A Winter’s Visit to Guanajuato, Mexico

Subimos un callejon y encontramos una panaderia anticuada…

On Sunday, January 14, 2018 we landed in Guadalajara airport, found a taxi to Ajijic, and met friends from Colorado. Our reservation for our casita in Guanajuato would begin on Tuesday, so we had a full day to explore some of the villages along Lake Chapalla. Lake Chapalla is the largest lake in Mexico; along its shores are many small villages- each specializing in an industry: berries, woodwork, etc. Ajijic is a popular destination for expats from the US, particularly retirees living on a fixed income.

Tuesday morning, after much map studying, we set off in our friend’s rented car to Guanajuato. Despite all our map studying, we still needed the phone GPS to navigate the roads whose ancient origins create confusion for foreign drivers. We arrived safely, unpacked, and headed out to explore our new neighborhood.

Guanajuato is a beautiful Baroque city, with a population of three quarters of a million people. It is know for its beautiful architecture, winding pedestrian-friendly streets, and a wealth of cultural offerings: museums, art, rich traditions of handicrafts, three theaters, (including the international Cervantes festival), music, & dance. Though many people visit Guanajuato each year, it does not cater to tourists. There are few panhandlers & aggressive vendors selling tourist trinkets. Living here, one gets a true sense of Mexican life. Not much English is spoken here; is is fun to test my Spanish skills. (I have been studying every day since visiting Guanajuato last year. After spending just 5 days here last year, having 6 weeks and my own casita is heaven!)

With our friends from Ajijic in the casita next door, we spent a few days wandering, sightseeing, visiting museums, sampling restaurants, and shopping. When they left, it was time to truly settle in. We did laundry, stocked up on sundries at the Mega, scoped out the local markets, and did lots of exploring. We rearranged our casita, made room for our art supplies and groceries, and I cooked my first meal in Mexico.

We are learning how to navigate a city that has no grid- just a spider web of streets and callejones- narrow alleys that quickly become staircases- they are everywhere!  We’ve been brave, taking lots of narrow streets & callejones- even did a few tunnels!  We’ve discovered that the Panoramica is a road that circles above the city. When you think you are lost, wandering the callejons, and find yourself out of breath above the city, find the Panoramica to navigate a way to the zone you wish to go. Besides walking/climbing, there are 3 ways to get around in Guanajuato. Take a bus or taxi, or walk to Zona Central, take the Funicular to the Panoramica, & navigate from above the city. The third option involves walking, but not so much climbing.

It was on one of these early exploring expeditions that we found a delightful baker- el panadora Pedro. As we were descending a callejon from the Panoramica, I began to smell the delicious aroma of baking bread. I thought it was a housewife. Much to our surprise, we discovered a tiny shop tucked into the alley with an authentic large clay oven. As we peeked in, the baker bid us enter. We remarked on the old oven- “horno viejo,” and he said proudly that it wasn’t so old- only 20 years. He allowed me to photograph him with his oven, which became the inspiration for my first sketchbook entry.

The first drawing shows the callejon that leads to the Pedro’s bakery. It shows the entry of the callejon, where you turn off Paseo de Presa, (where we live for these 6 weeks in Guanajuato), and head to Pedro’s. In this first drawing I wanted to emphasize the color of the city, particularly this location. Some homeowners paint their houses in bright tropical colors, many walls are bordered with red paint, and bright flowers, mostly poinsettias and bougainvillea bloom profusely throughout the winter. To this end, I used ink to depict the masonry, and experimented with watercolor pencils to add the colorful accents. To get the deep colors I was after, I found the need to dip them directly into water and paint with the tips. Applying them like pencil and using water to blend the pigment did not allow the rich effect I was after. Pedro’s portrait was done with 4 values of ink. He stands beside his traditional domed clay oven. An undecorated cake sits on the counter, and collection of rolls are bagged for sale. The rolls are called “bolitos”- taken from “bole,” a large round loaf.

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To get to Puerto Vallarta to catch our flight back to the States, we broke our journey into two days.  We took the ETN bus to Guadalajara and spent another night at the Hotel Dali, then took our final bus ride to Puerto Vallarta, again staying at the quaint Hotel Bellmar. We like to stay on the top floor, which is a huge grunt with luggage, but the view is worth the climb.  We stay in Viejo Vallarta Centro, so no beach views.  Instead one looks out on the busy, colorful street life.

Our flight was scheduled to leave at 4:30, so that gave us time to make one last drawing before leaving Mexico.  I took many photos of street life, charmed by the papeles banners, the shiny piñata-like sculpture banners, and other handicrafts Mexicans create to celebrate life.  I captured Calle Iturbide, an appropriate ending to my Mexico sketch journal.  (Iturbide was another revolutionary independence hero.)  The view is looking toward the ocean.  The street ends in a plaza on the beach where many artists display their work.  I wanted the emphasis of this drawing to be on the banners, so I eliminated the ocean view.  I chose to add paint only to the banners to further emphasize the celebratory theme of this ink drawing.

photo collage left to right/ top to bottom:  Tlaquepaque street view with shiny miller piñatas, Puerto Vallarta papeles,  Ajijíc papeles & street vendor, door knocker San Miguel de Allende, door knocker Pátzcuaro, veterinary clinic Ajijíc, antique bicicletas at the tire shop in San Miguel de Allende, street musicians Pátzcuaro, street view San Miguel Deb Allende.

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Tzintzuntzán: musical, magical name for the former Tarascan capital on the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro.  Tzintzuntzán means “place of the hummingbirds.”

Outside the biblioteca in Pátzcuaro, we boarded the colectivo to Tzintzuntzán, which takes passengers to villages around the Lake.  We were able to use our broken Spanish to visit with a mother and her charming daughter along the way, who gave us the lowdown on the archeological ruins.

Before the Spanish conquest, the village of Tzintzuntzán was the capital city of Tarasca, on the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro, with a population of 30,000.  Tarasca was strong, able to repell repeated Aztec attacks.  In 1520, the Tarascans could not fend off the Spanish. Today Tzintzuntzán is a sleepy village that boasts an important archeological site.  Called Taríaran, “House of the Wind,” it is located above the town on a large platform excavated into the side of the hill, overlooking the lake. The ceremonial center contains a large plaza, several buildings which housed priests and nobility, and five yácatas. These semi-circular pyramids were wooden temples where important rites were performed.  As I sketched, I noticed architectural slits in the stonework, much like at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, which make the whole site function as a large stone astronomical calendar.

In my sketch, I included a bit of the village landscape, the lake, and the volcano, all important elements in the history of Taríaran.

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From Ajijíc, we traveled with friends to the state of Michoacán.  Our first stop was to El Rosario Sanctuario de las Mariposas Monarca.  The experience of seeing thousands of Monarch butterflies was magical- un milagro!  (My beloved horse was born in Florida in a field of Monarch butterflies; hence he was named Monarch.  To watch a small clip of the Monarchs at Rosario, visit my Instagram account- see link to the right.)

After visiting the Monarchs, our next destination was Pátzcuaro, the picturesque city of red tiled roofs and blocks of red-banded adobe buildings.  Pàtzcuaro was  founded in the 1320s as the capital seat of the Tarascan state, which included Michoacán, Jalisco, and Guanajuato, rivaling the Aztecs in power and influence.  Even today, native peoples retain their colorful dress, food, and traditions.

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Our next stop was Ajijíc on the shores of Lake Chapalla, back in the state of Jalisco.  The easiest way to get to Ajijíc from San Miguel de Allende is to board a first class bus to Guadalajara.  At the bus station, engage a taxi to Ajijic.  Sometimes it is best to agree on the fare before you enter the taxi.  Some drivers are very honest and friendly, while others are tempted to take advantage of Gringos.  Our driver was quite friendly, and like many of our taxi trips, we had the opportunity to practice our conversational Spgringos.jpganish with our driver.  Most drivers know a bit of English, and it is fairly easy to communicate with our “un poco de español.”

Ajijíc lies at an altitude of  5,000 feet along a tropical latitude that moderates the climate year-round to an average temperature of 72 °F.  With the perfect climate, colorful quaint streets,  and a strong dollar, Ajijíc is a popular haven for retirees, particularly from North America.  If you are looking for an authentic immersion experience into Mexico, this is not a destination for you.  Many Americans live here year round, and that influence has changed  Ajijíc from a sleepy Mexican village to a tourist-catering destination.

My first sketchbook entry for Ajijíc was another “window” view from our bungalow.  Enrique, our landlord, is an artist with carpentry skills.  He is creating a lush tropical sanctuary in his backyard, complete with four bungalows.  He has many contacts throughout Mexico, where he acquires antique furniture in a state of disrepair and building refuse, which he repurposes into charming features, niches, and furniture for his bungalows and courtyard garden.

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Dogs repose in along the sidewalk of a charming veterinary clinic

The perfect cup of coffee, Lake Chapalla, & closeup of the vet clinic sign

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Hidalgo 50, un sabor con tradition

“Huevos con calaca; desayuno en San Miguel de Allende  1-26-2017”

Hidalgo 50 was our favorite breakfast spot in San Miguel.  Fried eggs over easy is hard to order in Mexico; it seems that individual restaurants call it different things.  The proper name is huevos estrellado, but that confused many of our waiters.  Hidalgo 50 made our eggs perfectly!  Most likely because San Miguel is a cosmopolitan city with many travelers and residents from around the world.  While waiting for breakfast, I made this sketch.

Día Del Muertos, observed throughout Mexico, has become a 3-day celebration, Oct 31-Nov 2.  The Mexican government made it a holiday in the 1960s, as a unifying national tradition based on indigenous tradition.  It seemed to me that the Day of the Dead is one of the most beloved Mexican celebrations because one sees calacas, (skeletons) throughout the year.

My drawing was inspired by the skeletal Catrina figures.  In 1910, the Mexican lithographer, José Guadalupe Posada created a famous zinc etching of a figure he called, “La Calavera Catrina,”  also known as “Dapper Skeleton” or “Elegant Skull.”  Catrina is Posada’s parody of a Mexican upper-class female wearing a hat befitting the upper class European of her time.  Through this satirical portrait, Posado pokes fun at Mexican natives who aspired to European aristocratic traditions, abandoning their pre-revolutionary indigenous culture.  Today, Catrina figures are a prominent part of modern Día de Muertos observances, used in Mexican decor throughout the seasons, and commonly offered in craft and souvenir shops.

Mexican art, design, and crafts are charming and whimsical.  I was delighted to encounter the following examples.

These antique toys were hung in a tire shop.
well preserved doorknocker

 

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Many days we spent wandering the city, exploring neighborhoods, taking photos, sampling food, and of course drawing.  The Plaza Civica has two churches that bookend the square.  Kurt and I took opposite ends of the plaza, each portraying a different church.  I chose the Templo de Nuestra Señora.  My sketch captures the vibrant street life found throughout Mexico.

Here are a few more examples of the charm portrayed across Mexico, particularly in Mexican colonial cities.

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San Miguel became an important military and commercial site by the mid 16th century when silver was discovered in Zacatecas. The town was a melting pot, first for Spanish and indigenous peoples, and later for other European settlers too.  Major roads connected San Miguel with the mining communities, Mexico City, and the rest of the state of Guanajuato, serving travelers’ needs and providing supplies.  In particular, the textile industry flourished.  Locals claim San Miguel is the birthplace of the serape.

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Wealth from San Miguel’s crossroads status brought a rise in  Baroque and Neoclassical architecture, including many mansions, government buildings, churches, and cathedrals.  The beauty and charm of the city still bring San Miguel many visitors.

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From Guanajuato, we traveled east by first class bus to San Miguel de Allende, another Baroque-Neoclassical colonial city.  San Miguel de Allende, birthplace of the revolutionary leader Ignacio Allende was the first city to declare its independence from Spain.  Though historically significant, it was its beautiful architecture and charming culture that saved the city from almost becoming a sleepy near-ghost-town when post-WWII artists rediscovered it, founding  fine art and cultural institutes.

The legend of the Barrio del Chorros tells of the founding of the city of San Miguel, (dedicated to the Archangel, Saint Michael.)  In 1555, Friar Juan de San Miguel discovered his missing dogs drinking from the two springs.  The village of San Miguel was moved to this valley  below the springs.  In 1802 pipes were installed to bring water to the city’s homes at a cost of $18,000.

Washerwomen Square, San Miguel de Allende is located just below the springs.  we did not see anyone doing laundry on the day we visited; the site is still used by some locals for washing clothes.

More charming signs from San Miguel De Allende; (my daughter’s first pony was named Capriceaux, (the French spelling.)