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Day 218 – Charming, Historical (Guanajuato)

May 16, 2011

Location: Guanajuato, Mexico

Date: Monday, May 16, 2011

Today Guanajuato is just a university town. But what makes it special? Why stay here for more than a day? Is it the colors? The theaters? The churches? The mummies? Don Quixote? The giant Jesus, perhaps?

It’s something more. First, a little history. (I promise, this will be short.) Guanojuato was the site of one of the first battles in the Mexican war for independence. In 1810, a group of rebels trapped a group of soldiers and their families in an huge, old grain house; were repelled by soldier sniper fire; eventually burned the soldiers out with the help of an impromptu-stone-shield-and-torch-wielding miner named El Pipila; killed everyone inside (women and children included); and then got themselves captured by the government. (The four leaders of the little rebellion were beheaded, their heads hung on the corners of the grain house. I guess this warning was meant to translate into Spanish and the myriad of native Mexican languages. The skulls were taken down 10 years later when Mexico won its independence.)

This initial rebellion had roots back in the 1500s when gold was discovered in the area and Guanajuato sprang up in this ravine next to a small river. After a couple hundred years of hard labor, the poor folks above rebelled against their Spanish masters. Something about doing all the work and watching someone else get rich does that do you.

The bottom line is the city is old. The architecture is old. There is no grid; the layout is cramped and haphazard because of the sloping hills that line the river. The streets are still narrow, harkening back to a time before cars. This chaos gives the city its charm. It’s what makes it different.

There is one street for cars that runs through town. It’s so small it’s only one way. Small tributary streets trickle down the hillsides and empty into the narrow thoroughfare.

The old riverbed around which the town was built has dried up. It now serves as a winding, underground street system for cars and pedestrians. Staircases reach out from the dark depths of this claustrophobic tunnel system up to the bustling streets above. Wandering the city, you’re bound to see steps leading into the bowels of the city. Pedestrians claw their way up these from the buses that stop along the dark road below. When one thunders by, it’s as if a giant beast is roaring from its subterranean lair.

Then there are the callejones. These alleyways twist and turn around the non-grid aligned hillside houses. Inevitably, the hills mean there are stairs. The narrowest of these (barely shoulder width) is Callejon del Beso (Alley of the Kiss). Here, a poor miner supposedly moved into an apartment across from the home of the daughter of a wealthy baron. The two lovers would kiss from across the balconies, which almost touch. Word is, daddy murdered his daughter when he found out. And we wonder why the poor peasants rebelled against the rich.

The river, the narrow streets, the hills, the tunnels—they all give the city the feel of a rabbit warren. Passages get smaller, then bigger. They twist and turn and double back on themselves. Some open into large plazas and some just dead end into someone’s front door. You’re bound to stumble onto street performers, a random coffeehouse, an art studio, or some abuelita doing chores in the entranceway to the family home. All the while, the walls of the callejones constantly change color as you move between the rainbow of houses that line the hills.

As you wind your way up the hill, breaks between the houses offer a glimpse of the facing hillside. Across the canyon and the dried up river-highway you can see stacks of old, colonial houses. If you can stand the climb, it’s fun just wandering the streets. You will get lost, but you will also know that you can always head downhill to that familiar, one-way car artery below.

It’s like you’re an explorer trying to map the Bermuda Triangle using a compass with no magnet, except you’ve got an interdimensional portal that transports you back to the main shipping lane. Loads of fun.

And we haven’t even mentioned the many restaurants, street food stands, the markets, the street performers, the wandering bar hopping parties, and the street food (wait. . .).

It’s a lovely town. The kind of place you can chill in. And I did.

GALLERY: Today’s bonus gallery includes more random pics of callejones.

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