Once Upon A Time In Mexico

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O N C E U P O N A T I M E I N ME X I C O

Here’s a very late blog post. In August of 2014 I took my first passport-required trip, on assignment for This Is Feeling to photograph the first of a two part wedding. Many of the grooms family and friends could not travel to the U.S. for the wedding in Chicago, so we all planned to meet in his hometown to celebrate. This landed me in a small, hilly town called Guanajuato City – right smack in the middle of the country, about 4.5 hours northwest of Mexico City. Landing first in the city of Leon, Ben and I hoped into a small van and cruised along the highway, watching the flat, open valleys grow upward into large, mountain-like hills. Oh yeah, Ben came with me for the first two days. Ben, my friend and boss, who made this trip possible.

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The road from Leon was pretty flat and open, but as we grew closer to Guanajuato, hills began to replace the horizon and the landscape became more green than brown. Eventually, we passed through a narrow gap in the hills that opened up to the view above. Colorful, multi-leveled businesses and residences sprawling all over the hills, separated by alleys, walkways, and roads winding in every direction. The city was once described to me as “a town you can’t make four left or right turns and end up in the same place.” For the most part, they were totally right.

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I saw this vague map of Guanajuato on the side of a building near my hotel. It served little in the way of directional help, but still worth taking a photo of. We had a tourist map to keep in our pockets that helped a lot. A lot of the exploration was unplanned and the chosen paths were done so at random, or purely because one direction looked more interesting than the other. I find that I explore things in this fashion very often, and even though I end up getting extremely lost at times because of this, I think it’s the best way to travel – at least for me.

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We found this little place called Tic-Tic while wandering down Avenue Benito Juarez – one of the few places with Wi-Fi that we could use. Here we caught up on work emails while supping on tacos and washing them down with juices and teas. Once we had finished working and cleared off the last crumbs of our breakfast  it was time to continue on.

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I took every chance to discover the secrets behind as many alleys and stairways as I could. Many lead to dead ends, but when given the choice – climb and follow. The things you see if you keep climbing…

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Unlike some of the dead ends we ran into, this particular stairwell lead us to one of the best views in the city. Barely anyone else was up here. The narrow passages going up and through the residencies eventually opened up to this overlook. I remember leaning against the stone railing, warmed in the sun, feeling the breeze that whispered over the rooftops while carrying the muffled sounds of city life below.

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From our perch we can see the top of a great, iron clocktower – the beacon of what was meant to be a major train station. The project eventually failed, though the structure was turned into a grand marketplace called Mercado Hidalgo. I came back to this spot a few times after Ben returned to the states, staying for a half hour or so each time I did. Counting the number of dogs sunbathing on rooftops and examining the city from above, I would try to plot my next route.

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After taking in the sights up high, we found our way back down and ended up in a plaza by the name of Jardin Reforma – one of many spots I would return to each day during my travels. If I recall correctly, the image above is of Ben attempting to view a satellite map of the area, looking for the proper route to the famous statue of Pipila, which overlooks Guanajuato from the hilltops in the South.

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The view from Plaza de San Fernando facing Avenue Benito Juarez. Plaza de la Paz and another of Guanajuato’s major landmarks, Cathedral Basilica Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato, were a few blocks away to the West.

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Within the shadows to the right is a small cafe that Ben and I stopped at for coffee and enjoyed the view of Plaza de la Paz as the crowds passed by.

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A quick look back on Plaza de la Paz from the steps of the cathedral before following the road further East, to the left in the photo above.

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A group of musicians wait on the steps of the Juarez Theater as we pass by in search of the way up.

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Caught a quick glance of the statue just before discovering how to get there.

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This funicular offers visitors to the Pipila statue a way up and back down. Ben and I took it up since neither of us had ever been on one before.

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Needless to say, the view was spectacular.

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Opting for one of the narrow paths back down allowed for various other views of Guanajuato from above. Nightfall was approaching, and so was a storm. Passing wild lime trees and following the long staircase downward, we stopped for one last look of the sunlit city before finding a place to eat.

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Juarez Theater at dusk.

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The thunderstorm didn’t stop us from joining in on street-side snacks with other locals and travelers. Even though we had already eaten, Ben and I grabbed two or three of these delicious empanadas each. We were so full but couldn’t help but order more. It was, after all, Ben’s last chance to grab some street food before his flight back to Chicago the next morning. After his departure I would have two days to explore the city alone, with no idea what I would do, and that suited me just fine. It meant more aimless wandering, more exploring, and more food to devour on my own.

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After Ben left for the airport I headed into town with the notion to take my time with everything and allow myself to purposely become lost.

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Passing through the Hidalgo market once again put more food in my already full stomach. I also bought a few donuts on my way out because how could I not?

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I remember this day being particularly hot. Stopping in Jardin Reforma to sit in the shade for a bit turned into an hour or so of just soaking in the atmosphere. I watched passersby, let the breeze cool my skin, listened to the ripples in the fountain, and of course chowed down on those donuts.

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Stopped into this art gallery and purchased a limited print of what I believe is an Intaglio Etching,  hoping it would survive my flight back home. Luckily it made it safe and sound, and just like this blog post, it took me ages to finally get around to hanging on my wall.

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I wasn’t the only one watching the band set up for the afternoon show in the plaza…

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I saw this dog multiple times throughout my trip here and would talk to it when I passed by it’s home, receiving curious tilts of it’s head.

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Any time I passed a group of kids when my camera was up and ready, they always took advantage of becoming a lot more active, hoping I would take their photo. I had passed this alley a few times, normally turning left, but this time I went right. Finally reaching unfamiliar territory, I got myself good and lost, taking random turns any chance I got. The labyrinth of color was intoxicating.

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I got a little more lost than I had planned on [can you really plan on this?] and it took a while to find my way back to familiar ground, and then back to my hotel to grab my tripod. I had hoped to make it back earlier and be able to reach the Pipila station while there was still some light in the sky, but unfortunately I was late. Taking a cab to get up there as fast as possible didn’t help, either.

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The quickest way up was through the tunnels that travel around, through, and under Guanajuato and surrounding mountains. Many of these tunnels seemed to be one way. As we finally emerged, I grabbed this shot of my driver and watched the last bit of sunlight fade away. I managed to grab a shot of the statue with some of the blues still in the sky, but that was lost before I could do the same for the overview of the city.

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After grabbing a few night shots of the city, I walked back down. I took my time and got myself a little lost again. After all, this was my final night here, so I might as well soak up as much as I could. Stopping for one last meal in Plaza de San Fernando, I got sidetracked by a callejoneda, so of course I snuck into the crowd of followers and snagged some shots before grabbing a table and ordering a beer.

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My final morning was spent on the balcony of my hotels restaurant, eating breakfast and sipping coffee, watching the sun paint pink tones on the clouds as a massive storm rolled in. This rainbow appeared for a brief moment, just before the downpour fell. It was time to gather my belongings and check out. Back to Leon, back to the airport, back to Chicago.

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Grabbed that wing seat for the stereotypical “photo of a plane wing” with the sunset over Mexico. All in all it was an amazing trip, full of great food and a ton of much needed solo adventure. I made a couple friends on the trip as well [man pictured above not one of them], and while there’s no guarantee I’ll see them again, those are friends that are out there, and I think that’s really cool.

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