Guanajuato & San Miguel de Allende
Tucked into the bottom of a canyon, Guanajuato is an extraordinary little city with cobble stoned streets winding up, down and around the stone and brick buildings. It is another UNESCO World Heritage Site so the city has committed to preserving the architectural and cultural heritage.
The city was never built to handle vehicular traffic so to make that possible they have devised a system of tunnels under the city. Vehicles are driving down the street beside you when suddenly they disappear down a stone tunnel that opens up in the middle of the road. What’s more, the tunnel entrances are invariably lined with pots of crimson poinsettias.
There are all kinds of cathedrals and museums. The main cathedral is gorgeous inside but there was a funeral going on so we just peeked in. We chose to go to the Guanajuato Public Museum. It was under renovation so all we were able to see were several rooms of miniatures, everything from people to pottery to steel pots to bullfights to soldiers on horses engaged in a war, shoes and clothing, furniture and flowers. Amazing work, some of it so small they had magnifying glasses so you could actually see the detail.
There was a room that showed how the stamps and presses for coins and commemorative medals are made. Upstairs there was a huge, like 15 foot high mural that depicted some interesting and highly political subject matter. We came to appreciate this political mural making when we visited Mexico City a few years ago and lucked into a fantastic guide who took us to the Diego Riviera Murals at the Zocalo. The guide’s detailed explanations of the messaging in the art opened our eyes to what these were all about.
So of course, when we saw that Guanajuato was the childhood home of Diego Riviera and they have created a museum of his house as well as mounted a retrospective collection of his work we had to go. The entry fee for this was only 10 p, less than a dollar. The first floor of the building was his childhood home, furnished as it would have been in his era (he was born in 1896). The second and third floors held the Diego retrospective. The fourth floor and an in-between floor of sorts, were given over to the art of a fellow called Jazzamoart, a fairly abstract painter with a heavy hand on the pallet knife. Some of it was quite interesting. The fifth floor was a collection of graphics by contemporary Mexican artists. They were very dark in their content and style.
Beyond that, we just walked and walked and walked. With a plaza up every alley and a café in every plaza this is a town for walking and for people watching. Guanajuato is renowned for its university so the place literally vibrates with the energy of the young. It was amusing to see the tiny Corona beer trucks buzzing around the university buildings restocking machines perhaps? Some things are the same all over the world.
We’d taken the bus into town from an RV park on the rim of the new town. On the ride home we noticed again, the interesting custom of permitting vendors to board the buses for a few stops to sell things. Today it is very hot so an ice cream seller has boarded with 4 cones in each hand. They were gone in one stop! A few stops later another vendor with a basket full of hot churros (twisted cinnamon donut stick) boarded. In Guadalajara it was a fellow with a guitar who serenaded us then collected handouts. There was even a preacher one morning who preached, virtually without breathing for a good ten minutes, then broke into song, then a prayer. Then he walked up and down collecting his offering.
Here in Guanajuato we are again at a very high altitude 6649 feet. The days are quite warm but the nights cool off very quickly. The city was founded in 1548, another silver town among those in this region that delivered the Spanish their rich booty. Oddly though, the name means place of frogs. Perhaps there was a lot more standing water in the canyon in those days. Today, the houses march up the hills around the historic core, the foundations of one brightly-painted house resting on the roof of the one below. It is reminiscent of Cinque Terre in Italy.
We could stay longer but there are only so many gorgeous colonial buildings we can admire before they blur. Tomorrow we are off to the legendary San Miguel Allende.
San Miguel de Allende
It was an easy drive today. We are staying at the San Miguel RV Park and Tennis Courts, an easy 20-minute walk into the central historical district. If we did not have the excellent “Traveller’s Guide to Camping in Mexico” by Mike and Terri Church we would never have found it because like all good things, the park is hidden behind a big stone wall with a sold brown gate. We buzz #16 and voilà the gate opens and we are ushered into a different world.
That is the story of San Miguel Allende. As we walk into town, we pass big brown door after big brown door. It is still early, before 10 am so most are closed and it seems a boring road. But in another hour or two the doors open and I feel like a child with one of those books where we open the little paper window flaps to see what lies behind.
Behind the first is a shop brimming with stained glass shades, silver platters, blown glass baubles and ceramic whimsies. The next opens onto the cool courtyard of a private home, the next a shop full of greasy mechanics re-building a motor. Walk a few feet further and you come on a shop full of shoes. The next door opens onto Instituto Allende, the world renowned art school with its galleries arranged around a refreshing central plaza. And so it goes.
The historical downtown district is quite compact, very easy to walk although the cobblestoned roads are tricky and the raised flag stoned sidewalks are narrow and irregular. I am amazed that more people don’t trip and wrench their ankles here but I guess watching where you walk is inbred.
It is a much quieter town than Guanajuato. Over the five days we are here we develop an affection for a specific café on the Jardin plaza. For 12 p we get endless cups of coffee con crema, a rarity here, the “endless” part. There are lots of Canadians and Americans in this town. The men march around in Panama hats, the women dress nicely. By which I mean everything including their jewellery matches and they are not in jeans and t-shirts. Lots of them have retired here or at the least spend the winters. The climate is near perfect, there are tons of opportunities to socialize and be involved in volunteer work.
On Sunday afternoon we come on a dance party in the Jardin plaza. An older fellow in a white suit and Panama is playing records in the pergola while all the other oldies, some expats and some locals dance their hearts out. Kind of cool, watching the youngsters watch, fascinated, as the oldies elegantly show them how it oughta be done. The old fellow in the Panama is especially popular, all the ladies lining up to mamba and samba in the spotlight.
One day we go on a tour organized by these expat volunteers to benefit a rehabilitation center that was founded to improve the potential of children who are born with congenital abnormalities and debilitating conditions and injuries. This tour took us out to a glass engraving and candle dipping plant owned and operated by Charlie Hall, an American who had a similar business in Texas, I believe. He is a little hard to understand because he has a speech impediment but you would never call him disabled. He is a force of nature, despite having no forearms or hands. Just a simple force of nature. Probably early 40s in age, he came out to Mexico several years for a holiday and after a year decided he needed to move his business to San Miguel Allende. As I said, I believe this is how the story goes. He talks fast, moves faster and is sometimes hard to understand.
The upshot of it is he has this operation, employing many handicapped people here. They engrave glass pieces like wine glasses, decanters, vases, drinking glasses, etc. Some of their glassware is very conventional, other patterns were really funky. I would gladly have bought some if it was not so bulky and fragile. There is not much room in the van for souvenirs.
The second part of the tour took us into a gorgeous home situated in the hills overlooking San Miguel Allende. The woman of the house was really lovely, encouraging us to wander at will through here elegant home, answering our questions and serving snacks and conversation after. It was a real privilege to see the inside of one of these fabulous homes that normally stay locked behind high stone walls. One thing that struck me though; as elegant and expensive as the home and its furnishing were, an essential element of Latin American family life was obvious – intimacy. It was homey and the two boys of the family shared a bedroom as did the two girls. There was none of the isolation that is so prevalent in North American homes where income equals square footage equals each member isolated in their own suite. Even the media room was built for closeness. There were no chairs, just one huge semi-circular couch with an extended bed out in front. There was a big basket full of fleecy throws beside. You could just see the whole family piled on in the evening to share their favourite shows.
On another day we took a tour to benefit the children’s art and reading program at the library, also run by North American expats. We saw two homes on these days. The most interesting was a home constructed over a double lot within the historical district. This is a lovely, cool place. Extreme elegance and good taste, hidden behind the usual big brown doors. It is for sale too, $900,000 US.
But the one thing that bothered me was also the answer to a question I’d had earlier in the week. We had searched out the Mercado for some fresh fruit and vegetables. I was puzzled about why it was so far out. The day we saw this elegant house I had my answer. A developer had come into town, chased all the little merchants of the Mercado out and redeveloped the old market site as lots for sale to wealthy North Americans for their elegant homes.
We walked through the Mercado of the Artesans. Perhaps I have travelled too much but I’ve just gotten so sceptical about these mercados. They plunk a little old lady in the center, embroidering something. Then they surround her with all these pashminas and embroidered book bags and tea cosies and what not. The implication of this is that little old ladies, local ones, have made all the stuff you see. Only trouble is …I’ve already seen those exact items in Bangkok and Saigon and Vancouver, for heaven’s sake. Nonetheless, I bought a ceramic platter and a mobile made of stained glass humming birds.
The RV Park here is full of people who winter over here. We are one of the very few truly transient. There is a honking big rig from Germany beside us. Like a tank on steroids. They have been stalled here for 18 months, on their way to South America. They started in Halifax. We’ve seen these monster rigs in Central America before and I wonder about the thought process that goes into the purchase and outfitting of these tanks. For one thing, I’ve always thought that staying below the radar is a big help on the road. These tanks are a friggin’ tourist attraction. The other thing is that they seem to be outfitted for travel into extremely hostile territory. What does that say to the locals? And what on earth are they saying about the Americas in Europe that makes people there think these are a good idea?
When we were in the library today we saw a woman teaching English to the kids. I guess doing volunteer work is one thing that would occupy your time. There are also tennis courts here which the men all seem to be very actively playing. Learning Spanish and practising it is also a big thing in this town. As are the art classes. San Miguel de Allende made its name, after all, as an artists colony in the 1940s and 1950s. The international reputation may have faded but it is still the home of many artisans.
January 21st was the birthday of Generalissimo Ignacio Allende. In the 1800s he started the conspiracy to oust the Spanish. He and some other local fellows are responsible for getting the ball rolling on all that. So the town is named after him, as are many other little villages in Mexico and virtually every town we’ve been in has an Allende Avenue somewhere.
Here there is a beautiful statue to him in the main square.
So yesterday, January 21st was his birthday and they celebrated it in grand style, starting with a military parade in the morning – smart looking military on pickup trucks with machine guns, some other guys marching. Lots of Humvees with big canon-like anti-tank weapons. All kinds of marching bands from military to schools including little kids – consisting of bugles and snare drums. It was a little monotonous but they kept everyone marching.
There were three cars full of beauty queens in fancy dresses and tiaras. The ambulances and firemen brought up the rear with firemen marching with their axes crossed over their chests.
In the evening we went down to the plaza that is part of the Jardin in front of the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel. I have seen my share of cathedrals but this one is very special. The main church dates from the late 17th century except the pink wedding cake style pinnacles that were erected in the 19th century by a local fellow. The story goes that he saw a postcard of a Belgian cathedral and decided his town’s church needed the same sense of grandeur. So he sketched the design in the sand in front of the church and kept the locals building until the dream was realized. And it is something very special indeed.
On this night, Generalissimo’s birthday, they had erected a huge stage in the plaza. A symphony orchestra played music, backed up by singers. Oddly, to my mind, they started the evening with tunes like the themes from Bonanza and The Magnificent Seven. Then they moved to more conventional symphonic music which seemed to bore everyone to death. Two women behind us kept up the chatter until Steve emphatically shussssed them and I told them to “Respect el musica!” Which I expect is as bad as Spanish gets but not nearly as annoying as their incessant chatter.
Fortunately the orchestra launched into some lively pieces with mamba and tango themes. The crowd loved these. But what they cheered for were the Mexican songs including the cheesy ones even we Canadians know like Cucaracha and Guadalajara. Everyone in the audience, hundreds and hundreds of people were singing along. It went on for hours, people singing and swaying along to the music under the stars.
After the music there were fireworks – just magnificent in the night sky. We were getting up to leave, our Spanish inadequate to the rapid patter coming from the stage, but we realized that people were picking up their chairs and turning them sidewise to look at the Parroquoia.
The music started up again and the most wonderful light show began. From at least 4 projectors on the top of the buildings around the plaza, they painted the magnificent Parraquoia with coloured lights: flowing down and dancing over the face of this living monument. I’ve heard of this being done at world renowned monuments like the Coliseum in Rome but it was beyond amazing to see it in this little town in the middle of Mexico, surrounded by such warm people.
I wished that everyone I love could be there with me, sitting under the stars and feeling the magic of Mexico this night. I did look up and spot my Mom. She died four years ago now but when I look into the sky on clear nights like this she is the first bright star out. And she was there in San Miguel de Allende with me, clapping along to Cucaracha and loving the light show.
Back at the RV Park we’ve become accustomed to the sound of highly amplified Latin pop each evening. The source is a community center just a short jog down the street. Investigating all the noise one evening we discovered a local exercise class. A pop singer was onstage, delivering the sound and the moves, while dozens of women copied every move, sweating to the boom boom.
Tonight the music was very different; elegant waltzes. Curious, we strolled down the street, poked our heads in the door of the center and discovered a wedding. The bride was standing on a chair, the groom on another, holding her veil up above their heads while young women, holding hands, raced around the room and under the veil. In a few minutes the young girls sat down and young men took up the dance.
There we stood, in our jeans and fleece sweaters, enjoying the scene …when the sister of the groom and her mother spied us peaking in and forced us to come in and sit down at a table. I protested our inappropriate dress but trust me, I did not have the words for it in Spanish. So there we were, guests at the wedding and me fresh from the shower without all the necessary support garments under my sweater if you know what I mean. They just seemed so happy to have us there.
Now honoured guests, food was whisked out of the kitchen …no choice but to eat. And it was great: moist tender chicken in a lovely sauce, salad and rice plus crusty bread. Just delicious. We quickly put aside our self-consciousness to enjoy the music and the celebration. The bride threw some flowers out of her bouquet, the groom was disrobed right down to his undies by his friends – then the bride had to dress him again. She walked around with her shoe which we all filled with small bills. The groom walked around with his shirt back on and we all wrote best wishes on his back. Guess that shirt is not going back to the tux rental shop!
And now, finally back in the van it is late, nearing midnight …the music continues. On our way back from the wedding we passed the church and mass was just letting out. The plaza was full of families sitting and chatting and passing the time together.
I wish everyone could experience the beautiful peaceful Mexico we are enjoying on this trip.
Tomorrow we are off to Mexico City.