Ay, Chi hua why! – Chihuahua City, Chihuahua, Mexico

To be honest, the first time we visited the city of Chihuahua back in December we were surprised at how clean and orderly and historic this city is. Oh, and how pointy the cowboy boots are. Mate a stiletto with a traditional cowboy boot and you begin to get the idea. Make them baby blue or mint green or tangerine and made out of alligator skin and/or manta ray and you’ve hit the jackpot, so to speak.

The beautiful baroque cathedral of Chihuahua was begun in 1725.

Construction of the beautiful baroque cathedral in Chihuahua was begun in 1725.

 

This visit to Chihuahua, which is celebrating its 300th birthday this year, brought a new surprise: an actual boutique hotel.  We knew that Chihuahua had the usual suspects: your soulless chains like Holiday Inn and Best Western, and a whole passle of locally-owned el cheapo crash pads that are clean and safe and that’s about all you can say about them.

But Hotel San Felipe el Real is a whole different stay. Eight individually decorated rooms are clustered around an open-air inner courtyard with a gently gurgling fountain and bouganvillea draped back patio in a restored 19th century mansion located  in a quiet area tucked a few blocks off the main plaza.

Common rooms, including a library and sitting area, are peppered with antiques (just try to keep track of the number of antique sewing machines, record players and stoves in the place) and a made to order breakfast is served each morning by the ever-smiling Luz in a spacious kitchen and dining area which guests are free to use as well. Oh, and there’s reliable Wi-Fi throughout.

Hotel San Felipe el Real has managed to combine historic touches (original floors and ceilings) with thrift store chic decor and a charming mash up of Spanish and Mexican influences. The English-speaking owner, Santiago, is also a wealth of knowledge about the area including the Copper Canyon. The world famous Copper Canyon train actually departs from a station within walking distance of the hotel (we’ll be posting about our time in the Copper Canyon over the next few days). It sure as heck beats the el cheapo place we crashed in during our last visit to Chihuahua!

Apparently, in this economy it even tough to sell Chihuahua's in Chihuahua.

In this economy it's tough to sell chihuahuas even in Chihuahua.

gowns

Fancy gowns are big business in Chihuahua.

 

Apart from impossibly pointy day-glow cowboy boots, Chihuahua’s other fashion statement is fancy gowns for weddings and quinceañero celebrations–the mandatory party every 15 year old girl has. Think of it as the Mexican version of a sweet 16 party, only with peticoats, corsets and tiaras.

One of the dozens of fancy dress shops in downtown Chihuahua offers something the others don’t. Legend has it that the daughter of Pascuala, the owner of La Popular dress shop, was killed by a black widow spider bite on the eve of her wedding. Heart broken, Pascuala embalmed her daughter’s corpse and now uses it as a mannequin in her shop window. The thing is eerily life like. We’re just saying.

Piñatas fill a hallway of the market.

Mass produced piñatas fill a hallway in one section of a downtown market building.

 

Piñatas are also big business and range from crude likenesses churned out by entire famlilies of workers to hand-crafted pieces with amazing details like curled hair and artfully painted eyes.

A particularly artistic and deatailed piñata getting the final touches.

This special order piñata is particularly artistic and detailed.

Piñata's in process

Piñatas in process.

Piñatas

Luckily piñatas don't need sunscreen.

 

Santiago, the gregarious owner of Hotel San Felipe el Real, got us into a food show that was being held at the convention center in Chihuahua. Mennonite cheese makers (there’s a huge and prosperous community of Mennonite farmers not far from Chihuahua) rubbed shoulders with guys hawking machaca, a tasty dried and shredded beef and gourmet potato chips. It wasn’t long before we’d worked up a powerful thirst.

Luckily, the food show also had Tecate and Corona beer on tap and a stall doling out sips of Hacienda de Chihuahua sotol, a regional drink that’s distilled from a member of the agave family. The process is similar to tequila making but, in this case at least, the end product is smoother.

No convention center event is ever truly complete without scantily clad women traipsing around “promoting” something-or-other. At this event a gaggle of young women in tiny tops, tinier skirts and the kind of boots that would make Nancy Sinatra blush satisfied that need in their roles as the official Tecate Girls.

The Tecate girls, not to be confused with the Modelo girls, having a snack at the food show.

The Tecate Girls grab a snack.

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Hasta la Vista, Amigos!

Well, today’s the day. After using up our first six month Mexican visa and spending the past four months in the US it’s time to (finally) cross the border once again. We are Mexico bound and we couldn’t be happier about it. The food! The friends! The freedom! The fiesta!

For any nervous Nellies out there we are officially NOT worried about Swine Flu or Drug Violence. Why? We wash our hands. With soap. Also, we have no plans of either a) becoming the chief of police of Juarez OR b) attempting to encroach on a dealer’s turf.

Our first stop in Mexico has us doubly excited (if that’s possible). We’ll be spending a couple of weeks in the Copper Canyon with Dave Hensleigh from Authentic Copper Canyon. The three of us will be on a totally flexible schedule (the very best kind) with an emphasis on finding people and places in and around the Copper Canyon that tourists on the usual Copper Canyon train trips never get to see or meet. We think of ourselves as guinea pigs on this exploratory trip and we can’t wait.

This means we’ll be out of touch for a little while but expect some worth-it stories and pictures and information about what to eat, where to sleep and what to do both on the rim and deep inside the canyon that’s seven times a grand as our Grand Canyon. We may even start calling it the “Grander Canyon.”

To keep you busy while we’re gone, check out this newspaper story we did about Zacatecas, our last major stop in Mexico before our visa ran out. This town’s got what just might be the most unusual disco, most shocking sandwich and most breathtaking catherdral view from a hotel room in all of Mexico, and that’s just for starters.

Here are some shots from Zacatecas:

The cathedral in Zacatecas was begun in 1730.

Construction of the cathedral in Zacatecas began in 1730.

Zacatecas is filled with small streets, alleys and plazas. That along with the architecture reminded us of Europe.

Zacatecas is filled with small streets, alleys and plazas. That, along with the architecture, reminded us of Europe.

The European-like streets of downtown Zacatecs

The European-like streets of downtown Zacatecs.

The view of the cathedral from our balcony at the hotel Santa Rita was spectacular.

The view of the cathedral from our balcony at the Santa Rita Hotel was spectacular.

A pedestrian callejon, or alley, in Zacatecas.

A pedestrian callejon, or alley, in Zacatecas.

The Museo Rafael Colonel aka the Mask Museum has a collection of over 2,000 masks.

The Museo Rafael Colonel has a collection that includes thousands of masks.

Two nuns walk into a jewlery store....

Two nuns walk into a jewelery store....Zacatecas was built on silver mines and the stuff is now made into everything from key chains to religious items.

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Our Latest Work: Villa Ganz, Guadalajara (our kind of B&B)

We just posted our latest hotel review and it’s all about a restored mansion in Mexico’s second largest city. Villa Ganz in Guadalajara is part of the Mexico Boutique Hotels group and it actually manages to get the bed and breakfast thing right: no doilies, just 10 of the most luxurious and charming rooms in town.

Read our review here

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Our Latest Work: An Airstream for Everyone

Busy, busy, busy! Following the publication of our road trip package in the current (August) issue of Every Day with Rachael Ray magazine (see previous post) we’re excited to bring you our latest piece for Travel + Leisure magazine’s web site which commissioned us to write about the World’s Trendiest Airstream Hotels.

Read it here

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As you know, Airstream travel trailers have been near and dear to our hearts ever since we got to know them inside and out while living in a Safari SE for six months at end of 2008 and producing a blog about our Airstream Adventures. Read our piece and go test one out for a night or two for yourself!

 

Not a hotel, our Airstream in front the Mittens, Monument Valley

Not a hotel, but the Airstream Safari SE we were lucky enough to live and travel in for six months. Here we're in front The Mittens at Monument Valley.

 

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Monolithic! – Bernal, Querétaro, Mexico

For a tiny town, Bernal–less than an hour from the city of Querétaro–has a lot going for it, including Peña de Bernal (Bernal’s Boulder or Bernal Peak) which is, according to some estimates, the second largest monolith in the world after Mt. Augustus in Western Australia. At 1,115 feet (350 meters) tall, the big rock in Bernal is also the fourth tallest (or third tallest, again, depending on who you ask) monolith in the world after Mt. Augustus, the Rock of Gibraltar and Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio. As you can imagine, a pedigree like that means a lot of rock climbers travel here. The rest of the scant visitors to Bernal come to this Mexican town for its unique brand of peace and quiet.

Peña de Bernal is one of the largest monoliths in the world (2nd largest according to some) and the 4th tallest

Peña de Bernal, seen from the porch of our room at the Parador Vernal, is one of the largest monoliths in the world.

Bernal, stuck in time

Bernal was designated a Pueblo Magico by the Mexican government in 2005 so it delivers a pleasantly stuck-in-time look and feel with simple buildings, festive colors and a central square dominated by a lively church. Old men sit around and do what old men do while younger men gallop down the cobbled streets on horses. Every once in a while a woman pokes her head out of the shop or restaurant she’s running. It is altogether nap inspiring.

Where to sleep in Bernal

While in Bernal we stayed at the Parador Vernal about a 10 minute walk above town itself. The hotel’s mediocre and poorly translated web site doesn’t do the hotel’s quirks and charms justice.

The lobby is largely populated by big colorful birds in even bigger ornate cages. Our room, #8, had one wall which was painted entirely electric green and featured a huge, loosely looped wool area rug that felt like walking on a sheep. The bed was comfortable and the view of Peña de Bernal couldn’t be beat.

Some of the hotel’s other rooms (there are 13 in total), however, seemed a bit small and dark so ask for room 7 or 8 if you plan to stay the night. Or just pop up for a bite or a drink in the dining room or outdoor bar with an unobstructed view of the monolith.

Peña de Bernal rises above the town of Bernal

Peña de Bernal rises above the tiny town of Bernal.

Village square in Bernal

A wedding at the church of St. Sebastian in Bernal.

Where to drink in Bernal

Throughout Mexico we rarely saw beer on tap, so we were surprised and delighted when we walked past a pretty cafe in Bernal with outdoor seating and cerveza de baril (beer on tap) on the menu. And that’s not the only beverage surprise the area had in store for us…

Pena de Bernal at night

Peña de Bernal features a hypnotic light show every Saturday that goes on for more than an hour.

If you don't have a horse to get you around the sleepy streets of Bernal, you can flag down an Asian-style tuk tuk to get you where you need to go.

If you don’t have a horse you can flag down the Asian-style tuk-tuk that plies the streets of Bernal.

Historic Mexican wine

About 30 minutes from Bernal, in the town of Ezequiel Montes, is the Cavas Freixenet winery complete with tours and wine sales and a kind of manic crowd on weekends that seems intent on downing as much of their newly purchased wine and sparkling wine right then and there at tables and chairs set up in an open-air courtyard.

We missed the last tour of the day so we just wandered around trying not to get between the Mexican couples and their wine. Weirdly, there wasn’t a single black bottle of the too-sweet Cordon Negro sparkling wine that we associate with the Freixenet brand in the U.S. In fact, none of the wine for sale even had Freixenet on the label–the sparkling wine was called Petillant and turned out to be just as sweet as Cordon Negro.

Grapes

There’s more to drink in Mexico than just beer and tequila.

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Move Here Now – Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico

The cradle of Mexican Independence is now the country’s hottest place to live. Querétaro’s awesome standard of living (good wages, booming infrastructure, high degree of safety, high level of education, etc), hip shops, appealing boutique hotels (including the Dona Urraca and Casa del Atrio), bars, restaurants and proximity to major Mexican cities. (it’s just over two hours from Mexico City) have prompted many people to move here now. There are so many new residents that Querétaro (no one calls it by its full name of Santiago de Querétaro) is currently Mexico’s fastest growing city, filling up with hip urban refugees faster than you can pronounce the name of the damn place. At the very least, you should travel there and see what the fuss is all about.

Querétaro conspirators

Querétaro’s most famous influx of people didn’t come looking for a chic wine bar or a cool hotel. Nope. In 1810 Josepha Ortiz de Dominguez, also known as La Corregidora, and her compatriots came to Querétaro to plot a revolution. Though their plan was eventually discovered the Querétaro conspirators captured and their co-conspirators in neighboring areas narrowly warned, this is considered one of the earliest actions by the Mexican Independence movement.

San Francisco de Querétaro, the city's main Cathedral from the Jardin Zenea, one of the city's many lively plazas

San Francisco de Querétaro, the city’s main cathedral, from the Jardin Zenea which is one of the city’s many lively plazas.

 Querétaro the capital

In 1847, Querétaro was made capital of the Republic when the U.S. invaded during the Mexican American War. On May 30 1848, the two countries ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in Querétaro, which called for Mexico to give half of its territory to the United States including vast areas encompassing what’s now California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, parts of Colorado and New Mexico.

A sculpture of an Aztec below the dome of San Francisco de Querétaro, the city's main Cathedral.

A sculpture of an Aztec below the dome of San Francisco de Querétaro, the city’s main cathedral.

Querétaro became the capital of the Republic again on February 5, 1917, when the Proclamation of the Political Constitution of the United Mexican States was established by President Venustiano Carranza at the Constitutional Congress in the city’s Teatro de la República. The Constitution remains in force to this day.

The historic center of Querétaro is filled with magnificent and colorful colonial buildings.

The historic center of Querétaro is filled with colorful colonial buildings all protected by its World Heritage Site status.

More recently, UNESCO named the Historic Monuments Zone of Santiago de Querétaro a World Heritage Site, which has protected and preserved its colonial look and feel. Happily, Querétaro is also in the process of burying downtown power lines which will eliminate the ugly overhead tangle of wires.

Though not the most spectacular theater we've seen in Mexico, the Teatro de la Republica may be the most important as its where the Mexican Constitution was signed in 1917. Its where the PRI, Mexicos ruling party for most of its modern history was organized here and Emporor Maximillian was sentenced to death here.

Though not the most spectacular theater we’ve seen in Mexico, the Teatro de la Republica may be the most important. It’s where the Mexican Constitution was signed in 1917 and where the PRI, Mexico’s ruling party for most of the country’s modern history, was organized. It’s also where Emperor Maximillian was sentenced to death.

The beautiful Convento de la Santa Cruz founded in 1654 was one of the most important missionary colleges in New Spain and many friars set off from here to found important missions throughout the Americas, including Junípero Serra who set off for Alta California and founded the missions of California and Antonio Margil who founded the missions of Santa Fe & Albuquerque.

The beautiful Convento de la Santa Cruz, founded in 1654, was one of the most important missionary colleges in New Spain and many friars set off from here to found important missions throughout the Americas, including Junípero Serra who walked to Alta California and founded the missions of California. Antonio Margil, who founded the missions of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, also left from this convent.

Following the Spanish conquest the Querétaro area, strategically located on the route that connects the mining areas of Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí and Zacatecas with Mexico City, became a kind of base camp for Catholicism with many convents springing up to house and educate monks and, to a lesser degree, nuns who then fanned out from Querétaro to conquer the north of the country and convert local people to the Catholic faith.

One extreme example is Franciscan Junípero Serra who left Querétaro for Alta California ON FOOT and ultimately founded many of the major cities in what became California, including the city of San Francisco. This role in the northward spread of Catholicism explains why downtown Querétaro has so many religious sites.

Querétaro's Aqueducto is quite impressive, being almost a mile long with 74 arches and over 80 feet tall.

Querétaro’s Aqueducto is almost a mile long, more than 80 feet tall and has 74 arches. At one time it fed 60 public fountains and many private ones.

Shades of Rome

During our time in Querétaro we couldn’t shake the feeling that we were in Rome. Okay, not literally, but Querétaro, like Rome, was built and populated thanks to an elaborate aqueduct system which, at one time, fed 60 public fountains and many private one. You can still see working fountains around town.

There are also statues all over the place and the people who live here have a real fondness for snacking in open air cafes–just replace the ubiquitous Italian panini with a gordita, a local specialty that’s essentially a fried corn batter pita pocket stuffed with whatever you like, and you’ve got it. In Querétaro the gorditas are even served with oregano.

There’s also an ice cream shop called Neveria Italy where you can get a delicious concoction called wine ice.

This church's domes and towers are covered in red, green & white tiles. Yes, they are the colors of the Mexican flag, but we were told some tourists see them and think it refer to Italy.

This church’s domes and towers are covered in red, green and white tiles in homage to the colors of the Mexican flag. Some tourists, however, see the colors and think it’s in reference to Italy.

 

One extreme example is Catholic missionary Junípero Serra who left Querétaro for Alta California ON FOOT and ultimately founded many of the major cities in what became California, including San Francisco.

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