Due to unforeseen circumstances (Mexico Correos, I’m looking at you) we arrive long after the last of the sun’s rays have touched the flat roofs of Guanajuato’s sugar-cube houses.
The bus station is several kilometres from the town and the safest way for us to find our way to our lodgings in the dark is by taxi. I negotiate poorly in my best Spanglish, the bags and the boy are bundled in and we head off.
Slightly nervous about a journey in the dark, in a strange place, with a strange man, I open a GPS map and make a mental escape plan if it looks like he is taking us bush. He doesn’t take us bush, but he does take us underground. And ‘subterranean’ totally trumps ‘bush’ in the terrifying night-time taxi journey stakes!
The Rio Guanajuato once ran beneath the city, but in an effort to curb regular flooding, engineers dammed the river leaving the network of caverns unused. Then in an effort to solve another problem – the city’s growing traffic, the empty tunnels were paved with cobblestones and repurposed as subterranean roadways. The extensive passages are organized like a city subway system and driving around in them you sometimes feel as though you will never see the sky again.
But we do eventually emerge from claustrophobia into to the fresh air of the evening, and start along the road to our casa. (No hotel for us, we are heading to the home of a local who lets out spare bedrooms to visitors.) I have a scrap of paper with an address on it: It reads “Carretera Panoramica, km 13.850”. I have no idea how this strange address is meant to work, but it seems that it does exactly what it says on the packet; the house is located 13 kilometres and 850 metres from an arbitrary point on the road.
It turns out that there are quite a few houses located approximately 13.85 km along the scenic rim road but our taxi driver, far from being a potential threat, is the kind of guy who wouldn’t dream of leaving a woman and child by the side of the road outside a Mexican town at 10pm on a moonless night. He drives back and forth, to and fro, stops to ask directions, knocks on innumerable doors and wakes every dog within a 2km radius in his quest for the right house. Eventually, with the help of an amiable local riding in the front seat, we find our accommodation. Our hosts are kind too, and walk their tired and hungry guests to the nearest taco stand for a late meal.
We fall into bed exhausted and wake to an incredible view of Guanajuato from the arched living room windows. They didn’t call it the ‘carreterra panoramica’ for nothing!
Our casa is perched high above a serpentine valley that cradles the picturesque, crooked, jumble-tumble town of Guanajuato. It’s tongue-twisting name reflects it’s cobblestone ‘callejones’ (alleyways) that twist and turn up and down the hillsides like an M.C. Escher optical illusion.
We pick our way downwards along skinny streets, our backs flat against walls to avoid oncoming cars, and become gloriously lost in alleyways so narrow the balconies meet in a ‘beso’ (kiss).
We stumble into quadrilateral plazas where locals chat quietly under trees manicured into shady awnings.
Later, we take a funicular railway up the other side of the gorge and enjoy the spectacular view from the top.
The residents of Guanajuato are not shy about what colour they paint their houses! Lime green sits next to lavender next to red, fuchsia, jade and baby blue.
The entire city looks as if it were made of Lego in the hands of a five year old. I could gaze at it’s discordance, trying to pick my favourite house forever, but no so my five year old. He looks wistfully at the surrounding mountains. “Can we go up there mum?” he asks.
“I don’t know” I answer. “Why do you want to?”
“It looks like good scorpion country. Rattlesnakes too” he answers knowingly.
I distract him for a day with a visit to the nearby town of Dolores Hildago, famous as being the seat of the revolution that bought independence. More appealing to us is its reputation for having the best ice cream in Mexico. Artisans push carts filled with cans of homemade ice cream, wrapped in hessian and packed in ice, around the central square.
You can buy the standards of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, but for the truly adventurous there are a plethora of different flavours to tempt the taste buds. Pork skin, beer, corn and chile are some of the more unusual choices.
Feeling brave, I sample ‘camaron con nopal’ (shrimp with cactus) and find it tastes even worse than it sounds. ‘Zanahoria’ (carrot) is interesting and ‘queso’ (cheese) is pleasant, but in the end I settle on the daily special; pine-nut and candied cactus, which is surprisingly good. Thomas spends a long time sampling but in the end goes for avocado which tastes…. pretty much what you would imagine avocado ice cream to taste like!
He enjoys his treat, but it’s not long before he looks longingly at the mountains again and sighs with disappointment at not being up there with all those potentially deadly creatures. It’s time to leave the pretty colonial towns at Mexico’s heart and give my nature-loving boy the dose of wildlife he craves.