“Europe is ruined.” Thus pronounced a friend of a friend. Her complaint was one that many of us relate to. We want to be the lone traveler who has found our way to this quaint, unknown and oh-so-charming village. Trouble is, the village is full of other people who also came here to be the one cool traveler discovering the enchanting hamlet. My friend’s friend knew whose fault it was. She placed the blame squarely on Rick Steves.
I happen to be a fan of Rick Steves. Hats off to the guy who studies interesting, but useless things like history, art and music and then turns it into his dream job. My dream job. Quite possibly, your dream job. He is generous with his knowledge, articulate in his prose and, in spite of being almost ridiculously likeable, not afraid to offer a controversial opinion. My kind of guy.
The first Rick Steves book I read was Europe Through the Back Door, before going squarely through the front door (Schiphol Airport) on that fine right of passage, the see-the-whole-content-in-two-months Eurail trip. That trip was a quarter century and twenty-some countries ago for me, but I still use some of the travel tips I learned from Rick Steves. (Carry a lid to a yogurt or Tupperware container. Doesn’t take up any space/weight in your pack, but gives you a clean surface you can use for slicing apples, bread and cheese.)
The last Rick Steves book I read was Travel as a Political Act. I was surprised at how much it had to say. Not because I didn’t think Rick would have an interesting point of view. It’s just that these days I do most of my traveling in the “developing” world and I don’t think of Europe as being that different from the US. It is different, and Steves does an excellent job of exploring those differences. A friend asked me why I haven’t been back to Europe. There are a lot of answers. I want to go back, but the world’s a big place and I need to cover new ground. And of course my travel dollars go further almost anywhere else. But as we sat there, in an outdoor café in a charming plaza, surrounded by 500 year old buildings, listening to street musicians and enjoying a leisurely lunch, I gave the other answer. “I sort of feel like I’m in Europe.” Only a much more affordable version. That’s the charm of Latin America’s colonial cities.
To prove my point, I offer the following description of my adopted home town of Guanajuato, como si fuera escrito por Ricardo Estebanes (as if it were written by Rick Steves). Please note, the following is adapted from the Rick Steves and Steve Smith article, “On the Bridge at Avignon…,” (Avignon being one of Guanajuato’s sister cities):
A Stroll through Guanajuato
by Ricardo Estebanes
Famous for its rich silver deposits, accidental mummies, and labyrinth of tunnels, contemporary Guanajuato bustles and prospers within its steep canyon. With its large student population and fashionable shops, today’s Guanajuato is an intriguing blend of colonial history, youthful energy, and lively Mexican cultural. Street performers entertain the international crowds who fill Guanajuato’s ubiquitous cafés and delightful plazas. If you’re here in October, be prepared for the rollicking performing arts festival. (Reserve your hotel far in advance.) Colorful, artsy, and popular with tourists, Guanajuato is as impressive for its outdoor ambience as for its museums and monuments.
For 250 years, peaking between 1768 -1804, the Valenciana mine, located about 5km north of the city center, produced 20% of the world’s silver. You can visit the mine complex and see the opulent Church with its gold plated altar which is the centerpiece of Valenciana.
Guanajuato’s most famous museum is the Museo de las Momias. In 1865, corpses were disinterred to make room for more. To everyone’s surprise, it was discovered that, due to the arid conditions and high mineral content of the soil, the bodies had mummified. Today, some of these mummies are displayed in a museum along side the cemetery offering an eerie opportunity to indulge in a gruesome, but fascinating afternoon.
Avenida Juárez, which turns into Obregon, runs straight from the Mercado Hidalgo through Plaza de la Paz and on to the Jardín de la Unión. Climb, or take the funicular up to the Pipila monument for a fine view and visit the Callejón del Beso (an alley so narrow, that forbidden lovers are said to have kissed from balconies on opposite sides of the street) on the way back down. Enjoy the people scene in the Jardín, meander the cobbled streets “callejones, or lose yourself in a quiet plaza. Guanajuato’s shopping district fills the traffic-free street.
Designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, Mercado Hidalgo bears a strong resemblance to a Parisian train station. Today it is a thriving market in which you can find everything from fresh meat and vegetables, to hand made backets and kitch souvenirs.
Continuing up Juárez, enjoy the impressive buildings that silver-fuelled grandees built to show off their wealth. Plaza de la Paz has a number of pleasant outdoor cafés and quaint silver shops worthy of peek.
When you reach the Jardín de la Unión, climb the steps of the classical façade and enter this magnificent theater, constructed between 1873 and 1903. Carved and painted wood, stained glass and fine metal work make the theater one of Guanajuato’s gems.
As you stroll, you’ll see street performers posing as statues and in the evening you can join a callejonada – a group of velvet clad troubadours who wander the streets playing music and telling legends. Duck into a bakery (panaderia) for a fresh bolio or a delectable empanada. Finish your tour by relaxing in one of Guanajuato’s many plazas and watching the young people enjoy city life.