Thursday, January 21, 2010

Colima Part 1: Small, modern, properous, & sparkling clean

Jardin Libertad's graceful kiosko is the centerpiece of a lovely urban jungle. Carole and I, along with our friend Maya, decided to visit the small city of Colima in mid-January. We were glad to spend some time in this balmy city near the Pacific Coast because El Niño had driven the temperature in the Lake Chapala area to frosty levels. To our great relief, the weather in Colima was sunny and warm with daytime temperatures in the mid-80s. For a map of the area, click here.

We had heard mixed reports on Colima. Some described a clean, well-organized, and prosperous town. Others said it was boring with little to do. We found the first description accurate, and the second not at all. In fact, we found so much to see and do that I returned with photos and stories enough for at least 4 blog postings. In this first of the series, I will focus on the Jardin Libertad area, the heart of El Centro. The kiosko or gazebo, stands gracefully in the center of the Jardin. It was brought over from Belgium during the reign of Maximillian, the short-lived Emperor installed by Louis Napoleon of France in the 1860s.

The park in this plaza has had several names. During the 19th Century, it was called Plaza Armas (Plaza of Guns). After the 1910 Revolution, it became Plaza Libertad (Liberty Plaza). Later, the name was changed again to Jardin Libertad (Liberty Garden). Jardin Libertad has been the historic center of Colima for centuries. The indigenous kingdom in the territory around Colima was conquered by forces sent by Hernan Cortés in 1523, only two years after he took Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs, and founded Mexico City. Colima is the third oldest colonial city in Mexico, Vera Cruz being first, and Mexico City the second. The Jardin is filled with palms and other trees, all hung with climbing vines, giving it the feel of an urban jungle. A small fountain burbles in each of the four corners.

Side by side. We stumbled across this delightful example of intentional and unintentional Mexican humor in Jardin Libertad. Some local sculptor had crafted a man reading a newspaper on a Jardin bench. Life imitated art as a live man adopted almost the exact posture of the statue while enjoying his morning paper. They could have been two old friends sunning themselves in the park.

From the kiosko, looking toward a restaurant under some portales. We enjoyed a nice breakfast at this little sidewalk cafe on the south side of the Jardin. Prices were very reasonable considering that this was the center of the tourist area. The building behind the restaurant was part of the Museo Regional, a wonderful place filled with pre-hispanic and colonial artifacts. In another posting of this series, we will visit the Museo.

Hotel Ceballos dominates the whole north side of the plaza. The Ceballos is owned by Best Western and the building is part of Colima's architectural heritage. The staff was attentive, with many English-speakers. When I stepped up to the registration desk, one of them immediately presented me with a large cold glass of fruit juice and quickly produced two more for Carole and Maya when they arrived from the parking lot. We were charmed. Above, you can see the sidewalk cafe which lines the whole front of the hotel. It is a great place to enjoy a morning coffee or a cold drink on a hot afternoon. However, we found its food to be unimpressive and overpriced. That was really our only complaint about this fine hotel.

Behind the sidewalk restaurant of Hotel Ceballos, a shopper's delight. Above, Maya (left) and Carole (right) scrutinize the goods in the stores lining the building behind the sidewalk cafe. Maya is a serious shopper and we eventually dubbed her Our Lady of Perpetual Shopping, Patron Saint of Craft Shops. Maya loves folk art and actually tithes 10% of her income for craft purchases to support local artisans (and accumulate some great stuff in the process). She says she knows that she has paid too much when the craftsperson kisses her.

The interior of Hotel Ceballos has a two-story atrium. Most of the rooms are on the second story. Our room faced onto the atrium, which looks down upon the inside restaurant below. This style of architecture is very Spanish colonial. However, the present hotel was built in 1880, as the residence of the Governor of Colima State.

Balmy breezes wafted through the old passages. The hallways ended in French doors leading to small balconies overlooking the Jardin Libertad. The hotel was very clean, and the gleaming floors mirrored the scene.

A small courtyard provide a quiet space in a busy hotel. The ferns and palm fronds helped provide a cool and welcoming place to dally. French doors connected the courtyard with meeting rooms so that this could be used as a break area, or even a meeting room itself.

The terraced roof of the hotel provided a magnificent view of the immediate area. I explored the roof early one morning just as the sun was beginning to shine on the Colima Cathedral. The roof also contained a small swimming pool and and a gym. The main attraction for me was the photographic possibilities the terrace offered.

A pedestrian-only street runs beside the hotel. This walkway ran directly under the balcony of our room. During the day, craftspeople set up on the paving stones, and small stores and restaurants did business with passersby. In the evening, lovers snuggled on the white wrought-iron benches, young people lined up for ice cream at a small stand, and street musicians played in the distance. The point where this walkway meets the street running in front of Hotel Ceballos is the center point of the north, south, east and west quadrants making up old colonial Colima. This center point was established in 1791, and addresses in the old colonial city were marked from that point.

Carole enjoys the view from our balcony. From our French doors, we could view the spires of the Cathedral close at hand. Although a room with a balcony is always going to be noisier than an interior room, the opening to the outside world was worth it. If you stay at Hotel Ceballos I'd recommend a balcony room over the pedestrian walkway (as opposed to the noisier street facing the Jardin) unless you just can't abide a little sound from outside.

Dancing dogs are one of the symbols of Colima. There is a large statue of dancing dogs identical to this in a glorieta (traffic circle) on the edge of town. When we visited the Museo Regional, I found a similar statue among the artifacts unearthed from an ancient indigenous tomb. Apparently the ancient people of Mexico had the same quirky sense of humor possessed by its present inhabitants.

Colima Cathedral (left) and Palacio Gobierno (right) occupy the east side of the plaza. I was pleased to find that, after centuries of reconstruction following numerous earthquakes (the most recent in 2003), local architects have preserved narrow streets for cars and wide sidewalks for pedestrians. This seems to me to be the right sense of priorities. Except for the top of the steeples and the dome, I found the exterior of the Cathedral to be curiously unadorned. I later found this to be typical of the Neoclassical style.

Main altar area of the Cathedral de Santa Iglesia shows an understated elegance, also typical of Neoclassical style. The original church was built in 1527, only 4 years after the conquest of the local kingdom. The church has been destroyed numerous times by earthquakes associated with Colima's close proximity to the still-active Volcan de Fuego. The present Cathedral was constructed between 1820 and 1894 in the Neoclassical style popular at the time. At its completion, the Cathedral was consecrated to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Virgen de Guadalupe adorns the main altar area. Notice the flags framing her picture. The Virgen has long played a significant political role in Mexico. After some reluctance to accept her as a true manifestation of the Virgin Mary, colonial Church officials recognized that the fervor the Virgen de Guadalupe aroused in the indigenous people could be used to cement their attachment to the colonial structure being imposed by the Spanish. Later, the symbol of the Virgen was used against the Spanish when Father Hidalgo, lacking an insurgent flag, raised the picture of the Virgen at the head of an indigenous army trying to overthrow Spanish rule in 1810. Hidalgo was later executed for his effrontery, but the symbol lived on during the War of Independence and remains today an important part of Mexican patriotism.

Ornate gold-leaf decorations offset the stark white of the walls and columns. The Corinthian style capitals of these columns are a typical element of the Neoclassical architecture of the 19th Century.

Clam-shell pulpit betrays Colima's proximity to the seashore. I had never before seen this design in a pulpit of a Catholic church. My friend Dick Schmitt wrote to inform me that the clam shell is also a major religious symbol in Spain and is closely associated with Santiago (St. James) who--legend has it--helped the Spanish conquer the Moors in Spain and the indigenous people in Mexico. Dick has his own beautiful travel blog called Dick and Jane's Travels. Colima is only about 30 minutes from the seashore by auto, but in colonial days it would have been more than a day's ride by horse, and still more by slow moving wagon or mule train. The strategic importance of Colima to the early Spanish was its position on the route to the Pacific Ocean. Through Colima passed the riches of the Philippines and China, brought to Manzanillo harbor by Spanish treasure galleons. Today, Manzanillo is the busiest harbor in Mexico. Although the goods from China and Asia are of a different kind, Colima's still strategic position in relation to Manzanillo makes it the Capital of one of the richest states in Mexico.

Palacio Gobierno is also of 19th Century origin. The original Palacio Gobierno (Governors' Palace) was built in 1523 and contained living quarters for Hernan Cortés, which he never occupied while he ruled Mexico. In 1554, an envoy of the Spanish King informed him that government offices occupied this site, including a jail. In 1877, the previous structure was demolished on the orders of Governor Doroteo Lopez and rebuilt in the present style by the master architect Lucio Uribe. The building is constructed around an open central courtyard, and contains various historical museums as well as government offices. Observe the narrow street and broad sidewalks I mentioned before.

The glow of the early morning sun lights up the bell tower of the Palacio Gobierno. I was intrigued by the old-fashioned bells on top of the tower. I also noticed that the clock was apparently broken, as the time never changed while we were in Colima. The same style of Corinthian capitals you can see on the columns next to the clock you can also find in the Cathedral.

Mural tracing Mexico's history fills the walls of the grand staircase. I have found similar murals, not always with the same theme, in the Palacios of Guadalajara, Zapopan, and numerous other Mexican cities. They were painted by the revolutionary government to help a largely illiterate population understand Mexican history (from the revolutionary point of view, of course), and to employ Mexico's great artists. Notice the stern Spaniard on the left, confronted by a priest protecting an indigenous man whose back is striped from the lash. Some elements of the Church did try to protect the native peoples, occasionally with some success. Other priests direct the work of native builders as they construct magnificent religious edifices. The indigenous people were skilled, even gifted, as craftsmen, as we shall see in later parts of this series.

I hope you have enjoyed Part 1 of my series on the beautiful small city of Colima. It is definitely worth many more visits, particularly since it is only about 2.5 hours south of Guadalajara, almost all the way on superhighway. If you would like to comment you can do so either in the comments section below or directly by email. If you use the comment section to ask a question, please leave your email so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Beautiful! Loved the pictures and the history. Tried to determine distance from Colima to Manzanillo via your map; but was unable to. I'm curious as we have a tenative trip planned to Manzanilla next fall. I love history and wondered if this would be a good day trip? Is getting there difficult? The map looks like there are no direct roads. I'm also a bit concerned about safety given what we've seen of late on TV with violence in Mexico.

    Please pop over for a visit, welcome mats always out.


  2. Jim,
    Another great set of pictures and commentary. We're hoping to spend a week in a Mexican colonial city this spring, inspired by your blog (even though somewhat deterred by the US media.)

    I liked the pulpit canopy in the shape of a shell. You're probably aware that the shell is a big religious symbol in Spain as it is the symbol or their patron, Santiago (or St. James the Greater.)

  3. Hi Jim,
    We recently visited Manzanillo and Colima and I fell totally in love with Colima. Your blog and photos are great. I feel like I am back there again in this beautiful city. I was wondering if you could help me find out a piece of information? In the back of the lobby of the Hotel Ceballos there is a large oil painting of a street scene. I am so intrigued by it but as we visited only a short time, I was unable to find out who the artist is. Any clues?

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