Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.
As we loved Christmas so much last year in San Miguel de Allende we decided to head back to the Central Highlands of Mexico to the neighboring city of Guanajuato. Guanajuato is distinctly more “authentic” Mexico than the highly popular expat enclave of SMA in a variety of ways: in its slightly less buffed, polished and manicured streets and buildings; in the quality of its drains ;-); in the glaring absence of gringos and, as a consequence, the almost total lack of english speaking native residents. So… great for Geoff as he likes to escape our relatively pristine, sanitized world from time to time…but not so great for me as pretty much every transaction was down to me and my fast fading linguistic skills. Still, as you can see from the photos, we hardly starved to death through our limited ability to communicate!
Perhaps that owed more to luck than judgement – and undoubtedly more to the presence of the chocolate shop Xocolat in our second favorite square (Plaza de Baratillo). There are a couple of other distinct and fairly fundamental advantages of SMA over the more rustic and far less touristy Guanajuato. Firstly, the top rated restaurants in SMA are open over the entire Christmas period for the eating pleasure of the hordes of incoming wealthy American tourists and, secondly, options for vegetarians (or even pescatarians) were far more accessible there.
Mexicans celebrate Christmas on the 24th which is the day when families get together for Christmas dinner so the most revered chefs and their staff are on holiday on the 24th and don’t return to feed the masses until the 27th. Not brilliant news for us and definitely not great when you have no intention whatsoever of cooking your own Christmas dinner on one day – never mind 3!
As a consequence, we had some distinctly average meals for 3 days whilst we waited for the best chefs in town to return to work after their extended Christmas revelings! Thank goodness for the chocolate shop and the poor lady behind the counter whose cruel boss didn’t allow her time off for the celebrations 😉
Miraculously however, we did discover (after some frantic and hunger induced googling) that there are indeed a few options for vegetarians in this overwhelmingly meat-eating part of the country. We wouldn’t normally survive for days on a diet of falafel and hummus wraps (courtesy of the excellent Habibti)… nor on seaweed salad (at the equally excellent Japanese Delica Mitsu)… nor, in fact, on totally delectable French quiches (at La Vie en Rose) but we managed admirably in the circumstances and didn’t suffer any noticeable loss in weight 😉
Christmas Day itself remained a torturous problem for me (as chief vacation planner and restaurant booker) with everywhere closing for the holiday. So I racked my brains and eventually hazarded a guess that the very posh Villa Maria Cristina Relais and Chateau Hotel wouldn’t let its venerable inmates starve on the 25th. I was correct although on the big day itself Geoff very nearly lost the lining of his throat when he opted for an unidentifiable dish with double chilli sauce. My tentative warning fell upon deaf ears, of course. For a few moments, as I mopped up the tears streaming from his eyes, I suspected another falafel wrap might have been his preference for Christmas dinner after all 😉
Anyway, we didn’t starve, as I have said, for our week long escape from the excesses of a typical American Christmas and the best restaurant by far in a sea of really bad ones (Truco 7 being a particular low point despite its incredible popularity) is Los Campos – for anyone thinking of following in our footsteps. We were good vegetarians but pretty bad vegans. Aside from the 2 or 3 pounds of handmade chocolates we nibbled upon whilst sipping vino every afternoon admiring the spectacular view from our rooftop patio, we also stopped in a few times to Estacion Gelato… also highly recommended 🙂
Not to dwell entirely upon food the real highlights of this UNESCO World Heritage city are its architectural delights (Baroque Spanish Colonial, Neoclassical and Mexican Churrigueresque), its shady plazas with cooling fountains, its courtyards, its famed subterranean streets (which you can walk if you don’t mind inhaling life-shortening carbon monoxide) and its buildings painted in every color of the rainbow. The city is a veritable artists palette of color – the more fluorescent the better! The brightly colored steep, narrow, cobbled, residential streets radiate uphill from the central artery in the city and spread throughout the long, narrow valley. They say it is impossible to get lost here as all streets lead downwards. We gave it a try and strangely all streets did, in fact, lead back to Xocolat 😉
Guanajuato was founded in the 16th century by the Spanish when they discovered silver in the surrounding hills. By the 18th century it was the worlds largest centre of silver extraction. Perhaps they’ve sold it all because, try as I might, I couldn’t find a single piece of jewelry I wished to appropriate and re-home in the US 😉
We had a wonderful time staggering aimlessly up and down the winding residential alleys; watching the world go by from one of the beautifully ornate but hideously uncomfortable benches at the Jardin de la Union and enjoying the brass band performances in the bandstand; we listened to the mariachi singers wandering the streets; we had a couple of massages of dubious quality (mine was more akin to being lightly dabbed with particularly malodorous body lotion); we gate-crashed a Christmas wedding at the Basilica; we watched processions of singers clutching candles going door to door performing the “posada” (a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph looking for shelter) and we dodged children with large sticks beating candy-filled piñatas strung up across the narrow alleyways. On the subject of piñatas I received an unexpected Christmas present purchased (no expense spared) from one of the stalls at Mercado Hidalgo. Lucky me! Just what I always wanted – my very own candy-filled papier-mâché crepe paper covered yellow, orange and pink piñata donkey. We took him for a walk to our favorite plaza – Plaza San Fernando – to see if we could find a deserving new home for him for Christmas. It didn’t take long… it looked as if his new owner was going to love him forever 🙂
Christmas Eve was as noisy, chaotic and terrifying as usual in Mexico. The fireworks started at 10pm and went on all night echoing across the valley until 7am on Christmas Day. It is impossible to sleep even with the very best earplugs known to man when the kids on the street outside of your bedroom window are letting off rockets all night long less than 3 feet from your eardrums. Our alleyway was littered knee-deep the following morning with the debris of a million exploded and unexploded fireworks, sparklers and other exotica (which is one reason why we’ll be going to the Caribbean for Christmas 2017, if I get my way 😉 ).
In addition to the usual street entertainments, food markets and arts and crafts stores to keep us occupied there are also a plethora of highly-rated museums in the city. However, the closest we got to the inside of any of them was the coffee shop in the Quijote museum. We are planning on saving the more intellectual tourist pursuits for when we retrace our steps around the planet when we are 80 so read no further if you seek intelligent comment and advice. On matters of caffeine, however, we can highly recommend our local purveyor (Cafe Tal). We felt we’d earned a shot by the time we’d staggered down hill to the city centre from our house on Callejon del Espinazo every morning.
Whilst I have touched upon the subject of our adopted neighborhood for the vacation, I would say that it was certainly interesting and definitely authentic! Stray dogs… local residents milling aimlessly at strategic points up the hill having a chat or perched on the steps savoring a beer or two with their amigos… and makeshift stores in the front rooms of homes selling Christmas decorations paired with plumbing supplies. Without doubt, it is very helpful to know (for future reference) that you can pick up a replacement u-bend at the same store as you can buy those last minute emergency twinkly lights for the tree.
Naturally, it is the height of rudeness in Mexico not to say good morning/afternoon and/or evening to everyone who passes you on the steep pedestrianized streets (which is nice). It also pays (according to the one and only American we bumped into and who is now a full-time resident) to smile sweetly at everyone – man, woman and child – to avoid any unnecessary run-ins with the local mafia. We certainly didn’t want to offend the locals and it is for this reason alone that we suffered silently through a second night of sleep deprivation when a roving band of mariachi singers (together with full musical entourage) wound its way slowly down our hill and stopped outside of our bedroom window for a good 45 minutes at 3am. Literally blasted out of our reveries for the second time in 24 hours by a trumpet so loud that the trumpeter might as well have been sitting at the bottom of the bed. We were tempted to stick our heads out of the window and encourage them to move along for their own safety but we decided that discretion was the better part of valor … for our own safety 😉
Anyway…we loved Guanajuato as much as we loved San Miguel but for different reasons. Geoff preferred the more raw aspects of Guanajuato and I couldn’t choose between them as they are both fabulous in their own ways.
We still love Mexico but next Christmas we are going somewhere more sedate and fitting with our advancing years where we can get some sleep 😉