Guanajuato: Hillsides and tunnels

With five days between house sits in San Miguel de Allende, we headed to Guanajuato, about 1 1/2 hours away by bus. We booked four nights in an AirBnB just off of Plaza San Fernando, one of two main plazas in the city.

Guanajuato is built up into the hills on two sides of a valley. To handle increasing traffic, flood diversion tunnels were reworked in the 1960s (and added to in the 1990s), to take cars, buses, and even pedestrians (if you want to brave the fumes) under the city. As you wander along the city streets, tunnel openings appear out of nowhere and stairways head down below ground.

The geography of the city also put our calves to the test as we climbed and descended the streets and alleys of the centro historico, many of which are too narrow for vehicles.

The alley to our AirBnB

We arrived on the final day of the Festival Internacional Cervantino, an arts festival that takes over the city in October every year. We wanted to come to Guanajuato for the last couple of days of the festival but were too late to find accommodation. Still, there were banners, bleachers and stages set up throughout the city, and even Canadian flags to welcome this year’s festival guest country of honour. The closing concert was held outdoors near where we were staying on the evening that we arrived. We walked over about two hours ahead as our Uber driver had suggested, and people were lined up all the way around the blocky Alhóndiga de Granaditas, the historic grain exchange (now a regional museum). Bleachers and a stage were set up on the downhill side of this building.

We kept on walking as we needed sustenance and returned once the concert, complete with the Acapulco Philharmonic Orchestra and Javier Camarena (Mexican tenor), was in full swing. We managed to squeeze our way down one of the overflowing side streets and catch a glimpse of the stage and screens above it. Onlookers were clearly enjoying themselves as they joined Javiera to belt out familiar Mexican tunes.

Every “things to do” post we read recommended that the first day in Guanajuato should be dedicated to a walking exploration. The majority of top things to see are within the historic central area and can be reached on foot. We used the self-guided tour suggested by Gourmet Globetrotter to get us started. We began at the top of their list and then plugged subsequent target sites into Google Maps, changing direction and stopping when we felt like it. In between sites are colourful buildings and winding lanes, and it’s fun to follow your nose in and out of them. Restaurants, coffee shops, and cantinas are plentiful in the area, so if you get hungry or tired there is almost always someplace close by where you can rest and refresh. (Since we went back through the same areas several times in our meanderings, the photos below include both night and day images.)

A trip up the funicular (30 MXN per person, one way, or about $2 CAD) is a great way to view the city in all its splendid colour.

While at the top, you can visit El Pepila, the statue of a miner and hero of the Mexican War of Independence (who is said to have single-handedly gained access to the Alhóndiga de Granaditas where Spanish soldiers were holed up), a landmark that can be seen clearly from everywhere down below.

If you walk back down the hill, you will reach Callejon del Beso (Alley of the Kiss), where throngs go to have their photo taken while stealing a kiss, but hopefully not to act out the rest of the tragic legend that surrounds this alley and its balconies, which are only about 27 inches apart. Of course, there is a photographer there to offer his assistance for a fee and apparently, if you really want the full experience, you can pay to go up onto the balconies to smooch.

The imposing Mercado Hidalgo has a pretty facade but an airplane-hangaresque structure (if airplane hangars were built in a T shape). It was originally envisioned as a train station, and its clock tower was designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (of tower fame). Instead, it was turned into a market when it was officially opened in 1910 and has remained a market since then.

Its stalls are filled with produce, meat, clothing, household items and bric-a-brac, with food stalls in the center offering inexpensive and delicious meals, sweets, and drinks. We had a great seafood meal at Mariscos Panchos–probably the best fried fish ever and a lovely ceviche.

The mezzanine floor and stairs to it are fenced with iron, and the day we were there a large portion of the railings were getting a facelift. It was funny to see men in high-vis vests, hardhats, and masks, sitting, kneeling, or standing, almost shoulder to shoulder up one side and down another, scraping and scrubbing the old paint off the railings. Not as funny were the fumes from the solvents they were using–at least they wore masks.

A short walk from our AirBnB was the Casa Museo Diego, the birth home of Diego Rivera, fairly recently restored and turned into a museum. This sounds like it would be a quaint little museum but the space is much more than the original home. It appears that one or two additional buildings on the block were purchased and renovated into modern airy art spaces showing some of Rivera’s works as well as temporary exhibits.

Guanajuato is historically a mining town. Just outside of the city you can visit a silver mine, though this proved a little more challenging than we first thought. Blog posts spoke of Mina Valencia (or Valencia Mine). One said that it was also known as Mina Cayatano. Our Uber driver tried to drop us by a sign that said Mina Romano, but when we asked if this was Cayatano he drove a little more and then dropped us by the Templo Valenciana (or San Cayatano), another site that is supposed to be in the same area as Mina Valencia. We checked out the church while trying to sort out where to find the mine.

Google Maps didn’t help us at all, guiding us to make a turn right after a dulceria (sweet shop), where there was only building to turn into. Finally, we gave up and walked back up the road to check out the San Ramon mine where the driver had originally stopped. It did offer us a little insight into the mining industry, with a few exhibits, a talk in Spanish, and a walk down many stairs into the first level of what was once a silver mine, probably not much different from the other mine’s offerings.

We never did find Mina Valencia, though we know it exists because others have written about it and provided photographic evidence.

One of the stranger sites just outside of town is Museo De Momias Viajeras (Museum of the Traveling Mummies). In 1870, a tax was instituted requiring payment from relatives to keep their loved ones’ bodies interred. If the tax wasn’t paid, the bodies were exhumed and stored above ground in a warehouse. In the late 1800s or early 1900s, people began paying to see the mummified remains. The building was turned into a museum in the 1960s.

Because we were in Guanajuato just before Dios de Muertos (November 1 and 2) and Halloween (far less important, but still celebrated in many areas), a pop-up market for both of these celebrations was in full swing in Parque Reforma. So, instead of seeing a fountain and relaxing park area, we saw only tents exploding with costumes, treats, and decorations.


Guanajuato is an easy city to explore on foot (with the exception of a few places outside of town). Three days felt like the right amount of time to spend in this colourful, hillside town.


TripBits

  • Bus from San Miguel de Allende to Guanajuato: We used Primera Plus and paid 560 MXN ($39 CAD) for return tickets for both of us for the 1 1/2 hour trip each way.
  • Helpful blog posts for Guanajuato: Gourmet Globetrotter, Goats on the Road, Feather and the Wind, and Roaming Around the World.
  • Casa Diego Rivera entry fee: 25 MXN each ($1.70 CAD)
  • San Ramon entry fee: 45 MXN each ($3.10 CAD)
  • Museo De Momias Viajeras entry fee: 85 MXN each ($5.85 CAD) + 30 ($2.05) for a photo pass.

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