GUANAJUATO might not be as well known as some of the locations we hit up on our route, but it should be. Or maybe its relative obscurity outside of Mexico is how it retains its magical allure. Adam certainly had no idea what to expect and originally we had only planned to stay here for a couple days to allow more time in vaunted San Miguel de Allende, but after just 24 hours in the valley we extended our stay; completely enamored.
Sorry Virginia, Guanajuato is truly for lovers.
THE magic of the place begins as you enter the center of town. Built originally as a mining hub the only access is through a series of tunnels carved into the surrounding hills that create the earthen bowl Guanajuato is encrusted upon.
By the time our AirBnB host, Dermot, guided us through the labyrinth to our cozy new home (link here) and we settled in, the sun had set and we didn’t want to get lost in the dark streets so decided to make dinner at home. You might be smirking to yourself, smugly thinking we wussed out, but we dare you to navigate Guanajuato your first night.
THE next morning the magical details of Guanajuato began early. Dermot had filled us in on the “secret bodega” across the lane from our place. For some reason the man across the street keeps his store a secret, but for those in the know you just knock on the door and the half blind, elderly shopkeep will open the door and display his wares. We hesitantly knocked that first morning, and sure enough a glazed blue eye peered out from the cracked door for a second, before opening fully to reveal a well stocked emporium.
“The most rare way to buy eggs! He was something out of a movie… ” d.
“Kind of a strange business model, but once I got over the fear, it was super convenient and the man is really nice.” a.
IT became a multi times a day stop, basically our temporary pantry, and we like to think the man eventually kind of liked us. We even got to conversational status!
AFTER breakfast, we descended into the center of town for the first time. If you let gravity be your guide, eventually all roads lead to El Centro (getting back up is the hard part). We did our best to navigate to our day’s goals; the Diego Rivera Museum and The Museum of Don Quixote Iconography. Along the way (aka lost) we ran into what became another daily stop; the Conquistador. This claustrophobic cafe is just big enough to walk in and order from the variety of fresh ground, mostly local coffees. By far the best coffee in Guanajuato, and a perfect fuel to get up and down those hills.
PROPERLY caffeinated, we toured the two museums rather quickly. The Diego Rivera museum is also his birth home, and although not much else to it worth a stop by. The Don Quixote Iconographic Museum is definitely a must see. Guanajuato itself and Cervantes are birds of a feather, and ever since starting the Cervantes Festival in the mid 20th Century, the two have held a strong bond…even though the author never visited GTO. Opened in the 1980s this collection of over 800 interpretations of the famed literary hero and his sidekick Pancho decorates a colonial building, tickling the imagination.
GUANAJUATO is a city of legends and myths. For whatever reason, you can just feel the whimsy lurking around any corner. One of the most popular tales is the story of the Callejon del Beso (Alley of the Kiss). Quick recap; poor mine worker boy falls in love with rich guy’s daughter. After rich guy finds out about their secret relationship, he locks his daughter in a room. Seeing the balcony across from his beloved’s prison is merely inches away from her window, the boy uses all his life savings to buy the house. One faithful night, as the two star crossed lovers are kissing across the gap, the father catches them, and stabs his daughter in rage. Distraught, the boy throws himself into a mineshaft, unable to live without the love of his life.
OUR first night out we joined the traditional (and extremely popular) way to learn the legends of the city by signing up for a callejoneada. Going back centuries, students have gathered groups in the main square, and walked the alleys singing stories, legends and jokes while the crowd follows along. Apparently in recent years the traditional wine has been replaced by juice, but each reveler is still given the unique drinking apparatus called a porrón (we filled ours with tequila). Our group passed through various alleys singing and dancing, and as with all group we ended in the Callejon del Beso. Granted it is the touristy thing to do in Guanajuato, but 100% worth it.
“I remember from school trips that this was fun, but this time it meant so much more!” d.
“this was awesome! It’s like walking back in time, but also a lot of humor….and romance!!” a.
THE next day, having checked off most of the attractions we simply strolled the lanes. Much like Venice or Paris, we found the main draw to Guanajuato is to wander. We stopped in The Conquistador for coffee, and got wonderfully lost. The echoes of the city legends reverberate in the seemingly random miss-mash of routes. It’s almost vertigo inducing, with the entire city set at a jaunty angle; defying explanation and gravity.
WE stopped for lunch at an inviting spot near the Don Quijote museum called La Capellina. The interior is a whimsically re-designed colonial space, and the food is on point. It was here we tried local specialty, enchiladas mineras. As your can tell by the name, this dish goes all the way back to Guanajuato’s mining begins, and legend has it the wives and mothers of the miners would bring this to the workers at the end of their shifts. This version was probably a little fancier than the original, but the mole soaked tortillas wrapped around shredded chicken, potatoes and carrots would brighten anyone’s day after 12 hours working underground.
ANOTHER magical thing happened while we sipped a cocktail in the plaza in front of the Basilica. As horns and drums started swelling from down the street the square filled people in traditional Aztec garb. Behind them a group of men carried a Christ on the cross surrounded by a bed of flowers, and leading a huge parade. The line included marching bands, mariachis and worshipers. Interestingly the Aztec group waited outside the church while the rest of the group entered behind the Jesus. After a mass, the whole group, again led by the Aztecs, marched away down the street. We found out later that is was a ceremony to bless a small town’s Jesus statue, and they had walked for hours just to get it here.
“It came out of nowhere, and the whole town stopped to watch the procession.” d.
“In what was a confusing but beautiful sight to behold, the many layers of Mexican identity literally paraded by.” a.
THAT night after a light dinner, we headed down into the tunnels to check them out. Originally used to divert the Rio Guanajuato away from mining operations, these days the entwined system is the only way for traffic to get in or out of the city due to the rampart of mountains around the center. Although dank and claustrophobic, it’s this fanciful entrance that adds to the other-worldliness of Guanajuato.
“These tunnels make Guanajuato so unique.” d.
“This is some Harry Potter type shit…” a.
AFTER a trip to the secret bodega and a fresh breakfast at home, we set out to check out the historic site of the Alhondiga. In 1810, the first salvo of the Mexican revolution from Spain took place in Guanajuato. As Hidalgo and his group of rebels marched on the city, and the Spanish forces took refuge in the granary called Alhondiga de Granaditas. The building is nearly windowless and the rebels were unable to penetrate it as the Spanish rained down bullets. Eventually, Juan José de los Reyes Martínez Amaro, better know as El Pípila, strapped a stone slab to his back crawled up the wooden front doors, slathered it in tar and lit it ablaze. The rebels stormed the granary, defeating the Spanish and El Pípila remains one of Mexico’s greatest heroes.
Well all that said, we got to the Alhondiga only to find out it was closed on Sundays. But it wasn’t a tough change of plans to continue our routine of just walking around exploring the neighborhood.
LAST on our list of things to do was take the funicular up to the statue of El Pípila that towers over the city and check out the sunset. The inscription underneath El Pípila is chillingly poignant these days. It reads: “Aun hay otras Alhondigas por incendiar.”
“Still there are other Alhondigas to burn.”
NOTHING beats walking around Guanajuato after dark. Between the roving bands of musicians and their followers and the ever present expectation to find a wayward sprite around any corner, the atmosphere is like nowhere else we know. This night was the first time we managed to find our way back up to our apartment on the first try. Trust us that is impressive.
“Every time going home was a whole new different adventure. Finally I got it right…..surprised??” d.
“Man the nights here are mystical! Always expecting to find a story telling ghost or elf or something….but I can never find the way home.” a.
FOR our last day we ventured outside the city center to the neighborhood called La Presa. We caught a taxi in the middle of town, and descended into the rabbit warren of tunnel, before popping back up to ground level completely disoriented. It was like popping out of a wormhole into a whole other fantasy land. The neighborhood runs up a thin valley, ultimately ending in the Presa de Olla- the reservoir that gives the area it’s name. Originally outside the city’s lines, around the turn of the 20th century the area began to blossom with wealthy mine barons building their estates. These days the buildings house government offices, universities and hotels but retain their victorian elegance. Leading up to the dam that holds the reservoir in place is the lush and expansive Parque Florencio Antillón, a marvelous place for a stroll. After said stroll we took a break at the water-side Restaurante El Embarcadero for a michelada and a few of the finest quesadillas we’ve ever had.
FOR our last dinner in Guanajuato we opted for some “healthier” fare, and grabbed an outdoor table at Bossanova Cafe. Adam tried his first artisanal Mexican beer, named after our next stop San Miguel de Allende, and after three weeks with out hops it was incredibly crisp and delicious.
OUR last morning we had a little time to kill before our bus, so we tried the Alhóndiga one more time, only to find it closed again. Oh well…it’s not much to see anyway- check! We used the time to tour the Teatro Juarez in the center of town, and we’re very old we did. Dating back to the turn of the 20th century the magnificent architecture and interior transports one to most renowned opera halls in Europe. These days it hosts the annual Cervantes festival, as well as various cultural events through out the year.
SPOILER alert, Guanajuato ended up being our favorite stop in the circuit. The place simply gets inside you and haunts your dreams- in the best, most magical way. On the way out you drive through those long tunnels, and when you resurface back in what feels like the real world, you’re left wondering if what you just experienced really happened. Eyes squinting in the sun after the long subterranean egress, you fully expect to see a fairy peaking up from the underbelly of the taxi, gesturing to you to keep quiet about her existence. As a matter of fact we aren’t the only to feel the fantastic virtue of this Pueblo Magico, producers of the acclaimed film Coco based their animated city of the afterlife in Guanajuato.
Our next stop had high expectations, having been voted the number one city to visit in the world by Travel and Leisure that year. San Miguel de Allende held promise to blow us away with it’s elegance and charm, but after leaving Guanajuato with such high regard we wondered how SM de Allende could possibly top GTO. After a few hours by bus we were ready to find out!