Tuesday, February 26, 2008

If There is a Cross at the Top, There's a Trail

After a few days of acclimating, it’s time to explore some of the hills in El Campo around the city. La Bufa looms above Guanajuato, an obvious destination for walkers and climbers. A white cross place firmly on the summit and some trails cuts visible from below, make it clear that there is a trail to the top. All mountain peaks around Guanajuato seem to have white crosses placed on visible rocky outcrops. “If there is a cross, there is a trail.”

Walkers can start their climb at the bottom of El Callejon Saucillo, up from Paseo de la Presa. Expect a two to three hour hike. Once at the top, walk across La Panoramica, through the Clínica ISSSTE’s parking lot and follow the red rock road as it passes by an electrical transformer station. Another way to get to the start of the trail start is to take any bus from El Centro that says, ISSSTE and get off at the end of the ride at Clínica ISSSTE and follow the directions for walkers.

The red rock single lane road rises at a steep but grade doable for a healthy walker’s normal climbing stride. Some huffing and puffing may be necessary as you climb higher past 6,500 feet in elevation. On weekend mornings healthy Guanajuantese run up this grade, sometimes with their coffee cups.

The route swings around the base of the mountain, and continues to rise. Over the ledge and above the road cut, Agave cactus with their sharp pointed asparagus looking blooms shoot ten feet high in the sky. Mesquite bushes with sharp needle points and some other high desert ground covers are the local plant life. A herd of cattle roam the road, a farmer occasionally can be seen driving his pickup up to drop bundles of hay and fodder. Walk gently past the soft switching tails, the gently munching and soft bovine eyes will follow you inquisitively. Talk softly and don’t make sudden moves to avoid panicking any nervous cows or bulls.

The road widens at a cave that has been turned into a shrine, with statues of saints and Christ tucked back in the crevice of the cave. Past the shrine the trail narrows but electrical infrastructure construction, concrete boxes and orange covered cable, let walkers know they are not in unexplored territory. For walkers that are uncertain of hiking on narrow mountain trails, turn around and enjoy the walk back.

If you are a more adventurous hiker, ready for some steeper climbing, carry on. Follow the obvious trail; it is more of a hike at this point. The trail follows a ledge and curves around to the back of the mountain. There are many side trails, so pick the obvious one with a grade going up that is comfortable. Stepping over rocks and following the trail, will take concentration, but pause every so often to take in the sweep of the vista below. If you have a city map in your pocket, pull it our and try to figure out urban landmarks below.

A large fallen rock makes a bridge over the trail, walk under remembering that rocks can fall at anytime. The trail becomes steeper with sandy scree between larger rocks in some places. Some orange trail makers help point out the best trail, but use your discretion and place your feet carefully. Under another fallen rock, there is a cool breeze through the wind tunnel, look up to the left, and follow the trail up to a wide shoulder.

Once up on the shoulder, the considerate hiker has left large orange arrows pointing up. Across pot marked rock there is no specific trail, just go up. A fire ring or two and and some broken bottles will give you the idea that lots of people have come this way. A small cross honoring a climbing professor who died on La Bufa, gives somber reminder to be cautious while climbing.

At the cross, climb up a narrow gap, and follow vague trail marks around to a sheer rock wall down. Steel rebar make hand holds for toe steps into the rock to climb down. Then it is up again for the final climb to see the white cross. The view on top is really not more wonderful than ones further below, but there’s a great sense of accomplishment when you tell your fellow travelers, “I climbed La Bufa!"

Saturday, February 23, 2008

At 6,500 Feet, Walking in Guanajuato

Hills and climbing, more hills and more stairs; up and down. Narrow callejons with ninety four steps to the top, some are cracked, and one step holds a flower pot. Walking will not be a quiet stroll. Alertness to where you put your feet is a must with uneven cobble stones, cracked concrete, stairs with various step heights, and traffic on some streets all require a walker to pay attention. At about 6,500 feet elevation, it will take new visitors several days to acclimate for vigorous walks. A good back up to walking is a public bus system with all buses ending up back in El Centro (4 pesos a ride) and any green and white or white taxi can be hailed to anywhere in the city for 30 pesos.

One easy walk to start with is along Paseo de la Pressa, a wide boulevard that sweeps down a valley toward El Centro with a gentle grade from the Pressa de la Olla, a dam backing up the Guanajuato River, holding back a reservoir. (Dams further up the narrow canyon serve the purpose of diverting the river to a subterranean system under the center of the city.)

Paseo de la Presa has some of the widest sidewalks in the city, albeit a few cars which intrude with bumpers. Stucco buildings line the street, their solid wood or dark metal doors are entries into living spaces, court yards and the secrets of their residents. Some doors are open to allow a step down over a stone threshold and find a small shop selling potato chips, then with a surprise, a beauty shop in the next room. The adventure of walking down the length of the boulevard is that it brings the curious into a real exploration of Guanajuanese city life. Along the way giggles and music from upstairs windows with waft to your ears. Colors are everywhere, from the Bougainvillea splashes over tall walls to the rounds of bright ribbons for sell hanging on the open door of one of many papelerias, or small shops selling everything from pencils to hosting an internet café. Fruterías display their wares of papaya, mangoes and tomatillos, piled neatly on boxes in front small dark doorways onto the sidewalk.

Best done in the morning, but any time of day will do. Hop onto any bus reading Presa or take a taxi. Start above the Parque Florencico Antillion, just below Presa de la Olla. The spot is a good place for bird watching in the morning, after the sun rises over the mountains and is at your back. Stay to the outside of the park itself, walking along the Boulevard, and make a circuit of the park, pausing to follow the tap-tap-tap sounds and look up to see the flash of a resident Golden Fronted Woodpecker.

Once finished with the birding, start walking slowly down the boulevard. Soon on the right is a place to taste coffee brewed with cinnamon, Café de la Olla, while sitting on the terrace overlooking the street at Mexico Lindo y Sabrosa. Fortified with caffeine, carry on down the boulevard and keep an eye out for that treasured peek into an open doorway. Court yards with inviting landscape of palm and cactus, stone benches and the traditional stone pillars with stripped green, pink and grey colors from local quarries in the hills that lift above the city.

All the buildings are constructed to the sidewalk, with thick brick walls covered in stucco to preserve the privacy valued in Mexican family life. A weird blue house with a red steep roof quasi-Victorian building, known locally as the Casa Bruja, or witches house, is an exception that houses a Spanish and English language school.

Note for the future, a small boutique hotel on the right with potted plants marking private space extending beyond the curb line. The Marie Cristina is an expensive hotel worth a visit to the dining room to sample divine tasting ceviche.

If #77, a long two toned pink and rose stucco building on the left hand side has its wide wood doors thrown open, walk into the cloistered garden of the Association of Retired University of Guanajuato Faculty a breathe a sigh in the calmness of the courtyard.

Laughing children will draw your attention over a low wall topped with wrought iron bars to a child care center on the left. Juicy oranges hanging from the front yard tree match up nicely with the green and orange paint of the building.

At #21 look for bright colored costumes for sale hanging from window iron bars. Señora Rosy creates mariposa, flowers, spidermen and other fun children costumes. Hundreds of bright orange, pink and blue crinoline and taffeta creations hang from the ceiling of her taller.

Further along a long pink stone building with exquisite carvings and flourishes on the Corinthian columns and a crest above the arched doors gives this teacher’s college, Escuela Normal Official, a grand entrance. From the grand awe inspiring to the simplest detail, notice ceramic plaques embedded in stucco house walls like: Aquí Nacieron, Sylvia y Apa Corona Cortés, or here was born Sylvia and Apa Corona Cortez.

An S-curve along the edges of Plaza Luis Donaldo Colosio with his sculpted bust in a small playground with park benches, marks a wide curve west, so follow the boulevard on around along the right side of the street and cross over Calle San Sebastian as the boulevard becomes Paseo Madero.

Follow more curves and cross a busy side street with vehicles emerging from a tunnel and enter shaded Los Embajadoras, a park with wide sidewalks shaded by clipped Laurel trees, their trunks painted white in pure Mexican landscaping style. Los Embajadoras is a park well used every day of the week. Just sit in one of the wrought iron park benches and watch life go by. Lovers will snuggle on one bench, a child will wiggle from her parents on another and an old man sitting and snoozing will come awake to ask politely, ?Donde vive? Where are you from? Come by on a Sunday and Los Embajadoras is crammed with food vendors selling everything from pickled pigs feet and shredded cabbage to nopales, a cactus leaf delicacy, to fruit of all sorts, cut and cubed. The aroma of gorditas, fat handmade tortillas stuffed with cheese frying on flat iron grills will catch your nose’s attention. Blue tarps are strung from trees to shade vendors and customers. At sundown every night Los Embajadoras’s Laurel trees come alive with the sounds of thousands of boisterous iridescent purple and black grackles as the fly in to roost for the night.

On most days, however, small groups of vendors set up their seasonal offerings on the sidewalk next to the permanent Mercado de los Embajadores. At the end of the park turn left at El Toro Carnecería onto Calle Sangre de Cristo and cross the brick el Puente Sangre de Cristo (Bridge of the Blood of Christ) to look down at a sample of subterranean traffic. Wood timbers hold up window boxes in European medieval style, heavy stone walls of the old city with buttresses to hold tight are visible, some incorporated into 20th century buildings.

The sidewalks narrows as traffic flows towards you on cobble stoned streets. As the street curves and the name changes again to Calle Sostenes Rocha, look for chess players in open windows of Café Tal, their wrought iron sign swinging with a cat in a cup up a callejon on the right. For cappuccinos, conversation and newspapers, this is a comfortable gathering spot.

Fueled up again, head in the same direction and cross the street to an inviting pedestrian only zone, at the sign La Michoacana. Or, delay crossing and check out the Teatro Cervantes in an ancient, squat stone building and the statues of Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza. Taking the pedestrian zoned street will lead you back to El Centro, near the Jardin Union, the central park in the city.


Monday, February 4, 2008

Views of Guanajuato

From a comfortable casita window, I look out on clear blue skies that sharply outline tired, rocky hills. Some hills have rounded tops and others show their weathered sides beginning to form plateaus from eons of erosion. Small pines and clumps of determined oak are separated by patches of prickly pear cactuses, their flat pods pointing spiky barbs. At the base of the fold of these hills lies El Centro de la Ciudad de Guanajuato, its houses and other buildings crawling up the hillsides with bright splashes of color. Canary yellow, yam orange, lime green and turquoise walls, stand up flat against the brown sun scorched grass and grey rock hills. Flat roofs topping stucco walls line narrow alleys, known as callejons.

Guanajuato has a unique to subterranean road system created from a diverted river following the great inundacion, or flood, of 1905. The flood was one of a long line of devastating rushes of water through the city. Cars and buses use the tunnels, removing a good chunk of city traffic from surface streets. Narrow streets with even narrower sidewalks make walking on those streets above ground that do carry traffic less than perfect, but traffic is slow and drivers generally cautious and surprisingly courteous to pedestrians. Also, there are a good number of streets barricaded to traffic which adds to the enjoyment of walking in Guanjuanto.

To reach the colonias, or neighborhoods, an extensive system of callejons twists and turns up and down along the contours of hillsides. The cobble-stoned and concrete pathways, some with hundreds of stairs, have numerous branches leading to individual houses and shops. A detailed map of the city shows hundreds of squiggly lines of callejons.

Each of the callejons has their resident pack of dogs. They lie stretched out sunning themselves, and will occasionally be roused to watch or even follow curiously, and harmlessly, sniffing you or your bags. Unlike other Mexican communities, I have never seen anyone throw a rock or yell at one of these dogs.

Our rented casita sits high off the Panoramica, a several-mile circumferential paved road. True to its name, the Panoramica runs up and down from high ridges with fabulous views of the city, then dips down and wends its way on cobblestones through colonias and back up to another ridge with sweeping views from a different angle.
From our casita, the walk to El Centro down El Saucillo Callejon is an experience between rural and urban. Near the top, several horses live in a small stable fenced with disguarded rusting bedframes. Burros graze on roughage in the steep canyon that drops off below the houses that line the callejon to the east. A corregated roof next to a freshly plowed plot shelters a farmer who tends his burros.

One afternoon two men stood in the middle of the callejon shoeing a lovely brown horse. The horse patiently waited standing on three legs during the operation. As one man soothed the horse from the front, the other hammered nails into its raised hoof. The gentle horse never moved despite the sharp hit of the shoeing hammer.

El Saucillo Callejon has many hundreds of steps, requiring cautious footing on the uneven concrete. Metal sewer and water pipe lines follow the plunge down along the edge of the concrete. Part way down the pipe moves to the center of the callejon adding another little challenge to walkers.

Further down the steps, several tiendas with open doors offer their wares for sale, while old men sun themselves on stone door stoops. Women lug plastic bags of groceries, slowing making their way to their houses, but pause to exchange “buenas dias.” Children bounce balls, and at a graded flat area down a side callejon, there's a grassed soccer field with goal posts. Tin cans hold plants in small gardens, set on top of concrete steps before wooden doors. Houses are stucco, brick or plain concrete, some painted while others are left to the weathered grey of concrete.

Closer to the bottom, a house painted bright blue with yellow wrought iron railings trimming two small balconies requires a tall person to stoop in order to pass under. A uniformed delivery man walks along rythmically calling out in a deep voice, "gas?", meaning who needs a refilled propane cannister for their stove.

Spreading out wide with three final series of steps, El Saucillo Callejon meets Paseo de la Presa, a busy urban boulevard with buses, trucks and cars moving along a lovely cobblestone street bordered by government buildings and a commercial center.