San Antonio – Day In Old Mexico…

If you plan to visit San Antonio and have never been, or even if you have visited, but have not been to the following, these are a few things you should definitely make a point of seeing.  I did not go to these on this visit, but did on two prior visits in the last few years.  I told my family and some of my friends about these at the time, so this is more for anyone I haven’t told, or does not know me, but is following this blog.

You should definitely go to The Riverwalk and The Alamo, for starters.  These are arguably San Antonio’s best-known tourist attractions, but are still both very cool.  They are also only a couple of short walking blocks from each other, so that if you park near The Alamo, it’s an easy walk to The Riverwalk.

The other is the Day In Old Mexico, or any of the other handful of Charreada (traditional Mexican rodeo) events hosted by the San Antonio Charros Association throughout the year.  These are really hidden gems of San Antonio, and of Texas, itself, that I only found out about by accident on my first Texas road-trip in 2014.

During my Lost Maples hike on this current trip, I bumped into and hiked some of the ridge with a very nice group of about a half-dozen UT-Austin students, all from Texas, and at least a couple of whom were from San Antonio.  None of them had ever heard of these events.  And had there been a charreada event that coincided with this current visit to San Antonio, I would have been there in a heartbeat.  They are very special.

All of these events are held at the very cool, very rustic, San Antonio Charro Ranch (6126 Padre Drive, San Antonio), located on the outskirts of the south side of San Antonio.

In particular, the Day In Old Mexico events are held only twice a year, and are scheduled on two consecutive Sundays, typically in April (check the SA Charros Association’s Events Calendar for details) as part of the annual San Antonio Fiesta celebrations.

The outdoor arena at the Charro Ranch is designed for traditional Charreada events…consisting of a lane, where competitors enter or begin some competitions, that is about 40 feet wide, by 200 feet long, and opens up to a circular arena that is 130 feet in diameter.  The arena is enclosed by simple, covered grandstands.  The birds-eye view looks like a giant keyhole.

If you have a real camera, versus simply your cell-phone, you are permitted to hang out, view and photograph the demonstrations up-close-and-personal at dirt-level, in the curved open-corridor at ring-side…which, when I went, is exactly where I spent an entire afternoon, immersed in photo-op heaven.

The men’s, or charros’, events, are an alternating mix of great action and subtly-intricate riding and roping skills that differ dramatically from the purely high-octane events in American-style rodeos.  There are no SUV-sized bulls, for starters.

Absolutely nothing against American-style rodeos.  I have been to one, in Texas, loved it, and hope to see many more.  But, traditional Mexican Rodeo…at least the Day In Old Mexico…is a much quieter, more-subtle, affair.  It has the casual feel of a very large family reunion, versus pure-spectacle.  For one, the announcer introduces and explains each event, in the warm, familiar, friendly manner that a favorite uncle might introduce a potato-sack race at a reunion.  As a complete outsider, a Connecticut Yankee, I felt like I was being invited in, to be a part of this very large family.

Then, there are the young women’s events…the Escaramuza Charra.  Escaramuza are 8-member riding-teams of what appear to be high-school-aged girls, wearing formal sombreros and elaborate, colorful, traditional lacy dresses over layers of petticoats.  Escaramuza teams compete, in part, by executing a series of difficult, close-quarter, inter-lacing and intricately-synchronized horseback-riding patterns at moderately-high speeds…all while sitting elegantly side-saddle.

There is also one dramatic solo Escaramuza event, where a lone female rider on horseback, gallops headlong into the arena from the lane, bringing the horse to a sudden stop…churning up dirt and dust, essentially slamming on the horse’s brakes…while sitting side-saddle, and wearing one of these layered, lacy dresses.  I have no idea how these young women do this and avoid either getting hurled over the horse’s head, or flipping the horse backward onto themselves…all while remaining poised and in total control the entire time.  These girls are extremely brave and skilled.

So, if you ever plan a trip that includes San Antonio, I suggest trying to include one of the two April “Day in Old Mexico” events, or any of the other Charreada events, in your schedule.  They are not very well publicized, so I am letting you in on real insider info.  Mum’s the word…lol.

San Antonio – Tower of the Americas…

During my three days in San Antonio, I mostly relaxed and puttered around town.  I utilized short, in-town destinations and GPS to take me to and through various neighborhoods with no real plan.  I really just wanted to see a bit of the city, and GPS took me there in ways that a tour guide could not.

There is a nice, but touristy, Mexican restaurant and souvenir shop area called Market Square, where I shopped for a few small gifts for my family.  And a young Mexican woman at Havana’s front desk suggested I stop at the Pearl Brewery, a former brewery-turned-trendy-boutique-and-eatery area, so I went there, as well.  She also suggested that while at Pearl, I try an ice cream at Lick Ice Cream, so I did that.

I went to a Cavender’s Boot City, a big Texas retail chain for everyman/woman western wear, to find one of two new pairs (like I needed another) of roper-style western boots for country-western dancing.  We just have nothing remotely like a Cavender’s in the Northeast, or on the East Coast.

I went to another small western boot shop that I found online, as well, really just to give myself another excuse to drive around San Antonio.  I went to Rosario’s, a trendy Mexican restaurant, suggested by the same young woman at Havana’s front desk.

Each time any of these little excursions took me a ways from the downtown area, I would notice a very tall, modern tower, similar to the Seattle Space Needle, out in the distance.  I never knew which direction I was driving, or which direction this tower was in, but it always stood out.

Eventually, I gave up and googled “tallest buildings San Antonio”, or something.  The result was “Tower of the Americas”.  Has anyone ever heard of this?  I never had…which means nothing.

Further reading revealed that it is in fact a well-known tourist attraction and has a rotating restaurant and observation deck at the top.  So, my next destination became…  You guessed it.

I decided to treat myself to lunch at the tower’s observation-level restaurant, which was really nice.  My server provided a few basic tower-facts:  725 feet tall.  Second tallest tower in the U.S. next to a tower in Las Vegas.  Able to see out some thirty-seven miles on a clear day.   You’ll have to fact-check me here, too.  Just going from memory.

So, during the day, I had no plan.  I really just wanted to drive around and see what I could see.  There was no way to top what I had just experienced during four days in the Hill Country.  I was recuperating and enjoying just relaxing.

My only real goal in San Antonio was to go out each of the three nights to a different modern, very large, country-western dance hall, in the hope of finding some good country-western dancing: Midnight Rodeo and Wild West…both with large, racetrack-style dance floors, and Cowboys…the largest, by far, of the three.  So, large, in fact, that it contained an indoor, live rodeo, bull-riding arena (I was actually given a personal tour of the venue, when I told a barmaid about my road-trip).

Unfortunately, I was finding out that in San Antonio, a lot of folks don’t even start to head out to dance, even on weekdays, until 10 or 11pm.  This minor setback was further compounded by the amazing good fortune for all Texans that the Houston Astros were playing in the World Series.  This meant that many Texans who would otherwise be out dancing, were at home or in sports bars watching each game intensely.

I don’t follow sports, but I can certainly appreciate what a desperately-needed morale boost this provided, especially for any Texan who was affected by storm Harvey.  It was just bad timing for my dance plans.  But, no worries.  I simply rolled with whatever situation I encountered.  In this case, I became an Astros fan for the remainder of my stay in Texas.

San Antonio – From Habana…to Havana…

By pure coincidence, on the same day that I bumped into the amazing Cuban restaurant, Habana, in Austin, I was heading to my next hotel, which I had booked months ago, and which was located an hour and fifteen minutes away in San Antonio…the Cuban-themed, Hotel Havana, in downtown.  What is going on here???  Ay, yay, yay!

For most of this adventure, I had booked Hampton Inns and Holiday Inn Express hotels.  The exceptions were, The Italian Place B&B and the Double U Barr guest ranch in the Hill Country.  During the summer, I had also been looking for an affordable boutique hotel in San Antonio, where I planned to spend three nights.

I stumbled onto the Hotel Havana, which looked cool and was not expensive (for the “Studio Room”, that I was interested in), so that’s what I settled on.  Unfortunately, it was only available for my first two nights in San Antonio, so I was back in a Hampton Inn for my third night.

There are much better photos of the exterior and the rooms on the hotel’s website, but here are a few quick snapshots that I took.

The Hotel Havana turned out to be, again, the kind of place where when you stepped through the door, you were transported to another time…and in this case…another country.  According to the history section on the hotel’s website, the building was opened in 1914 under the current name, by a local grocer, to serve as temporary residences for visiting clients.

I fell in love with the hotel’s vibe, coziness and eccentricities.  For example, my room was small.  My bathroom was even smaller.  They were in the sloped eves of the roof, so there were angles.  But, it all somehow worked together to create a very cozy feel.  I loved it and felt very much at home.

Here’s a cellphone panoramic shot of my room.  It’s not sharp, but it will give you some idea.  There’s a better example on the hotel website.

There was Latin…maybe Cuban…music…wafting softly through the hallways at all times…but, it never seemed to enter my room.  Old, worn Oriental rugs decorated the dark-stained wooden floors.  Comfortable and comforting, wide wooden staircases with mid-floor landings and heavy, dark-stained wooden railings in the middle of each floor, carried you casually from floor to floor…or you could take the elevator.

The common room on the main floor had a single, long, narrow, wooden table surrounded by  wooden chairs, that made a comfortable retreat for me to set up my laptop and work on catching up on Hill Country blog entries…since my room had no desk…or space for one.

In fact, everything about the Hotel Havana coaxed you to take your time…to move about just a little bit slower.

Really, about the only reminder that you were in downtown San Antonio, and not out in the Cuban countryside somewhere, was the very modern and artistically lit up high-rise that you noticed when you stepped out the side door to the hotel’s parking lot at night.

Next to…and I think, attached to…the Havana, is the Ocho restaurant.

I enjoyed a very casual breakfast there, one of the two mornings.  And Ocho happens to sit directly on a quiet stretch of the Riverwalk, which makes for a great location.

Honestly?  At the time, I was not going to try to write about the Havana, because I thought it would sound trivial or uninteresting to talk about.  And maybe it is.  I really don’t know.  It’s just kind of difficult to convey the sort of simple coziness of it…especially juxtaposed with downtown San Antonio.  But, I guess I thought I’d give it a shot.

I know this much, though.  If I’m ever in San Antonio again…I know where I’ll be staying.