The toll of church bells echoed to years past. Its melodic chime signaled another hour’s passing, but for many youth that day, it gestured the commencement of a very significant, right-of-passage—their First Holy Communion. The aisle of the Colonial cathedral was flooded with girls in ethereal white dresses, their hushed excitement tangible. I watched in anticipation as my then-boyfriend’s niece floated down the aisle in a gauzy dress, a vision of cotton candy and the sweetness of a girl playing dress up in her mother’s wedding dress. Proud, shiny parents clicked cameras, the tiny bursts of light startling the sacred past. Outside, the smell of handmade corn tamales infused the air, while agua fresca and elote (roasted corn on the cob covered with hot chili powder, mayonnaise, queso fresco, and lime juice) beckoned to us from the nearby sunny plaza.
In Queretaro, Mexico, sunbeams color the sidewalks and open-air squares are filled with children licking pastel-colored fresh fruit paletas (popsicles), while adults linger over café con leche in al fresco verandas that surreptitiously spill onto cobblestone sidewalks.
This idyllic town could come straight from the pages of a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, but it is far from imagined. Visiting Queretaro, Mexico—just a short two-hour drive from the booming metropolis of Mexico City—is a brilliant way to experience Mexico and its history without the sunburned tourists and watered-down margaritas.
In Santiago de Queretaro (the capital of Queretaro), the past is effortlessly present. Known for its beauty and colonial architecture, the historic center of Queretaro has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Originally the home of the Otomi Indians, Queretaro was conquered after a bloody battle with the Spanish in the 1500s. Starting in the sixteenth century, the Spanish, and indigenous dwellers such as the Otomi, the Tarasaco, and the Chichimeca resided together in Queretaro, and the many buildings and religious monuments nod to this multicultural cohabitation.
Wandering the streets of Queretaro, surrounded by centuries-old buildings and indigenous dwellers who gather in side streets to sell multi-colored dolls and intricate hand-woven tapestries, it was easy to feel that I was slipping in and out of time. The town has splashes of European splendor, but the generations of natives give the town its depth and vibrant culture.
Many travelers venture to Queretaro to experience old world tradition and historic monuments. Though a first communion may have brought me to Queretaro, I too became enchanted by the ancient charm and lure of the city, and depleted a few days simply exploring the abundant artifacts and countless prominent structures. The mammoth Aqueduct that runs throughout the city over the Bernardo Quintana Boulevard is the nationally recognized symbol of Queretaro. Its seventy-four arches were originally constructed to supply drinking water to Querataro’s residents, and it now stands as an epic reminder of times gone by. Casa de La Zacatecana (located on Av. Indepencia No. 59) is a 16th century home-turned-museum that houses paintings, sculptures, its original baroque interior, and antique furnishings. With thirteen halls and two spacious patios, the house itself is a work of art, and its red-washed façade and intricate high-ceilinged, blue-and-white tiled interior walls, make it a must see. Casa de La Marquesa (located at Madero 41, Centro Histórico)—a historic house turned hotel—is equally as majestic with its salmon colored walls, baroque-style interior, and complementary fixtures.
Days could be easily exhausted on the town’s many churches, charming cathedrals, and grandiose bell towers. The myriad cathedrals grow out of each corner in the midst of the city and I seemed to stumble upon a new one each time I wandered or sought a new café for my daily café con leche and accompanying Mexican pastry. I was stopped in my tracks by Templo y Convento de la Santa Cruz—a sand colored structure with an elaborately layered bell tower, and a carved stone cross on the main altar; Templo de Santa Rosa de Viterbo, one of Queretaro’s most treasured churches, and a paradigm of baroque architecture; and the equally luminous El Carmin, with its rouge-colored curves and incandescent bell tower.
Though best known for its history and architecture, Queretaro has an unexposed modern side too that I was lucky enough to discover, thanks to my adventurous feet. Plaza de Independencia, also known as Plaza de Armas, is a hub of activity and it was my starting point on a self-made tour of Queretaro’s fashionable neighborhoods. Receiving its namesake after the initiation of the Mexican independence movement in Queretaro during the 1800s—the plaza is bursting with charming outdoor restaurants, cafés, and some of the most noteworthy architecture in the city. Crimson and sand-colored buildings with baroque style wrought iron balconies surround a flickering center fountain. In the horizon, a luminous bell-shaped church is in view, creating a romantic, glowing ambiance amplified by the rustic sound of violins and guitars streaming from the courtyards of open-air restaurants.
Perpendicular to this historic plaza, off Calle Venustiano Carranza, is one of the hippest streets in Queretaro—Calle Cinco De Mayo. Packed with trendy restaurants, bars, boutiques boasting the latest in Mexican fashion, and bookstores housing contemporary art books and Mexican Vogue, this street—with its rustic exteriors and modern interiors—is an interesting representation of old and new Queretaro. Behind the ancient and weathered buildings and streets are youthful bohemian cafés and artsy boutiques. I spent many hours relaxing at El Cafecito with a cappuccino, crepes, and an evening full of live music. I sampled Mexi-Thai cusine at Thai Bar, and shopped for fashionable finds at Palax and Mexican magazines and art books at Libreria Kulturunea.
The tiny side street of Calle Venustiano Carranza, right off of Plaza de Independencia, is alive with unique cafés and artisan stores. I especially loved Waffle In, a sparse, white, European waffle café reminiscent of a Mexican beach house, for savory and sweet waffles in a veritable array of toppings and stuffings. The narrow path begs a slow pace, as do the galleries, restaurants, and stores begging to be appreciated.
On nearby Calle Najera, there are plentiful boutiques and cafés to replenish appetites for food or souvenirs and unique accessories. I relished my purchases to a cup of spicy Mexican iced coffee at Café Arte a Biznaga—a bohemian-Rasta café with multi-colored walls swathed in local art, photos, and chaotic wall coverings. This three-roomed café, bursting with eclectic visitors, music, art, and gastronomy, is the ideal spot to stop and smell the enchiladas … and to stop and enjoy the past and present.
The city—like many of the residents whose ancestors have resided there for generations—has an old, radiant soul that pervades its Spanish style facades, resplendent cathedrals, uncovered plazas, and traditional cuisine. Magically, this old soul has seeped into the city’s modern side too, so that contemporary Queretaro is truly a city of layers, with new restaurants, shops, and cafes, springing organically between and within the safe weathered shells of old buildings. The more I yearned to see Querataro’s past, the more of Querataro’s present I found. And with my every step back along those cobblestone streets, I helped form a new path forward … helped sculpt the present into the past.
Exterior view of Casa de la Marquesa. Photo courtesy of the author