Of all the colonial cities in the Bajío, QUERÉTARO is perhaps the most surprising, with a tranquil historical core that boasts magnificent mansions and some of the country’s finest ecclesiastical architecture. Little more than two hours from Mexico City, it’s also a wealthy and booming city of 800,000 people, one of the fastest growing in the republic. Querétaro’s colonial centre is particularly magical at the weekends, when festive crowds and markets throng the streets, and church bells echo across plazas linked by narrow alleys lined with restaurants and bars.
There are points of interest, too, in the surrounding hills of the Sierra Gorda, notably the small towns of Bernal and Tequisquiapan, and the much more distant charms of Edward James’s jungle “sculpture garden” at Xilitla.
The pretty village of BERNAL, 60km east of Querétaro, hunkers under the skirts of the soaring Peña de Bernal, a 350m-high chunk of volcanic rock that towers over the plains. By wandering towards the peak (mototaxis are also on hand to drive you to the base) you’ll soon pick up a rough but clearly marked path about two-thirds of the way to the top (the ascent takes up to an hour, half that to get down), where there’s a small shrine and long views stretching out below. Only appropriately equipped rock climbers should continue up the metal rungs to the summit, passing a memorial plaque to an earlier adventurer along the way.
At weekends, half of Querétaro seems to come out here, gorging on the locally celebrated gorditas and making for a festive atmosphere, but midweek it is an altogether more peaceful place: the mountain is likely to be deserted and you’ll be just about the only thing disturbing the serenity of the plaza with its charming little church and terracotta-washed buildings, sumptuous in the afternoon light. Be forewarned, however, that many businesses are only open at the weekends and many more shut for the month of May.
It was in Querétaro, meeting under the guise of Literary Associations, that the Mexican Independence conspirators (or “reformers”) laid their earliest plans. In 1810 one of their number, María Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez, wife of the town’s Corregidor (or governor – she is known as “La Corregidora”), was locked in her room while her husband was ordered to seek out the conspirators (though he was also sympathetic to their cause) – she managed to get a message out to Ignacio Pérez, who carried it to Independence movement leaders Allende and Hidalgo in the towns of San Miguel and Dolores, thus precipitating an unexpectedly early start to the independence struggle.
One of the best museums in the city lies a block south of the Plaza de la Independencia. The Museo Casa de la Zacatecana is an expertly preserved eighteenth-century mansion, incredibly evocative of the period and enhanced with English videos and English labels throughout. The rooms are filled with over six hundred pieces of art and furniture, but the real draw (for Mexican tourists, at least) is the grisly legend associated with the house. Less macabre highlights include the fascinating “universal history” parchment (1882) in Sala 1, with global cultures displayed like branches of a tree, and the Salon de los Cristos upstairs, containing 54 crucifixes and a Miguel Cabrera painting of the cross (1746). The Salon de los Rejoles overflows with 39 antique clocks – an interesting way to present what would otherwise be fairly dry exhibits.
As for the legend, the story goes that the original owner – from Zacatecas – was murdered by his wife (she was rumoured to have had lovers). Soon after this the evil zacatecana was also stabbed to death mysteriously. Years later, human bones were dug up in the back of the house – but there were two skeletons, not one, prompting some to believe the wife had also murdered the killer she had hired to murder her husband; ghosts have been seen here ever since.