Chris wanted only one thing for her birthday: To go home. Sadly, our flight is still three weeks away, so she had to opt for her second choice: A weekend visit to the colorful mountain city of Guanajuato.
Our globetrotting scholar spent a birthday in Guanajuato three years ago, in the summer of 2006 when she spent 6 weeks traveling around West-Central Mexico doing pre-dissertation prep work, scouting the research landscape for this year. (In case there’s any confusion: Even though I’m writing this blog about adventures, my wife is the real adventurer, having gone on one study abroad program and three solo trips to Latin America over the last decade, nearly every other year when you add it up, and now she’s leading this trip. And all this before her 28th birthday!)
On that last Mexican birthday, she was alone, and not having the best day: For breakfast, she ordered a fresh-squeezed orange juice, one of her favorite things ever – and it promptly made her sick to her stomach… again. But when I called her that evening, using a phone card and standing in the parking lot of College Mall in Bloomington, Indiana, she was feeling better: The owner of the hostel she was staying in, learning it was her birthday, had bought her flowers. She nearly cried at the sight of them, an out-of-nowhere gesture of kindness to a stranger in a strange land.
Needless to say, Chris left Guanajauto with happy memories and looked forward to another visit. This time, though, things were quite different. Rather than figuring things out anew at every turn, Chris knows the landscape here like the back of her hand. She’s mastered the bus system, traveled most of the route more than once (Guanajuato is about twice as far as León on the same highway), has been speaking her Spanish for the last 11 months rather than the last 11 days, and, when we arrived in Guanajuato, knew the route from the bus station to the well-hidden hotel without even having to consult so much as a map. Who even needs the Lonely Planet anymore?
As for me, well, this was my first visit to Guanajuato, and from the first wide-angle view from atop our hotel terrace (see the photo album below) I knew this was going to be one of the highlights of our time puebleando (a slang word meaning, awesomely, to visit little towns on a road trip) in Mexico.
Guanajuato, to put it briefly, is like Taxco but bigger and more diversified in its attractions. Both are former mining towns, born in the silver rush of the 16th century. Today, however, rather than trafficking in silver like its southern cousin, Guanajuato specializes in a Cervantes festival every October that leaves its streets and museums peppered with artistic Don Quixote tributes. Like San Miguel de Allende, the streets are full of four-hundred-year-old Franciscan and Jesuit temples surrounded by very-brightly-colored two story (but rarely more) adobe buildings. Unlike San Miguel, however, Guanajuato is anchored by a major regional university to keep itself lively – and resoundingly Mexican – all year long.
Actually, the first thing I thought of when we arrived in Guanajuato is that the place seemed like West Virginia – specifically, Morgantown, West Virginia, which is literally built in the mountains and is also a college town, home to West Virginia University. Turns out (thanks Wikipedia!) that Morgantown is actually an official Sister City of Guanajuato! Who knew?!
|¡Cumpleaños en Guanajuato!|
Guanajuato’s downtown is so pretty-at-every-turn jaw-dropping that it’s been named a certified UNESCO World Heritage Site. At this point I must beg your patience for a short digression. I was beginning to think, given how many UNESCO World Heritage Sites we’ve visited this year, that the United Nations is just giving out World Heritage status to pretty much everywhere. I mean, honestly – everything from the UNAM university campus in Mexico City to the ancient ruins of Xochicalco is a World Heritage Site! Turns out, though, that Mexico simply has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than anywhere else in the Americas, with 29 sites. Italy, the country with the most, has 43 sites; Mexico, a country that is probably only a short flight from where you are, is hot on its heels. Do I need to give you any more reasons to visit this country? (Also, I will refrain from asking whether being a Catholic country makes you more likely to have World Heritage sites.)
Back to our trip. We checked into the Casa Bertha, where Chris stayed three years ago; the proprietor was just as friendly and welcoming as he was then. Chris showed me the rooftop terrace where she spent many an evening sipping tea and reading while watching the sun paint the town in different colors as it descended behind the mountains. I remember her talking about this terrace during that summer, about all the time she spent there, and it was sort of surreal to actually see it in person. Hungry, we went straight for a nearby restaurant, and stuffed ourselves on a cheap but delicious set lunch (other benefit of GTO over San Migel – way cheaper!). We spent most of Saturday afternoon pleasantly wandering the streets.
In fact, we walked around town for hours and hours and hours over the course of the weekend, and yet: I still think I’d get lost if you dropped me in Guanajuato by myself. The place is like a labyrinth, a crazy labyrinth of colorful buildings and cobblestone streets that alternately narrow and widen, that curve around at sharp angles suddenly, and are almost never horizontal but usually going either steeply uphill or steeply downhill. But this labyrinth is a dream to get lost in: Nearly every path leads to a yet another leafy little plaza with benches and a fountain in the middle. It is an absurdly pretty place to spend a weekend.
No wonder Chris wanted to come here for her birthday. We awoke early on Sunday morning, thanks to a bunch of nearby roosters who decided to wish Chris a happy birthday, and began their birthday song at 4 AM. We finally wandered outside after dawn, energized ourselves with breakfast, and set off in search of the path up the hill to Pípila.
Pípila is Guanajuato’s resident independence hero, who, a mere two weeks after Miguel Hidalgo’s first rebel yell in the nearby town of Dolores, torched GTO’s granary to give the rebel troops their first victory in Mexico’s War of Independence. One hundred years later, the city of Guanajuato built a massive statue of Pípila atop one of the surrounding hills, visible from nearly everywhere in town. You can take an inclined railway to the top of the hill to see the statue, or you can just walk up the hill along the winding cobblestone paths. Chris, knowing my love for climbing all manner of monuments in Mexico – ruins are like a playgrounds for adults! – led the way on the long walk up the very, very steep hill. And, just like in the climb to Tepozteco outside of Tepoztlan nearly one year ago (whoa), this one paid off with one of those spectacular wide-angle views – impossible to capture in a photograph, though you can see me try in the photo album above.
After that we went to find Chris’s #1 must-see in Guanajuato: The house where Diego Rivera was born, where there is now a Diego Rivera museum featuring works from his childhood to his final years. When we were in Mexico City we became serious Diego-philes, visiting every massive mural we could find. But here, in Diego’s birthplace, the collection is of smaller pieces that reveal much more of Mexico’s most famous painter. Chris loves how you can see his development over the years: First the preternatural technical skill, then several years in France, where he copied and mastered all manner of European styles popular at the time, then an increasing interest in peasant life, poverty, and the problems of industrialism, then an immersion in the ancient codices of pre-Hispanic Mexican art, and then, finally, the beginning sketches for his national-pride murals. You walk away with a new appreciation for Diego Rivera, his wide-ranging skill as an artist and the way in which he came to find his ultimate vocation as the painter of his people.
(Plus, I was able to make use of the bathroom in Diego Rivera’s house, which gives me an idea for the title of my book that Chris finds highly inappropriate. Sigh.)
From the Diego Rivera museum we went to the Cervantino museum in this Cervantes-obsessed town, an art museum that turned out to be three floors of surprisingly striking and diverse art depicting Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Chris decided that Miguel Cervantes must be to Spanish-speaking countries what William Shakespeare is to English-speaking ones. Neither one of us has ever been able to finish Don Quixote, despite having tried more than once, but Guanajuato makes me want to try again…
We spent our final hours of the day eating and drinking our way through Guanajuato’s many outdoor cafes, stuffing ourselves on crepes, chocolate chip cookies, guacamole, quiche, cheesecake, frappuchinos, red wine, sangria, and black coffee, not surprisingly making our tummies hurt yet not regretting a single bite, or a single step in this beautiful town on a beautiful weekend for a beautiful girl who has now completed 28 years of adventurous life. ¡Feliz cumpleaños, mi amor! Hasta el proxima aventura…