When I´m itching to get out of town, Parras de la Fuente is my easy getaway of choice. Only two hours from Saltillo, it makes for a great daytrip. Sometimes it´s nice to stay for a whole weekend, too.
Parras is officially recognized as a Pueblo Magico by the federal government. This means that the town is charming, has some attractions, is graffiti-free, and often gets crowded on weekends and during Holy Week. Crowds do abound over Holy Week, particularly Easter weekend, but on average weekends it´s a quiet, charming place to visit. However, if one plans to stay overnight, make reservations ahead of time, especially during the warmer months. There are only 4 hotels in town, and they can fill up quickly.
What is there to do in Parras?
Casa Madero–the oldest winery in the Americas. Casa Madero is the main reason my family frequents Parras as often as we do. Often we go all the way to Parras with the sole purpose of bringing home a case of wine. While Casa Madero´s bodega doesn´t offer tastings, they do offer tours with very knowledgeable guides. They explain the wine-making process, from growing the grapes, juicing them, and the fermentation process. They also distill brandy on the property, and include the distillery on the tour.
As wine tastings are not provided at Casa Madero, which wines should one buy there? (Given the expectation that everyone would want to take a bottle, or five, home with them, of course.) Honestly, I haven´t had a bad wine from Casa Madero. My favorite is their merlot. The chardonnay and cabernet suavingnon are also very good.
Estanquillo de la Luz–Parras boasts a number of reservoirs for public swimming. This is the only one I´ve tried. But I love it so much, I may never try another! The 9-foot deep, crystal-clear, chemical-free pool would make a beautiful setting for the Olympic games, with the church on the hill, Santo Madero, towering majestically over the reservoir.
Entrance to the reservoir is insanely affordable, a mere $15 for adults. We like to live it up and rent a palapa for the day, so we have some shade, benches to sit on, a table to use, and a grill. That sets us back a whole $50 for the day. They do charge for parking, but the lot is locked, and again, the price is negligable. They also charge for bathrooms, but that´s also about $3. Despite all the nickle-and-diming, it´s a very affordable day away!
They rent innertubes and life jackets, and, for those who don´t bring food to grill, there is a little store stocked with chips, candy, and gorditas. Beer is permitted as long as it´s not in glass bottles. For little kids who don´t swim well, there is a playground area and a kiddie pool with slides. The kiddie pool can get very slippery, but even after some spectacular falls on the painted concrete, my kids still love it.
When I want to pretend that I´m at a resort, but not pay a resort price tag, this is the place to go!
La Casona–my favorite restaurant in Parras. But, much like Estanquillo de la Luz, this is just about the only restaurant we´ve ever tried in Parras. It´s such a winner, we feel no need to try anywhere else.
We go for their carne asadas. They do have tables inside, but it´s much more enjoyable to sit outside in the patio, to listen to the sizzle of the grill and smell the smoke when the wind blows in the wrong direction. Just order a package that includes various cuts of beef, frijoles charros, and guacamole. They´ll happily provide as many tortillas as necessary. My family has spent many delicious afternoons there.
While in Parras, stop at one of the many candy stores. Parras is known for their pecan-based and milk based candies. I stock up on canelones, a milk candy that´s covered in powdered cinnamon. My sister-in-law is always in search of ate de membrillo. Most candy stores also stock dessert licqueurs that are made in town or elsewhere in the region.
Most people also climb to the top of Santo Madero, the church that is on the top of the hill, which overlooks the whole town (it´s hard to miss!). However, I tend to spend too much time letting the fish nibble on my toes at the reservoir, so I´ve never been to the top of Santo Madero. One of these days . . .
Some weekends, people set up stalls in the Plaza del Reloj and sell handicrafts, candy, and hippie jewelry. The tourism secretary also runs a sight-seeing trolley, which I believe leaves from that plaza, too. The trolley is another one of those things that I´d like to do, but still haven´t done there.
Thank goodness Parras is so close! Because I will certainly get back there and have the chance to check out all I´ve failed to do yet.
Smack between Saltillo and Torreón. Take the highway going to Torreón, and get off at the Parras exit. Easy peasy.
Where is Casa Madero?
Once you´ve turned off the highway, you´ve got about 15 minutes to go to reach the town of Parras. Casa Madero is about halfway between the highway and Parras. As the road passes through some vineyards, you´ll see white walls with a white gate just before the road curves left. That´s Casa Madero.
Where is Estanquillo de la Luz?
Upon entering Parras, the road all but dead ends. The center of Parras is to the right. Keep on that road until just about the end of town. There should be some signs, but when it looks like you´re just about out of town, turn left. The road should go pretty sharply uphill, and the Estanquillo de la Luz is at the top. (I´ll get better directions the next time I go.)
Where is La Casona?
The main plaza is Plaza del Reloj. Walk to the backside of the church on this plaza, and you should see another plaza, one with a kiosk. Facing the kiosk with the church behind you (there will be another church on the left side of the plaza from this direction), turn right, walk down the street, and La Casona will be on the left. A hotel is across the street from La Casona. Sta. Isabel, I believe?
Since we had a long weekend for Constitution Day the first weekend of February, we decided to get out of town. Go somewhere new. Get off the Highway 57 corridor. *gasp!*
Our destination? Aguascalientes.
My husband visited Aguascalientes when he was young. He saw his first bullfight there, so the city has long held a special place in his heart. It´s a well-preserved, colonial city that we´ve been meaning to visit for years. The bullrings called his attention. The hot water in its name called mine. Finally, we had time to explore Aguascalientes.
It´s a five-to-six-hour drive to Aguascalientes from Saltillo. Head towards Zacatecas and then follow signs to Aguascalientes. It´s a long, uneventful drive. Don´t do it at night, and keep your gas tank full, as the gas stations are far and few between. There might be one about every 40 minutes. Of course, don´t drive at night.
We reserved rooms at the Gran Hotel Alameda. It´s farther out of town than we usually prefer to stay, but the hotel description intrigued us. It gave us hope that they had a hot tub. We were wrong. However, they have an excellent attached restaurant. The service, both in the hotel and restaurant was impeccable. And, had we been there on a warmer weekend, we would have taken advantage of their pool and been temped to pretend that the Gran Hotel Alameda was a resort. It would have been easy not to have left the hotel.
But we did. After all, we came to explore Aguascalientes.
After an amazing spread at the hotel´s breakfast buffet, we drove downtown, ready to explore. Parking is plentiful at the Expo San Marcos, with an entrance under a bridge on Adolfo Lopez Mateos–unless the fair is going on. If you come for the fair, stay right downtown and don´t get in your car again until it´s time to leave town.
This fair is the nationally renowned Feria San Marcos. It takes place from mid-April to mid-May, and you need to have hotel reservations at least a year in advance. Bullfights and beer appear to be the name of the game. To our disappointment, we missed a bullfight on Saturday night and were not able to stay late enough on Monday to see one then. However, we wandered the outside of the big bullring, and were able to wander inside a much smaller one.
To our kids´relief, Aguascalientes has an excellent playground right outside of the big San Marcos bullring. After they ran off their energy, we dragged them through the Andador J. Pani, a complex of bars and restaurants that I´m sure are hopping when the fair is going on. In fact, the longer we stayed, it looked like they pulled in a reasonable business on a long weekend in February.
We could have walked all the way downtown, to appreciate historical Aguascalientes, but our kids´legs and attitudes demanded that we move the car closer to downtown. Like San Luis Potosí, Aguascalientes has always been an important connection between northern Mexico and Mexico City. Its strategic position between Zacatecas’s silver mines and Mexico City made it an important stopping place for wealthy silver caravans headed to Mexico City. The downtown area has various museums and is very walkable.
However, what called my attention were two bars on Venustiano Carranza. Peeking in, I noticed a large display of microbrews, many of them from Mexico! Given that microbreweries have taken off like wildfire in the US in the decade or two, I´ve been sorely disappointed that Mexico´s beer is still dominated by two or three huge companies. If you´re equally sad about that, Aguascalientes has the locally-brewed solution for you! In fact, from the briefest of searches, it seems that they have a couple of breweries. My next trip there may just be called, “The Aguascalientes Beer Quest”. I will certainly revisit Bon Apetit and the Beer Botique and pick the staffs´ heads about the Aguascalientes beer scene.
Monday morning dawned cloudy and cold with a very real chance for rain. However, we were determined to check out the hot springs at Ojocaliente, just across the street from the hotel. As it was a national holiday, and we had to make that five-hour drive back home before dark, we were the first to hit the hot springs.
Now, when one thinks of hot springs, one usually thinks of sitting out, under the sun, in gloriously warm, naturally heated water, right? Not the case here. Ojocaliente has a number of private, enclosed pools that are rented by the hour. Open the tap, steamy water begins pouring into the tub, and a half hour later, it is filled to capacity. When the water starts to lose a bit of heat as time passes, open the spout again, and let the steamy warmth pour on your head, down your shoulders. Bliss.
For extra enjoyment, take breaks from the hot tub. Run to the shower provided in the private room, stand under the cold water (yes, not for the faint of heart), tighten up all those muscles, and then immerse yourself back in the hot tub. They´re big enough for one or two people to float on their backs at a time. If you have more time than we had, they also offer massages for an extra price. And they don´t mind at all if you add bath salts to the water–in fact, they´ll be happy to sell you some when you rent your hour.
I don´t know how crowded Ojocaliente might get during Semana Santa, when everyone has vacation. But on a cold, rainy day in early February, we just about had the place to ourselves. And yes, this is a child-friendly establishment. They have play equipment at one end of the interior courtyard, sell floaties for anyone who would like to purchase them, and the water is not too hot for little peoples´ sensitive skin.
We had one more excellent meal at the Gran Hotel Alameda. With cream of olive soup, grilled lamb and roasted salmon on the menu, why would we eat anywhere else?
That long weekend was just long enough to convince me that I need to see more of Aguascalientes.