Guanajuato City, Mexico (pop: 80,000)
I roam the streets taking in the sights and sounds. Most days the sky is a deep blue with the high desert plains providing a perfect temperature year round temperature. The knife sharpening man is here filling the streets with the sounds of a pied piper’s whistle and setting off a bark of a shaggy dog in guarding his rooftop. Within minutes there is a symphony of barks emanating from all the rooftops in the neighborhood. I continue to stroll through the streets trying to get to the El Pipila monument and enter the narrow, twisting alleys. I notice an arm waving at me at the end of an alley. It is pointing forward and then signaling to the left repeatedly until I realize what is happening…I am being given directions. That’s what I like about this place, people want to help out. The woman anticipated my confusion going down dead end alleys trying to reach Pipila and provided a helping hand (well arm). The same thing happened going to the Museo de las Momias by a man on a donkey. The city is has a dream-like quality, it set in a valley with houses draped across the surrounding hills in a startling and divine array of colors, the center is packed with churches, domes, colonial palaces, velvet clad mariachi bands and you can find many different types of live music on most nights. My favorite haunt was Cafe Zilch in the Jardin which has anything from bossa nova to Bach played by one of the bar owners Micheal, of the Guanajuato Symphony Orchestra. Everywhere you go whether it is exploring the carless alleyways looking at the enchanting houses with Escher like staircases leading to nowhere in particular or sitting in one of the many street cafes the feeling is the same – that of enchantment. And this is only above the ground…
Drop down the rabbit hole into the ancient and mysterious tunnels underneath the city and the fairy tale quality that is in the air in Guanajuato increases dramatically. The city was founded in 1557 as a silver mining town and is packed with baroque buildings plus the occasional surprise like the Dolores Mercado built by Gustave Eiffel. From any view the city painted in blues, yellows, pinks just brings a smile into your heart. Stray from the compact city center into the narrow alleys leading up the hills and you will find a wonderland of houses and twisting alleyways so narrow that the mind boggles on the mechanics of furniture removals. Donkeys are used for carrying goods up the alleys and men carry back breaking amounts of bricks on their backs up the steep cobble stoned streets. At all times of the day and night the streets are packed with people including the music students who grace the streets and bars in the evening playing live jazz or just plain old ranchero mariachi music. This is a city that does not even have to try hard to charm. There are no traffic lights in the streets as most of the traffic goes under the city into the ancient subterranean labyrinth constructed to channel the main riverbed. This continues to be expanded by blasting out the rock but this is less dramatic than in the 19th century when entire city floor with it’s streets, churches, houses had to be raised 20 feet. If you go to the Templo de San Diego you can see how this was done. Today some opportunistic locals hang out in the tunnels charging a small fee for the tourists who dare to drive into the city and subsequently spend hours lost in the tunnels.
The city is brimming over with legends and history. During the quest for independence against Spain Pipila a local silver miner crawled into the corn exchange with a paving slab on his back with fire burning to ambush the building for Dolores Hildago and his men to fight. Hildago and the three other leaders of the revolution – Hidalgo, Allende, Jiménez and Aldama were executed in 1811 and their decapitated heads were put on the four corners of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas in Guanajuato, intended as a way to intimidate the insurgents. These stayed on display until 1821, when Mexico finally won its independence.
Putting this bloody history behind everywhere you walk you will be reminded of the patron of the city, Miguel De Cervantes and his famous Don Quixote. During October the city hosts one of the biggest Latin American arts festivals, the Cervantino festival a fitting place seeing as this town was also the birthplace of Diego Rivera where his house is now one of the many museums in the city.
I came here to learn Spanish and was lucky enough to select La Escuela Mexicana owned by the adorable Hayde. This school blows the main competitors out of the water with many students leaving the other schools to come to this progressive school which is cheaper and has a quality of teaching second to none. I was there for three weeks and had many different teachers at this beautiful school set in an old, restored house right in the heart of down-town. The school has many students that return year after year and puts on lots of extracurricular activities like Salsa, hiking, trips to other towns like San Miguel or Dolores Hildago home of amazing ceramics.
GETTING THERE The closest airport is the Léon-Guanajuato International Airport (BJX); from there, either take a taxi (15 minutes). Don’t bring a car as you don’t need one – this is a walking city.
OTHER INFO New York Times Article