North of Mexico City, the fertile valleys of the Bajío (“Lowlands”) are sprinkled with wealthy colonial towns and rugged, dust-blown hills. This has long been the most heavily populated part of the country, providing much of the silver and grain that supported Mexico throughout the years of Spanish rule. Indeed, the legacy of Spanish architecture remains at its most impressive here, in meticulously crafted towns that – at their cores at least – have changed little over the centuries.
The Bajío grew rich on just one thing – silver – but in time the region also grew restive under the heavy-handed rule of Spain. The wealthy Creole (Spanish-blooded but Mexican-born) bourgeoisie were free to exploit the land and its people, but didn’t control their own destinies; lucrative government posts and high positions in the Church were reserved exclusively for those actually born in Spain, while the indigenous peoples and poor mestizos were condemned either to landless poverty or to near-fatal labour. Unsurprisingly, then, the Bajío was ripe for revolution. This land is La Cuna de la Independencia (the Cradle of Independence), where every town seems to claim a role in the break with Spain. Dolores Hidalgo, in particular, is a point of pilgrimage for anyone with the least interest in Mexico’s independence movement, as is, to a lesser extent, Querétaro, a large and booming modern city that preserves an underrated colonial quarter at its heart. Querétaro also serves as a good base for exploring the Sierra Gorda, particularly the concrete fantasy sculptures of Las Pozas near Xilitla. Guanajuato, quite simply one of the country’s most scenic colonial towns, is close to San Miguel de Allende, which also has its advocates, as much for its wonderful setting as for the comforts of home, ensured by a large population of foreign artists, gringo retirees and language students. Heading north, the less-visited city of Aguascalientes is a real pleasure, with an appealing roster of colonial relics, art from José Posada and fabulous food. The north of the region is dominated by the colonial cities of Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí – both eponymous state capitals and oases of culture and sophistication, built largely with the bounty of the silver mines that riddle the landscape hereabouts. Approaching the Bajío from the US border, you cross several hundred kilometres of desert landscape punctuated only by the occasional ranch, or defunct mining towns, such as the wonderfully strange semi-ghost-town of Real de Catorce, where decades of abandonment are gradually being reversed.