About an hour and a half’s ride from SMA, there is another Unesco Heritage site: the colonial city of Guanajuato.
The most spectacular view of Guanajuato is to be had at the approach to the city at the bottom of the mountain. There is a viewing platform that provides travelers with the best panorama of this colonial town.
Guanajuato blankets a slope of the mountain with an array of houses in bright, almost fluorescent rainbow of colors. While white is dominant, hot pink, magenta, fuchsia, emerald green, teal, cobalt, periwinkle blue, orange, red, yellow, and all the shades in between freely invade the white majority.
Even the main church is painted bright yellow and cupped with a red cupola.
Guanajuato is older than SMA, and some buildings date back to the 16th century, which is practically prehistoric for the new world. While SMA is mostly a one-story town, Guanajuato boasts two and three-story palaces and stately haciendas. What is mind-boggling is that this provincial Mexican town of about 200,000 inhabitants has its own magnificent opera house, which stages monthly operas in addition to concerts and other performances!!! The theater sits 1100 spectators, and has a splendid decor that had been recently restored to its former glory!
Right in from of the theater, stands a modern surrealist sculpture of a giant woman representing the rise of feminism. The town also hosts an international Cervantes festival, and the statures for both Cervantes and his famous creation Don Quixote are to be found in several squares.
The restaurant we had lunch at across the theater was a show in itself. Not only did its interior looked like we were transported back in time, the patrons were also from another era.
Next to us, a group of elderly Mexican matrons in their provincial finery was having lunch. I couldn’t help myself and kept stealing glances at their outfits, jewelry, and the hairdos.
The wait staff, all male, all dressed in black suits and sporting ear pieces, looked more like secret service agents or a mafia entourage than waiters.
A pianist was playing softly some nondescript tunes, but when he started playing hava nagila, all that became way too surreal and we burst out laughing!
This town is much less sophisticated, less gentrified, and less upscale than SMA. It is also decidedly less touristy, much more real, and unspoiled.
For all those staying in SMA, coming here would be a great one-day outing and a glimpse into the real Mexico.
SMA’s reputation was so hyped up that at first glance it failed to impress.
My expectations were too high, and it didn’t take my breath away.
It doesn’t have the type of beauty that envelopes you and makes your heart skip a beat. No Stendhal syndrome here for me.
Mind you, it is a nice-looking colonial town, but not stunningly beautiful on the outside. What is beautiful here for me is what’s not immediately visible: the courtyards, interiors of the colonial houses, the cobblestone under your feet, the panoramic views off numerous hills, the carved doors, the cast metal door handles, and the facades of vivid, luscious, succulent terra cotta colors with peeling paint that gives them appearance of abstract paintings
There are some awesome spots though.
The churches have gorgeous cupolas and spires. The main church is a Gothic Gaudi: a rhapsody in grey and pink.
The streets around the main square teem with artsy stores and art galleries. The merchandise they sell is hardly what I would want to buy but it is original, artfully displayed, and so much fun to look at, that shopping here could be a destination in itself.
There are also loads of restaurants: one more charming than the other.
But tonight we dined at a not terribly charming restaurant, Bistro Mi Casa; although, it is located in an awfully charming courtyard. And the food was mediocre at best.
We came here not for food but to hear a band that plays here once a week; and the band was FANTASTIC!!!
The lead was a well known Mexican guitarist Gil Gutierez who was FABULOUS!!!!
The second acoustic guitar was a young Mexican kid, and he was SUPERB!!!
The band also included a French accordion player, a Spanish electric bass-guitarist, a Mexican drummer, and a cute Spanish balladeer.
They were just so super stupendous!
They played to a mostly American audience, and for the encore, they did a song they dedicated to “the wall”.
And everybody laughed, heartily and lightheartedly 🙂
I think I’ve had enough of Mexican ruins. Ancient Toltecs, Aztecs, Olmecs, Otomis, and Mayans had similar civilizations and built similar structures, which seem to differ only in their heights and sizes.
Teotihuacan pyramids aren’t the largest in the world, but large enough to impress. Climbing the Pyramid of the Moon was a piece of cake. The Pyramid of the Sun was a bit more challenging, but still a piece of cake compared to the Inca Trail (which will forever stay my one achievement, against which I’ll measure all others; and they will pale in comparison). The most dangerous part was simply standing on the top and being exposed to the wind, which was so strong up there that I was seriously concerned about being blown off the pyramid.
The view from up there was, of course, spectacular.
Most of the site was reconstructed, so the overall impression was of an entire intact city.
The most important distinction of this archeological site was that it had some very well preserved remnants of ancient frescos with vivid colors and distinctly visible figures of men and gods, each doing his own thing.
After the ruins, we visited Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe – Mexico’s national shrine. The place was actually quite beautiful and serene: the original church on the very top of the mountain, the old church from the 18th century, and the newest giant church (looking more like a synagogue) built in the 1970’s. The view from up there was lovely – both volcanos were clearly visible in the clear air. The picture of the virgin that Mexicans worship and consider to be her self portrait (sort of), is affixed on a high wall, but you can take an escalator and ride by to get a better look.
Personally, I didn’t feel any energy here, like in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, near the Wailing Wall, or in Sedona. Some places exude powerful energy, but not this one, not for me, nada.
This is official: Condesa is my favorite neighborhood of CDMX.
Now I understand why people love Mexico City!
We took a walk around Park Mexico, nearby streets and piazzas, and along Avenida Amsterdam. Avenida Amsterdam is actually a rather narrow boulevard built on top of a racetrack. Thus, it is oval in shape, and you can go in circles (or rather, in ovals) as long as you want.
Like the rest of Mexico City, Avenida Amsterdam is an architectural mishmash, but here, most buildings that line up this cosy boulevard are actually remarkable. There are Art Deco, Colonial, Modernist, and those not belonging to any particular style, but still trying to be architectural or just charming. Besides, there is a couple really interesting shops and cute local restaurants. All that is enhanced by the leafy central path, and all of that is on a human scale: compact and cozy.
Granted, this is still CDMX; meaning the buildings are dilapidated, electric wires hung in thick bunches obstructing the tops of the facades, the roads are broken, and construction sites are omnipresent. Still, it is charming to a fault! If one day all of this gets truly gentrified, it will put many beautiful cities to shame.
In the afternoon, we went to the weekly Sunday art market at Jardin del Artes. The whole little park teemed with artists who lined up the alleys with their paintings and sculptures. No high art was to be found here, but great fun it still was.
Then we walked on our tired legs back to the colonial center through another architectural mishmash – some quite interesting!
Had dinner at the lovely courtyard of hotel Downtown, painstakingly restored and gorgeous! Beside the restaurant and the hotel, the inner perimeter of the courtyard hosts tiny artisan boutiques on two floors, with the nicest and most upscale local crafts I’d seen in the city. After dinner, hobbled to Palacio de Bellas Artes for a Mexican dance performance. The dance was entertaining, but it was the palacio itself with its curtain of Tiffany glass and its opulent interior that totally blew my mind!
San Angel is a far cry from the historical center. It is the Montmartre to Mexico City’s Paris. San Angel is a quaint and picturesque village, an island of tranquility in this chaotic city.
The cobblestone streets are lined with brightly colored colonial houses; huge stone walls carpeted by bougainvillea hide wealthy mansions. Only the stately gates hint at the opulence behind.
We came here early for their weekly El Bazaar Sabado – an arts and crafts market on San Jacinto Square. The (high end) crafts and jewelry market is held inside one of the buildings on the square; while the square itself hosts painters who display their art (often questionable) along the fences and inside the park, in the alleys. The atmosphere is festive and jubilant. Nothing, though, caught my eye enough to give any of the displayed pieces a new home.
Across the square from the crafts building, there was another market going on the roof of another multi-purpose building, the first floor of which is home to a restaurant and permanent art galleries. The top floor was packed with artisans selling handmade handicrafts, many of them for children, and many quite adorable!
In addition to the Saturday market, there were quite a few permanent art galleries and craft stores – most of them charming and some – with lovely merchandise.
Our plan was to leave by 1 but we stayed until 3 – we liked it so.
Actually, everything in CDMX takes longer than expected. First, it takes longer to get an uber. Then, you sit in traffic for twice as long as your phone had promised you would, and third, you end up liking where you are and staying longer.
Destination #2 on my Saturday schedule was Museo Dolores Olmedo – a former home of a wealthy socialite who was an avid art collector specializing is Diego and Frida. Much to my chagrin, Frida had just left the premises for an exhibition at the Dali museum in St, Petersburg, Florida – boohoo 😦
I wouldn’t have gone had I known that, because I went there for Frida, not for Diego (I am not a big fan of his). But since we were already there, we looked at the numerous Diegos Señora Dolores had collected. I was actually impressed by his versatility as a painter. When I think of Diego, I think “murals” painted in his distinct style, but here, there was everything: from cubism to landscapes, to (my favorite) the portraits of Russian kids in the winter painted with a hint of Russian folk art.
In addition, there was a small but very impressive collection of pre-hispanic art – some very well preserved and artistic pieces. There was also a temporary exhibit dedicated to the Day of the Dead – awfully kitschy but fun,
Outside, in the garden, señora kept a pack of hairless Mexican dogs who (or their descendants) still live there. They are odd creatures: reminding me of giant black rats or a version of the Tasmanian devil.
The neighborhood of Xochimilco, where the museum stands, is kind of sketchy, so we happily left the premises for the oasis of Polanco. We walked around the fancy neighborhood, checked out the shops and people, and had dinner at Dulce Patria. Being in Polanco after anywhere else in CDMX is a shock. It took me at least an hour to readjust my eyes and my senses. It’s like being in a completely different city, different country even – the contrast is staggering!
The view from the 30th floor of our hotel is fantastic! From this height, you don’t see the rough-around-the-edges neighborhoods, but a vast panorama of high rises set amidst many green areas and flanked by beautiful mountains. The day started well!
For breakfast, we walked to El Pendulo, a coffee shop set inside a bookstore in Polanco – a lovely spot. From there, we endured terrible traffic to the historical center of this town. Here is a question I can’t find an answer to: how is that in a city of so many poor people, there are so many private cars???
The historical center is huge and boasts many old and stately buildings – this had to be one hell of a city in its heyday. The city is a total architectural mishmash! Not only do the old colonial Spanish mansions cheerfully border Art Nouveau, beaux arts, modernist, modern, and simply ugly concrete buildings, the very same building often present a mixture of architectural styles. More often than not, it took so long to build them, that in the meanwhile, a new style became fashionable; and the structure was adjusted accordingly. Granted, if not beautiful, it is interesting to look at, has loads of history, and very lively. Also, it is surprisingly very clean and feels very safe. The number of policemen in riot gear armed with automatic weapons and bulletproof vests and shields is unprecedented! But it feels totally safe despite (or because) of their presence. I have been to Latin American cities where I felt very uncomfortable, but not here – people look perfectly nice, hardly a shady character around.
And beauty is to be found here also. It is hidden inside many doorways and courtyards. Several restored old hotels are insanely opulent, many restaurants have charming decor, and some brasseries, pastry shops, and stores retained their original art nouveau interior. I bought Mexican sweets in an old candy shop, out of a storybook, the one Frida herself once frequented!
Originally, I allocated half a day for the historical center but we ended up spending an entire day- there is so much to see here, and we didn’t even see it all.
Back to Polanco is like going to another country – the contrast is staggering! Polanco is an enclave of white people, while the rest of the city is inhabited mostly by brown-skinned descendants of the Aztecs. It’s like two cities in one! Or rather three cities: the third is the part where people from the first two cities never go: the third city is poor and drug-ridden, and very dangerous. But in the first two cities, people are living la vida loca, eat, drink, shop, dance, and make merry.
Mexico City doesn’t make a good first impression. Being a hapless victim of the infamous Mexico city traffic jam, you endure a slow and torturous ride through the seemingly endless third world neighborhoods and wonder: what do people love about this city?
Even Polanco, the ritziest area of the city, where we are staying, failed to impress.
We headed to the Anthropological Museum by foot. Not expecting uneven pavement and unusually high and uneven curbs, I tripped and went flying down on the ground. Miraculously, with no bones broken but scraped and bruised, I headed on, my mood further dampened. The museum also disappointed. With raving reviews on all tourist sites, my expectations must have been overly high. It is definitely a must-see for first-time visors, but not on par with the best museums of the world. Maybe so because pre-Columbian art is not my thing, and maybe, because so many exhibits are replicas of the real mccoy.
Still, we stayed until closing and then walked to the restaurant we reserved for dinner in the trendy Roma neighborhood.
Nighttime does magic to decaying cities. Shrouded by darkness and lit up in the strategic places, they look their best and come to life. Restaurants and shops became lively and inviting, and old colonial buildings looked polished and stately.
The restaurant, Fonda Fina, was charming and served a modern take on traditional Mexican food. Our bill for two, including 3 drinks (wonderful!), two appetizers, one main course, and two deserts came to $55. And all that was delicious! Sadly, my waking up at 4:30AM, flying, and being in the high altitude of Mexico City, took their toll on me – the dinner went back the way it came in.
Oh well, at least no weight gain the first day of overeating. But not a good start of the trip 😦