Archive for April, 2010

Guanajuato City, Mexico

What’s your Mexico? Is it the grimy, unsavory third world border town Mexico? Maybe it is the shimmering, glitzy beach resort Mexico. Mine is the charming, beautiful, laid-back Colonial Mexico. Guanajuato City fits into the latter category perfectly.

Guanajuato City is a product of the Spanish conquest. It arose as a center for silver mining in the 16th century. Silver became the source of great wealth for the Spanish empire and the source of great misery for the enslaved indigent population forced to work the mines. The combination of silver and misery resulted in a city of astounding architectural beauty.

Guanajuato City is compact and walk-able. The center, the Jardin de la Union, the city’s main plaza, is adorned with perfectly manicured laurel trees and an abundance of park benches making it perfect for reading or people watching. Radiating outward from the plaza is a network of narrow cobblestone streets that could trick you into thinking you were in old Spain or wandering through a Tuscan hill-town.

Guanajuato City is the opposite of a tourist trap. You will encounter relatively few tourists and the shops offer fare for mostly local consumption (if your Visa card starts burning a hole in your pocket, head up the road to San Miquel de Allende, a lovely but more touristy venue). The beauty of Guanajuato City is its authenticity. While a few words of Spanish are helpful, don’t sweat the language barrier. At hotels, restaurants and other public establishments you’re likely to encounter an English speaking person or two. Or just use the smile, grunt and point method. It works for me.

I began my stay at Hotel Luna right on the Jardin. At Luna, you’ll get a clean, spacious room and friendly, helpful (and, yes, English speaking) staff. The advantages of a central location are many but they come at a price. The lodging, at $80 a night, is expensive (there are many comfortable choices throughout the town in the $40.00 a night range) and the best dining experiences are also to be found farther afield.

Frankly, I’m a “plop-my-butt-down-somewhere-comfortable-with-a-drink” type but if you’re a sightseer the following are obligatory:

  •  Teatro Juarez. A beautiful, elaborate and historic theater just off the Jardin.
  •  The Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato on nearby Plaza de la Paz. If ecclesiastical architecture is your bag, you’ll be in heaven.
  • The Museo y Casa de Diego Rivera celebrates one of Guanajuato’s most famous native son. The Museum is housed in Rivera’s birth home and contains a respectable collection of his art, especially early works.
  • Monumento al Papila, honors an independence hero and affords a panoramic view of the city. You can reach it by riding the funicular (a sort of incline up the mountain). Great  fun!
  • There is also a Cervantes Festival in October that is rumored to be quite an affair but if, like me, you are allergic to big crowds and jacked-up prices you’d best avoid it.

 Guanajuato City, unlike Oaxaca, is not famous for its cuisine but good food is plentiful and dirt cheap. The problem is that almost all national cuisines become monotonous in fairly short order. I came back from an extended trip through the south of France unable to bear the sight of bread and cheese…for months. In Mexico it’s the ubiquitous tortilla. Call it what you want, taco, enchillada, chimichanga, whatever, in my book it’s all the same. For an antidote I strongly recommend the following restaurants:

  • El Gallo Pitigorico. Located on the hillside toward the El Pipila monument. It is painted bright blue so you can’t miss it. Good seafood and a decent wine list.
  • Casa del Conde de la Valenciana.  A short, cheap bus ride to the nearby hamlet of Valenciana. There is good shopping there and, of course, a magnificent church. Best of all there is elegant and sumptuous dining. I had one of the best meals I’ve had in all of Mexico here. Not to be missed.

After Hotel Luna I settled in for an extended and less expensive stay at Casa la Pita, a little bed and breakfast perched on the hillside above Teatro Principo. An extended stay and payment in advance is the route to very favorable terms. That is the good news. The bad news is that once you have sealed the deal with good old U.S. currency, you’re stuck. At Casa la Pita, I quickly tired of the trek up the hillside, the very limited maid service and the cacophonous residential neighborhood (late night fireworks, early morning church bells, the gas vendor, and dueling dogs and roosters).

I’m told it was the cantaloupe. Maybe it was the salad greens rinsed with tap water. Montezuma’s revenge! Volumes of cheap toilet tissue the consistency of sand-paper and hearty doses Imodium were the treatment. The best public restroom in all of Mexico is the one right back at the restaurant in the Hotel Luna. It is sparkling clean and well equipped. I came to know it well. Avoid the cantaloupe.

Toward the end of my stay I discovered the Ex-hacienda de San Gabriel de Barrera Gardens. The Gardens is an oasis of green tranquility. After you tour the extensive estate, plant yourself in the little café close to the entrance. Enjoy a beer, the beauty around you and the luxurious absence of hustle and bustle. There is nothing at  Ex-Hacienda  to indicate the passage of time so if you’re not careful you’ll take root. When you’re ready to leave a staff member will happily summon a cab to take you back to Guanajuato.

I already know what you’re thinking. I’ll need a car. Banish that thought. Taxis and buses are cheap and convenient and absent of the responsibility that comes with a rental car. The absolute best way to experience Mexico is to surrender yourself to public transportation. The buses to the towns and villages around Guanajuato wind through the mountains and careen around hairpin turns without guardrails, offering spectacular views. Maybe a little girl with big brown eyes will trustingly apply a sticky hand to your knee to steady herself. A bus driver who looks alarmingly short of sleep blasts ZZ Top on an old radio, a crucifixion hanging over his head. Many of the passengers, accustomed to the wild ride, have nodded off. In Mexico the twin sisters of danger and beauty invite you to dance with them. Just smile and follow their lead.

Categories: Ramblin'