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Guanajuato: Adventures with Mummies

Guanajuato:  Adventures with Mummies

Omar at el Teatro Juarez in Guanajuato

Omar at el Teatro Juarez in Guanajuato

Mexico has more than it’s share of interesting and scenic locations, but Guanajuato really is special.  Historic, charming, its hills full of silver veins and its cemetary full of mummies–there’s no place quite like it.  Omar and I had a wonderful few days there a while back.

November 12, 2007

Some towns have no ‘there’ there.  No character, no personality.  Not Guanajuato.  A small colonial town smack in the highlands of central Mexico, Guanajuato has loads of charm to spare.

Our anniversary is January 1, and one New Years Omar and I decided to take the bus to Guanajuato.  As often is the case with us, it was a last minute decision, and we didn’t get going until late afternoon.  We had no schedule, no reservations, and no plans.  Sometimes that’s the best way to go, if you want to discover.  What freedom!

The bus takes about three and a half hours, passing through the industrial city of Leon, which is famous for shoes.

We finally landed in the Guanajuato bus station about 9 o’clock at night.  After a five-minute flurry of activity during which our bus mates met families and friends and were whisked home, we were left standing in an abandoned terminal in the middle of nowhere, in the dark.  Down the street there was a family standing on the corner, and we headed for there, hoping for a local into town.  We waited almost an hour, but finally caught a bus for the quick ride into Guanajuato.

What a ride.  To our amazement, we entered a tunnel on the outskirts of town and tooled through a maze of passageways, finally coming to an underground stop reminiscent of the sewer set from ‘Phantom.’  This couldn’t be right—we were practically in a cave.  We disembarked into the dank, yellow-lit passageway of ancient stone and looked at each other in disbelief as the bus disappeared down another tunnel.  A great start to an adventure!  Come to find out, Guanajuato’s main street stretches almost three kilometers, all under the city.  We found a steep stairway, climbed to the top, and stumbled into 18th century Europe.  Or colonial Mexico, anyway.

What a charming town Guanajuato is, especially when you first discover it at night.  Downtown is a tiny gem, more vertical than horizontal, snuggled in a narrow valley.  Multi-hued houses rise chockablock up the hillsides, like a ‘Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ backdrop.  The center of town, with urbane cafes, funky hotels, and a beautiful theater can be superficially toured in a couple of hours.  But this is a town where it pays to slow your pace and dig deeper, experiencing the unique atmosphere and the many historical and cultural sites crowded into just a square kilometer or so.  It is a perfect town for walkers, as there are few cars above ground, and lots of interesting alleyways and plazas.

Come to find out, Guanajuato used to flood all the time, due to its valley location.  As a matter a fact, the name Guanajuato is from ‘renacuajo,’ or tadpole, because the Spaniards thought the place was only good for frogs.  After once particularly bad flood in colonial times the city was practically buried in mud.  The citizens, undaunted, dug the tunnels still in use today and built their new town on top of them.  A dam now keeps the town high and dry and safe from floodwaters.  The unusual and absolutely wonderful result is a city center almost without traffic.

Emerging from the underground tunnels into a lovely old city plaza, we walked among the fountains and strolling families, looking for a place for the night.  We are always traveling economically, and . soon found that hotel rooms on New Years in Guanajuato go higher than we were willing to pay.  We looked at several places, including one room up an ugly stairwell where flicking on the light disturbed a large family reunion of cockroaches, which skittered in all directions.  Nothing was less than $40.  We finally found a decent room for $30.  It was after 11:00, so we took it.

We doubled back to the small plaza (nothing is more than a few blocks away in downtown Guanajuato) and hunted down a bohemian café we had seen on our arrival.  There was live music, and works by local artists lined the walls.  We each had a bowl of chicken soup with chayote, and slowly strolled back to our hotel, enjoying the brisk night and content in our newfound surroundings.

Guanajuato figures prominently in Mexican independence, and the next day we visited the huge statue to El Pipila, a patriot who bravely helped Hidalgo defend Guanajuato from the Spaniards.  The statue is high atop a very steep hill, and half the fun is in getting there by a funicular railway.  Stand in the back and you can look seemingly straight down the tracks to the town below.  The view from the top is spectacular, and this is a great spot to orient yourself and view the city’s points of interest from on high.

Artwork on display

Artwork on display

Descending back into the valley, we found the gorgeous and very ornate Teatro Juárez, the focus for the famous Cervantino Festival.  Built in 1903, the theater offers sculpture and painting wherever the eye rests.

In the plaza in front of the theater we browsed very attractive artwork and watched painters capture the brilliant colors of the town on their canvases.

Many of the streets of town are actually twisting alleyways, the stone walls and cobble streets hugely atmospheric, with flower-crammed window boxes and gorgeous photo opportunities at every turn.  The most famous of the alleyways is Callajón del Beso—Alley of the Kiss—which is so narrow in spots that lovers can stand on second floor balconies on either side of the alley, lean forward, and kiss.

Dan waiting for his kiss.

Dan waiting for his kiss.

Our hotel, while centrally located, was without charm.  In our wanderings we explored a few blocks further from the center of town, and found a rather Spartan but interesting looking hotel facing a tiny square and small fountain.  The rate was still higher than we wanted to pay, until I asked if there wasn’t a more economical room.  There was.

“Take this stairway up five flights.  The stairs dead-end at a metal door.  Open the door and step out on the roof.  To the left is a metal staircase, and at the top of that is where the cleaning lady used to stay.”

Hot dog—it was perfect.  $20 a night, and we had our own penthouse, with the best view in town.  There was even a café table on the roof, and some plants.  We shared the room with an inordinate number of mops and pails, but it was the best deal in town and we loved it.  The six flights up didn’t bother us in the least—it was fun to be way above the city on a rooftop, watching the multi-hued houses rise up in irregular leaps and bounds over the hillsides.

Omar resting on the climb to the roof.

Omar resting on the climb to the roof.

That day we ate the buffet at a small hotel restaurant.  It was good but not exceptional.  We never found really outstanding food in Guanajuato.  Not that it isn’t there—we just didn’t happen to run across it.

Our last day we decided to visit Guanajuato’s most famous citizens—the Mummies.  The Mummies of Guanajuato are so acclaimed, there have been several horror/lucha/fantasy films starring them, many by our friend Rogelio Agrasanchez’s family.  “Las momias de Guanajuato” with Blue Demon and Santo is perhaps the first and most famous.  It is fun and exciting and incredibly silly.

So who—or what—are the mummies of Guanajuato?  Unlike Egyptian mummies, which were preserved by human hands in religious ceremonies, Guanajuato’s main attractions are accidental mummies.  The area’s arid climate and a fortuitous mixture of minerals in the soil desiccates and tans some of the remains buried in it—but not all.  Years ago it was discovered that some people buried in a temporary plot until their families could afford to inter them properly were dried out and well preserved.  They were placed on view, and became a famous attraction.  People buried in the temporary part of the cemetery are checked after five or ten years, and if they are mummified and no one has paid for a permanent plot, on display they go.  Surprisingly, not all the mummies are old.  While some of the mummies are over 100, others are the remains of folks who died in the 1970’s.  It is absolutely possible that someone could go and see their Aunt Mildret dried out and bare in a glass display case.

We walked through long halls and narrow rooms sporting cases stuffed full of dehydrated people—the pregnant lady, the obese man, the one who was buried alive by mistake, the world’s smallest mummy (a baby who died in childbirth).  All are naked and the color of sand.  They are twisted and contorted.

Interesting?  Yes, in a weird, Ripley’s sort of way.  Gruesome?  You bet.  Scary?  No—the whole experience seems too unreal and clinical to actually be scary.  Rogelio, whose Dad made the movie “The Mummies of Guanajuato” tells me that in the 1970s the mummies were actually kept in a cellar, and you could pay your quarter, climb into a spooky crypt, and look at them.  They weren’t in cases, and of course everyone touched them.  So much for conservation.

I’m glad we went to see the mummies—it’s a very Mexican experience–but I wouldn’t rush to do it again.

Another famous resident was the young Diego Rivera, who was born in Guanajuato.  His house is full of his artwork, in an enthralling museum chronicalling his early life.

Omar is a big fan of Diego Rivera and his wife, Frida.

Omar is a big fan of Diego Rivera and his wife, Frida.

Guanajuato and the surrounding area, like Dolores Hidalgo (a town and not a señora) figured very prominently in Mexico’s independence and are full of historic monuments and museums and such.  Nearby are also several silver mines, which at one time provided the lion’s share of the country’s very considerable silver output.

One of the wonderful things about traveling in Mexico is that each region is different, and there are so many hidden gems like Guanajuato to discover.  If you come visit us in Guadalajara, you have a wealth of interesting towns only a three or four hour bus ride away—Puerto Vallarta, Guayabitos, Tepic, Zacatecas, Aguas Calientes, Leon, Guanajuato, Queretaro, Moralia, Uruapan, Mazamitla, and Colima all have their charms—and that doesn’t even count the natural wonders like La Tovara mangroves (crocodiles!), the Primavera (boiling rivers!), and the Nevada de Colima (erupting volcanoes!).  Is it any wonder we are happy in Mexico?

Dan and Omar

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Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.