Guanajuato-the city that silver built


guanajuato-cityGuanajuato has been on my bucket list ever since a seat-mate on a plane told me about the beauty of this historic silver-mining town. In a place that once produced 20 percent of all the silver in the world, it’s not surprising to see sumptuous architecture, gilded churches, a plethora of theaters and museums–even several hundred years after the fact. And even when those silver mines had to share the bounty with a very greedy Spanish king.

Guanajuato doesn’t disappoint.

This extravagance of silver predictably produced obscene wealth for a few and abject misery for many–notably the slaves who went down into the mines and crawled back up with 150 pounds of rock on their backs.

The mines, which are mostly located in the hills above Guanajuato, have been inactive for a while, but lately I heard that a Canadian outfit is using new technology to extract the small veins of silver remaining in the rock. So the town is rocked by intermittent explosions, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes as late as 10pm. When I asked a local about this, he said something about how in colonial days Spain had simply helped itself to a huge percentage of the booty, while Canada is paying lots of taxes.

Me? I was just relieved not to be from the dastardly foreign power. For once.

The historic center of Guanajuato is tucked into a tight valley–a ravine, really–surrounded by mountains. The town is a maze of twisty callejones (alleys), some so close together that you could reach out and touch your neighbor from the upstairs balcony–as one young couple did, defying their parents with true Romeo and Juliet aplomb and incidentally christening the famous Callejone del Beso.  (Alley of the Kiss)

Not the callejone del beso, but a pretty narrow callejone, nonetheless.

Not the callejone del Beso, but a pretty narrow spot, nonetheless.

Houses are jumbled on top of each other on the hillsides, and traffic crawls through congested streets. (Do NOT try to drive here.)  A maze of tunnels runs underground to ease the congestion and incidentally creating another extreme sport–riding the bus across town through the tunnels, especially when the driver is having a bad day.

Houses jumbled on the hillside.

Houses jumbled on the hillside.

A map of the place is completely confusing. There isn’t a straight road in town; callejones twist into the hills; and the tunnels are unmarked. But after walking around the historic old town once or ten times, you realize that there are really only two major roads going through town, and everything leads back to the center. (When you venture into the hills, however,  finding your way becomes more confusing, especially when the bus you are on whips into a tunnel and emerges somewhere completely unexpected.)

The two main roads through the historic center are usually congested, even on pedestrian walkways. This also means that you will see your new friends–all two of them–several times as you wend your way through town to the market, say, or to one of the plazas for a coffee. This can be either delightful or unsettling, depending on your level of extroversion.

Congested pedestrian street

Congested pedestrian street

Guanajuato was more interesting, easy, and fun than I expected. Plus, it’s both a UNESCO World Heritage site and a big university town, which gives it historicity and class, an artsy vibe, and a youthful vigor (you cannot round a corner without stumbling over some young locklipped couple). I spent more than a month there, mostly to take Spanish lessons, plus an extra week to show my sister around. Other fun towns (San Miguel D’Allende, Dolores Hidalgo) are easy day trips by bus.

Some entertainment or other is always going on somewhere. If those guys in funny Medieval drag aren’t amusing enough, there may be clowns holding forth on the steps of the historic and beautiful Teatro Juarez or jugglers in the Plaza de la Paz or a symphony at the Teatro Principal.

These guys were always on the street--I'm not sure why.

These guys were always on the street–I’m not sure why.


There are restaurants at all levels of fancy, from student dives to delicious organic to fine cuisine under the linden trees in the Jardin de la Union, where wandering mariachis hold forth. This is where Diego Rivera was born, and the old homestead is now a museum. The spirit of Don Quixote also lives on in the world-famous Cervantino Festival held every in October. (I’m not sure how this town became so enamored of Don Quixote, but there you have it.)

Romantic rendition of one of Guanajuato's heroes

Romantic rendition of one of Guanajuato’s heroes

And there are language schools.

My choice of school came about in a backassward way. I found an ad for a cheap room ($10/night) and in the course of making those arrangements, discovered that the room was actually located in the building of the Adelita Language School. “Check out the reviews on TripAdvisor,” wrote Rolando, the school’s director.

So I did, and they were pretty good. The price was muy económico (4 hours of lessions, 5 days a week for $100), and how convenient that my walk to school would be all of 10 seconds! The aforementioned director even picked me up at the bus station.

For me, Adelita’s was a great experience. I contended with my perennial shyness, and I began to recognize that most students, except the very advanced, felt the same–self-deprecating, full of excuses, somewhat embarrassed. Those advanced students jabbered away in their private lessons, while the rest of us were painfully inarticulate. (The younger students with their agile brains were soon jabbering, too, despite starting from scratch like the rest of us.) The teachers, by and large, were experienced and creative. None spoke English well, so all the business was conducted in Spanish. But they spoke so slowly and clearly that, for the first time since coming to Mexico, I was able to understand everything.

Every Monday brought a new crop of students who came in with the same self-consciousness. (Or maybe I’m projecting.) My cohort ended up being a gaggle of salty gals from New York, Kayleen, a new young lawyer from Washington DC, and Natalia, a perennially sunny Korean-American.

Yeah, that's me being social.

Yeah, that’s me being social.

For the first time I had a structure to my day: 4 hours of lessons plus tarea (homework) AND I had a social life. Various groups and sub-groups of students would meet for walks and meals and general hanging out.

A lot of older women, often from the US and Canada, come to Guanajuato, often by themselves. So I’d see faces like mine on the street (although usually more neatly coiffed and fashion-forward). After the first week, I became painfully aware that I had worn my three t-shirts and two pairs of shorts far too many times. (Note to self: bring decorative scarves next time. This seemed to be the accessory of choice for chic long-term travelers. If nothing else, you can cover up your sorry hair.)

If you’re visiting, Guanajuato is a four-day town. You could also stay for a week and use it as a base for side trips. The best way to see Guanajuato is just to walk around. It’s a delightful walking town, either in the historic center or in the neighborhoods that spread across the hills.



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