One night some years ago I arrived in Guanajuato, Mexico for the first time, knowing little about the place beyond its being yet another Spanish colonial city. When the bus couldn’t get anywhere near my hotel on Jardin de la Union because the streets were jammed with revelers, I got out, shouldered my bags, and plunged into the crowd.
Maybe it was the long bus ride that had warped my ability to make sense of my surroundings, or it could have been my diet of magic realism literature I was on at the time, but the scene I wound through that night presented the kind of phantasmagoria that can induce hallucinations. Was everyone in costume? Was it a warmup for Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead? Colors flashed by, shouts and laughter and the melodious rhythms of Spanish ricocheted off balconied buildings. Smoke from street stalls carried the scent of grilled meat. And I continued to push my way, gently because this was a happy throng, across the plaza to the hotel.
When I squeezed through the doors into a busy lobby I learned I’d arrived in the middle of the Cervantes International Arts Festival. Tired as as I was, I knew I had to get out with the crowd. There was too much energy in the streets to do anything else.
And what a reward I received. I flowed with the masses to an open-air theater to watch a series of skits from Don Quixote under the stars. It didn’t matter that my mediocre Spanish wasn’t up to the task, I got most of the meaning through the actors’ delivery. When the curtain went down the fireworks went off, flames and sparks shooting everywhere, whirligigs spitting fire above the audience, the night erupting in celebration before the lights came up. I really did feel I was in the middle of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.
This year the festival runs October 14 to November 1 with more than 2300 artists from 25 nations and 5 continents presenting opera, music, dance, theater, visual arts, film and academic activities.
During my few days in the city I went to many of the tourist sites — the catacombs to look at the mummies, Diego Rivera’s house and museum, the tunnels that draw off the traffic to make the center of the city a pedestrian zone, Callejón del Beso (the Alley of the Kiss) on a lane so narrow lovers are said to be able to kiss across it from their balconies, the viewpoint on San Miguel hill commemorating the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence — but what really stayed with me was the flamboyant energy of the Cervantes Festival, a party I’d known nothing about, but remember every autumn.