After a full day of driving to San Miguel and exploring the town during the Festival of St. Michael, we decided to get out of town and visit the archaeological site, Cañada de la Virgen. Our family enjoys exploring historical places (thankfully, our children seem to enjoy it almost as much as my husband and I), and after our visit to Guachimontones near Guadalajara, we were excited to see and learn more about Mexico’s pre-Columbian history.
I woke up before sunrise, around 6 AM, hoping to see the San Miguel Cathedral still lit up since I had missed it the night before, but after I walked the few blocks to the cathedral, I was disappointed. They had already shut down the lights sometime during the night. It was a nice, dark morning for a walk, though, and sneaking quietly out of our hotel was a bit exciting. I did not want to wake anyone up because I am sure that while we went to bed relatively early, most other people probably stayed up late to enjoy the festivities. A little while after I returned to the hotel, Hacienda de Las Flores, we enjoyed a nice breakfast while watching hummingbirds flit around the gardens before departing for Cañada de la Virgen.
This archaeological site is located on private property and they are very protective of the historical treasures they have excavated at this site. As a result, they do not allow anyone to carry purses or bags of any size, onto the property. Knowing that, we arranged with our hotel to check out at 2 PM, and we left our bags in our room. The drive to Cañada de la Virgen only took 30 minutes once we left our hotel. We arrived at 10:30 AM, a half hour after they opened. We bought our entry tickets, visited the interpretive center exhibit, and waited for the bus to depart and take us to the site. They have lockers inside the interpretive center where we could have stored our belongings and, in the future, we will probably do that. Knowing what this experience is like now, it would have been easier to take our belongings with us since we only had a few small bags.
At 11 AM, we boarded the bus for the site with our tour guide and a number of other people, ranging in age from young to old and from all over the world. The drive up to the site was very bumpy, but picturesque, and we could see the pyramid on a distant hill as we approached. The bus dropped us off one hill away from the site and we had to walk down and then back up a pretty tall hill to get to the pyramid.
The landscape was beautiful! Wildflowers of a variety of colors were blooming everywhere and the visual textures of the hillsides were very intriguing – it made us want to hike closer to see things better. The tour guide gave our tour in Spanish, and while we couldn’t understand everything, we understood enough to get a pretty good idea of what we were seeing. There are tours available in English, but I believe you have to arrange those through tour companies like Albert Coffee Archaeotours and Coyote Canyon Adventures. We will definitely use this option when we have family and friends visit, although it is quite a bit more expensive.
When we finally reached the top of the hill, our guide unlocked the gate in the fence surrounding the site. On the right side of the entrance, stretching out on both sides of the fence, there is a large wetland area filled with a variety of vegetation and birds.
As we walked through the gate and up the road, the view of the pyramid was beautiful, but we were only allowed a short glimpse before we were encouraged to keep walking with the group into a large garden shaped like an octopus, with the garden’s “tentacles” surrounding the center circle. We stopped at several points along the garden tour and the guide explained the materials used in building the pyramids and the tools these people used during that time.
The garden was created by the landowners, not because it existed during the time of this civilization, but to showcase many of the artifacts that archaeologists have found during the excavation of this structure, to display plants that might have held some use or significance to the civilization that once lived there, and to provide habitat for native species. Black obsidian shards and stone molcajetes (similar to mortar and pestle) are beautifully displayed in the “tentacles” of the garden, which is adjacent to the wetland.
After leaving the garden, we saw the House of the Wind and our guide explained in detail about their religious ceremonies and the things this civilization once held sacred.
We walked past the main pyramid again, this time on the back side, and viewed another set of structures surrounding a sunken field. Our guide pointed out the holes in the field that were designed to allow rainwater to drain out. I think she said that people lived in the structures that surrounded this field, but my Spanish comprehension needs some work so I’m not sure.
After we left this structure, we finally walked up to the main pyramid.
We climbed a short set of steep, stone steps and stood at the top, looking down into another courtyard structure surrounded on one side by the pyramid, and on the other three sides by walls like the one we were standing on. These walls slightly resembled stadium seating and the stones that comprised these walls/steps surrounding the courtyard were a variety of colors – reds, greens, grays, and browns.
Our guide talked a bit while we stood on this wall and then when she finished, she told us to move forward. However, from our vantage point, it looked like the wall on which we were standing dropped straight off to the bottom, and it was a pretty long drop. No one moved.
Finally, one of the groups of people traveling together moved down the steps that were not visible unless you were standing at the edge of the wall. We progressed into the courtyard structure and then climbed the numerous, narrow, tall steps to get to the top of the largest pyramid. It was nerve-racking for someone (me) who is a little afraid of heights. Once at the top of the pyramid, the view of the countryside was stunning. We could easily see the other structures on the site from above.
Going back down the steps of the pyramid was even more harrowing than walking up and I’m not ashamed to say that I had to hold onto the steps above as I climbed down. I am not the mountain goat that my children seem to be. I loved watching my kids explore this site.
There was a lot more to see at these ruins than at Guachimontones and their imaginations were really working hard. They had a lot of questions, but we will have to save them for our next visit to this site. By then, we will either be more fluent in Spanish and they can ask the guide or we will have an English-speaking tour guide. Overall, the tour was well worth the trip and we all enjoyed it very much.
On the hike back to the bus drop-off/pick-up point, we saw several horses galloping across the hills. That just added to the magic of the tour and we all left, very satisfied by our experience.
We hiked back to the spot where the bus had dropped us off and waited for about 30 minutes to be picked up. Unfortunately for us, that meant we would not make it back to our hotel, Hacienda de Las Flores, before 2 PM, so I called them to let them know we were running about 30 minutes late. They were very accommodating and did not charge us extra for the room when we finally returned to pick up our things.
We gave the manager a general tip for all of the services we experienced and then headed out of town for Dolores Hidalgo. I told my husband that we needed to take the northern route out of San Miguel in order to go through Dolores on our way home. He already had us routed before I got back in the car with our luggage, so we immediately got started. Within 15 minutes of driving, however, I noticed that the road was looking very familiar. My husband, of course, made a comment about how everything looks familiar to me because the landscape is so similar throughout the area. OK, maybe that is true, so I kept silent for 5 more minutes until we drove back over the river with the washed out bridge, the same washed out bridge we had driven over to get into San Miguel the day before. He still did not seem to recognize where we were so I had him pull over so we could check the map. Sure enough, he did not route us home through Dolores Hidalgo. We took the wrong road. So we had to drive over the washed out bridge a third time to go back and get on the correct road that would take us to Dolores Hidalgo. Dolores was only about an hour away from San Miguel de Allende, so we had planned on stopping at some of the pottery shops on our way into Dolores before eating dinner and then heading home.
However, we had to stop and eat dinner first because our youngest needed a restroom. I found a place on Google called Cocina Frida that was listed as one of the top 10 restaurants in Dolores Hidalgo to eat, so we routed there. When we walked in, there was only one other family, so we decided this was going to be perfect, we would be in and out in less than two hours and we would still have time to shop. Well, it did not quite work out that way for us. We sat and waited for our food for a very long time. My husband and I ordered ribs and our kids split a large cheese pizza. The manager was very nice to us and brought us an appetizer that we did not order since we were waiting for our food for so long. The server who waited on us was very attentive as well and one of the cooks came out to check on us after our food had been delivered. The pizza was excellent, according to our children, and the ribs were very flavorful, although a bit tougher than we normally like. The restaurant was a great place to relax and the music they played was excellent, but because the meal took well over two hours, we were behind schedule.
By the time we finished our meal and left the restaurant, we only had time to stop at one pottery shop before we needed to head home, and the place we chose started closing up as we were looking. I wanted to buy large planters in the Dolores style, which means that they are hand-painted with many bright colors and there are many different colors, sizes, and shapes of pottery from which to choose. We made our decisions quickly and then got back on the road, headed for home with the large planters that I wanted. Unfortunately for us, we had about one and a half hours before dark and the trip home would take us one and a half hours. We have been told not to travel after dark on the Mexican highways and we were cutting our time very close. The route that my husband’s navigation app chose took us off of the main road, approximately 60 km from Leon, and put us on a road that, on the map, looked like a very sinuous, winding road. There were no towns along that road and I worried that if something happened to the car while we traveled, we would be stranded in the wilderness after dark. My husband left the decision with me, though, as to which route to take and I chose to follow his app because backtracking or taking an alternate route would have added at least 30 minutes to our trip home.
As we started to drive along this sketchy stretch of road, I noticed that the scenery was stunningly beautiful and the landscape looked untouched and undeveloped. I, of course, had to try to take pictures of what we were seeing, but most of my photos did not show the colors and textures as well as I had hoped. As we drove further into the mountains, we started seeing canyons right next to the road. And then all of a sudden, from out of one of the canyons, we could see large stone pillars jutting up through the forest, and they reminded us of the landscapes we have seen in the western US. As we continued to drive, we wound our way up into the mountains even further and as we drove around curves, sometimes the view that would appear was breathtaking.
Again, unfortunately, my camera could not capture these images well as we drove. We saw many people pulled over on the side of the road in buses and cars. We saw people hiking, picnicking, and enjoying the end of a beautiful Sunday. We finally realized that we were driving on the Mexican equivalent of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We had no idea what this place was called but it looked like a popular recreation or natural area and we are very determined to return to it soon and explore the natural areas along this road with our own picnic.
We successfully returned home just before dark and reflected on the amazing adventures and discoveries we had made during our short weekend away. I had thought these adventures would educate and open the minds of our children, but it is also doing the same thing for my husband and I. The challenges that we have encountered and experiences we have had so far have made us grow as well. We are enjoying this experience and I hope that some of what I write encourages you to take a chance and have your own adventures outside of your comfort zone.