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As a general rule, I try to avoid drama. I don’t mean drama in the sense of screaming like a child when my wife tells me there’s a weird bug on my neck, but in the classical, staged, thespian sense. Yet I find myself in Guanajuato, where costumed troupes of estudiantinas (troubadours) make me feel like I’m in a living play. Leading music-filled historical tours through the city’s alleys, they play lutes, hop around in tights, r-r-r-roll their r’s and bow constantly. The difference with this drama is that I’m actually into it.

My wife and I left the buzzing metropolis of Mexico City in search of a different kind of Mexican adventure. Not to the coast: I swim like a rock and burn like a lobster. Instead, we’re travelling through the central highlands of Guanajuato State, about three hours northwest of the capital, tracing the Silver Route – a network of old mining towns that marks­ some of the country’s earliest colonial settlements. But unlike the Spaniards, who set about extracting silver, copper and mercury from this landscape five centuries ago, we haven’t come here in search of mineral riches. In the towns of Guanajuato, Mineral de Pozos and San Miguel de Allende, we’re looking for Old Mexico.

Jardín de la UniónStreet musicians hit the right notes at night in Guanajuato’s lively central square, Jardín de la Unión.

It’s easy to be charmed by Guanajuato. With its maze of twisty alleyways leading through a jumble of colourful homes piled up on the hillsides, it’s as if you’re in a giant magical toy box. A network of underground car tunnels relieves some of the above-ground traffic, making the city pleasantly walkable. And the large population of university students contrasts with the perfectly preserved colonial buildings.

“Guanajuato is very open. People here will accept you no matter where you come from,” Víctor, a local poet, tells us one night at a mezcalería tucked away in a plaza off the main street. He’s got the requisite poet uniform: all black, with long hair pulled into a ponytail. He’s lived all over Mexico but settled in Guanajuato, a city where he feels a sense of not only acceptance, but support from fellow artists. Every now and then he punches a few lines into a smartphone – new verses for a poem he’s working on. “Inspiration can happen at any time,” he says, “and you must be ready.”

GuanajuatoA café takes advantage of the town’s narrow streets.

Over mezcal and salted chapulines (fried Oaxacan grasshoppers that are like lemony peanut skins… with legs), Víctor is kind enough to share some of his favourite food spots. Thanks to his advice, we hit the stalls at the rear of the Mercado Hidalgo building, which serves the best menudo (beef tripe and red chili soup, the traditional hangover cure that I’ll likely need tomorrow) and Dorilocos, a supersize regional snack made from Mexican garnishes like jícama and pickled pigskin and a bag of Doritos.

Later that night, head still abuzz with mezcal, I look down at the lively Jardín de la Unión from the swanky rooftop bar of the Hotel Boutique 1850, and I feel as though I’ve got a bird’s-eye view of a tableau from 17th-century southern Spain. The illusion is only broken when I squint and realize that the twinkling lights below aren’t the flickering of candles but the flash of smartphones from visiting tweens snapping selfies in the square.

Mineral de PozosA truck parked in front of the tourist office in Mineral de Pozos.

Heading northeast to Mineral de Pozos, until recently an abandoned mining settlement, we pull over at the Santa Brígida mines at the edge of town. Our guide warns us that a strange man with a machete might be guarding the pits. Luckily, Don Raymundo isn’t as scary as I thought he’d be; wearing oversize pants cinched high above his waist, he looks like an old-timey prospector in mom jeans. The mines themselves are a series of shafts with lots of unmarked pitfalls (a guide is a must). We spend a good hour exploring the chasms cut three storeys into the earth, examining collapsing structures like a trio of kilns whose truncated pyramidal stacks used to vent heat from the ore smelters at their base.

Entering Pozos is like driving onto a forgotten Wild West set: a languid tangle of empty streets, where stray dogs often outnumber pedestrians. Besides a woman selling chicharrón (as a Filipino, I’m a sucker for salty fried pigskin) from a small stand and a group of kids gleefully setting off firecrackers on another street corner, the town seems eerily deserted. It’s hard to believe that more than 10,000 people flood these same streets in May for the annual fair, a carnival of food, crafts and entertainment; then in June for the blues fest; and again in July for the festival of pre-Hispanic music. We walk for what feels like an eternity without seeing a soul, when suddenly a beat-up Nissan pickup truck with tinted windows crawls by with a young girl sitting on the hood, smiling and staring straight off into the distance. They inch up a hill, slowly turn a corner and disappear. Suddenly, I understand why the artist and founder of the surrealist movement, André Breton, declared Mexico “the most surrealist country in the world.”

La Parroquia de San Miguel ArcángelPink-toned La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel and the green Jardín define the town centre.

The town’s surreal vibe is even more obvious when we wander into Galería 6, on the main plaza. The gallery is a cultural hub and a crucial part of Pozos’ new identity as an artistic haven, touted by some as the next San Miguel de Allende. On the wall hang sculptures of spiky alienlike heads emerging from mirrors. There’s a biomechanical horse/dragon sculpture on a pedestal, and off to one side stands a carved wooden buffet painted with six unicorns running on a beach. A recent post on the gallery’s Facebook page features a sign that says “Art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.” No wonder Pozos was granted Pueblo Mágico status (“magical towns” that have cultural riches beyond the sun, sand and sea that the country is known for) by the government in 2012.

After a few days in the Mexican highlands, I’m learning that whatever we need – a quick bite, an Internet connection, decent coffee – the plaza usually provides. Arriving in San Miguel de Allende, we steer directly to El Jardín Principal, the main square. As we get closer, the narrow cobbled streets open up to reveal a French-style garden set under the imposing shadow of La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, the cathedral whose gothic spires remind me of Gaudí’s Sagrada Família (if that Barcelona landmark were coloured dusty rose and made of candy). Everyone is out lazing on wrought-iron benches under a ficus topiary that circles a central gazebo. The scent of elotes (roasted ears of corn) wafts through the air, but we settle on cones with semi-salty cheese ice cream.

Mineral de PozosA boy sets out on his own bridle path in Mineral de Pozos.

“I used to live in big cities,” says our tour guide, Ricardo Salgado Gonzalez, “but San Miguel has the life of a small town, yet is not too small.” Gonzalez is a large, affable man in a puffy vest and knockoff Oakley wraparounds. He speaks in a slow drawl as if each syllable is in no hurry. As we walk south from El Jardín, he points out the street-facing walls painted a rich mix of pastels and earthy spice tones (in the past, the town’s yellow and deep-red colours were derived from the African marigold flower and crushed cochineal shells). Behind the doors of Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramírez El Nigromante, home to the arts school that helped establish San Miguel as an art destination in the post-revolutionary rebranding of the city in the late 1930s, I discover a lush courtyard where bougainvillea tumble from verandas. Hidden inside the converted convent are modern murals, including an unfinished but striking work by David Alfaro Siqueiros: an entire room whose seemingly abstract geometric shapes morph and reform depending on where you stand.

At night we return to El Jardín. It’s different now – dreamy, magical and teeming with people. The trees wrapped in festive lights twinkle beneath the uplighted cathedral. The gazebo has been taken over by teens in tight jeans doing an impromptu breakdance. From across the square we listen to the lively waltz of mariachis playing a ranchera folk ballad. The singer, a rotund older gentleman, opens his arms and hits a note so high, I look around to see if someone is actually playing a recording. My Spanish is terrible, but from what I can glean he’s singing a song about drinking, or love, or maybe it’s about how things were better in days gone by. It’s the kind of drama I could really get used to.

 
Travel Essentials

Guanajuato, Mexico

Hotel Posada de las Minas
An elegantly restored mansion, Hotel Posada de las Minas, in Mineral de Pozos, keeps chilly evenings at bay with fireplaces in most rooms. Travellers from San Miguel often come just for the courtyard restaurant, which serves up dishes like the eponymous Posada salad (greens, kalamata olives, mushrooms, jícama, avocado and feta) and grilled beef tampiqueña.

01 Located in the heart of Guanajuato, the rooftop bar at Hotel Boutique 1850 offers a sweeping panorama of the city. Take advantage of the complimentary bicycles to explore the winding streets. 

02 El Charco del Ingenio, a semi-arid botanical garden and nature reserve in San Miguel de Allende, is a great place for discovering native flora, taking a hike or just finding a quiet spot. 

03 With silver and gold wall panels and antique furniture in your room at El Mesón Hotel, you may just feel like you’ve been beamed back to San Miguel’s mining heyday.

04 Run by chef Emmanuel Cervantes, Sazón – a cooking school housed in an 18th-century mansion at San Miguel’s Casa de Sierra Nevada – offers market tours and daily classes on regional cuisine and Mexican specialties. 

05 El Funicular de Guanajuato takes you up to a 28-metre-tall statue of independence hero Juan José de los Reyes Martínez – and killer views. Walking back down is the perfect way to get intimate with the city’s streets. (behind Teatro Juárez)

06 Get your fix of Dorilocos at the stand just west of Mercado Hidalgo, off Guanajuato’s Plaza del Músico. (Pasaje Manuel Leal)

Tags

ARTS & CULTURE     MEXICO     MEXICO CITY    

Getting There

Air Canada offers the most non-stop flights to Mexico City from Canada, with daily flights from Vancouver and two daily flights from Toronto. From Mexico City International Airport, San Miguel de Allende is three hours away by car. Guanajuato is about an hour and a half northeast of San Miguel de Allende.

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