Outdoor cafes front the Basílica at Plaza de la Paz in the colorful city of Guanajuato, Mexico, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Feeling disoriented and breathless after a long travel day and wheeling our suitcases up the steep stone Callejón (pedestrian street), we knocked on the rustic wood door of the rental house and hoped that the housekeeper would be there to greet us as planned.

I was jet-lagged from the trip but, even more, I was emotionally exhausted. My husband, Hank, and I had returned to the States, after more than three years of living abroad, to attend a family wedding and ended up postponing our travels for the next five months due to a series of events that had left us reeling. This was our first foray abroad since then and I hadn't realized how tense I was until a woman with a kindhearted smile and a cheerful yellow apron opened the door and I felt a wave of relief flood through me. The intensity of the emotion startled me. 

Bienvenidos. I’m Vale. Come in. Let me help you,” she said with the hospitable warmth I’ve come to associate with Latin America. Vale looked to be in her forties and had an exuberant, singsong voice that reverberated through the narrow, three-story house and seemed to match the cheerful mood of its yellow, orange and green walls. 

I marveled at her innate generosity as Vale settled us into the house showing us the hot water heater on the terrace, where the gas tanks were, how to operate the washing machine and where to find extra light bulbs— and was touched by how quickly she made us feel at home.

I had never been to Guanajuato before and was enchanted by the beauty of its tree-lined plazas, the brightly painted houses that tumble down steep mountainsides, and the elegant mansions with wrought iron balconies and pots of geraniums that I’d caught glimpses of as the airport taxi navigated its way through a maze of subterranean roadways to deliver us to Plaza Cantarranas, the leafy square at the base of the hill that climbs to our temporary home.

Our arrival on the first of November coincided with El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), one of Mexico’s most celebrated holidays, a festival of remembrance in a culture that savors and honors the memory of its deceased. We unpacked our few belongings— the clothing (layers for any season), electronics (cameras, laptops, portable hard drives, etc.) and various sundries that comprise our nomadic travel kit—and headed to town to check it out.

Following a labyrinth of narrow alleys and stairways, we made our way down to the Jardín de la Unión, Guanajuato’s main square and communal living room. The sun was shining. A brass band played in the gazebo. Families filled the plaza’s cafes and benches and walkways with a casual intimacy of generations and an uninhibited affection that I admired and secretly envied. Beyond my marriage, that sense of attachment, that familial bond, was foreign to me and a rift I struggle to reconcile with my independent nature. Seeing those children, as they chased pigeons and imagination, secure in the visceral tenderness of family and community, however, I understood how seductive those bonds could be, how connected they can make you feel and the satisfaction that one could derive from feeling so rooted.  

Flower petals carpet the streets on Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) in Guanajuato, Mexico.

“You’re unusually quiet,” Hank said, with a friendly, warm smile as he took my hand in his. “I thought you’d already be campaigning to move here,” he teased, referencing my inclination to declare, soon after our arrival somewhere new, a desire to settle down and stay

A great gust of gratitude for my husband, with his special ability to permeate sadness with humor, blew away my melancholy and brought me back to the present, to the music, the joy, the colorful flower petals that carpeted the streets. 

I write this three weeks later. Through the most ordinary activities, buying fresh papaya at the market, for instance, or lingering over coffee with Hank, or writing at the simple pine desk at the top of the third-floor stairs that has become my office, life is transformed. I am energized with a sense of curiosity and possibility that has me writing and photographing again for the sheer pleasure of it. I don't know exactly what happened, but between the sunshine, the color, the snug comfort of Hank's love and the mischievous influence of Mexico, Guanajuato has unfurled my soul like a loosely wrapped tamale and I couldn't be more grateful. 

What about you? Do you have a favorite destination that inspires you? Use the comments below to share. I'd love to add your recommendations to our wish list.

See more of my Guanajuato iPhoneography at SmugMug. 


Ellen Barone has been creating words and images for travel and tourism since 1998. She co-founded and publishes the travel blog YourLifeIsATrip.com and is currently at work on her first book "I Could Live Here".