According to Eduardo Barroso, the CEO of management consultancy EB Turismo, in his presentation at the XII Foro Nacional de Turismo held in Mérida, Yucatán, in February 2014, Mexico’s 83 Magic Towns (Pueblos Mágicos) attracted more than 4 million visitors in 2013, and tourist spending of more than 6 billion pesos (460 million dollars). However, he also pointed out that the program has not been prudently and carefully developed, but has been distorted by the designation of 46 Magic Towns in just two years (2011 and 2012), compared to the designation of just 37 Magic Towns in the preceding decade. (The Magic Town program started in 2001.)
The Tourism Secretary Claudia Ruiz Massieu has called a halt to the program while officials work out how to reinstate it in a manner that will ensure that only towns worthy of the designation can actually acquire the status. This will no doubt require establishing new guidelines and regulations governing the program.
Success stories for the Magic Town program include San Miguel de Allende, which was first designated a Magic Town but has since been elevated to the much more exalted status of a World Heritage City; Real de Catorce, in San Luis Potosí, which has seen visitor numbers jump by 1200% in only 12 years; and the town of Tequila, in Jalisco, where the coordination of three levels of government has seen visitor numbers quickly rise from 18,000 to 165,000 visitors a year.
Both the name and the coat-of-arms of the state of San Luis Potosi recall the tremendous importance of mining to Mexico’s economy.
Called Potosí in emulation of the mines of that name high in the Bolivian Andes, the city’s coat-of-arms, awarded in 1656, has its patron saint standing atop a hill in which are three mine shafts. Left of the hill are two gold ingots, and right of it, two silver ones.
Some of the early mining towns in San Luis Potosí faded into obscurity, others became centers for ranching and commerce. The best known former mining town, Real de Catorce, for long considered a ghost town, has been resuscitated by tourism.
For visitors planning to see Real de Catorce, the best place to stay the night before is Matehuala, on highway 57, which has a full range of tourist services. From Matehuala, it is short distance west to Cedral. Shortly after Cedral a 24-kilometer-long cobblestone road climbs up the mountain to Real de Catorce, which sits at an elevation of 2,743 meters (9,000 ft) in the Sierra de Catorce range.
Real de Catorce
Main street of Real de Catorce. Credit: Tony Burton
The first surprise for visitors is the single file 2,300 meter long Ogarrio tunnel – the only entrance to the town from the north – a unique introduction to the many strange things awaiting you on the other side. The second surprise is how such a large place, which produced more than 3 million dollars worth of silver each year, could ever have become a ghost town. Between 1788 and 1806, the La Purisima mine alone yielded annually more than $200,000 pesos of silver– and that was when a peso of silver was equivalent to a dollar.
The large, stone houses, often of several stories, with tiled roofs, wooden window frames and wrought-iron work, were so well built that they have survived to tell you their tales as you wander through the steep streets, soaking up the atmosphere of one of Mexico’s most curious places.
You need time to really appreciate the former grandeur of Real de Catorce. Fortunately, there are several simple hotels and restaurants. It is well worth hiring a local guide. An enthusiastic guide will wear your feet out long before you tire of their informative commentaries.
Seek out the beautifully restored palenque (cock-fighting pit). Pause in the church to examine the mesquite floor, imaginatively described in some guidebooks as comprised of a mosaic of coffin lids. The church is dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi. The two week long fiesta in his honor, centered on October 4th, is a huge affair, attended by hundreds of returning Real de Catorce families.
In front of the church, across the small plaza of Carbón, is the former mint. This gorgeous building is well worth visiting and now used for cultural events such as photographic exhibitions. Look in the gallery and perhaps you’ll find an irresistible, original, handcrafted item made of locally mined silver.
The town of Real de Catorce and its surroundings are sufficiently photogenic that several movies have been filmed here, including Bandidas (featuring Salma Hayek and Penélope Cruz) and The Mexican (featuring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts).
The town, designated a Magic Town in 2001, has several small hotels and restaurants for those wanting to spend more time here.
This area has close associations with the indigenous Huichol (Wixarika) Indianswho call this area Wirikuta. Each spring, they visit Cerro del Quemado, a hill within easy hiking distance of Real de Catorce, to leave religious offerings. The Huichol collect the hallucinogenic cactus peyote, used in some of their ceremonies, from the surrounding desert during an annual spiritual pilgrimage to Wirikuta from their heartland in northern Jalisco, 400 km (250) miles away. Cerro del Quemado was declared a National Sacred Site in 2011. An upcoming full length documentary about the Huichol Indians, the “Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians“, includes shots of the pilgrimage, while looking at how the continuation of the pilgrimages could be threatened by proposed mining projects.
Lagos de Moreno, just designated Mexico’s Magic Town #66, is a town with a charming ambiance. A succession of small squares with old trees and gardens, connected by shaded streets, gives it a cultured university air. At every turn there are beautifully kept old buildings to be enjoyed and it is absolutely fitting that the town, in its entirety, should have been declared a national monument.
Lagos de Moreno is Jalisco’s fifth Magic Town. Boasting more than 380 cultural and historic sites, its peak coincided with the governments of President Porfirio Díaz in the late 1800s when local haciendas produced both an aristocratic elite and plenty of money enabling them to enjoy what they considered were the better things in life.
La Rinconada restaurant, Lagos de Moreno. Credit: Mark Eager / Sombrero Books
Lagos was founded as Santa María de los Lagos in 1563 on the west bank of the broad Lagos River. It assumed its modern name in 1827. In early colonial times, its inhabitants had to withstand repeated attacks from the Chichimecas. When silver was discovered in large quantities near Zacatecas, further north, the town became a natural staging-post on the mule route to Mexico City, where all colonial silver was taken for assaying. At the same time, the main contraband route across Mexico, between Tampico, on the Atlantic, and San Blas, on the Pacific, passed through the town. As a result of this strategic location, the city was fortified with walls, some of which still remain. There are few examples in Mexico of colonial walled cities. Lagos is one of the best preserved.
The width of the river necessitated the construction of a bridge, at least for more modern traffic, and in the eighteenth century Lagos Bridge was built on the northern edge of the town. This bridge is the subject of one of the charming tales in El Alcalde de Lagos (The Mayor of Lagos), a delightful collection of witty short stories compiled by Alfonso de Alba. The stories capture the provincial nature of the town perfectly, complete with the very different perceptions of the local intelligentsia and their rural campesino counterparts as the town grew to maturity.
The imposing ultrabaroque parish church of the Assumption is also eighteenth century and looks onto the principal plaza. Two blocks away, the former Capuchinas convent has been converted into the Casa de la Cultura, with a concert hall, spaces for art exhibits, library and music classes. Few Casas de la Cultura anywhere in the country are housed in quite such an historic or magnificent building. Walk into the patio and see for yourself. The mural inside depicts Pedro Moreno, hero of the Independence movement, who was born near the town, and after whom the town is named. Another building in the Capuchinas square houses the Agustín Rivera Museum with its displays of archaeological and historical items.
Behind the parish church is the Rosas Moreno theater, one of the few provincial theaters to have survived with its interior spaces and decorations unchanged from the end of the nineteenth century. This building, designed by Primitivo Serrano, was begun in 1887, and inaugurated in 1907. It is named in honor of locally-born José Rosas Moreno, the Children’s Poet, a renowned writer of fables. Serrano built many other fine buildings in Lagos de Moreno, and his influence is everywhere in the lovely Hacienda Las Cajas, now a small hotel.
The central area of Lagos de Moreno, with its romantic corners and shaded walks, is a place to wander through slowly, savoring the sights and sounds of an unashamedly provincial town, one proud of its history and still retaining a dignified air. An overnight stay allows visitors to savor the unique atmosphere of this lovely town in the early morning or late evening when lower-angled sunlight shows the colors and details in the stonework to best effect.
Tequisquiapan is an attractive spa town which has many hotels, restaurants and stores. It has grown substantially in recent years, attracting former Mexico City dwellers tired of the traffic congestion, smog and challenges of living in the big city. Mid-week, Tequisquiapan is largely deserted, with the air of a ghost town, waiting for revival. Revival occurs every weekend as the wealthier residents of Mexico City flee the city in search of clean air and blue skies. The town’s restaurants begin to fill and the discos gear up for action lasting into the early hours. Many of the weekenders now own second homes in Tequisquiapan.
a small town atmosphere, with winding cobblestone streets, lined by attractive and neatly kept one-story buildings
the town boasts a dozen or more “three star” or better hotels, all with thermal swimming pools, and a multitude of handicraft shops and galleries
an 18-hole golf course, open to the public
a specialist handicrafts market, a lively permanent market and, on weekends, numerous small street stalls selling precious stones and jewelry (for enticing pictures, see Tequisquiapan, provincial Mexican charm on MexConnect.com)
the town is small enough to walk around and bathed in sunshine virtually all year round
an annual cheese and wine festival in early summer
it is less than two hours by car from Mexico City
Annotated Google Earth image of Tequisquiapan area
Anyone interested in urban geography will find that Tequisquiapan’s layout is quite unusual (for Mexico). Some streets in the center of the town wander aimlessly rather than conforming to the traditional Mexican grid pattern. By way of comparison, a newer area of settlement across the highway (see image above) exhibits perfect grid pattern.
Bougainvillea-covered wall in Tequisquiapan
Behind the stone walls of the many fine hotels, the spa waters of Tequisquiapan offer their temptation. Why hike the streets when you can laze by a pool? The water is tepid rather than hot but very welcome, given the arid heat that envelops this area most of the year.
Towards the south-east, the town has grown around existing farmland, so homes surround an undeveloped core of agricultural land.
To the north, a former hacienda (Hacienda Grande) has been converted into a residential area built around a golf course. The irrigated fairways are strikingly visible on Google Earth.
Tequisquiapan is one of the few Mexican towns of its size and age to have a gated community in the downtown core, immediately off the main plaza.
Physical geographers won’t be disappointed either. Also near the center, upmarket houses have been built on the neck of a cut-off meander which has left an “island” with the river on either side. Floods on this river are now unlikely since it is controlled by the Centenario dam which has created a reservoir, Presa el Centenario, used for water sports.
The flat valley floor around Tequisquiapan has become a rich farming area, particularly well known for its vineyards. A network of aqueducts and irrigation channels helps farmers overcome the vagaries of the annual dry season.
Aqueduct near Tequisquiapan
The fact that this area has a pronounced dry season means that most local streams are intermittent; they run only for short periods during and immediately after the rainy season. The rest of the year, their channels are dry, providing a perfect opportunity for physical geographers to walk along them studying their features and landforms, without even getting their feet wet!
Irrigation channel near Tequisquiapan
On balance, given all these points of geographical interest, maybe Tequisquiapan is right to call itself the “geographic center” of Mexico after all!
All photos in this post are by Tony Burton; all rights reserved.
Mexico’s Tourism Secretariat has designated four more Magic Towns, bringing the total number to fifty-four. The latest Magic Towns are:
51. Angangueo (Michoacán)
Angangueo is an attractive former silver-mining town. At the entrance to the town are strange, step-sided earth mounds; these are not pre-Columbian pyramids but twentieth century spoil-tips.
Angangueo’s pretty single-story buildings with red roofs and flower-filled porches line a narrow main street which gradually meanders up to the head of the valley and the town plaza. There are two large churches on this plaza, an obvious sign of the town’s former wealth. Worth visiting, one block uphill from the plaza, is the former residence of Bill Parker, 1930′s mine superintendent, and his wife Joyce, a keen photographer. Mining in Angangueo declined after a serious accident in 1953, said to have been caused by the company’s foreign management in response to a threatened strike. The miners who lost their lives in this accident are commemorated by a huge statue which overlooks the town.
Angangueo, c 1980. Sketch by Mark Eager; all rights reserved.
The hustle and bustle of industrial activity has been replaced by a slower, more leisurely approach to life. In Angangueo, afternoon siestas are still the norm; don’t expect the small stores to reopen at any particular time in the afternoon. Railway enthusiasts will appreciate not only the standard-gauge mainline and its end-of-the-line station which squeezes the town’s main street against the valley side but also the narrow-gauge mining track which burrows deep into the hillsides.
From 1980-2010, Angangueo acquired a new lease of life as a tourist town, taking advantage of its location close to two major Monarch Butterfly sanctuaries. However, in February 2012, the town suffered extensive flood damage when landslides and mudflows swept away dozens of homes, killing at least 30 residents.
Cuatro Ciénegas (“Four marshes”) is a city and municipality in the northern border state of Coahuila. Situated in an arid region (part of the Chihuahuan desert), its name derives from the proximity of several natural springs that feed more than 200 small ponds and wetlands. These are an integral part of the UNESCO-designated Cuatro Ciénegas biosphere reserve. The city, founded in 1800, has some historical significance, since it was the birthplace of Venustiano Carranza, Mexico’s president from 1915 to 1920.
“Water in the Desert“, 9-minute video about the ecology of this fascinating area from the University of Texas at Austin
Magdalena de Kino is a city (and municipality) in an agricultural area in the northern state of Sonora, about 80 km (50 mi) from the Mexico-USA border. The earliest mission was established here by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino (“Padre Kino”), whose remains are now interred in a crypt near the mission. Father Kino was a tireless evangelist and educator, who led explorations of the virtually unknown areas that are, today, the states of Sinaloa, Sonora and Arizona, founding numerous missions as he went.
Magdalena de Kino has several stone buildings of historic or tourist interest, including the Padre Kino Museum and the Temple of Santa María Magdalena, a place of pilgrimage. The city’s main religious festival is held to coincide with 4 October each year.
54. Pahuatlán (Puebla)
Pahuatlán (“place of the fruits”) is a town and municipality in the state of Puebla. In early times, the town, in the mountainous northern region of the state, was a zone of conflict between several indigenous groups. The area has retained many traditions, including that of making paper by hand from tree bark. The Otomí village of San Pablito, in the Pahuatlán municipality, is by far the best-known center of production for this bark paper or amate. The word amate derives from amatl, the Nahuatl word for paper.
Besides being used as a kind of rough paper for records and correspondence, amate was also cut into human or animal forms as part of witchcraft rituals after which it would be buried in front of the person’s house or animal enclosure. Colorful paintings on papel amate or bark paper are sold throughout central Mexico, virtually anywhere there are tourists. The tradition is an ancient one.
In the village of San Pablito (see video), villagers (mainly women and children because many of the menfolk have left to work in the USA) wash the bark, boil it with a solution of lime juice for several hours, and then lay it in strips on a wooden board. They then beat these pulpy strips with stones called muintos or aplanadores until they fuse together to form the desired texture of paper, which is then allowed to dry in the sun.
Centuries of practice enable them to produce amate paper of any thickness, from the equivalent of crepe-paper to poster-board. Visitors to San Pablito quickly discover that the constant sound of pounding is a distinctive reminder of the village’s main industry.
Over the past year, the US State Department has issued repeated warnings about travel in Mexico. Some of these warnings are specific to certain stretches of highway; others are broader and focus on cities or regions.
Travel Weekly has produced a handy map showing the areas currently affected by advisories (a version of this map appears below). Resorts colored green are “presumed to be safe”, while yellow means “caution” and red means “warning issued”.
Link to the Travel Weekly pdf map with full details, explaining the significance of each numbered location,
Traveler Safety in Mexico. Map Credit: Travel Weekly – www.travelweekly.com/mexicomap/
Note that “Sombrete” on the map, near Fresnillo, should actually be Sombrerete. (Curiously, this is the exactly same mistake made recently by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in the text accompanying a display about silver in Latin America. Sombrerete was a very important silver-mining center during colonial times, and the town is well worth visiting, advisories permitting, for numerous fine colonial buildings).
Given the map, it is perhaps not really a great surprise that Mexico’s federal Tourism Department is currently actively promoting the Caribbean coast and “Mundo Maya” (Maya World), a region well removed from the red-colored zones on the map.
According to a slew of articles in Mexico’s Spanish-language press:
Despite the popularity of geography in Mexico’s high schools, students are rarely involved in any geographic fieldwork until they reach university. The major exceptions are those students lucky enough to attend one of the international schools offering courses such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme. The IB geography syllabus requires all students to have undertaken and written up a report on fieldwork. Most IB fieldwork is hypothesis-based.
It is perhaps not surprising therefore that the number of publications relating to fieldwork in Mexico is very small. There have been a limited number of specialist “field guides” published, relating to geology and geography, and coinciding with international conferences.
To the best of my knowledge, the first fieldwork guide aimed at high school students, teachers and the general public was written following a meeting of teachers in Mexico City in March 1979. Excursiones was designed to be a guide for “teachers, parents and/or organized groups interested in finding pleasant and educational ways of enjoying our environment and encouraging the spiritual elements inherent in making use of the tourist attractions that form part of Mexico’s heritage.”
The book, published by Editorial Limusa in 1983, has 14 general chapters (clothing, food, first aid, etc), followed by 17 destination specific chapters:
Desierto de los Leones
Ruta de la Estrella
Valle de Bravo
Isla de los Aves-Ocotal
El Xinantécatl and its lakes
Ruta de los Volcanes
El Xitle and El Ajusco
We’ll take a closer look at the opportunities offered for fieldwork in some of these locations in future posts.
La Curva de la Gringa is the name of a 90-degree bend near Jungapeo, west of Zitácuaro in the state of Michoacán. Literally translated as “the American woman’s curve”, how did this name come about? The first thing to remember is that all names on maps have to come from somewhere. Detailed maps of Mexico, including the 1:50,000 series, rely initially on aerial or satellite imagery, followed by some checking on the ground. Given the expense, ground checking is often relatively limited. However, the on-the-ground surveyors are responsible for adding names to the maps.
La Curva de la Gringa, Michoacán (on Mexico's 1:50,000 topographic map)
In this case, local informants were apparently unanimous in calling this bend La Curva de la Gringa. Further research shows that this had nothing to do with any purported similarity to the sensuous curve of a gringa‘s breast, but derived from when the road was first paved in the 1950s. Apparently, shortly after the road was finished, an American lady driving her oversized gas-guzzler down to the luxury spa of San José Purua completely missed this bend, and plowed into a cornfield. The locals have long memories!
In 2010, this road is being widened, and sidewalks and street lights installed, all the way from Federal Highway 15 (see map), past La Curva de la Gringa, and as far as the money allocated (currently about 7 million pesos) allows. The first section was due to be inaugurated 21 March 2010. If anyone has an update, please leave a comment. Here’s hoping that no more accidents ever occur along this stretch of road, and that no future place names ever reflect such unfortunate incidents.
Update[October 2012]: Despite earlier claims that the Durango-Mazatlán highway would be completed before the end of 2012, government officials have now confirmed that the highway will not be finished, and will not open, until sometime in 2013.
A truly amazing feat of engineering brilliance will force the authors of Geo-Mexico to revise one of their many original maps, when preparing the book’s next edition!
Figure 17.4 of Geo-Mexico is a map using isolines to show the average driving times by road from the city of Durango to everywhere else in Mexico. The map shows that it currently takes about five hours to drive the 312 km from Durango to the Pacific coast resort of Mazatlán, whereas driving south-east for five hours can take you as far as Encarnación de Díaz, 460 km away. The reason for this difference is that the rugged mountains of the Western Sierra Madre separate Durango from Mazatlán, whereas no significant relief obstacles lie between Durango and Encarnación de Díaz.
However, this pattern will change significantly once a new 1.2-billion-dollar highway between Durango and Mazatlán is complete. The four-lane, 230-kilometer-long highway is already well advanced; it will greatly reduce the travel time between the two cities. The major ‘missing piece’ remaining to be finished is the Puente Baluarte Bicentenario (Baluarte Bicentennial Bridge).
Puente Baluarte Bicentenario. Photo: TRADECO
This will be the biggest cable-stayed bridge ever built in Latin America. It is 1.124 km long and 4 lanes wide. Its central span extends 520 meters. At its highest point, it is a gravity-defying 390 metres (1280 feet) above the River Baluarte from which it takes its name. The bridge’s largest supporting pillar is 153 meters high, with a base measuring 18 meters by 30 meters.
Construction, by Mexican firm TRADECO, has required 103,000 tons of cement and almost 17,000 tons of steel. The bridge joins the states of Durango and Sinaloa and removes the need for drivers to negotiate a very dangerous stretch of highway known as the Devil’s Backbone.
Meanwhile, the authors of Geo-Mexico are busy preparing a map to show the next best example in Mexico where extreme differences of terrain influence travel times between major cities! Hopefully, the government won’t immediately use the new map in the next edition of Geo-Mexico to decide where to build their next major highway!
In the golden age of steam, railway lines were built all over Mexico. Rail quickly became THE way to travel. Depending on your status and wealth, you could travel third class, second class or first class. Anyone desiring greater comfort and privacy could add their luxury carriage to a regular train. To avoid mixing with the ordinary folk, the super-rich and the privileged few hired or ran their own special trains.
The railway era ushered in an entire new genre of travel writing, which culminated in the first genuine guidebooks, describing routes and places that other travelers could visit with relative ease. The earliest comprehensive guide to Mexico was Appletons’ Guide to Mexico (1883); it was soon followed by several others including Campbell’s Complete guide and descriptive book of Mexico, first published in 1895.
The 1899 edition of Reau Campbell’s famous Guide provides an idea of what visitors to Cuautla in the state of Morelos, for example, could expect when the train was in its heyday:
Here again the tourist finds another feature of Mexico’s scenery and people, totally different from all the other travels in the Republic. The houses are adobe as to walls and thatched as to roofs; the broad plains have curious trees; bands of Indians troop from one town to another in curious costumes, marching along totally oblivious to the passing locomotive and approaching civilization, and will not give way to the latter any quicker than they will to the engine if they happen to be on the track when it comes along. In fact, it is hard for them to understand that the train cannot “keep to the right” when it meets people in the road, and they claim the right of way from the fact that they were there first.
A decade later, the British-born journalist William English Carson (1870-1940) spent four months in Mexico. Carson also visited Cuautla, on the advice of a doctor as the result of catching influenza.
Upon making inquiries at the railway office about trains to Cuautla, the clerk handed me an illustrated pamphlet with a fine colored picture on the cover representing a Mexican tropical scene. It bore the title, “Cuautla, Mexico’s Carlsbad.” What! I thought, another Carlsbad? In glowing language the booklet described Cuautla as an earthly paradise with a magnificent climate, beautiful scenery, splendidly equipped hotels and a warm sulphur spring whose waters were a certain specific for almost every human ailment. What more could one desire?
Cuautla is about a hundred miles or so from Puebla, and the speedy trains of the Interoceanic Railway take about ten hours to make the journey. The train which I took left about seven o’clock in the morning ; it was not timed to reach Cuautla until five in the evening; and as there was not any restaurant at any intermediate station, a somewhat terrifying prospect of starvation faced travellers. How were they to get their luncheon? A little pamphlet given away by an American tourist agency and evidently written by an accomplished press-agent gave me the desired information: “At a certain station on the road,” said my traveller’s guide, “your train will stop for some twenty minutes. Here you will be greeted by graceful Indian women,— beauties, many of them, with their olive skins and dark, flashing eyes, bearing themselves with queenly grace in their dainty rebosos and flowing garments, white as the driven snow. They will offer you such dainties as tamales, chili-con-carne and tortillas, piping hot from their little stoves, and prepared with all the scrupulous cleanliness of a Parisian chef. They will bring you dainty refrescos of freshly gathered pineapple or orange to quench your thirst, and pastry such as your mother may have made when her cooking was at its prime.”
Now, what more could any reasonable traveller demand? What need was there for a restaurant when there were all these good things to be enjoyed? I showed my guide to an American friend before I started. He chuckled, gave a knowing wink and remarked, “Great is the faith of man, for after all your experiences you can still believe in a Mexican guide-book.”
Hotels were not always the same standard as those in the USA, but were certainly less expensive:
The attractions of the hotel were hardly up to those of a Carlsbad establishment, for it had neither a writing nor a smoking room; but the terms were rather more attractive than the usual Carlsbad tariff, being about two dollars a day inclusive. It is true there was a good deal of Mexican about the cooking, but the meals were not at all bad and the service very fair…
Railways may have opened up Mexico for tourism, but today, sadly, there are virtually no passenger lines still operating, the main exception being the justly famous Copper Canyon line from Los Mochis to Chihuahua.
Campbell, Reau. Campbell’s New Revised Complete Guide and Descriptive Book of Mexico. Chicago. 1899.
Carson, William English. Mexico: the wonderland of the south. 1909