Global Volunteers are exhorted to “expect the unexpected”. That was good advice indeed, because we certainly didn’t expect to see the federales and military in riot gear a block away from our hotel when we arrived!
We learned the streets were blocked in anticipation of their president’s visit the following day. February 5th commemorates the day the Mexican constitution was signed and is a national holiday. This year was the 100th anniversary of that momentous occasion, and since it was signed in Queretaro, what better place for the president to visit?
Although initially the sight of all the guns was disconcerting, we had nothing to worry about. Everyone was peaceful and friendly. My “broken” Spanish was sufficient to get us across the barriers to the ATM in the restricted area, not once, not twice, but three times. (I escorted several of my fellow volunteers — and after the second time, I didn’t need to explain. They saw me coming and smiled as they opened the gate.). It was just a minor challenge to our getting settled and was easily overcome.
Remember in the last post I said that the Hidalgo is an older hotel? And that you can buy just about anything in Queretaro? Well, both are true statements. The “authenticity” of the hotel means that some purchases might make your stay more comfortable. Fortunately there ARE stores nearby.
We all decided jumbo towels were a great solution for unheated bathrooms. And you can never have too many hangers.
Some objects were a little more challenging to find.
The one hook in Sally’s bathroom is strategically placed, right over the toilet. What could possibly go wrong with THAT? It only took ONE day to convince Sally that she needed another option for her towel. So, we embarked on a ‘find the hook that can be placed over the top of the door’ quest. Sounds simple enough, right? It wasn’t. Our search for a “gancho de ropa sobre la puerta” took FOUR determined women TWO whole days!
We hit Woolworth’s, del Sol, several sewing shops, the open air market. We even resorted to showing random passers-by a picture of what we wanted, downloaded from the Internet.
Leave it to first time volunteer, Kristy.
She not only convinced us to check out Waldo Mart, but she was also able to locate exactly what we needed amid the hodgepodge of goods. And yes, you did read that right. Much to our amusement, we discovered the Mexican version of a dollar store, really is called Waldo Mart.
How perfect are these?
The Hidalgo is in an ideal location, in the historic district with restaurants, museums, beautiful gardens and squares close by. It has lots of charm, but what it DOESN’T have are rooms with lots of light.
This time, Woolworth’s came to the rescue.
For about $10, Sally and I were able to buy small lamps. (Light bulbs, we discovered, are sold in the pharmacy down the street ). It might not look like much, but that little lamp makes a huge difference!
I just set it atop my closet and it illuminated my desk (and dressing) area perfectly.
The Mexican workers have been very helpful, friendly and oh so patient with my Spanish. I speak like a toddler, but like a toddler, I keep trying, without embarrassment. I THINK i said to the cashier “I only know some words. But I try to learn. Please speak slowly.” But then again, I might have said something else, because after my little speech she didn’t say anything. She just reached over, hugged me and kissed my cheek.
Our shopping was not limited to dry goods.
Because the University offers classes from 7 AM till 9 PM, our schedule varies. Some days we make our breakfasts and bag lunches at the hotel, and go out for dinner. When the classes are in the evening, we eat those two meals out, and pack our dinner. I volunteered to be the fruit purchaser, recruiting my three amigos to be my helpers.
Because WordPress is being a bit balky, I need to end this post and what better way than with some shots from the market?
With so many fantastic places to visit, it is highly unusual for me to return somewhere, but that is exactly what I am doing next week.
I visited Querétaro in February, 2015 as a member of a Global Volunteers’ team. Was it the work, the city, the food, the students, or our wonderful leader, Pam, that is drawing me back? Short answer–all of the above. What will make THIS trip even more special is that my cousin Kristy and two friends that I met on other Global Volunteer projects (Jeanne and Sally) will be joining me.
At first, I was going to just write an email to my travel buddies, sharing what I remembered from my prior experience, but then I thought why not blog so that the information is available to anyone contemplating volunteering?
In getting ready for the trip, I also realized just how much I had forgotten–and how helpful it was for ME to go back and look at my old posts to see what I was wearing, which luggage I took etc. When the space between my ears fails me, which happens quite frequently these days, I am glad to have an electronic memory to supplement the “organic” one.
The Hotel Hidalgo was once the finest lodging in Queretaro. It was so grand that in 1848, Santa Anna stayed there prior to signing the Treaty of Guadalupe with the USA. As one might expect of a hotel built in 1825, there is no elevator. There is also no staff to carry your luggage up the 31 stone steps to your room. (Yes, I DID count them the last time I was there).
I actually LIKE having a built in stair master. It’s a great way to work off all the excellent Mexican food I’m looking forward to eating.
It is always wise to travel light, and this trip is no exception. The good news is there is a laundry right around the corner from the hotel. You drop off your clothes one day and pick them up the next evening. The bad news is you may experience all three seasons in ONE day. So, the tried and true travel advice works here: Dress in layers. One clear advantage of being older–your days of making a fashion statement are a VERY distant memory. Clothing is chosen for comfort and utility.
In case you’re wondering what I am bringing, here’s a visual:
I will wear the heavy tan sweater and blue fleece on the plane, but everything else goes in my bag: Hair dryer (they are not supplied by the hotel), toiletries, long underwear (can double as pajamas when the one pair I’m bringing is at the laundry), 5 pants, 4 long sleeved cotton shirts, 1 long sleeved knit top, 3 short sleeved shirts, 1 long skirt, 1 windbreaker with hood, enough underwear for 8 days, hat, small purse, and travel meds (Airborne, Neosporin, motrin), 1 pair of sandals. I will wear sneakers on the plane.
My routine (as you can see) is to lay everything out on the bed, then determine whether I can get it all into my carry on. Total weight: a manageable 24 pounds
My backpack will hold my iPhone, iPad, chargers, money, credit card, passport, index cards, tissues, hand sanitizer, erasable markers for white boards (Pam tells me she has a good supply from volunteers leaving them behind, so no need to bring more), pens, notebook, facecloths (used to erase the white board), tea bags (water coolers on each floor of the Hidalgo dispense both hot and cold water) water bottle, and snacks for the flight.
There is no heat, so the rooms get a bit cool at night and in the morning. You can request an extra blanket for sleeping, but you need something warm for when you get out of the shower. A bathrobe is too bulky to pack, so I buy an inexpensive one in Queretaro, and leave it behind when I head home. That’s one of the advantages of being in a city. You can buy just about anything you need at either Del Sol or Woolworth’s (Yes, Woolworth DOES still exist. Just not in the USA). For me, the problem is I am WAY bigger than the average Mexican. This time around, I’m going to try shopping in the men’s department!
The high altitude dries your skin, but lotion is available everywhere, so I didn’t bother packing it in my toiletries bag. There is no need for insect repellant. I never saw a bug the two weeks I was there. A hat is important, because the sun is strong.
The hotel uses the same kind of plug and the same current as the USA, so no need for an adapter and converter. Even so, I’m bringing my trusty little gadget that I bought at Staples, because most rooms only have one electrical outlet. Notice the two USB ports, plus one regular plug? This little treasure allows me to charge iPhone, iPad and camera all from one socket!
If you are arriving at the start of the program, Pam will arrange for your transportation. I like to go in a day or two early, so I handle my own transportation to the hotel. It was 350 pesos to get to the historical center, (about $17 US). There is a booth in Queretaro airport, just outside immigrations and customs that helps with getting a taxi. I recently learned that Queretaro now has Uber service, but I think I’ll stick with the taxi to get to the hotel.
You don’t need to bring much money with you. There are ATMs at the airport and in town, so it is easy to use your debit card to get pesos. For those that want to exchange dollars, there is an office around the corner from our hotel, but ATMs are so abundant, I find it more convenient to just tap into my checking account.
Because the program fee covers room, board and transportation, you only need cash for shopping or if you plan on traveling on the weekend. Even then, credit cards are widely accepted.
Pam, our terrific leader, contacts all volunteers in advance of the trip. She explains that we will not be working with the same group of students every day. Instead, when we arrived at the school, we go off with whatever teacher we are assigned to. The students could be beginners, intermediate or advanced. Some teachers will tell you what they want you to work on–others will tell you to do whatever you want. This is where an iPad comes in handy. Last time, I took photos of common household objects so we could practice “what is this”, “this is a —“. For the more advanced students, we were able to talk about what was important to them: dating, family, work, food, entertainment, travel.
Because there are also evening classes, our hours vary. Some days we start early and end early, with a nice break before we get back together for dinner. Other days we have our mornings off, but pack food for dinner and arrive back at the hotel around 9 PM. I thoroughly enjoyed the varied schedule. It gave us a chance to experience the city of Queretaro, although I have to tell you — not much is going on before 10 AM!
I bring my backpack to school every day. It holds my meal (lunch or dinner), extra layers of clothing, teaching aids, hand sanitizer and toilet paper (there are no paper products in the ladies’ room) and water bottle. It also serves as my luggage for my weekend excursion.
Global Volunteers have their weekends free. You can book trips on the Primera Plus bus at the travel agency around the corner from the hotel (in 2015, it was open from 10-2 and 4-7). Last time, we took the 8 AM bus on Saturday to Guanajuato, returning on Sunday’s 3:30 bus.
This time, Jeanne, Sally and I plan to visit San Miguel de Allende on the weekend between our two work weeks. Pam, the GV team leader, warned us that we needed advance reservations in San Miguel if we wanted to stay in the town center at a reasonably priced hotel. Good thing she did! There weren’t a lot of choices left when we made our reservations a few weeks ago. Once again, we will head out early Saturday morning and be back in time for dancing in the town square on Sunday night. Maybe Uber will be a good choice for getting between the bus station and hotel.
That’s all I can think of. I hope it is helpful, especially for my travel buddies Sally, Jeanne and Kristy.
That’s it. There was no “worst of times”. Lucky me. But good times do not make good novelists, so fortunately I’m content to be a sometimes blogger.
My other posts have all been about Querétaro, a delightful historic city–and I am far from done talking about it. But this post is about a SECOND undiscovered gem. Undiscovered by most USA tourists, that is.
Global Volunteers are free on the weekend, so several of us took a bus to Guanajuato, a two and a half hour ride from Querétaro.
And what a bus it was! I only wish airplane seats were so comfortable. Imagine being able to recline your seat without incurring the wrath of the person behind you. How about having a foot rest so you can stretch your legs out, just like you are in your favorite Lazy boy. Throw in free movies on your individual TV. Of course, you have to watch Renee Zellweger speaking Spanish, with her very full lips out of synch with her words. That’s the Premiera Plus ( the name of the bus company) experience. I preferred watching the countryside flash by, but that’s generally how I roll.
The bus stations In both cities had snack bars, clean bathrooms (the 5 peso entry fee gets you the best seat in the house, toilet paper, soap and paper towels), and comfortable waiting rooms, for those of you that care about such things. (I’m definitely in that category.)
Taxis to the historic center were plentiful and inexpensive — 50 pesos, or a little more than $3.00 –got us delivered to our hotel off La Plaza de La Paz.
Like Querétaro, Guanajuato is safe, clean, inexpensive, beautiful, friendly, musical, historic—AND it has a miradora–a panoramic view, something I can’t resist.
I rode the funicular to the top of the hill, the site of the statue of el Pipila, who is clearly visible from just about everywhere in the city.
Those so inclined can climb inside, sorta like the Statue of Liberty. I decided to take one for the team, so I climbed to the top, and I’m going to tell you–the view’s not worth it.
See how narrow the stairs are? The ladder to the top is even narrower, and just a tad scary.
So, how did el Pipila get his very own statue at summit of Guanajuato? Are you getting tired of the history trivia? I hope not, because I’m going to tell you.
The Mexicans decided they had had quite enough of Spanish rule, so they started a rebellion (actually this is more of a Querétaro story, which will be a future post, but I’m drinking wine while I’m writing this, so let’s just go with it. Okay?)
El Pipila put a flat stone on his back to protect him from the Spaniards, who were holed up in a granary and tossing dreadful, dangerous things at him. He set fire to the door of the granary, which allowed the Mexicans to enter, slay with Spaniards and win the battle. Oh my God. Am I REALLY talking about battles and wars? Has it come to that?
Time to change the subject.
Guanajuato has an abundance of museums, and I was able to visit several of them. The things hanging on the walls were all very lovely, but what floats my boat are the buildings that house the exhibits. The Diego Riviera Museum is his childhood home.
I don’t know whether he and Frieda actually slept there, but who cares? The architecture is fantastic, and the cutouts weren’t half bad.
Guanajuato has its fair share of churches, and if there is a wedding happening, I never miss an opportunity to crash it. This lovely bride’s veil was pinned to her groom’s shoulder. After the ceremony was completed, they were unpinned. Don’t know the background, but I thought it was an interesting custom.
What else can I tell you about Guanajuato? The food was excellent. The Mexican wine was delicious, and of course I felt compelled to take photos of everything, so you can see for yourself.
I could keep posting photos till your eyes roll back into your heads. But I won’t. I’d encourage you to enjoy visiting this amazing city and will leave you with just two more photos.
I’m almost out of power, so I’ll post. Please forgive the typos…drink a little wine, and this will all make sense to you. Visit this wonderful city and fall in love with it!