Our readers share tales of their ramblings around the world.
Who: Gilbert Holland (author) of the District.
Where, when, why: Fears of crime and reservations about eating local food had made me wary of traveling in Mexico until my friends Lynn and Rob Ramsey invited me to visit them in their new home in San Miguel de Allende, a former silver-mining town in the central highlands of Mexico. From the day I arrived, those fears proved to be completely unfounded, and a week in March was the perfect time to explore the city and its colorful Spanish colonial architecture.
Highlights and high points: The historic Centro section of San Miguel de Allende is a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to many American expats. The multi-spired, pink sandstone parroquia — the largest church there — steep, cobbled streets and bell towers reminded me of Spain. But when I sent a photo of the scene to a friend living in the country’s Oviedo, she replied, “No way is this Spain — there’s far too much color!”
Rob and I spent a day in Guanajuato, visiting its beautiful churches, theater, university and museums, then Lynn guided me around the Sanctuary of Atotonilco, also a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to what is often dubbed the Sistine Chapel of Mexico.
Just outside San Miguel de Allende is El Charco del Ingenio, a botanical garden with cactuses and plants from across Mexico and a scenic canyon with hiking trails. Hummingbirds buzzed by, and a brilliant vermilion flycatcher perched above me. Back in town, I enjoyed the Other Face of Mexico museum, which features 500 masks, and the early morning views of the city from atop El Mirador as well as churros and hot chocolate for breakfast and dessert.
Cultural connection or disconnect: Each restaurant had a unique specialty and a different flavor of margarita to try every night — mango, amaretto, tamarind, lemon and my favorite, ginger. Lynn explained that cheddar is common in Tex-Mex cuisine, but white cheese (queso blanco) is used in authentic Mexican cooking; corn tortillas predominate in Mexico, but wheat-flour tortillas are often used in the United States.; more beef is used in Tex-Mex (the Texas ranching influence); and cumin, originally from India and the Mediterranean, is a part of Tex-Mex cooking, especially in chili con carne. Nachos, not surprisingly, are an American concoction.
Biggest laugh or cry: It was Frida-mania! Images of the artist Frida Kahlo were everywhere — paintings and carvings in the fancy galleries, on tourist T-shirts, even on the 500-peso note. I couldn’t think of any artist, musician or writer who is the icon for Americans that Kahlo seems to be for Mexicans.
How unexpected: My first full day in San Miguel de Allende happened to be the annual El Senor de la Conquista festival, which commemorates the acceptance of Jesus by Mexico’s indigenous people with Concheros dancers whirling around the historic central plaza in colorful, pre-Hispanic outfits and feathered headdresses. I was mesmerized by the dancing and intense drumbeats until I saw one of the dancers texting while dancing and another running for a quick cigarette break.
Favorite memento or memory: While poking around San Miguel de Allende, I came across a sign advertising day trips to see the monarch butterflies’ wintering grounds in a forest in the mountains of Michoacan state, a three-hour drive away. This seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I signed on. A few weeks later, the monarchs would leave on their annual migration north to the United States and Canada.
To the dismay of our guide, we chose to walk up the steep path into the forest rather than riding horses. After an hour’s climb, we started to see several solitary butterflies, in the air and on bushes. However, as we moved into the forest toward the end of the trail, we were able to see tens of thousands of them at rest. They gathered so densely that the oyamel fir tree branches began to sag under their weight. It was a captivating and breathtaking scene.
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