There is an uncanny feeling to travelling. Immersed in the unfamiliar you notice your surroundings with awe and wonder and freshness. Away from the drudgery of everyday life you are willing to be transported into another world. This sense of magic is never far away in Hidalgo, Mexico.
The region remains somewhat undiscovered to UK markets despite its convenient location, and according to the tourist board Britons are only tenth in terms of visitor numbers. Hidalgo is 90 minutes or so drive from Mexico City. It is spring, and we travel through clouds of jacaranda, the shadows viscerally cutting into the sunlight and heat as the topography changes. The landscape gives way to cacti punctured desert, roadside shrines and ramshackle restaurants with hand painted signs. We pass by buses with destinations chalked on the front, clusters of flowers that apparently take the souls of passers-by and wilt. The blue hazy mountains loom ahead until we reach the brightly painted Barrios of Pachuca.
To visit Hidalgo is to know the magic of Mexico in one state - Eduardo Javier Baños Gómez, Hidalgo minister of tourism
Signs for ‘Pastes’ are everywhere, a local snack descended from the Cornish Pasty. Mexico, though mostly a Spanish colony, was formed of many different European settlements – French, German and English - each diaspora filtering through into the architecture, food and culture of the region. Hidalgo happens to be an English settlement: ‘Mexico’s little Cornwall’. Miners moved here after Mexican independence in 1824 and brought their culinary influence to the local delicacy, characterised by its signature curved crust of pastry used to hold it with hands dirty from the silver mines. The Hidalgo version has coriander and a bit of spice to it. The most famous place to have them is Pastes ‘El Porto’ in Real del Monte, an attractive town that is also famous for having the first Mexican football team, another inheritance from the Cornish settlers. It is one of five ‘Magic Towns’ in Hidalgo. The steep streets, stairways and small squares are lined with low buildings and many houses have high sloping roofs and chimneys, thanks to the British influence. There is even an English cemetery of 750 tombs surrounded by trees – the “English Pantheon”: atmospheric, shadowy and overgrown, high up on the mountain overlooking the town.
The British traces are theme park-esque – reminiscent of an inherited and quaint little England of red phone boxes and pretty cottages with pitched roofs. My hosts ask me if I feel at home? And I cannot help but feel this is some payback for awful Mexican theme restaurants of sombreros and handlebar moustaches. It is cheering to see the archetypal British motifs gloriously melting in with Mexican influence. This is how culture works best, not stagnant but evolving and mongrel and hybrid and alive.
As with all of Mexico the food is mouth-watering. One of the best experiences was eating at a tiny authentic local covered market Barbacoa Hnos, a Santiago street food stand in Valle del Mezquital where we ate a spicy, broth like chickpea soup, mutton tacos, customary cinnamon brewed coffee and quesadillas. We also ate a local breakfast of tortilla soup at Restaurant real del Monte but not everything was traditional – the craft beer around the corner at Mysterios made with cascade hops imported from the USA was a particular highlight. There are seven villages in the region with flavours where their cuisine is unique and the welcome everywhere was genial and warm.
It was disconcerting amid these unfamiliar surroundings to see what seemed to be a lot of garden gnomes. These turn out to be duendes – little supernatural elf or troll like creatures that inhabit the landscape, bringing you luck if you treat them well. In Huasca de Ocampo we meet the duendes for real. We stay under the stars in geodome tents – sleeping in luxury beds in idyllic wooded surroundings. We assemble for a torchlit walk in the nearby woods. After a fire-lit ritual we come face-to-face with a duende who leads us around the eerie pitch-black forest and tells magical tales.
But the real magic lies in the landscape. The Hidalgo Mining Region has been named by UNESCO as a world geopark, the first of its kind in Mexico. After a headspinning descent we arrive in the valley of the Grutas Totalongas. This is a co-operatively owned nature park for enjoying the turquoise blue thermal volcanic springs that tumble down the mountain. It comprises of caves, waterfalls, rivers and clusters of infinity pools built into the rock face to catch the naturally warm and mineral rich water. It is an unforgettable experience swimming in the temperate springs that cascade through caves surrounded by stalactites. It’s exhilarating clambering through the tunnels, torchlight sparkling off rushing torrents into the pitch black. Contrast that with a dreamlike float in the mountainside infinity pools, a convivial atmosphere as families picnic nearby, taking in the sunshine and the surroundings.
As if this wasn’t enough stunning scenery for one region there is the Prismas Basálticos – a breathtakingly huge canyon of geometric columns and waterfalls similar to Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Even the rain is beautiful here, fat globules cascading and shattering in the sun against an opalescent sky. Hidalgo has everything, and invites you to live a different experience - Eduardo Javier Baños Gómez
We drive back through the undulating mountains, meandering through the ebbs and flows of the landscape. The surroundings become more epic. Flashes of lightning give way to the sun cascading neon red fire through the mountains. It is a tactile, sensory overload – a profound experience of awe and magic.
Hidalgo promises visitors a wide range of options, from outdoor activities to cultural immersion in the ancient and recent history, in addition to a rich culinary tradition. Its basalt prisms, its mining history, its thermal waters and archaeological sites provide travellers an unforgettable experience.
Find out more on the official website.
Words and images: Sapphire Goss