Guanajuato, Mexico

GUANAJUATO is where I’ve spent July-August 2006 and it’s a town that grows on you—it’s not that touristy, it’s not a Texas suburb like San Miguel and it’s not a resort. What it is, is a mountain town with a population of about 75,000, that feels like Medieval Europe with ruined walls and aqueducts bordering streets and rebuilt into current homes, with old Spanish style wooden doors and brilliantly colored walls.

GUANAJUATO, someone said to me is “oscuro” (dark) while SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, is full of light. I resisted the comparison, not wanting to sound like every other American rhapsodizing about the perpetually cute American ex-patriate enclave just an hour or so up in the mountains of GTO state but San Miguel does have buckets of charm…narrow cobblestone streets lined with ochre, pink and Venetian red houses, single story, hand carved wooded doors, shell shaped aediculas on every corner hosting a sweet Virgin or a St Francis sheltering a bird in his gentle hands. The pink castle towers of the cathedral are said to have been built when a friar drew in the sand a design he remembered from Belgium; they rise high above the jardin (what central plazas are called in Guanajuato state) in the center of town. This plaza has thick square cut trees, elaborate ironwork benches and balloon men, children, home-made helados (ice cream) in obscure flavors like tequila, guanabana, and mamey. Cafes and stores with the best, highest priced and highest quality crafts from all over Mexico line the streets and surround the plazas and are deliciously tempting—I had to buy a big round chicken pitcher with lilies painted all over her belly as well as pineapple pots with deep green glaze from Michoacan.

Here the restaurants serve such delights as goat cheese and fresh spinach omelets and fresh salmon despite the distance from the sea. Cafes and cobblestone streets are filled with gray haired transplants from Arizona, Texas, California, pale replicas of a classic ex-pat type—men in Bermudas and huaraches; women with hair cut short and man-like, in bodies that have acquired more than a few pounds, all wearing indigenous huipiles or long embroidered dresses the styles of which no actual Mexican woman, who was not a poor indigenous Indian from Tejuantepec or Chiapas, would ever wear.

At night the San Miguel world is full of younger people—Mexican and ex-pat alike– wandering from bar to bar, dancing to cover bands way too enamored of 70s rock in places like Mama Mia.
I went to San Miguel for the weekend with an optometrist intern, a wild and beautiful Lebanese American from South Carolina, Rachel Davis, and we spent lots of hours shopping before we took a cab way out into the country where there are many hot springs—We went to Escondido Springs that had acres of land, groves of whispy pine trees, ponds with blooming waterliles and ten different hot pools, three in a row with tunnels between them and cupolas above, three bordered by rocks, the water the color of a swimming pool and natural cascades rushing down into the pool. We then were invited to stay at a most amazing mansion, the Texas ranch owners of which Rachel knew—the place was glorious, the pool and pool house reminiscent of Hearst Castle, though smaller; the main house, a three story rotunda with opulent bedrooms all decorated in Spanish style with authentic antique sculptures, paintings, even embroidered suitcase racks—views of the lands far from San Miguel and a full time staff serving from the living room bar, kitchen and chauffeuring us in the SUV. To see what this beautiful home cum rentable casa looks like you can go to

Though in the same state as San Miguel and having the same wonderful climate—warm dry and breezy days, cool nights, clear air—Guanajuato has a completely different vibe. Here it is Mexican despite the many middle aged mostly female teachers and young students who live here for a month to take Spanish intensives. These Americans are only evident at places like pricey restaurants and at the elegant Teatro Juarez; otherwise, it is a city of Mexican people of all economic levels from well dressed businessmen and intellectuals to the poor old women in aprons and gray rebozos (shawls that virtually all older women wear here as in Oaxaca). Interestingly many of these women have more indigenous than Spanish blood, but not one of them wears a huipil. Here everyone is on his way somewhere, works, is engaged, is not on vacation unless he or she is just passing through for a day or two. This city is neither a resort nor a high profile cultural mecca like Mexico City.

GUANAJUATO looks and is unique. Imagine a landscape of mountains and then canyons cut by rivers and streams into the red and white sandstone . Good, now bury or divert the rivers and you have the general topography of Guanajuato—a three to four mile long single canyonesque street with some tributary streets and primarily pedestrian pathways plunging down into it. Using this main thoroughfare are thousands of people, cars, buses, trucks and taxis jamming the one usually single lane road until you get to the center where roads all go one way—downtown. Beneath Guanajuato is another tangled world of tunnels — an amazing labyrinth of archways, rough hewn stone tunnels, side tunnels coming in unexpectedly, stairways bringing people down into the subterranean world that goes for miles under the city. Sometimes a tunnel opens to the sky and there, clinging to the walls are rooms, even whole houses cantilevered out over the road far below, structures supported by wooden beams and painted ochre, Venetian red, pink, coral, blue, some with ornate balconies, arched windows. The tunnels began as an antidote to the traffic above, on the cobblestone streets that wind and twist between jardines—plazas with heavy Indian laurel trees clipped square creating a green ceiling for pedestrians, formal garden flower beds with sculptures, fountains and usually a stunning Baroque church, decorated like a wedding cake with estipe columns, angels, floral arabesques, aediculas with saints and virgins on every square inch of the elaborate pink sandstone portal.

But now both the tunnels and the above ground streets are both nightmares of clogged traffic that’s hard to overlook if you walk, like I do, down to the center nearly every day.

The center of GTO is the Jardin and the Teatro Juarez—Greek fascade, bronze figures on the pediment and a Moorish interior in gold, Venetian red and green earth—every tier a different pattern, every wall and column completely covered in geometric and floral bas relief. Outside is the jardin surrounded by open air cafes, shops, strolling families, venders of ice cream and corn cut fresh from the cob and served with butter, cheese, chili, salt and lime—double yummy.

Climbing up from the main street are callejons, walking alleys of stone that twist and turn as they climb up the steep walls of the canyon, every so often stopping at a plazuelita with a fountain, trees, some ornate Spanish Baroque iron benches where children play, older women converse and people sit for hours at cafes because life here happens outdoors. The houses here are like stacked boxes, some square, others rounded or angular to accommodate the bedrock on which they are built, all kinds of brilliant colors in certain neighborhoods, plain brick and cement in others, every house seeming to have a view either to the other side of the canyon or of the wild mountains and rocks that rise above the whole town, mountains dry and hosting California pepper trees, thorny shrubs, pine trees, flambuoyants with orange flowers, and several other leafy species I can’t identify as well as nopales and organ pipe cactus.

There are dirt roads and trails into the wilderness with jagged peaks and splendid caves way above the city, caves that may have once been mines. One high above my house, La Bufa, has gigantic slanted slabs of stone creating a natural amphitheater, like those in the Canyonlands of Utah and from this cave shelter high above the city you can see for perhaps a hundred miles of mostly wild uninhabited land—Glorious. I keep connected to the land by walking nearly every day along the Panoramica, a road that stays high above the town, skirting the natural landscape near my house. I walk to the Pipila, a huge sandstone sculpture of the revolutionary who set fire to the Alhondiga, a granary where the Spanish forces were sequestered in the first days of the War of Independence in the 1800s. This statue stands way above the centro historico on a cliff above Guanajuato and reminds everyone that this state is the home of the Independence of Mexico.

On the few actual streets of town, vehicles rule, exhaust filling the air, streets so narrow in places, you have to stop and flatten yourself against a wall while a smoke belching bus rattles up the hill right next to you—and from where I live there is only one street into the center and this is it. There are also the craziest steepest streets I’ve seen anywhere. The first night I arrived the cabbie missed the number of my apartment and had to circle around to the next
street informally called el infierno (hell) and it WAS. After winding down this barely single lane cobblestone street we came to a place so narrow we had one inch on each side of the old Toyota taxi and then the street plunged like a ski slope down to the main road.

My neighborhood, La Presa, is at one end of town, near a reservoir and wild space,. This is the “new” neighborhood (circa 1890) and here is the pink sandstone Beaux Arts Escuela Normal built by the former President Porfirio Diaz—whose selling off of most of Mexico to foreign investors caused the Revolution but whose taste, derived from visits to Paris and other European capitals, had some benefits such as this school. Here in La Presa is also the Neoclassical Governor’s Palace up the Paseo,

In La Presa, my colonia, there are many mansions sprawling up the hill with Art Nouveau stained glass windows, floral plaster faced walls, ballustrades Mucha would be proud to have designed and a wierd three story gabled structure known as the Casa de las Brujas (House of the Witches) because it was abandoned for years, and is now the home of Academia Falcon, the language school I attended along with every Mexican- bound middle aged grammar school teacher from the States—its own world of Spanish classes where grammar is pumped into our language phobic brains and where the accents of the Americans are truly torture to the ears.

My apartment is here as well and it’s magical—a place for a princess.
I enter up a spiral stair inside a golden-domed tower, then cross a bridge and come into my slate floored lovely living room/ kitchen with a wall of curved windows and traditional leather seats and couch. Up another spiral stair is my big bedroom with a big wall of windows facing the mountains and the turrets and colorful houses across the canyon.

Living in the warren of apartments my landlord has created out of an old Mexican home or hotel is an array of great people, with whom I go to dinner, see jazz, travel and just hang. Rachel Davis is a gorgeous Lebanese-American South Carolina optometry intern who has eaten Mexico whole, flying off to explore nearby towns every weekend, staying up all night with a film crew and professional “mountain crawlers” who tear up the local peaks in 4WD Jeeps, dancing at discos until 3 or 4am, and making friends with every person she encounters on the street. Then there’s Frank and Angela, elementary school teachers from Texas; she’s petite beautiful 27 a sculptor with a whimsical rapieresque wit while he’s cute, looks way younger than his 44 years, composes music, plays piano and guitar. They are absolutely in love and it’s a sweet vibe to be around. Then there’s our landlord, Bill Byrnes, — a friendly quirky white haired fellow on his third wife, a beautiful 27 year old Thai woman he met online, has lived in India, Thailand, all over Mexico and the States, a nomad who spends his life renting apartments, selling real estate and primarily buying rambling old structures like this one and rebuilding them to his own specs. He’s a wild one—takes care of everything from carrying huge 5 liter water containers up four flights for all of his tenants, to hauling rocks or carved stone ballustrades in his battered old Toyota, to designing and building a very small swimming pool that’s got a wave machine built in so you can swim laps in place. He wears dentures that he has twice had to replace when he got so wasted on tequila that they fell out and his dog munched them up like a toy. Another friend here is Rose, a tall Irish artist hippie from Santa Cruz who lives in New Orleans, does face painting for tourists to get enough cash to live really without working, just hanging with her artist friends and painting her dreams. She has a most magical way about her, open, joyful, sympathetic….she and her roommates are caring for a homeless man who is dying. She lives in a pink Victorian mansion that was once the nun’s convent next to Santa Rosa Church, a house that came to her, she feels, as a gift at $79,000 just three years ago. Having it allows her to live sparely without working.

Without even trying a teaching job fell into my lap when I visited the Casa Museo Gene Byron early in my month here. The Directora, hearing some comments I made about the current exhibition in the gallery, asked me to teach some intensives here. I feel so blessed. I teach drawing and painting in the garden of this museum, which is an ex-hacienda next to a river, a garden filled with antique sculptures, jungley plants and old trees—tranquil, beautiful and mysterious. The former owner, a Canadian artist who migrated here in the 1920s, Gene Byron, loved madonnas with children or standing in bliss alone , a blessing on their faces or on their gestures, silly elephants, and San Miguels with all manner of dragons at their feet, no Christos suffering. Inside the hacienda are grand rooms opening onto the garden, great stone arches giving light to the rooms full of fine ceramics, weavings, carved wood furniture, and sculptures of horses and metal work –In fact the Museum still houses a taller (workshop) where men hammer away at and weld tin into lanterns that cast magical patterns on nearby walls—they also fabricate 30s style sculptures that Gene Byron designed in copper and silver. Surrounding the museum are other ex-haciendas, all old stone, parts crumbling, with tangled gardens, old chapels, almost forests leading down to a river meandering below and next to an old parish church with wedding cake decorations, and bulbous baroque lintels over the fascade. There’s also a splendid dam with several sculptures of figures along its rim and water lilies and cat tails around the reservoir—lovely.

My classes have been brilliant I have been teaching in Spanish even with my bad grammar and my students have developed skill at an amazing rate. It lets me know how unmotivated are many of my American students. It is obviously possible to learn fast if one listens and tries. Perhaps because my students here had to pay for the course, they respect it more. Even the teenagers in one class paid for it themselves and worked hard. By Mexican standards, I am being paid enormously well–most Mexicans with laborer jobs earn $100 pesos a day–that’s $10 a day US– whereas I earn $100 pesos a day per student so I have earned $210 USD one week and $300USD another–cash in hand. AND the head of the Museo invited a reporter to check out the class; she interviewed me and took photos and I was featured in a newspaper here in the Style section—a half page spread with photos–how about that? I am so delighted with the students here—They are respectful, gracious and attentive. At the end of the second intensive, they prepared a most generous feast for me—various meats and salads, wine and a cake and we all spent hours celebrating the end of the course—Mexicans do this all the time—graduation, the end of a course, the end of a year of school, the 15th birthday—every thing warrants a party, a celebration that enunciates gratitude. I was delighted to say the least.

What makes Mexican life really different from life in the US inheres in little things—everyone walks for instance so the streets are always full of people, –families, lovers, children– and there are lots of places to sit—mostly elaborate ironwork benches. Streets are where it all happens—a mime always entertains a hundred people sitting on the steps of the theater, bands play in the gazebo of the Jardin most nights or break dancers practice there. Large groups of handsome young men, called Estudiantinas, dress in Medieval black velvet outfits, gold braids and ribbons on their capes, play antique instruments, sing, tell jokes and lead people around the mysterious nooks of the city like pied pipers of some Spanish troubadour romance. Families are the glue everywhere—even in discoteks people travel in tribes– brothers and sisters as well as friends, and if you are a stray single, you’ll be scooped up and welcomed into a group for the entire night. Somehow the intimacy of family seems to carry right on over into politics wherein governors are called by their first names—Felipe won this election, not Andres Manuel. Street venders are everywhere under blue tarps making fresh gorditas, tortillas, carnitas, serving fresh ice cream, or selling vegetables —and they are as regular in location as a store—this woman sells fresh cocoanut next to the pink lilies in the plaza, that one makes fresh yoghurt and sells it in a nice ceramic pot on the north side of the Hidalgo Mercado for $1.50 and that little old campesino—at least 85 if he’s a day–always hobbles around the Embajadores Plaza offering ten peso bags of squash.

Tucked into every neighborhood there is a small store in someone’s house, open all the time, prices the same as anywhere else—a local enterprise, not a slick 7-11– where you can get fresh bread every day, limes, tomatoes, milk, juice, cigarettes, phone cards –whatever you need is hidden somewhere and all you have to do is ask and the woman fetches the goods, from some rooms in the back. Papelerias—paper stores—can be found literally on every block and are magical places filled with wildly colored paper, ribbons and strings of gold and silver sequins and brilliant gift wrappings as well as the usual notebooks and glue.

Really quirky is how, if anyone wants to write down a number or an address, they always tear off a very small portion of a piece of paper and hand it to you, sometimes so small it’s instantly lost. It’s about conserving things. Even the seemingly hundreds of plastic bags that every vender gives out for each item, however small, get reused for garbage bags, lunch totes, etc.. Change is wierd too—no one seems to have it so if you have, say, a $200 peso note ($20) and you want to buy coffee for $15 pesos, it is a rare store or vender who will have that much change so often you will be left standing at the store while the owner runs down the street to get you change.
Literally no one has change from fancy stores to an old woman selling bread for $3 pesos so you get to hoarding tons of it yourself to make sure you can pay for what you need, making extra efforts to give exact change if you like the taxista, or the woman with a baby bundled into a rebozo on her back selling fresh green peppers and avocados which she has piled into attractive little mountains on a towel on the street. This is a country where every vender, no matter how few or humble her or his goods, lays them out carefully, with rhythm, in colorful patterns, or arranges vegetables like a bouquet—and packages of cut up veggies for soup are always an art piece.

The RAG, however, is just the opposite—it was never a thing of beauty—a basic gray and black striped cotton thing, usually falling apart at the edges, the rag is a sorry excuse for a doormat that squats just inside the door of every home, humble to grand, every store, even a the posh brand new Neoclassic Maria Cristina Hotel with spa, pool and suites starting at $350 USD/night.

As for finding out what’s going on here, the newspapers are not the place. Here the walls are full of posters or just 8 x10 papers notifying anyone who passes by of everything from a religious procession for the Feast of the Virgen of Carmen, to a summer guitar course for children, to an art gallery opening, to the jazz group performing tonight. Careful reading of the walls has assured me a great social life here as I rarely miss anything and most events are free to boot.

Things do not really fall apart here in Mexico so much as they never really get finished. Rebar rises out of sidewalks and nearly every roof; a beautiful new casa will have a patch of wall unplastered and with electrical wires dangling out; a main tourist street will be torn up by hand and left in piles of brick and scanty wooden planks over pits in the ground for months; holes seem to be in every wall and even a third of the main steps of the elegant Teatro Juarez has been torn up and has remained under construction for the whole time I’ve been here. No one seems at all fazed by the need to climb over a pile of sand, or pick your way across a deep hole in the sidewalk. Uneven pavements and steps have given me a sprained ankle every time I’ve been in this country but I must have Mexican blood by now as I haven’t tripped once during this sojourn!

As for services, most things work well—public phones on every block work, electricity is never shut off; but now we are in a drought and haven’t had water for three days—no showers no dishwashing, no nada. The one real unpleasantness is that no toilets take paper so dirty toilet paper builds up in every bathroom and makes most houses, stores, restaurants smell rather rank. But this is a small price to pay for the peace I feel here in Guanajuato and in the country as a whole.

The best part of Mexico perhaps is that it is in a kind of time warp—like some probably idealized fifties in America. Here children can play in the streets without fear of abduction; here I can walk alone on a path in the hills; here honesty is the rule be it at a shop or on the bus, correct change is always given. Here people walk or take the bus, not isolated by cars and freeways, suburbs, and locked doors. Here everyone eats more or less the same food, has more or less, mostly less, in the way of goods and here people are overall much happier, not to mention much less political and angry and self-indulgent, Was America ever like this? I do not remember such quality of life or sense of community on the block where I grew up, so I return to Mexico as often as I can like a homing pidgeon comforted by a community I always manage to find in Mexico, be it in Oaxaca or Puerto Angel, Vallarta or, this summer, in Guanajuato .

August 2006






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *