Sunday, August 14, 2016

Valle de Bravo: lovely mountain pueblo on a pristine lake

Sunset over the calm waters of Lago de Valle de Bravo. In July of this year, Carole and I took off to explore the mountainous countryside to the west and south of Mexico City. Our ultimate destination was Taxco, a town famous for its silver jewelry. Since the drive was too long for one day, we searched for a suitable stop-over and settled on Valle de Bravo. This lakeside town is one of Mexcio's famous Pueblos Magicos, a status it achieved in 2005. Valle, as the locals call it, was slightly off our route, but its reputation for tranquil beauty appealed to us.  We scheduled our first two nights there, as well as one night during our return trip. To trace our route from Lake Chapala to Valle de Bravo, click here (follow the blue line on the map). We were able to use Mexico's smooth, high-speed cuotas (toll roads) for almost the entire distance. Although I enjoy exploring the back roads of Mexico, a cuota is the best and fastest way to cover a substantial distance by auto. These safe, well-maintained, limited-access highways are lightly traveled in most areas and are superior to many freeways I have driven in the US. For a Google map of Valle de Bravo and its lake, click here.

Plaza de la Independencia

The south side of Plaza de Independencia, looking west. The main plaza is always the place to start exploring a Mexican town. I picked our hotel, La Capilla, in part because of its location only 2.5 blocks from Plaza de la Independencia. In the 16th century, Spain's King Phillip II decreed that every town in Nueva España (today's Mexico) must be centered on a plaza. As a result, like the plaza of virtually every other former colonial pueblo, Valle's is bordered by a church, a government building, and various stores fronted with covered walkways called portales. Many of today's commercial establishments are housed in what were once colonial-era mansions. Some of these structures date to the 17th or 18th centuries and have been beautifully restored. Today, the former mansions contain shops, restaurants and hotels. Mexican communities take great pride in the appearance of their plazas and the central garden of Plaza de la Independencia was undergoing renovation when we visited. Unfortunately this meant it was blocked off. However, the upside was that the streets immediately surrounding the plaza were also blocked off. They became andadores, or walking streets, at least during the renovations. Not having to dodge traffic was a definite plus. For a map of the plaza area, click here.

Late afternoon sun bathes the hills surrounding the lake. I took this shot in the opposite direction from the previous photo (yes, it's the same tree).Valle de Bravo is built on mountain slopes which drop down to the water. This is a great walking town, but you'd better be prepared for some steep climbs as you move around. Good walking shoes are a must. The upright structure in the center of the photo is the back of a mobile shoeshine stand, something found in almost every plaza.

Restaurant Michoacana occupies two floors of a structure on the east side of the plaza. The modestly-priced food at Restaurant Michoacana was traditional Mexican. We took a table next to the railing on the second floor balcony so we could people-watch as we ate our dinner. Many balconies around the plaza contain similar restaurants. In fact, La Michoacana shares this balcony with an ice cream shop.

Parroquia de San Francisco de Assis, viewed from the west side of the plaza, looking north. The Parroquia, (Parish) church occupies the whole north side of the plaza. Normally this street would be full of traffic, but the renovation allows strollers and street merchants to have free rein. Hanging out at the plaza is a major form of entertainment in most Mexican towns. In the relaxed atmosphere, vendors hawk their wares, kids play, dogs frolic, young people flirt, and their elders chat with old friends.

Valle's attractive old churches

Parroquia de San Francisco de Assis bathes in the warm glow of the setting sun. The yellowish-orange glow comes from the rock, called cantera, from which the church is built. Cantera is a volcanic stone quarried exclusively in Mexico and Central America. In fact, the word cantera means "quarry" in Spanish. Relatively light and easily worked, cantera is a popular material for construction as well as for sculpture. The original Franciscan church located here was built in the 17th century. It contained two naves, one for the Spanish and one for the indigenous people. That structure was replaced in the 19th century by the current Neo-Classic-style church. Construction began in 1880 but was not completed until 1994. San Francisco (St. Francis) is the patron saint of the town, which used to be called San Francisco del Valle before it was renamed Valle de Bravo after Nicolás Bravo, hero of both the War of Independence (1810-1821) and of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

Templo Santa Maria Ahuacatlán.  Built in the 17th century, the Templo contains a statue called the Black Christ.  The image is revered because of various miracles associated with it. According to legend, a local hacienda owner became disturbed because so many native people were visiting the chapel attached to his casa grande. To re-direct their devotion away from his personal chapel, he built another chapel some distance away in the small lake-side village of Ahuacatlán. He also donated a statue of Christ from his own chapel. The donated image bore the usual European complexion. Later, during a dispute between the people of Ahuacatlán the neighboring indigenous village of San Gaspar, someone set the Ahuacantlán chapel on fire. One of the few items to survive was the statue, blackened by the fire but otherwise intact. This miraculous occurrence caused the warring villages to settle their differences amicably. The Black Christ was taken from the burnt-out chapel and reverently installed in Templo Santa Maria, where it has remained ever since. Over time, other miracles occurred and the statue's fame spread. Today, the church is known as Santa Maria del Cristo Negro. Unfortunately, the church was locked during the time we visited,  so we never actually saw the statue. Maybe next time?

A brightly-colored parasail drifts over Templo Santa Maria. Valle de Bravo has become a mecca for paragliding and other adventure sports. In addition to paragliding, there are opportunities for zip-lining, rock climbing, hiking, and various water sports. The town draws many tourists for weekend and even day trips, since Mexico City is only 156 km (97 mi) away.

Lago de Valle de Bravo

Thickly wooded hills backed by volcanos overlook the silvery lake.  This little overlook provided a good vantage point for my photo. In the distance, the cone of an extinct volcano rises behind the hills along the far shore. Below the railing is a park, which includes a basketball court, a skateboard area, and a soccer field.

An unusual bronze sculpture decorates the malecon (lakefront). I don't know the name the artist gave to her/his creation, but I dubbed it "The Surfing Angel." He appears to be using a crescent moon for his surfboard. Just another of Mexico's many quirky artworks. In addition to its public art, Valle contains a variety of galleries aimed at the tastes of affluent visitors.

Jogger on the malecon. Behind him are some of the many restaurants that line the lakefront area. Tiers of homes and hotels rise up the hillside behind the restaurants. Behind me, as I took this shot, long ramps lead down to floating restaurants.

Evening view from the malecon. In the center of the photo are several large tour boats that have been converted into floating restaurants. I wanted to try one of them out, but it rained heavily that evening and we opted for a pizza delivery to our hotel room. Be advised that the meal prices on these boats are considerably higher than what you might pay for an equally good meal closer to the plaza.

Parque El Piño

A giant ahuehuete tree forms the center-piece Parque El Piño (Pine Park). The young couple obliged me with smiles when I asked for a photo. This 700 year-old ahuehuete is a member of the cypress family and is sometimes called a Montezuma Cypress or a Bald Cypress. The formal name is Taxodium mucronatum. It was sacred among various pre-hispanic cultures, including the Aztecs, and has been designated the National Tree of Mexico. This area had long been settled by the Matlazinca tribe when the Aztecs arrived in 1474 AD, led by their emperor Axayacatl. He spent the next five years conquering the region and it was the last great expansion of the Aztec Empire before it fell to the Spanish in 1521.

View from the Ahuehuete down the winding staircase of Parque El Piño. The park's vegetation was lovingly groomed and the whole place was immaculate. According to local legend, in 1530 a Franciscan friar named Gregorio Jiménez de la Cuenca founded Valle de Bravo's first Spanish settlement. He conducted the founding ceremony here, in the shade of this ancient Ahuehuete. A flat rock called the Founder's Stone marks the spot of the friar's ceremony. It is embedded in the pavement of one of the landings of this staircase.

Street Scenes

Looking down Calle Independencia to the Parroquia. Hotel Capilla, where we stayed, is located behind me about 1.5 blocks. Our hotel was comfortable and had an excellent, attentive staff and a very helpful manager who spoke flawless English. We were delighted to find an electronic, in-room safe where we could place our valuables when we went out to dinner on our first night. However, the next morning it refused to open! Since nearly all of our money, plus our passports, visas, drivers licenses, and even my camera were locked inside, this was a serious problem. Neither we, nor the hotel staff, could persuade the balky box to open. The hotel manager called his supervisor, who is based in Mexico City. His boss at first refused to authorize the hotel staff to cut through the safe's door. He even tried to place the blame on us for the failure of the safe's electronic mechanism. Eventually, around 4 PM, the big boss relented, although he threatened to charge us for the damage the cutting would cause to the safe. After further delays, the hotel maintenance man, assisted by the cook, managed to saw through the hinges and remove the door. We retrieved our valuables and, in the end, the big boss never followed through on his threat. The safe problem consumed nearly the whole day that we had planned to spend exploring Valle. That's why so many of these photos are afternoon or evening shots. I should say, though, that the on-site manager was extremely apologetic and told us that, in his opinion, we were in no way at fault for the breakdown of the safe.

Andador de las Ortigas is one of several pedestrian-only streets near the plaza. It was lined with impromptu restaurants and food carts. A little further on, the andador was crowded with the stalls of a street market where fresh fruits, vegetables, clothing, and minor household goods were sold. I always enjoy wandering through one of these street markets. They people are nearly alway friendly and open to being photographed, even without a purchase.

An old stone stairway leads up a callejon (alley) that connects two parallel streets. This one is called Callejon de la Machinhuepa. We saw several similar callejones as we strolled about town. They were built so that residents could access streets running parallel on different levels. This practice is very common in towns built on slopes and mountainsides.

Potted plants line the railing of a rustic balcony. There is almost nothing in this picture, other than a few plastic pots, that would surprise a 17th Century resident of Valle. Clay roof tiles date back to at least 10,000 BC during the Neolithic (New Stone Age) era. The awning supports, rafters and the door frame and lintel are formed from rough-cut tree trunks and branches. In the upper left corner of the photo, just under the awning, you can see adobe where the plaster has chipped away. Adobe is mud brick made from earth and straw and then dried in the sun. This building material has been used throughout the world beginning at least 8300 BC. Still, with all of its ancient appearance, I would not have been surprised to find someone on the balcony, texting on an iPhone.

Front door of a "branch" office? While walking up one of the narrow, cobblestone streets, we encountered this remarkable door. The establishment was closed, so I was unable to determine the nature of their enterprise. Given their door, I suspected they might be involved in the art business.

Neighborhood kids play a "pick-up" game of soccer on a field overlooking the lake. Soccer, or futbol as they call it, is enormously popular in Mexico as well as the rest of the world. Even the smallest kids can do some pretty fancy footwork.

The old and the new. My photographer's eye was drawn to this rustic single-story building. Adobe walls, tile roof, rough-cut wooden door lintels all clearly indicated an early colonial pedigree. It was not until I got home and downloaded my trip photos that I took a closer look. Propped on the left rear corner of the building is a 21st century satellite dish. Just another of the amazing juxtapositions to be found in Old Mexico.

A mother and her two kids cross a side street. This is a typical street in Valle, paved with stones and bordered by houses and stores rising no more than three stories. The color scheme is uniform: a rust-hued base with white up to the rafters. This uniformity is mandated by the requirements for Pueblo Magico status. This was one of the wider streets. Others barely have room to handle one car.

Another narrow street, with a different Restaurant La Michoacana. The evening sun lights up the sign while the rest of the street falls into shadow. Notice the Volkswagen parked up the street. "Beetles" have been enormously popular in Mexico, ever since the first ones were imported in 1954. In the mid-60s, Volkswagen began to produce them in Mexico and continued to do so until 2003. Considering the Mexican penchant for fixing things instead of discarding them, Beetles will maintain a presence on the streets here for a long time to come.

The  Parroquia looms in the background as windows reflect the last glints of sunset. This street, Calle Pagoza, was filled with restaurants, boutique hotels, and small stores. Valle de Bravo is a very pleasant town to visit and I'd like to return to explore it a bit more some time. However, we had scheduled only two nights and a day, so it soon became time to move on to the next part of our adventure: the pre-hispanic ruins of Calitxlahuaca.

This completes my posting on Valle de Bravo. I hope you've enjoyed visiting this lovely little Magic Pueblo with us. Please leave any comments or questions in the Comments section below, or email them to me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Thanks for the pics and extended captions, Jim. This looks like a really beautiful and little known--to me at least--locale.

  2. I am from Mexico and I loved how you described the beautiful little town of Valle de Bravo. Thank You!!

    Mayra Velarde


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