I’m finally wrapping up my series of photographs from our trip to Mexico back in late May (it’s been fun, right?) with our final destination, the city of Guanajuato, located in central Mexico. Now, if you remember in my post about San Miguel de Allende, I wrote that for the fourth year in a row, Travel + Leisure magazine chose San Miguel de Allende as the 2019 top city travel destination in Mexico. Moreover, in the magazine’s “World’s Best” rankings, which are chosen by surveys of over 17,000 Travel + Leisure readers, San Miguel placed second in the 2019 World’s Best Cities section after having won World’s Best City in 2017 and 2018!
So, when my daughter and I made our way via Uber from SMdA to Guanajuato, I figured we’d seen the best city Mexico had to offer. Well, we were wrong. So wrong. Maybe the folks at Travel + Leisure and their readers never bothered visiting Guanajuato because if they did, they’d probably agree that it is the loveliest and most charming city in Mexico. Well, the loveliest city we visited at least, and one of the most charming cities I’ve ever visited (and I’ve been to some really good ones).
Wow. What a city. San Miguel de Allende (as nice as it was) wasn’t even in the same ballpark as Guanajuato – and I only saw a small portion of the city (all the while fighting a serious case of Montezuma’s Revenge!). Like San Miguel de Allende, the historic center of Guanajuato is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town’s fine Baroque and neoclassical buildings, resulting from the prosperity of its rich mining history, have influenced buildings throughout central Mexico. This is a truly magical city, wish I had stayed a few days more. Next time.
The city of Guanajuato dates back to the Pre-Hispanic period where it was inhabited by indigenous people – first the Otomi, who were then displaced by the Chichimeca. The oldest known name for the area is “Mo-o-ti,” which means “place of metals.” The Aztecs had a presence here, specifically to look for metals to make ornamental objects for their political and religious elite. Some stories from this time state that the area was so rich in minerals that nuggets of gold could be picked up from the ground.
The Spaniards arrived in the region in 1522, led by Cristóbal de Olid, and began establishing villas and ranches in the city. In 1529, Spanish explorer Nuño Beltran de Guzmán led a force of 300 Spanish soldiers and a native army of more than 10,000 into the area. Countless indigenous natives were killed and many communities in the region destroyed.
In 1552 Captain Juan de Jaso discovered the mining veins of the present-day city of Guanajuato with the Valenciana silver mine located near the City becoming one of the richest silver finds in all history. In the 18th century this mine alone accounted for 60% of the world’s total silver production making Guanajuato the richest city in Mexico for much of the early colonial period. The present-day city of Guanajuato was established in 1679.
By the end of the 18th century, however, the lower classes were poor and oppressed despite the great wealth coming out of the mines. Revolts protesting the high taxes foreshadowed the Mexican War of Independence, which broke out in the state of Guanajuato in the town of Dolores, when Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla shouted the “Grito de Dolores” and raised an insurgent army on September 15 and 16, 1810.
After Independence, power in the city and state changed hands between Liberals and Conservatives during much of the 19th century, taking its toll on mining and causing considerable economic and social hardships for the state’s citizens. In 1863, the French took the city during the French Intervention in Mexico, receiving a visit from the installed Emperor Maximiliano I and his wife, Carlota. Maximiliano was assassinated on June 19, 1867, when the liberal government of Benito Juárez regained the leadership of the country.
Political turmoil and power exchanges continued for over a decade, ending with the establishment of the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (Institutional Revolutionary Party), which ushered in a period of stability for Mexico City and the rest of the country. In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), designed to encourage trade among the United States, Canada and Mexico by eliminating tariffs and lifting many restrictions on various categories of trade goods, went into effect. As a result, industry, trade and tourism flourished in Guanajuato.
Guanajuato is currently the fastest growing state for manufacturing in Mexico. The state’s economy has long benefited from its silver mines, which are among the richest in the world. The state also leads the nation in the manufacture of shoes and the production of various farm products, such as lettuce, potatoes and fruits. As for how Guanajuato got it’s name, the indigenous tribes of the region made note of the numerous frogs in the area and referred to it as Quanax-juato – “Place of Frogs,” the sound of which the Spanish would translate to “Guanajuato.”
Of the 23 churches or religious buildings in the relatively small area of central Guanajuato, the Basílica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato, which strategically sits at the top of a hill, is both the most visually striking and historically important. The construction of the Cathedral began in 1671 and was completed 25 years later, sponsored by miners in the area. It was upgraded to a Basílica in 1957.
The Monumento a la Paz (Monument to Peace) in the center of the Plaza de la Paz was constructed during the end of Mexican War of Independence and was inaugurated by president Porfirio Diaz in 1903. The main statue is cast out of bronze and the base is carved from white marble. The whole piece was designed by Mexican artist Jesús Contreras.
On the north side of the Basílica, a statue of Pope John Paul II commemorates the January 26, 1979 visit to the Basilica of Pope John Paul II.
The cathedral is the centerpiece of the Plaza de la Paz in the heart of the city. The cathedral also houses a wooden image of the Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato that is thought be the oldest piece of Christian art in Mexico (more on that later).
The Plaza de la Paz (Plaza of Peace) is located in the heart of the historic center of Guanajuato. During the era of Spanish rule, the Plaza de la Paz (then called Plaza Mayor) was a center for government bureaus and state legislators. After Mexican independence, the buildings were occupied by nobles and the wealthy of Guanajuato. Wonderful examples of 18th century colonial architecture line the Plaza with the lower levels converted into restaurants, cafes and shops.
Just walking the streets of this lovely city was a treat. The images pretty much speak for themselves…
The University of Guanajuato, which traces its history back to 1732, is made up of over 33,000 students in programs ranging from high school level to the doctorate level.
The Teatro Juarez is one of the most architecturally stunning buildings in Guanajuato. The initial construction of the Teatro Juarez was started in 1872 based upon the design by architect José Noriega and was inaugurated on October 27, 1903 by President Porfirio Diaz. The design was inspired by stories of ancient Rome and Greece; the rows of steps which lead up to the grand entrance with the 12 stately pillars closely resembles the Pantheon of Rome. Since 1972 the Juarez Theater has been the focal point for the International Cervantino Festival, the most important artistic and cultural event in Mexico and in all Latin America.
On the street, musicians perform in front of the Iglesia de San Diego (Church of Saint Diego), which dates back to 1663.
Outside the theater, amidst the street musicians, stands a replica of “La Giganta” by acclaimed controversial Mexican sculptor José Luis Cuevas. Cuevas’ work often depicted distorted figures and the debasement of humanity.
Nearby, a street performer entertains the crowd…
Walking back to the Plaza, we came across another street performer.
Tucked away behind the Plaza de Los Angeles, one alley stands out among all the rest both for the tragic romance that is said to have taken place there. El Callejon del Beso (Alley of the Kiss) is by far the narrowest alley in Guanajuato. This historic area existed since the 18th century and is still the most popular street of the city. The 27 inches wide alley and uniquely joined balconies are just the right distance for a kiss. But what about the tragic romance? Read on…
The background to the Callejon del Beso street is based on the true tragic tale of young lovers Ana and Carlos. Ana, who was from a wealthy mining family, fell in love with Carlos, a poor miner from “the wrong side of the tracks”. Carlos rented a room in the building across from where Ana lived, with a window that was directly across from her own. The two young lovers were caught kissing by Ana’s father at the narrow space between the two balconies. The angry father warned Ana that if she ever saw Carlos again he would kill her. The next night the father caught the two lovers kissing again and he stabbed his daughter to death(!). Legend also has it that to save Ana, Carlos jumped from the balcony and fell on the third stair and also died. Their tragic love forever changed the identity of the alley.
Since then, when two lovers pass through the Callejon del Beso, they must kiss on the third step in order for their love to last forever. Wishful thinking, yes?
The city of Guanajuato just comes alive at night. Streets are bustling with people and street vendors and there’s this weird “happy energy” in the air. You need to go for yourselves – you’ll see what I mean…
Back at the Basílica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato, we came across a SRO crowd so I popped in for a look…
Our Lady of Guanajuato is a sculpture of polychrome and stewed cedar wood that is thought be the oldest piece of Christian art in Mexico. Carved in Andalusia by an anonymous artist, its history goes back to the conquest of Spain by the Arabs. In 714, when the Arabs took Granada, Granada-born Catholics, afraid that the invaders would destroy their sacred Virgin, hid it in a humid underground cave, where it remained hidden for eight centuries(!). It was rediscovered in the mid-16th century and handed over to Emperor Carlos I, but as he abdicated, it was his son Felipe II who gave it to Guanajuato in 1557 as a token of gratitude for the wealth it provided to the crown.
Let me make this one thing unreservedly clear. San Miguel de Allende may get all the good press (and it’s a really, really nice place to visit) but it’s the city of Guanajuato that has a magical charm we didn’t get in any other city in Mexico. I mean, I was still fighting a days-old battle with Montezuma’s Revenge that I picked up in SMdA when I arrived in Guanajuato. I couldn’t eat much; some bread, the occasional banana. I was heading to the bathroom on an hourly basis. I was pretty weak, could barely carry my camera bag. But when I walked out of my hotel and into the streets of this enchanting city – it just reinvigorated me. It’s THAT kind of place. Put it on your Bucket List. Do it now. You can thank me afterwards. Nuff said.
Where did we stay in Guanajuato?
We stood at La Casona de Don Lucas, a boutique hotel located right in the center of the historic Center of Guanajuato (you can walk to just about everything). The room we had was spacious but we were in a lower level room that had a weird “wet basement” smell at times. I wasn’t able to eat much so I can’t vouch for the breakfast (which was included) but the hotel staff were very friendly and accommodating.
How did we get back to Mexico City from Guanajuato?
We took the Primera Plus bus line. It was about a four hour ride but the seats were spacious and comfortable (with leg rests), AC, TV screen with movies (in Spanish) and games, and they give you a little snack bag with a sandwich and chips. Two bathrooms on board (Lord knows I needed that) and wifi (spotty at times but good enough). You can buy tickets online but you’ll need to print out your boarding passes beforehand or you’ll have to show up about 40 minutes before your bus leaves. We printed ours at the hotel and arrived about 10 minutes before departure. Luggage not an issue as they load all bags (except small carry-ons) in a side compartment before getting on the bus. Well worth the $30 ticket price we paid.