Uncharacteristically stressed to visit three colonial church-monasteries in one day, my driver and I recently raced to off-the-beaten-path Metztitlán, finding a formidable, practically abandoned building but missing out on any sort of experience in the town itself. Only after we’d finished out the day at Atotonilco did I realize that the forgotten, isolated valley of Metztitlán is well worth a day of exploration.
With less than 2 percent of Mexico’s territory, Hidalgo is fractured by valleys and gorges and abrupt mountain peaks. In the middle of the state, la Vega de Metztitlán is a high valley flanked both east and west by the Sierra Madre Oriental. It is embraced in the south by the mountains of the seismically active Eje Volcánico Transversal, or Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. Carved from the Pánuco and other rivers, the Metztitlán Valley harbors a high level of biodiversity, sheltering 93 species of birds and 16 types of mammals. For this reason and for its unique ecosystem of cacti and other arid and semi-arid plants it was declared a protected reserve (Reserva de la Biósfera Barranca de Metztitlán) in 2000.
Ecotourism is in its infancy in this stark and sometimes startling environment between 1,000 and 2,000 meters (3,281 to 6,562 feet) above sea level. The biggest tourist attraction is el Templo de los Santos Reyes (Church of the Three Wise Men), a fortress-style Augustinian monastery complete with battlements. Building began in 1540, less than 20 years after Spain defeated the Aztecs at Tenochtitlán. The original and much less grandiose building was damaged by flooding early on, and the church-monastery was rebuilt on higher ground. Between the two sites spreads Metztitlán, the municipal seat and largest town in the eponymous valley.
As was the custom of the day, the local populace was harangued about heaven and hell in the comfort of an enormous, open-air atrium. Many metric tons of earth were moved to create the hillside plateau on which the 16th-century complex rests, affording an excellent view. The church’s façade is sober Romanesque. The interior is a mélange of styles in which baroque and neoclassic predominate. Tourist brochures don’t fail to mention a painting of Nuestra Seńora “Refugio de Pecadores” (Our Lady the Refuge of Sinners) which we missed entirely but is apparently worth admiring. The single-nave church is open to the public during the usual daylight hours, while the adjoining ex-monastery can be explored for a small fee, Wednesdays excepted.
Impatient to start toward the next monastery on our itinerary, we hurried off toward the north after checking out the isolated and intriguing monastery. Later, after reading about the biodiversity of the area, the beauty of Laguna de Metztitlán (a large, naturally formed reservoir apparently created by an avalanche in the late Cenozoic period), and the many 16th- and 17th-century chapels dotting this forgotten landscape, we decided to plan a more leisurely trip soon: maybe during one of the major holidays, or at least after the summer rains have turned the crispy brown landscape a more cheerful green.
Among the valley’s most important celebrations is la Feria de la Santísima Virgen del Refugio, Feast Day of the Most Holy Virgin of the Refuge, Metztitlán’s patron saint. Between July 2 and 11 there are charreadas, horse races, motocross events, dances, and fireworks. A beauty queen is elected, fair rides and booths appear, and reluctant burros are dressed up in human clothes. Carnival is celebrated with parades, a costumed dance contest whose rituals go back centuries, flour throwing, and public dances. Although not tourist events, semana santa (Holy Week) and día de muertos (Day of the Dead) are a big deal in Metztitlán and surrounding communities, with unique and moving customs.
Off the beaten track for sure, this part of Hidalgo State is a safe and interesting destination for lovers of rural Mexico. I can’t wait to explore it at a more leisurely pace.