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Guanajuato's madcap melody

Life is contagious in this colonial city, a lighthearted mix of music and mummies. Don't miss the nightly cavalcade.

July 27, 2008|John Muncie | Special to The Times

GUANAJUATO, MEXICO — The pied pipers wore black.

Carrying guitars, mandolins, tambourines and an ungainly string bass, they led 35 of us away from the center of town, beyond the church of San Diego and the Jardin Union, over stone bridges, up narrow, dark streets, centuries old, until somewhere near the Alley of the Kiss, in a plaza not much bigger than a family room, they stopped to play.

The pied pipers call themselves estudiantinas. They wander the city, playing traditional music, singing old favorites, making wisecracks, telling the city's stories and retelling its legends. They pass the hat and, sometimes, little ceramic carafes of wine.

"The satisfaction is to meet people, make them laugh," says Gerardo Leyva, 28, a violin student at the University of Guanajuato and head of the university's estudiantina group. "This is our job, to make people happy."

Jose Huerta, 48, a schoolteacher and founder of La Estudiantina de Guanajuato, adds, "It's something that makes you enjoy and feel life."

Guanajuato is filled with history -- bullet holes from the Mexican war of independence still pock city buildings -- and estudiantina groups have a lineage that stretches back before the Spanish conquest. Their crow-black, Renaissance-style costumes reflect their ancestry: poor Spanish university students who sang and performed street theater for money and to impress their girlfriends.

There are similar groups in Oaxaca and Guadalajara, for example, but Guanajuato is considered the birthplace of estudiantina in the Americas. Maybe that's why music is as fundamental to Guanajuato as movies are to Hollywood. Mariachi bands, folk groups, jazz combos, church choirs, lone guitarists -- their sounds seem to spill out into every plaza.

You might come to Guanajuato for a quick course in colonial history; not only is it one of Mexico's oldest cities, but it's also quite walkable. But it's theater and music that warm the cold colonial architecture. If you want a merry, living face to your history lesson -- and who couldn't use that about now? -- just show up almost any night at the Jardin Union, the city's central square, and let the estudiantinas instruct you.

Mining and mummies

Guanajuato is Mexico's city of silver. The Spanish began mining it here in the 1520s, and mines are still open today. A couple of miles north of town, miners seek veins of silver, gold and more prosaic metals such as iron and zinc.

Guanajuato's mines helped finance Spain's empire and, over the years, made the city a prosperous mercantile center and showplace of church and civic architecture.

Much of this rich history survives. The city is often considered Mexico's most colonial; in 1988 UNESCO named the town and its mines a World Heritage Site. In its 2006 scorecard of 830 such sites, National Geographic Traveler ranked Guanajuato among the top four.

The city lies in the high country of central Mexico, about 200 miles northwest of Mexico City. It's a landscape of plains and mountains, cactus and pines. Guanajuato is the capital of Guanajuato state, but it's a compact city of about 75,000. It's nothing like nearby Leon, with its 1.5 million people and industrial sprawl.

It's also unlike San Miguel de Allende, the small colonial city about 40 miles away that's a magnet for U.S. artists, tourists and expats. On our trip here last year Christmas, my wife, Jody, and I saw many more foreign tourists in two days in San Miguel than we did in a week in Guanajuato.

But if Guanajuato isn't a U.S. tourist destination -- not even the desk clerks in the fancy hotels by the Jardin Union spoke English -- it's famous in Mexico. Along with history, estudiantinas and silver, it's also the city of mummies and Cervantes, callejones and tunnels.

Let's take mummies first. Guanajuato's mummies are nothing like Egypt's. They weren't specially wrapped or embalmed, and they're not very old. In the late 1800s, the city levied a tax on mausoleums and when some families couldn't pay, the bodies of their relatives -- as shriveled and preserved as dried apricots -- were disinterred and displayed.

The scene has since been elevated to museum status. Today the tastefully macabre Museo de las Momias has subdued track lighting, glass cases and an introductory movie with whispered voice-over. But it's still deliciously grotesque. The museum contains more than 100 leathery bodies, some naked, some with burial clothes intact. Landowner Justo Hernandez, for instance, still has on his striped trousers.

Though most of the disinterments are from the late 1800s or early 1900s, they continued up to the 1970s. So there's a drowned man from 1977; there's Ignacia Aguilar-Chirils, who was supposedly buried alive in 1922.

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