Thursday, June 11, 2009

Queretaro: Part 5 - The Magic Pueblo of Bernal

Bernal is one of Mexico's Pueblos Magicos. Mexico has given the designation of Pueblo Magico, or Magic Town, to 35 very special villages around the country. Each of these is a place with a special ambiance, or an unusual feature. San Sebastian Bernal, a town located about 1/2 hour's drive northeast of Queretaro, certainly fits this description. The narrow winding streets are lined with open air restaurants and beautifully picturesque old hotels and stores. Looming over the town is a huge stone monolith called Pena de Bernal, the third largest of these natural structures in world.

Bernal is an old colonial-era village. The mural above was painted on the wall of an open- air arcade on the main street. The scene depicted could have occurred 400 years ago, or yesterday. You can see the same activities on the streets today: sombreroed horsemen chatting, campesinos toting produce or other goods through the cobblestone streets, and the well-off and poor rubbing shoulders in the open markets. San Sebastian Bernal was founded by a Spanish army lieutenant named Alonso Cabrera in 1647. Local Otomi Indians requested protection from the Spanish, apparently because their wild Chichimec cousins were raiding again. Lt. Cabrera (some say he was a captain) brought 10 soldiers, along with his 3 sons, to protect the locals and enforce the Spanish Crown's presence. They built a small fort in the area and, as usual, a town grew up around it.

La Pena is a massive rock, visible from most places in town. La Pena rises about 1150 feet (350 meters) from its base. The rock formation can be seen for many miles in every direction and stands in an area where the fertile valleys of the south and the rugged and rocky mountains of the north meet. When we left Tequisquiapan (see Part 4), we were uncertain of the correct road to Bernal, but almost immediately spotted the rock. Simply by keeping it in sight, we found our way easily. The size is hard to appreciate unless you have something to scale it against. Look at the center of La Pena and you will find a small, light-colored "Z"- shaped formation. If you look very closely, you will see some tiny dots in the Z.

This is the "Z" you were looking at above. The dots are people on the trail. The monolith is a popular destination for rock climbers and others attracted to extreme sports. Bernal and its Pena are under consideration by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The rock has sacred significance to the Otomi and other chichimeca in the area. Very soon after they arrived, the Spanish built a chapel on the top which has become the focus of annual Catholic religious processions. In addition, various "New Age" groups have adopted the monolith and consider it a spiritual center, especially on the Equinox. There is a trail to the top which we did not take for lack of time, but perhaps on our next visit.

The environment of San Sebastian Bernal is high desert. Cactus, low scrub, and desert grasses marked this area for cattle and horse grazing when the Spanish arrived. At just under 7100 feet (2510 meters), the climate in May was dry and pleasantly warm during the day and cool in the evening.
We encountered various forms of transportation in Bernal. One has the choice of a trolly-bus, a tricycle cab, or one's own two feet. We parked our car in an inexpensive public lot and hoofed it. El Centro of Bernal is small enough that walking is an easy and pleasant experience. In addition, you get to see so much more.

The clock tower is a landmark in El Centro as La Pena is for the whole area. Built in 1900 by a German, the tower and the building it surmounts are beautifully kept. In fact, the whole El Centro area left an impression of having just been buffed, touched up, and freshly painted. The clock tower overlooks the central plaza area.

Casa Tsaya has a Moorish feel. The entire front of this old hotel is covered with painted tiles in the Moorish style. We decided to peek inside Casa Tsaya to check out the ambiance.

Just inside the door, we encountered the central courtyard restaurant. The courtyard was surrounded on all sides by portales behind which were the rooms. The tables were set around the stone fountain in the center. Various plants on the balconies gave a nice finishing touch. Casa Tsaya struck me as a great place to stay if we ever spent the night in Bernal. Shelley, our Home B&B host and volunteer tour guide, took us on a brief tour of the hotel.

No two dining room chairs in Casa Tsaya were alike. Color and humor are typical features of Mexican art, and both were employed in the decor of the Casa Tsaya dining room. It is these extra little touches that make places like this old hotel special.

Entrance to San Sebastian Martir church on the plaza. The church is not imposing and overwhelming like so many others we have visited. Somehow the size of the church fit well with the human-scale architecture of the town. The well-preserved church was built between 1700 and 1725.

Music everywhere. These Indian musicians were one group among many in the plaza that day. Some kind of fiesta was going on. The musicians followed each other in performing and sometimes overlapped. As I have said before, living in Mexico is like having a live music sound track in your life.

Halloween all year long! Next to the building with the German clock tower was a small museum whose walls were lined with carved wooden masks. The local Indians carvers, have vivid and colorful--and sometimes frightful--imaginations. Carole and I have begun collecting masks and we are amazed by the variety of forms and techniques. I particularly liked the blue face on the bottom.

The Devil in detail. A devil mask offers a toothy grin. Devil figures are particularly popular with mask makers. The masks are used in various fiestas that have a patina of Catholicism over a deep reservoir of ancient native religious beliefs. This one put me in mind of a popular Rolling Stones poster.

Having a bad day. I call this one Indio Enfermo. I probably looked something like this after one of my more rigorous bouts of "turista".

Keeping it all in the air. This stick juggler was pretty good. He kept quite a crowd entertained as they waited for him to finally drop one of the sticks. It took a while.

The loom at the back of the shop. Shelley took us into the back of one of the textile shops where beautiful woven goods are sold. In back, we saw the looms where they weave the old fashioned way. The techniques go back at least 500 years or more. This particular loom was a very unusual upright device. The weaver was apparently creating some kind of wall hanging.

Keeping a sharp eye on things. We encountered this parrot guarding a wall hanging on our way out of the textile shop. He eyed us suspiciously until we finally stopped cooing at him and went away. The Bernal area is definitely sheep country and lots of woolen goods are produced.

This is also horse country. We found this beautifully-made saddle with a lariat casually draped over it in what was apparently part of an old colonial home. Mexican cowboys--called vaqueros or charros--take their horses and equipment very seriously. They are proud of their outfits and love showing them off.

Some beautiful stonework from long ago. This was part of the floor design in the large patio of the old colonial building. This segment was probably 2 feet by 2 feet, and there were many segments. Seems like a lot of work for a floor until you understand that under the old encomienda system, Indians were treated like serfs. Since many of the Indians were skilled in stone masonry and other kinds of crafts, it made for some pretty nifty features costing the Spanish aristocracy a pittance.

Don Quixote, deep in thought. 16th Century Spanish author Miguel Cervantes and his creation Don Quixote are very popular in Mexico. A couple of hours drive to the west, in Guanajuato, the community throws an annual Cervantino Festival that is internationally recognized. I found this wooden Don Quixote gracing a sidewalk restaurant on a side street near the plaza.

An extraordinary egg. We found this large sculpture of a world within an egg in a small shop a couple of doors down from the wooden Don Quixote. The egg is about 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Inside is a whole village behind a bridge. Under the bridge, a real waterfall flows. The Mexican artistic imagination is amazing.

This concludes my series on Queretaro and the surrounding area. I hope you have enjoyed hearing about our visit as much as we enjoyed going there. Queretaro offers much more than we had time to see or do. We hope to visit many times more in the future.

Please leave a comment below or email me any reactions you may have.

Hasta luego. Jim


  1. Nice to "evisit" Mexico and take a break from the bleak news inundating us !

    Keep 'em coming.

    Gracias !

  2. Thanks for the wonderful blog. I throughly enjoy looking at these interesting and colorful places. Makes me want to go visit and stay. These towns seem to be far removed from all the horrible stuff going on in the world today.

  3. Thanks again Jim,

    The rock at Bernal is the remnant basaltic core of an extinct volcano. Others are Devil's Post Pile, California and Shiprock, New Mexico. In the early days of movie making the Bernal area was popular for westerns. A main benefit was the lack of contrails in the sky.


  4. These are beautiful photos and enticing. I'll be going to Queretaro on July 17th for a week. I can't wait!

    Leslie Hunter, Eugene, OR

  5. Nice posting. The fountain in the courtyard of Tsaya is reminiscent of one in El Alhambra - the plaza de los leones.


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