Vatsal is a techie and a coffee junkie. Most often he’s caught watching a film with Guinness for company. Preeti loves everything about the mountains. She always has her head buried in a book sipping tea.
We both love traveling and watching films so we decided to document some of it. Hope you enjoy reading as much as we’ve enjoyed traveling and writing about them 🙂
Guanajuato is a small city full of colorful houses surrounded by lush green mountains. Even though Guanajuato is a UNESCO heritage site, it is not as popular with the tourists as the neighbouring town of San Miguel De Allende which also has a big Ameican and Canadian retiree community. Guanajuato attracts mostly Mexican tourists as this was the place where the first victory of the Independence War was won. In that sense, it is an authentic interior in Mexico giving a peek into its culture and its people.
We had an amazing drive up to Guanajuato from Mexico City. We hitched a ride via blablacar with two Mexican students. It was a little more than four hours drive but we were so busy chatting away with them that it didn’t feel that long. We also practised with them how to pronounce the name of the town we were visiting with no success so we shortened the name and called it just ‘Guan’. But we didn’t give up and by the end of the trip, we could pronounce it just like the Mexicans. If it interests you, gwah-nah-hwah-toh is how it’s pronounced. Now say all of that together and loud 🙂
Guanajuato is a student town which means even though it is small there is a lot going on. It’s busy and has a youthful energy. The prices here are set for Mexicans rather than tourists and for once we feel the retruns of the currency. Well, its not cheaper than India but definitely cheaper than the UK 🙂
Guanajuato’s streets are narrow meandering corridors with steep stairs winding up to the mountains punctuated with colorful houses, bougainvillea and Indian laurel. This city has to be explored on foot taking a turn every now and then to see what is hidden in the lanes. All the plazas lead to two or three different lanes, taking a turn here and there, it’s easy to land at the same plaza again. The fun is in getting lost and discovering some incredible graffiti, cacti garden or colorful abandoned houses. Wandering through the alleys and discovering a new shade of some pretty color, admiring opulent colonial structures and ancient fountains, taking a break under the shade of manicured trees, houses with electric wires dangling across the facade, stopping by a food cart every now and then makes the city a splendid break from the hectic pace of Mexico City.
The houses built on the hillsides are a riot of colors – deep purple, ochre, and golden yellow spread out in a haphazard way. It has a peculiar resemblance to some of the European villages like in the South of France, not picture perfect like them but beautiful and rustic in a strange and real way. The city does not have one main square or plaza which can be called the centre of the town or where most people congregate. The biggest plaza here is the triangular Plaza La Paz with the Basilica, the most famous structure in the city. The crowd, the street performers, and the mariachi bands move around from one plaza to the next making the entire city lively and festive.
Guanajuato’s most famous resident was the great muralist, Diego Riviera, and his home is now a museum. His works can be seen in a few places in Mexico City as well. His beautiful blue house in Mexico City which he shared with his wife, Frieda Kahlo is also a museum.
The most remarkable feature of Guanajuato is its tunnels. The city was built over the river which flowed through the tunnels. When a dam was constructed the tunnels were left obsolete. They were then paved with cobblestone and lit for cars. Today most of the city is pedestrian and the traffic is diverted to the tunnels beneath the city.
Guanajuato is alive till wee hours with many private parties on the rooftops. We were invited to a private party by our Airbnb host, Marcelo. It was a birthday celebration of Marcelo’s friend which went on till late into the night. We woke up early next morning to sunbeams filtering through the window, the chirping of birds and whiff of fresh bread from the bakery downstairs. We rose up, put on a sweatshirt and off we were to explore the empty streets of this pretty town. It was eerily quiet and devoid of life, a little walk further down the plaza the scene was very different from last evening. Buzzing with early morning preparation filled with fruit and vegetable carts, locals shopping at fresh bread carts, a milkman carrying a large container going for deliveries, breakfast stalls, newspaper stands and men and women dressed in running gear running through the narrow streets. After a while, we realized we’d accidentally bumped into the marathon runners. We made our way to the finishing line at the Juarez Theatre and joined in cheering for the runners. We then had some Tamale from a street stand sitting on one of the many benches under the trees. It was so good, we ended up taking two more helpings and washed it down with some incredible coffee from Cafe Tal.
WHAT TO SEE IN GUANAJUATO?
Just walking around in Guanajuato and soaking up the atmosphere is a good way to spend your time here. But if you also want to visit some of the attractions then here is a list of some of the things the city has to offer.
The mummies of Guanajuato are world famous which makes it the top attraction here. There are about hundred bodies on display here including infants, a woman in childbirth and the youngest mummy in the world an eight-month-old foetus. We decided not to go inside since we were not comfortable with the idea of looking at dead people. And from the pictures that I had seen online, some of the mummies with their mouth open looked in terrible pain at the time of the death. The bodies unlike the Egyptian mummies were not wrapped for the mummification but were discovered when the cemetery was exhumed in the 19th century. Until 1958, the law required relatives of the deceased to pay a burial tax, failing which the bodies were exhumed after three years.The bodies did not decompose due the dry conditions of the soil and the minerals in it. All these bodies were put on display what is today know as The Museo De Las Momias.
Owing to its popularity there are long queues. If it appeals to you, it’s one of the must visit museums in the world. And if you’d like to step up your experience, you can buy the sugar effigies of dried human as a souvenir just outside the museum. We do not have any pictures but if you’re interested you could watch the opening sequence of Werner Herzog’s film, Nosferatu the Vampyre which includes a few shots of these mummies.
The entrance costs $50.00 pesos and the museum is open from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm daily. There are other museums one can visit too like the Diego Riviera Museum and the Fine Art Museum.
This is an impressive building with a mix of Roman and Greek architecture. It stands apart in the city due to its European architecture. The pillars are impressive and the Greek statues on the top make it look majestic especially at night against the clear dark blue skies. The red and gold interior makes it look magnificent. Unfortunately, there weren’t any performances on the two days we were in Guanajuato, but it’s worth your time just to go inside for a quick look. The steps outside the theatre looking at the Jardin De Union is a great spot to relax, watch some street performance or just watch people go by.
Mercado Hidalgo is a huge covered market with food stalls, vegetable stalls, meat stalls, spices stalls and an upper floor with shops selling clothing and souvenirs. There are hawkers with their little temporary stalls outside the market as well. It’s bursting with life and mostly a place where locals come to eat. In the back of the market, there are vegetable and fruit sellers with their tiny stalls on the ground.
A clock tower which can be seen over he market’s steel top is designed by the famous artist Alexandre Gustave Eiffel. The market was originally constructed as a railway station but the plan fell through and was eventually inaugurated as a market and named after the revolutionary hero Hidalgo.
It’s a must visit, we enjoyed walking down the market and sampling exotic food like chillies stuffed with meat and seafood cocktail (yea a real cocktail like virgin blood mary with prawns and squids) from the hawkers and the stalls. I bought an avocado, my favourite fruit from a fruit seller and it was one of the creamiest I’ve had. It is a big part of the mexican cuisine, almost every meal is served with slices of freshly cut avocados. The place is a food haven and a must visit.
Jardin De La Union
This is the main square in the heart of the city. It is lined with bars and restaurant on two sides and opens up onto the street. It has a beautiful atmosphere in the evenings with mariachi bands playing Spanish songs. They go around tables in different restaurants and pay a song for you for a small tip. The square is beautiful in the day as well, buy some delicious street food and relax on the benches under the shade of well-manicured trees.
Alley of Kiss
This is the narrowest alley in Guanajuato and has a Mexican Romeo Juliet story about two lovers, Don and Dona associated with it. Dona’s father forbade them from meeting each other. The balcony of Dona’s room was so close to the balcony opposite and Don found a way to get access to the other balcony. That’s where they would meet. One day when they were kissing standing on the balcony, the girl’s father caught them in the act and stabbed his daughter.
So it is said that if lovers kiss under the balcony then they find happiness with each other for seven years. It is a very busy spot, we had to wait for our turn. We requested a gentleman to take a picture of us wishing for happiness under the balcony 🙂
Due to an accident in 2015, the funicular was closed for the last couple of months so we missed riding in it. There are two carriages, one to take you up to the El Papilia Statue from where you can see the spectacular view of the Guanajuato City. There are many shops and food stands so you can sit around and enjoy the view. The entrance of the Funicular is from behind the Juarez Theatre and behind El Papilia Statue. You could take the funicular back or walk it. The entrance of the Funicular is from behind the Juarez Theatre and behind El Papilia Statue.
Monumento El Pipilia
The statue of El Pipilia stands right on top of the hill overlooking the entire historic centre of Guanajuato. There is a viewing platform a few steps down from the statue where you can sit and soak in the views. We went there just an hour before the sunset. The hills opposite the statue are bathed in golden sunlight and could see the bright colored houses turns into dark dull colors as the sunlight decreased.
We walked up to the hill and enjoyed the walk even though it’s steep and tiring. The path is well marked out and is quite busy with tourists walking up and down. If you want to avoid the hike then you can take a taxi as well.
El Paplia was born with a walking disability and was given the nickname El Pipilia which translates into ‘the turkey’ . He was the hero of the first victory of the Indepence war in Mexico. His bravery encouraged other to join in and eventually drive out the Spaniards. Legend has it that he stormed the door of the granary where the Spaniards were with a huge rock attached to his back and lit the wooden door with the tar and fire he was carrying.
Basilica of Guanajuato
There are many churches in this small town but Basilica is the most striking and important of them all. It’s a beautiful Baroque style architecture in the Plaza De La Paz and stands out in the skyline of the town. We went here in the early morning and attended the service for a short while. The interior is stunning and has the jewel covered image of the Virgin which is brought out once a year in celebration of its arrival in the Basilica. It is beautifully lit at night and makes for a stunning view.
The coffee in this cafe is so good that it deserves to be an attraction in its own right 🙂 It’s a small cafe with only three tables but serves the best coffee we’ve ever had. Whether you are a coffee junkie or not, you have to have the coffee here. After an early morning walk exploring the empty streets of the town, we went to Tal cafe which was about a minute’s walk from our Airbnb apartment and enjoyed the best coffee. We also met some other travellers and exchanged our notes on Mexico and Cuba 🙂
The other two attractions which are a little outside the city are the Valencia mine and the Christ Rey Statue. You can hire a taxi to take you to these places. Guanajuato was the leading producer of silver in the world. Valencia located in the village of Valencia is one of the many mines in that region and was once the richest silver producing mine in the world. The mine is no longer operational but a part of it is open to public for tours. The stunning colonial architecture in the city is a result of the wealth from the silver mines.
Beer – the universal language
On the first night, I crashed early but Vatsal went out for a drink, he ended up in La Cubana Catina, bang opposite to our Airbnb apartment. A small bar dark and filled with smoke, with an open outlet for water running under the bar stools. This was a place for only serious drinkers, an intimate space where everyone knew each other. Vatsal was the only stranger but he quickly became a back slapping buddy. Not knowing any Spanish didn’t prove to be much hindrance as action,gestures and a bit of google translate did the talking- enough to keep them going for a few hours and buy each other drinks. More than the sights, it is experiences like these which make traveling all worth it.
The closest airport is the Aeropuerto Internacional del Bajío, which is about 40km west of the city, halfway between Léon and Silao. There aren’t any bus services from the airport so you must hire a taxi.
From Mexico city, taking the road is a good option. The highway is well maintained passing through arid landscapes. It’s easy to rent a car and drive. The other option is to take a bus, there are two bus services ETN and Primer Plus, both take about 5 hours and cost around 450 -550MXN$. The bus drops you at the outskirt of the city from where you can take a local bus or a short 20-minute taxi ride through the tunnels to the historic centre of Guanajuato.
Afternoons are hot but evenings become much cooler, sometimes even chilly. Some light winter wear and a good pair of walking shoes are essential. Guanajuato is a well-developed city and has ample of ATM/bank facilities and convenience stores for all your needs.
So whether you want to just sit in one of the cafes in Jardin du Union and listen to the mariachi bands, get lost in the alleys, watch a performance in the Juarez theatre or hike up to El Piplia, Guanajuato will not disappoint. Allow yourself to immerse in the cultural and social offering or the temperate climate. If nothing else, the colors and the food will satiate you.
Have we managed to put Guanajuato on your bucket list?