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22-29 June 2013. The first thing I have to report is that we bought our grandsons Mexican wrestlers’ masks. Of course we had to try them on to make sure they worked properly!

We hired a driver to take us to Guanajuato for the day. It’s the capital of the state of the same name and about an hour from San Miguel. The driver, it turned out had another job – performing, (the following night) with a group of fellow actors, in an enactment of some of the history of San Miguel, it being the birthplace of the revolution to free Mexico from the Spanish in 1810. The performance was a mobile play wherein the actors and audience alike moved from building to building in the centre of San Miguel as various significant events were acted out. Unfortunately for us it was acted in Spanish, and although there was always one member of the cast with us explaining in English, I think we missed the details, though we surely didn’t miss the emotion and body language of the performers. It was a fun way to see some of the historic buildings, and to learn some of the history of San Miguel. It is regarded as the first town to be freed from Spanish rule.

This is the man who was our tour guide one day, and important personage from the 19th century the next. He told us he also made the costumes for the company. Versatile guy.

The performance began in El Jardin, the main square of the town. We’d been there several times and it was always busy. It’s the place where people gather to meet, and to hang out. On a Friday night it was hopping.

There were two pre-wedding parties. Each group, apart from the hundred or so guests and the bride and groom, had its own Spanish-style band, and mojigangas (mo hee gangas) of the bride and groom. A mojiganga is a giant puppet about 15 feet tall built over a large frame and designed in such a way that the legs and feet of the person inside the structure become the legs and feet of the puppet. They are startling, glorious, breathtaking, hilarious, wildly creative and impossible to ignore. We were completely captivated. The dancing mojigangas led the wedding parties around the town as the guests drank and the music played.

One of the wedding bands – just like one we saw in Barcelona:

Then there was this guy. I’m not sure what he was offering. Maybe he was connected with one of the wedding parties but I’m not sure. The blue box on the donkey has “propinas” written on it. It means “tips”. Tips for what?

And this guy, who rode into town with his donkey to sell bottles of wine.

And of course the whole company of actors, about eight of them, in 19th century period dress, and dozens of other people just hanging out. I was still not sure if I was in Mexico or Spain. It was the most fun we’d had in ages.

The day before we’d spent the day in Guanajuato, a town even more European in feeling and style than San Miguel if that’s possible. It’s a university town in a narrow valley. Most of the streets are alleys going steeply up the hills on either side of the valley and are impassable by cars. There are a few streets for cars in the town, and a few open spaces in the centre.

A network of underground tunnels that follow the original drainage ditches built for flood control of the Guanajuato River now form the main roads throughout the town. The story goes something like this – the town evolved in this really narrow valley due to very rich deposits of silver nearby. The Guanajuato River at the bottom of the valley would flood during the rainy season so they built ditches all over the place for run-off to prevent flooding. Eventually there were enough run-off ditches that the original riverbed was covered over to form a tunnel, and then used as a road. Then in the mid 1900’s a dam was built to completely redirect the river, so all the ditches were covered over forming this vast network of underground roads beneath the city. There are frequent openings with stairs up to the town. It’s quite surreal really. These photos show the buildings on top of the original tunnel of intricate brickwork, which predates the rest of the tunnel network by quite some time.

The town from above.

There are a few open spaces in the centre of town,

this gorgeous wall up the hill on one side,

and university students everywhere.

and one from Don.

Since we only had one day in Guanajuato we had to pick and choose. We passed on the mummy museum (111 mummies unearthed from the local cemetery because of the law that taxes must be paid after a certain number of years of being interred – no one knows why they mummified instead of rotted), and the Don Quixote museum (created by a large contingent of Spanish residents in Guanajuato), and instead went to the Juarez Theatre for it’s beauty, the Diego Rivera museum to see some of his early work, and then went to explore what most interested us about this town – the tunnels, and the narrow streets of colourful houses.

This is the stunning interior of the Juarez Theater, designed by architect Antonio Rivas Mercado, and built from 1892 to 1903.

From the tunnels we climbed the steep narrow colourful winding streets.

We climbed about half way up and then went into a restaurant for a view of this prettiest of towns. We loved Guanajuato. Everywhere we looked it was pleasing to the eye. It felt rich. Maybe in material terms, but also rich in life and lifestyle and creativity and learning.

In the restaurant we were astonished by these chairs. This lady (and you know she’s a lady because of her earrings and her quite magnificent hat!) both forms and adorns the back of the chair. All the chairs were like that, some with skulls, some with suns. They make me smile. She is a Catrina, the icon of Mexico’s Day of the Dead.

This is Don’s photo of Pipila.

Pipila sits atop one side of the town and dominates the skyline. He was a miner from San Miguel, and he was a hero in the early movement for independence. On 28 September 1810, all the Spanish rulers of Guanajuato had locked themselves and their families, and plenty of silver, in a grain warehouse, in the hope of being safe there. Carrying a big rock on his back, and using it as a shield, Pipila was able to set fire to the wooden doors of the warehouse, and thus the Mexican rebels gained entry and all inside were massacred. It was just the beginning and took much more fighting, and much more time before Mexico finally gained independence, but it all began in San Miguel de Allende, and Guanajuato.

Next stop: nearly three weeks in the fabulous state of Oaxaca for the incomparable Guelaguetza Festival, a trip to some Zapotec ruins, and a hike in the surrounding mountains – all to come in the next few posts.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.