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.


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