Friday, October 15, 2010

End of week 8 - Life on the Altiplano

As Peace Corps trainees, we are seeing a part of Mexico that few tourists travel to and fewer Americans think of when they think of Mexico. The high plains in the center of the country, know as the "altiplano", are characterized by broad valleys, tall mountains, mattoral or low, thorny trees, and cactus. It is a land of extremes; high temperatures during the day, cold temperatures at night, dry periods that last for most of the year, sudden downpours that wash away roads,  poverty and wealth, and huge expanses of empty, windswept land. It is vaquero country - dusty old pickup trucks, denim, and leather cowboy boots are the norm.

Outside Matehuala, in San Luis Potosi.

A dusty town on the altiplano.
The people of the altiplano make a meager living growing maiz criollo, or indigenous corn, whose success depends on the all-too-infrequent rains, or grazing cattle or goats. There are few schools, little access to freshwater, and few paved roads outside of the main highway that brings people from Mexico's central valley to its northern borders with the US. There are also a few large cities in the Altiplano. Some were built from the riches of long depleted silver mines like San Luis Potosi. Others, like Queretaro, are recent boom towns, sprawling with former residents of Mexico City escaping the magnitude of problems in one the largest cities in the world. A few cities, like San Miguel de Allende, have thriving economies based on tourism as people are drawn to their colonial architecture and many festivals.

Ejido Gogorron.

It is now the beginning of October on the altiplano, and as a group of friends and I left Queretaro for San Miguel de Allende early Sunday morning, the air was noticeably crisp. The hot summer that we had arrived to Mexico in just weeks before had transitioned to a colder, cloudier, and windier fall. The light fleece jacket that I was wearing was not enough to stay completely comfortable.

After a brief panicked moment as the bus appeared to be speeding by the city with us still on it, we arrived in the historic center of San Miguel, a valley amidst the high peaks of Guanajuato, where the streets are perfectly clean, the three and four-hundred year old buildings are vibrant with fresh coats of colorful paint, and real estate prices are listed in U.S. dollars, not Mexican pesos. San Miguel is well known for its large retired "gringo" population. Impressive architecture and expensive handicrafts aside, San Miguel was not as outstanding as it was supposed to be. Another colonial Mexican city, a parade of indigenous dancers and concheros, churches, museums, and a fireworks display. It is sometimes hard to tell the difference between traditional culture and the tourism industry.

A church in San Miguel

We decided to head to the outskirts of the city, to the high plains overlooking the valley. Under overcast skies and in stiff breezes, we spent the afternoon wandering through a nature preserve, El Charco del Ingenio. The preserve was beautiful; trails through native plantings of cactus, agave, and low acacia trees. There was a large lake full of waterfowl and a deep canyon carved by a river flowing towards San Miguel. Ruins of ancient mills powered by small waterfalls lined the trails. When the sun occasionally peaked through the clouds, the air quickly warmed, and thousands of brilliantly colored wildflowers appeared, disappearing again as the clouds returned and temperatures dropped.
The canyon at El Charco

We promised a friend that we would meet her at the entrance of the local fairgrounds before returning by bus back to Queretaro, so after a few hours at the preserve we began the long walk towards the highway, on dusty, flat, roads, meandering through a partially complete, expansive soon-to-be suburb, towards the fair. We were all a little nervous about catching a bus home to Queretaro - we hadn't left any room for error and had to hail the last bus leaving San Miguel that day from the side of the highway to get home. The sun was setting, the clouds were growing darker, and the wind was picking up.

The fair was like any state or county fair in the US; cowboys, carnival rides, fried food, loud music, and the incessant cries of auctioneers. The fair was situated a little off of the highway, in the middle of the endless cattle ranch that is the altiplano. The parking lot at the fair was large and dust swept up into our eyes and mouths. We sat shivering at the exit, covering our faces with scarves as protection from the wind and dust, waiting for our friend to come out, hoping she would leave a little earlier than planned. And thankfully she did. We wisely decided to chip in on the cost of a 50 peso (4 dollar) taxi ride to the bus center, rather than wait nervously on the side of the highway, hoping a bus would come along in the dark and pick up four hitchhikers on the side of the road. We made it back to Queretaro as planned, although a little bit colder than expected.
The ferria.

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