We join a walking tour to get the lay of the land in el centro, the historic heart of this creative city in central Mexico. My legs thank me. In recent years, I have rediscovered perambulation with a vengeance. Walking, biking, running = sanity. I sometimes think that my brain and legs have been hardwired with a certain dependent circuitry. Must move, must get outside, outside myself. Calming through movement.
“When I was a child,” our guide Jesus is telling us, “we played soccer in these streets.” Children chasing, calling for the ball, whacking it off the stone walls towards a teammate. Now, tires squeak on polished stones as drivers negotiate tight corners, reverse, try again. A steady stream of green and white Nissan Tsuru taxis, VW bugs in various stages of reclamation and customization wind past parked vans, scooters, tiny cars and hulking SUVs.
Pedestrians, pushed to the sides on narrow stone ledges, bob in and out of the stream with a patience that speaks of experience, resignation, adaptation. Though filled with pedestrians, these streets are far from ideal for anyone with mobility problems. The stone walks are uneven, curbs sharp, power poles and other barriers frequent. A wheelchair would be impossible here. Stone and adobe walls butt up tight to the activity, here and there opening to reveal calm courtyards beyond.
At curbside, a weathered arm dangles from an old Ford pickup that speaks its lengthy working life in multiple ways: the rusted hood, windshield sporting a constellation of cracks, dashboard faded and cracked like an arid highland plain, tailgate roped up. Right behind it rests a Lexus. Behind a 17th century carriage door (just slightly ajar), a man is dipping a sponge in a bucket and lovingly wiping down a bright white late model Toyota Camry.
I am conflicted. I have come to this UNESCO World Heritage Site with its narrow winding calles and colonial edifices in no small part to be in a walkable city. To live where people commute on foot, where frutas are at a stand three doors down, not at a supermarket a 20 minute drive away, where life slows to a human, not automotive, pace.
And walk I do. Gradually, I come to accept that there is no getting away from the cars, even here. But there is a different relationship, a different interaction. Here, the streets are shared property. Cars do not own them.
One day, I’m walking past the Instituto Allende when I hear the music of a mariachi band. Cars are pulling to either side of Ancha de San Antonio and a Policia pickup is crawling up the middle, lights flashing. Behind it, a wedding party. The bride in her flowing white wedding dress and heals, her groom beside her and large wedding party trailing behind, then the band, playing the procession along. The traffic parts till the wedding passes, then resumes.
Another day, it’s a Mayoral candidate’s procession. Every day, there is an organic weave of cars, trucks, pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles and quads on the streets. It’s a colourful weave, and people on foot are an integral strand.
Perhaps most importantly, this city has ‘good bones.’ Most of it was built for an era of foot travel, horses and wagons. Narrow, winding streets that follow the contours of the land. Spanish courtyard homes are built right up to the street edge, so there is no appetite for street widening like we find in Canada and the U.S.. The absence of wide, straight thoroughfares removes the unnatural advantage that vehicles are given in newer cities further north where I hail from.
Here, I can walk 10 or 20 blocks across el centro as quickly as a car can make the trip. So I do.
There are no bike lanes, no controlled intersections, no dedicated lanes for left turns or taxi stands or anything else. In fact, there are no lanes. There is just a street. And the street belongs to the city – its uses as diverse as the people themselves. That feels healthy.
“On the move in San Miguel de Allende” © Lorne Daniel
“Colonial era streets” © Lorne Daniel
“The transportation mix” © Lorne Daniel