Friday, December 4, 2009


Not to sound like a cheesy tourism brochure, but Guanajuato truly is a magical city. It’s taken me this long to edit all the photos! Never mind that I might have been distracted by two birthday celebrations, one very large family meal, and ¡TWO! Thanksgiving dinners. 

But back to Guanajauto… I was invited by Manuel on a whim I’m pretty sure. But as the site of the International Cervantes Festival, the Capital Cervantina de América. the birthplace of the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera AND the setting of my new favorite move El estudiante, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I think I surprised both Manuel and myself when I actually showed up on Monday night. I discovered a city easy to fall in love with. A city with both a Don Quijote art museum and a mommy museum?! What’s not to love?


One night as Manuel and I wound our way through its narrow paved callejones, he began envisioning a city that would change according to his will. The stately stony-grey façade of the Teatro principal? Tomorrow, bright fuchsia pink. The alleys would alter their winding paths by command. Things, buildings, people would appear, disappear, reappear. For one week, he could live in a city as a god with videogame-like control. Such a typical metaphor for a boy, even a poetic type like Manuel. His imaginings reminded me instead of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a novel in which Marco Polo describes 55 cities to Kublai Khan, each city more otherworldly than the next, each city’s existence possible only within the limitless scope of the human imagination. Take for example the following chapter:

Cities & Desire 5

From there, after six days and seven nights, you arrive at Zobeide, the white city, well exposed to the moon, with streets wound about themselves as in a skein. They tell this tale of its foundation: men of various nations had an identical dream. They saw a woman running at night through an unknown city; she was seen from behind, with long hair, and she was naked. They dreamed of pursuing her. As they twisted and turned, each of them lost her. After the dream, they set out in search of that city; they never found it, but they found one another; they decided to build a city like the one in the dream. In laying out the streets, each followed the course of his pursuit; at the spot where they had lost the fugitive's trail, they arranged spaces and walls differently from the dream, so she would be unable to escape again.
This was the city of Zobeide, where they settled, waiting for that scene to be repeated one night. None of them, asleep or awake, ever saw the woman again. The city's streets were streets where they went to work every day, with no link any more to the dreamed chase. Which, for that matter, had long been forgotten.

New men arrived from other lands, having had a dream like theirs, and in the city of Zobeide, they recognized something from the streets of the dream, and they changed the positions of arcades and stairways to resemble more closely the path of the pursued woman and so, at the spot where she had vanished, there would remain no avenue of escape.

The first to arrive could not understand what drew these people to Zobeide, this ugly city, this trap.

Guanajuato’s streets similarly wind and turn, rising and falling, and it certainly seems like they change at someone’s will, if not Manuel’s. And the buildings jut out to meet one another, just as if a group of men had arranged spaces and walls differently to try and prevent a phantom woman from escaping. 

Take for example Callejón del beso, an alley where two balconies almost, but almost reach each another. Legend has it that a young aristocratic woman of Spanish descent and the poor miner who lived across the alley fell in love. They would kiss, spanning the space between the jutting balconies. One night, her father caught her in the act and threatened to kill her, his only daughter. Not believing her father would actually carry out his threat, she and the miner met the next night, again kissing from their balconies. Without a word, her father entered her bedroom, saw the lovers, and retrieved a knife, stabbing his daughter to death. The poor miner planted his last kiss on her wrist as she died. Romeo and Juliet have nothing on this couple. Nearly every little alley as an associated legend like this one. It is a city that gives birth to stories, legends, magic. Guanajuato might feel like a trap as you lose yourself in its alleys, but it is by no means an ugly one. 

 Notice the guy with the backpack? Yep, he's kissing someone goodbye. Siiigh.

During the week Manuel and I spent in Guanajuato, we were continually surprised. Guanajuato seemed to have turned itself into the city of Manuel’s imagination. It seemed to be changing to carry out our every whim, like it was determined to show us just how magical a city it could be. Although the historical center is relatively small, meaning that we crisscrossed it repeatedly during our ramblings, we always stumbled onto something new, a new adventure.

During our first meanderings, narrow alleys opened onto beautiful churches, financed with the silver and gold removed from the city’s mines starting in the mid-sixteenth century, onto sweeping views of the city climbing up into the hills, onto plazas complete with fountains or ancient shady trees, picturesque scenes and still-lifes, perfect for an afternoon latté spiked with maple syrup or a savory crepe. 

Arriving after the International Cervantes Festival and high season had come to a close, we at times felt like we had the city to ourselves. 

One afternoon, we visited Teatro Juárez, rumored to be the most beautiful theater in all of Mexico with its Neoclassical façade, Moorish-inspired interior and original smoking lounge. Not another tourist in sight. 

We played around with our cameras as the crew worked on the set and tweaked the stage lights, preparing for the upcoming weekend’s opera. 

As we stumbled out of the dark theater into the afternoon sunlight, we heard music. A few steps further into the Jardín Unión, with shady trees forming a strolling arcade, and we saw the source: a full brass band playing classics in the plaza’s gazebo. We sipped on cocktails and enjoyed the music. Moments and coincidences you definitely cannot plan or recreate. 

The music finished, we began to hear yells and cheers in front of the Church of San Diego. We pushed through the gathering crowd to see a group of new mining students, covered head to toe in body paint, dressed as hookers, animals, luchadores, diapered babies and sporting haphazardly buzzed hair. Mining school graduates held a rope surrounding the group, often chugging alcohol from large coke cups and passing them on to the dancing and cheering initiates.

After a sufficiently large crowd had gathered, the brass band accompanying the spectacle, followed by the graduates herding the new students and then the rest of the crowd, headed up the street. We joined in, buying bracelets to let us into a salón, an enclosed party garden rented by large groups, at the top of the hill. We climbed for over half an hour, sipping brandy bought from a convenience store and learning the mining school chants and the jeers aimed at the law students.

 Thanks, Manuel, for stealing my camera to snap pictures of the action.
I, on the other hand, busied myself with buying six-packs.

We arrived at the salón, along with the now-stumbling initiates and the rest of the crowd, and filed in to see a huge stage and a large dance floor. After meeting three ¡Fort Worth! nurses in Guanajuato doing missionary work and buying beer by the six-pack from tents set up at the edge of the dance floor, we spent the next few hours dancing ranchera and norteño. Late-night tacos completed a perfect and completely random night. 

Teatro Juárez, viewed from the start of the callejoneada.

Another night we decided to go on a callejoneada, a walking serenade through the streets and alleyways lead by a group of graduates of the University of Guanajuato (these groups are called estudiantinas. I ran into an estudiantina in a bar in Seville before, but didn’t have a chance to follow them through the streets.) 

The all-male group, costumed in early modern attire complete with tights, play classic Mexican songs on stringed instruments and lead the crowd, drinking alcoholic punch from ceramic porrones, through the streets, ending on the beautiful steps of University of Guanajuato’s main building. Our group consisted of ourselves and a group of senior citizens, which made the singing and dancing all the more fun. Manuel and I finished our complimentary beverages and filled up with a handy bottle of wine we happened to have stashed in his backpack. I’ll stand by my statement that night, any time you have the chance to drink in the streets to live music is a good time.

The process of getting to know a city is fascinating. Each memory, each occurrence adds another layer of meaning to the streets walked, the buildings entered, the bars, restaurants, plazas and streetcorners. The city begins to take shape, not just the city known intimately by its residents and or the unknown city waiting to be discovered by two travelers, but becoming the city layered with meaning and memories significant only to oneself. Really, each of us has the power that Manuel desired, to change a city. That’s what exploring a new city is all about. It is the reason why I love traveling so much. 

In college I had a professor who suggested that the 55 cities in Calvino’s novel were merely reiterations of Marco Polo’s native Venice, another magical city that has captured travelers and writers’ imaginations from the early modern to the present. Rather than a canal city, Guanajuato is mining city with underground tunnels to prove it.

But the image of one bridged street evoked Venice, a paved street replacing the canal. A café spills tables out onto the bridge, making it a perfect place to eat a lazy, late-morning breakfast, people watching as the city strolls underneath. It didn’t hurt that a pivotal sequence of El estudiante was filmed on that bridge. 

After pushing back our departure by a day and a half, our last full day in Guanajuato was November 20th, the anniversary of the Revolution. It took us a little while to figure out what all the music, horn-blaring and cheering was about, but when we did, we decided that the café on the bridge was the perfect place to enjoy breakfast while watching the parade pass by on both sides. That night, we wandered back to the University of Guanajuato, where most of my favorite movie is set and where I fantasize about doing a master’s next year. We found a full movie-theater-sized projector in front of the building’s steps playing an old Mexican film about the Revolution. Back to one of the first images of Guanajuato, now overlaid with the memory of being serenaded, slightly tipsy, by a group of tight-clad, mandolin-bearing residents, the memory of watching a film about a tumultuous time in Mexico’s history, the memory of falling in love with a colonial mining town. 

After a lunch of Guanajuato’s typical enchiladas mineras (deeply satisfying enchiladas filled with cheese, topped with red sauce, savory roasted potatoes and carrots, crema and queso añejo with a side of chicken breast), we were off to Querétaro to celebrate Nico’s birthday for the night and then back to Puebla. 

Guanajuato, a landlocked city just as magical, just as beautiful, and, from what I've heard, a whole lot less smelly than Venice. I don't think even Marco Polo could have come up with this stuff.