Night falls over Guanajuato muting its vibrant stucco homes and coaxing a soft, warm wind through the narrow streets. Rooftop dogs begin the twilight bark-and-howl, catching up on the day’s gossip. Church bells ring out, and the sudden twinkle of yellow streetlights illuminates the town nestled into the valley below me.
I pick my way down the steps from San Gabriel Hill, where the statue of El Pípila looms over the town, reminding its inhabitants of Juan José de los Reyes Martínez’s role in Mexico’s fight for independence. Remarkably, I haven’t tripped yet, although I have covered just about every inch of the town’s cobblestone streets. A shopping bag thumps against the backs of my legs, bulging with the blanket I bought from a vendor at Pípila’s feet and a reprint of an Octavio Ocampo painting from the stalls just outside the mummy museum.
My plan is to sidle over to El Jardín Union; settle into one of the center square’s outdoor cafes, and tuck into an Alfonso Trece, the local moniker for kahlua and cream. But as I approach the center square I hear singing getting louder and louder, joined by bursts of laughter. When I round the corner, I see a crowd of people gathered at the steps of a church, watching the student minstrel group from the Universidad de Guanajuato perform.
The Estudiantina first debuted in 1963 and has since gathered several nights a week at the Teatro Juarez. They lead revelers on a callejoneada, or walking tour of the city’s narrow cobblestone streets, playing music and telling jokes along the way.
When I mosey over to the outskirts of the audience, I realize how lucky I am that I have stumbled into the event. No sooner do I arrive than the musicians are tucking their instruments under their arms and leading people into the maze of streets I have just left. I feel a little conspicuous, as everyone but me is holding some sort of drink while I heft a bag of souvenirs. But the crowd is too intent on following the minstrels to notice or care.
Like Pied Pipers, the student minstrels head up the Ruta Callejoneada, with the happy crowd trailing behind. Each musician wears a black velvet vest with bright yellow piping over a shiny black and red striped shirt. Most of them wield guitars or banjos, but a cellist is also among them, picking up his massive instrument and carting it through the streets à la Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run.
Some of the musicians fall back to double as traffic cops, guiding the group along and alerting us to potential ankle hazards. When they have squeezed us into a plaza large enough to hold everyone, they line up once again and burst into song, belting out the lyrics to Caminos de Guanajuato, a song that pays tribute to several cities and towns of the State.