John's Blog
Mexico

Chicken 'n' Ribs

Out on the Calzada de la Estación—the Train Station Road—there hangs a sign advertising the best roast chicken in San Miguel de Allende.

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This is an example of those modest businesses that give Mexico much of its character; the kind of humble place I love. Housed in a sturdy wooden shack, it squats next to a weed filled vacant lot. In a nod to modernity, a quasi-professionally designed banner has been strung across the front. It’s ugly, but these things are cheap—important in a low-volume business.

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A boy sits in front of the building, awaiting infrequent customers.

The yellow cinderblock structure is a fire pit. Inside, mesquite coals line a trench, giving off intense heat. Ribs and flattened chickens impaled on wooden stakes cook slowly, taking on beautiful color and smokey flavor. The aroma is enticing.

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This truly is slow food, expertly prepared. The method is ancient. The first ever cooked food probably was roasted on sticks over an open fire much like this. Ovens, cast-iron pots, and Teflon sauté pans came much later.

The place has no name, called only by what it serves: Pollo al Pastor—Shepherd’s Chicken.

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Life in Atotonilco

We look out the main door of the Santuario de Atotonilco, past a 250-year-old threshold worn down by generations of feet. The wooden plank is deeply scalloped between the harder knots, signalling great age.

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Outside, an old woman leans against a pillar. She’s begging. She sits in the spot where she laid her claim long ago. Her spot. Squatter’s rights. No one challenges her right to it.

To the right of the Santuario door, a welcoming entrance leads to a gift shop and restaurant run by nuns from the local convent—a good place for a light lunch.

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Paul (El Guapo) Latoures places our snack order with one of the sisters: carrot and potato taquitos and big glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice. Lunch for two: 80 pesos.

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Paul addresses the nun as Madre, not Sister.

If 80 pesos is too expensive, a woman across the street will make you a gordita for ten. This morning, as every morning, she gathers fallen branches for her fire. She pats out gorditas by hand and cooks them on her simple comal—a circular piece of sheet metal.

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The young man in a wheelchair is another Atotonilco fixture. His profound developmental disablement causes me to look away, unable to face a life so cruel. His mother wheels him out in front of the Santuario every day. She supports herself and her son on donations from passers-by.

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The boy’s posture never changes. The abonizing arch in his back appears to be permanent. He lies in his chair, looking at the sky, making sudden inhuman cries.

Hundreds of thousands of perigrinos—pilgrims—visit Atotonilco every year. They arrive in smokey old chartered buses or in rusty pickup trucks. Some come on foot, walking for days to get here. They sleep in dormitories. They buy religious souvenirs from the vendors who have sprung up to serve them.

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For sale here: icons, statuettes, printed prayers, sketches of Christ and Our Lady of Guadalupe. A vendor sits patiently behind hundreds of rosaries.

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Among the rosaries hang flails. Pilgrims flagellate themselves. Some wear hair shirts. Others tie prickly pear pads to their chests so cactus spines will score their flesh. Still others crawl the last few miles to the Santurario on their knees.

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These flails look too festive to be used for mortification of the flesh. Do pilgrims actually buy and use them? Or are they purchased by tourists in search of gruesome souvenirs?

Atotonilco is a center of great faith, and to my naïve Protestant outlook, a chilling morbidity. A decal on the door of an employee’s truck bears an image of Christ in agony; not the pleasant figure recalled from my childhood Sunday school. I’m unable to grasp the level of devotion that would motivate someone to display a face like this one on his car. I don’t understand a person submitting to real, bloody scourgings as does the man who plays Christ on Good Friday here. I can’t comprehend how parents can hold wailing, terrified toddlers aloft to witness the young man being whipped that day.

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Yet I find the people who worship here to be kind, friendly, common people. Not a hint of fanaticism or psychosis on their faces. Gentle people. People generous with neighbors and strangers alike, comfortable with God.

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They come here and make their devotions. Then they wander across the street to a stall to buy a naranjada. They sit in the sun, enjoying their drinks.

Life in Atotonilco is slow and peaceful. I don’t see hateful or angry people here: no impatient drivers, no pouting teenagers.

How can a place so focused on pain and suffering exude such tranquility? Does the one cause the other? Or is Atotonilco just another sleepy Mexican town, albeit one that somehow manages to absorb the torments of penitents?

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Restoring Atotonilco Sanctuary

Atotonilco (the village) is dominated by a church, El Santuario de Atotonilco, one of the more extraordinary places in Mexico. In 1740, Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro undertook to build it: a monument to the life of Christ.

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As an example of colonial architecture, the exterior of the Church of Jesus the Nazarene, as it is sometimes called, isn’t significant. It’s what’s inside that counts.

The walls are covered with incredible murals created by a local painter, Miguel Antonio Martínez Pocasangre—like this one, visible above the main altar.

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The church contains more art than one could imagine. This chapel is hung with gilt frames holding exquisite glass paintings of scenes from the life of Christ. The images focus on violence, blood and pain.

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Guanajuato woodcarvers contributed many sculptures, including this unidentified figure with hands outstretched in benediction.

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The most famous of Atotonlico’s treasured carvings is called El Señor de la Columna, a tortured depiction of scourged Christ.

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Every year at the beginning of Holy Week, Our Lord of the Column is carried in a torchlit procession from its niche at Atotonilco to San Miguel de Allende, where it remains until after Easter.

Over the years, El Santuario de Atotonilco fell into neglect. Parts of the edifice crumbled, the roof developed leaks, and frescoes deteriorated. Portions of this ceiling have become completely obliterated.

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Some murals have become so washed out that their subjects are now lost.

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In 1996, funds were raised for conservation and restoration. Parts of the church were repaired and some of the frescoes renovated. But the work was underfunded and progressed slowly.

Last year, UNESCO recognized El Santuario de Atotonilco as a World Heritage Site, and everything changed. Suddenly the sanctuary has become filled with scaffolds bearing restoration experts. Crumbling stonework is being patched and plastered. White-suited conservationists painstakingly repair murals.

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The ceiling shown below was restored during the 1986 effort. The transformation is astounding. Subject matter retains its original grimness, but bright color dispels some of the gloom.

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Tourists have begun arriving. No longer can I sit in one of the old pews on a Tuesday morning, the sole occupant of this place. Milling crowds from Mexico City and San Luis Potosi wield cameras, ignoring signs asking them not to use flashes.

Restoration of the exterior awaits. The head of the Virgin here has eroded away completely. But given UNESCO recognition, funding for such work at last is assured.

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Atotonilco is being saved in the nick of time. I don’t think it would have lasted another ten years without intervention.

Its salvation is a blessing, but it may also be a curse. The sanctuary will be preserved for generations of pilgrims and visitors, but it is being transformed into a tourist destination. The paintings have been saved, but I’m afraid the sleepy country church placidly baking in the sun may be lost.

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A Country Estate

Near San Miguel de Allende, in the sleepy little community of Atotonilco, a sign on a wall advertises land for sale.

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The huge lot is covered with picturesque ruins. Broken arches reach skyward, hope and doom carried in the same stones.

Stone ruins are prized in faux colonial architecture. Mexican hotels sometimes feature newly built arches, artfully truncated, phony as those fake Tara columns that adorn McMansions.

These, though, are the real thing. They draw the eye of the passer-by, redolent of sunny decay as a Frederick Catherwood lithograph.

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A few arched ceilings remain, opportunistic plants growing on top. Roots, some of Nature’s most powerful stoneworking tools, do their slow, inexorable work. In a year—or in a decade—this roof will fall.

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Iconic cacti perch on stone walls. Sight of one says “Mexico” to me, perhaps more than any other image.

The water tank is a more recent ruin, but it too is abandoned and will fall eventually. The shape looks alien—like a landing machine of the Pod People.

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For all the crumbling stonework, this land is desirable because it possesses the sine qua non of real estate: location. The adjacent building, seen here behind your (apparently narcoleptic) correspondent, is the Santuario de Atotonilco, an extraordinary church, the objective of thousands of pilgrims, an especially holy place.

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Photo: Paul (El Guapo) Latoures. (Next time, Paul, take an insurance shot.)

Last year, Atotonilco was added to the roster of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. That bodes well for real estate values in these parts.

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A Strange Temple

Reader Nancy, in a comment to the previous post, asks: “What brought you [to Salvatierra]?”

Good question. I assume she means, “What was I thinking?”

I read somewhere that Salvatierra was considered to be the “other” colonial city of the State of Guanajuato, and having not visited there, I was curious. How come everyone knows about Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato, but nothing about Salvatierra? What could be wrong with the place?

Moreover I wanted to assess for myself, the mayor’s assertion that Salvatierra would be an ideal city to which the Sanmiguelada could be relocated. As far as I’m concerned, His Honor is welcome to an invasion of 100,000 drunk kids. But I wanted to visit the locale where there’d be mobs puking, eliminating and fornicating—right in the Plaza las Armas.

Another reason I wanted to explore was because of something I saw when I first drove through town a couple of years ago, while taking an alternative route between San Miguel and Michoacán. The highway offered little to attract me, but one building did stand out: This temple.

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At the time, I couldn’t investigate. But over the following weeks, I wasn’t able to get the place out of my mind. I don’t know why it made such an impression on me. It’s not beautiful. The apple green tiled dome is nice, but the multicolored geometrical figures covering the exterior are not. I imagine the architect was someone’s unemployed nephew.

Flanking the arched door are six concrete angels. Their classical forms seem out of step with the rest of the building.

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Absence of pews suggest this is a temple, not a working church. The littered floor indicates infrequent occupancy. On the wall hang two images of the Virgin of Guadalupe. A painted statue of a biblical figure carrying a child rests on a simple altar. But there’s no crucifix—an odd omission in a country where such hang in cantinas.

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The domed ceiling though—it is a marvel: a starry night with Saturn in near-conjunction with a textured moon. Dim outlines of what may be the Milky Way lend a convincing sky-ness to the image; abstraction enhancing reality.

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Most folk art draws charm from fertile imaginations unfettered by convention, and from forms repeatedly worked until they become “right.” This temple is almost a work of folk art; surprising, sometimes jarring. Its design is collaborative and unexpected. But it’s a one-off, unpracticed. The dome, inside and out, works. The rest doesn’t.

The place doesn’t warrant a special trip to investigate. But as a stop on the way to someplace else, it yielded a small surprise.

Maybe, Nancy, the possibility of small surprises is what brings me to out-of-the-way places.

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Walking Around Salvatierra

To get to Salvatierra from San Miguel de Allende, drive about 75 kilometers south through Celaya. You’ll run right into it. Couldn’t be simpler, except maybe for the part where you get lost in Celaya. If you’re planning a trip to Michoacán or Pátzcuaro, you could stop off for an hour or two on your way.

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Salvatierra is a great walking town. Vehicular traffic is light and there’s a lot to see within walking distance from the Plaza las Armas.

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The city has any number of venerable churches. This one, the Templo y Convento de San Buenaventura, is also known as the Templo de San Francisco, and is as fine an example of Eighteenth-Century church architecture as you could want to see. A visitor could spend an entire weekend just investigating all the colonial churches in town.

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The low wall in front of the San Francisco Temple guards an old irrigation canal named Gugorrones. Maybe its waters, drawn from the Rio Lerma, give the city its green leafy ambiance.

Salvatierra boasts a sweet little jail smack in the historical center. The guard looks fierce but he’s friendly—you can talk to him.

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Through double doors, we see a young mother and her daughter speaking with the jailer through a barred window. Maybe dad drank a little too much pulque last night; got into a fight. Mom’s responsibility to see he’s properly fed, and to maintain his affairs in the outside world until he’s released.

The prisoner’s incarceration is nothing to be ashamed of. His friends may well see it as an achievement, a reaffirmation of his machismo.

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Attractive façades flank downtown streets. Why do they seem so welcoming? Unlike San MIguel de Allende’s, the walls of Salvatierra’s buildings are pierced by many large windows, presenting an open, friendly aspect.

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A closer look at the first building reveals what I think of as “Happy Tooth” dentist advertising. Images like Dra. Sandra J. Vera’s are common in Mexico. They’re of a piece with “Happy Chicken” pollorias and “Happy Pig” carnitas joints. Once you catch on to the idiom, you’ll see “Happy Teeth” everywhere.

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The Plaza las Armas is ringed with businesses shaded by arched galleries. Prosperity not having caught up with Salvatierra, the arcades house modest businesses—here the offices of Dr. Aguirre, and Sr. Rangel, CPA, and what we used to call a Turkish Bath. Give the place another decade, these will be displaced by chi-chi restaurants and art galleries.

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Nearby, a decidedly non-chi-chi eatery—Neveria Susana—offers seating for Paul (El Guapo) Latoures.

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Susana’s schtick is ice cream, but she’ll serve you a serviceable lunch for not much money. Her breaded pork cutlet sandwich costs 20 pesos—about $1.40 as of this writing.

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Salvatierra is kept spotless by squads of street sweepers. In recent years, many Mexican cities have tackled litter. Towns once abysmally dirty have become pleasant places to walk, views unmarred by styrofoam cups and beer bottles.

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The street sweeper is passing in front of the Hotel Isabel. I like the feel of this inn, with its courtyard restaurant sheltered by a spectacular stained glass roof. I can’t recall the prices, but I do remember thinking any US traveler would rank this place as inexpensive. One word of warning, though. The Hotel Isabel hosts wedding receptions and family reunions. You will not want to stay here when one of those is happening unless you are a party animal. Incredibly loud music into the wee hours will eliminate any chance of sleeping, so check carefully.

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This is a real Mexican town, where real Mexicans live typical lives. Nobody here will try to sell you a timeshare. You won’t find two-for-one margaritas. You’ll run into few beggars, if any, since Mexican nationals aren’t as likely to hand out a few coins as gringos.

But it’s a place full of history and flavor and photo ops for any traveller willing to venture off the beaten track, well worth the modest effort needed to visit.

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La Plaza las Armas, Salvatierra

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Tourists trek through our colonial towns: Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo, San Miguel de Allende, Querétaro. All were founded within 60 years of Columbus reaching the New World—truly ancient and historical places. Overlooked on the tourist circuit—at least among Norteamericanos—is Salvatierra, a significant municipality of more than 100,000 inhabitants. Founded in 1664, it solidly qualifies as a colonial city, although San Miguel and the others started a century earlier. But none of those became significant until the mid-17th century, so all of their significant historical buildings date from the same epoch as Salvatierra’s. Moreover, the latter was the first municipality in the State of Guanajuato to be officially recognized as a city. In its heyday, it was a big deal.

Salvatierra came to my attention when the government of San Miguel de Allende decided to discontinue the Sanmiguelada, the annual running of the bulls that had become uncontrollably disruptive and dangerous. Soon afterward, the President of Salvatierra announced his intention to host the event. Thankfully for his peaceful constituency, that intention went unfulfilled.

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Salvatierra is one of the most comfortable cities in Mexico, full of friendly people and pleasant spaces. At its center lies a gorgeous leafy plaza, the largest in the State of Guanajuato. The view above looks across the Plaza las Armas toward the Santuario Diocesano de Nuestra Señora de la Luz, commonly known as the Parroquia.

Centuries-old trees shade the entire plaza, their canopies severely sheared into geometric shapes in the manner of most Mexican plaza trees. They shelter broad walks that become intimate spaces under their branches.

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The large plaza has space for many different activities. On weekends, an entrepreneur operates a homemade tram drawn by a riding lawn mower. It’s always full of kids.

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Strangely absent: the high chairs of shoeshine vendors. Instead, those so employed have to carry a bucket and stool to pursue their trade. Personally, I like the tall iron chairs in other plazas, but they do tend to create little fiefdoms. Perhaps their absence here levels the playing field for all who make their livings this way.

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On the day I visited, some organization had organized art classes for youngsters, with tables, easels, stools and instructors. The plaza, absent milling hordes of tourists often encountered in other towns, demonstrates the potential of a good public space—a place where residents can engage in quiet activities and gentle enjoyment of their city.

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No Mexican plaza is complete without one or more ice cream vendors. The Lopez family fills the bill in Salvatierra, with the perfect model of a low-impact shop.

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Their enterprise consists of no more than an awning and a bunch of ice cream containers on small tables. The whole thing gets taken down every night and carted away in the back of a pickup truck.

Typically, Mexican park vendors serve straight from the cream cans they made the ice cream in. Small batches ensure freshness and a bewildering variety of flavors: camote, corn, tequila. Cream cans remain nestled wooden tubs filled with salted ice and insulated with burlap or other coarse fabric. That way the ice cream remains frozen throughout the length of a hot day.

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You don’t need freezers, electricity, counters or chairs to operate an ice cream shop in Mexico. The carbon footprint of the Familia Lopez operation is negligible.

Plazas are good for romance. Most homes here are small and full of relatives, so you can’t really get together with your sweetie in one. That’s why you see so many couples on benches, limbs intertwined, intensely chaste, exquisitely romantic. I saw dozens in the Plaza las Armas.

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Famous places like San Miguel de Allende attract anxious throngs bent on absorbing everything in one short visit. An excessive number of businesses prey on them, vigorously competing for tourist dollars. The atmosphere often seems nervous, sometimes bordering on hysterical. So Salvatierra is a remarkable discovery: a city of significant historical and cultural interest, somehow retaining a laid-back, small-town feel. I’ve never felt warmer or more at ease in any Mexican town.

I didn’t see a single American or European here.

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