seemed to know what we were talking about.
After visiting some of the colonial churches, we stopped at Hidalgo Market, enjoying delicious dishes and made-on-the-spot tortillas at one of its small restaurant stalls. The owner, señora Guillermina, was happy to trot out her high-school English, which she learned in the agricultural town of Modesto, California.
After our breakfast and a little shopping, we stopped in at the town museum and just enjoyed walking the downtown streets of this compact historic town. Before heading back to SMA (with a pit stop at Costco), we had lunch at the fanciest restaurant in town, La Veranda. We ate out on wide loggia for which the restaurant is named; lots more townspeople and visitors were eating inside the old building, decorated with black and white photos of the owners’ ancestors and important events.
On our next visit we’ll find the elusive Salvatierra waterfall and explore the city park in which it is located. There are also hot springs outside of town, although their exact location is another mystery. We’ll check at the tourism office (not open during our Saturday visit), and let you know. Unless we are off to explore another of Mexico’s endless minor destinations: too many to count or to visit in one lifetime.