In 2010, one could find signs all over the country for ‘Ruta 2010’. It was a play on words – or in this case, numbers – for the year (2010), which broken up (20 and 10), represented the 200th anniversary of the Mexican Independence movement and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. The country was brimming with excitement and national pride, waiting for the major celebrations to begin.
The Rutas de la Revolución consisted of 3 main routes. Each followed the paths of the revolution’s jefes: the Ruta de la Democracia on the trail of Francisco I. Madero; the Ruta Zapatista followed Zapata’s footsteps and the Ruta de la Revolución Constitucionalista followed the trails of Carranza, Obregón, González and ‘Pancho’ Villa.
There were also 3 main Rutas de la Independencia; we would focusing on one of them – the Ruta de la Libertad. More importantly, we were going back to a picturesque town that Ma and I fell in love with in 1987: Guanajuato, Guanajuato. So nice, you have to say it twice. In P’urhépecha: ‘Quanax huato’. Translation – not so romantic; it doesn’t exactly conjure up an image of the romance and legends the town holds, but definitely amusing: Hilly Place of the Frogs.
Guanajuato – Hilly Place of Frogs, Colonial Buildings and Winding Streets
Just outside of the town of Guanajuato is the mountain which is the geographical center of Mexico: El Cubilete, with the impressive statue of Cristo Rey on top, arms outreached. I pulled over to take photos; we had all decided not to visit it, as we had all been there done that; besides- my memory was quite intact from that visit – a gazillion hairpin curves on a road 3 feet wide with no safety railings and straight drops down: I did NOT want to drive that road!
Contrary to what I had read about driving in Guanajuato being a nightmare and impossible to navigate, I found it very easy; signage was very good. There was a fair amount of traffic; I had to drive around in a circle, as all streets are one-way. That was not as frustrating as it otherwise might have been, as the streets are soooooo charming! We found ourselves in the middle of town, right by the Alhondiga de Granaditas, high on my list of Must Sees. The Alhondiga was the setting that made El Pípila famous…
Looking down upon the town upon a lookout is a huge statue of El Pípila, a local hero of the revolt against the Spanish at the beginning of the war for independence. El Pípila holds a torch in one hand, lifted up in triumph. His real name was Juan Jose de los Reyes Martinez, a local miner who, like all the others, was fed up with the rich getting richer and treating the rest like vermin. The cry for freedom was sounded, and the march was coming to Guanajuato. Meanwhile, the Spanish Royalists got wind of it, and hid themselves and all their wealth in the Alhondiga, a massive, fortified stone building. The doors were thick, nobody could break through. Along came young, strong Juan Jose, who strapped a boulder to his back to protect himself from bullets, set fire and broke the door down –dying in the process, but allowing the insurgents to enter and massacre the outnumbered royalists. The bloody story does not stop there: the leaders of the insurgents were later caught, executed, and their heads were hung from hooks on the Alhondiga for 12 years to discourage future uprisings.
El Pípila (translation: ‘hen turkey’ – named either for his freckled face or hen-like cackle, depending on who you believe!) looked out for his people then, and he continues to do so now, with his mighty stone torch, he reminds us that even the smallest peon can make a difference.
We stared at the immense walls of the Alhondiga. This imposing structure gave me chills as we walked around its massive walls, and I shuddered at the thought of the battle. It was only 2-3 blocks from where we parked, but the walk was on a slight incline, forcing us to no walk at a ‘Sandy’ pace. We got there at 2:45… it had just closed! It actually closes at 3:00pm, but they were not letting anyone else in. Espy and I snuck in through the exit to take photos inside of the murals and bell… I touched the wall- what stories it told. Bloody ones, for sure. Too often that is the price we pay for freedom…
We walked from there to the Hotel San Diego. Ma and I had stayed there in 1987, we enjoyed it and the history of the hotel, and I thought the location across from the Jardin Union was the best for her – not to mention that it was the only one with an elevator! (I got up early the next day to practice WholyFit on the rooftop. It was a bit cold, but the sky was blue and perfect, the area was perfect, the view was perfect, so it felt… perfect!)
We walked the few steps to the Jardin Union. There were many artists setting up their paintings in front of the Teatro Juarez 2 doors down. We all three just loved wandering the beautiful winding streets, admiring the colonial houses. I also noticed something very different: every young person who passed us by, moved to the outside of the sidewalk- and most of them wished us a good afternoon ‘buenas tardes!’- how very polite!
We wandered over to the Plaza de la Paz. The plaza was for peace- the area surrounding it was where the most ornate buildings were – the former homes of the elite pre-independence Royalists and the old cathedral. A cute little park was nearby with a strange fish fountain and another pretty church. Like many of these old colonial towns, there certainly were a lot of Catholic churches very close to each other – as if there had been one per wealthy family…
Perhaps just as intriguing as the winding streets were the wandering estudiantinas, dressed in Shakespeare era costumes and advertising the Callejoneadas – ‘Alley Walks’ , a university tradition in Guanajuato. The students are actors, singers and play minstrel instruments; they take groups of people at night through the famed alleys, stopping to sing and tell legends of the alleys. It had been a very long day for us, and we thought we would just watch the start of the show from our hotel room (it faced the jardin, where it would all begin), and give our weary bodies rest. But, at 10:00pm, Mom and I decided we had the energy and would join in. The festivities started in the stairs by the church, like provisional theater seating. We were given a flower and a souvenir tiny ceramic pitcher with a spout. A comedy act was going on to get the crowd going, we got into groups, and followed our 6 estudiantina leaders. Through the alleys we went, uphill at times, but there were so many people that we moved slow (which also kept us warm as it was in the 40s – cold!), and not difficult to walk uphill. There were a couple of difficult spots, but other followers would reach out and help Ma if they thought she needed it- it was so beautiful! There were about 6 places where we would stop; we were not close enough to hear the legends, but when they started to sing, it was loud and clear. Most songs we knew and we sang along with, as did everyone.
There was 1 couple who did not speak Spanish – I do not remember where they were from – but they did not care about the language barrier and just laughed and enjoyed watching the festive camaraderie. On the third stop, we were asked to take out our souvenirs – the estudiantinas made sure everyone had one- and they came around with orange juice to fill them up, telling us to pretend it was wine! We were shown how to drink by pouring from above and letting the ‘wine’ pour gracefully into our mouths… We all drank our orange wine at once; mine went oh-so -gracefully all over me. The same thing happened to at least half of the crowd; we all got a great laugh out of that! Our last stop was near the Callejón del Beso to hear the legend of the ill-fated Romeo-Juliet type lovers who lived across the tiny alley from each other, but were forbidden to wed. They could kiss from their balconies, which were less than a foot away from each other. After telling the tale, ladies were asked to stand on one side of the street; the estudiantinas serenaded us. By the time we got back to the hotel, it was almost midnight. My mom, the 78 yr old trooper that she was, had thoroughly enjoyed herself. What a wonderful experience it was!
Dolores Hidalgo Cuna de la Independencia Nacionál – Dolores Hidalgo, cradle of National Independence
When a friend had told me there were muchas curvas in the road to Dolores Hidalgo, I figured he was warning me as an elder, nothing more; I certainly did not remember the road being that bad the one time I was on it in 1997 (although I had a bad case of bronchitis and was really out of it then). What I did remember was driving through Dolores Hidalgo and all of the beautiful pottery being sold off the side of the road- we didn’t even have to go into town! I was ready to shop, with visions in my head of plates, bowls, colorful coffee mugs and planters for the balcony.
There was no cuota (tollway) to Dolores Hidalgo. Let me rephrase that: There was no cuota to Dolores Hidalgo Cuna de la Independencia Nacionál – the actual name of the town. Everyone calls it Dolores Hidalgo for short! I had asked at the gas station prior to leaving town. No problem, I figured. It was only 53 km – just a bit over 30 miles. How bad could it be? It did not take long to find out- or figure out that my friend’s warning was just. It was 53 km of pure hairpin curves waaaay up in the mountains, on a road built for cars the width of toothpicks. No guardrail; just a sheer drop off a cliff, 6 miles down. Scary or nerve-wracking are words that just do not suffice for this road. Having said that, the scenery was nothing short of spectacular, and I kept Ma occupied by taking photos that I knew would probably not turn out. Actually, some did – but none of the dangerous curves to prove my story. Oh, well. At least she didn’t notice I was hyperventilating… Fortunately, a slow-moving truck was in front of me, and I relaxed – praying he would not go more than 30 kph!
A superstitious person would stop me right here and tell me this was my penance for not driving up to see the statue of Cristo Rey. I am not superstitious in the least. I in no way believe that God would have thrown in some extra nasty curves in the road just to teach me a lesson – not for a millisecond. I do, however, believe God has a wonderful sense of humor, and He knows that I appreciate that. I can believe that He made my brain a bit fuzzy back in 1997 so that I would not even notice all the hairpin curves in the road to Dolores Hidalgo. I can believe He knew I would laugh in the face of anyone telling me the road might make me nervous, and He knew my response would be HA! Me, nervous? And I can believe He knew what my reacting was going to be when confronted with That Road. I can believe that He knew I would handle it, albeit with white knuckles, and later be able to laugh about it. Yes, God has a wonderful sense of humor. I was humbled; I learned my lesson. Don’t scoff at others when they try to give you a warning – it might just help you prepare!
Our first stop was the Museo de la Independencia Nacionál. Set in an 18th century former prison, where, after the cry for freedom, Hidalgo went and freed the inmates to join his movement. The museum pays a loving homage to Miguel Hidalgo with murals and paintings; original documents from the independence movement are on display along with weapons- often nothing more than simple farmer’s tools.
From there, we headed to a historical 18th century house, once home to Miguel Hidalgo – the Father of the Independence movement. Miguel Hidalgo was a priest- a rebellious one, at that. It is said that he was sent to the town of Dolores as punishment for his rebellious ways, at it was a sleepy town, waaaay off the beaten path. Hidalgo was one of the good guys; he loved and respected the indigenous people; he taught them the craft the town is known for today – Talavera ceramics, rivaling only Puebla in its craft. I had read he also introduced wine making, which really pissed off the Spanish crown and the church, as it took from their profits. Gaining more respect in my eyes, the indigenous-loving rebel Hidalgo was part of the conspiracy to overthrow the colonial government. A revolt was set, but word got out to the Royalists, so Hidalgo took a stand. On the night of September 15, 1810, Hidalgo stopped making wine, and made whine… a cry- a battle cry for freedom, what is known as el Grito de Dolores.
From there, we went to the church where the Grito took place and the bells summoned the people; the bells have long since been removed and are now in Mexico City. A countdown to the bicentennial celebration of independence was right next to the church. We walked along the church courtyard where Miguel Hidalgo gave the Grito de Independencia; it was an incredible feeling to stand on the spot where the cry for freedom began. In my imagination, I could see it clearly…
Sistine Chapel of the Americas: the tiny church in Atotonilco
At 12:30pm, we hit the road, backtracking on the Ruta de Libertad to the tiny town of Atotonilco. Very tiny. So tiny you had better not sneeze when entering the town, or you will miss it entirely. Atotonilco played an equally tiny role in the independence movement: Hidalgo and his band of insurgents made a quick stop in the church to take its banner. That is not why I wanted to see this church so badly; its nickname drew me to it: the Sistine Chapel of the Americas.
Atotonilco means ‘place of the hot waters’. An old dirt road lead us past a few houses; not much of a town. But then we saw the church… The church was incredible, both inside and out. Outside, the stucco had almost a pink tinge to it, and stood in stark contrast to the brilliant blue sky. The church looks immense from the outside. The exterior was very plain, very much the opposite of the interior. No flash was allowed; no problem. I did not want to see the work get damaged any further as it is. I had read that people had scraped off paint chips over the years as souvenirs. Unbelievable – I will never understand that lack of respect!
The interior is tiny; the ceiling is covered with amazing frescoes. There is so much is going on, you don’t know what to look at. I had my printout of a few points to look at, and bought a small guide outside the church. I gave up trying to read either. We three split up to lose ourselves in the fusion of thought portrayed in living color. Ma followed a cat; I think it may have been a tour guide in his 5th life. Some paintings were very dark – in color and design. The portrayal of Jesus was particularly bloody, with bleeding, decaying people all around him. I had read the priest who had the church painted had worked closely with the artist, telling him what to paint. Who knows if that is true- but it is very thought provoking!
While nothing can touch Michelangelo’s work, the work here is painstakingly detailed and incredible, nonetheless. Although the church has been on the World Monuments Fund’s list of top 100 most endangered historical monuments in the world, it is being lovingly restored and is now a UNESCO world heritage site after centuries of neglect. On the way out, a couple was talking to the person in charge at the church entrance. They began moving furniture, and he started snapping away… with a flash. Close up. Sad…
Guanajuato will always be dear to my heart; I am so glad we did this trip. It holds such warm memories of adventuring with Mom – 1987 was probably the first time we ever did that together – and to be able to relive that in 2010 was truly a blessing for me.
(Excerpt #2 from Taco’s Adventures with Ma in Mexico)