This article is from the November 1998 The Mexico File newsletter.
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The Cervantes Festival of Guanajuato

by Phil Hammond

Phil Hammond, a Mexico File subscriber, is a lawyer living and working in Phoenix, Arizona. He and his wife, Corky, are frequent travelers to Mexico.

We had not planned to attend the Cervantes Festival. In fact, we did not know about it when we decided to spend a few days in Guanajuato. However, in trying to make hotel reservations, we quickly learned that hotels were booked many months in advance for the duration of the Festival, which was held in 1998 from October 7 through 25. Although we were eventually able to obtain reservations pursuant to a fax inquiry we made, another hotel to which we had also sent a fax responded somewhat later and we settled on that one instead.

The location of the two hotels was essentially the same, and the hotel where we stayed, Hotel San Diego, was less than half the price of the other hotel. The room at the Hotel San Diego was quite adequate, and, in spite of the demand for rooms, was only $48US per night. The hotel itself is located on the principal square of the old town, el Jardín de la Unión, which is the same square on which the principal theater of Guanajuato is located, Teatro Juárez. Unfortunately, the Teatro Juárez was dark both nights we were in Guanajuato and we were not able even to get a tour of it to see its gilded interior. The pictures of the interior were quite impressive and to have seen an opera or other musical event would have been quite enchanting.

The Festival itself stretched over approximately two and a half weeks and featured music, opera, theater, dance and art exhibits. The performers were literally from around the world. We saw a small musical and dance group from Uruguay which featured some traditional music, minimal dancing and a great deal of story telling. The following night we saw a 36-voice, all-male chorus from Hungary which delighted the crowd when they performed several songs in Spanish. The venue for both of these events was the Esplanade at the Alhóndiga, the historical granary from which hung the heads of four Mexican patriots after their execution in 1810.

The venues were scattered throughout the town. Some were permanent and some were erected just for the Festival. The two events we saw happened to be free. On Sunday night the seats were filled and the audience was standing three and four deep along the sides of the seating area. On Monday night seats were plentiful — not due to the quality of the performance but rather to the departure of many weekend visitors. Tickets were sold for most of the events which were held in fixed theaters or arenas in which attendance could be controlled. Prices for tickets ranged from about $2.50 to $20.00US. Friday, Saturday and Sunday night ticket prices were 50% to 80% higher than the prices during the week, and most of the venues are filled.

We obtained in advance a printed program of the entire Festival by writing to XXVI Festival Internacional Cervantino, Álvaro Obregón 273, Colonia Roma, 06700, México, D.F. Advanced ticket sales are available at that address as well. Of course tickets to all the events were sold at a central ticket office located on the south side of the Teatro Juárez. (If you write for a program or tickets, of course, the title of next year’s festival in October will be XXVII Festival Internacional Cervantino.)

When we arrived the middle of Sunday afternoon, the crowds of people in the streets were almost overwhelming. Guanajuato is a university town and, in addition to the students, there were many visitors from Mexico City, Guadalajara and other nearby cities. There was a surprising lack of gringos, although we did observe and overhear a few Europeans. Our hotel reservations were honored without question and, despite the mass of humanity, we had no problem finding tables at the numerous outdoor restaurants. At least half the crowd had disappeared by Monday and the entire town was a much more enjoyable place to visit because of the more reasonable number of people. We were able to walk to all the places we wanted to see in Guanajuato, although cabs were readily available.

Guanajuato is a unique town in that at least the hilly center is a historic area and the facades of the buildings are maintained as such. Most of the buildings in the restored area date from the 17th and 18th centuries. Many were built at the height of Guanajuato’s financial heyday when silver mining was its main provider.

We did find that many of the various museums in Guanajuato were open on Monday because of the Festival, although this is generally not the case. Accordingly, we visited the birthplace of Diego Rivera and the Don Quixote Museum. The Museum of the Mummies was not something we felt compelled to visit.

Guanajuato is a beautiful town to visit. At an altitude of over 6,000 feet, it has reasonable weather all year round. Were we to visit again during the Festival, we would plan to be there during the middle of the week and not on the weekends. We would also plan to see an event at the Teatro Juárez if, for no other reason, than to see its interior.

Some other observations of our trip, not necessarily related to the Cervantes Festival:

  1. Travel by executive or first-class bus is a wonderful way to travel within Mexico. For instance, our executive service bus ticket on Primara Plus from San Miguel de Allende, where we went after Guanajuato, back to Mexico City was $5.60US per person. The bus was equipped with air conditioning, bathroom, television movies, reclinable seats and twice as much legroom as most U.S. airlines. The announced schedules are adhered to, and, interestingly, an audible and visual signal informs the passengers when the driver exceeds approximately 59 mph. As a result the driving we observed was quite safe.
  2. We were told by Mexican friends that transportation by green taxicabs in Mexico City is safe. We were told by American friends that it was not. Since our friends provided our transportation, we had no reason to test the theory, so the call is your own.
  3. San Miguel de Allende does indeed have more and better restaurants than Guanajuato. The prices of almost everything in San Miguel are 30% to 50% higher than they are in Guanajuato. Despite this, our hotel in San Miguel, Posada Carmina, was delightful and reasonable for San Miguel at $45US per night. It was located less than a hundred yards from the main square in the old town and was within walking distance of all the places we wished to visit in the old town.
  4. By all means take a boat ride in Xochimilco Park in Mexico City. We took the ride on Saturday at mid-day and were delighted both by the boat-borne vendors who sold lunch, beverages and instant photographs, as well as by the mariachi bands and the boatloads of non-foreigners who enjoyed this unique Mexico City experience.

 Guanajuato...A "World Heritage Zone"

Guanajuato is an undervisited city, at least by U.S. travelers, which comes as a bit of a surprise since it is considered by some to be the most beautiful city in the Western Hemisphere. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in 1541 the region was inhabited by the Chichimecas. The name Guanajuato derives from the Tarasco word "Quanax-juato," which means "hilly place of frogs." One version of the myth is that the natives felt that the mountainous formations in the region resembled frogs, and another version claims that the indigenous tribes thought the place was fit only for frogs.

By the eighteenth century Guanajuato was the site of the famous Valenciana silver mine, which is one of the richest finds in history. This one mine alone at that time produced two-thirds of the world’s silver. This led to the construction of fine town houses, beautiful haciendas and romantic plazas...so that today Guanajuato resembles a Medieval city with narrow alleyways. The most famous alleyway, Callejón del Beso (or Alley of the Kiss) is so named because legend has it that lovers standing on balconies on either side of the callejón could exchange a kiss. The alleyway is also part of the route of the popular callejoneadas, choral groups who stroll the alleyways at night, strumming their guitars and serenading the locals. Benito Juarez chose Guanajuato as the location to assume his presidency in 1858.

Today Guanajuato is the site of the Universidad de Guanajuato, a public university which serves as a main focus of culture, and the Cervantes Festival, which was started in 1972 and is seen as the most important cultural festival in Mexico. In 1988 UNESCO declared Guanajuato a "world heritage zone."

The Cervantes Festival

Guanajuato is the host each October to the Festival Internacional Cervantino, named in honor of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote. Artists from around the world perform in concerts, plays, recitals, ballet and other forms of dance, opera and art exhibits. This past year’s festival saw performers from Germany, Argentina, Canada, Cuba, Denmark, Russia, France, Hungary, Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland, along with contributions from twenty other countries. Events are held throughout the city, but the primary focus of activity for the festival is the Teatro Juárez which is located on the city’s main plaza. This theater in itself is a work of art — every inch of its interior is painted, carved, sculpted or embossed. Portions of the Cervantes Festival are also held in Guadalajara, San Miguel de Allende and Mexico City.