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
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.''
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.
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.