What to do in Guanajuato: Festival Cervantino!

When I left for Guanajuato, I had a bus ticket, a place to stay and a belly full of butterflies. I was returning to the Festival Cervantino (El Cervantino as it’s affectionately known) after 18 years. Trips can have a statute of limitations. After so many years, only hazy memories remain. Guanajuato and El Cervantino were different. I lucidly remembered exploring the colorful, whimsical labyrinth and feeling the prickle of the festival’s energy. My second trip proved I hadn’t romanticized it.

El Cervantino was born out of Miguel de Cervantes’ legacy.

El Cervantino, an annual international arts and culture festival in Guanajuato, Guanajuato, Mexico, is arguably the largest and most important in Latin America and one of four (some sources say two) of its kind in the world. Per the Festival International Cervantino’s namesake, it was born out of plays by Miguel de Cervantes, called “entreméses”, performed by university students in the city’s plazas. In 1972, the government provided funding to expand these plays to include other events and incorporate an international flair. Since 2000, the festival honors a different Mexican state and a different country each year. In 2013, the 41st annual El Cervantino featured Puebla, Mexico and Uruguay.

The festival couldn’t happen in any other town, in any other country at any other time.

It’s an alchemy of a European-like colonial town, located in sunny, mountainous Mexico, with a year-round cultural and performing arts tradition, hosting thousands of international artists from over 30 countries and passionate young spanish-speakers, all during October’s Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) lead up. The two and a half week festival is packed with indoor and outdoor theatre and street performances. Cruising the streets are callejoneadas and groups of students who will spontaneously sing their university soccer team chants or the famous tune, “Cielito Lindo.” A circle of festival-goers will call for volunteers, a man and a woman who do not know each other, and chant “beso, beso, beso.” Beso means kiss in Spanish. The woman can chose to snub or kiss the guy. No worry, the crowd will go crazy either way. I participated in both the callejoneadas and the “Cielito Lindo” sing-alongs. When a group of about 20 young people surrounded my friend and I singing, “foto, foto, foto,” I gave a thumbs up and a toothy smile.

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting 26 of 31 states in Mexico and spending collectively one and a half years of my life there. In terms of Mexico recommendations, Guanajuato (City) Guanajuato is in my top five and Festival Cervantino is in my top 5 things to do. I hope you’ll have the chance to experience El Cervantino!