In San Miguel, we tend to look up at the history chiseled in our buildings with their many architectural styles from Baroque to Neo-Gothic with Churrigueresque thrown in for flavor. Visitors can get a “kink in their neck” trying to visually memorize the fanciful Gaudí-like La Parroquia; however, it is worth considering what is under your feet. Part of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, known as the Silver Route in this part of Mexico, goes through and around San Miguel. Just walking the streets of San Miguel most likely puts you on what was once part of the Camino Real with history literally at your feet.
Once silver was discovered in Zacatecas (1546) and nearby Guanajuato (1548), the Spanish crown became invested in the safe movement of silver from the mines to Mexico City and ultimately Spain. Construction of the first part of the Camino Real, the Silver Route, began in the 1550’s and ultimately resulted in a route 2,600km long ending to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Construction was not easy as the route was through areas controlled by hostile indigenous groups and across ravines and narrow canyons. Both San Miguel de Allende and San Felipe were, in this period, designated “villas protectoras de camino” or protective villas of the road.
The Camino Real continued to be used as the major trade route from Mexico City north until the 1880’s when the railroad system was extended to central Mexico….that’s more than 300 years! The modern highway system has gradually obliterated most of the original route but one can easily find the traces of the original Camino Real by visiting the bridges that still exist.
The bridge of El Fraile, a five-minute drive from San Miguel, was one of more than eleven bridges built along the Camino Real during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries by the Village of San Miguel. The bridge of El Fraile, with its one arch, is said to be from the 16th century but was rebuilt in the 18th century. In addition to being a marker along the Camino Real, this bridge and the surrounding area have many stories to tell.
The photo is from one side of the bridge and our watercolors painted from the other side. Note that we are painting at the peak of the rainy season here in San Miguel so this is as green as it gets. I was attracted to the intermittent sunlight that highlighted the very dark areas under the bridge. It’s unclear to us if the structure under the bridge is the original bridge or just a way to divert heavy runoff from damaging the structure.
This very small spot on the map has historical significance in the early history of the conquest of this area. The bridge across the Arroyo de los Frailes was where two Franciscan friars were killed by the Chichimecas in 1528….frailes is Spanish for friars. Later near the same arroyo and bridge in 1531, a legendary battle took place between the Spaniards with their Christianized Otomi and Chichimeca allies and the barbarian Chichimecas. According to legend, the battle raged for weeks and on the night of September 29th, a cross appeared in the sky. Both sides considered it a sign and the barbarian Chichimecas converted.
The last weekend in September there are celebrations in San Miguel that continue the legacy of this epic battle. See La Fiesta de San Miguel for background on the celebrations and history.