Sights, sounds, tastes of Guanajuato

Friday evening was the time for townsfolk and university students to sit on the steps of the Teatro Juarez, sipping wine, and wander through colorful streets to the two-foot-wide Alley of the Kiss.

All the while, musicians dressed in Spanish colonial attire serenaded the crowds.

"People seemed to be having a great time," said Ashland resident Mike Diaz, who recently returned from a two-week trip to Guanajuato, Mexico, and surrounding towns with his wife, Theresa.

Music was everywhere, whether it was coming from a radio or being played by street-side bands available for hire by passersby hankering to hear their favorite songs.

Diaz said there was much about Guanajuato that reminded him of Ashland. The two cities have shared a sister city relationship since 1969.

"It sits in a valley with housing uphill from the center of town. There's a theater and a university.

Everything felt like Ashland &

only the Spanish version," he said.

Guanajuato has 120,000 more people than Ashland, but Diaz said the two cities seemed to be about the same physical size. The houses and buildings were much more condensed and usually shared common walls. Only a change of color &

from tangerine to coral to aqua to fuchsia &

marked the separation between homes.

Some houses had interior courtyards, but most lacked the front and back yards that are so common in America. However, each neighborhood had a public garden area, and wrought iron benches adorned the streets.

Diaz said the residents were proud of Guanajuato's historic architecture, which included cathedrals built during the heyday of silver mining in the Spanish colonial era.

"A gentleman in a store said he was happy to see us enjoying ourselves. He thanked us for coming to see the rich history of Mexico. They are a very welcoming people," he said.

The Maria Chuchena Cantina Bar featured an old wooden door, colorful walls and the words, "El Grito," or "The Shout." The words referred to a speech given by Father Miguel Hidalgo in the early 1800s during an uprising against colonial rule. Hidalgo and others in the rebellion were killed and his head was displayed in a cage hanging from a hook on a Guanajuato building. The revolution later succeeded and Mexico won its independence.

Diaz said he heard that even the color of buildings and the hardware on doors is regulated to preserve the city's historic character.

Visiting at the end of the rainy season, Diaz said the green of mesquite trees and cacti mixed with the vivid colors of blooming tropical flowers.

The streets were alive with people selling everything from hand-painted ceramics to corn in the husk grilled over charcoal-filled washtubs. Women offered freshly made gorditas stuffed with beans, chicken, potatoes or ground beef.

Other vendors sold cups full of pomegranate seeds sprinkled with lemon and salt. Cactus leaves, mangos, papayas, pineapples and strawberries were plentiful, Diaz said.

During his time there, he said he saw only four beggars, including a blind person, two elderly women and a person playing an accordion. They had cups set out to accept money. Diaz said he didn't see any young people asking for change.

The residents appeared to take education quite seriously. Boys and girls were in separate classes and all wore uniforms.

"The principal stands at the gate, welcoming the students. When the bell rings, he shuts the gate. If you are late bringing your kids to school, you have to take them home and come back on time the next day," Diaz said.

He spoke to a college architecture student who told him the cost of tuition at the university was only $120 per semester. The cost is low because proceeds from national oil sales subsidize education, medical care and some social programs, the student said.

At a doctor's office, Diaz saw a sign that a visit cost about $2.50. When he asked how that was possible, he was told that medical students don't leave school hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

Diaz said he saw many signs that Guanajuato has a thriving middle class based on the quality of life and material possessions people had.

Guanajuato and surrounding towns each seemed to have a class of artisans specializing in one area, such as silver, ceramics or leather. Wal-Marts, CostCos and other large stores were on the outskirts of cities in the area, along with the largest GM factory Diaz had ever seen.

The one downside to Guanajuato is that the sidewalks are at different heights and the cobblestones are uneven, he said.

"You have to be aware not to trip. That's very crucial," he said. "It's real easy to twist your ankle. One guy told us, 'Even us locals have a tale of where we twisted an ankle and in what shoe.'"

But Diaz said watching where he walked was a minor inconvenience compared to the overall experience.

"I would advise anyone who has the opportunity to go and enjoy it. We were looking forward to our next trip on the day we left," he said.

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or To post a comment, visit .

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