In the heart of Central Mexico lies an enchanting colonial-era city, Guanajuato. Founded by the Spaniards in the early 16th century, it became the world’s preeminent silver-mining center in the 18th century. Guanajuato’s captivating historic district and famous mines have earned a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Yet, many have yet to hear of the place. I recently made an extraordinary day trip to Guanajuato from San Miguel de Allende and was thoroughly impressed by its beauty and historical significance.
Taking the Bus
I was dropped off at the bus station in San Miquel de Allende and, with a bit of wariness, hopped aboard a public bus. To my surprise, the choice was a luxury option at a bargain price. I found large and roomy seats like those in the first-class section on an airplane. I could recline, use a footrest, and watch a video screen- except everything was in Spanish – which I do not speak. I sat back in comfort and enjoyed the scenery.
A little more than an hour later, the bus pulled into the central station of Guanajuato, and I walked out the door to find a line of waiting taxis. An approximate 10-15 minute cab ride takes one into the historic district. Even though the driver spoke little English, he pointed out the underground tunnels in the old mining town, now subterranean streets. I was fascinated and wanted to explore them, but I had not allotted time. A few mines remain open to tourists, but if lucky, I’ll see them on a return visit.
A Bit of Guanajuato History
A 1558 discovery of a major silver vein led to Guanajuato mines producing nearly a third of all silver worldwide for the next 250 years. In 1741, Spanish King Philip V granted the settlement city status. Mining brought wealth to the town that spread into its architecture and lifestyle. Silver barons built palatial residences and funded lavish churches. Today 23 remain in the city.
Diego Riviera House and Museum
I started my tour at the Diego Rivera Museum. Riviera is a hometown hero, making a name for himself as a prominent artist and the husband of artist Frida Kahlo, his third wife. Riviera’s controversial communist politics became themes in his large frescoes. He helped establish the mural movement in Mexican and international art. His style often reveals industrial workers and scenes with political overtones. (I would later see many of these in Mexico City.)
The museum, housed in Riviera’s boyhood home, features furnishing from the era, including the brass bed where he was born in 1886. The second floor is a gallery of his original works, including 175 watercolors, sketches of murals, and oil paintings.
A new glass and stone building connects to the old house and displays contemporary Mexican artists’ work. I didn’t spend much time there, as I had the entire city to explore. But, for the small admission fee, the Diego Riviera Museum gets my thumbs up.
Touring Guanajuato’s Historic District
Meandering along the cobblestone streets, I came to the University’s impressive grand staircase, a busy landmark and meeting point for students in the city. The students add youth and vigor to the streets, often giving evening walking tours. Traffic in the district is limited due to the use of the underground roads, making it a wonderful walking city reminiscent of Old World Spain.
I strolled along, pausing at the large and grand old church named Templo de la Compania de Jesus or Company of Jesus Church. The impressive yet somewhat crumbling façade features the Mexican Churrigueresque style with many elaborate stone carvings. The unexpected (and huge interior) surprises all with bright light. The original church was constructed between 1746-67 by the Jesuits. They were banished, and the building fell into decay. It was remodeled in 1869 with a new dome that allows a profusion of light.
The city stands 6,725 feet on very hilly ground, so virtually every point is on a slant. Walking downhill, I came to Calle del Truco, a narrow lane decorated with hanging paper lanterns that caught my attention. Honestly, the entire town offers one vibrant photo op after another.
I’d been told to ride the funicular to the El Pipila Monument for a magnificent panoramic city overlook. However, the entrance to the funicular was under renovation and unfortunately closed. I was only able to get a photo of the statue from below. The popular 92-feet-tall honors Juan Jose Martinez, the independence hero.
El Pipila Statue through a Telephoto Lens
Backtracking slightly, I ascended the steps of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato, built from 1671 to 1696. The bold yellow-painted church with a red dome and wine-colored trim rises above the central plaza. The building includes a belfry and three towers. The ceiling and walls highlight pastel-colored frescoes.
I watched in awe as a passionate older woman crawled on her knees from the back to the front of the church and lingered in prayer. Religion is alive in Mexico and very much a part of the culture.
Don’t miss the altar’s jewel-encrusted statue, the 1000-year-old Virgin, donated to Guanajuato by Spanish King Charles I in 1557. She is now considered the patron and queen of the city.
I exited onto the Peace Plaza or Plaza de la Paz, where I found a good vantage point to photograph the Basilica. The park contains a bronze statue dedicated to Peace (1898) and some pretty flowerbeds. The plaza is another good place to sit and rest; I needed it – calling the altitude my excuse. The street leading gently downhill offered some beautiful palaces and townhouses and small restaurants and shops. This city bursts with elegant architecture.
I stopped at a ticket booth to inquire about the Mummy Museum but realized it’s out of the central historic district. The ticket seller said that in 1910, the authorities were forced to exhume several bodies due to the overcrowding of the local graveyard. They found the bodies had turned into mummies rather than fully decomposing. After that, they created this bizarre and unique museum. Some like it, others find it ghoulish.
Tetro Juárez (Theater) and Cervantes Festival
Visitors wind their way around the historic downtown, a maze of alleys forming an elongated oval. You find yourself crossing over your route numerous times. I again stopped near the funicular and discovered the famed theater, Teatro Juárez, also closed due to renovations. Dang! I still managed to get some pictures of the 1872-1903 constructed Neo-Classical exterior. The building features massive columns, a decorative façade, and roof sculptures representing Greek muses. I saw photos of the Moorish-influenced interior showing stained glass, plush velvet seats, and a beautifully gilded theater.
Each year the city also hosts the Cervantino (Cervantes) Festival in October, celebrating the arts and culture in Mexico. Its origin dates back to the mid-20th century when the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, performed his plays in the plaza. It began in its current form in 1972. The Festival now hosts 85 musical performances, 2,941 artists from 34 countries, 20 dance performances, three operas, 57 theater performances, and 45 visual arts exhibitions. Get your tickets and reservations early, as more than 500,000 attend the multi-day event.
The Teatro Juárez faces Jardin de la Union, the central city park with lovely pruned trees. I sat in the shade of the majestic laurels on one of the many ornate benches, listening to the water in the fountain and watching people go by. The park is the hub of the town and a truly wonderful place for relaxing or meeting up with others.
Hungry, I stopped for lunch at Casa Valadez, a lovely restaurant bordering the Jardin. I enjoyed the time to rest my feet and fuel up with excellent food.
Apparently loved by many birds, a picturesque iron fountain takes center stage at the Plazuela del Baratillo just around the corner. It’s a small plaza with narrow passageways lined with large old houses. Some ground floors sell ceramics, handicrafts, gift items, jewelry, and typical souvenirs.
The Don Quixote Connection
I continued my photo shoot at the statue of Don Quixote, one of my favorite literary characters. If only I had read this before my trip.
From Atlas Obscura:
When he was nineteen years old, Eulalio Ferrer was forced to flee his home during the Spanish Civil War. Taking the few possessions they could carry, he and his family went to France. While in a French refugee camp, Ferrer exchanged a pack of cigarettes for a pocket-sized edition of Don Quixote. This simple gesture had a tremendous impact on Ferrer, who obsessively read and reread the book, finding solace in the misadventures of the eponymous Spanish hero.
After relocating to Mexico and achieving success as an entrepreneur, Ferrer did not forget about the quixotic knight-errant, amassing a large collection of art relating to Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza.
He donated it to Guanajuato and started the Don Quixote Iconographic Museum in 1987. Somehow I missed seeing Ferrer’s original pocket copy of Don Quixote and roughly 1,000 pieces of the Knight in sculptures, acrylic paintings, murals, ceramics, and more (many reasons to return.)
More Churches in Guanajuato
I stopped at the red-painted Church of San Francisco with a beautiful stone entrance and carved wooden doors. It’s a former Franciscan convent built between 1792-1828. Rather plain on the interior, as you might expect.
Then I returned to a few shops to buy items I’d seen earlier. I also went into a boutique hotel, Casa del Rector, with some welcoming artistic flair. The hotel looked small from the street but was surprisingly large inside. I liked how different stairways came off the central upper level, leading to individual rooms.
By late afternoon, my feet were tired, and I was ready to get a cab back to the bus station and return to San Miquel. Even though I looped around the central zone twice, I missed the Alley of the Kiss or Callejon del Beso. Legend of this narrow alley says that couples who kiss on the third step of the staircase will enjoy seven years of happiness together.
I explored six churches, four parks, and walked miles but missed much. I’d love to return.
I highly recommend a day trip to this city. In some ways, I think it is prettier than San Miquel de Allende, often called the prettiest city in the world! You decide.
Lodging for Overnight Stays
All Photos and Video Copyright Debi Lander, Bylandersea.