Saturday, November 26, 2011

Let's Get Lost

After days spent walking around San Miguel de Allende (and finding the Very Best Empanadas Ever at Empanadas di Loreto in front of the Oratorio) it was time to see what else was out there.

"We can drive to Atotonilco," I suggested, perusing my little guidebook. "We can take the Camino Viejo and the Route of Chapels..."

It looked pretty straightforward. Just head out of town on the main road in front of the main square and follow the signs...
Big Dog never trusts me or my judgement and made me ask the nice young man at the tourist office all the same.

"Is this where I make a right?" Big Dog asked me as we got out of town. "There's a sign pointing to Atotonilco..."
"I think that's the regular highway. The Old Road is the one up ahead, I'm sure," I answered. It was cobblestoned and certainly looked like The Old Road. The other road was just a regular asphalted highway.
"But didn't the guy at the tourist office tell us to make a right when we got out of town?"

I insisted we go straight. Big Dog did not share my confidence and so we asked several drivers and pedestrians along the way if this was the "camino viejo." "Yeah, sure," they all replied.

But the cobbled street soon became a rocky dirt road, and then a river crossing, and then no road at all. It was open countryside, with tracks in the pasture where wagons had been pulled. There were herds of cows and goats, a few horses, some cowboys on horseback, but no sign of anything suggesting a Ruta di Capillas, or Camino Viejo, or any chapel or church. Initially we followed the directions of the locals who pointed this way and that, until we finally realized: This was NOT El Camino Viejo for Atotonilco.

Road to Nowhere

Another Road to Nowhere

"I guess I should have asked them if it was EL Camino Viejo," I said sheepishly. "I was probably asking them if this was AN old road and they were all thinking, 'Well, duh, of course this is an old road!'"

We rattled all the way back to where Big Dog wanted to turn, way back when. Back over the no-road road, across the river (again), over the rocks, dirt and finally cobblestone street. The actual Camino Viejo which looked deceptively modern near San Miguel de Allende also quickly deteriorated into a dirt road, but it did take us by a collection of rather unimpressive chapels and tiny, sominiferous pueblos to Atotonilco, home of the Sanctuario.

A town along the Road to Somewhere...

...where we meet Rasta Dog.

"It's the Sistine Chapel of the Indigenos," enthused Mr. California. He had parked his big truck with a California license plate in front of us so we started chatting, finding out that he had exchanged his ranch in Atascadero, not too far from our ranch, for a place near this town.

Although the Sanctuario has interesting paintings on its walls, it really was no match for the real Sistine Chapel and in the end, Big Dog had to agree that the best part of the day was Getting Lost.

Not really the Sistine Chapel...

Was it all that driving along rocks? Or something more sinister? The next day, we discover our rental car has a flat tire.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Shock and Awe

Most of Mexico's colonial past lies in the central highlands of the interior, from Oaxaca to Mexico City to Guadalajara.

Cobblestones, grand stone buildings, ironwork, pretty gardens and churches. Tons and tons of churches.

Big Dog is impressed with the speed at which the Spaniards built their impressive cities. Morelia was established less than 40 years after Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World. And now, here we were in San Miguel de Allende, in front of a church they had started building in 1511. That's less than 20 years after Columbus landed in Hispaniola!

I am impressed with the scale. The grandeur of many of the colonial cities has not diminished over the centuries. It's impossible to imagine just how these missionaries were able to build such huge churches, with soaring domes and elaborate detail -- so early on.

There are churches, cathedrals, temples, monasteries and convents all over San Miguel de Allende. Humonguous Baroque and Neo-classical structures rise from every street. There must be more Houses of God here per square mile than anywhere else, I thought.

Why would the Spaniards spend so much time and resources erecting so many churches? My theory is that the missionaries wanted to shock and awe the natives. Perhaps they felt challenged by the Aztec temples. "If these pyramids are what they're used to building for their gods, we better amp it up or we'll never get converts!" "Yeah, our God should have an even more impressive house!"

Interestingly, Jesus is not always "Top Dog" or, rather, Top God in these places. In many of the churches I've entered, it was the Virgin who had the "seat of honor." Just as curious is the realism of the statues -- compared to the monochromatic marble saints of many European churches, the figures in many Mexican places of worship are exceedingly realistic. Like, wax museum realistic. (And can be downright gory!)

Yes, it's a blurry shot but you sort of get my drift, right?

We weren't sure we'd like San Miguel de Allende because of its reputation as some sort of gringo retirement town. An Americanized Mexican town didn't sound too attractive to us. In reality, there weren't nearly as many North Americans as we had expected. Where had they all gone? ("First, it was swine flu, then the economy and now the narcos," mused the American owner of Pizza Pig, a pizza restaurant on the main highway from Dolores Hidalgo. "You'll see a lot of Texan women here in the summer, though. They leave their husbands behind to work in the Texas heat.") At any rate, we wound up loving the place. It was just as our new friend in Guadalajara, Maria Elena, told us: small, beautiful, arty, clean and with perfect temps.

Beautiful quiet streets...

...and lovely homes.

Plus, I found my all-time favorite church here: La Parroquia, a towering, airy, gay-wedding-cake of a cathedral. How can something so huge, feel so light? I loved it even more when I found out that the facade was constructed by an indigenous bricklayer and self-taught architect who had never been to Europe -- he based the design on postcards and lithographs, adding in his own touches. It's elaborate, pink and heartbreakingly pretty -- enough to make me want to...convert to Catholicism?!
My photos can't do it justice!

It even gets a fireworks show!

We thought they were rowdy tourists climbing up for a better view of the town. Turned out to be electricians adjusting the angle of the lights on the church. "Glad I didn't follow them up there," said Big Dog.

Chili-covered jicama popsicles!

Off to his gig...

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Stairways to Heaven

Steps. More steps. Slopes. More slopes. Steep slopes. Steep steps. Houses on top of houses, a riot of color.

Guanajuato is a crazy cubist city of colored blocks upon blocks, built in a narrow valley. The city name means "the place of frogs" but frogs were soon replaced by the Spanish after silver was discovered in the surrounding mountains. There wasn't much space for a whole lot of growth, but grow they did -- upwards. No level ground? No problem. Just build vertically. Need to add more space? Keep building up -- or out, into space no one has taken yet.

I had always wanted to visit Guanajuato. I had heard about the network of underground roads -- there wasn't enough space above ground for any major road system.

"If you take the wrong turn, you could really get lost. You could be stuck underground forever!" one elderly Canadian told us years ago.

Wow. I pictured some poor driver, driving endlessly underground until he ran out of gas. Cool. Way cooler than being stuck in a London roundabout.

It's also the "heart of Mexico" as I am reminded by slogans on buses and tourist information kiosks. The city prides itself on being at the geographic heart of Mexico, as well as the heart of its history and culture. There are majestic colonial buildings and churches, important sites in Mexico's struggle for independence from Spain, mines and mummies. Yes, mummies. Apparently, the climate of the area turns buried bodies into mummies instead of worm food and they are proudly displayed at the Mummy Museum, a must-see tourist spot. (So, of course, we avoided it!)

It is not a city for the timid. Streets and narrow alleyways, some only wide enough for walking single file, twist and turn seemingly haphazardly. It's a technicolor labyrinth, a maze. It must also be impossible to map because every map of the city looks different and none of them seem to actually match the actual terrain. Not even Google Maps can get it right. Are the maps even to scale? Who knows.

Maybe the best way to see Guanajuato is not to follow any maps at all, but just follow your nose. And work those thighs as you climb up up up and down down down, only to climb up again. But the locals must be used to all these stairs -- we watch in awe as little old abuelas trudge up seemingly endless flights of stairs to their casa, loaded down with groceries. They must have been doing it daily for close to a century, so how many stairs would that have been in a lifetime? For these grannies, maybe Heaven is a place without any stairs.

There are quite a few Mexican tourists here. It is where EL Pipila, a hero in Mexico's fight for independence, with only a stone slab on his back for armor, fought the Spanish and burned the granary where they were holed up. Luckily for the tourists, the city's one and only funicular leads straight to his giant statue high up on a hill, overlooking the city.

There are also a few European tourists and a handful of travelers from Japan, drawn to Guanajuato's culture, nightlife, art (Diego Rivera was born here) or youthful energy. The University of Guanajuato (you have to climb up stairs about four stories high to get to the main building) assures that there is a big population of young people and they seem far hipper here than elsewhere.

But you see very few North Americans. Not even the Canadians who populate the beach towns in the winter months. In Guanajuato, I didn't see a single Canadian flag. (As an aside, may I say that I find it one of the strangest habits of Canadians to fly their flag in foreign countries, and so casually.)

"All the walking you have to do to see the place probably keeps them away," says Big Dog.
"And the stairs," I add.

It's a shame, though, because it really is worth a visit. And I think it would be a fun place to live -- I kept eyeing pretty apartments with rooftop gardens. Sure, I'd be climbing a loooong (and winding) stairway to my haven, but imagine the workout I could get! I'd never need to pay for another gym as long as I lived here.

Up, up, up...

University of Guanajuato. Entrance is at the top of the stairs.

A pretty blue building in the distance caught my eye...

...and now I am finally, almost, there.

Stairs, stairs, everywhere.

And if the stairs collapsed...just put up a ladder.

Not very artistic papier mache renditions of Diego and Frida, at the Diego Rivera Museum.

Overview of a part of the city.

Narrow for the cars...

...and narrow for the pedestrians.

Unstable-looking additions, above and below.

The space above a street is good real estate in Guanajuato!

Best way to NOT walk these streets!

Minimal clearance! Not for the faint of heart. (Or a novice driver...)

Hard to tell if you're headed in the right direction, but maybe in this town, there is no WRONG direction.

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Road Trips Past

Readers of this blog will already know how much Big Dog and I love to be on the road. It's so easy to be in the moment when you are in motion. There is ONLY the here and now. I know that every day is a gift, but it's easier to feel that way all the time when everything is so new.

We're about to head out on another long-ish road trip -- we've only been out on short ones the last few times we were in Mexico. Before that, however, how about a few scenes from road trips past?

Bar in Zihuatlan

Crocodillo waiting for the unsuspecting tourist...

It's not the Spanish gazpacho but a chopped fruit concoction.

The Colima countryside is so verdant!

And Costa Alegre oceans so blue!

Basses (and mariachis) on standby.

In case you were wondering about adobe construction...

A wedding in Patzcuaro. Note the cute boy in the foreground all dressed up -- just like his father.

Michoacan has the best produce in Mexico.

A street in Morelia. Why is it always raining when we go there?

Cactus fence in Oaxaca.

Wall detail from an archeological site in Mitla, Oaxaca.

Desolate road near Las Canas, Michoacan.

My favorite dwelling in La Manzanilla. They hauled it away a few years ago. Bummer.

Once an exclusive resort in El Tecuan, now a beautiful ruin...

Need a new saddle? Go to La Huacana...

...or Jiquilpan for huaraches.

The village of Cocucho is quite a ways from nowhere...

...but it's famous for its pottery known as cocuchos.

What a surprise to find a familiar name in the village just south of the monarch butterfly sanctuary!

They love their cervezas...

...and dancing!

A carnival comes to town.

Twisted sense of humor?

Men at work. Who needs a whole lot of machinery? Certainly not these guys.

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