It took roughly five minutes on the ground in Léon to ditch any lingering fear I had about traveling in Mexico. I’d love to point to one symbolic thing that put me at ease — a child releasing a white dove by the side of the road, or something ridiculous like that — but I can’t. It was just a feeling. Got bags, cleared immigration, found a taxi, we’re moving. OK, it’s go time. We’re on vacation. We’re traveling. Look: a Pollo Feliz billboard.
Soon, the taxi driver was excitedly conversing with Hailey about Guanajuato and the heat. Hace mucho calor, verdad? My Spanish is spotty, but I was catching the drift. I was still wearing jeans from an early start in Denver, and now the heat was making me regret it. This I resolved to change as soon as we checked in.
The highway between Léon and Guanajuato was finding a fold in the landscape and climbing into a dusty canyon speckled with dead-looking trees and colorful houses: the outskirts of the city. There was a festive air to Guanajuato on this Friday afternoon, and it was readily apparent even on the fringes of the city. Families were out in the plazas and in the parks, doing things together in the hot April sun. It was Viernes de Dolores, the Friday of Sorrows, just two days shy of Palm Sunday and the first in a chain of holy events we’d experience during our time in Mexico. In fact, despite being curious agnostics, Semana Santa was the whole reason Hailey and I were coming to Guanajuato and later visiting San Miguel de Allende. The celebrations and pageantry were something I had read about and wanted to photograph for some time. My religion didn’t matter, just the desire to witness an intense cultural celebration and learn from it. Little did I know just how much I would learn.
By the entrance to the Hotel Antiguo Vapor was an altar to the Virgin Mary, decorated in papel picado, clipped flowers and candles. By nightfall we had seen dozens of these shrines, some decorated in sawdust, others with dried food like corn and beans. All of them were intensely purple — a sovereign color that would mark the days of our travels through Easter — and all of them were centered on a portrait of Mary.
At first glance, the shrines seemed to be in the background of Guanajuato’s festive atmosphere. Our introductory walk through town led us by an endless stream of food vendors, street musicians and comically overburdened toy salesmen who catered to moms and dads and children who were cramming as much fun as they could into their day off. Our wanderings lead us to the El Pípila monument — one of the most impressive city overlooks I’ve ever visited — and it too was crawling with families and permeated with the vendors who were capitalizing on their hunger, their thirst, and their desire for simple but amusing toys.
But the solemnity of the Viernes de Dolores emerged at nightfall. We had negotiated our way through the streets to Plazuela de San Fernando and dined on a molcajete filled with steak, chorizo, chicken, onions and nopales. Slap the ingredients on a corn tortilla, drop a spoonful of salsa verde across the top and you have one of Guanajuato’s signature dishes. We would have an even better one two days later at La Botellita, which included pineapples. But as dinner wrapped up, a cacophony of drummers echoed from Iglesia de San Roque, a yellow and red church just a block away. Soon, a massive procession of drummers of all ages entered the square, followed by an altar with a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary, dressed in purple robes and bedecked with flowers. The altar was too tall to pass underneath the phone and electrical wires draped across the narrow streets. So, it was an individual’s task to follow the altar with a large, forked stick and lift the loose wires for Mary to pass beneath.
It was the trip’s first instance of serendipity. It’s second would follow on the heels of the parade. After we watched the parade continue into the heart of the city, we opted to walk back to the hotel — a bit fatigued and a bit comotose from the molcajete. We got a mere 100 yards before we discovered a crowd of people congregated around a stage set beneath Iglesia de San Roque. Merry mariachi music filled the air, and on stage, eight couples danced in a beautiful performance of baile folklórico. They pranced with gleeming smiles, and while it was so quintessentially Mexican in its colors, its sounds and its movements, it was also chivalrous and nostalgic, the kind of display that allows the audience to reach back for simpler times.
Behind the audience, Guanajuato crawled up the hillside like a colorful array of Legos piled toward the stars. My feet were tired, and I was a bit dehydrated, but I was happy to be standing there. After all, we’d thought about cancelling the trip because of safety concerns. After all, Edward James Olmos — the guy who played Selena’s dad! — said “don’t go to Mexico…anywhere.”
I can tell you right now: from where I sit and from what I experienced in Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende, go to this part of Mexico. It is so very worth it.