Valle de Bravo
One of Mexico’s many charms is its endless capacity to surprise. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting when I decided to visit Valle de Bravo as part of a two week road trip though the states of Estado de México, Morelos, DF and Oaxaca but Valle de Bravo has not been quite as I had imagined.
Certainly many Mexican friends had told me it was a lovely destination, and I could see from the map and from reading guides that it was located by a large lake, but I had not expected the landscape to have such a European feeling.
With its high, green, wooded hills surrounding a beautifully sculpted lake and large, fancy houses on the waterfront, I kept having thoughts of the French Riviera or Swiss/Italian/French lakes. Perhaps because it is an artificial landscape caused by creating a man-made lake in 1947 as part of a hydroelectic scheme named after the Mexican President Miguel Alemán at that time, it does not feel entirely naturally Mexican in some way.
But however much the landscape may have resonances with old Europe, the culture is distinctly Mexican. I was expecting the town to be more touristy – it is one of the 32 pueblos mágicos in Mexico – and indeed it has more than its fair share of galleries and too many kitsch gift shops, alongside a few interesting shops selling handicrafts – but the town still has a sense of having its own distinctive life and identity, even though it has become a popular weekend destination for the vast metropolis of Mexico City, being only 156kms and about two hours south-west of the city by autopista, and many rich Mexican families have bought houses here.
The main plaza adjoining the church San Francisco has a relaxed, lively feel with families and couples hand-in-hand wondering around day and night and lots of ice cream shops and people selling jewelry in the portales. On one corner, every morning, there is a hugely popular stand of three men selling tacos of barbacoa out of a huge steaming container, made out of pigs and cows heads cooked in the leaves of the maguey.
I still have not acquired the taste for all the parts of the animal that most Mexicans love to eat but I did find a similar taco stand selling barbacoa de borrego (sheep) in which the whole sheep is cooked in maguey leaves in a hole dug in the earth, and where it was possible to ask just for la maciza (‘normal’ meat).
I was also not expecting Valle de Bravo to be something of a gourmet’s paradise in a small way. Near the Iglesia de Santa María Ahuacatlán – which has an extraordinary Cristo Negro, a black wooden figure of Christ dating from the sixteenth century of which there are only two others in Mexico, one nearby at the famous pilgrimage site of Chalma and the other in Zacatecas – in the lower part of the town near the embarcadero (the jetty), there are a few specialist food shops.
One of them, at Calzada Santa María number 203, is owned and run by José Guadarrama, the baker featured in the photo above, whose artesanal bread could happily grace a Californian farmers market or London’s Borough food market.
Nearby, at 134E Calle Manuel Archundia, is an organic food shop, La Cosecha, from which I bought delicious trout pate and Manchego cheese for a waterside picnic at the lakeside which was interrupted by a sudden and heavy storm – it is the rainy season here after all. At the embarcadero on the lake it is possible to go on a variety of boat trips – a one hour trip costs 60 pesos – less than five dollars and is pleasantly relaxing.
One day, following my hotel owner’s recommendation, I ate breakfast at La Michoacana, which not only had spectacular views both towards the lake and back to the San Francisco church and main plaza, but also served an excellent chilaquiles with chicken. Following breakfast, I walked through the cobblestoned local streets nearby which had a lovely, mysterious early morning feel to them.
One of the big plusses of a town attaining Pueblo Mágico status is that all buildings in the city center have to be constructed and maintained in a traditional style and painted in the traditional colours and all the telephone and electricity cables should be run underground – unlike in the photo below.
Still on the theme of food, I ate lunch at Los Veleros, which is said to be the best restaurant in Valle. The food was good rather than exceptional, though the setting is delightful, on a terrace overlooking a garden with views towards the lake and the French owner who has lived in Mexico for 42 years is charming.
Apart from eating in Valle de Bravo, I also went on two morning walks to different viewpoints. The first, El Mirador Cruz de Misión, is about thirty minutes up Calle El Deposito at the back of the Church San Francisco. The walk takes you past some huge houses with impressive views towards the lake.
On arriving at the Cruz de Misión, with its accompanying statue of San Francisco, it is possible to continue walking up the mountain, where the large wealthy homes suddenly and surprisingly give way to much poorer houses. I wonder how long those houses will be there before their inhabitants are dislodged.
The other viewpoint is Mirador la Peña. This is about a forty minute walk from the main plaza, which happily takes you past the taco stand selling barbacoa de borrego, at the entrance to the ascent of La Peña. Climbing La Peña is relatively easily as the local government have recently cleaned up the site. It used to be a haunt for drunkards – some of whom were killed falling off the rocks when plastered – and also for delinquents attacking people doing the climb. It is possible to make a worthwhile small diversion to visit la cueva del diablo (the devil’s cave) en route to the top.
I was told by two women I met at the top that the main cross in the picture above is only one year old, and was placed there as part of the cleaning-up operations. The original cross is the thin iron one. Likewise, the Virgin of Guadalupe, in the photo below, apparently encaged, is also only a year old.
I had an interesting discussion with the two women I met about Mexicans’ attitude to the environment, and the sad fact that Mexicans are given to decorating with rubbish their most beautiful natural sites. One of them said that because of the history of Mexico, including the pre-hispanic era, there is an enormous amount of suffering in the Mexican psyche. She thought that Mexicans could not bear any external beauty as they felt so unworthy inside, so they despoiled it with rubbish.
She also told me that she had been involved in politics, but had stopped when her mentor told her that the only way to succeed was to lie and promise voters things that you knew could never be delivered. Rather than simply blame the politicians though, she had a sophisticated view of the way that people collude with the politicians, in that they expect to be deceived and almost prefer to be lied to, rather than face the truth.
The same woman also told me an interesting story about Valle. When the Franciscans had first arrived here to evangelise the local population, the response of the indigenous people was to hang them from the branches of the tree in the picture, which now is at least 600 years old. This tree is popularly known as el pino but its real name is an aguahuete.
On a final note, for the four nights I was here, I stayed at the Posada Familiar Hotel de los Girasoles. This has a great location, right on the corner of the main square, and is simple, clean and comfortable. The staff are wonderfully helpful and there is wireless internet access in the lobby. After two nights they gave me a good discount for the next two nights.
Another good accommodation option is an old building on the left – as you look at it of the Posada Familiar Hotel de los Girasoles. Here it is possible to rent a comfortable double room or an apartment for up to six people at very economic rates. Contact Emma Rodriguez at 01 726 26 20 134.
One thing I have not mentioned so far. Valle de Bravo is a world center for paragliding because it is possible to fly here all year round. If I can muster the courage, I may well take a flight as a pilot is staying in the hotel and has offered to give me a flight at a reasonable price. More news of this next.