Querétaro and the missions

As an eastern gateway to the colonial heartland (Zacatecas being the western alternative), Querétaro hides a treasured city centre of pedestrian walkways and colonial architecture. Meaning 'Place Where the Ball is Thrown' (possibly a reference to an ancient game in which the losers were sacrificed) in Tarascan, the city was found in 1531 and has grown to be an important albeit sprawling industrial centre and state capital. Along with Aguascalientes, it is one of the fastest-growing cities in Mexico and is considered one of the five best places in the country in which to live and work. Outside of the centre (which is a World Heritage Site), its sights are somewhat limited, but the ambience makes a visit worthwhile (as well as being an excellent starting point for a trip to the Franciscan missions to the northeast) and provides time to contemplate the historical significance of the city. Hidalgo's rising in 1810 was plotted here, and it was here that Emperor Maximilian surrendered after defeat. He was tried and shot on 19 June 1867, on the Cerro de las Campanas (the Hill of Bells), outside the city. It's also a good base to plan trips to the Peñón de Bernal, local wineries, and the five rarely visited missions of Querétaro in the Sierra Gorda to the east, which are the prime attractions of this state.

The immediate environs of Querétaro are now largely suburbs of that city. However, be sure to take in the thermal baths and opal mines of Tequisquiapan and San Juan del Río en route to the famous Franciscan missions in the upper northeast quadrant of the state. This route also goes to Xilitla in neighbouring San Luis Potosí state, the jaw-dropping fantasy world created by the eccentric expatriate Edward James.

Tourist information

See
 www.queretaro.travel.

Sights

Conspirators met secretly in the
Casa de Corregidor
, which was then the mayor's house and is now the
Palacio Municipal
. The austere 18th-century building was once the home of Doña Josefa 'La Corregidora' ('the mayoress') before she married and moved across the street during the early 1800s to plot a revolt against Spanish rule. Doña Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez, wife of the mayor, prominent member of a group plotting for independence, and collaborator with the revolutionaries, was eventually imprisoned in a room in this house by the Spanish. She managed to whisper a message through a keyhole, warning her fellow conspirators that their plans were in jeopardy. As a result, they were able to warn leaders in San Miguel de Allende. Later the same year (1810), again imprisoned under house arrest, she got word to Father Hidalgo that their plans for revolt had been discovered. Hidalgo thereupon immediately gave the cry (
El Grito
) for independence, in nearby Dolores Hidalgo. Nowadays, every 15 September at 2300
El Grito
is given from the balcony of the Casa de la Corregidora and on every civic balcony throughout Mexico.)

As with most cities in the colonial heartland, the religious influence of the Spanish Catholic colonial period remains very much alive and is most visually evident in the form of its churches and former convents or monasteries. The
Santa Rosa de Viterbo church and monastery
, was remodelled by the famous colonial architect from nearby Celaya, Francisco Tresguerras. He also
reconstructed the
Templo de Santa Clara
, one of the loveliest churches in Mexico, with fine gilded carvings. The 16th-century church and monastery of
Santa Cruz
, served as the headquarters of Maximilian and his forces and later as the emperor's prison before he faced the firing squad in 1867. The church of
San Felipe
, recently restored, is now the cathedral.

For secular architecture, the splendid
Palacio Federal
, once an Augustinian convent with exceptionally fine cloisters, has been restored and houses an art gallery containing some beautiful works. The
Teatro de la República
, is a fine mid-Victorian building influenced by French style. It twice played a major role in Mexican history: in 1867 it hosted a tribunal that decided the fate of the Emperor Maximilian; ironically, exactly 50 years later, Mexico's current constitution was drafted and signed here.

The
ex-Convento de la Cruz
is perhaps best known for having the terminus of Querétaro's famous
aqueduct
(now fully restored, the finest example of its kind in the country). The aqueduct was built with funds from one of the city's nobles, the Marqués del Villar del Aguila, who, although married, apparently was in love with one of the nuns at the convent. Learning that the convent had problems accessing water, he spent enormous sums building the aqueduct (supposedly laying some of the stones himself) and its graceful archways. The aqueduct itself has been called the greatest engineering feat in New Spain. The ex-convent is also where the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian was imprisoned before his death by firing squad. It is said that the thorn trees in the courtyard mysteriously always bear only cross-shaped thorns.

The Franciscan church of
San Francisco
and its ex-monastery, now the
Regional Museum of Queretaro
, was the city's first religious complex, started in 1540 but not finished until 1727. The post-Renaissance stone entrance way of the church stands out from the building's smooth white finish and the bell tower is the highest in the city. Inside, there are an amazing eleven separate altar pieces carved in stone, two chapels, several sculptures and other noteworthy pieces. The permanent exhibition galleries are dedicated to archaeology, ethnography, and three historic eras: the viceregal period, Mexican
Independence, and 19th-century Querétaro. There is also an especially well-designed exhibit
on the pre-Hispanic jaguar, an animal held sacred by Mexico's ancient indigenous cultures.

The
Museo Casa de la Zacatecana
, www.museolazacatecana.com, has a fine collection of art (much of it pure silver), from the 17th century through to the 20th century, as well as sculpture, painting and ceramics from the same eras. It is one of the better-run museums in the region and is the recipient of several awards for quality and design.

The
Casa de la Marquesa
, is a neoclassical mansion with hand-painted murals and is by all accounts a colonial jewel with great architectural value. It is comprised in fact of two separate houses, La Casa de la Marquesa itself, which dates to the mid-18th century and La Casa Real, a much newer structure built in the early 1900s although in perfect harmony with its much older neighbour. These two buildings are separated by the smallest of streets in the heart of the Centro Histórico.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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