Our flight left PDX international airport at 9pm and we were to arrive in Gudalajara, Jalisco the following morning at the ungodly hour of 3:30 am. After many failed attempts at sleeping, I resigned to pulling my scarf over my face to block out the light, and fantasized about our upcoming adventure.
The true inception of this trip occurred over a year ago, when my dear friend since childhood, decided to leave her almost decade-long run in New York City to move to Mexico. She needed a change and has always been an avid traveler, so why not test out working remotely, improving her Spanish, and allowing herself the total freedom to go and do as she pleases?!
I was able to convince another friend, quite easily, that traveling to central Mexico and renting a car would be an awesome way to spend Spring Break. Forget the overcrowded beaches, and the all-inclusive resorts hemorrhaging cheap booze and young college students… We wanted to venture into the heart of this country, not quite knowing what we would uncover.
It was still incredibly dark out but we had somehow managed to get ourselves out of the airport complex and onto the open road. The highway was lined with street lights, none of them on; our only assistance aside from our own headlights was from passing traffic-mostly cattle trucks, rattling along in the opposite direction. They to the city, us to the unknown. The sun eventually rose, after what seemed days, and we took in our surroundings… A beautiful and vast terrain; rolling hills dotted with scrub trees and cactus; an endless sky. We referred to our hastily printed map the car rental service gave us before we left: very basic highway directions from the airport to our first destination, Guanajuato, 3 hours and 40 minutes away. We followed a trail of vague names on the paper map- these names became our new indication of when we were changing direction, taking an exit, or merging onto a new freeway. We trusted our instinct which had been dulled by years of talking devices… and we found our way!
Day 1: Established in 1559, Guanajuato is the capital of Guanajuato State, a location known world wide for its mining and silver production. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s easy to see why when strolling down the enchanting cobblestone alleyways, surrounded by centuries-old churches, theaters and plazas. Vibrantly painted homes narrowly ascending the surrounding hillsides make one feel like they are on a magical, romantic movie set.
The city is home to Universidad de Guanajuato, one of the state’s oldest universities. The bustling presence of the student body contributes to the metropolitan feel of this otherwise colonial gem, held perfectly in time. Museums, theaters, and festivals provide intellectual ardor, while Jardín de la Unión offers green space and shaded seating, shopping, and raucous mariachi bands serenading tables of drinking revelers.
To enter into the historic center, one must navigate a network of underground tunnels beneath the city, originally constructed to address the flow of traffic- although I’m convinced they were created to terrify and confuse tourists. Passing through stone carved archways and perfectly sunlit foliage, you are caught off guard when your vehicle drops suddenly, down into subterranean darkness and you are left to navigate your way blindly through middle earth.
Fortunately, we happened to be following a city bus and decided that trailing the bus was our best chance of getting out of the tunnels and finding el centro histórico. As suddenly as we had plunged into darkness,we resurfaced to find ourselves on a sunny cobblestone street next to a small plaza and a bright orange church. We would later familiarize ourselves with Plaza de la Paz and use Catedral de Guanajuato as our beacon of direction for the following 48 hours.
We miraculously found parking directly in front of the cathedral. The streets being so narrow you can not park on most of them, or they are a one-way that lead back into the tunnels, or you are sharing the road with large groups of people who can not fit on the infinitesimally narrow sidewalks. But it was all glorious. No one was honking or yelling, there was no noticeable litter or pollution like in other confined city spaces, people were holding hands and kissing, and I was mesmerized by their subtle affections.
After parking, it was essential to find a room, a shower, food, and internet. After getting lost for an hour in a surrounding town and surviving off of no more than bottled water and spicy lime chips, disoriented, we stumbled down a street and poked our heads into a boutique hotel. Way too expensive. We retreated. The front desk employee spotted us and approached us just outside the entryway. We told him the situation and that we needed cheap accommodations for three people for two nights. He made a quick phone call to his friends down the road who ran a B&B and within minutes our new friend Alfredo was hoping into our car to direct us to our hotel. It was literally 2 blocks away, but because of one-way streets, we took to the tunnels to eventually get us in front of our hotel, where designated parking was waiting for us!
Our room at Casa del Sol consisted of three double beds and a bathroom with a shower. We bypassed the shower taking and immediately returned to the street in search of sustenance, which we found at a hip little cafe with outdoor seating. We ordered a beer, and then another. We ordered comida típica, local food of the region consisting of potatoes, peppers and onions in a red sauce served as a type of enchilada dish. We wandered the streets and came across a bakery enticing passersby with the aroma of fresh baking bread, colorful pastries, and savory stuffed everything.
After a late afternoon stroll around the Jardín de la Unión, we enjoyed a cold beer in an outdoor cafe, admiring the people of Guanajuato, living their lives, giving us no mind. We walked back to our room and prepared for the drive to the airport, approximately 20 kilometers outside of town, to pick up our friend- the one who lives in Mexico, but was flying in from Australia. After successfully arriving at and collecting our friend from the airport, we headed back, not knowing that we would spend the next long, dark hour lost in tunnels and back roads on hillsides.
When we did finally pull up to our hotel, relief swept over us and we triumphantly hooted and high-fived our luck. We spent the evening laughing and sharing stories over food and drinks, our words occasionally drowned out by the musician playing his guitar, or the happily drunk couple singing along. Despite the city’s location at more than 6,500 feet, the evening was temperate, requiring nothing more than a light scarf for covering. We returned to our room for the night and allowed fatigue to overcome us.
Day 2: There are worse things than walking up to the sound of church bells in central Mexico. The dedicated, if not somewhat sporadic ringing of the bells, was a constant background noise that we grew accustomed to quickly. The Templo de la Compañía de Jesús shadowed our hotel in its benign presence, reminding local residents of something that we, as outsiders, would never fully understand.
In a quest for breakfast, we stumbled upon a crêperie serving well prepared espresso drinks with a respectable selection of sweet and savory crepes. We hashed out the details for the day and decided to visit Museo Casa Diego Rivera first, the birthplace and childhood home of the famous muralist and husband to Frida Kahlo. For 20 pesos -approximately $1.50- you can spend a full morning admiring floor after floor of Rivera’s artwork, a theater room, and 19th century furnishings. A small gift shop offers postcards, books and other memorabilia at affordable prices.
Our next stop was to the top of the mirador to admire the giant monument of El Pípila, a local hero from the 1800s. Lonely Planet condenses the history best: “The monument to El Pípila honors the hero who torched the Alhóndiga gates on September 28, 1810, enabling Hidalgo’s forces to win the first victory of the independence movement. The statue shows El Pípila holding his torch high over the city. On the base is the inscription Aún hay otras Alhóndigas por incendiar (There are still other Alhóndigas to burn).”
From this vantage point, you are guaranteed incredible photo opportunities to capture the vibrant colors of the city, and the mystery and magic that seems to be radiating from the surrounding sub-range of foot hills, a branch-off of the larger Sierra Madre Occidental range.
Follow any number of steep and winding alley ways to the bottom of the lookout and you will drop off in a bustling commercial area on the outskirts of El Mercado Hidalgo. The building which resembles a train station, was inaugurated on September 16th, 1910 by then president Porfirio Díaz, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Mexican Independence. The mostly iron building boasts an impressive domed roof and over three dozen large windows allow natural light in, as you peruse food stands and souvenir stalls. We decided to eat at the market, and for the aquivilent of $2.50, we got a beer and a typical dish consisting of chicken, potato and grilled vegetables, salad, with a green salsa garnish.
It felt completely safe and natural to be walking the city at night. The streets were well lit, and there was a mix of young families and older residents going about their evening business. We stopped off at the Oveja Negra for a cold beer and to try the mezcal- deciding then to move on to a location with outdoor seating, the smokey, agave derived liquor causing a flush across our faces.
Our evening ended back at the hotel, visiting with the night front-desk attendant, Jorge. He invited us to enjoy the hotel’s balcony and entertained us with ghost stories and legends about the city. Tired and content, we retreated to our beds, excited to get on the road the following day heading to our second destination, San Miguel de Allende.