This article is from the April 2001 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Guanajuato, A Place Like No Other

by Gordon Jett 

Gordon Jett is a retired public relations and advertising executive. He and his wife, Betty, lived in Singapore and Australia, but always planned to retire in Mexico. They have lived in San Miguel de Allende for the past six years. Gordon wrote a two-part article on RV’ing in Mexico for the October and November 2000 issues of The Mexico File.  

Some Mexican towns make themselves out to be tourist attractions and have little to show for it. Guanajuato is just the opposite. It makes little effort to attract tourists, yet it is one of the most interesting and beautiful towns in all of Mexico. It is located 275 miles northwest of Mexico City in the heart of Colonial Mexico. 

During Colonial days Guanajuato provided up to one-third of all the silver in the world. The silver barons and baronesses left magnificent homes, and even more magnificent churches, which are still standing today. There is a story that one silver baron paved his street with silver bars for his daughter’s wedding, though no trace of this “nice gesture” exists today. 

Guanajuato also played a significant part in the War of Independence (see sidebar). Padre Miguel Hidalgo gathered a few revolutionaries and marched to Guanajuato where his army won the first battle of the war. Guanajuato became the capital of what was to become a free Mexico – for ten months. 

Though rich in history, Guanajuato does not live exclusively in the past. It is the capital of the state of Guanajuato and the home of a very modern university. It is also the home of the annual International Festival de Cervantino. The whole town turns into a giant stage celebrating the author of Don Quixote. 

The town is 6700 feet above sea level, built along the banks of the Rio Guanajuato. The name means “hill of frogs” because the nearby rocks reminded the settlers of frogs. Constant flooding from the river forced the settlers to re-route the river. Using the silver revenues, the town government built huge arches over the original river bed and paved them over. Today you can drive under these massive 17th century structures that hold parts of the city overhead. 

Of all the sights in Guanajuato, probably the most interesting is the Museo Alhondiga de la Granaditas. It is one of the best museums in all of Mexico. Originally built as a huge granary, it became famous during the first bloody battle of the War of Independence. Loyalists hid in the granary for safety, but a young miner known as El Pipila set the doors on fire, allowing the rebels to enter and kill almost all of the loyalists. The feat was memorialized by a huge statue of El Pipila which overlooks the city. It is so big you can climb up inside it for a magnificent vista of the city below. 

Today the museum houses ethnographic, archaeological and historical displays, including rare pre-Columbian artifacts dating back to 350-450 A.D. Three huge murals by Jose Chavez Morado are worth the trip. And the museum also houses an astounding display of contemporary art. 

One further note about the museum – on each exterior corner you will see a brass plaque. These plaques mark the spots where the heads of Padre Hidalgo and three co-revolutionaries were displayed for ten years after the Spaniards’ eventual victory in the war. 

The Museum is located at Calle 28 de Septiembre 7. It is open Tuesdays thru Saturdays 10 to 2 and 4 to 6. There is a small admission charge. It is also open from 10 to 2:30 on Sundays, when admission is free. 

Just down the street at Positos 47 is the Museo y Casa de Diego Rivera. Rivera was born here and lived in the house as a child. The living quarters have been restored to their original condition. Upstairs are examples of Rivera’s work, many showing the strong influence of his Parisian friends such as Modigliani and Picasso. The Museo y Casa de Diego Rivera is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 to 1:30 and 4 to 6:30. Sunday hours are 10 to 2:30. 

On a less artistic note, you should see the Museo de las Momias (yes, mummies). A hundred years ago, for some reason, the city excavated the city graveyard. Something in the local soil had preserved the bodies to an amazing degree. So preserved were they that the city fathers thought that you would like to see them. So 108 cadavers in various stages of dress and undress, and various stages of, umm, preservation are there for your perusal. Just take the bus marked “Momias” to the end of the line. It is open Tuesday to Sunday 9 to 6. 

Back on a more dignified level, the Teatro Juarez is a must-see. It is the main venue of the annual Cervantino Festival. It looks like it was transported in one piece from Paris or Madrid. It was built in 1903 by then dictator Porfirio Diaz, who apparently admired the Romanesque style. Classic columns and giant statues decorate the exterior , while red and gold drapes adorn the interior. There are classical concerts every Thursday night at 8:30. The theater is open Tuesday to Sunday, 9 to 1:45 and 5 to 7:45, or later if there are performances. It is on the beautiful Jardín de la Union. 

While you are walking around town you will probably find “El Callejon del Beso,” the alley of the kiss. The legend is as follows. A comely young woman fell in love with a man whom her father thought was unsuitable. He wanted to marry her off to an elderly but rich Spaniard. The “callejon” outside was so narrow that the houses almost touched. Not to be thwarted the young man bought the house across the way and proceeded with his courtship. The angry father heard their voices and in a rage stabbed his daughter. The suitor could only kiss the lifeless hand of his beloved…and then take his own life. 

But wait, there is more! The legend now says that if you kiss your loved one on the balcony you will have seven years of good luck. Unattended women who visit the spot will always find a handsome young man there to stand in for an absent male friend. 

Back to more substantial reasons to see Guanajuato. The Basilica Colegiata de Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato is a glorious example of Churrigueresque architecture. It was built in 1693. Inside you’ll see a wooden statue of the Virgin, believed to be the oldest existing Christian relic in Mexico. 

One block north of the Basilica is the Templo de la Campania. It was built in 1765 by the Jesuits and closed down just two years later when the Jesuits were expelled from the country. The exterior is another beautiful example of Churrigueresque style. The interior is equally beautiful and well worth the five peso donation requested to fund the restoration of the building. The Templo is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. 

Just another block away is the triangular Jardin Union, the heart of the city for residents and tourists alike. “Shop-till-you-droppers” will feel right at home here, while local guitar players serenade those enjoying the sidewalk restaurants. 

If you are up for another museum or two, Guanajuato has several more to offer. The Museo Iconografico del Quixote offers over 600 works of art depicting Cervante’s hero, Don Quixote. These include paintings, drawings, sculptures and even clocks by such artists as Picasso, Daumier, Ocampo, Coronel and even Salvador Dali, plus dozens of unknowns. It is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 6:30 pm. On Sunday it is open from 10 am to 2:30 pm. 

And finally, the Museo del Pueblo de Guanajuato houses rotating exhibits that include both contemporary art and fine 18th and 19th century Mexican paintings. This museo is next to the University and is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 am to 2 pm and 4pm to 7 pm. It is open Sundays from 10 am to 3 pm. 

Shopping in Guanajuato is easy and interesting. The Mercado Hidalgo, just a block from the Callejón del Beso, is worth seeing for its monstrous neoclassical arch, built in 1910. It was originally built as a train station, though you might think its original purpose was a blimp hangar. It’s souvenir city, as well as an important “department store,” for the residents. Lots of food stalls, here, too. You can satisfy almost any appetite at very reasonable prices. 

The city has a few expensive restaurants, but there is really no need to spend big bucks (or even big pesos) to be satisfied. Almost any small restaurant around the Jardín Union can be counted on to fill the stomach without emptying the wallet. Strangely enough, Guanajuato prides itself on its root beer, “cebadina.” Another specialty is enchilada minera (miner’s enchilada), which is made with chicken, potatoes and carrots. So you don’t have to exist solely on margaritas and carne asada. 

If you decide to splurge, the Venta Vieje Restaurant, opposite the San Javier Hotel, can accommodate you. Delicious meat dishes are their specialty, and the hotel itself is probably the best in town. Mucho dinero required for either one. 

Three more interesting sites are outside the city, one northeast and two to the south. On route #110 north to Delores Hidalgo are the mine and the church of La Valenciana. The mine was one of the richest of the rich. It was owned by a man who called himself Count Valenciana. He spent a lot of his money on fast living but at some point apparently developed some guilt about it and decided to build a church. Like his own lifestyle the church was supposed to dramatic, and indeed it is. It sits on a hill overlooking the town and is certainly one of the most beautiful in all of Mexico. The view of the town below is gorgeous. 

Heading south out of town toward Leon or San Miguel de Allende, you will see what appears to be a large cross on top of the highest hill. It is, in fact, a 50-foot high bronze statue of Jesus, arms outstretched. The hill, Cerro de Cubilete, is 8500 feet above sea level and is considered to be the geographical center of Mexico. The view from the summit is awesome. The statue has great religious significance to many Mexicans and some climb part or all the way up to it on their knees. You, however, can reach it by car or by bus marked “Cristo Rey” from the bus station. 

By the way, Jesus, pronounced “Hay-sus,” is a very common male name in Mexico. The religious figure we norteamericanos speak of as “Jesus” is referred to as “Cristo Rey,” or “Christ the King” in Spanish. 

On the route to Cubilete , just out of town you will see the Ex-Hacienda de San Gabriel de Barrera. Built in the 16th century, it still contains the furniture and furnishings that reveal the lavish lifestyle of the mine owners. Its most striking feature, however, are 17 gardens, each one different. The paths, the flowers, the fountains and the birds are a refreshing sanctuary after the bustle of Guanajuato. It can be reached by getting a bus marked “Puentesia” across from the Mercado. 

Hotel accomodations in Guanajuato range from economical to luxurious. Casa Kloster at Alonso 32 is recommended by several guide books as a clean, decent hotel on the low end of the price scale. Posada Carmen is also mentioned often. It is at Juarez 111-A. High end is the previously mentioned San Javier Hotel. Advanced reservations are a must and prices usually double during the Cervantes Festival each October. The tourist office is at Plaza de la Paz, right across from the Basilica. Attendants speak English and can even recommend families who take in paying guests if you really want complete immersion into the life of beautiful Guanajuato. 

Guanajuato is an easy day’s drive from Guadalajara and puts you in the middle of Mexico’s Cradle of Independence (see sidebar). Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel de Allende are an hour and a half away. You can fly into Leon and take a taxi or scheduled bus to Guanajuato. If you fly into Mexico City you can get a luxury bus direct to Guanajuato. Just remember the town is full to over flowing during the October Cervantino Festival.