Victoria Stoppiello takes the ‘timid traveler’ test in Mexico

<p>The street narrows, then a walkway becomes stairs to the green house upslope is where we stayed.</p>

I’ve said in the past that every city councilor should travel to other towns and observe how “they” do it — how Carmel, Calif., protects its trees and therefore enhances its property values, how the priciest shops locate on “walking streets” no matter the city, how saving old buildings from demolition leads to historical tourism. I think adopting ideas from other places often improves our own situation.

My husband chuckles that my sisters and I inherited a “travel gene” from our mother who drove to Mexico City with her second husband in the late 1940s. Her resulting slide show was a recurring hit with my extended family. Photos of the pyramids, a bullfight, and the floating gardens, as well as people gathering firewood with burros were favorites.

A friend mentioned recently that George W. Bush had never traveled out of the U.S. before he became president but that isn’t true; Bush traveled more widely than I have, sometimes representing his father when Bush Sr. was President. I wouldn’t have expected “W” to visit a remote village in New Guinea, but visiting any different culture provides opportunities for new perspectives on economics, politics, and the environment, especially if not insulated in American style hotels.

Now we have a President who has not just visited, but lived in several cultures — Indonesia, the mainland U.S., and Hawaii, which in itself has enough Polynesian culture left to provide a notable “difference.” Hawaii’s tropical weather and a mix of people of European, Asian and Polynesian extraction make it an ideal (and somewhat idealized) travel destination where timid travelers can put their toes in the warm water of “difference.”

In late winter, we traveled to a colonial city in central Mexico. During the first week of the trip, I began asking myself, “Why am I here? What’s the point of travel? Am I being a sort of cultural vampire, visiting a place strictly for entertainment value?” However, lessons from my travel experiences usually don’t sink in until later when their relevancy becomes more apparent, usually in contrast with something I experience at home.

Guanajuato was beautiful, the weather pleasantly warm, and the Spanish colonial architecture made the city, about the size of Salem, feel more like Europe than my stereotype of Mexico from visits to Baja. I’ve never visited an Italian hill town, but the number of plazas, narrow streets and colorful houses stacked up Guanajuato’s hillsides made me think of photos of those places. Due to the large number of university students, the streets were lively with street musicians, “living statues,” and artists selling paintings, jewelry and carvings … our Saturday markets, every day of the week. The only city I’ve visited which had a similar “joie de vivre” was Paris, where many streets are so narrow and street entertainers so common that pedestrians look on vehicles as interlopers.

The few vehicular streets in Guanajuato make a rental car a silly expense, especially since buses and taxis are inexpensive, clean and well run. Walking also provided more little surprises, more chances of encountering a bakery or shop with interesting possibilities in out of the way side streets.

Guanajuato is not a city for people with mobility issues; walking is often on steep ramps, stairways, cobblestones, or granite pavers. Good shoes, a fit body, and paying attention to what is underfoot are requirements — reminding me of our travels in Southeast Asia decades ago, where sidewalks, even in a major city like Bangkok, would be a collection of steps and ramps. In Guanajuato, a narrow street would became an alley, which became stairs until the space opened up again to another ramp, another set of stairs climbing even higher into a neighborhood.

I’d heard about Guanajuato for at least 20 years, identified by a travel writer as one of the few places he wouldn’t write about … but he showed enticing photos during his workshop. Now we had the chance to rent a small house with Spanish-speaking friends who’d visited many times before; it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.

I’ve always been an independent traveler and it had been 14 years since my husband and I traveled outside the U.S. I wondered whether I was still able to enjoy the rigors of foreign travel. I wasn’t sure I still had the resilience, psychological or physical ability. This was a modest test, given our “private guides,” who provided a soft landing for a couple of gringo greenhorns, but a test all the same. Like all good educational experiences, I’m ready for more.

Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer who has traveled widely in the U.S. and a bit abroad. You can reach her at

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