Viva Mexico 2 : Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, mummies, a storm and a flat tire
On October 13th 2021, Alex felt better and tropical storm Pamela had moved enough to the North to let us fly from La Paz to Guanajuato but with a big detour South of Puerto Vallarta in order to stay away from Pamela’s tail, instead of the more reasonable and shortest over-water-route to Mazatlan first and then over land.
Despite Puerto Vallarta being on everyone’s list of favorite places in Mexico, we decided not to stop there: we had had enough beaches for a while. Guanajuato however made it to ours because I wanted to go back to the Mummy Museum which had made a lasting impression on me during my visit as a teenager.
If Pamela behaved the way Windy predicted, our route would take us at least 1.5 hours over water (but it could end up being more if she did not clear) but the sea was not cold, so we only wore our live vests and had our rafts ready on the back seat along with two bottles of water in an ordinary shopping bag. Indeed, our waterproof survival bags were somewhere at the bottom of the luggage compartment, and we figured it was not necessary to dig them out because we had 7 knots tailwind and would fly at 9500 feet which gave us about 15 miles gliding distance, i.e. more than 10 minutes to prepare for the unlikely event of a water landing. In those 10 minutes, we would have time enough to open the cockpit doors and block them with a piece of cloth (we keep small micro-fiber rags in the chair pockets especially for that purpose), to grab our rafts and the bag with bottles to place them in front of our legs, to secure our harnesses and slide our seats all the way back, to activate the ELT, and I might even have time to comb my hair and put on some lipstick for the rescue crew!
Life vests to weather the storm
We had never flown so close to a tropical storm before so we were a little nervous but the beginning of the flight was not too cloudy or scary and we could clearly distinguish the Isla San Juanito and las tres Marias islands: Maria Madre, María Magdalena and more originally María Cleofas.
One of the islands: at least some land for safety around the storm...
Before reaching the mainland however, the cloud formations to our left became really impressive but we could not fully appreciate where exactly they were and how far South from Puerto Vallarta we needed to stay in order to avoid Pamela's tail.
Alex checked in with the controller to ask if the Puerto Vallarta area was already storm-clear. He answered he had no weather-radar but contacted the Aeromexico 154 flight that was close by and a female voice immediately reported back that it was clearing and safe enough for them. This was great help and allowed us to set course directly to Guanajuato, leaving Pamela behind us.
We removed our life vests as soon as we were in gliding distance of the coast and immediately started to see beautiful green mountains with villages and agriculture all the way up to their round tops!
Now we were more relaxed, we had a little snack and a drink of water from a spare bottle in the back seat which turned out to be left over from Russia. We couldn’t help noticing that it felt quite strange to drink Russian water above Mexico.
Right before landing, “Capitan Grönberger” was welcomed by name by the ATC who had heard of us via the Mexican pilot group Vuelos with which Alex was in contact (thank you Eran Hayoun from Ecuador!). Feeling very special, we landed in Guanajuato’s Bajío (MMLO) airport towards 7.30 pm , secured the airplane in the dark and left for the city where we checked into la Casa de Colores, a picturesque house-hotel full of Catrinas.
Our room mates Catrina
It was getting late so upon the manager’s recommendation, we immediately headed out to enjoy some tacos al pastor in a small street restaurant nearby where it felt much more like the authentic Mexico than in Baja California which is more “resorty”.
The feeling of a fully Mexican experience continued the next day while we walked through this bustling, historic and steep city, full of narrow streets and stairs, and had lunch inside the market. The Colonial center of Guanajuato has a very Spanish feeling to it, almost as if the Spanish were still around which of course has not been the case for the last 200+years. Today, it is a Unesco World Heritage site known for its university, its past of gold and silver mines and the scene of the first Mexican battle for Independence. As luck would have it, we had arrived exactly in time for the inauguration of the 49th Festival Internacional Cervantino -more Spanish evidence!-, so the center was full of decorations and open-air concerts, plays and other cultural events.
Steps and steepness right outside our orange hotel
A nice place to have a coffee
and the Plaza
The market street
We found seats for an Argentine tango music group -Camerata Porteña-that began by performing alone and then played together with the local Orquesta de Cámara de Zapopan in a roman amphitheater style venue that was super well organized with socially distanced seats and clear entry and exit points which to our surprise everyone carefully respected. The Argentine ensemble were visibly moved: this was their first trip abroad and in-person performance since the pandemic.
With all the live concerts and plays going on and the many tourists who had come to attend them, the evening was quite animated.
We had a late dinner on the 2nd floor balcony of an Italian trattoria on Plaza de la Unión and shortly after we got there, the whole Argentine music group walked in and ordered pizzas. While we were strolling back to our hotel, we spotted the Mexican orchestra leader eating tacos from a street vendor. To each their own!
The morning after our musical night, it was finally time for the Mummy Museum. The building and the surroundings had clearly been modernized since my last visit, but the mummies were pretty much unchanged: el apuñalado (the stabbed man), el ahogado (the drowned, they know because he is blue), la enterrada viva (the buried alive woman, recognizable because of the defense position of her arms) and all their companions in fate, from newborns to elderly, were all still there. The mummies were discovered when a law was enacted locally around 1870 requiring families to pay a 'burial tax' to ensure the perpetual burial of loved ones. If the tax was not paid, the bodies were removed. When they started to exhume them, many dating from a cholera outbreak in 1833, they found some to be mummified with clothes and all! Apparently, the climate of Guanajuato provides an environment leading to a type of natural mummification. The bodies were stored in a building above ground, and people began paying to see them in the late 1800s and still do nowadays, like we did. I must admit that I have a taste for this type of exhibits: I visited the Mutter museum in Philadelphia (briefly described in my September 5th, 2020 post), the Josephinum in Vienna (which I managed to fit in while we were there in July 2021, between Croatia, Paris and Russia) as well as the Bodies exhibit that toured the world some years ago.
Only two mummy pictures below (in case you don't share my taste)
Still curious about this unusual phenomenon, we checked out the cemetery behind the museum where some of the mummies had been found and whose manager gave us a few more facts about them. She also mentioned that she had seen her mummified mother with clothes intact when she had to move her to a new grave…the burial tax does not exist anymore but apparently there is still some exhuming going on…
Bodies are conveniently organized in apartment-like spaces
There are even some "apartments" left
Looking forward to the Festival of the Dead!
Even though some never die:)
No visit to Guanajuato is complete without the Mummy Museum or without a stop in San Miguel de Allende, so we headed out for the 90-minute drive that would take us there. In a village along the road, we were surprised to see people dressed as devils walking around with musicians and our taxi driver Javier started explaining that they were practicing the Danza de los Diablos in preparation of the upcoming Día de los Muertos holiday. According to him, Guanajuato loves to party and follows many Mexican traditions that are catholic mixed with native, in particular El día de los Muertos on November 2nd, a big event to honor the dead, during which families gather at cemeteries to celebrate; November 1st is El día de los Angelitos (day of the angels), dedicated to deceased children. Right before Christmas, there is the Posadas custom where people dressed up as Mary and Joseph go door to door and each house gives them buñuelos (donuts) and atole de maïs (a corn-based drink). On December 24th, there is also another village tradition that we did not completely understand: a man from the village is chosen to be baby Jesus’ padrino (godfather) and gives away candy. Javier had done that once and had decided never to accept this role again because it was too expensive: he had to buy 200 kg of candy that disappeared in 20 minutes! After this cultural lesson, Javier spoke about his own life, how he used to have a butcher shop where he also sold carnitas and chicharron, followed by a fruit store and now he drives a taxi. He was also proud to share that he had entered the US once as a “wetback” thanks to family connections and a pollero (people smuggler) friend whom he did not have to pay. He, his brother and law and three others crossed the river one after the other seated in the tube of a tire that was being pulled with one hand by the pollero who was an excellent swimmer. The crossing happened fast -about 50 meters or 5 minutes- right underneath the border control building: Javier said he could see them opening the gate above to let the cars pass into the US. Then, after a short walk, they entered a store where the brother in law’s aunt was waiting. He was amazed at how easy it had been. This was about twenty years ago but he only stayed three months because he made less money in the US than in Mexico. They had promised him 8 dollars an hour but he made less than 5 and that wage, combined with the risk of being illegal, did not seem worth it to him.
Thanks to Javier’s stories, the ride to San Miguel was over before we knew it and we were comfortably installed in Suites Santo Domingo (booked that same morning based on the pictures of their beautiful garden) where we could check in two hours early, thus avoiding the uncomfortable baseless moment that all travelers know between check out from one hotel (typically between 10am and 12pm) and check into the next (around 3pm) when you don’t have a car to store your luggage and yourself in. In this particular case, we were happy we did not have a car because Guanajuato and San Miguel streets are narrow, steep and busy, similar to those of villages in Northern Italy, and we would also have missed the conversation with Javier!
Santo Domingo Suites
and its garden below
We found San Miguel de Allende to be a very nice town indeed, but much more touristy than Guanajuato, it is the kind of place that looks somewhat like Disneyland, where the tourists shops and attractions start outnumbering the local activity.
Slightly outside of the center however, in Parque Benito Juarez, we did witness the pre-wedding celebration of a local couple, Diana and Jorge, who were to be married the next day. The group formed a procession through the park accompanied by mariachis and giant bride and groom dolls. The bride-to-be was wearing a bright red long dress, all the other women were in white and the men wore white habaneras. Beautiful. A little later, we found an English-speaking gathering walking through the park also, all dressed-up -the bride in white this time- but without music or giants. The Mexican group definitely looked like they were having more fun.
Leaving Parque Benito Juarez behind, we climbed through tiny callejones all the way up to the mirador where all women were getting photographed, wearing the same hat and often times Mexican boots under dresses- apparently that’s the San Miguel de Allende look. Since we only have 100 things each on this trip, I could not imitate the local fashion, but I tried my best on the pose.
On the way up to the Mirador, we passed the "Barrio del chorro" (Argentine readers will appreciate)
Did I mention the streets were narrow?
But there is some traffic, both newer and older cars, the latter proudly claiming "la grandeza de Mexico"
Back down in the village we bought pan de muerto for the next morning in a bakery that was very “fusion” because it also offered French pastry: croissants aux amandes, pains au chocolat, palmiers and kouin aman (a specialty from Brittany that has about 50% butter, delicious!). San Miguel de Allende is definitely a global destination.
And after dinner in the recommended El Correo restaurant, we took one last Spanish stroll to enjoy the cool evening, over the beautifully lit plaza which was still buzzing with activity and creative street vendors: for 30 pesos, Alex looked at the full moon through a huge telescope installed by one of them. On a Guanajuato Plaza, I had similarly paid the services of a woman with a white coat walking around to offer blood pressure measurements for a voluntary contribution.
El Correo's tortilla soup
We were happy that our Santo Domingo Suites were uphill from the busy plaza. We had learned to choose our hotels in these hilly cities: close enough to walk to the center but far enough not to hear the plaza’s hustle, bustle and mariachis. We also always privileged hotels with a kitchenette to be able to make our own breakfast, exactly the way we wanted it before having to get out into the world😊 More relaxing, more efficient, almost always better tea and in this case, real pan de Muerto.
We had planned one last day in Guanajuato, so after some additional exploring of San Miguel which took us to an artesania market and an art gallery, we drove back -this time with a silent driver- looking forward to enjoy more of the Cervantino festival atmosphere in the center.
Last images of San Miguel
One last pair of gigantes before going back to Guanajuato!
We were promptly approached and convinced by a youth dressed like a medieval page selling tickets to the famous Callejonadas, a tradition said to have originated in Spain where a group of light-hearted professional musicians and singers lead their audience through the winding alleyways of the city to the sounds of singing and playing. Between songs, they tell stories and jokes to keep the crowd entertained. And entertained we certainly were: we sang along with the minstrels while listening to their tales and Alex even got a part in a mini-play.
The tunnel the damsels had to go through
Alex acting in the mini-play
In retrospect, it’s a good thing we returned to our hotel in a cheerful mood. The city was pretty full due to the festival and there were not a lot of lodging options, so we had booked a room at the Casona de las Aves, decorated with dozens of bird cages, very high up the hill and it was quite a climb through the alleys to get up there.
The views from the hotel terrace were beautiful but that was the only positive point. For the rest, it was noisy, our room was small and stuffy, right next to a flight of metal stairs. Even if the night had been “normal”, it would not have been very pleasant but it ended up becoming one of the worst nights of our entire trip. At 3.30 am, someone started banging on the hotel’s front door and continuously ringing the doorbell. Drunk guests? It was so loud that we would have called the police if it was our own house. Then we heard all kinds of steps on the stairs and people continuously talking on their phones in loudspeaker mode. This went on for at least two hours and I kept thinking they would kick our door open and break into our room at some point, either to order us to evacuate or to rob us. Then it all suddenly stopped so we could sleep a little but we were awoken soon after by the 8am mass church bells followed by intense praying -it was Sunday- and motorcycle sounds. Needless to say we did not sleep-in that morning. We promptly got ready to leave and asked the girl from the reception to call a taxi. She did so very professionally but in the meantime she was on another phone and I overheard her talking about her money being stolen during the night because the newly employed hotel vigil owed money that the creditors had come to collect in person. She had already made a police report and was almost in tears. This was definitely not business as usual. I was very curious to find out more about the incident but we had to leave for a gathering close by, at Lagos de Moreno airfield, organized by the Mexican pilot group who were excited to meet their Argentine counterpart.
But we didn’t leave... When we were finally about to enter the runway, after more than an hour of bureaucracy, the plane would not go forward. The only thing it did when Alex moved the throttle was turn left, indicating we probably had a flat tire. We had no choice but to ask for assistance. A truck full of men dressed like firemen with helmets etc came to our rescue... They dismounted the left boot but the tire was so flat that we could not move the plane without damaging it so they sent a special tow truck and we slowly made it back to the apron in a procession-like formation: tow truck and driver, airplane, one person holding the nose wheel straight with the tow bar, two firemen, Alex and I, and two pickup trucks from the airport closing the march. The airport manager had dictated a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) in front of us: “taxiway Alfa closed for the next 2 hours”. We were relieved it was just the taxiway, if we had already been on the runway they would have had to close the whole Guanajuato International airport!
Checking the damage after removing the boot
Getting the wheel on the truck
Back to start...
Bottom line, our visit to Lagos de Moreno was shot, and so was our day. A mechanic came all the way from the city of Leon, 60 km away, repaired the tire and put everything back in place. Several hours and hundreds of dollars later, the tire was fixed with a brand new patch but it was too late to go anywhere so we booked the airport Hilton which was a welcome change from the night at the Casona de las Aves. And October 17th 2021 officially became the day on which we made the shortest trip ever: 1.7 km from the apron to the holding point of runway 13 (and back), plus 1.2 km from the airport to the hotel.
For more images of Pamela and the the flight to Guanajuato, you can view Alex' video: https://youtu.be/u86lckNfBBw