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by Bob Brooke


Dolores Duran cooks up some chilles rellenos in the food market of TequisquipanIt's a little before 6:00 A.M., and the first bird chitters in the tree outside my window. Soon the bells of the parish church clang one after another. Dawn shows its pinkish light a bit in later as the quiet village of Tequisquiapan, two hours north of Mexico City in the State of Queretaro, awakes.

Before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, the area now occupied by what's now the town of Tequisquiapan was commonly known as "Tequesquiatlapan," meaning "River with carbontated water." Today, Tequisquiapan is a tourist town a weekend retreat for hundreds of chilangos (Mexico City residents) who come for its crystal clear air and sparkling thermal waters.

During much of the Pre-Hispanic period, the valley of Tequisquiapan was more than just a village. The great Nahua and Chichimeca chieftains acknowledged the importance of the place.

According to the local chronicler, Jesus Landaverde Chavez, the lords of Jilotepec frequented the natural springs and fountains of Tequisquiapan only during very special occasions. Upon arriving , they would take a bath in the thermal waters of one of its numerous springs, during which they would deal with affairs of state and settle mild disputes among themselves.

The first Spanish settlements in this valley date from the 16th century, when Don Luis de Velazco, then Vicerory of New Spain, conceded Alonso de Estrada y Lope de Sosa the rights over the valley to breed livestock and keep stables. In the process of building Hacienda de Tequisquiapan in 1596, he displaced the former residents of the site to the other side of the river.

I came to Tequisquiapan to relax and discovered a quaintness and inner peace not often found in touristy places. But my biggest surprise was the food a cornucopia of vinos and quesos, salsas and sopes to titillate even the most jaded palette.

Tequisquiapan is especially noted for its wines and cheeses, two entirely "new" foods that first made their appearance in the Americas with the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in 1521. It was during Mexico's colonial period, in what today is the State of Queretaro, that the planting of grapevines and the culture of wine making was first attempted and eventually took hold. The Spanish conquistadors also brought cows, sheep and goats to the New World in 1492.

A Taste of Tequisquiapan
I got my first taste of Tequisquiapan at the local market across from my hotel, the El Relox, which boasts the oldest swimming facilities in town. On weekends, Tequisquiapan's market hums with activity. Here locals and visitors alike can find everything from real and artificial flowers to beans, all sorts produce and meats, and even hats.

After popping a carmeled pecan called a garapinado in my mouth, I became immediately addicted to these sweet little morsels. Roasted pecans and peanuts, candied with brown sugar, fill large wok-type containers, sending the delicious aroma of pecan pie wafting through the stalls.

At Quesos Quiroz, I found a veritable cheese paradise. Tables piled high with mild Panelo, Ranchero, and Oaxaca cheeses, plus quesos frescos (soft crumbly cheeses) flavored with chile, epazote, arbole, chipotle, and jalapeno. My favorite, Queso a Humado, probably came from the nearby State of Hidalgo, and had the aroma of smoked provolone. Senor Quiroz also let me try a piece of Manchego, a mild cheese with the texture of mozzarella.

But with all the food around me and the aromas coming from the market's fondas (food stalls) , I decided to find some lunch. Eating in a fonda of a market, with the smells of roasting beef and frying oil and the sounds of chopping is an experience I won't soon forget. It was like eating in someone's kitchen, sitting amidst cases of sodas piled high, with Mexican music blaring out of a boombox and pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the walls. On the recommendation of a local, I chose Fonda Juanita, a food stand run by Juanita Romero Ugalde with her cook, Dolores Duran. When I arrived, Duran was cooking up chiles rellenos. Ummm... did they look good.

Fonda Juanita's menu read like the table of contents of a traditional Mexican cookbook and featured mole, chiles verdes, blue corn tortillas, quesadillas--bistek y queso, frijoles, enchiladas verdes and sopes. I decided to try sopes--thick, fried masa (dough) cakes fried with a variety of toppings--a typical food of Tequisquiapan. Service was quick and soon my platter arrived with a variety of sopes topped with queso fresco, pollo, and frijoles, and a delicious salsa roja that wasn't at all hot. The total came to about five pesos, including a cold soda.

Someone across from me had Milaneza, a platter of bistek, pounded and breaded and served with frijoles, cebollas, and delicate homemade potato chips.

After lunch, I strolled around town. I was struck by the cleanliness and sense of order that prevails in Tequisquiapan. Purple bougainvillea tumbles down well-kept walls, hinting at the well-kept gardens behind them.

Seeing the Sights
A mosaic of small, irregular, interlocking stone blocks pave Tequisquiapan's narrow streets, which lead to the central square, the Plaza Civica. Traffic is closed a block or two from it creating a pedestrian zone. And there's no litter despite the large number of hotels, restaurants and tourist shops that stand in two rings around the square. This makes strolling a pleasant experience any time of day.

Portales, or arcades, line three sides of the Plaza Civica crowned by the pink and white 19th-century Parish Church of Santa Maria Magdelena with its single, squat, bell-tower on the fourth. Spanish missionaries said the town's first mass under the giant mesquite tree next to it.

The fragrance of herbs drew me to Hierberia "Xochpila." Here I found herbs for every sickness. I sat at a square-side table at K'Pucchinos next door to have a cappuccino and pastel, a delicious chocolate cake smothered with fresh strawberries. A flute and guitar player wandered up, but suddenly the ringing of church bells announcing a wedding at the parish church, drowned out their tune.

Tequisquiapan is a place to unwind, to relax, to forget about the hustle and bustle of life. People who go to Tequisquiapan looking to do something, invariably leave disappointed, for there's nothing to do there. Those who go looking for a tranquil and satisfying respite from their busy lives leave, just as invariably, restored and refreshed, and satisfyingly full.

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