>>>Mexico’s sacred giant
Foto: Secretaría de Turismo de Querétaro

Mexico’s sacred giant

Bernal Peak has always attracted attention, from the dinosaurs that roamed its slopes when it was an active volcano to the indigenous people and Spanish conquerors who used it as a sacred place and fortress.
ou can’t stop yourself from looking at it. Standing 350m high and weighing 4 million tonnes, it is the third largest monolith in the world after the Rock of Gibraltar (Spain) and Sugar Loaf Mountain (Brazil). It is estimated that this Mexican monolith is about 10 million years old, though some experts claim it dates back 65 million years, to the Jurassic period. However, everyone agrees that it used to be a volcano. An iceberg of boiling lava that petrified over the centuries.
The Otomí-Chichimeca people believe that Peña de Bernal (Bernal Peak) protects the Toliman region.
Foto: Secretaría de Turismo de Querétaro

A never-ending historic quarter

The Querétaro Aqueduct, built in the 17th century, is nearly nine kilometres long and is one of the symbols of a city that safeguards some of the most valuable gems of colonial architecture. In 1996, its historic quarter was declared a World Heritage Site.

Today, the frozen ex-volcano is a mystic centre, registered on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage due to its relationship with the indigenous Otomí-Chichimeca people. Every spring equinox it welcomes pilgrims who climb the steep rock to caress its aura and ‘charge with energy’. It is also a challenge for rock climbers who scale sharp edges that resemble witches noses. But still, Bernal, which in Arabic means ‘a rock in the middle of nowhere’, remains a relatively unknown Mexican gem that has so far gone unnoticed by mass tourism.
To get there you need to pass through Querétaro, a quaint colonial town of mustard and copper houses, and venture into Sierra Gorda. On the edge, about 50km from the capital of the state, lies San Sebastián Bernal, the town that grew at the foot of the lava monolith.
The village was founded in 1642 by the Spanish. In 2006, it was included in the list of ‘Magical Villages’.
Foto: Shutterstock.com/ Barna Tanko
The protector of a magical village
There are several routes to the top of the peak. La Ferrata is the easiest, though the climb at the end is practically vertical, making steel cables necessary.
Foto: iivangm via Foter.com / CC BY
Located on the route of Mexico’s colonial treasures, Bernal was created as a Spanish fortress protected by the peak. It was the point from where the Spanish advanced in their conquest of several indigenous peoples known as Chichimecas, whose mysticism, places of worship and crafts have all been preserved.
With scarcely 4,000 inhabitants, Bernal may seem small, but its maze-like design hides many architectural surprises, including a 17th-century castle or the Capilla de las Ánimas (Chapel of the Souls), dedicated to the restless souls that used to roam the mountains. In the large houses with plants and flowers growing outside there are 100-year-old looms, such as La Aurora Centro Artesanal, where some families still make handcrafted wall hangings and blankets. While you wander through the cobbled streets, the smell of coarsely-ground corn suddenly fills the air. The corn is used to make the famous ‘gorditas’, small, round tortillas filled with beans, pork crackling, cheese or nopal, a kind of cactus.
Boutique hotels have also opened up here. An example is Casa Mateo, a 100-year-old stone building with an open-air swimming pool from where you can see the monolith in all its splendour, as if it were a thermal bath in Pompeii with views of Mount Vesuvius. The town is also home to an original museum dedicated to masks, where you can see those used in carnivals as well as the traditional masks worn on the Day of the Dead. Bernal does not only form part of the magical village network, it is also at the heart of a sacred territory. And the peak continues to protect it, as it has done for hundreds of years.

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