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DESTINATION
Mexico
Mexico's real deal
Working town Guanajuato offers authentic experience in the colonial heartland
Sunday, May 4, 2003

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Guanajuato, Mexico -- Why I had traveled to Guanajuato looking for Europe, I don't know.

After a four-hour bus ride from loud, busy Mexico City, I stared out the window of the taxi watching for the "European-style" Mexico that the guidebooks had promised.

Guanajuato, deep in Mexico's colonial heartland but not nearly as much a tourist draw as nearby San Miguel de Allende, displays flashes of the Continent in its architecture and colonial style.

But at some point -- maybe while wandering through the markets, sampling the nightlife or sharing meals with my host's family -- I found instead a "Mexican-style" Mexico, an intensely authentic place that knows how to take care of strangers without snubbing its inhabitants.

San Miguel has evolved into Mexico's version of Santa Fe, full of exquisite galleries, beguiling craft shops and comfortably retired gringos, but Guanajuato is more like Mexico's version of Albuquerque -- a real working town,

where people live and go to school and play.

With a population of just over 100,000, Guanajuato sits well over a mile high and 227 miles northwest of Mexico City. It was established in the 1550s, a product of the area's rich silver mines.

I had come for one of its other industries: language schools.

My school, Instituto Miguel de Cervantes, arranged for me to stay with Maru and Pepito Ramirez and their family, who spoke only Spanish, in the San Javier district, about a 20-minute walk from the bustling city center. The arrangement forced me to speak my broken Spanish and, as a bonus, taught me more about the vibrant culture than would have been possible staying in a hotel room.

From the moment Maru Ramirez met me at the bus station, hurrying over to squeeze my hand in welcome, I knew it was the right choice. (She listened patiently as I mangled verb after noun during our ride to her house, and made me feel as if everything I said was vitally important.)

Among the first notable features about Guanajuanto is that many of the thoroughfares aren't at street level.

Drivers navigate a maze of tunnels burrowed through the city in the 1960s, when officials tackled a flooding problem by diverting water underground. A dam, La Presa de Olla, now takes care of the flooding, and the nearly 2 miles of tunnels are used by buses and cars -- an experience somewhat like zooming around in the Batcave -- so that pedestrians can roam freely overhead.

When we re-emerged above ground on the way to Ramirez's home, the horizon was streaked with brightly painted houses tucked into hillsides. The Ramirez's emerald green house sits above and behind two pink ones, claiming the advantage of a terrace and a panoramic view of the mountains.

San Javier does not bustle. It is a quiet place where neighbors greet each other with waves and smiles. Its mostly middle-class families live here comfortably, thanks in part to Guanajuato's success in industry, namely textiles. The mines remain an important source of income, sending silver primarily to Japan for manufacturing electronic equipment.

My bedroom was on the lower level, which I shared with Chelsea, an American student at the University of Guanajuato. Across the hall was another bedroom occupied by three more American students, Carly, Chris and Alice. All of them became fast friends with Ramirez's three college-age sons.

Chris took me to El Centro, where, on some streets, vendors spread everything from silver jewelry to ceramics to clothing on the cobblestone. Incense swirled in the air and food carts offered Styrofoam cups of rice slathered in cheese and a squirt of lemon.

We rounded a traffic circle, turned down a narrow street, up a hill, down an alleyway, through a plaza, then another narrow street. The houses along the way were squeezed together, with flower pots decorating balconies. This must have been what the guidebooks meant by "European style."

But this is an unmistakably Mexican city. Traditional folk music spilled out of tiny grocery stores. Almost every sign is in Spanish only. And although an abundance of T-shirt shops selling the city's name is evidence the locals are well aware of the tourists among them, they thumb their noses at big shots from metropolises such as Mexico City. People spoke with pride of Guanajuato, but could still be humbled by a compliment.

The social heart of the city, El Jardin de la Union, is a triangular plaza with bright red-and-white tiles and square Indian laurel trees, edged by outdoor cafes, boutiques, hotels, bars and restaurants. The only chain store in sight was a Domino's Pizza.

Crowds wedged into the plaza, and the place buzzed with hundreds of conversations. University students were drinking coffee on wooden benches and reading newspapers on the steps of El Teatro Juarez.

Completed in 1903 after 20 years of construction, El Teatro Juarez is Guanajuato's home to the performing arts. The distinctive stone building is a fusion of Greek, Roman and Moorish influences. At night, its old-fashioned lampposts flood the streets with yellow light.

Behind the theater, El Pipila hovers high on a hilltop. The 30-foot statue represents Juan Jose de los Reyes Martinez, a miner and revolutionary hero nicknamed El Pipila. In 1810, Martinez joined 20,000 Mexican rebels who stormed through Guanajuato and cornered Spanish colonists inside a granary. On orders of the rebels' leader, Martinez set fire to the granary. He died in the flames, but he had ignited the War of Independence which, 12 years later, won Mexico its freedom. In 1939, the statue of El Pipila, forever holding up a torch, was built in his memory.

One day, after a session at the language school, a small band of us met on the steps of El Teatro Juarez and headed up to the hills of La Bufa, which trims the city's outskirts.

La Bufa is a popular gathering spot for the city's many celebrations throughout the year, most notably the 17-day Cervantes festival in October, which draws thousands of visitors from all over Mexico and beyond who come to honor Miguel de Cervantes.

Empty beer bottles, remnants of past celebrations, littered La Bufa's steep trails. We paused from time to time to take in views of the city, a lively patchwork of steeples, hills and houses.

Breathless when we reached the top after about an hour, we saw giant boulders growing out of more boulders. A tall white cross crowned the peak of the trail. The sun shed its last bit of light on us, and we shivered in our jackets as we made our way back down.

Understanding Guanajuato's history requires a visit to La Mina de Valenciana, one of the reasons the city and region had come to be among Mexico's richest. In its glory days, which lasted more than two centuries, the mine accounted for at least 20 percent of the world's silver production. Today,

its fame exists only in memory, although the mine still operates as a cooperative.

Carlos "Charlie" Pena, who worked the mine for 36 years and now volunteers as a tour guide, led us 100 feet down a vertical shaft, explaining the history of the mine in rapid-fire Spanish. Operations began in 1557, when the Spanish enslaved local Indians and put them to work in the mine. It took until 1768 for a fleet of 2,000 miners to strike a vein and unleash the riches trapped deep in the Earth.

Pena took us down a narrow stairway where miners spent long hours toiling in darkness. Enlisted at the age of 14, they were lucky if they lived past 24, coughing up blood and breathing dust that stuck in their lungs. The stairs were cut in a zigzag pattern so that if one miner fell, the others would not topple onto each other like dominoes.

Some of the language school students spent several evenings in El Bar, the place for salsa dancing, which came alive around 11 p.m. when the music drowned out all conversation. Fortunately, Maru Ramirez had learned to keep her front door unlocked and slightly ajar so that her guests could slip in quietly after late-night outings to the bars and clubs of El Centro.

We treated ourselves one night to local favorites at a restaurant near El Jardin, Truco 7, including mole negro con queso -- dark, unsweetened chocolate sauce poured over cheese and wrapped in a tortilla. It turned out to be the only memorable restaurant meal I had in Guanajuato, which is not known for fine dining. It turned out I preferred Maru Ramirez's cooking to anything the city's restaurants dished up.

She is very particular about mealtime, and the most important was La Comida -- those who showed up late earned a scowl.

Her soups were my favorite -- one flavorful potato and onion, another based with carrots and cilantro. She cooked chicken-filled tortillas and spiced shredded pork stuffed in a hard corn shell. Dinners were informal -- usually a sandwich, or leftovers from La Comida. For breakfast, there was toast, eggs and a large glass of licuadas de frutas -- an assortment of bananas and melons mashed into a juice.

Beyond filling our stomachs, Maru Ramirez -- like the city itself -- fed our hearts. At every meal, she would promptly abandon her telenovelas and sit next to me at the table. She routinely asked how I liked Guanajuato and said it was a shame I couldn't stay longer.

In the end, I found some of the European-style Mexico I expected in the city, but found the Mexican-style Mexico in the people -- and given a choice, I prefer the latter.