Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sierra del Tigre Adventures Part 1: A visit to the mountain town of Concepción de Buenas Aires

A quiet winter day at the Plaza. The plaza of Concepción de Buenas Aires and the streets around it are rustic, but immaculate. Over several years, I have on numerous occasions passed through this small town, usually while on the way to somewhere else. On a couple of occasions, however, I took some time and looked around. The little mountain community turned out to be yet another of Mexico's seemingly endless supply of hidden jewels. Concepción de Buenas Aires is located in the Sierra del Tigre, a range of rugged mountains to the south of Lake Chapala, about 90 minutes by car from our home in Ajijic on Lake Chapala's North Shore.  The town can be reached by turning southwest off the highway connecting the South Shore town of Tuxcueca with Mazamitla, a popular mountain resort. The turnoff is about half way to Mazamitla, shortly before reaching Manzanilla de la Paz. The two-lane blacktop road passes small ranches and farms set in the lush green fields of a high-country plateau called El Llano de San Sebastian. Fat cattle graze while the occasional Mexican cowboy trots past with a string of beautiful horses. I recently decided to create a three-part series about the town and the area around it, including Las Cascadas Paraíso (Paradise Waterfalls) and the ruins of Hacienda Toluqulla. This first part will focus on the town itself. To locate Concepción de Buenas Aires on a Google map, click here.

El Templo de la Inmaculada Concepción

The banner-bedecked steeple of the Templo shows evidence of a recent fiesta. Construction began in 1864, so the Templo is relatively new, like the town itself. The steeple was built in the Neo-Classical style popular in the 19th Century. The dark, cloudy weather in this shot indicates that it was taken in a different season than the bright and brilliant winter scene of my plaza photo. You may notice these seasonal disparities throughout this series since the photos were taken during several different visits.

The main nave of the Templo is beautifully hung with blue and white draperies. The windows near the ceiling on either side give this room an unusually light and airy feeling. During my research for this posting, I discovered that on June 7, 2012, TV Azteca News reported the discovery by  parishioners of an image of La Virgen de la Concepción Inmaculada which had suddenly appeared on the wall behind the altar (center of the photo). The Virgin is the patron saint of both the Templo and the town itself. Since the image was apparently not visible at the time I visited, I unfortunately did not get an opportunity to see if I could photograph it. Jalisco is one of the most traditional of all Mexican states. The Catholic faith is particularly intense in backcountry towns like Concepción de Buenas Aires.

My photographer's eye was attracted by this exuberant scene. An absolute bee-swarm of cherubs framed this statue of the Virgin. Cherubs were popular decorative elements in 19th Century art and architecture.

San Isidro Labrador seemed especially appropriate for this working-class town. San Isidro the Laborer (or the Farmer) is the patron saint of farm workers. He is particularly revered for his goodness toward the poor and animals. Isidro, born 1070 AD, was a laborer on the estate of wealthy Spanish landowner Juan de Vargas. His fellow workers claimed that he was absent a lot and not doing his share. When the landowner investigated, he found Isidro at prayer while an angel took care of his plowing. On another occasion, Isidro brought Juan de Vargas' dead daughter back to life. All this seems to have gotten the wealthy man's attention, because he ultimately made Isidro the manager of his properties. Oddly, the farmer-saint married a woman, Maria Torribia, who also became a saint and is known as Santa Maria de la Cabeza. After a miracle saved their child, the couple decided on chastity and from then on lived in separate houses. Isidro died in 1130 AD. Four hundred years later, Spanish King Phillip II (the one who launched the Armada against England) was cured of a deadly disease when he touched some relics of the deceased saint.

La Plaza

A small but lovely kiosco fills the center of the Plaza. Several walkways radiate from the kiosco, passing through lush gardens. Concepción de Buenas Aires is also known as Pueblo Nuevo (New Town) because it was not built until the mid-19th Century. The area on which it was constructed, called El Llano de los Conejos (The Plain of Rabbits), consisted of rolling farmland and woods until the 1860s. The area was originally part of the vast lands awarded in the 1540s to Captain Alonso de Avalos, one of the Hernán Cortéz' conquistador officers. He was also awarded the lands along the South Shore of Lake Chapala about which I have already written in my posting on Hacienda San Francisco de Assisi. In the early 1600s the land passed into the hands of a Spaniard known as Don Joaquin Fermin Echuari, and remained in his family for the next 200 years.

Rafael Urzúa Arias is memorialized by this statue in the Plaza. Urzúa, born in 1905 in Concepción de Buenas Aires, was a famous Mexican architect whose life spanned the 20th Century. His work is noted for its freshness, naturalness, and playfulness, and he is ranked with Luis Barrigan as one of Mexico's great 20th Century architects. The statue was erected in 1988, three years before Urzúa's death in 1991. 

Back in the early 1860s, Benito Echuari, a descendant of Don Joaquin Fermin Echuari, was approached by Father Ignacio Romo, a parish priest based in the town of Teocuitatlán. In those days, parish priests had to cover far-flung areas, requiring them to travel for many days over primitive roads. Father Ignacio's parish extended from the Hacienda Huejotitán, near Jocotopec on the west end of Lake Chapala, to the Hacienda Toluquilla in the Llano de San Sebastian. The priest proposed to Benito Echuari, who owned Hacienda Toluquilla, that he should set aside some of his land for a town which would have its own church, as well as a market and school. So, Concepción de Buenas Aires came about--at least in part--because of a priest's saddle-sores!

Independence War leader Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla has his own statue. While Hidalgo is revered as the first great leader of the War of Independence from Spain, and as emancipator of the slaves and indigenous people, his actual role lasted only about a year until he was defeated, captured, and executed by the Spanish who displayed his head as a trophy in Guanajuato. Father Hidalgo is an excellent example of the old saying that you can kill the man, but not the idea.

One hundred fifty years later, Benito Echuari and his son Pablo thought Father Ignacio had an excellent idea. I suspect that their enthusiasm had less to do with saving souls than with the prospect of a great increase in economic activity which would benefit Hacienda Toluquilla. They set aside El Llano de los Conejos, along with an area called Lomas de San Sebastian (Hills of San Sebastian), and recruited about two dozen settlers of Spanish descent called criollos. They even allowed the use of stone from their hacienda's aqueduct to be used in the construction of the new church. With the blessing of Guadalajara's Bishop Pedro Loza y Pardavé, the town was formally founded in 1869. The community grew quickly and only 19 years later, in 1888, it became the chief town of the new municipalidad (equivalent to a US county) called Concepción de Buenas Aires.

The portales along one side of the plaza stand empty on a winter morning. Mexican businesses in small towns don't generally get going until mid-morning, but often stay open until late in the evening. We arrived on this visit about 9 AM and the Plaza and streets around it were eerily empty, almost like a movie set. Although Concepción de Buenas Aires is not old by Mexican standards, it feels old, kind of like a 19th Century town frozen in amber.

Farmacia Maria Isabel is one of numerous small businesses facing the Plaza. The shop sign just beyond, with the head of a cow, announces a carneceria, or butcher shop. This shot was taken in mid-afternoon when activity had picked up some. Even so, things are slow and fairly quiet most days in this off-the-beaten-track mountain town. There always seems to be time for locals to chat on a bench or lounge against one of the columns supporting the portales.

Just beyond the carneceria is the Restaurant Las Espuelas. The name means "The Spurs". This is definitely a cowboy joint with old photos of Pancho Villa covering the walls. Many small town plazas lack any kind of sit-down restaurant, perhaps because there is often little extra money for dining out and local people tend to eat at home. However, Las Espuelas was a genuine, full-service restaurant and the traditional Mexican fare was tasty and inexpensive.

Two of our party found dessert down the block from Las Espuelas. While many Mexican plazas may lack a restaurant, there will nearly always be an ice cream parlor. Above, Phil (a Canadian) and Mike (an American) salute me with their newly-aquired ice cream cones. They were part of a hiking expedition to explore a nearby canyon reported to possess a large waterfall. The local folks observed us with friendly curiosity.

Street scenes

Big cowboy, small horse. Judging from the type of shovel he has strapped under his leg, this fellow has just returned from digging some fence post holes. I have become used to scenes like this, even in the more urbanized areas near where I live. When I emerged from my house in Ajijic this morning, there were three loose horses grazing along the sidewalk across the street. Even as I sit writing this, I can hear cattle lowing in the distance. It is one of the many charms of life in Mexico.

The new and the old. As we strolled the streets of Concepción de Buenas Aires, we came upon this scene. I thought the burro tethered next to modern farm machinery was a good metaphor for Mexico today: the old ways existing side-by-side with the new. Mexico has 3 million burros, one of the largest populations in the world. They arrived in the Americas on Columbus' second voyage in 1495, and in Mexico in 1528. However, they have been used in Europe and the Middle East since biblical times.

Tianguis Day falls on Tuesdays. On one visit, we encountered a crowded local tianguis, or street market, near the Plaza. Tianguis is a Nahuatl word, from the language of the Aztecs. In his book "The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico", Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo described the great tianguis of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital (now Mexico City). Except for details like clothing, and some of the goods on sale, the scene wouldn't have been much different from this.

Weighing it the old fashioned way. A scale like this would have been completely familiar to anyone attending a similar tianguis in the newly founded Concepción de Buenas Aires of 1869. Even though digital scales can often be found in Mexican stores, many people see no reason to change from the old ways. If a scale like this still works, why spend money on a fancy new one?

Speaking of ancient technology. Mike and Anna, a young Dutch hiker, examine a classic specimen of automobilius wrectus, possibly with an eye toward a purchase...or not. This car was so battered and disreputable, it was almost a cliche. When I first moved down to Mexico, I expected the roads to be filled with this kind of clunker. I was surprised to find many shiny, up-to-date models, even in small towns. It was not clear what the asking price for this one might be. Any takers?

A friendly townsman invited us to tour his house. We were preparing to get in our car when Mike, a friendly sort of guy, began to joke with a young boy standing in a nearby doorway. A moment later, the boy's father strolled up the street, introduced himself, and invited us in to see his place. Since the vast forests of the Sierra del Tigre are very near by, wood is heavily used in construction of homes and other buildings. This gentleman beautifully decorated the interior of his home with pine panels and wood furniture, some of which you can see here.

A private collection of ancient artifacts. The homeowner constructed a coffee table out of a huge gnarly stump, and used it to display a variety of small objects he had collected in the area over the years. It is not at all an unusual experience to be invited into the homes of Mexicans we meet, even when we are complete strangers to them.

Concepcion de Buenas Aires made it to the Oscars! As we strolled about the streets, we passed the "Bar Melis", a small, rustic cantina. It was closed, but I noticed this plaque next to the door. The sign says "In this place was filmed part of the movie 'De Tripas Corazon', nominated for an Oscar in '97, by director and writer Antonio Urutia". I later Googled this information and, sure enough, Urutia's short film got a nomination that year, but alas did not win the famed gold statue. Concepción de Buenas Aires is certainly a scenic and evocative town and I could well understand its choice as a film set.

I hope you have enjoyed Part 1 of my Sierra del Tigre series. Next week, in Part 2, we will visit Las Cascadas Paraíso, a huge waterfall pouring down into a deep canyon. I always appreciate and encourage feedback. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so either in the Comments section below, or by emailing me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Just wanted to let you know that I've been following your blog for a while now and I really enjoy seeing your photos of the people and places you visit.
    The church with all of the cherubs was amazing and the woodwork in the man's home was great. I don't know where else I would be able to see pics like these.

  2. Jim i have been fallowing your adventure for over a couple years now thanks for all the wonderful pictures you have a picture that was in a house of artifacts on a piece of wood , here s what you written
    A private collection of ancient artifacts. The homeowner constructed a coffee table out of a huge gnarly stump, and used it to display a variety of small objects he had collected in the area over the years. It is not at all an unusual experience to be invited into the homes of Mexicans we meet, even when we are complete strangers to them.can you please tell me a lot more about the artifacts that was in the picture please let me know everything and all info you found out about them , the age of them , where they came from and which prymads they were found from , id really appreciate it thanks again i l;look forward to mush more blogs your friend lance email address is (


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