We really needed to slow down. We had been travelling too fast and we were looking for somewhere to stop for a while. We hoped to not have to set up the tent every night. To know where we were going to sleep. To familiarise ourselves with a local food vendor. We also needed to save some money, because we’d budgeted for 18–24 months of travel and had used up over half of the minimum not long after arriving in the Mexican mainland.
Our plan was that Guanajuato would be the place where all of this would happen.
We had arranged to swap our time working on some renovation work for a bit of actual accommodation—indoors.
Our arrival in Guanajuato was less than glamorous. We decided to head to the RV park first, to see if we could arrange to park our vehicle there for the next couple of weeks. We promptly got lost.
As usual, we asked Javier (our geographically challenged GPS) for some guidance to get across town.
Guanajuato however, is not a driving town. With a crisscrossing labyrinth of tunnels and winding alleyways, getting anywhere in this town on four wheels is a less-than-ideal plan.
We accidentally missed a turn-off, ended up in a tunnel. We had no paper maps of the area, no satellite connection. We found ourselves in a network of increasingly confusing and interconnected tunnels. Thus began a longer-than-anticipated tour of Guanajuato’s interesting, but less-than-pleasant smelling, underworld.
We would escape one tunnel, Javier would mutter something about looking for a satellite or two. A couple of seconds later we would be plunged back into darkness and Javier would start complaining about the lack of satellites again.
The plus side was, despite having no idea where we were, the tunnels were actually pretty interesting.
We spoke to a lady at the RV park. We left believing we had arranged secure parking there for a few dollars a day. We then headed back across town to where we were planning to stay for a week or two.
The town of Guanajuato is set in a bowl-shaped valley in the state of the same name.
The Panoramica is a ring road that circles the hillside above the town. Despite being far longer, it is actually a much quicker way to cross town. We completely ignored this fact and once we had made ourselves at home, we drove straight back through the middle of the city to return our car to the RV park and store it for the foreseeable future.
We were more prepared for this journey across town than the previous one:
- We avoided the busy central city roads.
- We avoided the dark network of tunnels.
- We avoided any confusing one way streets.
The roads did get narrower and narrower, but we folded in the wing mirrors and continued unhindered.
What we couldn’t avoid was someone in a van who didn’t fit. Fact: A big, grey Chevy van cannot make an acute turn on a narrow, cobbled alleyway in central Guanajuato.
Well, actually it can, it just takes about half an hour, a one-thousand point turn and creates a substantial traffic jam behind them while said manoeuvring is completed.
Wedged in a row of traffic, we settled in as it got dark and figured that at least we had accommodation and somewhere to store the car sorted.
Arrival at the RV park however informed us that no, storage was not sorted.
We aren’t sure who the lady we had spoken to earlier was, but the man that was there now said that there was no way we were parking the car there, it was an RV park, not a parking lot. It was camping or nothing. This seemed a bit rough to us, given that no one was currently camping there, but there were in fact about 10 cars parked there whose owners were clearly not camping.
Well, that’s unfortunate.
Since we were trying to save money by working to pay for our accommodation, it didn’t really make sense to pay to camp and then sleep across town.
So we dejectedly made our way back across town in the dark and grabbed ourselves a parking spot up on the Panoramica, hoping that it was a safe spot to leave the Four Wheeled Ticket to Freedom unattended for a week or two.
At the very least the 4Runner had a pretty good view for the evening.
Here’s that same parking spot during the day.
After battling to drive across town for most of the afternoon, we decided that a walk on those same streets couldn’t be anywhere near as chaotic. We hadn’t factored in that it was a holiday weekend. This was what greeted us when we walked down for a 11pm street cart dinner:
That would be the alleyway that we walked (shuffled) up and down to get to and from our accommodation.
One of the fantastic things about Guanajuato is the abundance of street food carts. Ducking into town for a late night street cart dinner doesn’t mean grabbing a sad looking taco from earlier in the day and hoping for the best. There are of course tacos (al pastor, carne asada, cabeza, chorizo, lengua, you name it, they put it in a taco) but also hot dogs, fresas con creama, tostilocos, tostielotes, elotes, sweet gorditas, savoury gorditas, quesadillas, flan, pizza, raspados, waffles, hamburguesas, tortas, pollo al carbon, flautas, churros, nieve, elote cocteles, pay de queso, fresh fruit, buñuelos, aguas frescas, jugos, licuados and a bunch of things that we never even found out what they were called, but they typically tasted amazing.
All this selection meant that in the time we were in Guanajuato, going hungry was not an option. Many of our meals involved wandering through town, grazing on food from assorted carts until we could eat no more.
After a delicious street cart meal, we made our way back through the crowds to get to our accommodation. The spot we had been given in exchange for working was indoors, which was nice for a change. But it was also the same area as four large gas cylinders were stored. With no ventilation. Not even a window.
You can see where this is going.
Due to a leaking gas connection, we spent our first night sleeping in the car on the street. Not off to a good start.
At least we had a good view…
The idea had been that we would exchange five hours work per day for meals and accommodation. When we first spoke to the chap we were staying with, he suggested perhaps three hours for just accommodation would be more suitable. After seeing all the cheap street food available, we thought this sounded like a plan.
Somehow, because of the nature of the jobs, this three hours a day often turned into six or more. Once you factored in that the chap we were staying with didn’t like to start the day until at least lunchtime and was good at having a bit of a yarn—thus added plenty of time either side of the hours we were working—we found that entire afternoons and evenings were disappearing most days.
We had arranged a short Spanish class in the mornings. It cost pretty much the same for two people to go to one class as it did for one person to have a class on their own, so we decided share. Since we are at different levels in our Spanish learning, this didn’t really work out very well.
It was well into the first week and we realised that we hadn’t actually seen very much of the town at all.
We weren’t actually enjoying our time in Guanajuato, we were just getting up, walking across town to a Spanish class, having lunch, walking back across town and working on renovations. Not fun renovations either, there were none of the right tools: the paint was old, the brushes were ruined, most tools were missing or non-existent.
It wasn’t going well.
Although we did mention the view, right?
It was one afternoon when we were cooped up in a tiny bathroom, painting with enamel-based paint onto the previous layer on incorrectly prepared paint that peeled off on contact. There was no ventilation, toxic fumes were killing brain cells that we probably could have used for other tasks. We asked ourselves what the hell we were doing. We could be camping across town for 150 pesos ($13.50 NZD) per night and enjoying our time, instead of slowly killing ourselves with paint fumes.
We had probably taken this long to figure this out because we were breathing propane fumes by night, paint fumes by day and possibly were eating little bits of oil based paint in our food, since we had nowhere to properly wash said paint off our hands.
Even through the fog of an intense solvent induced delirium we managed to calculate that comparative camping cost out over the hours we were working (3–6 or more per day). The maths was depressing. Either we were accepting a stupidly low pay rate or we were staying in a very expensive room with no windows, no shower and seeping gas leaks. It was clear that even on a lowly graphic designer wage we would be far better to be doing the design work that had been offered to us and actually paying for accommodation. We felt bad, we had committed to help this guy out a bit, but valued our last shreds of sanity.
Then several things happened that made it much easier to move on:
- The chap we were doing the work for seemed like he may be struggling to find enough work to keep us entertained for a second week. *Cue happy dance*
- We booked our flights to Cuba a week earlier than we had planned in order to take advantage of a discount offer.
- Our friends George and Jenine from Traveling the Americas booked us in to a day trip to Leon with them. George and Jenine had arrived in town a couple of days after us and were staying across town at the trailer park. They were studying Spanish at a different school and invited us along on their Spanish school’s day trip to the state fair in Leon.
The end was in sight, we were calling it quits after a week, going to Leon, then moving across town to the trailer park to camp for a couple of days while we actually did some sightseeing around town. Freedom! Time to kill those brain cells with something enjoyable—off to the pub!
Next stop. Leon.
Excited to finally be escaping the paint and gas fumes we were both bubbling over with joy—or residual oxygen deprivation—about visiting the fair at Leon.
Even more so, when we found out that this fair one of the premier places in the universe to buy leather goods. Don’t judge us too harshly animal rights activists. We wanted, nay needed, cowboy boots.
The desire for cowboy boots had started when we were in the USA but the prices there were a bit out of our reach.
Ben had tactfully extracted $500 boots from Emma’s hands in Santa Fe. He had carefully ushered her past shop windows in Texas. But it was agreed. Boots were happening in Leon.
The fair had an entire floor of a conference room dedicated to leather vendors.
Emma excitedly found no less than four pairs of cowboy boots that took her fancy, but it was eventually agreed that she only had two feet, so one pair would suffice.
When we met back up with our friends George and Jenine, they both had invested in boots as well.
This was enough to tip the already wavering Ben over the edge. More boots were in order. Soon, everyone was decked out in appropriate cowboy garb and we were ready to explore the rest of the fair.
The fair seemed to mostly be focused on food and booze, so we immediately felt at home.
Once we returned from the fair in Leon, we moved back across town to the RV park that wouldn’t let us park there and instead camped there. All was well with the universe again.
There were even two very cute cats to keep us company.
We now had some time to explore the town a bit more.
We could take photos of the roof dogs.
We could walk the narrow alleyways and roads without purpose.
We enjoyed meals from the street carts.
We watched buskers sing, dance, mime, act, impersonate statues and tell jokes in Spanish that we didn’t get.
We completely forgot to go back and get a photo at the Callejon de Beso while it was quiet during the week.
We visited the Diego Rivera gallery/museum that was now located in his former residence.
We stopped by the Alhóndiga de Granaditas to see the regional museum housed within, as well as historical artifacts and timelines of Mexican revolutionary battles, there were also numerous painted staircases and an outdoor sculpture gallery. The descriptions were all in Spanish, but written simply and clearly enough that we could enjoy the visit.
We visited the strange and disturbing mummy museum. Not so much because we are weirded out by going to creepy museums. But more because the bodies housed in this museum are rather recently deceased compared to ancient mummies (Some as recently as the 1970’s). Which would be fine, if they had donated their bodies to science, but these people are the poor unfortunate souls who did not have family members paying the rent on their ‘eternal resting places’ so they got evicted.
Basically, in the cemetery in Guanajuato, if you don’t pay regular rent on your grave site, they move you out and move a paying punter in. They found that when they were removing bodies from the mausoleum that the dry, mountain air had mummified a certain number of them. They also found that if they sat these mummified bodies out on display tourists would pay to come and have a closer look at these unlucky few.
Probably the most convincing advert you are going to see for cremation any time soon.
There were also some delightful things to see as we wandered around Guanajuato.
Like this guy, with his falcon. We didn’t know enough Spanish to ask if it was a work bird, or if he had bought his pet to work. We suspect the latter.
We had managed to stay in town long enough to find a favourite restaurant (or two) a favourite coffee shop and even a favourite bar that stocked Mexican craft beer.
We had even familiarised ourselves with sections of the confusing tunnel system.
It was safe to say that despite a rocky start, we were now well and truly sold on the town of Guanajuato.
There’s always a but.
We had booked flights to Cuba, we needed to get to Cancun for our flights and there was plenty to see on the way there, so it was time to carry on.
Guanajuato had made its way onto our list of places where we can see ourselves returning for an extended visit in the future. We hope to see you again one day Guanajuato!