Monday, November 26, 2012

Ooooooh, Guanajuatoooo!

We are freshly back from Guanajuato, having walked an average of 15,000 steps a day and survived run-ins with "the runs", which of course are a necessary part of the Mexican experience.

What a wonderful little spot! Originally inhabited by the Otomi people in the Mesoamerican period, it became a colonial town in the 1540s after the Spanish discovered silver in the region and began mining and building forts. The city's geography is its most distinguishing characteristic. It sits in a narrow valley, expanding from that bowl up into surrounding hills making many streets wickedly steep and narrow, but also opening up to breathtaking panoramas from higher elevations.

Additionally, there are numerous tunnels running under the city, which were used for water evacuation until they were converted into subterranean streets. Now these imposing, vaulted stone labyrinths carry a large part of the city's traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian.

The city has a strange, rustic beauty. It's festively colorful on the whole, but  also a bit ramshackle and rough around the edges when you start observing at street level, like a fading painting. That dichotomy is what gives Guanajuato its distinctively unique flavor. Despite its beauty, it is nevertheless very difficult to photograph. The light in the area is sharp and bright, covering everything in vivid striations of light and shadow so intense, no camera setting can match it. I privately started thinking of the city as a zebra, and resigned to making good use of HD

Guanajuato has been named "patrimonio de la humanidad", or a cultural treasure of humanity. And a treasure it is. It beckons you to explore along its intimate, winding alleys, peek into churches and offbeat museums, and stuff yourself on the cheap with a plethora of regional delicacies. And so we set out so explore this city and its contrasts: light and shadow, valleys and hills, tunnels and funiculars. On our first full day, we began with the Mummy museum. This is kind of a must-see, since it's the most famous museum in Guanajuato (and, at 50 pesos, or 4 dollars - also the most expensive). Now, the story of this museum is really interesting. The mummies were all local residents who died of a cholera epidemic in the 1830s. They were exhumed over the next 100 years when their relatives failed to pay the grave rent.

Yeah. That was pretty much my reaction too. Thousands of graves were disinterred, but about 2% of the bodies came out mummified. There's no official explanation as to why, but let's go with natural causes, such as dry climate. The collection is quite impressive and utterly creepy. The fact that each mummy's information placard is written in first person does nothing to alleviate the creepiness factor. I bet that if the mummies did decide to personally address the gawkers, it wouldn't be with a polite "Hola, me llamo...".

Despite the understandable discomfort of walking through a dark building full of dead people on shelves, it was nevertheless a very informative experience. For one, it was interesting to see the clothes of the time, and what people chose to take with them to the grave. Also, how cause of death affects the body despite mummification. There were mummies of people buried alive, and even a mummy of a fetus whose mother died before childbirth. From a cultural standpoint, it was interesting to consider that in this deeply Catholic culture, where the body is treated reverently and proper burial is very important, a museum like this continues to exist, seemingly at odds with their convictions. Though, to be fair, no more bodies are being exhumed due to payment delinquency.

After the mummy museum we took a 20 minute drive north of Guanajuato to a town of Valenciana, where several former silver mines are open to visitors. Silver was the lifeblood of the region in colonial times, and made the region quite wealthy.

Descending into the Boca Mina, Valenciana
The town is now very small and sleepy, and only its church - The Church that Silver Built - speaks to its former wealth and status. One other remaining attraction in Valenciana is the Purgatory museum, a small, slightly tacky collection of exhibits on torture and other means of instilling the Holy Faith during the Inquisition. Somehow the guides, dressed as Inquisitors, manage to keep the mood light and the crowds laughing, even as they explain how people used to be raked and quartered in the name of Jesus.

"Are you a good Catholic?!"
Our favorite exhibit - the chastity belt. 
After getting back to Guanajuato, we prowled the streets for a few hours, taking in the sights like the beautiful Plaza de la Paz, the whitewashed walls of the University, and the shady oasis of the Jardin de la Union, before taking the funicular to El Pipila, a panoramic point high above the city with the most spectacular view.

Inspired by such awesome vistas, we went searching for Clave Azul, a taverna that our friends insisted we must try for the best food and drink in town. We found it, after a lengthy search, halfway up an invisible alley shooting off a small square. Unfortunately, for reasons we couldn't figure out due to our abominable Spanish, they weren't serving food, but we did stay for some yummy drinks, and enjoyed watching a large family at a table next to us celebrate something with stories and songs as two musicians serenaded them with their guitars. It's clearly a gem of a place.

Digging the vibe at Clave Azul
Day 2, we set out bright and early to conquer yet another mountain, Cierro del Cubilete, to see the Cristo Rey monument, one of the largest statues of Jesus in the world. This 20 meter bronze Jesus supposedly sits in the very geographical center of Mexico, and as such, is an important pilgrimage site for Mexicans, as evidenced by the neverending stream of buses going up and down the mountain like ants on an anthill. We weren't there to pay homage, but we did enjoy the view and got to see some of the odder practices, like people crawling the 50 meter long stone-paved approach to the chapel on their knees. Ouch?

Back in Guanajuato, we visited Alhondiga de Granaditas, a former public granary now serving as a large regional history museum. The building itself is one of the most recognizable in the city, and has served as a granary, a prison, military barracks, performance venue, and warehouse throughout its lifetime. It's a World Heritage building and part of the city's historic center.

Inside, the most striking feature are the monumental murals decorating some of its halls with scenes from Mexico's history painted by José Chávez Morado. They are so huge and breathtaking that it will take a few minutes to wander under them and try to decipher the story as it unfolds - larger than life - over your head.

Perhaps the most infamous part of the building's history is that it was stormed by insurgents during the Mexican War of Independence, and the four leaders of the rebellion were captured and beheaded, their heads hung from the four corners of the building in cages, as a deterrent to other would be rebels. The heads hung around for 10 years, until Mexico won its Independence. The caged severed head is a pretty prominent artistic symbol not only inside the museum walls, but throughout the city.

Guanajuato is stuffed to the brim with little museums that explore the life of a person or a single literary theme, almost like specialized galleries. Some of Guanajuato's lesser known museums we saved for the afternoon. The first is the Iconographic Museum of Don Quixote. This one was one of my favorites. Quixote is obviously a well loved figure in the area, his lanky figure looking out laconically from every souvenir shop. The Iconographic museum is a vast collection of imagery connected with Don Quixote, executed in a variety of media and methods, from traditional sculpture to surrealism to full blown abstract art. Just like the story of Quixote, the museum has that same trippy, surreal quality, but all the works are of really high caliber, and visiting is enjoyable even if you're not a particularly big fan of the book.

My favorite painting from the Don Quixote museum
Another little gem is the Museo Casa de Diego Rivera. Rivera is, of course, one of the most famous - if not THE most famous Mexican artist, husband of Frida Kahlo, a prominent political figure, and an overall fascinating character. His museum is located in the house where he was born, with the first floor preserved as it would have been furnished at the time of his birth. The upper floors house an impressive collection of his early works.

After such jampacked couple of days, we decided to take it easy and drive out to San Miguel de Allende. Although only an hour's drive from Guanajuato, San Miguel is a whole different world. Whereas Guanajuato is energetic, lived-in and diverse in its offerings, San Miguel feels boutique-y. It's stately, orderly, homogenous, freshly painted, and has an aura of money about it. Real estate signs are under the names of Sotheby's and Christies; shopping is plentiful and upscale, and tourists are much more numerous than in Guanajuato. Whereas in the former, we only heard English spoken on the street 2 or 3 times, in San Miguel it was as common as on the streets of Cancun, though, obviously, it was a different crowd.

Street scene, San Miguel de Allende
I found it to be so charming. With all of its buildings painted in the same warm yellows, reds and oranges, and pots bursting with flowers along every roof line and windowsill, this town just pulls you in and invites you to take a breather in one of its quirky bars and restaurants, or have a coffee in a magnificent shaded courtyard.

courtyards like this one can be found everywhere, and usually contain a row of galleries and cafes, although I think this one is residential.

We didn't have any specific plans, and by then we were all museumed out, so we just strolled the streets, perused the local wares and indulged our coffee addiction at the most upscale Starbucks I've ever visited. Every intersection and every facade in this city just beckons to be photographed.

The Main Plaza and park, San Miguel de Allende
On our final full day, we embraced the chance to go on one last adventure, and ventured out to Cañada de la Virgen (Canyon of the Virgin) to take a tour of a pyramid site constructed by the Otomi people. Our guide was professor Albert Coffee with Coyote Canyon Adventures - an expat American archeologist, who is lovingly known among his Trip Advisor fans as "the Real Indiana Jones"

This amazing site has only recently been excavated, and opened to the public about a year and a half ago. It actually sits in the middle of private land owned by a very wealthy old German lady (from the Krupp family), who bought thousands of acres of land and apparently practices Mayan shamanism and feng shui. The Mexican government eventually told her she can't own the pyramids, so now there's carefully monitored access to the site. Because you have to approach the pyramid through her private property, you have to do it by her rules, and she doesn't allow cars. So the shuttle takes visitors to a site about a mile away from the pyramids, and from there - everybody walks!

Glad it's not summer!
The site itself consists of several complexes, all mirroring the surrounding the landscape. The structures were used as observatories and burial grounds for the elite. The complex follows the lunar calendar, and during certain dates, celestial alignments interact with the pyramids with incredible precision.

During the 2 hours we spent on site we got an intensive crash course in Mesoamerican cultures of pre-Columbian times; their rituals, beliefs and practices. It's pretty amazing to think that these structures stood covered in earth and grass until only a few years ago, and local cowboys would ride up these "mounds" to look for stray cattle. It makes you wonder how many mysteries and treasures are still buried throughout Mexico and Central America, hiding just beneath our feet.

In the afternoon, we returned to San Miguel to spend a few more hours wandering its enchanted streets and discovering the little details of its identity.


And then, just like that, it was time to head home.
I'm really glad that we chose to visit this spot on the globe. This is the Mexico that I wanted to see, not the beaches, cabanas, and parties, not Cancun and not Senor Frog's. Though we loved our trip to Cozumel last year, we never once saw a peso during our entire stay, and all our needs were met in English. This time, we found ourselves having to make do with nearly nonexistent Spanish everywhere we went, and we surprised ourselves by how fairly competent we were at communicating with the locals. 

Mexico generally has a pretty bad rap around here, particularly in the border states. The first things that come to mind are illegal immigration, drug war and corrupt government. Sometimes you have to travel to a place to remember that people still happily live there, take day trips, play music in bars, enjoy cigars over mezcal, and kiss on the streets (a lot). And when we stumbled over a whole crowd sitting on the steps of an alley, singing in unison and swaying to the music, I just had to stop and listen for a while, because that kind of collective happiness is rarely found in the US.

Of course, not everything was cotton candy and piñadas. Some things made me angry. The out of control population boom, for example. I have never seen so many kids in one place in my entire life. And, when I walked into any church throughout the trip, I would inevitably see a wall sized placard decrying abortion, contraception, or both. It definitely set me to seething a little bit, especially when I couldn't set foot outside without stepping on a toddler or 5. Refusal to confront family planning by a national authority such as the Catholic church is something I don't expect to see anywhere but the most desperate places, so that obviously irked me in Mexico. But - that is why we travel, after all. To see the good and the bad, and hopefully think more carefully about these issues going forward, hopefully learn something.

Until next time, happy tripping.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, beautiful photos! I look forward to more adventures!