A too-often neglected little town in the state of Guanajuato, which is easily accessible from the city of Guanajuato, is Silao. In all the guidebooks I consulted, the extent of what is mentioned about the city of Silao is, “it is there.” I wish I were making that up. If you spoke Spanish and told a local in Guanajuato you were going to Silao as a tourist, you would see his face change ever so slightly. He would struggle not to look like he was about to screech, and you might hear something like, “¡Dios Mio! ¿Por Qué?” Roughly translated: My God, why?
When I Googled Silao, Guanajuato, I got a whopping 274,000 entries. The problem was that all I could find as I wearily trudged through about a hundred of them was that there was nothing very touristy about the city. Unless of course, you count the ever-faithful Holiday Inn’s entry advertising their $74.00 a night rooms to which I say, “¡Dios Mio! ¿Por Qué?” Other than that, there isn’t much to read in guidebooks or online about this almost-forgotten little town.
And why, I just have to ask stomping my feet, doesn’t anyone want to talk about Silao? Why wouldn’t tourists want to go and see this wonderfully quaint city? I love Silao, Guanajuato. I love the way the downtown area is laid out. I love the churches. I love the nuns who stand outside the Parroquia church and sell you what are probably the best tamales in Mexico. I also love how this town, so close to Guanajuato, San Miguel, and Leon, really is virtually untouched by tourism. When you visit, you will probably be the only white face in the entire city. This is totally significant and is a huge reason why you should go and see this place. Mexican towns untouched by what can be sometimes be the deleterious effect of tourism can be delightfully different and give you the chance to see real Mexico at its best. I just love that!
After a refreshing fifteen-minute trip from the city of Guanajuato, we arrived before nine in the morning. We took a city bus from the bus station to the downtown area because it is cheap and because we wanted to see what there was to see in the city bus’s indirect route. There are plenty of cabs to take you directly to the downtown plaza, and I would advise that if you cannot speak Spanish. We asked the bus driver to let us off at the market. The sky was hazy and the air heavy. This is an unfortunate effect of the industries, the close proximity to Leon, and the dreadful car exhaust from the thousands of cars in Leon and Silao. But, the day was promising and I was looking forward to visiting Silao’s markets.
As I’ve said before, Mexican markets represent far more than just shopping for your daily bread. They are carnivals of delights and sometimes thrills. They have a very real carnival atmosphere that always puts me in the mood for fun. I half expect clowns to come dancing by me as I score a couple of tamales and sit down to eat them. It is always a multi-layered event and not just a shopping trip to a Mexican market. Once when we were in Silao, we were crossing a street when the police came roaring by on motorcycles and blocked car traffic at an intersection. Soon we saw why. A convoy of trucks came by in parade fashion pulling giant cages behind them full of lions, tigers, and bears-Oh My! They were close enough that you could have reached out and touched a tiger’s tail (and lose your arm in the process). Mexican markets never cease to surprise and charm.
We had the bus driver drop us off at the beginning of the market. I love Silao’s market because it is a bit better organized, it is outdoors for the most part, and I don’t get the closed in sense I do when I am in Guanajuato’s or Ciudad Juarez’s closed-in markets. We walked toward the main plaza and made our way around this vendor or that old lady screaming at a vendor who was charging too much for some bit of meat or produce. I like that. As a gringo, I wouldn’t dare try and bargain down a vegetable vendor but the locals do it and do so with such style. I don’t think any gringo could ever come close to imitating it. Nor should they try. I was on a quest, which I must confess, is what always seems to be my motive for coming to Silao. I was looking for fresh and piping hot tamales. But, I wasn’t looking for just any tamales. I was looking for The Nun’s Tamales!
These nuns are an absolute hoot! We were there with some friends once and decided, while stuffing our gringo faces with hot tamales made by these hilarious nuns in habits, that we didn’t know how to address the Mother Superior in Spanish. I mean, just what do you call her? We didn’t know so we decided to ask the tamale nuns. These sisters where slopping tamales on plates as fast as the Mexicans could sling their pesos. When a break came, my friend and I asked, in Spanish, just what would we call the Mother Superior. Well, they started off seriously telling us that we could just call her Hermana as we would one of them. Then, shockingly, they lapsed into English and beginning chortling, “Or, you could call her, “Hey you,” and she would come running…” They thought themselves hilarious, and they were, and that got them going with some machine gun Spanish that frankly was too fast for me to follow. If for no other reason, you should go visit Silao for the Nun Tamales. They only make them on Sundays.
We were headed to the church to pull double duty. Eat Nun Tamales and get a look at the church in front of which the Tamale nuns are stationed. This church, Parroquia de Santiago Apostol, built from 1713-1739, is much different than the churches one sees in Guanajuato. Rather than Baroque, this church, and others in Silao, are in the neoclassical style. This style of architecture began in the middle of the 18th century. This style may have grown from the classicizing of some late Baroque characteristics. The Parroquia (parish church) is the church that sits proudly beside the Plaza de la Victoria.
As an exception to what I just wrote, some say that the façade is baroque with neoclassical details. Whichever you choose to call the style, the church is visually different from the other churches we’ve perused. The interior is very impressive with a height that was dizzying to try and look at. Giant columns reached to the ceiling with the usual arches that held the ceiling at its lofty height. As in all the Mexican churches we’ve seen, the altar had a dome that seemed to reach to heaven. Six confessionals, three on each wall, were recessed into the wall. This was something I had never seen before. It had the usual array of glassed-in cases holding statues depicting martyrs or Christ. Seventeen brass chandeliers hung from the heavenly heights. The altar was simple and plain compared to the rest of the church. When you come into the church, to the right is a small, side chapel.
Though there was no gilding, stained glass, or gold this or that, there was something that I again had never before seen in a Mexican church. The virtually unadorned walls of this church were decorated with extensive Arabic style etchings or carvings. This was so magnificently different from all the Mexican churches I’ve been in that I was awestruck. The only bad thing about trying to see the churches in Silao is that they don’t seem to stay open as long as the churches in tourist towns. You have to slip in right after Mass before the masses of people surge out like gangbusters. I’ve been thrown out (or asked to leave) of more than one church in non-touristy towns because they wanted to lock up. Sigh!
When you leave the church, go back to the Plaza de la Victoria and take a look at what we would call a bandstand or gazebo, which is located at the plaza’s center. Its dome and columns are Arabic. It is said to be the only one of its kind in the entire country. I find the fact of the Arabic influence on this small town in Mexico, that guidebooks and tour guides seem to neglect, too interesting for words. All I can do is stare at these structures.
The next church on our list was roughly east of the plaza or what is sometimes called The Zocalo. Across the street from this humble little church, Templo de la Casa de Ejercicios, we sat in a horrid and rundown little plaza until Mass let out. The plaza reminded me of Guanajuato in that it was filthy. Trash was everywhere and unnecessarily so if you were to ask me. I find it so mind-boggling that you can go to some towns in Mexico that are spotless and then some in which its inhabitants do not seem to care one bit about strewing their trash all over the place. But, once again, I digress.
Constructed in 1834, this church was also constructed in the neoclassical style. Its façade has impressive towering steeples made of a faded pink stone. There is small plaza or courtyard in front of the church that is in need of repair. The church is on 5 de Mayo Street and can be seen from the central plaza or Zocalo. What was lacking in impression of the outside of the church was more than compensated when we walked into the church.
The interior was breathtaking. Everything was far more elaborate than the parish church. Everything that could be gilded in gold was. The usual religious statutes of saints, martyrs, and Christ sat in recessed, concave portals shielded by glass enclosures and surrounded by pillars. The altar had ten golden-gilded columns. Almost the entire altar was gilded in gold. It was impressive to say the least.
The ceiling was arched and divided into three sections by gigantic arches. Each section seemed to have four convexed segments coming together to a point in the center of the segment. Though impressive and a church that should be preserved at any cost, there were some things that totally threw the both of us to see.
My wife reported seeing a huge vomit slick on the floor just under the pulpit that hangs from one of the walls. No one bothered to clean it up. No one thought of running for anything, even a newspaper would have worked, to try and lessen the amount of stomach emission on the floor of this awesome church. The second thing was that in the front, right in front of the first pews, looked like some one had been eating canned spinach and threw the contents of the can over the floor. The floor was filthy with vegetable matter, vomit of various compositions, dust, and lo and behold, there was pigeon crap everywhere. Looking above, I not only saw the culprits but also could hear what sounded like scores and scores of pigeon babies screeching for their parents to feed them. We made a quick retreat from this church before they began dive-bombing us as they did in the parish church in Dolores Hidalgo.
I’ve just got to ask this: Would the priest allow one to have an open umbrella during mass in the event of a bird caca storm? I just have to ask. This is beyond my experience of church going and simply leaves me agog.
A little further down the same street is yet another church, The Church of the Third Order, only it was locked and we were prevented from seeing it. That’s too bad. I love walking through these churches that often leave me so sad at their neglected condition. When we were in Dolores Hidalgo, we found that certain labor unions, clubs, and civic organizations routinely raised money for the upkeep of Miguel Hidalgo’s home. This is what would have to happen for these poor and dying churches. If someone doesn’t do something to organize financial help to restore and repair soon, I am terrified to think what shape they will be in another few years. Mainly wealthy philanthropic donors built these churches. The poor parishioners could not pay for the building then nor can they pay for the upkeep now. Groups of people need to act to save these holy sites or they will be lost forever and something horrid, like an apartment building or an American fast-food restaurant, will be erected in their places.
If one were to want to come to Guanajuato’s Cervantino Festival, held each year in October, scoring a hotel here in Silao would be a perfectly cheap and quiet alternative. It is only a few minutes away from Guanajuato and costs next to nothing to bus or cab back and forth. It would be worth checking out rather than paying a fortune to stay in the hotels in Guanajuato during this yearly festival.
We said good-bye to Silao. We came just for a day. But, we will most definitely return soon.
We hear those Nun Tamales calling!