Hot in Hermosillo

Spend some time with Tucson’s Sonoran sister, filling up on coyotas, bacanora and a unique and revolutionary heritage

When searching the words "Tucson" and "travel," you get a mix of lists rounding up the best places to eat in town; you get information on where to stay; and you get that New York Times article from about a year ago that praises the architectural artifacts that were nearly torn down to make way for more cars driving down Broadway.

When searching the words "Hermosillo" and "travel," on the other hand, you'll almost exclusively find crime and safety reports and one lingering question: Is Hermosillo safe?

It's an interesting question for a number of reasons, but for Tucsonans, it's especially pertinent due not only to proximity, but also to the parallel cultural and infrastructural events taking place in both cities right now.

click to enlarge Bright murals line the streets in Hermosillo. - HEATHER HOCH
Heather Hoch
Bright murals line the streets in Hermosillo.

Tucked past the rolling hills of the Sonoran countryside, you'll pass smaller cities like Imuris, Santa Ana and many farms, as well as several borderside mansions in the middle of nowhere that raise more than a few questions—but that's another story. If you've driven to San Carlos to take advantage of the beach and bay, you've driven through Sonora's capital, but the rapidly expanding city is worth stopping in on its own.

The easiest way to get into Hermosillo, if you don't feel like buying Mexican insurance for your car, is the Hermosillo Shuttle (2000 E. Broadway Blvd.). With several daily departures from its hub just outside of downtown Tucson, the shuttle is only slightly more expensive than the Tufesa bus line (about $100 round trip versus $75), but substantially quicker (by two or more valuable vacation hours). Plus, the shuttle will drop you off and pick you up wherever you're staying.

While many in Hermosillo speak some English, the town is much less catered to tourists than you may be used to from beachside vacations in Mexico, so having some key phrases locked in before you go would be smart.

Like Tucson, Hermosillo's modern heritage is pinned pretty typically around Father Kino and the Jesuit development in the region, once known as Santísima Trinidad del Pitic. Kino, as well as Spanish conquistadors, met face-to-face with the indigenous communities of Sonora, such as the Yaquis and Seri, who inhabited the surrounding lands of what is now known as Hermosillo back in the late 17th century. The missionary-style conquest of the region got a late start compared to that of central and southern Mexico, where the native population and cities, such as Tehotihuacán and later Tenochtitlán, were much more dense and developed. Really, the Spanish backed off from the north for a while because there wasn't a big enough indigenous community to, let's say, "work without pay" for them. Once established in the area, the Yaquis from the valley were sent to what would become the state of Yucatán and forced into harsh labor. When they were freed, most migrated further up into what is now Arizona.

click to enlarge HEATHER HOCH
Heather Hoch

As you walk through the small streets of downtown Hermosillo, there are merely hints of that Spanish colonialism in the city's mostly-industrial infrastructure. European-inspired antiquity isn't as present as it is in Mexican cities further south, and, like Tucson, most of the oldest buildings are only about a century old. There's the massive Catedral de la Asunción (Avenida Centenario Norte, El Centenario, 83260), next to Plaza Zaragoza—a piece of Neoclassical and Neo-Gothic architecture that was consecrated in 1908. There's also the Parroquia Nuestra Señora del Carmen (Calle Jesús García 17, Centro, 83000), where impressive and intricate stonework on the outside hides a fairly modest interior design. Built in 1837, this particular church was made by a man from Guaymas for his wife, though the century-plus newer Parroquia Nuestra Señora del Rosario de Fatima's (Zacatecas #192, San Benito) baroque design is perhaps more visually rich than that of Carmen's.

Like Tucson, though, much of the older architecture in the city was torn down to make way for modern development. Think of Hermosillo's downtown area like Tucson's own Barrio Viejo—where once was rich (and far more eco-friendly) adobe structures that typify the region's heritage now stand run-of-the-mill shopping centers and storefronts (or a big old convention center, if we're talking Tucson).

But that's just one way the two cities feel akin. Initiatives to make both places more visually appealing to visitors manifest in city-sponsored art patronage scrawled across the walls. Like the eight murals just painted in Tucson, all down Avenida No Reelección, murals with the hashtag #CasaMadrid seek to make the more historic city center street something worth not tearing down at the very least. Two-story tall Yaqui deer dancers, Louis Armstrong, Frida Kahlo, lizard people, legendary luchador El Santo and more abstract works where paint spills down dilapidated walls like a pastel waterfall all seek to revitalize the area.

The name of the street itself alludes to the city's legacy of rebellion, revolution and outspoken defiance to the oppressive ruling class that have taken turns making life difficult for folks in the area. "Sufragio efectivo, no reelección," the popular cry for both equal voting rights and term limits says. In another part of town, a street named 'sufragio efectivo' feeds into yet another named n'o reelección.'

It's here off Avenida No Reelección that initiatives to restore even pretty far gone historic structures are coming to life. Local record store Pitaya Records is renovating one such building, which now has a large tree growing in the middle of it, to be closer to where the hip and tourist-friendly vinyl pursuers might soon stroll. Among several classic rock offerings and kitsch soundtracks, Pitaya offers a decent selection of Tucson's local music.

click to enlarge Of course, you can’t go to Hermosillo without getting bacanora. - HEATHER HOCH
Heather Hoch
Of course, you can’t go to Hermosillo without getting bacanora.

Similarly, Pajáro Pop is responsible for booking Old Pueblo acts like Steff and the Articles, Prom Body and Head Over Heart down in Hermosillo. This bridge might initially seem like a sister cities style exchange of music, but it's still pretty one-sided, according to some locals. You see, despite being a college town and a state capital, Hermosillo has few local bands to speak of and even fewer that are actually still playing music. To make matters worse, concert goers in Hermosillo often end up giving in and traveling up to Tucson or to other states in Mexico to see touring international acts, meaning the city gets few—if any—shows of their own. Still, bands like Seacat and venues like Bar La Bohemia (Calle Comonfort 4, El Centenario, 83260), Mastodonte Gastropub (Boulevard Solidaridad 21, Las Granjas, 83250) and Está Cabral (Calle Callejón Velazco 11, El Centenario, 83260) are keeping music in Hermosillo alive. Plus, the large annual arts, culture and music festival—the Festival del Pitic—brings almost an entire week of music from around the globe into town at the end of May.

Before exploring the music, architecture and commissioned art around the city, though, you should probably settle into a hotel. While many in the area offer reasonably priced, comfortable digs with pools and more, Hotel Suites Kino (Pino Suárez 151 Sur, Centro, 83000) is both absurdly reasonably priced (rooms can be reserved for less that $30 per night) and right in the heart of downtown, making it difficult to pass up. Be warned, though, the beds are a little stiff and unsettling, dated classical music is pumped through the hallways in an attempt to class up the joint. Really, though, the antiquated jams make you feel like an extra in The Shining. The ambiance in the hallways and by the indoor pool in the heart of the hotel is a little eerie to say the least, but certainly nothing the low room fee won't make up for.

Getting past the surface, the soul of the hotel is significant, not only to Hermosillo, but the entire country of Mexico. As the first hotel in the relatively newly established (as it's currently known) city, it was built just one year before the Mexican Revolution exploded in the beginning of the 20th century. It's rumored that Venustiano Carranza, a main player on the political side of the revolution, once walked the hallways of Hotel Kino. At that time, Carranza was fleeing the state of Coahuila, where he was governor, and made Hermosillo home. Here, he sparked the Constitutionalist Movement—hence why Hermosillo is nicknamed the "revolutionary capital of the country." Carranza ended up becoming president of Mexico from 1917 to 1920, under the reformed Mexican Constitution of 1917.

For those looking to get into a revolutionary Sonoran spirit, watering holes across the city center oblige with mezcal, craft beer, cocktails and, of course, Sonora's heritage agave spirit: bacanora. You can begin your drinking excursion around the corner from Hotel Kino with some locally brewed beer at Espuma Artesenal (Calle Gral Álvaro Obregón 75A, Centro, 83000), a hip little bar that proves pretty clearly that Sonora loves its craft beer as much as Arizona. Drafts showcase local brewers for just about $3 per pint, and you won't find it uncommon for someone to spark up a political conversation between brews.

While the sun is setting, head west on the Boulevard Miguel Hidalgo past the aforementioned Plaza Zaragoza to Casa Nieves (B, Bulevar Hidalgo 58, El Centenario, 83260). There, you'll be able to enjoy mezcal, sotol and massive steins of cheap beer on the bar's rooftop terrace, while watching the main cathedral light up for the night.

click to enlarge Breakfast at Mercado Municipal. - HEATHER HOCH
Heather Hoch
Breakfast at Mercado Municipal.

With all of that liquid inspiration in tow, exploring the edible heritage of the city is a good next step. Late-night food options manifest in the form of asaderos and hot dog stands. Roasted meat and tacos a la carte can be found at Taqueria el Chambarete (Calle 12 de Octubre, Balderrama), along with Asadero Taco Real (Calle Israel Gonzalez, Los Cuatro Olivos, 83147), which offers a midnight cheesy, gut-busting, chile-filled hass taco fix. Rest assured, though, that dogos (not Sonoran dogs) are king here. While you may have the urge to tell your Hermosillo pals that Tucson invented the Sonoran dog, it's best to hold off on that—they take their dogos so seriously that it isn't entirely uncommon to hear heated debate on who makes the best dog (some say it's Dogos Dany) or how the local specialty should be made. A 10-minute bolillo discussion isn't unheard of either. Sound familiar?

When morning hits, you'll be able to revive yourself with roadside aguas frescas in guava, melon, coconut—(rather than rice)—based horchata and more. However, any ideal weekend morning in Hermosillo demands a visit to the Mercado Municipal (Avenida Plutarco Elías Calles, Centro), one of the few cultural artifacts in that area that withstood the wholesale teardown that hit the rest of its neighbors. On the outset, the mercado is studded with at least eight different diner-style breakfast counters, serving café con leche, eggs with machaca or chorizo, caldos like menudo and pozole and more. With devilishly spicy salsa and a generous stack of tortillas, hearty breakfasts with rice and beans will get you going in no time. From there, the inner-workings of the mercado offer meat butchered onsite, fish caught in nearby Guaymas and other such goods.

click to enlarge Boutique coffee served Sonoran style at Cafe Catrín. - HEATHER HOCH
Heather Hoch
Boutique coffee served Sonoran style at Cafe Catrín.

For coffee snobs, a stop into the beautifully modern Café Catrín (Bulevar Juan Navarrete 377), which is approximately a 10-minute drive from the city center, will offer all of the cold brewed, poured over, boutique roasted coffee you've come to expect in any city of considerable population and worldliness. Catrín is unique, though, in three ways. First, a cup of café talega offers a view into Sonoran-style coffee roasting, where the bean is essentially caramelized in sugar while it roasts, resulting in a thick, velvety coffee texture with a light sweetness. Then, there are the house drinks, which pair cold brew with vanilla and Topo Chico or marzipan for one-of-a-kind regional flavors Finally, there are the decadent, fresh baked pastries like piloncillo cochitos and dulce de leche filled empanadas.

True pastry aficionados, though, must stop by Villa del Seris for a flaky, crumbly and sweet historical baking excursion. There, in the little town that was absorbed into the city of Hermosillo as it expanded, is the birthplace of coyotas. The flat, round treat is part cookie, part flaky pastry and can come filled in any manner of things from traditional piloncillo and rich jamoncillo to fruity guava and quince—the latter, of course, being a cultural remnant from Father Kino days. While several praise the handiwork of Doña Coyo (83280, Calle Álvaro Obregón 22, Villa del Seris) for all your coyota needs, the small bakery often makes only a handful every 20 minutes and then sells out almost immediately after they're made, making a D.C. coyota score a rare and sometimes very frustrating feat. Instead, Doña María (Calle Sufragio Efectivo #37) offers many more filling flavors and seems aware that more than 10 people a day will order coyotas from them, but the choice here is yours.

click to enlarge Coyotas are Hermosillo’s heritage treat. - HEATHER HOCH
Heather Hoch
Coyotas are Hermosillo’s heritage treat.

In the old days, this neighborhood and the larger city of Pitic were divided by a river. That river is now completely dry and the two sections have merged, forming Hermosillo. Hermosillo's modern residential expansion, mostly fueled by migration from states like Chiapas (by migrants who couldn't make it to the U.S., and then settled in nearby border cities like Hermosillo, according to locals), is particularly concerning since the city has absolutely no water. The city takes its water from the Yaqui River in the valley, which, as you can imagine, has created many issues, both socially and politically.

click to enlarge HEATHER HOCH
Heather Hoch

The Yaqui believe that the land you occupy, and all natural resources that it holds, belong to you—the river, the trees—and you have sovereignty over what's done with that water. The Yaqui see themselves as the guardians of the river. But the state government thinks otherwise. In 2010, the former governor of Sonora, Guillermo Padrés Elías, announced the construction of the "Independence Aqueduct," which would extract at least 75 million cubic meters of water from the Yaqui River per year to then transport it about 100 miles to the capital of the state. A large amount of this water is used for hungry American industries based in Hermosillo, such as the Ford assembly factory, all brought to Sonora thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Perhaps in some sort of water-based karma, it's widely believed that the dry river, dammed up just outside the city limits that once split Seris and Pitic, will one day flood with water again. In fact, back in 1983, it did just that. So naïve and ethno-ignorant safety concerns aside, the true danger hanging over Hermosillo isn't violence against moneyed tourists, but that this river will reclaim its former position, wiping out an entire mall, a government building (which already floods in the basement) and several newer housing developments. You can see the divide of Pitic and Seris, the dam, the currently dry riverbed and more best from the top of Cerro de la Campana—a popular lookout spot and hill in the middle of the city that's named after a special type of rock found on it that, when struck together, sounds like a campana (or bell).

Go to the south side of Hermosillo, and there are hidden unpaved roads as foundation for modest family homes. It's in this area of the city where what's left of ABC Daycare—the place where 49 toddlers died seven years ago in a fire caused both by flames as well as government corruption and neglect—stands. The air in the area is thick with melancholy, as 49 crosses with the names of each little victim line up in rows. A mural across the street reads, "Justice. ABC. Do not forgive. Do not forget. Stop impunity." Since the tragedy, every June 5, there is a march to honor the little victims and to outcry against the corruption that corrodes Mexico from the inside, out.

click to enlarge Shrine outside the ruins of the ABC Day Care for 49 toddlers who died in a fire seven years ago. - MARIA INES TARACENA
Maria Ines Taracena
Shrine outside the ruins of the ABC Day Care for 49 toddlers who died in a fire seven years ago.

That day imprinted sadness and awareness in Hermosillo. But, in a way, people have always known the destructive pattern of their government. It's just that this time, those abuses hit hard, demanding a sacrifice that the people weren't willing to give. Still, they are proud of their city and their state, and what both mean culturally to the entire country. There's excitement for their heritage and for not forgetting the joys of life, even the little ones—tasty street food, chilly licuados on a hot day or an outdoor norteño concert.

Cutting through what can be a pessimistic reality, Hermosillenses know the importance of celebrating the landmarks, whether a historic monument or a community eatery. Both are wrapped up into one at El Burro Feliz (Colonia Reforma 11, San Benito, 83190) and it's as good of a place as any to end a trip to Hermosillo before the five-hour drive back home. Here, after 20 years in business and now in a new location fashioned from an old Chinese restaurant, juicy, spiced chilorio, rich chicharrón and traditional machaca come wrapped up in massive tortillas sobaqueras. The name comes from the fact that, when stretching the harina dough into its disc-like shape, the size of the tortilla spans all the way to its maker's sobaco—or armpit. The chewy tortilla is perfect for packing in Sonoran-style refried beans, rice and more, and certainly filling enough to put you to sleep long enough that you might just wake up back in Tucson.

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