Friday, August 7, 2015

XXXI. Cazadores de las Haciendas: La Estancia

Hunters of the Haciendas: La Estancia

A cazador de las haciendas passing the portal from the plaza
to the church. He is easily identified as one of the only gringos
in town by literally any piece of clothing he is wearing.
Just over a week ago today the Cazadores de las Haciendas—the Hacienda Hunters, a collection of adventurous, if aging, gringos who have made the Lake Chapala area their home for, in some cases, more than a decade—launched a three day excursion to the far northeastern corner of Jalisco state. We had five haciendas and two colonial towns in our sights. 

Our motive was to explore remnants of some iconic times in Mexico’s history. That some of the haciendas have fallen into such disrepair that the location of their ruins is not clear, encourages us to ask invariably helpful citizens for directions. For most of us, this friendly engagement is what makes our quest most meaningful.

At Hotel de los Cristeros our twinkly-
eyed host gestures to the cell where
Catorce was once incarcerated. Our
guide, Ulises, is to his left. 
Leaving Chapala, negotiating Guadalajara’s crowded and confusing freeways, we got on a fast moving but expensive cuota, or toll road, most of the way to our first destination, San Miguel el Alto. After turning off the highway we traveled through a countryside that reminded me of the high juniper-covered desert of northern New Mexico. Five miles of sparsely populated road did not prepare us for the beautiful and sophisticated small city we would encounter.

The beautiful gazebo in the center of San Miguel's plaza
attracted other tourists, although we were the only gringos.
Founded over four hundred years ago, San Miguel was much more recently at the epicenter of the church vs. state Cristeros War that ended in 1929. In fact, the restaurante at Hotel de los Cristeros where we were treated to a history lesson by the owner (and ate a tasty lunch), is simply called “14”, or “Catorce” after the nickname of a legendary Cristero fighter who supposedly killed that number of federales in one epic battle.

The main parroquia of Lagos de Moreno
across the street from the plaza
Our group was also taken under the wing of San Miguel’s public relations director, Ulises Gutierrez, who practiced his already-good English on us while we toured the municipal building and were introduced to local dignitaries. Ulises then commandeered a city van and drove us all over town, to a subterranean area under a temple where “14” is entombed, the local quarry—source of the city’s distinctive pink stone—and to the nearby reservoir and its waterfall view. What a helpful, sweet and friendly guy!

We reached our main destination, Lagos de Moreno, in the late afternoon after making it back to the cuota and being socked with another $10 toll. As we drove into this larger city, aiming for our hotel that was right on the plaza, we got caught in detours around the parade that was forming, composed of brightly costumed dancers and bands. We had arrived right in the middle of Lagos’ yearly two-week long feria, or fair.

We had a full agenda the next day but I was too excited in this new place to get to bed early. A few of us stayed up with the locals in the town’s leafy and well-proportioned plaza as the sun set and lights came on to illuminate the towering baroque parroquia, or church. After my compadres hit the sack, I took a stroll through the riverside gardens and eventually found myself in a colonial
Once a convent, now a cultural center, a violin and piano
concert was in one of the smaller rooms while we were here.
building housing the cultural center of this 450-year-old city. In the old days it had been a Capuchin convent. The next day I noticed that the presumably religious statues adorning its facade had been beheaded, cut in half, or removed altogether—casualties, I imagine, of the high anti-church feelings during the Cristero War.

Lagos (Spanish for “lakes”) de Moreno is located in an area that is remarkable for its year-round greenery thanks to an exceptionally high water table. The city site was originally occupied a thousand years ago by the indigenous Chichimeca. The Spanish arrived five centuries later and made this the center of a region of many haciendas. The agriculture that they established in this fertile area is today represented by many large and healthy fields of corn.

The walls of this 430-year-old hacienda are about 10 meters tall
The first hacienda on our list was San Rafael, but as it seems so often happens, we missed the turnoff. We exited the main highway to look for it, but couldn’t make our way back. Seeing a—albeit not exactly confidence-inspiring—sign to another hacienda, La Estancia, we decided to see if it was worth following. The road to which we had been directed roused even less excitement; it was narrow, rutted and dusty, and we’d been on it less than a mile before we ran into a slow-moving herd of healthy-looking cattle coming our way. Their minders reckoned La Estancia was probably about 7 1/2 kilometers ahead, and after a lot of dithering, one of our more decisive cazadores said, “Let’s just go for it!” That struck a responsive chord and we lurched forward.

Rosalinda rings but no one answers.
Another herd of cows, a one-lane bridge, numerous—thankfully, signed—desolate intersections, a lot of bumps and dust, and we finally sighted an impressively high and sturdy looking stone wall with an ancient crenelated corner tower—both proof of the guard kept against the fearsome and aforementioned Chichimeca. We had arrived at La Estancia, but now a formidable, much more modern, closed and chained gate blocked our way. We all groaned.

The Jims and Rosalinda exploring a long arcade. 
Our leader, Jim Cook, shrugged, suggested, “Maybe it’s not locked”, and slowly unbent himself from the car to test his optimism. It proved to be well-founded and we continued past another old wall of the hacienda until we turned a corner and encountered a second, much older, chained gate that also yielded to our positive attitude. Here, though, we were uneasy about entering without permission even as the well-tended grounds of the hacienda were before us just on the other side of the puerta. From nearby we heard the whinny of a horse.

There was a bell to ring and we rang it, but no answer. “Hola!!”, we hollered, paused and hollered again, louder. No answer. What we could see of the grounds looked mighty promising, though, and after being thwarted at San Rafael we’d come a long way. We opened the gate and hollered again. No answer. We entered slowly, trying to appear confident, but feeling—more than anything else—like kids breaking into Disneyland after hours. 

Looking into one end of the large hacienda garden from in front of the chapel
We gaped at a tail-switching white stallion in an otherwise empty stable, nineteenth century farm machinery below a flowered wall, picturesque and well-tended terraces, large and empty swimming pool, passed through one garden gate and colonnaded arcade after another—continuing to announce our presence as we digitally recorded our impressions with innumerable clicks—and gradually gained confidence in our solitude and gave ourselves over to happy and exultant exploration. There was only the familiar ticking and shushing sound of an automatic sprinkler to serve as a continuous and slightly eerie reminder that we were not alone.

All this and it wasn't even lunch time yet. We continued to Matanzas, Ojuelos, Cienega de Mata, and finally back to Lagos before dinner and bed. And then there was breakfast the next morning at Hacienda Sepulveda and the road back home—the rest of our trip will be told in the next post or perhaps simply remain a happy memory.

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