Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mountain Sojourn -- January 14 to 24

Disclaimer: We've always thought that one really needs to remember only three things when packing for a trip: (a) passports, (b) some form of money access (debit/cedit cards) and (c) the camera. This trip we only remembered (a) and (b).  Soooo all of the pictures on this post were taken with our IPod, the camera feature of which we clearly have not yet mastered. If you're interested in seeing more pictures of Guanajuato or Guadalajara, there are lots of websites with very good pictures -- just not this blog posting!

From La Cruz to Guanajuato: Bus travel in Mexico can offer experiences ranging from a "chicken bus" (sharing one's ride with un-ticketed livestock) to first class travel (a Volvo or Mercedes bus with air conditioning, clean restrooms and individual video display). After weighing various relevant factors, including our ages, income and previous travel experiences, we opted to travel the more than 1,000 kilometers from Puerto Vallarta to Guanajuato via first class bus. Our twelve hour trip (including a two hour stop in Guadalajara) was spent reading the New York Times on our Nook, looking at the passing countryside and watching movies (it's not hard to follow most Hollywood fare that has been dubbed in Spanish - even for someone of limited Spanish fluency!).

FYI, passing through the town of Leon was like driving through Southern California - complete with discount malls. It is the most modern and untouristy looking place we have seen in Mexico!  If you are looking for a new purse or shoes, it's apparently the place to go.

Guanajuato -- Some Background: Guanajuato is a mining town first settled in 1559. At some point the town's rivers were diverted, and the riverbeds - even those underground - were appropriated for roads. As a result, traveling through Guanajuato is very interesting -- one drives through hand-chiseled tunnels and past high stone walls into a town with narrow, winding cobbled streets and tiny, unexpected plazas. It feels a lot like an Italian hillside town, but with a lot fewer gringos.

Guanajuato is also the home for the Festival Cervantino -- a festival initially begun in the 1950's by students of the local university to honor Cervantes' work.  Over the ensuing 60 + years the festival has become an arts festival famous throughout Latin America. Sort of the Edinburgh Festival of Latin America, it seems. The festival is not until October but it flavors the town throughout the year. For example, there were signs for auditions for festival groups posted in the main square and elsewhere throughout town.

One outgrowth of the Cervantino is what is known as callejoneadas (loosely translated: alley parties). On weekend nights, people gather in front of the Juarez Theater (one of three beautiful 19th Century theaters in town) for audience participation singing and dancing led by university groups in fancy dress. The very idea of being a "participating audience member" makes Bryce cringe so we only watched the happenings. It's a byob affair (though people are remarkably well behaved) and after watching the show each group forms a happy dance line that snakes through town, leaving the theater steps open for the next group. A hoot and a half, as they say in Texas.

Guanajuato has very well-developed tourist infrastructure -- but it clearly caters to Spanish-speaking tourists.  Our hotel neighbors were from Argentina, for example.  This Spanish centric focus thrilled Bryce because he's become very tired to not being able to use his Spanish along the coast (the gringo influence along the coast is such that service staff - waiters, taxi drivers, etc. - speak English - even if the guest's Spanish is better than staff's English!).  But if you want to travel to Guanajuato (and you should!) and can't speak Spanish, you should factor in the cost of hiring a good English-speaking guide.  Restaurant menus include English, but only a very few of the museums were signed in English. 

Guanajuato -- Our Trip: We arrived late in Guanajuato and checked in to the Villa de la Plata, which is about ten kilometers up one of the hills north of the city.  We had been warned that this RCI property (we booked as a trade-in for one of our Ixtapa time-share weeks) was "not 4 star quality".  But the hotel looked quite charming, nicely landscaped and perched on the side of a hill.  So, we approached our room with guarded optimism.  Ugh -- Room 20 had rickety furniture, chipped and stained bathroom fixtures, suspect indoor-outdoor carpeting, a refrigerator containing someone's left-over food, and moth-eaten towels.  Room 20 didn't even meet our lowered expectations!

But, after a 12-hour bus ride, we were too tired to do anything about the room, and, after carefully inspecting the bed . . . which was hard as a rock and covered in scratchy (but clean) sheets . . . we went to sleep. The next morning Bryce turned on his gentle Canadian charm (firmly declining Molly's offer to storm the front desk, ranting about how creepy the room was), and we were transferred to a little bungalow which, once the toilet was fixed, could legitimately be called both functional and charming. Travel lesson: no matter how much of a relief a good rant might be - it is better to keep one's eye on the prize. . . . 

Sunday in Guanajuato:  Having set our home life to rights, we took the local bus into town. Our first stop was the main market -- which is no longer a real farmer's market, but primarily a collection of fast food stands and tourist shops. Of course, fast food in a Mexican market doesn't mean frozen hamburger patties trucked in from a central processing plant outside of Waco and heated up by listless teenagers -- it means liquados (a sort of fruit milkshake), agua frescas and fruit salads made to order, and tortas and tacos created for your viewing and dining pleasure by people who clearly know what they are doing. We had liquados and watched the action - marveling in particular at the "to go" liquados which are served in a plastic bag, the top of which is twisted around a straw.  We sat there for about thirty minutes and never saw what we were sure was inevitable -- the splat of liquado all down someone's front. 

From the market we wandered from plaza to plaza getting a sense of the city's meandering layout, and stopped into the Museo Casa Diego Rivera.  Guanajuato is the birthplace of Diego Rivera (and his twin brother - who knew?), and the lovely little museum created in his birthplace contains a lot of Rivera's works from his youth in Paris.  The collection seems very well rounded and provides an interesting view into his development as an artist.  There was also a small show of statues by surrealist Leonora Carrington.  You've seen her work even if you haven't - it's the basis for almost every sci-fi movie filmed.  She died only recently and was noteworthy enough to have a New York Times obit:  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/27/arts/design/leonora-carrington-surrealist-dies-at-94.html 

We next stopped at a restaurant at Jardin de la Union, a beautiful tree-lined plaza, to have a glass of wine and a cheese plate (oddly, all imported cheese -- which seems a shame in a country with some of the best cheese in the world).  We watched the various mariachi bands trolling for customers -- and spied on what we interpreted to be a mariachi-accompanied proposal of marriage:

As we were leaving Jardin de la Union, we were further entertained by a street parade -- including dancers and what at first appeared to be military bands -- but which were later identified by signs as church-related bands (onward Christian soldiers, etc.?).

Every Mexican city that was of significant size during the 19th Century has an elaborate theater.  Most of which were inaugurated by Porfirio Diaz (during his iron-fisted 30-year presidency) and which hosted Angela Peralta (who must of been quite the singer -- she's honored all over Mexico to this day!).  The Theater Juarez in Guanajuato is no exception.  It's beautiful and  small enough to be intimate, and we were sorry to learn that nothing will be showing there until the spring.

Further Acts of Tourism: 

We rode a funicular to the statue of El Pipila, a hulking piece of Soviet-esque art overlooking the city.  The statue honors a hero of the War of Independence (the war of independence from Spain which is different from the Revolucion).  The story is that the Spaniards (about 300 of them) had barricaded themselves inside the local armory (called the Alhondiga) and the rebels couldn't get near them until a young miner, El Pipila (we still don't know what that nick-name means) strapped a piece of rock on his back to deflect the Spanish bullets, and was able to get close enough (and live long enough) to set fire to the armory door.  Down came the doors, in poured the rebels, and the tide was turned.  The 1930's era inscription on the statue reads: Aun hay otras Alhondigas por incendiar.  -- There are still other Alhondigas to burn.  An interestingly incendiary statement for a city monument, dontcha think?

We engaged in one truly flagrant act of tourism, and had our picture taken while kissing in the Callejon de Besso (Alley of the Kiss).  This very narrow alley is the location of a sort-of Mexican Romeo and Juliet story: young miner in love with the daughter of a mine owner leaned across the 27 inches that separate one balcony from another (it's a really narrow alley) -- they kissed -- her father found out -- all ended badly (mostly for the girl, no word on what happened to the miner in the long run).  The location has now become the place to kiss one's love -- so we did, and have the photo to prove it.  Everyone say "Ahhh." 

We toured the XIX Century museum (covering the period of Mexico's independence to the beginning of its bloody Revolutionary period) and the Museo Iconografico del Quijote (a museum of all things Don Quixote -- see reference to the Cervantino above).

We also toured the Museo del Pueblo.  The highlight of this museum was a portrait of one Secundino Gutierrez who, though he's been dead at least two hundred years, bears an uncanny resemblance to the current incarnation of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. (no comma).  I'm sure the other museum visitors wondered why we were giggling at this very fine portrait. 

We learned why the main thoroughfare in town was being replaced - Il Papa is coming in March and the town is spiffing up to get ready. Of interest is the technique to "antiquate" the curbing. It's poured in concrete -- and then chipped by hand to  match previously "antiquated" curbing.  So our visit was accompanied by the tap tap tap of small hammers on perfectly good curbs. I hope Il Papa appreciates the work that's being done!
We visited the town of Valenciana, within walking distance (if one wants to brave the traffic) of the Villa de la Plata.  Valenciana is the location of the first silver mine in the area, and tourists can still go down inside some of the mines.  We declined, having read that the experience was claustrophobic.  We focused on the church at Valenciana instead.  It's described as being "in the baroque style" -- but we think that if one looked up the definition of "baroque" in the dictionary, the church at Valenciana should be there as a prime example of the baroque style

And the interior of the church is a testiment to just how much silver is in them thar hills, as well as how patient the local artisans are! 

Friday night in Guanajuato is great fun.  The plazas are jammed, the callejoneadas are in full swing.  There are tumblers on the street . . . the cobblestone streets.  As we watched four young boys tossing one young girl in the air  where she flipped before being caught again (we think she flipped at least twice), Molly kept saying "Oh, my god, do you think her mother knows?  I mean, wouldn't it be safer to get drunk and go riding on a motorcycle without a helmet?  Oh, my god, do you think her mother  . . . "

Further Acts of Gastronomy:  We had several pleasant meals, including two at La Bohemia near the Jardin de la Union.  But only one meal was truly blogworthy.  In a little shopping mall near our hotel was a fairly nondescript building boasting that it was a "boutique hotel".  We never saw what that meant - but the guests mostly seemed to be Canadian mining engineer types (Bryce can spot them at a fair distance having worked in the North).  We were there because the restaurant - Xilote - was advertised as a Mexican fusion restaurant.  restaurant with a very modern and clean twist on Mexican cuisine.  We're not sure what was fused with Mexican cuisine -- so perhaps that advertisement is more hype than reality.  But it was a very modern and clean-flavored take on Mexican cuisine; reminiscent of upscale restaurants in D.F..  And one that might have been missed, given it's out of the way location! 

Medical Tourism:  No, we did not have inexpensive cosmetic surgery or dental work.  Some mysterious power has apparently decreed that we learn the ins and outs of the medical system of each country we visit (Croatia; The Netherlands; Thailand; Singapore; Nepal . . . you name it) so as part of that mission we spent two of our precious vacation days obtaining treatment for a blood vessel/clot problem that Molly experienced as a result of our 12-hour bus trip to a high elevation.  All's well, but it was a bit scary at the time.  The worst of course was the take-out pizza and Chinese food eaten in our little cassita in front of the one television channel with English subtitles.  It is not how we had wanted to spend our vacation time!

Guadalajara / Tlaquepaque:  After a week in Guanajuato we had to leave -- and we took with us a list of "things to see on our next trip to Guanajuato". 

We traveled to Tlaquepaque, a suburb of Guadalajara.  It was once a separate village, and has always been known for its folk art scene.  We have visited Tlaquepaque before, and returned for a coupleof reasons -- one of which is that it is the location of one of the best B&B's in Mexico: Casa de las Flores.  The flores in question are in the wonderful central garden of this little 7-room inn which is filled with flowering plants and hummingbirds and a very restful fountain.  It's the perfect place to retreat after visiting Guadalajara (which is big and noisy and all things city-like).  Their webside does not overstate either the charm of the place or the quality of their breakfasts!  http://www.casadelasflores.com/  They served empenadas that are the flakiest and best of their kind anywhere!

We only spent one tourist day in Guadalajara, during which we toured the Plaza de Gobierno where we had a private explanation of the huge Orozco mural of Hidalgo from a funny little man that introduced himself as Pancho Villa.  He was a bit of a nutter but his explanation of the mural was actually interesting, and we were able to escape with that information after giving him a small tip, and tour the rest of the building. 

We also walked around the two main plazas and the Rotona de los Jaliscenses Ilustres (the Jailisco hall of fame -- recently changed from the "Rotona de los Hombres Ilustres") and tvisited the cathedral.  One of the main plazas was created through some controversial urban renewal efforts in the 1950's and 60's -- and the current city administration's signs clearly reflect a disagreement with the decisions of that prior administration.  It's pretty funny to see such open disagreement embodied in tourist signs. 

There's much still to see in Guadalajara, so we had to file that under "next trip".  Bryce's main purpose of stopping in Guadalajara (other than to let Molly stay at Casa de Las Flores again) was to purchase some solid-bar aluminium to repair the bow sprit (more on that in a future blog).  That was accomplished on Monday, and we spent the remainder of that second day wandering in Tlaquepaque and resting in the Casa de La Flores garden.

Our vacation ended on that restful note, and we returned to La Cruz de la Huanaxtle on Tuesday evening.  What have we been doing since then?  Ah . . . that's how the author leaves the end of every chapter in a mystery book, isn't it?  We guess you'll have to read our next post.

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