A picturesque highland city that grew out of a mining boom in the 16th century, Guanajuato drew Spaniards to the area like flies to our garbage bin full of old mango peels. It is a popular tourist destination, lauded for its colourful buildings, winding streets, unique plazas and impressive colonial architecture. It be pretty, is the point.
Mexico has remained one of the most welcoming countries around during the pandemic and, although it is important to have a plan for traveling in Mexico during COVID-19, gorgeous and affordable cities like Guanajuato can be excellent choices in a very changed travel landscape.
Arriving in Guanajuato, the first thing we noticed were the hills. While Morelia was virtually flat, Guanajuato is built into a narrow valley that, at one time, probably comfortably housed the entire city, but as it has grown over the years you can see the buildings crawling up every hillside, creating a picturesque – but extremely haphazard – place. And it just so happens we decided to place a premium on views when choosing our AirBnB so we ended up way up at the top of one of those hills on a road accurately named “Panorámica”. This choice resulted in two things, primarily. 1) Extraordinary views from our balcony, and even better ones from the tiny rooftop terrace two floors up where Laynni usually chose to do yoga in the morning. 2) Every time we left the house we were in for 90 metres of elevation loss (getting to the Centro), which wasn’t so bad, really, although, as luck would have it, we also had to climb back up those same 90 metres coming home. The rough equivalent of staying on the 30th floor of a high-rise and the elevator’s permanently out of order. Of course, we could always opt for a $3-4 taxi ride home, which we did on arrival when toting several bags of groceries and two 20-litre jugs of water, but for some reason we decided to torture ourselves the rest of the week. It’s not really so bad, we said. These little alleys are great fun, we said. It’ll be good for us, we said. I think a week of this is enough, we said, eventually.
As for the apartment itself, we had the unique opportunity to essentially witness the end of a rental property’s economic viability, day by day. You see, the building in front of ours had a boisterous, occasionally energetic crew working to finish the roof a floor below us. At first we just thought, wow, unfortunate for the people below us, having all those guys working directly in front of their windows all day. Then, as things continued to progress, much faster than their casual work ethic seemed to suggest, it wasn’t long before that roof was done, and now tall sets of re-bar were starting to poke their rusty tentacles up into our line of sight, and walls were going up before our very eyes, rapidly blocking off the entire view in one direction. Things were still pretty clear the other way, although probably not for long as things seem to be trending in that direction as well. All in all, nothing serious for us to complain about but it seems clear that we were literally the last people to stay in that apartment with unencumbered views. And the apartment below is well and truly screwed. I’m guessing the two owners are no longer on each other’s Christmas card lists.
It isn’t simply elevation that made our views so great, as Guanajuato is an undeniably photogenic city. Whether you’re looking down from above or are mucking around right down in the heart of things, there is a photo op around every corner. The vast majority of buildings in Guanajuato are gaudily-painted in bright, heavily-contrasting colours. From a distance this creates an eye-catching cornucopia of colour, raging along the valley and seemingly randomly up and down the hills along the way. While wandering around the tight, jumbled alleys and beautifully preserved historic centro it means something new to see around every corner, be it a soaring orange cathedral, narrow winding lane lined with homes in all the colours of the rainbow, or just a set of randomly pink stairs.
If Morelia is the subdued dinner party with great food and comfortable couches that culminates in one reluctant round of tequila shots, a game of Cards Against Humanity and everyone home by 11, then Guanajuato is the two beer with lunch that turns into an all-day pub crawl involving way too much public urination that ends with you leaning over from the back seat of the cab while you and the driver struggle to figure out where you live. It seems like every day in Guanajuato brings another parade, festival or arbitrary set of fireworks. It all feels very festive and fun, especially during a short stay, but it can occasionally be a bit much. For example, the people of Guanajuato apparently really love clowns. Like, weirdly obsessed. In the evening, practically every square features at least one member of the greater clown family (consisting of Whitefaces, Tramps and ones that clearly just threw together some stuff from their parents’ closet), delighting the large crowds that gather to enjoy their time-honoured pranks and bumbling hijinks. So, are these clowns actually funny? Of course not. Popular? Undeniably. And those two facts, unfortunately, are the sum result of my vigorous mental analysis on the subject. Seriously, at one point a mime dressed as a hobo (a mime!) had a crowd of about a hundred hanging on every gesture, shenanigan and determined non-word, cheering and singing on demand, and laughing uproariously every time he pretended to fall or, especially, accidentally hurt himself yet again. Cool.
Anyway, that was a longer rant than I intended, so back to the issue at hand. Guanajuato is a noisy place. Really noisy. As in, there were routinely times in our apartment when we could simultaneously hear loudly talking neighbours and workers, various construction noises, barking dogs, fireworks and police sirens. All at once. This happened a lot, I’m not even joking. Thankfully, many of these sounds let up some in the night, with the obvious exception of the <Clumsy Segue into Another Irritated Rant> barking dogs.
I’ll just start by saying that I used to be a dog person. I really was. We had numerous dogs growing up (unfortunately, only one of which stood the tests of time and proximity to Highway 305) and I loved them all. Well, except Bailey, the obtuse St. Bernard who would always push his food dish in front of the door and then lose his shit when I got too close to it, effectively locking me out until I could distract him and sneak past (at great personal risk). We later learned he had some sort of brain tumour, which explained a lot, but didn’t make getting home from school any less stressful. Moving on, many friends and family members have adorable, well-behaved dogs that are great. Some have dogs that only tick the “adorable” box, but we still manage to get along (Bruce and I have a long-running love-hate thing going). However. However, I have crunched the numbers and it is my firm belief that our planet currently has roughly 1,000 times the number of dogs that we really need to get by. The constant barking, that’s the main thing. It drives me crazy, and then I get even angrier when I can’t come up with any reasonable theory that explains how the people who actually live with these dogs endure it. In Guanajuato there were probably a dozen barking dogs within earshot at any given time but one, in particular, was the clear frontrunner as the bane of my existence. This yappy little terrier kept at it on and off, day and night, with this infuriating little squawk like nails on a chalkboard, or dog nails on laminate. And there were times when we could look over and actually see the owner puttering around, watering her plants and such, while this dog squeaked and squalled next to her, somehow never batting an eyelash. Incomprehensible. Anyway, then you add in dodging dog shit on every surface subject to the laws of gravity, fending off the snarling attention of random strays or domestic escapees and, potentially the worst of all, those devious ones who obviously hear you coming down their own little patch of pinched alley, yet wait until the last possible second before suddenly launching themselves against the crucial fence in a violent outburst of growling, snapping and snarling that must surely be the leading cause of heart attacks in these parts. Sigh.
Now, with that out of the way, back to the task at hand:
Things We Did
Wander – lots of aimless wandering. Hey, what do you think is down that alley? Oh, another little alley. I should have guessed. Still, though.
Tried Nieves de Garrafa – this local favourite translates very roughly to Jug of Snow, and in reality is like a non-creamy ice cream. Not an improvement on the real thing, in my opinion, although it does come in a crazy variety of flavours including shrimp, hibiscus, peanut, tequila and tuna, just to name a few, plus some custom concoctions such as Beso de Diablo (Devil’s Kiss) which I asked about but it was all the disinterested teen scooper could do to shrug and tell me it has “lots of stuff”. In the end I went with radical choice of chocolate.
We both enjoyed another local specialty – “enchiladas mineras”, the traditional miner’s lunch that featured enchiladas made from tortillas fried in hot sauce. Traditionally, this was done because the tortillas were old and needed some disguising. Hopefully, not any more.
We hiked to La Bufa, a steep climb up a rather confusing trail to a cross on the top of a high rock. It took around 3 hours, all told, and at the top we made friends with a wiener dog named Luca and acquaintances with his skinny, shy friend, Flaco (“Skinny”).
Of course, we visited Callejon del Beso (“Alley of the Kiss”), a tiny little lane with far more fame than space, renowned as the location of a traditional story involving forbidden love, a clever rental plan, and stolen kisses across the alley. We waited our turn, got our photos, moved on.
We went to a ball game one night. The field was quite impressive, with an unbelievable rock and home backdrop, and, while there couldn’t have been more than a hundred fans, those in attendance were, as is standard at Mexican sporting events, mainly focused on the food. Laynni eagerly joined in, unable to resist a rather disgusting-looking plate of chips, cabbage and hot sauce. She seemed to like it, somehow. Interestingly, the rocks above left field were live, a la Fenway, and when a homer was hit over the wall in centre an old man was hastily sent out where he spent about 20 minutes trying to retrieve the ball. And, while beer wasn’t readily apparent, by paying attention to those around me I soon learned there was “a guy who could get things” who could produce a few cold ones in mere minutes from some hidden stash underneath the stands.
We took the funicular up to a viewpoint and statue of El Pipila. We also walked up a couple times. The funicular was faster, easier and more expensive. Inconclusive.
We very briefly explored the tunnels below the city. With the entire place crowded into a small valley, there is simply no room to accommodate additional traffic and more roads. Being a mining town, however, they quickly realized that they had both the ability and the need for a network of underground roads to ease the congestion above. Pretty resourceful, although basically the whole area down there smelled like a frat house toilet.
Things We Didn’t Do
Callejonada – these roaming street parties involve a lot of singing, dancing, street performing and, depending on the age of the group and the lateness of the hour, potentially a whole lot of drinking. We had little desire to join in on the former and were not staying up nearly late enough for the latter, thus remained spectators.
On my first visit to Guanajuato, way back in 2002, I visited the famous mummy museum, where hundreds of corpses – dug up for non-payment, apparently – were discovered to be remarkably preserved due to a lack of humidity and certain minerals in the soil. Morbid (especially all the babies) and grotesque (apparently pubic hair continues to grow for quite some time after death), Laynni showed little interest and I ultimately decided that once was probably plenty.
So, there you have it, another two weeks in Mexico waiting until spring has sprung back home. As it turns out, we may have jumped the gun by a week or two. One of these years we’ll learn. See you all this summer.