Old silver-mining towns make sterling road trip

Freelance writer Rik Fairlie visited the Mexican towns of Guanajuato, Mineral de Pozos and San Miguel de Allende on a one-week road trip. His report follows:

f you have clients who want to dig a littler deeper than the usual coastal hot spots and the major interior cities, suggest a trip to Mexico's colonial silver-mining towns.

These small cities, roughly 200 miles northwest of Mexico City in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains, afford a relaxed yet culturally stimulating taste of history.

For three centuries, the picturesque Sierra Madres yielded vast reserves of silver, which financed the colonial architecture that's still so impressive today. But despite the area's physical and architectural beauty, it hasn't attracted tourism on a massive scale, and that boosts its appeal.

I chose three very different yet complementary destinations for a one-week road trip from Leon to Guanajuato, Mineral de Pozos and San Miguel de Allende. Although the total distance was 240 miles, I hired local drivers and taxis to shuttle me from one town to the next (hotel clerks readily arrange this).

Guanajuato is distinguished by its twisting tangle of cobblestone streets and colorful houses. Car rentals are available, and the roads are good, but most of these towns are congested (their streets were built centuries ago, when the burro ruled the road) and parking can be difficult. Each of the three is eminently walkable, so a car is not necessary after arrival.

Hiring local drivers will cost no more than renting a car for the week, although independent clients who want wheels at their whim can rent a car at the Leon airport from chains such as Avis, Hertz or Thrifty.

After flying into Leon (served by Aeromexico, American, Continental and Delta airlines), it's an easy 30-mile drive to Guanajuato.

The city, which is tucked into a highland valley, is the capital of Guanajuato state, and its popularity with Mexican tourists enhances its authenticity.

Guanajuato was founded in 1559 and soon gained fame (or at least wealth) as a silver-mining town. Its colonial architecture is extraordinary, and its narrow and wildly confusing tangle of streets often deposit the walker unexpectedly at examples of 18th and 19th century edifices that can be either monumental or humble.

At the center of town is a pie-shaped garden flanked by the opulent Juarez Theater and the Church of San Diego.

High above the garden is the statue of El Pipila, a local hero who is said to have played a galvanizing role in the Mexican revolution against Spain in 1810. Visitors can take a funicular to the top or walk the narrow alleys (the ascent is not as punishing as locals warn). Either way, the view is spectacular and provides a good orientation of the town below.

For a small city, Guanajuato is rich in museums. The Museo del Pueblo houses a hodgepodge of local history; the Museo Iconografico del Quijote is devoted to art about Don Quixote; and the birthplace of Diego Rivera serves up a comprehensive collection of the muralist's paintings and drawings as well as contemporary exhibits by local artists.

Also notable is the Museo Alhondiga, which holds a great collection of Mexican history in a building that was the scene of one of the earliest battles of the revolution.

Depending on your tastes (or lack thereof), the Museo de Los Momias may be a must-see.

On display are hundreds of "mummies," former residents of the town cemetery who are exhumed periodically to make room for the more recently departed. The mummies are exhibited in fantastic, often gruesome, poses.

As for shopping, the Mercado Hidalgo is a great place to start for basic souvenirs and local delicacies.

Clients interested in the city's most famous ceramist shouldn't miss the Majolica-style pottery at the Gorky Gonzalez workshop, a short walk from the garden.

When leaving Guanajuato for Pozos, remind clients to stop in the quiet village of Valenciana, 15 minutes out of town.

Highlights here are a working mine (very little silver remains today) and the San Cayetano cathedral, which was built by the owner of the mine to showcase his wealth.

Inside the church, clients will see one of the most heavily gilded altarpieces in the country.

Also nearby are several excellent ceramics studios that are well worth a visit, including Casa de Capelo and La Cruz.

From Valenciana, the drive to Pozos takes clients 60 miles into the arid mountains and over a pass that leads to Dolores Hidalgo, a town renowned for its endless factory warehouses of Talavera pottery.

Pozos is the smallest of towns on the itinerary -- it's so underpopulated, in fact, that the village is typically described as either abandoned or a ghost town.

That's not entirely true, but sometime at the turn of the 20th century thousands of residents simply quit the mines, leaving behind an entire city that once housed thousands of families.

Today, however, Pozos seems poised for rediscovery as an enclave for artists.

There is very little to do in Pozos, and that's what makes it so attractive.

The tiny village contains three restaurants, a couple of art galleries and two very small but surprisingly elegant hotels.

The major attraction here is the ruins, which include a fascinating assortment of dilapidated buildings scattered across miles of cactus-studded hills, making Pozos perfect for photographers and walkers.

Those who like to hike will appreciate the flat dirt roads that extend for miles into the mountains.

All that walking is likely to generate an appetite, and both of the boutique hotels in town (one of which is operated by a very colorful American expatriate) serve sophisticated fare in beautiful settings.

After a couple of relaxing days in Pozos, head 50 miles southwest to the shopathon that is San Miguel de Allende, the most touristy town on the itinerary.

Unlike Pozos, San Miguel has been discovered by Americans -- artists, retirees and Spanish-language students -- yet it has not lost its charm.

Nor has its popularity diminished the authenticity of beautifully preserved, low-slung 19th century buildings.

This hilly town offers a wallet-slimming array of shopping possibilities and a roster of excellent restaurants that have the opposite effect on waistlines.

Its signature site is La Parroquia, a 19th century cathedral constructed in a strangely idiosyncratic architectural style.

Fanning out in all directions is a comparatively gridlike succession of streets populated with art galleries and stores that sell quality ceramics, brass, tin, papier-mache, folk art and antiques from all over the country.

Clients seeking a more genuine (and inexpensive) shopping option should check out the Mercado de Artesanias near the municipal market.

Here they'll find blankets, embroidery, beaded gourds and other local crafts sold by people who seem actually to have made them.

One of the few popular activities that doesn't involve shopping and eating is the weekly house-and-garden tour, which is sponsored by the Public Library and takes place every Sunday.

Participants visit the city's colonial and contemporary houses on the two-hour outing. The cost is $15.

It's almost certain that after a few days of San Miguel's "retail therapy," as the locals call it, clients will find it challenging to shoehorn their overstuffed bags into the car for the 80-mile trip back to the Leon airport.

Where to stay

• Posada Santa Fe. In the center of the action on the town square. Its 44 rooms are a little small, but the prices are great. Rates range from $65 to $135. Reservations: (888) 559-4326; e-mail: [email protected].
• Parador San Javier. This former hacienda features 115 spacious and quiet rooms near the Alhondiga. Rates range from $125 to $175. Reservations: (800) 714 7325; e-mail: [email protected].

• Casa Montana. A five-room, beautifully decorated hotel with outstanding service and cuisine. Rates range from $90 to $115. Reservations: www.casamontanahotel.com; e-mail: [email protected].

San Miguel de Allende
• Casa de Sierra Nevada. A handsomely appointed, 24-room hotel built from several 16th century townhouses. Rates range from $220 to $300. Reservations: (800) 223-6510.
• La Puertecita Boutique Hotel. A peaceful setting for a 35-room luxury hotel. Rooms start at $195 a night. Reservations: (877) 854-1415; www.lapuertecita.com; e-mail: [email protected].

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