This post was supposed to be one of those number deals. You know, like: “25 Fantastic Sights You’ll Never Forget in Guanajuato!”
But then I realized that you’d have to be blind and brain-dead to miss the best sights in Guanajuato. Simply in the course of walking through the narrow town at the bottom of the ravine, you’ll stumble across the lovely plazas and churches and shops on your first or second pass. By the third day, you’ll be nosing around the twisty callejones and finding some of the less-obvious delights (maybe some that I don’t know about).
And you might or might not never forget them anyway.
So here is my list of Things You Might Consider Seeing while you’re in Guanajuato. Maybe.
Walk west through town on Avenida Juarez (the main drag), and you’ll see an odd metal “steeple” on a cavernous building. This is the Mercado Hidalgo. It isn’t the greatest or the biggest mercado I’ve ever seen, but it has a selection of sweets and souvenirs and food stalls, and it’s worth a look. I had read that the characteristic steeple was built by Monsieur Eiffel of the famous tower, but that factoid was apparently wrong. The building was possibly conceived as a train station and was built on top of a bullring. Whatever its pedigree, it’s a very handsome market.
When you get to the very elegant Teatro Juarez, look up. High on the hillside, a huge and romanticized el Pipila raises his everlasting torch. This is a landmark and bit of historical lore. During the Revolution against the Spanish in 1810, so the story goes, Spanish soldiers were holed up in a stone warehouse called the Alhondiga. Revolutionary-priest Miguel Hidalgo was holding siege to the grain warehouse, but the Spaniards were safely ensconced behind the impenetrable walls.
In a moment of strategic brilliance, Hidalgo ordered a common miner, Juan Martinez–a.k.a. “El Pipila–to tie a slab of slate on his back and set the door of the granary on fire. Against all odds, he succeeded, and in one of the first and few victories of the Revolution, Hidalgo’s forces took the Alhondiga and killed everyone inside. Nothing more is known about Martinez, but the ponderous El Pipila guards the city still.
At the base of his statue, the inscription reads: There are still Alhondigas to burn. True enough.
The most fun, and slightly scary, way to get to the top of the hill–and to the Pipila–is on the funicular behind the theater. Shops in the building as you exit the funicular sell surprisingly good-quality artesanal stuff.
From there, it’s fun to walk back down the hill. All callejones lead to town.
The granary where El Pipila smoked out the Spaniards is as indomitable as ever.
It’s a big square stone box of an edifice with a bunch of stone stairs in front. Once the Spanish had quashed the revolution and offed its leaders, the heads of the four revolutionaries, including Hidalgo, hung for ten years from each corner of the Alhondiga. Sort of a gruesome lesson in how to be a docile colony. Apparently, however, the severed heads only served to arouse the rabble and make them more determined. It took almost a dozen long years of struggle before Mexico won its independence in 1821.
I never got inside the Alhondiga. I had saved it as one of my last stops. Then I got sick and ran out of time. I hear the murals are striking.
Diego Rivera’s birthplace.
I didn’t know the famous muralist was a native son, but his house is just up the street from the Alhondiga. It’s a comfy 4-story place similar to the other historic houses on the calle. While I wasn’t that interested in the first-floor recreation of the period, it was very interesting to see some of the artist’s sketches and lesser-known works. The museum is small, so a couple of hours is more than enough.
Museo Iconografico del Don Quijote
I tried mightily to read Don Quixote in honor of being in Guanajuato. (I don’t know why the town is so enamored of Don Quixote, but he is everywhere. Plus, it celebrates all things thespian in the huge and international Cervantino Festival each October.) I finally got disillusioned and quit. Where was the noble Man from La Mancha? The courteous, gentle, and deluded knight who nonetheless pursued his impossible dream with valor and honor?
Folks, the Don Quixote I discovered in Cervantes’s book is a buffoon, a stiff-necked and pusillanimous lout. Tell me if I’m wrong.
In the museum, however, I re-discovered my romantic Quixote in all his quaint and endearing charm. It’s simply a collection of artistic renderings of Quixote, his sidekick, and Cervantes. Some are fabulous. Plus, there’s a good cafe on the ground floor. Free on Tuesdays.
This is the neighborhood above and several miles into the bucolic countryside from Guanajuato where the richest silver mines were located. You can get there by bus, but my sister hired a driver for a day. (Go to the information kiosk in the Jardin de la Union. Licensed drivers hang out there. They are all very good.)
This is where the legendary wealth emerged from the ground on the backs of slaves. The silver from the mines at La Valenciana was the tail that wagged the economic dog of the entire world in the 18th century. You can go down a bit into the Bocamina de San Cayetano and then you can visit the church of San Cayetano and see what unlimited wealth–and the attendant guilt born of exploitation–will get you. Three massive altars completely covered in gold leaf.
“This doesn’t feel very holy,” whispered my sister.
I had to agree.
From there we visited the majolica factory in nearby Santa Rosa. I had heard about the magnificent pottery from several fellow-travelers, but that was about all the information I had.
This part of Mexico is know for talavera ceramics that is made in nearby Delores Hidalgo and for mayolica, which is made in Santa Rosa and in the neighboring state of Puebla.
We stumbled into the large showroom (no factory tours and no photographs) stacked cheek-to-jowl with pottery. Similar styles were clustered together, but that was the only nod to organization. We spent a looooong time nosing around and narrowing our choices to reasonable levels.
Then our intrepid driver took us to a down-home place for lunch, and we re-stocked all the calories we’d lost from so much power-shopping.
If you can find it, Clave Azul is more than a pub, it’s a taste of local color. Located in the very back of the lovely Plaza de San Roque, it’s one of those dim, stone cavelike places that wind around upstairs and down with surprises lurking in every corner. Not only that, you’ll often find semi-drunken musicians holding forth any day of the week.
This was the favorite watering hole of small groups of ex-pats and students. It was lowkey and always fun.
You’ll notice I did not recommend the Mummy Museum. The bodies were naturally mummified in the mineral-laden ground around Guanajuato and were unearthed when families failed to pay the tax to keep them in the ground. Now they’re on display for all the world to see. Not my cup of tea. (No rhyme intended.)
Guanajuato is also known for its dulces (sweets). Several shops are happy to indulge visitors, and they are worth visiting. Plus, these little rolls of goodness make great, compact gifts to bring back. I’m salivating for the mango paste with chili right now.
My sister left after a week. At that point, I’d been in Guanajuato taking Spanish lessons at the Adelitas School for a month and with my sister in a lovely apartment she’d rented for another week. I’d become familiar with the city. I’d wandered its streets and hiked to the top of La Bufa, which almost killed me.
For the first time in my travels, I had friends and social events. I got to know some people in ways that you don’t in the normal course of life–a more easy and anonymous intimacy. And then you–or they–go away, and generally you don’t keep up because you really don’t have that much in common.
But it’s sweet while it lasts.
I had been sick for two days when my sister left, and I would stay another day at the apartment, recovering. I felt like an orphan. Now I was on my own again, heading, once again, to unfamiliar places–alone. I wanted to go home. I had that queasy feeling of disbelief that I could quite capably continue do what I’d been doing all this time. I wanted to go somewhere familiar and safe–like home.
But I didn’t. Instead, I left lovely Guanajuato the next day for the wintering grounds of the monarch butterfly.