This is a continuation of my Guadalajara trip report, encompassing the Spanish Colonial cities of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende. While the latter city is well known for attracting American expats and retirees, I was more charmed by Guanajuato, a brightly colored university town full of European-style plazas and cafes. We spent two nights in each city.
Logistics: I very rarely travel on organized tours, but this was a post-conference tour organized by SATW. Our group of 19 photographers, writers and bloggers had a nice-sized bus, plenty of built-in free time and a great guide, Ricardo Izaguirre, from Guadalajara-based Vision Tours. I can’t recommend the hotels we stayed at, though – Mision in Guanajuato and the Best Western in San Miguel. In both cases, I would have chosen someplace closer to the city center if I was on my own.
It’s amazing how much this Spanish Colonial city, set in a Sierra Bajic valley, feels like being in Europe. Same narrow and charming streets and wrought-iron balconies, same expansive plazas and cafes, same street life in the evenings as families and students sit on benches and fountains, eating ice cream and other snacks, and watch the world go by. I could easily come back to Guanajuato for a month to rent an apartment, study Spanish and enjoy the youthful scene (plus you’d get quite a workout from walking up and down the city’s hills!)
Made wealthy by its silver mines, Guanajuato also played a big role in the War for Mexican Independence. Father Miguel Hidalgo came here with his ragtag group of criollos, forcing many of the town’s wealthy Spanish inhabitants to take refuge in the Alhondiga de Granaditas, the town’s granary. Just as the mob stormed the Bastille in Paris, Hilago’s band led by Pipila broke down the door of the Granary and executed several hundred men, women and children (an act that was protested by his fellow revolutionary, Ignacio Allende).
We first saw the colorful buildings – in shades ranging from ochre to turquoise to lime green – from the top of a hill. A statue of a torch-wielding Pipila, the revolutionary who broke open the Granary by setting fire to it, looks over the town and is played up with lights at night. You can take a funicular down into the town square – an easy way to avoid driving (a system of tunnels allows cars to pass under and through Guanjuato’s steep streets, which have been designated a World Heritage Zone since 1989).
Museo de las Momias. One of the creepier musuems around. The ick factor here comes from the fact that the “mummies” shown in this musuems aren’t actually mummified, a la Egyptian style. Instead, they are the naturally preserved cadavers of poor people that were removed from wall crypts in the nearby city cemetery to make room for other bodies (Mexican families had five years to pay for the plot, otherwise they were removed). There’s more than 100 in the collection,with the bodies ranging from a woman who died while pregnant (her fetus is next to her) to the corpses of babies dressed in the “Little Angel” style. Cost: 50 pesos.
We were also able to visit the cemetery nearby.
Valenciana Mine. Up in the mountains surrounding Guanajuato, the mine – one of the most productive in Mexico – looks like a fortress. You can put on a hard hat and walk down into the mine (there are ropes to hold on too – it’s not too strenuous for anyone in decent shape).
One of my favorite parts of the mine had nothing to do with silver. Close to the entrance, there’s a room where keys dangle from the ceiling, in homage to San Ramon. Legend has it that if you have a noisy neighbor, you bury a lock and bring the key here so the saint can make your life quiet.
Valenciana Church of San Cayetano. Built by Don Antonio de Obregon Alcocer, the owner of the Valenciana Mine, as thanks for his immense wealth, this church is gorgeous inside and out. The front facade is an example of Mexican Churrigueresque architecture, an elaborate Baroque style which substitutes the features of New World faces for the European. The inside altars are massive, with every inch covered in gold leaf.
Cafe life. Guanajuato’s main square – just across from the Muse-topped Teatro Juarez - is El Jardin de la Union.
There’s a bandstand in the middle and in the evening, mariachi groups gather to ply their trade at the hotels and open air cafes surrounding the square.
As our group was here on the first night of the annual Cervantino, a festival that honors Spanish author Miguel Cervantes and Don Quixote, we also saw costumed students readying to carry on the tradition of callejoneadas, where groups of music students walk through the streets singing and serenading, with a crowd following (I didn’t really see this in action until San Miguel de Allende – it’s a great sight and lots of fun).
Museo Alhondigas de Granaditas. The museum, in the historic Granary, has some good exhibits pertaining to Mexican history. A good place to go if you don’t know your Hidalgo from your Allende (which I admittedly did not).
Museo y Casa de Diego Rivera. The bottom of this home, where muralist Diego Rivera (and husband of Frida Kahlo) was born and spent his first 8 years, is a preserved house musuem. Far more interesting: the upstairs galleries that have many of his paintings and sketches, as well as rotating exhibits from modern artists.
Roaming around. Honestly, my favorite time in Guanajuato was spent wandering around.
I did make it to Callejon del Besio (alley of the kiss), a street so narrow that the balconies above it nearly touch. The legend says that two young lovers who lived across from each other dared to kiss; in a rage, the woman’s father killed her, which forced her paramour to kill himself. Now it’s considered good luck to kiss if you are there with your significant other.
Shopping. Everyone talks about the art and jewelry for sale in San Miguel. But I made my big purchase of the trip at a jewelry store here – a sterling silver Day of the Dead bracelet that cost about $125. For those who love markets, it’s worth it to stop at the Mercato Hidalgo
Food. Las Mercedes. Much of our food on the trip was fairly uninspiring – until we came here. This restaurant that ,at one time, was a private lunch spot for dignitaries, served up a gourmet Mexican fusion lunch. On the menu: a salad with cactus and squash blossoms, chiles stuffed with cheese, a delicious chicken mole and a corn cake served with coconut ice cream. We washed it down with rice water, a sweet drink made from cookied rice, coconut milk and sugar. Delicious!
Otherwise, my favorite foods came from the street. I ate churros in the market, potato chips topped with hot sauce from a street cart and – my favorite – chorizo tacos dished up by a man with a putty knife after a little too much tequila. The best part: no turista (as opposed to some members of our group, who did fall ill after eating a dinner prepared at the hotel).
San Miguel de Allende coming soon!
To read about the Guadalajara portion of the trip, click here.
To read about Dolores Hidalgo, seat of the Mexican War of Independence (and one of the few places to try shrimp ice cream), click here.
To read about the Mexican pilgrimage towns of San Juan de los Lagos and Atotonilco, click here.
To read about my May trip to Cancun and Playa del Carmen, click here.