Lonely Planet Mexico writes of Queretaro: ‘the rather frantic outskirts with their busy freeways can give a misguided first impression.’ Spot on. After a tranquil, rural ride from San Miguel de Allende, the sprawling environs of a city of 3/4 million people brought home how un-cycle friendly urban environments can be. The draining experience of entering another medium sized place on a multi-lane freeway reinforced my wish to go the remaining 200km into Mexico City by bus. A cheating option, maybe, but it’s no fun cycling along freeways believe me.
Lonely Planet also says of Queretaro: ‘the city’s large, historic heart is characterised by charming pedestrian streets, stunning plazas and interesting churches.’ Spot on again. Once we had met our new couchsurfing host, Fernanda and pumped up to her house on our bikes which is high above the city, the nice part of Queretaro was revealed.
Fernanda showed us round on Sunday night, on the eve of Valentine’s Day. The city’s plazas were buzzing with street theatre, musicians, balloon sellers and even an orchestra with a throng of couples dancing cheek to cheek (all of them of a certain mature age). The dancing takes place every weekend and it was a truly heartwarming thing to watch. Call me a slushy romantic but it was one of my favourite scenes so far on our trip. Good, clean, innocent fun.
Every plaza in Queretaro has a different vibe – there is the Plaza de los Perritos (a fountain in the centre spews water from the mouths of statues of little dogs, hence the name) where the young-uns hang out, and other places for the oldies, the intellectuals, etc. Each one has a unique ambiance which was great to stroll around, even on a Sunday.
Fernanda was wonderful – showing us round, allowing us to hang our in her house while she went to work, treating us like old pals. She is a very interesting person, working for an environmental consultancy in Queretaro managing clean-up contracts for industrial clients. She studied in Europe and wrote a thesis on the ability of the urban poor to tap into global streams of finance such as the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism. Apparently there is a project in Bangladesh where trash pickers have been able to gain carbon credits in this way. She spent some time with an NGO in Peru with trash pickers and her experiences there, and her hopes for future work combining environmental and social goals kept us fascinated for hours.
In history, Queretaro played an important role as here disaffected criollos plotted to free Mexico from Spanish rule in the early 19th Century. Miguel Hidalgo was one of the conspirators who met in secret at the home of the district administrator at the invitation of his rebellious wife – Josefa Ortiz. When the conspiracy was discovered Josefa managed to get word out to Miguel Hidalgo who then issued his ‘Grita de la Independencia’ in Dolores.
In 1917 the Mexican constitution was drawn up in the city, and in 1929 the PRI was organised here – the party that was to dominate Mexican politics for the rest of the 20th Century (finally losing power to the PAN in 2000). Fernanda told us that she believes Mexican people are quite pragmatic about this period in their history, and that they are proud that the century following the Mexican Revolution (1910-20) has been a peaceful one. This is something that a lot of other countries in Central and South America cannot claim, having suffered from civil strife, military dictatorships and less democratic representation than Mexico’s one party rule under the PRI.
One of the most prominent features of Queretaro is its enormous aqueduct, consisting of 75 arches, each 20 metres wide with a total length of 1,280 metres, and average height of 23 metres. It was built between 1726 and 1738 at the request of some nuns to bring water to the residents of the city.