Sunday, March 2, 2014

Guadalajara to Guanajuato

Leaving a city, trying to find the easy way out of it, is always a challenge. But not this time! We were simply sitting in the back of a car enjoying the hustle and bustle of the city from the backseat… Karina and Dany, who we have already mentioned in Beautiful People, wanted to go to Guanajuato too as it's a beautiful place and the town where their father was born. All we had to do was hop in, relax and enjoy! It also meant that when we would finally leave Guadalajara… we could ride straight on to San Miguel de Allende.

We took the toll road as that is much quicker than the free one. What makes the free road slow, is that it goes through all the towns and villages and, as it's free, half of Mexico is on them (including tractors, bicycles, slow trucks etc.) Having said that, I quite like the free roads when traveling as they show much more of Mexican life. In this case it was the better option as it would give us more time for our two day visit to Guanajuato.

The toll road was quicker, a lot quicker… especially with a driver like Karina :-) We better not mention the speed we travelled at :-)! These roads are quite expensive though at 485 pesos from Guadalajara to Guanajuato, one way, especially for the state of repair some sections of toll roads are in.

Motorbikes are charged just over half of a car, and as there are 3 of us we would have to pay almost 700 pesos for the same road while not doing half the damage to it of a car. Maybe it's me but toll roads should be perfectly smooth, not cause you to be airborne at times. Having said that I also feel that highways should be free, the toll is already payed for by the taxes. Be aware that not all toll-booths accept credit cards, so get a stash of pesos from the ATM before you leave.

The 'view from the road' in Mexico is quite different to the US or Europe. Despite being a toll road there are still bicycles on the road (although luckily on the emergency lane this time). We also passed a lot of market type stalls that sell everything from food and clothes to car parts. A little bit further we saw brick makers who make their bricks the old fashioned way. They can make the bricks you want by hand in nothing more than a stone oven in a field!

Entering the centre of Guanajuato is unlike any other city I have ever entered. There is a maze of underground roads that take you in and around the city. The tunnels are 100% natural, made by the Guanajuato river that used to flow under the city. The river used to flood Guanajuato regularly in the wet season and was therefore re-directed in the mid 20th century. The river left behind a maze of tunnels which were converted into flagstone roads, complete with intersections, footpaths and parking areas!

The result is, apart from the flooding being over, that Guanajuato has relatively light traffic (which is just as well as the streets are narrow). Of course the tunnels have their own legend too: Llorona, the weeping woman, is said to be wandering through the tunnels and the streets of Guanajuato with her child. It's a sad story about a young girl having to abandon her baby to avoid family scandal. Many claim to have seen her at night, dressed in white with long dark hair carrying her baby and leaving it at a doorstep while making a terrible heartbreaking cry that makes the bravest men cry… We haven't seen her and as the city is full of music at night, we haven't heard her either :-) Click on the movie above to see what driving through the tunnels is like!

There is a lot more to Guanajuato than Llorona and underground roads though. It has amazing architecture and in 1988 was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. It's claimed to be one of the most picturesque cities in Mexico. First thing to do for us was to find a hotel! The tourism info stand advised the Chocolat Hotel, which wasn't too far from where we were… 131 steps up to be precise! No other way but walking all the way up with our luggage. The view from the room was great though and as we were there somewhat out of season the rooms came at a reduced rate.

So far so good, but then came the small issue of parking. Not to worry we were told, they had their own parking area. The bell-boy drove along with us to direct us where to go, which turned out to be the other end of town. He said it was only a 6 minutes walk back… time apparently goes slowly in Guanajuato, as it took more than 30… and we weren't walking slowly! With the benefit of hindsight it would have been better to park the car in the parking garage and pay the hourly rate as we ended up paying more in taxi fares to get to the car.
The hotel itself was nothing special but ok. We would have expected more of a chocolate theme as it's called the Chocolate Hotel after all. Pretty much hyped up on the website but not a lot of substance.

We've already found that Mexico is rich in history and that Mexicans are proud of their history. Guanajuato is no exception, far from it! Guanajuato is one of the richest places, history wise, in Mexico. There are statues to honour heroes like Juan José de los Reyes Martinez, better known as El Pipila, who became a hero in the fight for Mexican Independence by setting fire to the portal with a torch of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas and take it. The history goes back much further than that though. Until the beginning of the 15th century it was home to the Otonomi, the name Guanajuato comes from their Purepecha language meaning 'hilly place of the frogs'. Silver was discovered in 1548 and resulted in the town becoming one of the richest in Mexico.

The Valencia mine is one of the highest silver producing mines in the world and made Guanajuato a rich town. As a result the buildings here are big, bold and impressive. It has a Mediterranean/Spanish feel, which is somewhat ironic as Guanajuato is also the birthplace of the Mexican Independence from Spain. The history of the Independence can be seen at the Alhóndiga de Granaditas Museum, which is a must. Mexico is very proud of its independence from Spain and the proudness shows clearly in this museum.

You need a rubber neck if you're walking along the streets of Guanajuato. There is so much to see all around you that it's at times hard to take it all in. The cameras made overtime, again I should say, to record it all. Most of the buildings have been converted to other uses, like the ex-railway station which is now Mercado Hidalgo, a big market building. 

Letting it all sink in we had lunch at one of the plazas at the Van Gogh Restaurant, and found the first disappointment of the day… the food! What once used to be a good restaurant now seemingly had employed a 'cook' from McDonalds who wasn't a Mexican either and even the most basic Mexican food, Tacos, were too difficult for him to get right. The only thing good about the place was the old man that played his guitar next to our table for a few pesos, and perhaps the copies of the Van Gogh paintings on the wall.

The impressive Teatro Juárez is a must to see and even more so on the inside, even if you're not a theatre fan. It's elaborate decorations give it a majestic atmosphere.
The 'Plaza de forma triangular' with its Basilica Our Lady de Guanajuato is another highlight of Guanajuato. Looking at the map of the city, which had no scale on it, you might think the distances are vast, as they usually are between monumental places in cities. Not in Guanajuato though. It's one monumental building after another and the impressive plazas seem to be linked like a chain. The Jesuits thought in 1732, let's build a College. Not too big just small scale… you know. Over 200 years later it gained university status and became the University of Guanajuato.

Guanajuato has a romantic feel. There are more places that can state that, but not a lot have a Callejón del Beso, which is Spanish for Kiss Alley! So guess what we did there ?!?The city is made up of small, winding and at times steep alleys. Through these alleys night tours, or callejoneados, can be booked. We did. The tours are held by student minstrels, or estudiantinas, who promised to create a special atmosphere.

We thought the tour would take us through the city, showed us the sights and had some music included as well. What we were offered instead was a tacky performance of men dressed in funny clothes that felt the need to address their audience with contempt, forcing them to do make funny noises on command. It's the kind of behaviour the TV shows hosts of the 80s did. They walked a little through a couple of non-interesting narrow alleys, played medieval sounding music while yelling at their audience and offering little to no information in the process.

Although everything was in Spanish, no English for the foreign tourists, we had no idea what they were talking about... but a lot of the performance was just 'show business' nonsense
We felt sorry for the people living in these alleys that have to put up with this every night and we bailed out halfway during the tour... to spend our time in Guanajuato more sensibly by photographing the city centre at night.

Most of the restaurants were closed by then. It seems you have until 10pm to eat in Guanajuato, which is not what we were used to in Guadalajara. In the end we found one restaurant open and thought we were in luck after all… we weren't. The waiter only took half our order and then disappeared… When the food finally did turn up after ordering everything in three stages, we were disappointed again… was there a pattern emerging here? Hmmm, maybe we were just spoiled in Guadalajara? But then again the food in Lo de Marcos and Mazatlán had been great too. Arriving late back at our hotel with tired feet… we had 131 steps to climb… and thus slept very well indeed :-)

Guanajuato by night, a sight not to be missed and in our case straight from our hotel room!