Words by Rachel
Wandering around the cobbled streets of Guanajuato you could be forgiven for thinking you had stepped back into some by-gone era. No cars clog the main street. Instead, pedestrians walk freely, interspersed with street vendors selling ice cream, tacos, churros, and home made kettle chips; and one of the most joyous sights, the musicians and troubadours wandering around the centre in Venetian-esque costume, singing and playing music, waiting for dark when they will gather a crowd to follow them through the alley ways, singing all the while. In a world of digital devices and reality TV, we feel privileged to step away from the instant gratification and slow down and just enjoy being part of the passing crowd.
Surrounded by mountains, Guanajuato feels like the biggest jewel in Mexico’s oh-so-bejewelled crown. A city of around 725,000 people, it feels more like a sprawling village or town that has grown over time On the streets where there are cars (above ground – most of the through fares are in a network of underground tunnels that run under the city), drivers stop for pedestrians, crossing or no. It is that chilled approach that the citizens of this city seem to take and is part of why we felt so welcome from the first minute we arrived.
There’s no agro here that a big city can often exude. People smile and say hello when you pass them in a steep staired alleyway, our girls are fawned over and told how beautiful they are at least 10 times a day, museums and shops all shut for lunch from 2 to 5pm. Ah, siesta – my kind of town!
We came to Guanajuato after reading about it online and in Lonely Planet, with the purpose of spending a week studying Spanish. Settled in 1559, it was once a booming silver town, at it’s peak supplying around 20% of the world’s silver. Now a thriving university town, Guanajuato has that slightly bohemian feel, with a touch of grunge, that comes with the necessary cheap eats, student digs and hole in the wall bars.
Adding to this, around almost every corner is another plaza, statue, church or majestic building. After a few days here, both Gary and I agreed we could have stayed for a month or more – which we discovered many people do.
We quickly settled into our daily routine: getting up in the morning at our student accommodation, Casa Mexicana, where the owner Heyda cooks us a sumptuous breakfast, followed by coffee at the outstanding Cafe Tal, classes at Escuela Mexicana nearby, and then another home cooked meal in the afternoon, followed by homework, a wander through the many streets and alleyways, perhaps a coffee or a beer and then a delicious meal at one of Guanajuato’s many eateries.
The food here is excellent, and there are just too many places to name. Special mention goes to Xocola-T, a local chocolateria which offers chocolate covered grasshoppers. Of course we had to try them. They were ok, a bit salty and crunchy, but the best were their truffles and blocks of 85%. Ah, delicious. Our favourite meals were at Los Campos, a small restaurant of only 8 tables nestled in an alleyway next to Plaza Baratillo. Michael, the Canadian owner, is personable and welcomed us back like old friends on our second visit.
Our girls are hard to forget, one sporting pink and purple hair, the other aqua, and like their parents appreciate fine food. Los Campos serves a creative selection of Spanish- Mexican fusion, our favourite being the Sopa de Jitomate (rustic style tomato soup), the Pollo con Papas y Olives y Naranja (chicken with potatoes and olives in a caramelised orange sauce) and the oh-so-decadent Tarte Limon (lemon tart) which we gobbled down so quickly we had to order another. Michael also has a fine selection of wines, some local from nearby San Miguel de Allende and slightly further afield Queretaro. Who knew there was a wine region this side of Sonoma producing first class wines? Another joyous discovery for us as we explore deeper into this delightful country.
And thankfully, we finally found some really really good coffee that would rival any Sydney cafe worth their salt. A word on coffee in Mexico: for coffee snobs like ourselves (aren’t we all coffee snobs from Sydney?) we have been disappointed to find in a region where so much of the world’s best coffee is grown, the coffee culture is yet to catch up. Americano and instant are the flavour of most places, so finding a good espresso has become quite a mission for us in most places. The best coffee we have had – hands down – in Mexico was only 50m from our digs, at Cafe Tal. And not only the best coffee (double shot lattes with less milk and more coffee), but also in the top 3 hot chocolates of all time, the 3oz Beso Negro (translation: black kiss).
Our Spanish school was excellent. For the week were were in Guanajuato we spent 4 hours each morning in Spanish school, with each one hour class being taught by a different teacher. Some of Gary and my lessons were with others and some were just the two of us. For newbies to the language we pick some things up quickly, but others (conjugating verbs anyone???) were incredibly challenging. The girls were lucky to have private classes just for kids, and we left our week of classes feeling like we could actually have short conversations with the locals.
Aside from our daily Spanish lessons we found plenty to do. Most days after class we spent walking through the winding alleys, discovering amazing churches, theatres, museums and plazas. Gary and I decided early one morning to run up to the top hill overlooking the city, Monumento a El Pipila – no mean feat at over 2,000m above sea level.
Puffed, we were thrilled to find ourselves alone at the top, looking down over the myriad of coloured houses and buildings built up and down the hills. As the sun rose up from behind the mountains in the distance we grinned at each other, having one of those moments…
We are so glad we have decided to come on this adventure. On the way down we stumbled upon ‘Callejon del Beso’ (The Alley of the Kiss). This is the narrowest street in Guanajuato where two balconies almost touch. Legend has it that the daughter of a wealthy family fell in love with a common miner. He rented the house across the street so they could exchange kisses from the balcony in secret. When her father found out he killed them both. A Mexican twist on Romeo and Juliet! Gary and I were told by a local that you will have 7 years good luck in your relationship if you kiss under the balconies, so naturally we obliged…
I could go on, there is just so much to tantalise the senses in this magical city. I suggest you just go there. Wander the streets, get lost in the alleyways, stumble onto a bar, drink the craft beer, eat from a street stall or restaurant, listen to the music. Which brings me to the final thing I want to share. As once budding thespians, Gary and I were thrilled to discover a tradition in Guanajuato that I am not sure is found anywhere else in Mexico – the nightly gathering of Estudiantinas I mentioned at the beginning.
These are professional singers and musicians dressed as medieval troubadours. They mill around the busiest squares and recruit tourists and locals into their nightly shows. With their initial crowd they begin by wandering through the streets singing, playing music, telling jokes. As they travel the crowd grows as other passersby join the show, until they find a final resting place on a set of stairs or in a square to play more songs, tell stories and jokes and finish with some rousing musical numbers. One night we finished a meal in one of the smaller squares and found ourselves in a throng of people. We joined in the crowd, following the Estudiantinas down alley ways, singing and laughing, not really understanding a word of the language but definitely understanding the language of music and joy. We ended on a set of stairs, watching the musicians as they finished their performance and handed around the hat, flush with happiness that being part of something in the moment can only bring. A truly unique experience. We’ll definitely be back.
Best Meal: Los Campos http://loscampos.mx/
Best Coffee: Cafe Tal: https://www.facebook.com/CAFE-TAL-387345348059/
Best Spanish School: Escuela Mexicana http://www.escuelamexicana.com/