It was roughly 5.5 years ago that I started this blog, and six years ago to the month that I took my first of four, unknown to me at the time, exploratory trips to Mexico City prior to my moving there…a move that, in turn, led to the creation of this blog. As such, I thought I’d start 2018 with a post that hearkens nostalgically back to a wonderful extended weekend in Mexico. Where have the last six years gone?!
Prior to my January, 2012 visit to Mexico City, my last time in CDMX was six years prior, and during the intervening years I had read much good press about how the city had changed for the better in terms of both safety (more street lights, more police officers) and curbside appeal (renewed life on such pedestrian arteries as Madero Street and elsewhere in the Centro Histórico. That being said, my reason for visiting was to spend time with my new girlfriend, whose actual name can be found in the GringoPotpourri archives but who is now known simply as She Who Shall Not Be Named.
She and I had met two months earlier, in Guadalajara, and this trip to her hometown of CDMX was our first opportunity to spend significant time together. We met up for drinks my first night in Mexico City; she had to work earlier that day and I spent my first afternoon wandering the streets near the leafy Alameda Central. I popped into one of the city’s newer museums, the excellent Museo Memoria y Tolerancia, across from the Alameda and just a few short blocks from my hotel.
The chemistry was real, and palpable. She laughed at my jokes and complimented my singing voice (long story) while I managed to stare at her face, not her chest (no small feat, that). So far, the airfare was money well spent, and I looked forward to the next three days, when we would get out of the city to stay at her family’s seldom-visited rancho (cabin) in the mountains near Valle de Bravo, a highland retreat perhaps 90 minutes outside Mexico City.
We reached the rancho by taking a first class bus from Observatorio, Mexico City’s West Bus Station, and changing buses in Toluca, a sizeable exurb west of Santa Fe. We grabbed the last seats on the connecting bus and it was dark by the time the bus set off. My girlfriend squinted as the bus passed through each village on the winding mountain highway and, though she claimed it had been a few years since her last visit, was able to find the correct village despite the low light (just a single street light along the highway). From the curbside drop-off, we navigated by cell phone flashlight up the hill, across a stream, to a cabin that had been in her family for decades.
We were at an elevation higher than that of already-high Mexico City, and it was cold. Just two of the rancho’s lights worked, but it was enough light for us to see that the ginormous stone fireplace was devoid of wood. Fortunately, a caballero from the rancho next door, complete with cowboy hat, boots, and leather skin, fetched enough wood for us to get us through the night, and even stayed to make sure the kindling caught fire. There wasn’t any food in the house, and not much to do besides play rummy, so we whiled away the rest of the evening playing “doctor” instead. 🙂
The next day was spent gathering wood and exploring the hills around the rancho, although we didn’t wander far for fear of bandidos in the woods. We stocked up on food at a shop along the highway. The shop was a family-run tiendita, with little for sale besides bread, soda, toilet paper, cans of tuna, instant coffee, bottled water, and various breakfast confections, my favorite being Panquecitos. What are Panquecitos, you ask? Picture single-serve, shrink-wrapped, Hostess-style pound cake stuffed with chocolate chips. Two of those, washed down with coffee – even the instant stuff – is Manna from heaven.
On day two, I learned that the village was called Cieneguillas de González, and that any school beyond elementary education involved a nearly hour-long bus ride to the nearest “large” town, which in this case was probably Valle de Bravo. One of our walks took us into Cieneguillas as some of the schoolchildren were getting out, uniforms compulsory even in a rural village, and I couldn’t help but notice how friendly they were to my girlfriend, even with my pasty gringo self at her side. Did they remember her from her last visit here with her parents and sister, so many years prior? Or was this a kind of small town friendliness that simply doesn’t exist a) in larger towns, and b) outside Mexico in general? I imagine that it was the latter, and my heart still fills with warmth at the thought.
Speaking of warmth, the afternoon temps weren’t bad; at this altitude, when the sun shines it shines brightly. The rancho, unfortunately, was a veritable icebox, and we spent a lot of time boiling water via an electric heating coil as the building didn’t have a hot water heater. I couldn’t help but notice that with a bit of work (okay, a lot of work) the place could be quite nice. I was enjoying myself, and winning most of our rummy games.
Our third day at the rancho began with She Who Shall Not Be Named deciding she wanted a shower, something we had gone without the two previous days due to the absence of hot water. Showers were accomplished by boiling water in the kitchen and then taking turns literally dumping it over our heads while lathering up. Not the best shower I’ve taken…but not the worst, either.
Feeling clean, bad hair notwithstanding, we decided to head to Valle de Bravo itself. We boarded a bus in that direction and got off at a junction several kilometers up the road, making the final journey by taxi. Prior to the trip, I had never heard of Valle de Bravo, and didn’t know what to expect. I had imagined a rustic desert valley nestled between mountains and populated with cacti and yucca. Much to my surprise and delight, Valle de Bravo was a pueblo mágico (magic town) built on a hill with roads sloping down to the shore of Lake Avándaro.
Something tells me Valle de Bravo to be a sleepy place during the week, but there were plenty of cars plying the main road into town, and a flurry of pedestrian activity in the charming town center. The Jardín Central, Valle de Bravo’s main square, played host to balloon vendors and men pushing roving carts selling snacks ranging from shaved ice to mango-on-a-stick. I opted for an esquite, corn served in a styrofoam cup filled with mayonnaise, Manchego cheese, and chili powder.
We admired the soft tones of the Parroquia de San Francisco de Asis (Parish Church of St. Francis of Assisi), opposite the square, then strolled through the town, making sure to check out the Saturday market, which sprawled beyond its designated building space and onto nearby streets, tarps suspended overhead to offer some protection from the elements. As is common in markets through Mexico, the produce stands were the most photogenic, with fruit piled so neatly that it seems a shame to buy any and ruin the aesthetic. One vendor offered to let me photograph her wares, as seen below:
Despite being closer to the Tropic of Cancer, darkness still comes early to Central Mexico in January, so we wanted to check out the lakefront and find a place for a proper meal while it was still light. We followed an obvious downhill road in the direction of the lake, and stopped to watch a skateboarder do some proper kick flips and the like. My ankles hurt just watching him.
The manmade lake, which doubles as a hydroelectric reservoir, is a beautiful spot at any time of day, and the setting sun while we were there cast a glorious sunbeam over the water. A few touts offered boat rides on the water, but their voices were drowned out by the chatter of dozens upon dozens of waterbirds. Some waddled our way, hoping for food, while most of them simply scattered, leaving the requisite calling cards behind. Aside from the ducks and the touts, there were perhaps two dozens lanchas (small motorboats) parked in the harbor alongside a couple of larger vessels. Looking around at the hills behind me, lined with houses, and at the prominent peaks across the water, I can only imagine what a lively place this must be on a warm Sunday afternoon in, say, April or May.
We dined at Los Pericos, one of two restaurants built on stilts over the water. I drank copious amounts of Michelada (beer, often but not always Negra Modelo, filtered with lime juice, salt, and chili powder) and ate one of the best seafood meals of my life. We sat at a table along an exterior wall, and the screens were raised to let in the fresh air. As such, leftovers were tossed overboard, which always brought a flurry of activity in the form of ducks and other birds swimming, at near-record speed, in our direction. A niño at the next table followed my cue, as you’ll see below:
It was after dark by the time our meal ended, and considering our inebriated state, we didn’t even attempt to find a bus back to the rancho. We hailed a taxi off the street – not always a wise move in Mexico City but safe enough here – and spent one last night in Cieneguillas, alternately curled up in front of the fire and playing rummy. She finally beat me, too.
The next morning, we donated our uneaten food and unused kindling to the family next door, and lucked into a bus that was going all the way to Mexico City’s Observatorio.
A Few Facts about Valle de Bravo
Valle de Bravo, which isn’t really a valley at all, was named after Castillo de Chapultepec hero Nicolás Bravo. The pueblo mágico has known several names over the years, including San Franciso del Valle de Temascaltepec, a Spanish-Nahuatl name that pays homage to the region’s pre-Colombian heritage. Its Aztec roots date back to the late 1400’s, and became a proper municipality in 1852, with a population today that, according to Wikipedia, is over 61,000, although that seems very hard to believe, even if one were to add in the populations of the surrounding villages.
The country’s century-long struggle for independence can be broken down into three specific campaigns, and Valle de Bravo factored into two of them. The Mexican War of Independence (circa 1810) found civilian revolt in Valle de Bravo to be especially fervent, and the government responded by clamping down hard. The Mexican Revolution (circa 1910) was fought largely in the hills, and Valle de Bravo became a holding ground for many Zapatista incursions.
A whole century has since passed, and Valle de Bravo is at peace. Its more recent renown is a) as the location of the Circuito Avándaro Formula One auto race, an annual event until a fatal crash in 1969, and b) as host venue, just two years later, for the 1971 Festival Rock y Ruedas de Avándaro.
For travelers with more time to spend in the area, the town itself features El Museo Joaquín Arcadio Pagaza, housing the art and sculpture collection of local-born writer and academic Joaquín Arcadio Pagaza, a separate Casa de la Cultura (House of Culture), and Mirador de la Peña, a rocky promontory that one can climb to for panoramic views over the town and lake. Further afield but easy day trip proximity from town is Carmel Maranatha, a Carmelite monastery-turned-spiritual retreat, as well as Piedra Herrada, a butterfly sanctuary for monarchs wintering in Mexico.
Note to self: come back soon.