We left Tampa airport, transferring in Houston after a 2 1/4 hour flight for a 2 hour flight to Leon/Guanajuato airport in the mountains of central Mexico. We had arranged for a pick-up by private car fro the 1 1/3 hour drive to San Miguel. San Miguel, a city of about 90,000 people—20 percent of whom are ex-pats form the US and Canada—lies 6400 feet above sea-level surrounded by semi-arid shrub land and low lying mountains. Nothing particularly striking catches our attention during our drive to the city. Once in the city, in particular the historic center, however, I can see that it will be every bit as quaint and attractive as Diane has said—she having been here a couple of years ago for a photography class.
We are in San Miguel to celebrate the Day of the Dead, Dia de Muerto, which has a reputation for being one of the finest celebrations in all of Mexico and was designated in 2003 as an intangible World Heritage by UNESCO. The celebration, whose purpose is to mock death and commemorate the deceased, runs from October 31st through November 2nd. Our hotel, Casa Mia, is only 3 blocks from the center of town where the Plaza Principal is located and most of the activity will occur. Our room, actually an apartment, has a kitchen/living room arrangement with one bedroom and is decorated in a Mexican style. The unit, one of about 12, is on a rectangular courtyard with a fountain and flower garden which the other units encircle.
Early mornings are chilly in San Miguel but the weather tends to become more pleasant by 10:00AM or so. San Miguel’s streets, cobblestoned, steep, uneven and treacherous, require attention to walk. When wet, as they often are in the morning when some residents have washed them or when water runs off rooftops and along adjoining pavements, you quickly learn how slippery they are. One morning I had to assist a woman who, walking her Halloween-costumed child to school in haste, slipped rather hard on the pavement. She recovered nicely after being raised from the pavement but walked away moaning and limping.
Calle Correa, the street outside our window, leads directly downhill to the town center. We will spend the next 5 days walking uphill and downhill on the street of San Miguel and will learn to walk in the street when we can to avoid the wet pavements. I will also learn that these steep hills can strain your gluteus maximus (was he not the Roman Emperor after Marcus Aurelius). In any case I will learn what a real pain in the ass is.
Upon entering the central plaza, Plaza Principal, one immediately notices the most significant monument in San Miguel, the Parroquia of San Miguel, originally built in the 18th century. It sits at one end of the plaza raised some six or seven steps above the plaza, gothic spires jutting into the air at each side of the church, a bell tower in the center with about six bells secured in its open arches and a small plaza with benches and trees making an inviting resting spot in front of the entrance to the church. In the morning before the sun has risen, the church’s colored pink and grey façade is clearly distinguishable. As the sun rises, the façade turns increasingly pinkish, transforming at the height of the day into an undulating mass of pink hue, an image that an impressionist painter like Monet would delight in. In the evening the spires are outlined in white lights installed in the arches of the spires, which maintains the church as the focal point and stanchion of the plaza.
The Church of San Miguel may stand as the doyen of the plaza, it, however, does not completely dominant the plaza. Below it and encompassing the majority of the plaza is the Jardin Allende, a rectangular shaped area with a pavillon in the center, a fountain in each of its four quarters surrounded by shrubbery and flowers, particularly orange marigolds this time of year, and inviting intricately shaped cast-iron benches located throughout it along the pathways in the garden. Tress line the outside and inside of the area, shaped into rounded flat-toped forms, and provide many shaded spots to relax and enjoy the day. A low concrete wall encloses the entire garden. When sitting on the outside benches facing the church, the church becomes the dominant feature of the plaza; however, when sitting on the inside benches, the setting becomes much more intimate, protected from the influence of the church by the closely cropped trees. On two sides of the square a arcade covers the pavement where restaurants have placed their tables and stores have opened their doors. The third side has a hotel overlooking the plaza. The entire area is free of traffic so that people can walk inside, outside and around without interference from automobiles.
The Jardin Allende is one of the more pleasant spots I have experienced in my travels, a perfect combination of calm repose for reflection and interesting activity for people watching, not unlike Greenwich Village Square on a smaller and less hyper scale. It is a meeting and gathering place for locals including many of the expats living in and around the city. On one corner of the plaza is a Starbucks which is also a meeting place for the expats as Diane and I learn over our morning coffee. English is the language of choice in the store. Over the course of our stay we meet two female expats in the garden. One woman who is 88 years old has been living in the city for 13 years and professes to love her adopted home. Another woman, perhaps in her late 50s. has been living in the city for 25 years. The plaza will become the central point for the Dia de Muertos festivities.
On October 31st, the first day of the festival, groups of people arrive around the walls of the garden during the morning hours. Pick-up trucks loaded with marigolds can also be seen waiting in the plaza, and a farmer and his son lead a mule, marigolds tied to its back, across the plaza. Each group will build a Dia de Muertos mosaic, some dedicated to an individual whose photo will be displayed, others without an identifiable individual. Each mosaic will be constructed with rice, salt, various colored beans, corn and popcorn kernels, colored sands, marigolds petals and marigold flowers, predominantly orange in color, sometimes white. Devotional candles will surround the exhibit as well as be placed inside the exhibit to be lit in the evening to help lead the soul to his or her destination. Water and Tequila bottles will also be placed inside the exhibit along with various kinds of food to nourish the soul. The mosaic design will often be a head of a skeleton, sometimes with an Aztec style headpiece; others are non-representational designs. Roads leading to a cemetery were a common feature. The exhibits varied in size but were usually about 8 to 10 feet wide by 12 to 14 feet in length. For this feast a recently deceased female folksinger of long standing fame, called Tehua, who spent her youth in San Miguel was featured in several exhibits.
In the evening a stage, which was constructed yesterday, has folk dancers dressed in Indian and skeleton-type garb enacting a story between the living and the dead with traditional dance to Indian style music, much of it played on a flute. The plaza is teeming with people, some dressed in costumes; a handful are catrinas, skeleton-garbed individuals of various types walking on stilts. Other people are with their children, trick or treating around the plaza. The restaurants are crowded as diners watch the milling crowds. Costumed people eagerly pose for cameras shots; the most desired of which are the catrinas.
With the crowds, the catrinas, the little trick-or-treaters, the music emanating from the stage, and the illuminated church in the background, the air is festive with Dia de Muerto activity. the following morning, All Soul’s Day, some of the exhibitors return to remove faded flower petals from their mosaics and replace them with fresh petals. the evening is a repeat of the previous nigh stripped of the stage performances. The crowd is just as large, and in place of the stage performance a strolling mariachi band provides entertainment.
Tonight, we again dine at an Argentinian restaurant, La Garufa, near the plaza, dining on barbequed sausage and beef; however, we have learned that two appetizers are sufficient as more than that number provided much too much food for us on a previous night. The wine is also quite good, and the restaurant’s own label, a blend of merlot, cab, and Malbec from Argentina, proves to be a real find. Activities begin to recede on November 2nd as the departed souls return to the afterlife. Living relatives bring flowers, mainly marigolds, to the gravesites of their ancestors.
As we walk the area around the Jardin, we reach the Church of the Immaculate Conception which is only a few street from the plaza. The church has a small crypt room which is located by the main altar. Inside, traditional style headstones are layered atop each other on the wall where the remains of the deceased are located. An elderly couple, holding hands, are quietly talking to an elderly priest and people are entering the crypt carrying flowers to lay by the headstones of their relatives. The Church of the Immaculate Conception is not lavishly adorned but is modestly attractive. The altar is triple-tiered; the bottom and middle tier have three small niches surrounded by four similarly sized columns trimmed in gold, each niche containing a statute of the Virgin. The top tier has one niche with a statute of Christ the King.
Unlike the Church of the Immaculate Conception, the interior of the Church of San Miguel is moderately expansive in a gothic style, vaulted ceilings with a central aisle and two smaller aisles where additional altars and statutes are placed; the main altar is adorned with layers of gold trimming done in a rather baroque style. Particularly striking to me is the tiled floor which has as its main motif large orange marigolds in the center of each tile piece. The tiles seem to correspond to the marigolds being displayed in the exhibits.
After our stay in San Miguel we hire a private car to drive us to Guanajuato, about 1 1/4 hours away, the capital of the similarly named province. The Spanish conquistadors took a keen interest in the city when they noticed the natives adorned with silver jewelry, and they soon discovered that the silver came from ore mined from the surrounding mountains. Silver mining produced the wealth that allowed the city to prosper. Silver mining continues to be important to Guanajuato.
Guanajuato is a much larger city than San Miguel, is a UNESCO world heritage site, and has a city center of some interest. The focal point is the Plaza de la Union, a small, triangular-shaped park with delineated green gardens, cast-iron benches lining the circumference and surrounding the pavilion in the center of the park. Restaurants surround the plaza, each with outside tables on the plaza. The plaza is crowded each day with loungers, students from the nearby University of Guanajuato, and kiosks selling snacks, single cigarettes and other small items. In the evening, activity and noise levels rise as more people enter the area and as one, sometimes two, mariachi bands stroll the plaza serenading diners. On one corner of the plaza is the Teatro Juarez, a nice looking neo-classical structure, on whose steps students congregate, sometimes with what looks like their instructor. On one day they were constructing signs for a demonstration that was to take place the following day concerning 43 students who had been abducted from another city. The demonstration later took on national significance when it reached the government in Mexico City.
Sitting on the plaza, our hotel, Boutique 1850, puts us in the middle of the activity without being too exposed to the sometimes excessive noise of the plaza–the mariachi bands tending to spend a large portion of their time on the other side of the plaza playing in front of the more numerous restaurants located there. The hotel is a real find; we have an attractive modern-decorated room with a good sized bathroom and great water pressure in the shower. The staff was very accommodative, especially the concierge, even giving us a sandwich for our trip on departure. The one minor drawback was the lack of a restaurant but that was quickly removed when we were given coupons to use at the very nice restaurant next door where we could sit on the plaza at breakfast. We spent a very enjoyable dinner at an outside table one evening serenaded by a mariachi band for about 20 minutes that the table of four guys having a grand old time beside us had called over. Mariachi is an infectiously lively music that encourages a good feeling, unlike the hotly sensual earthly music of Spanish flamenco and the sad darkly-driving music of Portuguese fado.
Several streets lead away from the plaza, one of which takes us by the even smaller Plaza de la Paz. Along the way restaurants and shops line the street. It leads to the Mercado Hildago, s never completed railway station that now houses a food bizarre. Former President Porfirio Diaz wanted the station for the railway line that was meant to pass through Guanajuato; however, the line was never finished because a revolution deposed Diaz and stalled forever the completion of the line. Narrow streets lead off this one which takes a person uphill to smaller neighborhood plazas and the University. Overlooking the Plaza de la Union and the city rests La Pipila, a statute dedicated to Jose de los Reyes Marinez, a mine worker who joined the revolution in 1810 when it reached Guanajuato. From atop the hill, which can be accessed by a tram on one side of the Teatro, one gets a wonderful view of the city with the Basilica and University looming large in the foreground and a panorama of colorfully painted houses that undulate over the next hill.
One unique feature of Guanajuato is the underground tunnel system that surrounds the city center. Originally constructed to divert the river overflow that often flooded the area, the tunnels were no longer needed after dam was later built to hold back the river. Eventually, the tunnels were converted into streets and parking areas which today provides the pleasant and unusual freedom from automobile traffic in much of the city center.