The Tunnels of Guanajuato

As our ongoing search for the perfect retirement location continues, we stumbled upon Guanajuato, Mexico. The initial attractions were:

  • close proximity to the U.S.
  • affordable cost of living
  • mild climate
  • opportunity to stay for six months on a tourist visa

 

San Miguel

We found that the majority of expats tend to lean toward nearby San Miguel de Allende with its shopping and more manicured appearance, not to mention more English-speaking locals. We day tripped up to San Miguel and walked around town for a bit, but scurried back to Guanajuato as it was such a good fit for us. Despite the challenges, we prefer immersing ourselves in the Spanish-speaking culture of places like Guanajuato. We did not find a supermarket chain or a real estate office there; however, San Miguel was teeming with real estate offices anxious to sell and rent properties with typically-inflated gringo prices. The advent of such things tends to bring an end to the cultural purity we so desire.

Guanajuato contains many museums and beautiful buildings of baroque Spanish architecture and is said to be the most beautiful city in Mexico. A theater celebrating Miguel de Cervantes, author of “Don Quixote” (the best selling single-volume book of all time) stands in the centro district. The Don Quixote museum, also in the centro district, contains many paintings and sculptures of the subject by various artists and is chocked full of 19th century pieces. By the way, entrance is free on Tuesdays! The Hidalgo Market is housed in the former train station built in 1910 and designed by Gustave Eiffel. The market offers fresh produce, fresh meat, fish, and quirky household items. Complete with clothing stands, ice cream and other sundried items, it is the Mexican answer to the Walmart Super Center.

Hildago Market
University of Guanajuato

The University of Guanajuato keeps the town very young and vibrant. Many artists and musicians live and work in the city. The vast array of restaurants, from fine dining to simple street food, satisfy every palate and pocketbook depending on your preference. Street vendors sell various items from fine silver to local trinkets at much less than you would pay in the US. I found a coffee shop which I frequented many times with big bags of coffee beans, barrel tables and stools, providing a warm and comfy place to start the day.

We discovered the tunnels that run under the city when we arrived in Guanajuato. As a matter of fact, you have to travel through them to enter this city built in the bowl of the San Miguel mountains. They have become a subway system not unlike those in the large cities of the US, but that isn’t how they began. Silver was first discovered here by the Spanish in 1548 and the digging began.

 

Tunnel
Repurposed mining cart

In 1883 the same technique used for mining was employed to relieve Guanajuato of flooding by channeling the Guanajuato River out of the bowl through one of these tunnels. With the arrival of the automobile, the narrow streets became congested and a new use for the tunnels was born. In 1961, the first car drove through the Lagalarania Tunnel – the first and longest of the many hidden underground arteries to come. This insured the walkability of the lovely colonial town and allowed it to continue with its charming cobblestoned streets, Spanish architecture and old world feel of days gone by. Stairs were added, allowing people to park in the tunnels and enter various parts of the city from below which relieved both congestion and parking issues. No charge, by the way, for the parking.

The warm people of this fair city have a pride so strong that every night they band together and follow the lead of theater students from the University of Guanajuato. Dressed in black velvet conquistador outfits and wielding their stringed instruments, they sing together with gusto their standard cultural yarns of courage, hardship and unity. Swaying arm in arm under the night sky, the followers would serenade an area then were lead to the next plaza and start again. We followed them through several plazas, as we couldn’t seem to tear ourselves away. Nights later, we could hear them singing in the distance.

El Pipila

 

Funicular

The symbol of the city of Guanajuato is “El Pipila” (the nickname for Juan Jose de los Reyes Martínez Amaro), a miner who became famous for an act of heroism near the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence. On September 28, 1810, Spanish soldiers barricaded themselves in a grain warehouse, a fortress with high stone walls and thick wooden doors. These doors proved to be its weak point. With a long flat stone tied to his back to protect him from musket fire, Pipila carried a bucket of tar and a torch to the door of the granary to set it on fire. The insurgents, who far outnumbered the Spanish, were then able to storm through the burnt doors and kill all the soldiers. A monument of a muscular man holding a flaming torch stands high on a hill at the edge of town and guards over the city. El Pipila can be seen throughout the centro district in the park high above the city . Visitors can ride a funicular up the incline for $50 MXN ($2.69 USD) round trip, to and from the monument, enjoy a spectacular view of the city, grab a bite from one of the food stands, or buy clothing and souvenirs with logos of the city and El Pipila.

La Clave Azul

During our eight day stay, we met young girl from Michigan named Kelsey. Cheryl sat her soda can down to take a picture and Kelsey’s dog came over to lick it! We laughed and a conversation ensued. Kelsey had been teaching English as a second language (TESOL) and had lived here for several years. We walked her home and eyeballed her apartment just to get a feel of local living. We agreed to meet at the Don Quixote Museum after we all cleaned up to catch drinks, a bite and a walking tour of a portion of the city. We met and headed off to the Plaza de San Fernando and ordered some snacks at a small cafe with outside tables. Across from that cafe was the famous tequila bar, La Clave Azul, which Cheryl had read about before the trip. We did get to catch a meal there later during our stay and were pleasantly surprised with the ambience, the four small botanas and beers we ordered, although they don’t have a menu. With 3 different levels, we noticed one room was packed and people were passing a guitar around and singing along. Quite a festive place in the middle of the day!

After our meal, Kelsey lead us through a maze of small streets and we ended up at a bar that was so happening you had to order drinks with sign language. Yeah it was that loud with videos on the TVs and the buzz of the crowd. We watched Kelsey hold up 3 fingers then flip her hand around and hold up 2 fingers. The bartender produced three Victoria beers (the 2 fingers represented a V). Now Cheryl is very savvy to such things and noticed the other two national beers were Indio (thumb to forehead with 4 fingers extended symbolizing a head dress) and Sol (circle with thumb and forefinger). Dang, Cheryl can sign… for beer anyway. Keeper!

Night streets

I’m sure the party went on into the wee hours, but we took our leave since we’d be up in the morning searching for more diamonds in the rough of this little known spot.

We love this place and are sure we will return for an extended stay in the near future. We’ve been discussing looking for a house sit next year in Guanajuato since it is much warmer than Spain and the exchange rate is far better in Mexico. 1€ Euro currently costs $1.24 USD and $1 MXN peso costs .05 USD – hmmmmm. As we’ve seen most of the sites in Guanajuato, our next trip will be spent shopping for flats to rent and other opportunities. Now if we could only find a real estate agent.

 

El Caminito del Rey

Reservoir

I first heard of the Caminito del Rey two months prior to our trip to Spain. Cheryl had just purchased tickets on line for the treacherous hike in a remote corner of Andalusia. The suspended path is affixed half way up the 1200 foot rock walls above the turquoise waters of the Guadalhorce River. Not for the faint of heart! The path originally started construction in 1901 to transport people and material between the two power stations located at either end of the La Garganta del Chorro Gorge. In the past, the locals would travel the path by horse, bicycle, or foot for school, groceries and social activities. Completed in 1905, it was finally officially opened in the early 1920’s when King Alphonso XIII personally made the hike. The path fell into disrepair over the years and was closed in 2000. Thrill seekers ignored the closure and a number of people fell to their deaths trying to cross it. The Caminito del Rey remained closed for more than a decade and slowly the government discussed plans for renovations. One of the world’s most dangerous hikes reopened after the 2.7m€ update in 2015. Portions of the old concrete path still exist and can be seen just under the new construction.

The difference in height between the two reservoirs offered an exceptional opportunity to engineer
hydroelectric power during the early stages of the concept. The dizzying walkways, fastened with metal brackets to the stone walls of the gorge, meander 4.8 miles between the power plants. One mile of that distance is the trek from the end of the trail to the train station in Alora which connects both Malaga and Seville. The bus also picks up here and will transport you back to the southern parking area.

Tunnel from parking lot

Just getting to the  beginning of the path was an adventure as we arrived, parked and were instructed to walk down the road and then take a right into a tunnel. The tunnel was pedestrian and roughly 400 feet in length. It was pitch black and I had to use the flashlight on my phone to navigate the unseeable trough in the middle which allowed water to pass through. Upon emerging the tunnel, we saw the Conde Guadalhorce reservoir and walked down to the control point where helmets were handed out and tickets were taken. At first glance, we were intimidated by the suspended path stretching over the heavy flow of water from the power station. But, we soon acclimated to the surroundings. The newly constructed 2X6 walkways with stainless cable and fence were well done and we had no problem with the 300’+ heights above the river.

The orange limestone walls against the clear blue sky were striking. The rush of moving water through the gorge and the ever-present flocks of birds both above and below us filled our senses. Although there were others on the trail, it was the off season and there were very few about. Occasionally we would merge with portions of the old trail and navigate stone staircases and grassy paths while enjoying the vast panoramic view of the El Chorro Gorge. An aqueduct ran the length of the trail and at one point, we entered the aqueduct which served as a corridor to get to the next section. Across the gorge, we saw an arched train trestle come into view. It appeared to be chiseled out of rock like the “lost city of Petra,” but at second glance you could see it was hand built by stone masons. As we drew nearer, we marveled at the scale of everything. We later learned that train trestle was used in the filming of “Von Ryan’s Express” – a Frank Sinatra film from the 60’s. The trail continued to a plexiglass overhang, 4 person max, which you could stand on and look straight down. We took our turn and enjoyed the birds-eye view. Nearing the end of the trail, we could see the suspension bridge crossing the gorge

Cheryl crossing bridge

up ahead which we needed to cross. Piece of cake! Newly constructed with grate flooring, not an issue. After the bridge, we soon completed the trail. Now the one mile walk to the train station to catch the bus back!

It is obvious Spain has prepared the attraction for tourists, not to mention the new parking areas and buses already in place. The local press report expectations of 20m€ annually brought in by the newly refurbished path. In 2016, Peru asked to meet with Spain to inspect the update as they were preparing to refurbish their Colca Canyon Trail in the province of Arequiipa. With Spain taking over the number two spot for the world’s most popular tourist destination this year, they must be doing something right.

Fiesta de San Anton

There are many fiestas in Spain throughout the year, but one of the big ones in January is the Fiesta de San Anton. We happened to be lucky enough to experience it this year!

We are housesitting just outside of Sedella in the southern region of Spain known as Andalusia. Just prior to leaving on their trip, our homeowners mentioned that there would be a festival in the village over the weekend. We decided to check it out!

Sedella, Spain

First a little history for you! San Anton Abad (Saint Anthony) was a Christian monk born in Egypt in 251 AD. He was born into a rich family but choose to give his wealth to the poor and lived a humble life. San Anton (aka Anthony the Great) spent most of his life praying and fasting in the desert. He is credited as being the first monk to sojourn into the wilderness to renew his faith through nature, thus beginning a practice that continues to this day for many. Legend tells that while in the desert, Anton was tempted by demons in the shape of woman and various animals. Since the Middle Ages, he has been acknowledged as the Patron Saint of domestic animals. The fiestas began in his honor during the 17th century. Saint Francis of Assisi is recognized as the patron saint of animals by many in the Catholic faith worldwide; however, Catholics in Spain and Mexico celebrate San Anton since he lived 900 years before St Francis. San Anton is often portrayed in paintings wearing a monk’s robe with a pig at his feet.

Moving ahead to the modern times, the fiesta begins on the night prior to January 17. Bonfires are lit throughout the region as the party starts ramping up! You will hear firecrackers exploding randomly throughout the night and into the next day.

San Anton

In Sedella, there is a huge street party. It is mostly locals with a sprinkling of tourists and expats thrown in. There are bands performing and a parade through the tiny streets of the village. About ten townsmen carry an ornate, heavy statue of San Anton on their shoulders through village. They are trailed by a marching band and dozens of celebrants and animals! An outdoor bar is set up and busily serving beer, wine and mixed drinks to the thirsty revelers. There were many horses with their riders and handlers crowding the square. At one point, a restaurant owner made the rounds with trays of food to offer to the riders and handlers.

The highlight of the festival is the blessing of the animals by the local priest. Throughout Spain, thousands of people bring their animals into the church for the blessing with holy water by the priest. All kinds of animals – dogs, cats, mules, sheep, horses, snakes, rabbits, turtles, ferrets! People believe it is their obligation to their companion animals, as well farm animals, to bring them for the annual blessing. The blessing of pets is a means of ensuring their well-being and safety. Farm animals are blessed to protect them from illness and danger and to ensure an abundant livestock production! The blessing for well-being and safety is thought to be extended to the owners as well.

With brilliant blue skies, temperatures in the low 70s, 1.50€ beers, free tapas and happy people, it was more than a pleasant way to spend our afternoon!

 

Sedella Church & Town Square

El Almendro

Almond blossom

The almond tree. Seems like a small thing, but here in the mountains of Spain, not so. At the beginning of our trip last year, the almond blossoms were half-developed; however, this year we came a bit earlier. January 1st to be exact (Cheryl found better airline deals at this time) and the buds on the trees had not yet popped. As part of our house sit we walk two dogs, Homer and Otis, twice daily. We’ve watched through the month of January the unfolding of the almond blossoms’ white blanket covering the peaks and valleys which sit below the majestic Mt. Maroma. I thought, there has to be some Spanish folklore or an old story picking up on this annual phenomenon. Yup! Thanks Google, here it is.

Long ago in the Algarve, while under Moorish rule, a famous king fell in love with a beautiful princess from the north. After conquering her father’s land, he conquered her heart and took her hand in marriage. All went well for King Fagar and Princess Gilda until one day the king noticed his bride had become sad. Gilda fell ill and King Fagar called in physicians from near and far to tend to her. Yet not a one could cure her or define her ailment. A distraught King Farar left the palace one night to clear his head and ran into an old prisoner from the north. The prisoner told the king, “Princess Gilda suffers from Snow Nostalgia” as she missed the snow-covered hills of her northern home. The king had noticed that in the spring the white blossoms of the almond tree reminded him of snow, so he ordered all his lands planted with this blossoming nut tree. When the trees were in blossom, the king brought Gilda outside to the see the snow-covered hills and her sadness quickly left and all was good again.

So there you have it. Of course you may know the almond tree like the olive, lemon and 
orange trees are very drought-resistant and fare well in the dry rocky soil that is Spain. Not to mention the grape and Spain’s vino market. The U.S. Is the leading producer of almonds with 898,167 metric tons annually. Spain follows with 230,000 metric tons. Italy is third with 100,664 metric tons with Iran close behind with 99,551. Also, the EU subsidizes its farmers for growing trees. Some broad leaf and conifers are planted for lumber on the flat, but the olive, almond and carob trees are planted on the steep hillsides to prevent erosion. So steep in fact, nothing else is growing up there. We’ve also noticed the slope is so drastic that equipment can’t mow and the goat and sheep herders move their flocks through the orchard trees keeping the underbrush trimmed.

It’s nice to know the stats, but I must say it is striking to witness the Arbol de Almendras in full blossom when planted so plentifully on the hills below Mt. Moroma. The fragrance is also striking when in full bloom. Our foster dogs, who actually walk us, have taken to picking up almonds and cracking them amid trot. And yes, everybody has to stop while they munch the spoils of their labor.