When we were recently invited by our friend and fellow travel writer, Tim Leffel, to visit the city of Guanajuato, Mexico, of course we happily agreed. Even better though, the plan was to spend a day with Tim and some other blogger friends sampling street food with Mexico Street Food Tours. You don’t have to read many posts in our blog to know that we’re huge fans of food tours, and particularly street food tours. There is no better way to get to know a place than to mingle with locals, and the opportunity to stuff our faces with all sorts of delicious new snacks is tough to pass up.
The other reason we were looking forward traveling to Guanajuato, Mexico, was that we had heard that the area had a very different feel from other parts of Mexico. Prior to our visit, we had lived in the border community of San Diego and had visited Mexico’s Yucatan coast quite a few times. Tim suggested that Guanajuato offered something very different. We can say now that our efforts to reach Guanajuato and join the Street Food Tour were met with results well beyond our expectations.
Getting to Guanajuato
Guanajuato is the capital city of the state of Guanajuato, located in North-Central Mexico. We rented a car and drove from Mexico City, approximately a 5 hour drive. If you don’t want to drive, plenty of buses are available to make the trip. We stayed in San Miguel de Allende, a beautiful city a little over an hour away from our final destination.
As we drove into Guanajuato, we noticed our first “difference” in this Mexican city. There is actually an elaborate tunnel system around and under the city that you must navigate to enter or leave Guanajuato. We’ll talk a little bit more about the tunnels and their history later. But, please note that if like us, you rely on your online GPS to get from place to place, the GPS is pretty much useless under ground, and you may end up emerging from the tunnels in different place than you expected.
When, after a few wrong turns, we found ourselves back in daylight on the morning of the tour and began orienting ourselves. We located the historic center of Guanajuato and were immediately charmed. In some places in Mexico, finding the appeal of a city can take some searching, but here the city immediately welcomes the visitor and beckons you in for a closer look.
Guanajuato is centered in a valley surrounded by mountains, and filled with brilliantly colored buildings encircling the central park. From the valley floor, we peered at even more brightly colored houses perched on the hillsides around town. Off to the side the market was beginning to fill with people flocking to stands preparing all kinds of snacks whose smell was filling the air. Our mouths were watering as we located our friends and got ready to start sampling.
Meeting our Street Food Tour Guide
We gathered in Embajadoras Park, the main park in the center of the historical district, to start our tour. We were soon joined by our guide, Ashley, a former Georgia native who, it turned out, could transition seamlessly from fluent Spanish to thick Southern drawl.
Our first stop at a nearby local bakery, to breakfast on some baked goods. If you haven’t been to a Mexican bakery or “panaderia”, the process might be a little foreign. It is essentially a self-service setup. We grabbed a metal plate, a pair of metal tongs, and browsed through the sweet and savory options spread on the wooden shelves. Once we had placed all of our selections on the metal plate, we delivered everything to the cashier, who priced everything for us. We then dug in! The sweet, warm pastries were delicious.
We were also able to check out the back of the bakery where the staff were hard at work preparing treats to be baked. The chefs didn’t bat an eye as we crowded into the small space to take our photos – clearly, they were on a schedule.
Our tour wasn’t going to be entirely about food, but also about the history and culture of this area – the edibles just had a starring role. In that spirit we took a brief side trip to check out the local baseball park. It turns out that baseball is huge draw in Guanajuato, with multiple games scheduled each week. We checked the schedule posted outside of the park, and were disappointed to realize we wouldn’t have time to check out a game.
Sampling the Vampire
Back to market area near Bicentenial Park, Ashley gathered us together to sample freshly squeezed fruit juices from one of the vendors. The options included standards like orange and mango, but also more exotic options. These included the “vampiro” made with a combination beet, carrot, celery and orange juices, and a green concoction made with fresh fruit and vegetables including celery. We were intrigued by the vampire option, even with the strange inclusion of beets. The flavor was rich, sweet, and full of vitamins.
Next to the juice vendor was our next sampling: tlacoyos, which a sort of folded taco made with a thick corn flour tortilla, stuffed with cheese and chicken. We added a spicy salsa from the huge container the vendor provided. The grilled corn tortilla was crunchy, and the fillings juicy and spicy.
Under the City Streets
To help gain more stomach space, we took a walk through the twisty town streets, eventually deciding as a group to explore the tunnels under the city. Guanajuato has long been a mining town – there is still a working gold and silver mine in the hills today. Years ago, after building a series of dams around the city to deal with the occasional damaging floods, the city powers decided that something should be done with the old (now dry) riverways. Miners from the gold mine were put to work building tunnels in what used to be the old river bed, and these tunnels now contain the roads to get into and around the city.
After emerging from the darkness of the tunnels, we made our way to another pretty, small square. On the corner stood the tamale lady, with a solid line of customers looking for their favorites.
Tamales are a Mexican staple. To make them, a corn flour dough is spread into a dried corn husk. The tamale maker adds a filling – which can include, cheese, meat or chicken, vegetables, or any type of rich and spicy sauces. One of the favorites fillings in this region is a mole, a rich, traditional sauce made with multiple spices and chocolate. The corn husks are then wrapped around all the fillings and steamed. Vendors typically serve the tamales out of the very pots they were steamed in, still piping hot.
Ashley made her way through the crowd surrounding the tamale lady, and returned with a selection of flavors: salsa verde (a spicy green sauce) and mole.
Nearby we found the statue of Jorge Negrete, a very popular Mexican musician and actors, who happened to be born in Guanajuato. He died quite young, at age 42, but left a lasting impression on Mexican music and film, and is still quite popular over fifty years after his death. His statue seems strangely popular too, judging by the highly polished bronze on his nose and lips.
After scarfing down our tamales, we checked out the beautiful city theatre before heading up the mountainside, to meet another Guanajuato native.
The Legend of El Pipila, Hero of Guanajuato
We crowded into the the funicular (cable car/elevator that climbs the mountainside on tracks) and took in the sweeping views of the city. At the top, we got a close up view of the sculpture we had spotted from below.
The massive statue of a muscular man bearing a torch towers over the city. The statue represents El Pípila, a revolutionary hero to the city of Guanajuato. At the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810, the Spanish elite in Guanajuato locked themselves away from the approaching revolutionaries in a fortress-like grain warehouse. The main wooden door was the one weak spot of their highly defended position, but it was protected from above by the Spanish guns. El Pipila, a miner that had joined the revolution, strapped a rock to his back to protect himself from the gunfire of the Spanish troops, and bravely charged the door with tar and a torch, setting fire to the door. This act allowed the revolutionaries to capture the warehouse and end the Spanish rule in Guanajuato.
There are conflicting arguments about whether El Pipila was a real person, or just a representative of the brave miners who took on the fight for independence. Regardless of the true story, the figure is held in great regard by the people of Guanajuato. And, even more importantly, at the base of the statue was another street vendor, this one selling something very special.
Here we got to sample something I had been looking forward to for quite a while: a Mexican delicacy called huitlacoche (also spelled cuitlacoche). What is huitlacoche, you ask? In English, it’s called corn smut – an invasive fungus that grows on corn. The English name is probably one reason why it’s never taken off as a delicacy in English-speaking countries, which is too bad. It’s delicious! The fungus is essentially a tender mushroom – although slightly softer in texture with a smoky, corn-like flavor.
Our huitlacoche was served on a sope, a thick round tortilla with pinched sides. The sope was topped with tomato, grilled onions, and cheese along with our fungus, reminding us a delicious Mexican pizza.
We decided to walk down the stairs instead of taking the funicular. Along the way we stopped to check out a painted mural that we had spotted on our way up.
The spectacular painting depicts the history of the region, starting with the original native inhabitants, through the arrival of the Europeans conquerors, to the more recent arrivals of foreign corporations. Part historical, part commentary, the mural is both beautiful and thought-provoking.
Exploring The Central Market
Walking the now woken up, more crowded city streets, we arrived at the central market. It’s immediately evident that pork rules here as a protein source. Huge glass cases at multiple vendors displayed slow-cooked whole sides of pork, and enormous sheets of Chicharrón (fried pork skin) hung from stands. Ashley confessed that after she arrived in the area that the idea of nibbling on a giant sheet of chicharron grew on her, evoking visions of a mouse laying on its back gnawing lazily on an enormous saltine cracker. Every culture has its comfort food, and for Mexicans in this area, chicharrones are it!
We returned our attention to the kilos and kilos of porky deliciousness surrounding us, and selected a sandwich of carnitas in a crusty roll. The flavorful slow-cooked meat served on fresh bread with a hint of spicy salsa was one of our favorites of the day.
Next we set off through the busy market. Ashley pointed out various fruits and vegetables that are local to the area, collecting a few for us to sample as we walked along. She offered to pick up various items for a final picnic – to which we responded “yes” to every offer. We stopped to chat with the pepper lady, offering battered and deep fried peppers stuffed with cheese (chile rellenos). and came away with a bag of jalapeño rellenos (the evil extra spicy cousin of normally mild chile relleno).
Laden down with bags of fruit and more snacks, we headed out of the market to picnic on our final tastes on the steps. Of course, not before meeting one more vendor, this one serving up steamed and salted garbanzo beans in the shell.
We have been to Mexico several times, even lived in a border town for years, and yet as we sat and ate our picnic from the market, we reflected that on this tour we tried several things for the very first time. How is that possible? Well, we’ve learned that each region in Mexico has its own specialties, flavors, and preparations. So there is truly no one “Mexican food.” Instead, there are nearly endless varieties of similar dishes, each newly interpreted by local customs and ingredients resulting in flavors that are unique yet familiar.
It was truly a fantastic day of wandering through the narrow winding streets, discovering beautiful historic squares and sampling food in the streets and markets. We came away from our tour with two important thoughts. First, when can we return? And, second and more immediately, where do they keep the beer? The second question we figured out pretty quickly. The answer to the first question is, undoubtedly, soon.
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A big thank you to Mexico Street Food Tours for hosting us on this tour. Our opinions, as always, remain our own.