Saturday, May 23, 2009

Queretaro: Part 1- Beautiful city, splendid history

Queretaro's aqueduct and skyline from the the Mausoleum of the Corregidora. Carole and I spent four days in Queretaro in the middle of May. The name is pronounced "car-ay-taro", with the accent in the middle and a rolling "r" at the end.  Friends had told us that the city has way too much to see in one trip, and we found that assessment true. One of the highlights is the still-functioning 18th Century aqueduct seen above. More on that later.

Queretaro's attraction is not just its wonderful historical El Centro. Many of the old colonial cities have this. The difference is in the economic dynamism and modernity, often juxtaposed with Indian or colonial antiquity. Both the city and the state are called Queretaro, and the population is among the wealthiest, most productive, and fastest growing in Mexico. The population is well educated with a high proportion of middle class and professional people. About 1.6 million people live in the state, with about half of them residing in the city. The state is one of Mexico's smallest in geographic area, and much of it, particularly in the north, is mountainous and remote. 

The City of Queretaro's location, about 160 miles northwest of Mexico City, places it on the route to the silver mines in the north and the old Pacific port cities which were gateways to the wealth of the Orient. This means that the city has been a crossroad for centuries and major historical events have transpired here because of that fact.  Father Junipero Serra launched his expedition from Queretaro to found a string of missions in California which ultimately became great cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco.

El Cerrito Pyramid lies just west of Queretaro in the small town of Pueblito. People settled in the area at least 2000 years ago because of the arable land and the proximity to the river, which they dammed and used to irrigate their crops. The Pyramid, about the size of the Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan, was built around 1000 AD. After the culture which built it declined, the structure was left to disintegrate from the climate and vandals for another 1000 years. It was not until 1995 that the Mexican government began efforts to protect and restore it.  Unfortunately, Carole and I visited the site on a Monday when it was  closed.  All I could get were a few shots from behind a chain-link fence. It looks very intriguing and will be worth another visit.
A ruined church perches atop the pagan pyramid. The Spanish realized very early that to dominate this vast country, they had to utilize not only military but cultural imperialism. Since the Catholic Church provided the ideological justification for the Conquest (naked greed wasn't quite enough), the conquistadors began to plant churches on top of the temples and pyramids they looted and destroyed. Nothing could more graphically demonstrate to the native population who was on top now. This led to an absurd situation in areas sacred to the Indians where there were multiple temples resulting in more churches than there were people to fill them. The poignant result in El Cerrito is a ruin atop an older ruin. 

The people the Spanish found around Queretaro were not the sophisticated temple builders. El Cerrito had  been abandoned for some time when the Spanish arrived. Many of those in the area were hunter-gatherers generally known to the Spanish as Chichimeca, a catch-all name for numerous tribes including the Otomi. Ironically, the Chichimeca often proved much fiercer and harder to subdue than the technologically more advanced city -dwellers. It was not until the very late 19th Century that these more "primitive" people were finally subjugated. What particularly annoyed the Spanish was the Chichimeca taste for raiding the silver caravans which passed through the chain of silver-mining cities from Zacatecas in the north to Guanajuato, to San Miguel Allende, and into Queretaro on their way to Mexico City. 

Mexico has long had an ambivalent attitude toward its Indian heritage. This statue, located in a foot-traffic-only area between two plazas, celebrates the strength and beauty of a native dancer from the period of the Conquest. Mexico has made efforts, particularly since the Revolution of 1910, to encourage and support tribal cultures and folk arts. Still, huge numbers of Mexico's First People languish in extreme poverty. Mexico is not alone in this, however. Similar poverty exists among much of the Native American population in the US. 

Looking into a grim future for his people. The founding of Queretaro was a joint effort by Spanish conquistador Hernan Perez Bocanegra y Cordoba and the Otomi Indian chief Conin. The Otomi were allied with the Spanish against the Purepecha Indians, who had historically dominated the Otomi. Conin, remarkably, became the first governor of the area under Spanish rule. Queretaro has honored Conin with a huge statue at the eastern approach to the city. 

Queretaro got its name either from the Otomi word for "place of the ball game", or the Purepecha word meaning "place of the great city", which might refer to the El Cerrito ruins. The full Spanish name is Santiago de Queretaro, in honor of St. James. Legend has it that at one point the Spanish and the Indians decided  to settle their differences in an unarmed, but nonetheless fierce, "battle without weapons". St. James appeared with a fiery cross just as the Spanish were on  the verge of defeat. The Indians conceded at the sight of this apparition, and agreed  to adopt Christianity. 

Traditional Otomi dress was warm, functional, and beautiful. While the cotton of the white pants and shirt was native to the Americas, the wool of the tunic and the serape was introduced by the Spanish. Many of the Otomi continue to be skillful weavers of beautiful textiles. The Spanish made good use of these and other Indian talents, having a different viewpoint of Indians than their colonial English counterparts to the north. As brutal and destructive as the Spanish often were, they saw the Indians as a valuable labor force. The English, and later American, settlers had solved their perceived need for forced labor with imported black slaves. They viewed Indians as an obstacle to be exterminated or, at best, forced into concentration camps known as "reservations". The saying of the time was "the only good Indian is a dead one". 

Otomi dancers were richly adorned. This mannequin in the Regional Museum wears some fine examples of Otomi weaving and embroidery. The hand clutches a staff topped with a metal rattles used as a musical instrument. 

Early Spanish map of Queretaro in the Regional Museum. The city is bounded by a river on the left and high bluffs on the right. Those bluffs are now lined with growing clusters of condominiums and hotels. Most of the structures shown above still exist within the area known as El Centro. In the US, cities seem to demolish and rebuild themselves every 10 minutes or so, very often with unfortunate results, in my opinion. By contrast, Mexico has carefully preserved its colonial architectural heritage while still allowing the structures to be used for modern purposes. As a result, Queretaro is one of UNESCOs World Heritage sites, one of many in Mexico. 

Water for love, the legend of Queretaro's aqueduct. Like so many other aspects of Queretaro, the aqueduct has its own romantic legend. The Marques Juan Antonio de Urrutia y Arana, shown above, was a rich Spanish nobleman, a hydraulic engineer, a philanthropist, and possibly a philanderer. The 1720's saw Queretaro suffering from a severe shortage of clean drinking water. Already living in an area considered semi-arid, the growing population had outstripped and/or polluted its original water supply and people were dying of various diseases as a result. Legend has it that the Marques, a married man, fell in love with a beautiful nun by the name of Sor Marcela in the Convent of Santa Cruz. Unable to consumate his love, he built the aqueduct so it would bring water to her convent and, incidentally, to the rest of the city. Our B&B landlady told us a different version: the Marques made a deal with the Convent's Mother Superior. He could have his way with Sor Marcella if he could solve the Convent's water needs. Either way, the aqueduct conveniently ends in a cistern adjacent to the old convent.

The aqueduct was a remarkable engineering feet for its time. Construction took nine years, from 1726 to 1735. The water source was located in an ancient settlement called La Canada (the ravine), 5.6 miles distant from the El Centro area that made up the old city. The initial part of the water course runs underground, then emerges and travels along the top of 74 elegant arches, some over 75 feet high. In addition to the Santa Cruz convent, where it emptied into a cistern called the Caja de Agua, the aqueduct provided water to the city from 60 different fountains. The aqueduct continued as the primary water source until very late in Queretaro's history.

Despite its "macho" tradition, some of Mexico's most heroic figures were women. One of these was La Corregidora. The eagles above adorn the base of a monument to this heroine of the War of Independence from Spain. Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez was the wife of the Magistrate or Corregidor, a high Spanish official in Queretaro. Her sympathies were with the insurgents, however, and she plotted with such figures as Father Miguel Hidalgo and Ignacio Allende. She chafed under the secondary role allotted to Spaniards born in New Spain rather than in Spain itself. Under the guise of a literary society founded to discuss Enlightenment ideas, she and others plotted a revolt.  

La Corregidora has been honored by numerous monuments in Queretaro. The one above is her tomb. The grounds of the monument also contain statues of other great historical figures from Queretaro's history, including the statue of the Marques who built the aqueduct. La Corregidora's plotting was discovered and she was locked in her room while Spanish authorities prepared to arrest the other plotters. Legend has it that she attracted the attention of her servant by tapping her foot on the floor, and then whispered instructions through the keyhole. The servant alerted another plotter, Mayor Don Ignacio Perez of Queretaro. He rode through the night to alert Father Hidalgo, who then issued his famous grito, or cry for freedom and thus the War of Independence was launched. The door lock with the famous keyhole is preserved in Queretaro's Regional Museum. Most of the early plot leaders came to a bad end, with their heads adorning pikes in Guanajuato. La Corregidora was tried and sentenced to a convent from which she was released three years later. After the revolt finally succeeded, she refused all honors until her death in 1829, maintaining she only did her duty as a patriot.

Cannon in Regional Museum is enscribed "1860". The date means that it probably was used during the struggle against French occupation under the so-called Emperor Maximillian (1861-67). One of Mexico's great men was Benito Juarez, a full-blooded Indian who became president in 1858 and held the office until 1871. He led the struggle against the French, ultimately defeating Maximillian in Queretaro. In July of 1867 "Emperor" Maximillian was executed by firing squad on Cerro Camapana, now a lovely park in Queretaro. The execution went forward despite pleas for mercy by several European countries. Too many people had died because of the foolishness of this Austrian Duke, and his sponsor Napoleon III of France. Juarez was adamant about sending a message to other would-be monarchs regarding Mexico's determination to remain a republic. There was no indication on the cannon about which side employed the weapon.

Queretaro holds several other distinctions. It was briefly the capitol of Mexico in 1847 when the US invaded, an act which ultimately forced Mexico to give up half its territory. The city also hosted the signing of the Constitution of 1917 at the end of the Mexican Revolution. This document remains in effect today, with some amendments.

This concludes Part 1 of my series on Queretaro. In my next post, I will look at the street life and art of this wonderful city. I always appreciate comments, which can be left by clicking on "comments" below. Please feel free to send the link to this site to friends and others who may be interested.


  1. Nice Post Jim, now you just need to wander a couple hours north to San Luis Potosi which is my hometown. San Luis is also an old city enjoying growth and prosperity. There a many project underway one very interesting one is converting a huge penitentiary very close to downtown into a centre for the arts. There's good hiking nearby too.

  2. Rodrigo- Sounds like a place we should put on our list to visit. Do you still live there. If so, perhaps we could look you up when we visit? Jim

  3. Jim, thanks for all your research and great pictures. Just told my hubby our next trip will be to Queretaro. Keep traveling and writing -- lots of us are reading!

  4. not car-ay-taro. it is kay-et-taro

  5. not car-ay-taro. it is kay-et-taro

  6. Hey Jim! Thanks for this wonderful blog! I am from Queretaro and I would like to thank you for this great job. It is interesting and you have plenty of useful information about my City. Jen my wife who is from Michigan and I live in Canada and we would like to open in the future a Community Center in Ajijic Jalisco. Perhaps we can meet in one of our trips to visit family.

    Say hello to Carole and take care!!!

  7. Cesar- I consider it a high compliment that a native of Queretaro thinks highly of my blog posting. If you get to Ajijic, I would be glad to get together. By the way, in future, you might directly email me so that I can respond directly. Saludos! Jim

  8. hi, .my name is Carmen and im also from Queretaro....i love how you gave sooo much great to know that other people who are not mexicans have such passion on doing this types of things about mexico...i appreciate you awesome talent...keep up the good work and maybe you can do guanajuato next (:
    greetings from dallas tx!

  9. I am a photographer and making a very short trip to Queretaro. I'm wondering where you can go to be at the top of the aqueducts. I'd like to get some nice images and don't have a ton of time to find the best vantage points for the city. Thanks! Katrina

  10. Wow, I always thought Queretaro was this murky industrial city in the Lowlands, overshadowed by Guanajuato. But your post makes it seem quite interesting.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim