Journey Jotters

Bitten by the travel bug

Guanajuato was the last stop on our week long tour of Mexico. After leaving San Miguel de Allende, Uriel drove us to Guanajuato. Our first stop was at the Museo de las Momias which I have described in this post.

Guanajuato City

Guanajuato lies in a valley surrounded by mountains that the Purepecha tribe thought resembled frogs. So they called it Cuanaxhuato (mountain place of frogs). A beautiful colonial city in the central Mexican highlands, it is multifaceted. From food, culture, history, art, and architecture to religion and economy, Guanajuato embraces it all. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988.

Originally settled by the conquering Spanish, in 1529, as ranch land for raising livestock, the area became well known for silver and other mineral deposits that were found in 1548. The silver mines became the mainstay of the local economy, with the city eventually becoming the leader in silver extraction in the 18th century. Its believed that at one point, one of the mines in the area was able to produce 20% of the world’s silver while the state of Guanajuato was responsible for about 50 to 60% of the production.

Guanajuato is also famous for being the birthplace of Mexican independence from the Spanish. It was in Dolores, Guanajuato, in 1810, that priest Miguel Hidalgo raised the cry of freedom and rallied the rebels to fight against Spain. Killed a year later by the Spanish, his head was displayed at the Alhondiga de Granaditas building in Guanajuato. In 1810, during the first battle of Mexican Independence, a miner from the city strapped on a stone slab to his back and walked backward to the Alhondiga (to protect himself from Spanish gunfire) that was housing Spanish troops and burned down the wooden door of the Alhondiga, resulting in a quick victory of the revolutionaries over the Spanish troops. For his heroic efforts, Juan Jose de Los Reyes Martinez was honored with a bronze statue called El Pipila at the top of the hill. It’s a great site to get an excellent view of Guanajuato.

El Pipila statue

Guanajuato was economically well-appointed due to the silver mining industry. This meant that locals invested in splendid mansions, churches, theaters, in art and architecture, in building plazas and plazuelas. Guanajuato is a wonderful city to walk in, provided one has the time. Cobblestoned streets and alleys, wrought iron works on balconies and building facades, brightly painted home fronts and shady plazas with fountains form a big part of the city.

Religion in the form of Christianity made its way into the city. Large churches, like the Basilica colegiata de Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato, dominate the landscape with its Baroque architecture, its flamboyant colors, and its large bell towers with ornate facades. It’s hard to miss the ochre and red colors of the Basilica in any photo of Guanajuato. Similarly, other churches like the Temple of San Diego, La Compagnia are well known for their Churrigueresque style of architecture.

Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato

In 1953, a college professor named Enrique Ruelas hosted the first festival as a series of short plays, in honor of the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. The popularity of this annual event meant that it was adopted by the government and since 1972, it has developed into El Cervantino or the International Cervantes Festival. Typically held in fall, the event has become one of the most important cultural and artistic festivals in all of Mexico and Latin America. The professor belonged to the University of Guanajuato, founded originally by Jesuit priests and a well-known landmark in the area.

Monument to Miguel de Cervantes

Having read the history, we knew there was a lot to cover on that Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, it seemed everyone else in the area had the same idea. The roads were congested with traffic. Leaving the museum, we headed towards the historic center of the city. We passed Plaza Allende where there are statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Nearby is the Teatro Cervantes. As I mentioned before, the city comes alive during the Cervantino festival with many cultural activities, dance, music, and art.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, tilting at windmills

Uriel drove us to the Presa de la Olla, a small dam with a lake on the outskirts of the city. It is surrounded by a large park with many trees and a statue of Miguel Hidalgo at one end. The area had small cafes, street food vendors, and the paseo was filled with locals enjoying a day out in the sun. Many others were on the lake in small boats. Uriel gave us a quick tour of the place before launching into a summary of the revolution sparked by Hidalgo and his compatriots.

Miguel Hidalgo statue at the Paseo de la olla
Lake formed by the Presa de la Olla

After enjoying the lake and its environs, we made our way to the center of the city. One of the other iconic aspects of Guanajuato is its subterranean network of tunnels. Guanajuato was often flooded during the wet season by the Guanajuato River which wound its way through the heart of the city. To prevent recurrent flooding, architects blasted a network of subterranean tunnels that could divert the river waters and thus, protect the city. Today, these same tunnels are used to regulate traffic movement into and out of the city.

Subterranean tunnels

While it was interesting to drive through the tunnels, we were also getting hungry, and the traffic was slowing down our progress. Uriel had to drive across several areas before he could find a place to park. Since the kids wanted out of the car, he dropped us off near the Teatro Principal, the old theater. It served as a cinema theater, was closed down after a fire and has now been renovated and is used for cultural events, including the Cervantino festival.

We took in the everyday beauty of Guanajuato with its outdoor cafes, cobblestoned streets, intricate architectural designs on homes, winding alleyways, and beckoning fountains in plazas. We stopped to admire the elaborate facade work on the Iglesia de la Compania.

Plaza in Guanajuato

By now, Uriel had joined us and we went to see the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato. One cannot but be awed by its fiery colors, its adornment as well as its imposing structure. Located in the Plaza de la Paz, the main square of Guanajuato, the basilica is dedicated to the lady of Guanajuato, considered to be the patron and protector of the city. On the day of our visit, the streets around the basilica were filled with a deluge of humankind. It was fun to walk among the throngs of people, while trying to admire some architectural detail or explore a Rivera-Kahlo mannequin. Guanajuato is the hometown of the famous muralist Diego Rivera and there is even a museum in his name here.

Impressive interior of the Basilica

From here, we walked to our next stop the Jardin de la Union, a triangular-shaped park amid a busy Guanajuato center. The park is a magnet for people of all ages. Shady trees, wrought iron benches, kiosks, and cobblestone pathways make this a wonderful respite from all the busy, touristy things to do in this city. All around are many restaurants and cafes. Across the street was the Templo de San Diego, the first monastery built by the Fransiscan order. Once spread over a wider area, the church was damaged by floods in the 18th century and had to be rebuilt. Then during the political changes of the 19th century, parts of the church were taken over and converted into a hotel and now into the Teatro Juarez. Three of the original five chapels remain. The outer facade of the building is made of so many elaborate carvings and sculptures, its almost entirely too much for the eye to see and the mind to grasp. But beautiful, nonetheless!

Templo de San Diego outer facade and entrance

Next to the chapel is the famous Teatro Juarez, the central venue for all things artistic and cultural. Concerts, performances, movie screenings, everything happens here. Adjoining the Teatro Juarez is a small alleyway that leads to the entrance to the funicular. The funicular is a quick ride to the top of the hill where the Monumento al Pipila is situated (story above). There are side streets that lead to the monument and the overlook. But we decided to ride to the top and walk back down. There was a long line for the funicular but we waited patiently. Eventually, we got the tickets and waited again to board the funicular. Moments such as these where mindless waiting is involved is also a good time to sit and people watch. And that’s exactly what we did!

Teatro Juarez

Once on the hill, we enjoyed the amazing panorama of Guanajuato that lay before us. The cool breeze made it even better. We thought about the magic and the mystery that is Mexico. We had only a few more hours left before flying back home and wanted to make the most of it.

On our way down, we took the steps and this was such a great opportunity to enjoy the murals on the walls, the narrow winding paths, walking past brightly painted homes. For a moment, I was transported to Greece or Portugal or one of many faraway places, where we had seen similar streets enhanced by local art.

Steps down from the hill
Vibrant murals accompanied us down the steps

Back at the Jardin, we met Uriel again. He had stayed back to make reservations for us at the elegant Casa Valadez restaurant. We sat on the benches watching the Callejoneada students recruit people for their performance later that evening. This is another unique aspect of Guanajuato culture. The Callejoneada is a show lead by a group of performers wearing 14th and 15th-century Spanish clothing, who take their audience on a musical walking tour of the alleys of Guanajuato. They sing, make jokes, play instruments, dance, and engage their audience while walking through historic sites.

Eventually, it was our turn at the Casa Valadez. The ambiance inside was great. The restaurant was packed to the rafters. The staff worked hard to keep the patrons happy. We enjoyed some margaritas, their breads and a fine salad with pasta, The salad was tasty but the pasta lacked flavor. Uriel cajoled one of the waiters to get us a small plate of mole sauce. It was one of the many authentic dishes I wanted to taste in Mexico and it did not disappoint! The restaurant Facebook page states they have closed permanently at this time of lockdown. That is sad, indeed!

Mole sauce at the Casa Valadez

After dinner, Uriel took us to enjoy some time in the local plazas. Then we walked to the Callejon del Beso or the Alley of the Kiss. This is a narrow alleyway where two buildings across the street are built just 68 cm apart. Legend has it that two star-crossed lovers lived in each of those buildings. They met and shared a kiss often across the balconies of their buildings. The girl’s father was irate upon this discovery and in his anger tried to kill the young man. Instead, the knife hit the young woman, his daughter, and she died. Her lover killed himself a few days later. Now its believed that lovers who stand on the 3rd stair and kiss each other across the street will live happily. Naturally, the alleyway was crowded with lovers waiting their turn to kiss across the alley and be photographed.

Callejon del Beso (see the lovers kiss at the top of the background)

Walking back to our car, we passed the Mercado Hidalgo, a large public market. Opened in 1910 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Independence struggle, and inspired by French train stations, the Mercado is made of pink Cantera stone facade with an inner structure built of iron. It is home to many regional candies and handicrafts stores and a busy shopping crowd.

Mercado Hidalgo

Walking towards the parking area, our thoughts were focused on the city of Guanajuato. Vivacious, colorful, multifaceted, elegant and earthy, Guanajuato has a little something for everyone. As we drove to Leon and our hotel for the night, we were sad to see the trip come to an end. As with Makis in Greece, we had formed a bond with Uriel and felt emotional bidding him goodbye. In the end, he had been the author of a safe and fun trip, one filled with many wonderful experiences to cherish for a lifetime. And so we said goodbye with our hearts full of gratitude and with hopes to see him again in the future.

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