Guanajuato, Mexico's mix of mines, mummies, music

LA Times | Travel

Guanajuato, Mexico The pied pipers wore black. Carrying guitars, mandolins, tambourines and an ungainly string bass, they led 35 of us away from the center of town, beyond the church of San Diego and the Jardín Unión, over stone bridges, up narrow, dark streets, centuries old, un...

By John Muncie // 07.23.08

Guanajuato, Mexico

The pied pipers wore black.

Carrying guitars, mandolins, tambourines and an ungainly string bass, they led 35 of us away from the center of town, beyond the church of San Diego and the Jardín Unión, over stone bridges, up narrow, dark streets, centuries old, until somewhere near the Alley of the Kiss, in a plaza not much bigger than a family room, they stopped to play.

The pied pipers call themselves estudiantinas. They wander the city, playing traditional music, singing old favorites, making wisecracks, telling the city's stories and retelling its legends. They pass the hat and, sometimes, little ceramic carafes of wine.

"The satisfaction is to meet people, make them laugh," says Gerardo Leyva, 28, a violin student at the University of Guanajuato and head of the university's estudiantina group. "This is our job, to make people happy."

Jose Huerta, 48, a schoolteacher and founder of La Estudiantina de Guanajuato, adds, "It's something that makes you enjoy and feel life."

Guanajuato is filled with history -- bullet holes from the Mexican war of independence still pock city buildings -- and estudiantina groups have a lineage that stretches back before the Spanish conquest. Their crow-black, Renaissance-style costumes reflect their ancestry: poor Spanish university students who sang and performed street theater for money and to impress their girlfriends.

There are similar groups in Oaxaca and Guadalajara, for example, but Guanajuato is considered the birthplace of estudiantina in the Americas. Maybe that's why music is as fundamental to Guanajuato as movies are to Hollywood. Mariachi bands, folk groups, jazz combos, church choirs, lone guitarists -- their sounds seem to spill out into every plaza.

You might come to Guanajuato for a quick course in colonial history; not only is it one of Mexico's oldest cities, but it's also quite walkable. But it's theater and music that warm the cold colonial architecture. If you want a merry, living face to your history lesson -- and who couldn't use that about now? -- just show up almost any night at the Jardín Unión, the city's central square, and let the estudiantinas instruct you.

Mining and mummies

Guanajuato is Mexico's city of silver. The Spanish began mining it here in the 1520s, and mines are still open today. A couple of miles north of town, miners seek veins of silver, gold and more prosaic metals such as iron and zinc.

Guanajuato's mines helped finance Spain's empire and, over the years, made the city a prosperous mercantile center and showplace of church and civic architecture.

Much of this rich history survives. The city is often considered Mexico's most colonial; in 1988 UNESCO named the town and its mines a World Heritage Site. In its 2006 scorecard of 830 such sites, National Geographic Traveler ranked Guanajuato among the top four.

The city lies in the high country of central Mexico, about 200 miles northwest of Mexico City. It's a landscape of plains and mountains, cactus and pines. Guanajuato is the capital of Guanajuato state, but it's a compact city of about 75,000. It's nothing like nearby León, with its 1.5 million people and industrial sprawl.

It's also unlike San Miguel de Allende, the small colonial city about 40 miles away that's a magnet for U.S. artists, tourists and expats. On our trip here last year Christmas, my wife, Jody, and I saw many more foreign tourists in two days in San Miguel than we did in a week in Guanajuato.

But if Guanajuato isn't a U.S. tourist destination -- not even the desk clerks in the fancy hotels by the Jardín Unión spoke English -- it's famous in Mexico. Along with history, estudiantinas and silver, it's also the city of mummies and Cervantes, callejones and tunnels.

Let's take mummies first. Guanajuato's mummies are nothing like Egypt's. They weren't specially wrapped or embalmed, and they're not very old. In the late 1800s, the city levied a tax on mausoleums and when some families couldn't pay, the bodies of their relatives -- as shriveled and preserved as dried apricots -- were disinterred and displayed.

The scene has since been elevated to museum status. Today the tastefully macabre Museo de las Momias has subdued track lighting, glass cases and an introductory movie with whispered voice-over. But it's still deliciously grotesque. The museum contains more than 100 leathery bodies, some naked, some with burial clothes intact. Landowner Justo Hernandez, for instance, still has on his striped trousers.

Though most of the disinterments are from the late 1800s or early 1900s, they continued up to the 1970s. So there's a drowned man from 1977; there's Ignacia Aguilar-Chirils, who was supposedly buried alive in 1922.

Nearly all of the mummies' leathered faces are frozen in a rictus of horror, as if the last thing they'd seen in their lives was Chucky's reflection in the bathroom mirror. The museum may not be PG to Americans, but we found it crowded with Mexican schoolchildren, teens and families trailing toddlers. Somewhere a Disney CEO is turning over in his grave.

The museum, at the main city cemetery, is surrounded by more than 30 tourist shops and kiosks where you can get a picture taken with your head on a mummy body or buy a mummy T-shirt.

Locally, it's big business, but we were skeptical when Hugo Anaya, manager of the Alma del Sol bed and breakfast, where we were staying, said that in Mexico, "the mummies are more famous than the president."

A week later in Mexico City, when we mentioned to various cab drivers we had just come from Guanajuato, four out of five exclaimed, "Momias!"

Cervantes festival

On the other end of the civic pride spectrum is Guanajuato's love affair with Miguel de Cervantes, the creator of Don Quixote.

In 1972, an annual performance of the "entremeses Cervantinos" (Cervantes' short farces) by university students became an arts festival. Since then, the Cervantes festival has morphed into a three-week international culture extravaganza featuring art forms from including opera, dance and film.

The Cervantes influence is ubiquitous. A bigger-than-life-size statue of Quixote and Sancho Panza -- astride horse and donkey, respectively -- dominates the wide Plaza Allende in front of the Teatro Cervantes. A bronze of Cervantes stands just outside the center city's pedestrian area. There's a Café Sancho, of course, and every time a city bus chases you off one of the narrow, one-way streets, you see on its side the slogan, "Capital Cervantina de América."

Guanajuato also may be the narrow-street capital of America. The town was originally built in a canyon of the Guanajuato River. As it expanded, twisting paths up the canyon's sides became cobblestone streets or callejones -- alleyways -- lined with multiple-story buildings.

These man-made canyons of stone and stucco narrow so much that, at one point, two opposite third-story balconies are less than 4 feet apart. These balconies have given birth to a street name, Callejon del Beso, or Alley of the Kiss. It's based on a tragic legend with a cast straight out of Renaissance theater: the young, star-crossed lovers; the jealous, violent father; the faithful servant.

The Callejon del Beso is often the final stop of an estudiantina stroll and the subject of estudiantina jokes and songs.

The callejones aren't Guanajuato's only unusual streets. For flood control, the stream along the canyon's bottom was diverted into channels and tunnels, and the town grew up over and around them. It's the kind of engineering you would expect in a mining town.

Then the stream was diverted away entirely and the dry tunnels were converted into underground roads, where much of the city's heavier traffic flows today.

Guanajuato is built for walking. There's a surprise around nearly every corner -- and there are lots of corners. Guanajuataños paint their homes bougainvillea colors, and we passed mustard doors in flame orange houses next to green walls.

Breaks in the buildings gave us views of the city's church domes and spires below and, across the canyon, rows of gaudy houses strewn like chromatic confetti against the hills.

They've even invented a verb in Guanajuato, callejonear, which means to walk the little streets. ¡Vamos a callejonear! -- "Let's go walking!"

The main square, the Jardín Unión, is only a triangle and barely a city block long on each of its three sides. It's outlined by tightly trimmed laurel trees, some fancy hotels and outdoor cafes.

Across the street on the steps of the church of San Diego and the adjacent Juárez Theater is where estudiantina groups often begin their shows and gather their peripatetic audiences.

The Jardín and other downtown plazas are the centers of city life, the places to find lattes, lunch, Internet access and Indian women selling medicinal herbs and tomatillos.

On weekends at the Plaza Embajadoras, a pet market has diverse offerings, including puppies and ducklings. In a plastic box on top of some parakeet cages we saw tarantulas (about $12) that looked to be as big as dinner plates. The spider merchant picked one out and showed it to Jody. "His name's Pancho," he said.

The daytime ruckus of Guanajuato is replaced in the evenings by murmured dinner conversation and music. Battling bands in mariachi uniform serenade the Jardín's outdoor cafes. Strolling guitar players perform for tips in the Plaza San Fernando.

The sounds of salsa dances out of the club La Dama de las Camelias in the Plaza San Francisco and the Bar Fly above the Jardín.

We applauded two guys guitar jamming and singing Spanish lyrics to Bob Dylan songs outside the Internet cafe in the Plaza Mexiamora. And of course there are the estudiantinas.

The first time we saw an estudiantina group, we were sitting at one of the Jardín's outdoor cafes. We should have expected something because there's a bronze statue of an estudiantina across the street. It was around 8:30 that night when the group gathered at the steps of the church -- 10 players, a standard bearer and what looked to be somebody's kid brother.

As a crowd began to form, the estudiantinas yelled over at the mariachis to shut up. Soon they were playing and singing and exhorting the nearly 100 onlookers to shout "¡Olé!"

"¡Olé!" the crowd responded.

"¡Mas fuerte!" (Louder!) the estudiantina said.

"¡OLÉ!" came the reply.

The play list included traditional music and a medley of Christmas tunes, in Spanish. There were jokey numbers too, getting the crowd laughing and applauding.

Then the estudiantinas headed off, up into the dark callejones, leading the more adventurous audience members by the light of cellphones. Along the way, there were stops for singing, civic history lessons and impromptu audience dance numbers.

Our musical journey ended at the Alley of the Kiss, but on the way back to the Jardín we passed another group, their black costumes topped off by bright red Santa Claus caps.

It confirmed the best advice we got about Guanajuato, which came from Hal Medrano, a Cuban American visitor from Pittsburgh.

"Eat street food," he told us, "speak Spanish, say yes to any invitation, and follow the music."