La Plaza las Armas, Salvatierra | Mexico | Living in Mexico

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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