December 12. It’s a big deal here in Mexico. And this year, Miguel and I knew what to expect when it rolled around this past Monday.
Last year, we really didn’t have a clue when Miguel and I attempted to take a mini-vacay. We had just arrived together in Mexico City less than a month before and after a few busy weeks getting settled into our new home, it was time to get out of the big city for a small break.
It was a Friday afternoon when we made it to our nearby Metro station to reach the bus depot and catch our two and half hour Greyhound equivalent to the small lakeside town of Valle de Bravo located in the State of Mexico.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but I had heard rumblings that Mexico City was going to be jammed this weekend. Millions of people would be making the pilgrimage to the Basilica de Guadalupe in the north of the city to pay their respects to Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe). So it sounded like a good weekend to be out of the city, no?
Our hotel in Valle de Bravo was a short walk from the bus station. Turning the corner onto the hotel’s street, we came upon a bustling street market filled with oodles of food stalls, and vendors selling clothing, pottery, toys and more. To add to the ‘ambiance’, every other stall was blaring a variety of Mexican music – mariachi to reggaeton at top decibel. How quaint!
We almost missed our hotel completely thanks to said stalls blocking its entrance. Once we located the buzzer, a young chico came to open the gate and let us in. The level of noise only dissipated slightly inside the walls of our hotel.
After checking in, we ventured back into the circus and wandered through the market, down to the main Zócalo and eventually sat ourselves down in a charming (and peaceful) garden restaurant for dinner. It was one of my first experiences where we ate like a king and queen for the same price as a meal at your local Cactus Club. Mexico, I could get used to you.
It was just as we began to drift off to sleep that night when the fireworks began – and I’m not referring to the light show newlyweds speak of during their honeymoon. I am talking about literal fireworks being let off right above our hotel. And the show didn’t finish until … well, I’m not actually sure when it finished as los fuegos artificiales were still exploding while we ate breakfast in the hotel garden at 10 o’clock in the morning!
So much for a quiet getaway from the big noise of la Ciudad de Mexico. While millions were making the pilgrimage there, hundreds more had descended on Valle de Bravo from the surrounding hills (and similarly many other towns around the country) to celebrate their Lady of Guadalupe too.
So, who is Guadalupe? She’s everywhere in Mexico. Small shrines are built for her on street corners, in parks, in people’s homes, at taxi stands, inside most (if not all) mercados, and even mounted along the sides of highways. She has a place in churches and can be found in many forms outside of the church from pendants for necklaces, earrings, and large framed paintings for your home. These shrines most often have fresh flowers laid before her, are painted in bright colours, decorated with flashing lights or an assortment of flores artificiales and are often maintained in better condition than some of the nearby churches.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is an aspect of the Virgin Mary. As the story goes, she first appeared to a young indigenous man, a Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, on December 12, 1531. As legend has it, Juan Diego was walking between his village and Mexico City when she appeared. The Virgin Mary materialized as a young woman with black hair and dark skin – giving her the look of an indigenous person. She even spoke to him in his native Nahuatl language. Her message? To build a church at that exact site.
When Juan Diego recounted his experience to a Spanish bishop, he was not believed. Instead, the bishop asked for a miraculous sign to prove Juan Diego’s vision. And so it went. Juan Diego returned to the same hilltop and was graced with the Virgin’s appearance again and, though it was winter at the time, Spanish roses bloomed at his feet. With theses roses in hand, he presented them to the bishop. As he did so, the flowers fell from his apron and an icon of the Virgin miraculously appeared on the cloth. With miraculous sign received, the bishop ordered the building of a church and dedicated it to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Her image, and the legend of Juan Diego, helped to convert millions of Aztecs to Catholicism. She helped bridge the divide between the Pre-hispanic world and the new Spanish-Catholic one. And as a result, her image became the link and symbol of the fusion of these two cultures into what Mexico is today.
In fact, both the original church and the apron with the vision of the Virgin are still present today. Both have withstood much in the past 485 years (including a bomb blast).
In 1974, a new building was built to better accommodate the over 20 million who visit the shrine each year (in 1999, it was the most visited Catholic shrine in the world). And the newer, and very modern structure, called the Basilica de Guadalupe, now houses the miraculous apron which contains the image of the Virgin. But thanks to the aforementioned bomb blast, it is now hung behind bullet-proof glass above the altar.
Devotees of the Our Lady of Guadalupe (also known as the Virgin of Guadalupe) believe she can cure almost any sickness. Catholics from across Mexico (as well as other countries) pay pilgrimage to see this image of Mary. Pilgrims bring presents to the Virgin, usually bouquets of flowers while others perform dances and songs for her. Some even walk on their knees on the stone street leading to the Basilica asking for miracles or giving thanks to the Virgin for a petition granted.
So clearly, the twelfth of December is a day of celebration across the country and includes a fiesta like observance with food, music, dance and you guessed it – fireworks. However, with all of this fanfare and importance to the people of Mexico, it is not (perhaps a bit surprisingly) a public holiday.
With last year’s sleepless stay in Valle de Bravo still fresh in our minds, we did not make it a long weekend adventure this time around. We kept it short and sweet with a tour of Pueblos Magicos in the state of Queretaro. This time, we had the good company of a Canadian friend (and Condesa neighbour), Kelly, who we met at the start of this year. He graciously took up the back seat position and assumed responsibility for keeping Antonio’s cookies at bay while en route.
After a scenic three and a half hour drive north of Mexico City, we arrived in the sleepy, magical town of Cadareyta de Montes. If we thought Cholula was a gong show of people, noise and lacking that ‘je ne sais quoi’, this place was the exact opposite. It was pretty much devoid of people, eerily quiet and yet, it held a little bit of magic in its simplicity. The main church and square had the only activity in the centre with the preparations for a wedding. But outside of that, not one café around the square was ready for us and even the well-signed baños publicos were not even open.
Needless to say, after almost 3 hours of driving and bellies full of coffee, public bathrooms were a must. So we didn’t last long in Cadareyta de Montes. We instead made a quick getaway to the next Pueblos Magicos, Bernal, 25 minutes back down the road.
Miguel and I had been here once before as part of a previous trip when we took a vino y queso tour from the city of Santiago de Queretaro. At that time, we made the mistake of going on the Saturday of the Independence Day long weekend. The town was a total zoo! But at least we knew our way around and were able to find our way back to a restaurant which specialized in gorditas – a specialty of the town. Gorditas are basically Mexican pitas… thick, blue corn tortillas stuffed with any number of yummy, saucy meats.
Completely stuffed after our gorditas, we strolled the quiet streets at a leisurely pace, and taking in the Peña de Bernal – the worlds’ third largest monolith, and yet another wedding at the main church. We then packed it back to the car in order to make it to at least one winery in the area. Alas, in a country that is known for never being on time, we found out the wineries actually closed on time. So with limited options, we ended up visiting the same one Miguel and I had been to before. But worry not, it is one of the most famous in the region – Freixenet, and with a large grassy outdoor space, we were able to grab a glass of bubble-y (or Merlot in Kelly’s case) and sip them in the company of our four-legged companion in the setting sun.
After a 20 minute drive down the road, we were arriving at our lovely Air BnB in the final Pueblo Magico of Tequisquiapan. Once again, Miguel and I had been here as part of our tour in September, but the place was chocked full of people. But we knew it had potential and that’s why we wanted to come back on our own, on a non-long weekend. And it did not disappoint. On this trip, between our evening stroll and our longer, more meandering one the next morning, each of us came away from Tequisquiapan with a desire to return. Now that’s something magical.
On our way out of town, we made a detour to check out another winery – it is Mexico’s second wine region after all. And while Mexico is not particularly known for its wine (though you would perhaps be surprised if you came upon a bottle), the vineyards in this region do have some quaint properties to sit back and sip a glass (or a bottle) at your leisure.
This particular winery didn’t exactly wow us with their organic brew of the Salvador grape, but we enjoyed lounging in the sun, with Antonio, before returning to the big city.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that through the night in Tequisquiapan and the following day – before the official day of the Virgin of Guadalupe – you could hear and see the fireworks being set off into the skies surrounding us…and yes, even during the day.
And of course, back in the city on Monday, December 12th, we were surrounded by much of the same. Fireworks throughout the night and again during the day. But even without the fireworks being set off to call the people to celebrate her, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe is always around us, all throughout the year. Even when you’re not looking for her, she is indeed everywhere.
P.S. Kelly turned out to be a bit of a cookie-charmer without one incident by Antonio to or from the big city. We might have to look into his rates for future trips…
- My wonderful photographer husband, Miguel Enciso
- Guadalupe Legend: https://myheartofmexico.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/celebrate-the-most-mexican-of-holidays/