QUERÉTARO, Mexico - There are plenty of reasons to visit Querétaro, but it's the instability and conflict and violence that finally won me over.
The instability of 1810, that is. The conflict of 1848. The violence of 1867. All set amid 18th-century colonial architecture, surrounded these days by commerce and calm.
Coming to this city in Mexico's central highlands, about 130 miles northwest of Mexico City, you get a glimpse of the 19th-century days when Mexico was busy breaking free of Spain, losing about half of its land to the United States, then deposing and executing a foreign-born monarch. All three of those international dramas featured a key scene here.
Since then, even as intrigue and trouble have stalked other corners of Mexico, Querétaro has been growing and mellowing. In 1996, UNESCO named it a World Heritage site.
I headed this way on a brisk October day last year, the headlines at home full of dire updates on crime in Mexico City and drug wars along the U.S. border. But it was simple enough. Land at the shiny 4-year-old Querétaro International Airport and ride 20 miles into the old colonial center of town.
Although the Querétaro metropolitan area counts roughly 787,000 residents, and its periphery is lined with busy factories, its historic core is a neighborhood you'll want to walk.
And my good luck was to jump out of the taxi at La Casa de la Marquesa.
It's been a hotel only since 1995, but it was built in 1756 as a private mansion, the floors elaborately tiled, the walls covered in stencils, the lobby illuminated by skylight, the halls flanked by carved stonework - the whole place infused with Moorish-baroque splendor.
The heavy wood door to my room, intricately carved, would open only upon insertion of a big, clunky key that looked like a medieval movie prop. Inside, a chandelier hung from a 20-foot ceiling.
In the lobby, a tall, mysterious man in a shiny suit lingered by the door, a grand piano gleamed near the entrance to the restaurant, and a worker scurried past in what looked like a French maid's outfit. (Thirteen of the hotel's 25 rooms are in this main building; the rest, a bit cheaper, are around the corner in its Casa Azul area. Pay the extra pesos for the main building.)
Because this region's mountains were the focus of Spanish silver mining in the 16th century, Santiago de Querétaro (almost nobody uses the Santiago part anymore) rose quickly and filled with significant colonial buildings. Later, thanks to the construction of an aqueduct, came about a dozen public fountains - some burbling corners of the historic district might remind you of the piazzas of Rome.
This Roman moment won't last long - not with the scent of churros rising from the vending carts and the thump of Spanish-language pop issuing from passing cars.
The Jardin Zenea, a plaza that dates to the 1870s, is a hub for locals and visitors, with dozens of benches, a leafy canopy, and a photogenic bandstand. From there, you can roam fountain to fountain, passing the curio stands on the car-free walkways or grabbing an exotic ice cream at Tepoznieves, just a few doors from La Casa de la Marquesa.
If you want a more demanding walk, head east toward the stone aqueduct, which dates to the early 1700s. You can't miss it - it's a long line of 74 arches, up to 75 feet high. To check it out, I walked to the recommended viewing point, a hilltop chapel that has been redone as the Pantheon of Illustrious Queretanos.
The property includes the red and yellow tomb where the city's 19th-century independence movement heroine, La Corregidora, rests in perpetuity. And the view of the aqueduct, looming over a dusty, honking modern city, was startling. But to catch it at its best, don't show up at midday, as I did. Instead, come late in the day, when the sandstone arches stand out better against the muddled antennas, roofs and power lines.
Now, on to the violence and instability.
First stop: the 18th-century Casa del Corregimiento, a short stroll from the Jardin Zenea. It helps to take a minute to digest its backstory.
In September 1810, when Spain still ruled Mexico, magistrate Don Miguel Dominguez was ordered to crack down on suspected revolutionaries. Knowing that his wife liked to hold mysterious literary salon sessions with some defiant types, the magistrate imprisoned her.
But Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez was a formidable woman. Despite her house arrest, she managed to warn her friends, who were, indeed, plotting a revolution. Thanks to her tip, they escaped, set in motion the war for independence, and prevailed in 1821. These days, she's known and admired across Mexico as La Corregidora.
Given that tale, it's a shame that the Casa del Corregimiento is as drab a historic building as I've ever seen, occupied by dozens of government bureaucrats. The good news is that two tempting public spaces are its neighbors.
One is the Jardin de la Corregidora, a plaza with several sidewalk cafes surrounding a statue of La Corregidora and a "peace tree" rooted in earth that's spiced with soil samples from around the world. The other is the tree-shaded Plaza de Armas, which includes several more sidewalk cafes. Take a few minutes and maybe have some Aztec soup at La Paloma near the peace tree.
The second stop on the violence-and-instability itinerary: the former convent of San Francisco, which stands next to the towering orange Church of San Francisco, facing the Jardin Zenea. During the fight for independence, Spanish authorities used this building to jail their enemies. Now, the former convent houses the Querétaro Regional Museum and a piece of furniture I was keen to see.
In room after room, then down a long, well-polished hall, I found displays on Indian villages, Spanish colonization, and city development, but not the table I was after. Finally, I asked an employee whether he could point me toward the table where the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed.
He immediately led me down a hall, pulled out a fistful of keys, and opened a door, revealing a long room that's usually open to the public.
Facing the table stood a sculpture of a weeping woman - probably not a coincidence. Mexico's leaders agreed to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 because U.S. troops had reached Mexico City and were ready to ruin the place if Mexico didn't sign. Some of that paperwork was finalized at this table in Querétaro. For about $18 million, Mexico gave up 525,000 square miles of territory, including California and Texas. In many ways, that land transfer at gunpoint is the move that made the United States the power it is today, leaving many Mexicans with a bitter taste.
The third and last stop on the tour: the Teatro de la Republica, a theater about a block from the Jardin Zenea. This is where Emperor Maximilian, who tried to rule Mexico with French military backing for three tumultuous years, was sentenced to death by Benito Juárez's Republican government in 1867. (This is also where the Mexican national anthem was first performed, in 1854, and where the country's current constitution was written, in 1917.)
For the next part of Maximilian's sad story, you can catch a tourist bus from the Jardin Zenea to the grassy slopes of Cerro de las Campanas, where Maximilian faced a firing squad with eerie equanimity. Legend has it that he offered each of the soldiers a gold coin, asked that they aim for his heart, not his face, and tucked extra handkerchiefs into his breast pocket to minimize the mess. His last words were apparently "Viva Mexico!"
I was in my hotel room on my last night in town, pondering Maximilian's final moments and wondering where to eat dinner, when a series of blasts rang out.
Then the church bells started ringing like mad. I tiptoed down to the lobby and peeked into the street. Nobody was troubled in the least. In fact, most people were headed, casually, toward the noise.
I asked two locals what was up. It was a minor religious holiday, they said. And the sound, I realized now, was fireworks. So I followed the fun.
Boys in school uniforms leaned giddily from the top of the Church of San Francisco's tower, hammering and spinning the bells. Other boys set off fireworks. Dozens of grandmothers, mothers, and girls arrived in fancy embroidered dresses, carrying baskets of flowers. They gathered beside the church, beneath a tall statue of an Indian in a headdress, with their sons, husbands, and fathers looking on.
A band of fiddlers and guitarists launched into a tune, and they began to dance.
For more than an hour, they clapped, spun, and promenaded, the church on one side and the Indian statue on the other. The scent of churros and spent fireworks filled the air, the moon gleamed through the trees of the Jardin, and the guys in the band grinned.
It was Querétaro being Querétaro, and it was grand.
Continental flies to Querétaro from Philadelphia International Airport with one stop. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $669.
Places to stay
La Casa de la Marquesa
In the more ornate 1756 main building, there are 13 rooms at $210 to $350, plus 17.5 percent taxes. In newer Casa Azul, which dates to about 1910, 12 rooms rent for $180 nightly, plus taxes.
11 Madero, Centro Historico, Querétaro
Forty-six rooms, each with TV and phone. Courtyard building dates to about 1825. Doubles $45 to $54.
Hotel Mesón del Obispado
13 Andador 16 de Septiembre
Sixteen rooms with TVs and phones. Doubles about $48 per night.
Places to eat
El Meson de Chuchu
Pleasant sidewalk tables, regional specialties, including ant eggs. Dinner entrees up to $15.
Marquesa Dining Room
Mexican and Continental dishes in La Casa de la Marquesa's upscale dining room. Dinner main dishes, $8 to $20.
10 Andador 16 de Septiembre
Casual lunch and snack spot with sidewalk tables. Open noon to 6 p.m. Main dishes up to $9.
State of Querétaro tourism
- Los Angeles Times