Narrow, serpentine streets. Old world baroque buildings. Steep hills - shoehorned with vivid-colored casas. I have dropped into a spectacular place - a cross between San Francisco and Paris.
Journal June 9 2003
We skirt Morelia, cross the four-lane cuota to Mexico City and head north into lake-lands, Guanajuato-bound. Guanajuato comes from a Purepecha word meaning "hilly place of the frogs." Our entrance to the city is a cacophony of hopping, screaming aggressive kids, paid to get their hotel brochures into our hands. We are a few hours from Patzcuaro and a lifetime away in temperament. Much is written of Guanajuato and its underground road system, remnants of her silver mine era. It is impressive, and "Gjo" needs all of the help she can squeeze into her city center. She is full of cars. Driving is stressful and difficult, at best. Her seven labyrinthine tunnels are confusing and parking is nightmare. We park and walk as soon as we can, as the first rainstorm of the season falls to the cobblestone streets. Our feet under us, Guanajuato's character pervades. She is an enigma. Small in size (around 75,000 pop.), she spreads upward from the canyon where the Rio Guanajuato flows. Her steep hills are ringed by the winding, two-lane " Carretera Panoramica". From this paved circle you see Guanajuato from above - a city that reminds one of a mini-Paris with her multi-faceted grid work of roads, gleaming domes and spires, lush parks. Within and around this paved circle lie the most striking examples of modern Mexico and the most elegant old Churrigueresque architecture in the new world.
Walks are an immersion in drama. Three men tie ropes to a refrigerator and attempt to lift the dangling mass two stories over a wall, as people walk the sidewalk below. Vendors and freshly severed chicken feet are scattered along busy streets. Two tiny, white kittens, eyes still closed, are wrapped in a faded blue towel and left on the doorstep of the Basilica. We spend hours weaving among the narrow paths and alleys up steep hills amidst tightly packed homes, connected by deep, shallow concrete stairs. Yards are scarce to non-existent. Roof dogs and security fences are plentiful. Casas are a riot of patchwork color -- bright turquoise and orange, pinks and greens. Down in the city center historic district, Guanajuato's cosmopolitan nightlife unfolds with a San Francisco-like energy. Mimes, street theatre, orchestras, folks dressed in their finest to attend the Theatros Juarez or Cervantes. We discover a small restaurant called Truchas 7. Chicken mole to die for and reasonable prices.
We depart and walk away from the busy streets to discover more plazas, clean streets and stunning baroque architecture. A crowd gathers to watch young men race their bicycles down the hundreds of steep steps that lead to the University of Guanajuato. We talk to two middle age women from the U.S., students at the Spanish language school, as one biker paces at the top. His buddies wait patiently below, but he never garners the courage to descend. More footsteps deliver us to the Diego Rivera Museum, the simple home that was his birthplace and where he lived his first five years. We are delighted to discover themes we did not know he painted. Before his political murals of Mexico City were small, soft paintings of Aztec and Popul Vol, volcanoes and native women of the countryside. Black and white photos of Frida. What we do not see as we walk the streets of Guanajuato are real estate offices that offer English services. Or obvious signs of an ex-pat community. Like Patzcuaro before, there are no signs of gringo settlement. There are a few here, however. One account places the number of U.S. and Canadians at around 100. In this place, white is scarce, unless you're talking buildings.
It takes some doing to find the Museum of the Mummies, but we make our way along one-way streets, drawn by the perverseness of it all. I don't know what I expected. What I got was glass cases of human remains, naked before the world. Some with black socks to the knees. Some in capes. Babies with crowns - one not a foot tall. Crooked, rotten teeth. Waves of desert-dry flesh. Pubic hair. Beards and braids. Open mouths, no doubt cussing their cheap relatives who did not pay the burial taxes and catapulted them into the realm of the living. It is one of those revolting scenes that I am thankful to have witnessed and glad to leave behind, green faced and nauseous. A testament to cremation if ever there was one. A few hours later, at the Basilica Plaza, we ironically find ourselves on the edge of a funeral. I watch, as men load a tiny, white satin casket with tassels into a black, shiny hearse. A dead child, destined to lay open-mouthed.
I sit beneath the canopy of Indian laurel trees on the Jardin de la Union … just down the hill from the city's oldest Plaza de la Paz (Plaza of Peace). The magnificent baroque Temple of San Diego, built around 1780, bookends this minute, triangular park. The scene is busy and gay. Sidewalk cafes are jammed with patrons. An orchestra plays marches in the gazebo bandstand. I am joined by a little girl in sky-blue polyester slacks, dirty black shoes with no laces and a salmon-colored shirt. A faded yellow sweater wraps around her neck. We smile at one another and begin to speak in Spanish. Her name is Angelica. She is 11 years old. She comes from San Miguel de Allende. She is one of thousands of Mexican children who sell small colored packets of Chiclets gum. I hand her a colored, sparkly pencil and her face erupts in smile.
Guanajuato - a place of crowded, busy beauty, where art, architecture and nightlife collide in quintessential Mexican ways. Very little English is spoken here, where Spanish schools abound. Every plaza, no matter how simple or formal, is home to activity and vibrant conversation. If Patzcuaro is the heart of Mexico, Guanajuato is the hands. Hands that create, bless, pray, and sweep. Hands that turn the crank of the street organ … mime emotion. White-knuckled hands around handlebars. Hands of ghost-monks, believed to walk silently over the buried cells of the Old San Diego Monastery.