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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