Monday, August 27, 2012

San Miguel de Allende...and Alarming News From Guadalajara

The small but charming town of San Miguel de Allende, located in the neighboring state of Guanajuato, is a scenic 367km east of Guadalajara. In our mission to see as much of Mexico as possible in the short time we have left, we planned a quick one-night excursion there for Saturday and Sunday of this past weekend. We invited our friend Ernesto from Tepatitlán along for the ride.

After many wrong turns (Thanks bunches, iPad), we arrived in San Miguel just before noon on Saturday morning. It was impossible to know at the time, but 24 hours later we would be preparing to put Ernesto on a bus back home and arranging extended lodging for ourselves.

But that came later.

Our room wasn't ready when we arrived so we set about exploring the downtown area which, like any good Mexican town, is full of beautiful old churches.

We busied ourselves with churches, Starbucks (why am I just discovering that I can get my Caramel Macchiato over ice?!?!), and window shopping while waiting for our room to be prepared. Hint for would-be travelers: You know how in the U.S., more often than not, you can do an early check-in? Yeah, not so much in Mexico. That's not a slight against this particular hotel; it's a common theme here.

The city of San Miguel de Allende and a nearby church, the Sanctuary of Jesús Nazareno De Atotonilco, was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites on July 7, 2008 because of both its colonial architecture and it's important role in the Mexican War of Independence. We did not have the opportunity to make the fourteen kilometer trek to Atotonilco, but we did see many gorgeous churches in the town proper.

Churches like (but not limited to) these:

Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel

Templo de la Purísima Concepción, Oratorio de San Felipe Neri

Beautiful churches aside, one of the most interesting things we saw was the public library. Yes, you read that right. The Biblioteca Pública was founded by Canadian Helen Wale in an effort to reach out to local children. It is the largest privately funded, publicly accessible library in Mexico and serves as the community center for San Miguel's increasing foreigner population. Upon entering the library you are immediately greeted by an outdoor courtyard. Shelves of books line the four walls, protected by the elements by the second-stoy balcony. While walking through the library we encountered an American-run English study group. Sitting directly across from them, a middle-aged American woman was teaching a Mexican college student about the American class system. On the second floor we briefly listened in on a guitar lesson consisting of a dozen or so students.

Making our way to Plaza San Francisco, we encountered this daunting statue of the town's namesake, Ignacio Allende (1769-1811). Allende was a Mexican-born soldier serving as a captain in the Spanish army prior to the Mexican War of Independence. Attending secret meetings in which the possibility of an independent New Spain was discussed, Allende changed sides and fought side by side with Father Miguel Hidalgo, famously known as the "Father of Mexican Independence." The two were captured and executed during the summer of 1811 but the Revolution proved successful.

We (TJ) then declared it nap time. We returned to the Villa Rivera Hotel for check-in, and found ourselves in a room with a delicious courtyard view.

Between the long drive and the sweltering mid-day walk, we were all pretty beat and in need of showers and relaxation. For TJ and Ernesto, that took the form of long, snore-filled naps. For me, it consisted of doing internet research on things to do and see while in the city.

After the boys woke up, TJ made it clear that he only wanted to have dinner and then take a leisurely stroll. My "let's do it all" approach wasn't gonna fly this go around the block. I insisted that we at least eat at a restaurant I had discovered called 1826, which was named after the year that the town was renamed in honor of Ignacio Allende. The restaurant review claimed that one could find traditional Mexican cuisine as well as international fare on the menu. Imagine my disappointment when we found this hotel-based restaurant, which appeared immaculately new, to feature no more than tacos and salmon. Oh, and 38 peso limonada. Wayyy overpriced, completely unauthentic, and with a modern, pristine atmosphere that made it completely out of place in this historic town. Thanks, but no thanks. Leaving, I asked if we could at least go to Casa de Inquisidor, which we had passed along the way to 1826. I had read that this historic museum had once been the seat of the 18th century inquisition. What we found was a little tchotchke shop apparently managed by a 14 year old American girl. She told us the store got its name because her mom, the owner, once had a store located in the actual Casa de Inquisidor down the street. She told us it had once been a museum, but was nothing now. Who knows if that was true or not. I was irritated at having struck out twice and TJ was starving. Ernesto suggested a place he had seen near Plaza San Francisco earlier, and we all settled in for dinner and a discussion about some news that had come just prior to leaving the hotel.

Between the hours of 2pm and 4pm that day, 17 acts of drug-related violence had occurred in the state of Jalisco in and around Guadalajara, Tepatitlán and Puerto Vallarta. Roadblocks had been set up, with buses and cars being set on fire in the middle of roads and highways. No deaths had been reported, but our Regional Security Office was on full alert. Consulate employees were instructed to go home and stay home. Anyone currently outside the city was to stay put until further notice.

You may recall last year's tiff when narco bloqueos threatened my ability to attend a Ricky Martin concert. That is a good example of how these blockades usually occur. Typically, something will trigger a violent reaction from a drug cartel and they will set up barriers along roadways at odd hours of the night. There will be one or two, and then it stops...whether by their choice or by actions taken against them by rivals that don't want to rock the boat here in Guadalajara. The result of that for American employees of the consulate may be that we can no longer travel along certain roads at night. We've been fortunate in that security concerns here in Guadalajara have been much less severe than those our counterparts in other parts of the country have to face.

But this was the first time that it has happened during daylight hours...and in so many places at once.

None of the violence occurred in Guanajuato, so were free to enjoy the rest of our day. Our friends in Guadalajara, on the other hand, were on lockdown for the second time this year.

Our primary concern lay solely in the fact that travel into Jalisco was prohibited until further notice. We could do nothing but enjoy our night and hope for better news in the morning.

We awoke on Sunday morning to the news that five more blockades had been set up in the hours before dawn...

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