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“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.

Jason Taellious' photo of a Rick Steves poster.

Travel makes for an open mind. Photo by Jason Taellious.

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.

sol33's photo of Guanajuato.

The view from Pipila. Photo by sol33.

Assembling an altar for the Virgin of Sorrows

Sitting on my balcony at three in the afternoon on Holy Friday, I am enjoying something which can be hard to come by in Mexico – silence.  This respite from the sounds of city life is due to the fact that almost everyone is in church, watching or participating in a reenactment of the crucifixion. This is the day, bigger even than Easter.

But we’ve had a lot of notable days in the past few weeks.

Two weeks ago, Pope Benedict came – a big deal for my small city.  People responded in different ways.  Guanajuato is said to be the most Catholic city in Mexico, and for many here it was a monumental event.  Yellow and white Vatican flags flew from balconies all over town.  Banners with various slogans – Bienvenido Benedicto XVI, Welcome Holy Father and Friend, Vilcomen, You are St Peter, Guanajuato Receives You With Open Arms –  hung throughout the city. Faithful Catholics lined up to cheer him, “Benedicto, hermano, ya eres Mexicano!” Not being Catholic, this all seemed a little strange, but I believe the cheering throngs to be genuine in their faith.

Others viewed the visit as money-making opportunity.  People with homes along the Papal route rented space on their balconies.  Souvenirs were made and sold.  A man with a life-sized, cut out of the Pope charged people ten pesos for the photo opportunity.  I don’t do photos, but found myself tempted by the absurdity of the situation.

After the faithful and the capitalists came the third group – those of us who just wanted to ride out the storm with as little chaos as possible.  Only two roads reach the center of Guanajuato and both were closed for several days for security purposes.  This meant that goods which enter the city by vehicle couldn’t arrive.  Preparing for the Pope was a lot like preparing for a blizzard:

  • Make sure you have enough food, propane and drinking water.  Delivery trucks will not be able to enter the city.
  • Carry ID (showing your address) at all times.
  • ATMs will probably get emptied out by the tourists coming in.  Be sure you have enough cash on hand.

When the big night arrived, I stayed in and watched the festivities on TV.  It was a chance to learn some new Spanish vocabulary- useful words like Pope-mobile (Papa-movíl), and to enjoy seeing places I regularly traverse on television.  The next day he held a mass with half a million people in attendance (a massive mass!).  Then it was suddenly over and everything went back to normal.

Sandwiched between Holy Week and the Pope’s visit are two of the days I like best in Guanajuato: Dia de las Flores (Day of the Flowers) celebrated on Thursday, and Viernes de Dolores (Friday of Sorrows).  Dedicating the sixth Friday of Lent to the sorrowful Virgin is a tradition that originated in Germany in the 1400’s.  The Virgin of Sorrows is the Virgin Mary in her grief and suffering. She is considered the patron saint of Guanajuato, perhaps because the city was founded on mining and people relate to the sorrow of losing a loved one.

Virgin de Dolores altar

Virgen de Dolores altar (2)

Elaborate altars to the Virgin appear all over the city.  They contain many elements- a picture of the Virgin, candles, purple to represent the pain of Calvary and white representing the purity of the Virgin. Chamomile, wheat, oranges and fennel are also used, each assigned a specific meaning.  People need flowers to decorate their altars and the day before Viernes de Dolores has now become a festival in itself.

Buying flowers on Dia de las Flores

The streets are jammed with vendors selling flowers and decorated eggs, hollowed out and full of confetti.  Colorful, meaningful and local- these two days encompass everything a visitor could hope to see in a traditional celebration.

Easter eggs on Dia de las Flores