Guanajuato (gwah-nah-HWAH-toh) is perhaps Mexico’s most celebrated colonial city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, both charming and sophisticated. It’s 355 km northwest of Mexico City, a four-hour journey on a luxury bus. I had previously visited on a daytrip from San Miguel de Allende, which didn’t do it justice, so decided on five days this year.
My arrival was not an easy one. The city is in the Sierra de Guanajuato Mountain and the taxi that brought me from the bus station decided to drop me off at the bottom of the mountain and my hotel was at the top. So I paid the driver a big tip to climb up the steep and winding stairs with my suitcase while I followed rather breathlessly behind. This was all unnecessary for I later found out there was a road to the property as well as a funicular (a cable car) that would have brought me almost to my hotel’s door. Was this about the tip?
I had travelled to Guanajuato from Zacatecas, another beautiful mining town, further north and with few foreign tourists. In the mid 16th century the Spaniards discovered rich silver veins in Guanajuato and Zacatecas (as well as San Luis Potosí) and built a road connecting them to Mexico City, where the silver was melted down and shaped into bars and transported to Spain.
Soon Jesuit missionaries arrived and established missions and schools including the School of the Holy Trinity that today is the University of Guanajuato. Guanajuato is known as a university town–a lively place filled with young people.
The silver mine in Guanajuato became the most productive in the world and wealthy mining families built impressive churches and monuments, some of which are considered to be among the most beautiful examples of Baroque architecture in Central and South America.
Locals were not thrilled by the wealth being accumulated by the Spaniards and on September 28, 1810, a large angry mob started to attack the homes of the Spaniards. The Spaniards took shelter in a fortified granary called the Alhóndiga de Granaditas and eventually raised a white flag. A local miner called Pípila set the door of the granary on fire, the attackers entered and killed most of the Spaniards, including the women and children. Much pillaging and looting followed. And so began the Mexican independence movement. On San Miguel hill, very close to where I stayed, is a 28-m tall statue of Pípila. The granary today is the history museum.
Keeping with this macabre tone, you may want to visit the Museo de las Momias where you are introduced to a collection of more than 100 mummies. Some of the dead have been given voices (in English and Spanish) such as: “I was brought to the Santa Paula Cemetery on the first day of the year 1903. I have been invited to other museums in different countries. Who would have thought it, a travelling mummy? But do not think that this was pure luck, the fact is that I am the best preserved mummified body. I have my dentures and my skin does not have any holes. Considering that for many years I had no protection whatsoever from nosey and touchy people, I am in much better shape than my partners.” The lights in the museum are kept very low.
Not all of Guanajuato is so grim, of course. Each day I would take the funicular down to the Jardín de la Unión, an endearing green space with a kiosk and wrought iron benches surrounded by pruned laurels and outdoor restaurants. It’s perfect for people watching. On Sunday evenings there are performances on the steps of the nearby Teatro Juarez (theatre) that attract large crowds.
There is a network of underground roads that minimizes traffic in the historic area so walking is pleasant. There are lots of small plazas to stop at, each connected to narrow cobblestone alleys that run up and down the hillside.
Most visitors stop at the childhood home of the great muralist Diego Rivera, not quite as endearing as the home of his wife, Frieda, in Mexico City, but interesting none-the-less. There are about 100 of Rivera’s early works here.
At the Museo del Pueblo de Guanajuato you’ll find works by Olga Costa and José Chávez Morado as well as religious art.
The Museum of Don Quixote has one of the world’s largest Don Quixote de la Mancha collections, the “most read and commented literary work in the Western world”. Guanajuato in fact hosts the Cervantino Festival each October and it has become one of the premier arts festivals in Mexico and Latin America.
So yes, Guanajuato is a great destination, considered to be very safe and one of the best places to learn Spanish.
Guanajuato: In the shadow of San Miguel?
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses™ 2015