San Luis Potosi, San Luis Potosi
After a visit in November 2008 to San Luis Potosí, capital of the self-named state in central Mexico, I told a friend that I liked the city enough to live there. "Pero es bien mocho!" he cautioned me ... meaning that it is highly religious in a formal, straight-laced way. I wasn't in San Luis long enough to feel its stiffness or severity. I was there briefly en route to Dead of the Dead ceremonies in the Huasteca region, and just long enough to enjoy the beautiful downtown, so European in feel, and one of the seven surrounding neighborhoods built to house indigenous colonists who were relocated there.
Situated in the geographic heart of Mexico, San Luis Potosí (SLP for short) was founded soon after mines were discovered at nearby Cerro San Pedro, in 1592. San Luis Potosí soon became the capital of a massive region stretching as far north as today's Texas and Louisiana. The gold mines played out fairly quickly, but the city was successful as a center of commerce, ranching, and agriculture. A Franciscan monastery was founded on one of the region's first land grants.
The Old and the New
Today el Convento de San Francisco continues to house Franciscan monks while also providing a home for el Museo Regional Potosino (San Luis Potosi Regional Museum), with pre-Colombian relics and religious artifacts from the colonial period. Within the museum/monastery, the Capilla de Aranzazú is an unusual second-story chapel. It is named for a little-known apparition of the Virgin Mary, said to have appeared in the 15th century in Basque country, northern Spain. The chapel was damaged during the Revolution, when it served as a jail and warehouse for Republican troops; it is currently being restored to its original luster. Adjoining the monastery, Saint Francis church is a masterpiece of Mexican baroque.
While the outskirts of this city of nearly one million people house small- and medium-size factories, the historic center remains a glorious blast from the past. Huge plazas sporting fountains and statues are faced by mansions and impressive public buildings in Porfiriato, neoclassic, baroque, and other styles. A few blocks northeast of the San Francisco complex is the city's large and attractive main square. Here is the Palacio de Gobierno (state capitol building), which housed the transitional government of Benito Juárez during Emperor Maximilian's brief and chaotic reign in the mid-19th century. Across the plaza are the Palacio del Municipio (city hall) and the city's ornate cathedral, its neoclassic interior a 19th-century renovation. A few blocks east, another SLP star is the ornate Templo del Carmen. It was originally part of the adjacent Convent of the Barefoot Carmelites, which now houses el Museo del Virreinato (Museum of Viceregal Period), with art and period pieces.
Not All That Glitters Is Old
Despite its reputation as a staid colonial city, San Luis has its share of contemporary attractions. Within multi-use Parque Tangamanga, el Laberinto de las Ciencias (the Labyrinth of Science) was designed by contemporary Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta. It opened in September 2008. Wander through the musical cactus garden designed by Francisco Toledo and Alfredo Salomón; check out the day's newspaper headlines, the words visible in fine jets of water emanating from a suspended metal tube. These as well as many interactive exhibits, including some really fun things for kids, make this museum well worth the price of admission.
A blend of old and new is the stunning new Cultural Center within a former prison. Cells have been turned into small art galleries, while larger spaces have been reconditioned as classrooms for dance, music, and other fine arts. Brick ceilings, blond wood floors, poured cement walls, and other architectural accomplishments make this one of the loveliest cultural centers in Mexico.
Under the Radar
San Luis Potosí is off the tourism trail for international visitors; the vast majority of its two million sight-seers in 2007 were Mexican nationals. Whether to their fellow Mexicans or foreigners, Potosinos are proud to show off their city's history and its regional cuisine. Restaurants in renovated old mansions in the city center serve enchiladas potosinas (red corn empanadas stuffed with cheese and served with beans and guacamole), mutton stew, and asado de boda (pork seasoned with ancho chilies). Despite its size, SLP has a friendly feel and a slowish pace. Many businesses close for the lunch-and-siesta break between 2 and 4 or 5 pm.
Typical handcrafts of the area can be purchased at Casa de los Artesanos. There are boxes and other items of carved mesquite wood as well as baskets, unusual crafts made of palm and cactus, and of course the famous San Luis Potosí rebozos: finely made and relatively expensive shawls of silk or manmade materials. The latter come from Santa María del Rio, 48 kilometers (29 miles) south of the city.
I asked a new acquaintance in SLP about the city's "mocho" (churchy) reputation. She wasn't so sure about that, but told me instead that hers is a "pueblo tuvero": "tuve dinero, tuve novia, tuve oportunidades... " (a play on words meaning I HAD money, I HAD a girlfriend, I HAD opportunities. A rather self-deprecating self-image, it seems). On my next visit I hope to spend more time in San Luis Potosí, and to decide for myself what this historic yet modern city is really about.
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