Colonial City Has History, Romance ... and Mummies

When a young family visits a picturesque town in Mexico, high culture takes a back seat at first

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AH, Guanajuato! Cradle of the Mexican Revolution. A Spanish colonial jewel of pastel buildings, charming plazas, baroque theaters, and Churrigueresque cathedrals. Home of the International Cervantes Arts Festival. Christened by guidebooks and friends as one of the most picturesque towns in all of Mexico.

Where shall we start, kids?

``The Mummy Museum!'' Jasmine, our eight-year-old daughter, volunteers. ``Yeah, the mummies!'' seconds her younger sister, Kendra. A moment of reflection: ``But first let's check out the hotel pool.''

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We're not ambitious or foolhardy enough to expect our two girls to leap from the car after a four-hour drive from our home in Mexico City and contentedly stroll through the Diego Rivera Museum. It's late afternoon, so we agree to pander to their (and our) base curiosity.

``What is a mummy?'' the four-year-old wonders as we pull into the museum parking lot. I confidently explain that it's a body wrapped in white gauze, expecting a tame, occasionally PG-rated display of wax figures.

Not.

What follows is a half-hour walk past 170 naturally mummified bodies (no gauze) which further confirms the deep Mexican cultural fascination with death.

Our Spanish-speaking museum guide, Miguel, provides an enthusiastic tour of the macabre.

``This gentleman, Juan Carramil, died in 1903. He's been in the museum for the last 83 years,'' he says pointing to a shriveled, yellow-brown body with nothing but black leather boots on.

The government gives families five years to pay for the cemetery plot of the deceased, explains Miguel. If they don't pay, the deceased becomes a candidate for the glass display cases.

After a few more gruesome descriptions by the guide, our pale, oldest daughter, pulls me down to her level and whispers: ``Dad, they're horrible.'' We quickly exit only to be greeted by street vendors selling candy souvenir mummies.

And we didn't want our daughters to see ``Jurassic Park.''

Suddenly, the traditional Guanajuato sights are more appealing to everyone. We stroll downtown, admiring the ubiquitous potted flowers adorning wrought-iron balconies. Guanajuato is a relatively compact labyrinth of cobblestone alleyways, broken up by little plazas, parks, and stone tunnels. The tunnels, once a river-bed, now route most of the vehicular traffic under the city.

Unlike nearby San Miguel Allende (another colonial gem and favorite weekend haunt), there are are few foreign tourists and no resident American population to speak of. Unless you're looking for a good buy on shoes (we're close to Leon, Mexico's shoemaking capital), Guanajuato doesn't offer much in the way of shopping. There are far fewer art galleries and Mexican crafts stores for tourists here. In that way, it seems less affected, more untouched by the outside world than San Miguel.

Our stomachs stir as we pass homes and sidewalk cafes with smells of supper wafting from them: roasting chicken, steamed tamales, and pork for tacos on rotating spits. An old man squatting on the sidewalk hawks red peppers. Further along, a woman scoops homemade ice cream from a tin inside an ice-filled wooden bucket.

We stop at Tasca de los Santos, a Spanish restaurant with tables spilling out onto a cobblestone street blocked off to cars. At one end of this mini-plaza, people climb the steps of the Basilica Colegiata de Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato for evening Mass. Across the way is the ornate carved-stone facade of the state parliament.

The paella (a rice and seafood casserole) and entomatadas de pollo (rolled tortillas stuffed with chicken and covered with a tomato sauce, cheese, and refried beans) are excellent. But the highlight is a serenade by an itinerant guitarist.

``Would you like a song?'' he humbly asks. We agree on a price of five pesos ($1.60) and the song, ``Besame Mucho.'' Manuel, we learn, has been doing this for 20 years. His guitar is old and not well made. But the light he puts in my wife's eyes with his svelte voice more than compensates for the deficiencies of his instrument.

Our meal draws to a close with a chorus from the girls: ``Can we go back to the hotel now?'' They're hoping to take a dip in the pool before bed. On the way back, we investigate a covey of housewives gathered around a vendor and his cart. He's selling a starchy root called camote cooked in its own sweet syrup.

``It's a traditional dessert but hard to find these days. He's the only one selling it,'' explains a woman waiting in line. ``Give the guero [whitey] a taste,'' she orders the vendor. I can only say that such a delicacy should not be wasted on untrained palates.

WE reach the hotel and collapse into bed. The next morning, after a swim, we wander off in search of la Alhondiga de Granaditas.

This stone granary is the Mexican equivalent of the Battle Green in Lexington, Mass. It is a museum to the independence revolution. For a voluntary contribution, a guide spins us a brief history of the uprising.

For 300 years, peasants endured Spanish rule and near-slavery in the surrounding silver mines. On Sept. 15, 1810, Father Hidalgo rang a church bell and called for the uprising (known as El Grito). He gathered 700 men from nearby Dolores Hidalgo.

Then, carrying a banner with an image of the Virgin Mary, he went to the towns surrounding Guanajuato to round up more forces. In two weeks he had 20,000 men armed with nothing but farming tools, sticks, and rocks. ``Most didn't have any idea what they were fighting for. They were attracted by the image of the Virgin Mary,'' says our guide, Honorio Perez.

The Spanish soldiers sought refuge in the just-completed grain building. They might have successfully held off the rebel siege but for the ingenuity and bravery of one silver miner known as Pipila. To protect himself from the Spanish bullets and hot oil thrown from the ``fort,'' he strapped a large flat rock to his back and crawled to the entrance with oil and a torch. He set fire to the main doors, which were then stormed by the rebels.

Our last notable Guanajuato event (apart from a final swim in the pool) was partaking of the traditional callejoneada. It starts on a Friday or Saturday night at 8:30. From the social heart of town, the Jardin de la Union, a group of student minstrels (known as estudiantinas) dressed in medieval troubadour outfits lead a serenaded tour.

Part Pied Pipers, part court jesters, our minstrels led us on a merry 90-minute ``free'' walk through narrow passageways between multicolored adobe homes with stops in tiny plazas. Led by Jorge, a jolly rotund guitar player with a beautiful tenor voice, we were treated to love songs, off-color ditties, and brief pitches for donations to support the ``starving'' musicians.

Toward the end, we descended the stairway known as the Callejon del Beso (Alley of the Kiss). Here, according to legend, a rich girl, Dona Ana, would secretly meet and kiss her boyfriend, the poor miner Carlos. Her father forbade her to see him. She didn't listen. The next night, as they leaned across the alley from their respective balconies, Dona Ana's father stabbed her. She died as Carlos kissed her hand.

Tradition dictates that if you don't kiss your spouse or companion as you step on the third step of the alley stairs, you're doomed to seven years' bad luck. Nobody says whether it's the third step from the top or the bottom. My wife and I played it safe: We kissed every three steps.

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