This article is from the August 2000 - September 2000 The Mexico File
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by Herb Felsted
Herb and Carla Felsted
have produced an excellent Mexico travel newsletter,
Meanderings, for several years. We are grateful for Herb’s
Saltillo, by way of
Monclova or Monterrey, is the traditional gateway to central Mexico for most
who travel by car from the central or eastern United States. And for those who
do so, there is a surge of pleasure as a bend of the road reveals Matehuala at
the bottom of a long, 12-mile descent. You’ve just come 155 miles from
Saltillo, and the last 65 have been heavy truck traffic on a two-lane road
made up of an incredible number of pot-holes connected by short patches of
blacktop. Not to mention the searing, parched land on either side. By happy!
The entire stretch from Saltillo was like that until four or five years ago,
and construction on this last segment should be completed in another year or
The final approach to
Matehuala is hardly pleasing to the eye. The stark gray building on the right,
with its guard towers and barbed wire, reminds us that “social
rehabilitation” is alive and well in this regional penitentiary, and mind
your manners, please. Then come a couple of Pemex stations, usually hidden by
masses of noisy and fuming 18-wheelers. We no longer gas up here – the
attendants have become extremely clever and creative when it comes to
Along the highway a number
of motels (until recently, one was a Day’s Inn) and restaurants offer rest
and sustenance, and the chance for a welcome and refreshing dip in the pool. A
street angles off to the right, passing beneath a large arch welcoming one and
all to the city. The highway bears left to bypass the town proper. At the
southern end of town is a duplicate arch – these two arches give the local
folks great comfort. It is said that when the Day of Judgment comes, these two
arches will serve as handholds – God will grasp the city by them and lift it
up to Glory!
For many travelers, this
commercial strip is their perception of Matehuala. A few will pass beneath the
northern arch and go on a few blocks to the Parque Vicente Guerrero in search
of a cough syrup from a small pharmacy or some snacks from a nearby
panaderia (bake shop), before returning to their journey or their motel.
Should they go a few blocks further, they would find themselves in a
fascinating city of unexpected merit, replete with beautiful churches and
buildings of both historic and architectural value, an abundant and colorful
market, and friendly people willing to share both their time and culture.
There is much more to Matehuala than is seen from the highway.
complained about the old road for years, and still do about the section not
yet finished, imagine what travel entailed when the Spanish adventurers first
penetrated this area! A license to colonize San Francisco de Goahtemala (Matehuala)
was granted under date of July, 1550, although some scholars consider this
document “apocryphal.” Charcas, 65 miles to the southwest, was founded in
1573 by miners and prospectors, and is generally accepted as the earliest
authenticated urban site in the Altiplano Potosino, but of what matter?
Matehuala continues to celebrate its birth date as 1550.
What is now Altiplano was (and had been since perhaps the 13th century) the territory of the Guachichil (a subgroup of the generally unfriendly Chichimeca) Indians. Hunter-gatherers, they often camped around a spring some four kilometers northwest of present-day Matehuala. At this spring (today Congregación de Ojo de Agua), the tiny settlement San Francisco de Goahtemala came into being through the determined efforts of several Spaniards under one Juan de Lahija (or Laixa). The landscape must have seemed terribly alien, yet it also must have exuded that suffused ethereal glow of yet undiscovered gold.
The Guachichiles were
understandably aggravated. In due time the Spaniards chose discretion over
valor and vacated the settlement by the spring. They moved only a few
kilometers away to found their new settlement (later hacienda) of Matehuala.
The sources I have access to don’t indicate why the new and better site was
in such close proximity to the old – viewed on the ground, it does not
appear to be any more defensible, but this is now, and that was then. Legend
has it that the new name, Matehuala, was derived from the Guachichil war cry
(which they seem to have heard quite often) meaning “Don’t come!!”
But gold there was and the
Spaniards naturally kept coming. Initially they traveled from the gold fields
of Zacatecas, while later groups arrived from Mexico City by way of
present-day Moctezuma and Charcas (the city of San Luis Potosí wasn’t
founded until the discovery of extremely rich gold-bearing veins, or vetas,
in 1592). There was always the attraction of the mineral gold for the secular,
and the magnet of the gold of heathen souls for the clergy. Interestingly
enough, many Tlaxcalan Indians, highly favored because of their help in the
conquest of Tenochtitlan (still within the memory of man), were brought north
to help in the pacification of the Guachichiles and the settling of their
Matehuala became a way
stop, much as it is today, for travelers trekking to and from the newly
established Monterrey and San Luis Potosí. But some of those travelers
strayed into the mountains to the west, and more gold was found. A short
distance away is Villa La Paz, and on beyond Cerro del Fraile, high atop Cerro
Puerto del Aire (in the Sierra de Catorce) lies that once fabulous
almost-ghost town of Real de Catorce, towering more then 3300 feet above
As we enter Matehuala of
today, we enter an ancient city which appears rather modern. It does not have
the treasury of colonial buildings so apparent in, for example, San Miguel de
Allende, or for that matter, San Luis Potosí. It has been a more provincial
city throughout its history, having been first an hacienda de
beneficio, or ore concentration center. There were several other haciendas
de beneficio in the area in the mid to late 1700's, such as San José de Ipoa.
The process was simple. First, the raw ore was brought to the hacienda by
whatever means – carreta (cart), burro, etc. The large chunks of rock
were broken up by hammer, then washed to get most of the country rock
separated. The remaining smaller rocks were further reduced and washed until
ready for additional processing with heat and/or chemicals. The final crushing
was often accomplished by women, or men who were partially crippled from birth
There are many other
identified haciendas (now in ruins) in the vicinity of Matehuala. Some of
these also were initially haciendas de beneficio, but as the mines played out,
they turned to agriculture and ranching. One, Hacienda Solis, produces fine
estate-bottled mezcal, and is occasionally open to visitors.
The visible remnants of
Matehuala’s illustrious history are rather subtle. There is, of course, the
bold and magnificent Parroquia de la Immaculada Concepción, facing the Plaza
del Rey (also called Jardín Juárez), noted for its similarity to St.
Joseph’s in Lyon, France. While not representative of the antiquity of
Matehuala, it is something in which the matehualenses take great pride.
An earlier Templo, dating from the mid-1880's, had existed on this
site, but due to structural concerns it was razed about the turn of the
century, and the present Parroquia begun almost immediately. There should be
no concerns about its structural integrity – its foundation is 18 feet
thick. Due to various economic setbacks in Mexico during the 20th
century, the church still remains unfinished, although one must look closely
to verify this. It is pleasant to stand in the shade and comfortably examine
this majestic structure.
A unique possession of the Parroquia is the statue called El Cristo de Matehuala, known since the 1700's in Matehuala and thought to have been made in Mexico City long before that. Not until the mid-1800's was it discovered that the statue, nearly 6 feet tall, was made of cañita, or corn paste.
No Mexican town can exist
without its market, and Matehuala is no exception. Across from the side of the
church is what might be called the hard luck Mercado de Arista. Initally an
open air market, a permanent structure was inaugurated in 1894. In 1940 it was
demolished due to poor construction. Reconstructed, it was partially burned
and re-reconstructed twice in the succeeding years. Of what you see today,
only the front is original.
Inside, however, there is
much that is original. Rows of brilliantly colored and imaginatively formed piñatas
hang from on high, begging to be filled with candy. Displays of fruit have
intricate natural color designs created from artistic placement of oranges,
grapefruit, plums, and other colorful exotics. The more subdued colors of
vegetables receive the same loving care in their arrangement. And the wondrous
assortment of carry bags, mats, padding, and sacking woven from ixtle,
fiber derived from the agave family of cactus, seems endless. This cactus has
also provided mankind with early needles (the thorns), emergency animal feed
and moisture (the leaves when stripped of spines), and above all, the vino
de agave (wine of agave, or mezcal).
The nearby business center
is vibrant. Traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, flows in a gentle hurry
along streets that are now straight, now crooked. Past shoe stores, drug
stores, photo supply shops - have you a problem with your telephone? Do you
need a saddle? If it isn’t in the mercado, you’ll find it here.
A few blocks away,
clustered about the heart of the old city (the Plaza de Armas, also called
Plaza 5 de Mayo), are several sturdy buildings of note. Fronted by a series of
arches and a lovely shaded covered walkway, or porch, the Casa de Los Portales
was built of quarried rock in the 1700's and probably was a part of the
Hacienda Matehuala. The building extends back along corridors on either side
to a lovely patio with fountain and rooms exiting around. Further back is
still another patio with a large side entry, now sealed, through which
carriages could enter and be parked while the guests were entertained and the
horses removed for feeding or stabling.
As with so many of the
remaining buildings from way back when, the Casa de Los Portales was many
things. For long it was the residence of movers and shakers of the time
(Father Hidalgo was a guest here for a couple of months in 1811). In the early
20th century it saw service as the Hotel San Luis, then later as a
home and photo studio. Since 1980 it has housed the administrative offices of
the Federal Electric Commission.
Not far down the street
Don Benito Juárez held his government together for a week or so at the very
beginning of 1864 while en route to Monterrey and Saltillo, a jump ahead of
the Imperial forces. Thus, Matehuala had its “15 minutes of fame” as the
capital of Mexico.
Around the corner and
still facing the Plaza is the hardly overwhelming Presidencia - the
administrative heart of the city. There are undoubtedly many stories to be
told of the building, and perhaps even more about the people who have occupied
it over the years, but unfortunately I am not privy to any of them. The
present building has roots in the past; probably it was originally a structure
of the old hacienda, but it has been remorselessly modified and remodeled over
the years to where it has much the character of any other Palacio Municipal.
We have found, however, that the Presidencia of any town is often the place to ask for information if no tourism office is about. Persistent inquiry will ferret out somebody in one of the many offices who has an interest in and a knowledge of a place. If you show an interest and ask questions, you’ll be rewarded with a broad smile and a flood of information.
The Iglesia de San
Salvador de Orta faces the Casa de los Portales across the Plaza de Armas.
This church, perhaps the earliest in Matehuala (after Neustra Señora de
Guadalupe in Ojo de Agua), is on the site where in 1648 there stood a simple,
primitive place of worship (possibly the Capilla of the hacienda) consisting
of adobe walls and straw roofing. By the middle of the next century San
Salvador de Orta was well on the way to its present character, as it and other
substantial buildings (such as Los Portales) were anchoring Matehuala. It is
fun to sit in the shade and speculate on what other buildings might have
surrounded this Plaza, and what was their story and their fate.
In the small callejón
beside the church, Father Juan Villerías died (either in battle or by
assassin) on May 13, 1811, while leading a small force fighting for
Independence. A plaque in the wall is dedicated to him, and he is buried in
the small cemetery a few feet away. These were tough times, even in a rather
out-of-the-way place like Matehuala.
Another building downtown
which took our fancy is the Hotel Matehuala. Not really an historical monument
(built sometime in the mid-1800's, we’re told), it was the two-story Hotel
España, named for the place of birth of its owner. Suffering along with
Matehuala during the Revolution, it was burned in 1913 (as was the Presidencia
and a number of commercial buildings), but phoenix-like, it arose under new
management as the Hotel Matehuala. There has been little renovation since that
time – its first floor lobby is dark and cavernous, with little furniture.
Spartan rooms are glimpsed through high doors, and at one end the shadowy full
size replica of a horse peers at potential guests, as it has been doing since
we first saw it some ten years ago.
Of all the churches
visited, our personal favorite was the century old Templo del Santo Niño de
Atocha. A little out from the center, this church was more like a neighborhood
place of worship. Perhaps because it was the smallest, it had a feeling of
intimacy which the larger, more majestic structures lacked. The patronage of
this small church has insured that maintenance and whatever necessary
restoration of the bóveda ceiling, wall paintings, choir loft, pulpit, etc.,
has been expertly and lovingly done.
Regardless of its remote
location, Matehuala was not without culture. Around 1875 the Teatro Lavin was
constructed for the entertainment of the people. Light musical, comedy, and
whatever else came along was the fare, until 1906, when the structure
(probably of wood) was condemned. The foundation was adjudged to be solid, and
the Teatro Manuel José Othón (named for the famous poet of San Luis Potosí
who died of emphysema in that year) arose in its place. When full, some 250
people can be accommodated below and in the balcony of this still-active
The evidence of the
area’s mining activity abounds. A few kilometers to the northwest is the
village of Villa La Paz. La Paz came into existence in the early 17th
century, only shortly after Matehuala, and was a mining center long into the
20th century, producing lead and zinc, along with minor amounts of
gold and silver (the mines closed around 1990). In 1892, a small narrow-gauge
interurban railway was opened between the Santa María de la Paz mine and the
Plaza Principal of Matehuala. The single car making this run was La Nigua (the
flea). It is no more.
Today in La Paz the reminders, and remainders, are huge areas of mine tailings, idle machinery, and a place, sleepy village with its Parroquia de la Virgin de la Paz. There is an imposing overlook from near the top of a hill on the edge of a soccer field created on the flattened surface of another massive tailing. From here, we could glimpse the light outline of Matehuala’s Parroquia. On the way back down, we noticed an interesting example of recycling – near the edge of town a very small dwelling did have a fence around it, and the gate was well fashioned from an ancient bedspring.
Over the past few years,
Catorce (original name: Real de Minas de Nuestra Señora de la Limpia Concepción
de Guadalupe de los Alamos de Catorce) has regained notoriety as tourists
discovered an honest to goodness “ghost town.” We visited some ten years ago
and were enchanted. We visited again this year and were disenchanted. Where we
had once watched an intercity soccer match (just after exiting the Ogarrio
Tunnel), there were now only parked cars and buses. The street past the Templo
de Purísma Concepción was so full of commercial stalls and visitors that it
was difficult to move. Inside, the Templo was, as ever, a quiet and
contemplative retreat. Across from the Templo, the Casa de Moneda (the
Mint), where the first official coins of Mexico were stamped, now has a
“Silver School” on the top floor. It is in a dark, cramped, shabby room with
two men turning out jewelry for sale while others kibitz – a far cry from the
superb school located on the eastern outskirts of Zacatecas.
We walked up the hill to the
Templo de Guadalupe, past a motel which once had a brick birdhouse. Visitors on
rented horses constantly passed. The refurbished Palenque was closed. We
had planned to spend a couple of nights in town, but there was no room at the
inn(s). Perhaps because Paramount Pictures was filming El Mexicano
starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. Neither of them was on site, but somebody
pointed out to us a person said to be Brad’s bodyguard. Not a trip highlight.
We will come back some time
to Catorce, but it will take a while for this experience to wear off. In the
meantime, I’m glad I have slides from the first trip.
It was a pleasure to get back down the hill to Matehuala, where a more natural rhythm and ambience exist. Far more than a rest stop between here and there, Matehuala is deserving of a traveler’s time and attention.