Early June, 2013 – Guanajuato continued to enchant us. The beautiful cobbled streets wound in and out and up and down, and all were lined with colorful buildings.
There was a cheerfulness about the place that was infectious.
As we were walking down a crowded street one afternoon, it seemed everyone we passed either gave us a nod, or a smile, or was laughing in conversation with a friend.
Incredulous, I said to Mark, “It’s just a happy city!” Behind me I heard a man’s voice say, “Si” I turned around and he grinned at me.
We couldn’t walk ten steps without stopping to photograph something, and we both kept wandering off, attracted by some fantastic image that took us down an alleyway or up a staircase.
Guanajuato is truly photogenic, and we had beautiful sunny days to enjoy it.
I think it is the colors of Guanajuato that will stay in our memories forever. Primary colors and pastel colors — they’re all there, making the hillsides look like they’ve been spattered from a rainbow paint can.
Everywhere we turned, the buildings were done up in vivid shades.
But one building stood out against the crowd: the enormous and rather grand University of Guanajuato in the very heart of town. Imposing, yet ornate, it is bright white and has a series of spiky decorations around the top.
The city’s most impressive architecture dates back to the 18th century when the region was the world’s leading silver producer.
Since the indigenous silver miners were slaves, there was plenty of profit for the mine owners to spend in whatever way they liked, and the ornamentation in the churches, mansions and former government buildings reflect that immense wealth.
Silver production continued to support sumptuous lifestyles in Guanajuato into the 20th century, and the stunning Teatro Juarez theater is a central landmark dating from that time. It was a thrill fto watch it light up in the early evening.
In front of the theater, the Jardín de la Union is the local hangout. Most Mexican cities have a town square, or “Zócalo,” where everyone can kick back with a beverage and a book or enjoy a conversation with a friend or just sit and people watch.
But this square is unique. For one thing, it’s not a square. It’s a triangle! Also, rather than cobblestone or paved paths, the wide walkways that encircle it are made of shiny, decorative tile laid in pretty patterns.
A stand of trees arches over this waking path. The trees are planted so close together and their foliage is so thick that they make an incredible shade cover for the whole place.
They looked like ficus trees to us. We’ve kept ficus trees as houseplants, but for us they haven’t done very well in a pot. Their leaves always seem to begin to yellow and then slowly drop off, one by one, until the tree is nearly bare.
Not these trees! Their vibrant green leaves are so tightly packed that in mid-day the whole area is dark under their shade, and it makes a great place to escape from the heat of the sun. We kept coming back and back and back again — as did everyone else in town!
But daily life is always humming in the streets beyond the Jardín. And in this town, you just never know what you’ll see.
Wandering around, we came across the many scenes we’ve become accustomed to: juice vendors selling fruit juices from rollable carts and people offering veggies for sale on makeshift tables and chairs they’ve assembled from shipping pallets and plastic buckets, or whatever is handy.
But it was the unexpected and whimsical sightings that kept us on our toes and laughing. We just never knew when we might glance up and see something unique, like a scooter rolling past. loaded with bouquets of yellow lilies. What a fun way to deliver flowers!
Traffic on the streets can be quite heavy, especially at rush hour, so we were astonished when we were out looking for a bite to eat and suddenly saw a pair of horseback riders and a donkey clip-clopping towards us on the cobbled streets. Was this for real? Yes!
We followed them back towards the town square but quickly lost track of them in the throng of activity. The crowds in the square had grown so jam-packed that when we stood on tip-toe and looked down the street, all we saw was a sea of heads, hats and the occasional waving hand.
Looking past all that, Mark’s jaw suddenly dropped and he pointed, “There’s a ballet dancer on the railing up there!’ I followed his gaze, and sure enough, a dancer in a leotard and toe shoes was posing on the stone railing in front of the majestic columns of Teatro Juarez.
We made our way through the crowd and discovered she was in the middle of a photo shoot of some kind.
A photographer was nearby, and she assumed one graceful pose after another on the railing while he took a stream of photos.
As this gal was dancing on the side rail of the theater, a gathering of people holding white balloons had assembled on the front steps. What could this be? Who knows!
All of a sudden, they all let go of their balloons at the same time, and we tipped our heads back to watch the little white bubbles disappear into the sky. Then the group of people on the stairs broke up and everyone vanished into the river of humanity flowing around us.
Guanajuato is not just a visual delight. It’s soul is steeped in music too. Everywhere we went around town we heard music.
At the Jardín, in the center of town, a myriad of outdoor cafes lines the square, and each boasts a mariachi band. These weren’t the little wandering three-piece bands we were used to seeing on the beach. These were full-on 8-member orchestras, complete with trumpets and violins in addition to the usual guitars.
The town square’s cafes are crammed together side by side, with no space in between. Music springs up from one cafe and then another, and frequently from a few of them at once. Periodically, a band takes a break, and the musicians take a load off and chat together under the shade of the trees.
There is a bandstand at the center of the square, and one afternoon we noticed the crisp white shirts of a band sitting up there as they tuned their instruments to a clarinet’s A-note. Oooh – fun!!!
We found seats on a park bench and were amazed when the conductor tapped his baton on his music stand and the cacophony from the mariachi bands around the square suddenly stopped.
The band began to play a string of familiar pop tunes, and I found myself transported to my childhood when our town band would play in the bandstand on balmy summer nights. I started telling Mark about how all of us kids would get so wound up at these things, running round and round the bandstand, skipping and leaping and doing cart-wheels.
Suddenly, just as the band started a rousing rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” a little brother and sister began to tear around the band stand at top speed. They ran in opposite directions, and each time they met, they’d stop and high-five each other and then take off again, laughing giddily as they ran.
Out on the streets of Guanajuato the music continued to fill the air, day and night.
Street musicians of every variety strolled up and down, playing for themselves and playing for tips. It is hard to find a street corner in this city where you don’t hear music.
Even when we clamored onto a city bus, a guy suddenly broke into song behind us. We turned around to see him standing in the middle of the bus strumming his guitar.
But the most famous musicians in Guanajuato aren’t the mariachi bands or the bandstand band or the street musicians. It is the Callejoneadas.
The what? When I first heard this word I had to have the person repeat it three times. “Cah-yay-hone-ay-ah-das.”
An alley is a “callejón” (cah-yay-hone), and although most cities in the world have lots of alleys, they are often kind of dark and scary places sandwiched between the good stuff. In Guanajuato, the alleys are celebrated, and they harbor the lively soul of the central neighborhoods.
We watched in amazement our first night Guanajuato as a collection of men in renaissance garb gathered in front of the Juarez Theater. Carrying lutes and mandolins and stringed instruments of all kinds, the men mingled with the crowd, urging them to sit on the stairs and watch them perform.
Suddenly they began to engage the crowd with crazy antics and songs. We couldn’t really understand what stories were being told, but when they persuaded two couples to come in front of the crowd to dance, we laughed with all the rest.
As the couples swung about, everyone around ua began to sing along. Everyone knew all the words to all the songs! Sadly, we didn’t know any, but we sure wished we did.
After a few songs and stunts, the medieval men in black began to walk out of the town square, strumming their instruments and singing as they went. The crowd of people on the stairs got up and began to follow behind, singing heartily in their wake. Then they disappeared into the alleys.
After a short while, the space that this throng had cleared was taken up by another group of musicians and the whole thing began again. The groups of singers gathered in several different areas around the town square, and it seemed there were dozens of these groups.
As they all made there way out into the streets in the early evening, we could hear their songs faintly wafting back to us from various corners of the city.
Now we understood why we had been seeing so many men in tights around town. These guys were the Callejoneadas!
We also discovered what all the donkeys we had been seeing in the streets were for.
Wandering through the alleyways on our way back to our B&B, we came across a group of minstrels and followers in front of a neighborhood church.
The minstrels were performing a skit, and every so often a roar of laughter would go up. A donkey stood off to one side, and the pack on his back was quickly becoming lighter as the singers grabbed bottles from the pack and poured wine into special little flasks that the followers were carrying with them!
What a hoot!! We found out later that this whole thing started back in the 1970’s, when a group of people from the university occasionally gathered in the alleys and wandered up and down the streets in the evenings singing songs. Someone would bring along drinks to share, and the participants would contribute a few pesos to whoever did the buying.
Nowadays, this once impromptu event is a regular nightly party, hosted by university students and faculty.
The whole thing is very well organized, so it is not as spontaneous (and unruly) as it probably was when it first started forty years ago.
A ticket to participate in the festivities is 100 pesos ($8 USD), and along with great memories, you get a very cool souvenir wine flask.
What we loved about all this, though, was that the little B&B where we stayed was right on one of the most popular Callejoneadas routes.
Every evening, if we were back in our room, we’d hear the troupes come by. I don’t know who was singing with more gusto, the wandering minstrels or their followers!
Fortunately, there must be some kind of agreement between the singers and the neighborhood residents, because all the noise and mayhem stopped before 10:00 each night!
We soon discovered that Guanajuato has an affection for medieval things that goes beyond (or was inspired by?) this nightly music event.
All around town we kept running into statues and references to the Spanish medieval author Cervantes and his famous hero, the rather misguided — and Mr. Magoo-like — Don Quijote (or as my little kid’s ears always heard it: Donkey Hotey).
Why Cervantes and Don Quijote? Well, around the time that the wandering minstrels started serenading folks in the alleys of Guanajuato in the 1970’s, another group of university students began doing spontaneous performances of Cervantes’ works in the same neighborhood squares and church steps.
This blossomed into an annual event, and now Guanajuato’s Festival Cervantino is known internationally and includes operas, drama productions, film showings and live music with invited guest luminaries from all over the world.
The festival wasn’t going on while we were there, but we did see a fellow dressed up as Don Quijjote who mixed it up every night with the callejoneadas singers.
We were loving the free spirit of Guanajuato, and our curiosity about its origins soon led us to the edge of town and down into the mines where the silver was — and still is — mined in abundance.