The Mountainous Callejón of Guanajuato, or, Why My Legs Hurt Too Much for Adventure

Image: a steep alley staircase, with pastel houses on either side.


My taxi slid to a stop just outside of a pristine theatre, its front edifice gridded by marble pillars. People milled about on the stairs and sat in the sunshine on a warm weekday afternoon. Faith spotted me seconds after I put my first trepidatious foot on Guanajuato soil.

We talked the usual travel talk, I told her about my flight, about immigration. The sun beat down, and my friend bought be an icy, canned margarita. She then led me down an alley and to the pathway that I would come to know all too well.

I began to think of the people of Guanajuato as absurdly friendly, but this was partly because of my interactions on the daily trudge up and down the callejón. 15 minutes on rocky stairways and creeping, twisty alleys led all the way up to my friends’ beautiful, Mediterranean Sea-blue house, and this path had to be forded multiple times per day, step by painful, sweaty step. The others on the road saw my pain and knew it all too well, as this burden was shared amongst all.

I made the trek with my friends back and forth, multiple times per day, sweat pooling on my back and all over my feet. Once or twice I felt fairly certain I would just crawl into a doorway and beg for succour, plead with whatever pleasant Mexican person was inside that they just let me rest there, perhaps become a part of the family, and work towards becoming a valued member of Mexican society, so long as I didn’t have to climb any longer. Up and down we marched, and every old lady, every young man walking a cadre of adorable dogs, every posse of children and grocery shoppers and lovers would nod, smile, and wish us a pleasant afternoon.

And while most of the Mexicans I met were nice, this was a matter of solidarity. The people of the high alleys shared something deeper than regular people. Every greeting was a wink, a quiet and secretive handshake, a whispered reference to our collusion in this alley: this walk sucked. It was hot and difficult and everyone was constantly out of breath, and everyone who made it up this alley on the daily had an ingrained respect for everyone else who managed the same, even the gringos. “Buenos tardes,” we said, but “I salute you, brave, damp soldier,” is what we meant.

Certainly we were quite visibly the neighbourhood foreigners, but  everyone still recognized our struggle was the same as theirs. Beyond the colour of our skin and our ability to pronounced rolled r’s, there was this most basic connection. A group of teenagers regularly loitered outside of my friends’ apartment, wiling away their days with a heady brew of truancy, cheap cigarettes, and uninspired graffiti. They were the local toughs, and another friend’s host mother deemed this particular callejón to be the bad neighbourhood. The antics of this crew were legendary, in that they had any antics at all, and in a small city you talk about any antics you can get.

And yet, every time we passed these ruffians, they would bestow upon us the same grunting, begrudging respect we gave to them. We all made it up this hill, and that took some doing, and deserved recognition.

Our strategy for the alley was a little different than many of the locals though, particularly the sweet, hunched elderly that regularly made the achingly steep climb to their shops and homes. Many of the residents of Guanajuato would slow the climb in order to reduce the pain, engaging in an hours-long grudge match with the terrain, never overheating or overly exerting themselves, but trapped in an eternal climb. Our strategy was to charge up the hill as quickly as we could, expending our energy in a burst so we could more quickly find refreshment. At the end of the climb was a cool shower, a glass of tequila and sprite, and a gusty veranda high above the town, while down here in the alley there was nothing but swamp-ass and desert heat.

At the top of our perch, at the precipice, it was hard to see reasons to descend into the city. The vista was wide up here on the hill, pastel houses lining the rolling peaks of the desert, the churches and steeples and alleys far below us. A cool wind rushed over the valley and swept up, carrying the dry air, the scent of spices, the sounds of church bells and chickens and people. Within a week we had hosted two different fiestas, and had convinced our numerous guests to schlep supplies up the route to our casa. But for regularly running out of frighteningly cheap and low-quality tequila, we had little reason to ever descend.

A rooftop view of downtown Guanajuato, Mexico.

From the terrace.

And indeed, any proposed excursion into town was weighed against the eventual return trip. The town was gorgeous and fun and full of adventure and exploration, but the likelihood of going out and seeing the world was always weighed against that walk. Whatever you planned to do down in the valley would have to be worth the return trip up the alleyway. Schemes and plans would be weighed in our minds. Every fluid ounce of beer, every individual and obscenely fresh avocado, every gorgeous cathedral and historic monument to Diego Rivera had to balance against a scale already weighed down with soggy, heavy steps. If something managed to drag us down into town, we would suddenly make the absolute most of our journey, squeezing whole fresh tomatoes into our gaping maws, purchasing platters of street quesadillas and hucking them from the backs of speeding buses, and mounting the apses of every church and crying out to the heavens. If we were going to have to walk back up the house, we were going to make every second of the trek well-earned.

Of course, there are also times on the road when it can be nice to just have a nice house to relax in. When the world conspires to put a horrifyingly steep, sweaty alley between you and adventure, staying home can be a pain. But when your home is a cozy Mexican house with ambling dogs, a view to the horizon, and all the fresh limes you can handle, sometimes adventure becomes less important.

9 thoughts on “The Mountainous Callejón of Guanajuato, or, Why My Legs Hurt Too Much for Adventure

    • Yeah, I had seen some of their pictures before going to visit, but actually staggering up to their balcony for the first time, the wind whipping at me, and the sun cresting over the desert hills… I knew I was in one of the best places.

  1. Ooh! I’ve been to Guanajuato! It was a long time ago, but I remember the mummies (shudder) 🙂 Thanks for giving me a more positive picture than my childhood recollections! I remember that they sold candy shaped to look like mummies. More than a little frightening to my 12-year-old self…

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