Little did I know, when my husband Barry and I bought an old adobe home in the heart of Guanajuato, Mexico, back in 2005, that the city would be just as quirky and fascinating to me 16 years later as it was then. Here are nine of my private joys.
1. Exploring The Callejones (Alleys)
The town of Guanajuato is built on the slopes of a steep valley. Wherever I am, I look out at Cubist, blocky buildings piled on top of each other, the color of mango, watermelon, lemon, and kiwi. Many of the small streets above the center are narrow pedestrian alleys, or callejones, of which there are more than 3,000. I love exploring these labyrinthine alleys with their steps and ramps that twist and snake around. They remind me of an Arab souk, which is not a far-fetched image, as the Moors dominated Spain for more than 500 years, and in turn, Spain colonized Mexico.
On the callejones, the sublime and the seedy co-exist: bursts of color and bright flowering bougainvillea and orange llamarada contrast with graffiti and mutts howling from the captivity of rooftop homes. Many callejones have strange names like Perros Muertos (Dead Dogs), Teremoto (Earthquake), and Hojas Secas (Dry Leaves). I often take over an hour to explore just a small area because each alley leads to many tributaries.
2. Icons And Altars
Guanajuato is full of rincones — a Spanish word that means “corner” or “nook.” I’ll walk around a bend and unexpectedly discover a small square, altar, mural, statue, or icon. They’re all over town! I’ll often come upon a statue or tile image of La Virgen de Guadalupe, Guanajuato’s patron saint.
3. Historic Chapels And Other Destinations
One of the local sacerdotes (priests) told me about the tiny historic chapels buried high in hilly neighborhoods, so of course I had to go find them. Two, located in the Pardo neighborhood, look almost doll-sized and are open only during special religious occasions like Lent.
Sometimes Barry and I will be drinking a late-afternoon glass of wine on our terrace and I’ll see a house I don’t recognize. I’ll get out the binocs and study where it is, and the next day go looking for it. This is not simple, because Guanajuato’s layout is about as non-Euclidian as you can find. It drives me crazy that I can’t locate a nearby tangerine-colored house! I’m told it’s behind a locked gate.
We can close the door to our home and, without getting in a car or a bus, be hiking in the hills in 10 minutes. Guanajuato, while beautiful, is very dense and concentrated, with its casas colindarias (row houses), and although it has plazas and parks, I can never get enough of nature. So the fact that I can be out of the urban environment within minutes is one of the huge draws of the city.
I’m partial to hikes with a landmark to aim for, which is easy here, as most hills have a cross on top. Cruz de Perdon (Cross of Forgiveness) not only has a cross but an altar and several gravestones. It’s about a 20-minute hike up from La Panoramica, the road above Guanajuato that circles the city. Once a year, pilgrims walk up at night by candlelight. Other hikes are Sirena, the iconic Bufa, and Cruz Azul, which is not always painted blue, as its name suggests.
Several times I’ve taken on the unlikely role of leading a group hike, which I’ve discovered is not a simple task here. The trails aren’t as established or signed as I’m used to in California, and people depend on my sense of direction (ha!). We’ve always made it back safely, though. No one has died yet!
5. Meditation And Sitting In Churches
Barry and I are part of a meditation group led by a Japanese man who seems ageless. We meet from 8 to 9 weekday mornings in a building owned by the university. Our group of about 10 sits for two sessions of 25 minutes each. On my way, I walk along Guanajuato’s vibrant streets, pausing to greet Juan, who sells freshly squeezed orange juice, and Lalo, who owns a newspaper puesto (kiosk).
During the pandemic, the university isn’t open, which means no meditation. Instead, Barry and I sit in one of three rotating churches several times a week. Unlike in the U.S., most churches in Mexico stay open throughout the day. We love to sit in the quiet, cool gloom, watching the elderly women sweep the floor and the light play along the walls.
6. Old Mining Churches
Early every Sunday morning, Barry and I ride our bicycles along La Panoramica, the road that encircles town. Among our regular stops are the old mining churches of Mellado and Cata, two of several built here by silver mining barons in the 18th century. We love these old churches with their pink stonework. Mellado has the added plus of crumbling sandstone cloisters, with patches of grass and scattered stone ledges and columns. It’s a place of dreamlike neglected beauty, with a view of the city and its striated, mismatched houses in a rainbow of colors.
After Mellado we visit Templo de Cata, famous for its chapel where people leave notes for God: Mexico’s Western Wall. People address the local saint, making requests and expressing gratitude, regret, celebration, and hope. Even though I’m not traditionally religious, I always leave a note.
7. The Subterraneo And Embajadoras
One of my favorite walks is to stroll along the street called the Subterraneo, called that because though not underground (like the many tunnels beneath the city), it’s surrounded by high walls. I’m heading to the area of town known as Embajadoras, where the city’s second market is located. A few years ago, the city repaved and landscaped this area and, with typical Mexican ingenuity, created a lovely pedestrian walk among trees, shrubs, and benches. From our home and back, I accumulate about 4,000 paces on my pedometer — not bad for my morning constitutional.
8. “Gourmet Alley”
Although I like Mexican food, I’m also partial to other international cuisine, and we couldn’t live in a better spot. Within 5 minutes of our home, we can enjoy Arabic, Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese restaurants. Our neighbor from New Delhi, having moved here after marrying a Mexicana, provides take-out Indian food. We’re covered!
9. Paid Friends
Although I’m very comfortable using Spanish, enjoy chatting with people, and giving talks in the language, I don’t consider myself fluent. There’s always more to learn, especially in Mexico, where the local Spanish is riddled with modismos, or slang. During our years here, we’ve had several Spanish tutors, who Barry and I joke are our “paid friends.” My current tutor, Camila, is tough! She’s forcing me to get over some bad Spanish habits. For example, at least six different verbs express the word “become,” and I’ve used only three of them, and not always correctly.
Another paid friend is Lidia, the woman who cleans our house and waters our plants. Because we rent our home when we’re not here, we need someone to maintain it in our absence. And I confess it’s great when we’re here, too. Neither Barry nor I are great housekeepers, especially in our open-air home in Guanajuato’s dry, dusty environment. I love chatting with Lidia when she’s here. I tease her that she knows the secrets of the occupants of the houses she cleans. For example, she knows I hate buying plastic trash bags. When I discovered that she was bringing her own trash bags from home, I knew I had to get past my resistance!
Guanajuato thrills, delights, and intrigues me — still! If I’ve inspired you to visit, come on down — it’s easy! You can fly to our local airport, Leon BJX, directly from Los Angeles, Oakland, San Jose, Houston, Dallas, or Chicago. Bring your walking shoes and go wandering in Guanajuato’s warren of callejones, and I know you’ll be captivated, too.