Guanajuato – excerpt from a Mexican travelogue
In Guanajuato, a wealthy and sophisticated mining town north of Mexico City, things fall prey to a macabre whimsy.
To enter the town, whose name means “place of the frogs,” you navigate tunnels buried in mountains that used to be full of silver. The streets mislead, surprise, wind and turn into hidden plazas where lovers love and children play.
The spirit of Cervantes presides over Guanajuato’s cafes and little theatricals under perfect skies. The trees are carved into geometric forms that sing with hidden birds. Private homes are warrens full of bright furniture and brighter tile.
Guanajuato is also home to Museo de las Momias - the Mummy Museum, which originated by a chance discovery early in the last century.
It seems the town requires its citizens to pay a certain fee for perpetual cemetery maintenance. Families are supposed to cover for those who die without having paid their dues. If the merry town doesn’t receive payment within five years of your burial, it evicts you from your grave.
Soon after this policy was implemented, it became apparent that the unearthed residents of Guanajuato’s cemetery were failing to cooperatively decompose. Something in the soil, they saw, was turning them into calcified mummies.
If death can have its little joke, the town seems to have reasoned, so can Guanajuato. The remains of those in default are put on display in the museum. Well over a hundred momias are housed in glass cases there, where, for a few pesos, the public can examine their rotting boots, their death wounds, their gaping mouths.
On the day we paid our visit – the National Independence Day of Nov. 20th – it seemed as if the whole town had turned out for a viewing – after the morning’s civic pride parade, kids in tow . . .