A maze of little lanes going up and down, colorful houses, flowers decorating each and every balcony, wrought iron banks and street lamps, little squares with a Provence touch, churches at every street corner, sun and blue sky: today I am not taking you to Italy nor to the South of France but to Guanajuato, one of Mexico’s most beautiful cities!
As I was preparing this little get-away trip, I heard many times that Guanajuato was Mexico’s most beautiful city. I have not seen enough of Mexico to know whether this is true or not but it certainly is one of the most beautiful cities I have seen, and not only in Mexico !
Getting lost in the little lanes was a real pleasure. At every street corner we would come across a little square with a fountain and coffee shops. We would go up and down the little streets that follow the irregularity of the valley where the city was built. We would discover beautiful colonial buildings.
What’s more, the city has a fascinating history, made of adventurers and gold diggers who made Guanajuato such a rich city. This is also where the movement for the Mexican independance started when the first battle of this war was fought there. Guanajuato is also the home town of Diego Rivera, the great Mexican painter and husband of Frida Kahlo. Finally, since 1972, the city hosts the “Cervantino”, a large theater festival in tribute to the Spanish writer Cervantès, that attracts visitors from the whole world.
This city really seemed to have it all! Three months after our backpacking trip in South America, we were ready for a new adventure. On an impulse, we bought bus tickets and booked a hotel and a few days later we were on our way to the city of Guanajuato, located right in the heart of colonial Mexico, about 300 kilometers North of Mexico City, in the state that bears the same name as the city.
We woke up very early to – try to – avoid the well-known traffic jam of the Mexican capital and we arrived early in the afternoon after 5 hours spent on the bus.
As soon as we arrived at our hotel, we were warmly welcomed by our host who gave us a map as well as several restaurant recommendations. But as we were tired because of the long bus ride and the heat, we were having a hard time trying to concentrate on these tips given a bit too rapidly as we still had no idea about the city. We quickly understood why we had been given the map. After leaving our lugguage in the room, we started exploring the city and realized that we were in a giant maze ! Most Mexican cities are built according to a grid pattern, which makes it easy to find your way (well… having no sense of direction, I can’t find my way even in a grid-pattern city…). In Guanajuato, it is totally différent !
After a false start – we were heading to the wrong direction – we started exploring the historic center. We were filled with wonder by this city, its colors, its colonial buildings, its charm ! At times we felt we were in Italy, at other times we felt we were in Paris. We were totally disoriented !
On our first day, we tried to get a first glimpse of the city. We casually strolled through the little lanes, with no precise itinary to try to get our bearings (which took us quite some time…).
We were about to spend 5 days in Guanajuato: we had more than enough time to explore each and every corner of the city.
We spent 5 very pleasant days discovering the city in a more organized way, taking pictures and trying not to miss anything of this wonderful city. We also took the time to visit a few museums to get to know more about the history of the city and about its great figures.
Finally, we took a whole day to go and explore another amazing city from colonial Mexico: San Miguel de Allende (cf. next article).
How did Guanajuato become such a rich city?
This is the first question that popped into my head when I arrived! I found out that the city became rich thanks to its nearby silver and gold mines! Huge amounts of these precious metals were extracted each day and, during its golden age, the city supplied up to two thirds of the world silver production! Guanajuato was the richest city in Mexico back then.
During the time of the Aztecs, these metals were already used to make objects for the political and religious elite. The story says that there was so much gold at that time that you just had to pick it up from the ground!
It is then easy to understand why the little lanes are flanked by such beautiful buildings and why the historic center is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here is the detail of what we discovered.
1. Getting lost in Guanajuato’s little lanes
We never really got lost but we surely felt disoriented! We strolled from one lane to the other, from one plaza to the next. It is very pleasant to walk around, have a cup of coffee at a terrace, sit in a park to listen to a live band. At the end of the month of November, we had perfect weather, blue sky and summer temperatures. Here are the little corners that we preferred:
La Calle Truco
Truco street is one of the streets that we most enjoyed. I found its buildings particularly beautiful, especially the ancient consulate of Prussia (yes!! Prussia) !! Guanajuato’s rich past totally remains palpable.
It is also a very quiet street where not many cars go. We were sometimes surprised by the traffic in some other little lanes.
Finally, we have tested several restaurants located in this street and we have really enjoyed our food (it was not always easy to find good restaurants in Guanajuato). I will talk about this bellow.
Plaza San Fernando
San Fernando Square was also one of the spots that we particularly liked. This large square is totally cut from traffic. With the colorful buidings in warm tones, there is a pleasant Provence atmosphere in the air. We stopped by this little square many times to have coffee and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.
El Jardin Reforma
Reforma garden is another little square located right by Plaza San Fernando. As we were walking around this plaza flanked by buildings in vivid colors, we felt transported to the South of France or to Italy. We reached this little corner via a series of narrower and narrower lanes.
El Jardin de la Union
Union Garden is a tiny park that reminded me of my beloved Paris. This little green triangle stuck between restaurants and hotels has a touch of the Parisian Belle Epoque era with its wrought iron banks, its beautiful kiosk, its fountains and its flowers. It is a very pleasant place.
El Templo San Francisco
I particularly liked the colors of this temple which rises out at the bend of an animated pedestrian street. The surprise effect and constant amazement that we felt during our stay probably came from the fact that the streets are so narrow that we could only discover the buildings at the very last moment. We then took a little lane by the temple and reached a colorful hidden dead-end lane. Another beautiful surprise.
Plaza de la Paz
Plaza de la Paz can not be missed when visiting Guanajuato. It is hard not to see its imposing church, Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato. The church also clearly strikes out when you look at the city from the hill overlooking Guanajuato.
El Callejon del Beso
The street of the kiss (Callejón del Beso) is Guanajuato’s most famous lane. It is so narrow – only 168cm between balconies – that the legend has it that if lovers standing on each one of the opposite balconies kiss, they will experience seven years of happiness together.
This little street is also a not-to-be-missed place in Guanajuato but we were a bit disappointed because it was so crowded that it was just impossible to get close.
2. The places we visited
El Teatro Juarez
Juarez theater is the building I preferred in Guanajuato. It is located right next to Union Garden that reminded me of Paris. I particulalry liked its beautiful lamp posts and its doors that once again reminded me of Parisian buildings. The interior of the theater is very different. We were impressed by the Moorish style of the show room. The building is as beautiful from outside as it is from inside. Today the building is still used as a theater and you can make the most of your trip to go and see a play or a ballet in this amazing place.
La Alhóndiga de Granaditas
At first sight, this building looks a bit strange. With its rectangular shape and its many small windows it looks like a prison ! Let’s be honest, it looks a bit out of place next to the city’s beautiful colonial buildings. However, when you start learning about the history of this place, you realize that it has a fascinating history, closely linked to the history of the city and even of Mexico!
A few history words
At first, the building was used as a place to store grain to protect the population from famine. Its name, « Alhóndiga de Granaditas », actually means « house of grain ».
But what makes this building so important is that it was the place where the first battle of the Mexican War of Independance was fought. This is where it all started when Hidalgo came with his insurgent army to set Mexico free from Spanish control. The Royalists, who were not willing to give up on anything, took shelter in this building. With its thick walls and small windows, it was the prefect place to fight a siege. The story goes that a certain Pipila hid under a rock and crawled towards the building to protect himself from the royalists who were shooting at the insurgents. He managed to reach the doors that he set on fire to let the army in.
After this battle, the building was used as barracks, tobacco warehouse and a prison before being turned into a museum about the history of the region covering the period from prehispanic times to the War of Independance.
Don Quijote museum
I was rather surprised to find a museum in honor of don Quijote here in Mexico, so far away from the « Mancha » region in Spain where the story is set. But I found out that each year a great theater festival is held in Guanajuato, the Cervantino, in honor of Cervantes, the author of Don Quijote.
Why a festival in honor of Cervantès in Guanajuato ?
Traditionnally, the arts have always occupied a great place in Guanajuato. During colonial times, as the city was booming thanks to the exploitation of its mines, many theaters were built to satisfy the desires of distraction of the higher classes. Ballets, concerts and theater plays were organized everywhere in the city.
This artistic tradition continued over the years and in the 1950s, the city university started putting up a show with a series of theater plays by Cervantès. This show was taking place each year and that’s how the city began to be associated with Cervantès.
And then in 1972, the first Cervantino International Festival was held, attracting many visitors and artists from all over the world.
It is then easier to understand why we can visit a Don Quijote museum in Guanajuato.
We were happy to find out that the museum was free on Tuesdays, the day we came for our visit ! We discovered a beautiful colonial building with an incredible patio. The building in itself is worth a visit. We were then plunged into the universe of Don Quijote, with many paintings including one by Dali (3rd picture below), sculptures, books, etc.
Diego Rivera’s house
Diego Rivera is probably Mexico’s most famous figure. He is as famous for his art as for having been Frida Kahlo’s husband. No matter which museum or building you visit in Mexico City, it seems that there is always a painting by Diego Rivera. I was therefore interested to find out that he was born in Guanajuato and that his house could be visited.
Some pieces of furniture that belonged to the Rivera family are exhibited on the first floor. In the various upper floors we can see many paintings by the artist. I mainly knew him as a “mural” painter (these huge fresques depicting the history of Mexico) and I found out that his early paintings were quite different, some of them reminding me of the Impressionists. Unfortunately, it was not possible to take pictures of the paintings.
Pipila is the heroe of the city, the one who played a great role in the first battle of the War of Independance that took place in Guanajuato. A monument in his honnor was set up on a hill overlooking the city. The view we have from this hill is breathtaking. It is another not-to-be-missed site when visiting Guanajuato!
We walked up to the top of the hill, following a maze of lovely little streets.
Once we were at the top of the hill, we were fascinated by the view, by the city, by all these colors. From up there, the city looked like a scale model! We could easily see the imposing church Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato I was referring to before.
What we did not see: the mummies museum
It is impossible to go to Guanajuato without hearing about the mummies. As soon as we got out of the bus, many guides approached us to offer to take us there. As I was preparing this get-away trip, I also heard a lot about this museum that I should definitely visit according to my friends. But when I found out more about this place, I lost all desire to visit it!
At the beginning of the 19th century, an epidemy of cholera killed so many people that there was not enough space in the cemetery to burry them. The city government then introduced a new tax that the families had to pay. If the tax was not paid, the corpses were taken out of the ground !! That’s how they realized that the bodies had been mummified! Today the mummies can be seen in a museum… I did not really understand the idea of this museum and we did not venture there, even though it seems to be a very popular attraction when visiting Guanajuato (it is also one of the rare museums to be open on Mondays).
3. A few tips if you plan on visiting Guanajuato
How to get there?
You can get there by plane or bus from Mexico City. We chose the bus. The whole ride was about 5 hours. On the way there we travelled with the ETN company and on the way back with Primera Plus. Both companies are very good, secure, with comfortable seats, screens to watch movies and a Wi-Fi connexion. We were even offered a drink and a small snack.
We then took a taxi to go from the bus station to our hotel as the station is rather far away from the historic center. It cost us 50 pesos.
All museums are closed on Mondays, except the mummies museum. The Don Quijote museum is free on Tuesdays.
When we reached the hotel, our host immediately gave us a city map where he draw crosses to indicate some restaurants. We quickly understood why. The city is very touristy and unfortunately we went to some rather expensive places where the food was horrible.
Our worst experience was in a restaurant on the Union Garden. For the first time of my life, I sent my plate back. I usually never complain in restaurants but this time I had no other choice. I was served a tasteless bruger that was coming straight from the freezer. The meat was overly cooked and disgusting. Not only was the dish uneatable but the service was terrible. The waiter did not offer any alternative and charged me the burger that I did not even eat !
We have often been disappointed by restaurants but the following addresses were good surprises.
- El Lechon Ilustrado – Calle del Truco #5
This little café / restaurant with a lovely atmosphere was the best that I most liked. You can go for lunch or just for a coffee. They also have an impressive tea selection if you are a tea lover. We had lunch there and I had delicious vegetarian lasagna. The place is decorated in a lovely way with many books that you can read on the spot or buy. It is located in the charming Truco street that we particularly liked. Many people were there working on their laptops. I highly recommend this place if you stop by Guanajuato.
- Truco 7 – Calle del Truco #7
Truco 7 is the second restaurant we tried in Truco street. For 70 pesos per person (about 4.50€) we had a whole meal: a vegetable soup, zucchini a la mexicana, enchiladas and a limonade. The decoration was very original as well with many objects everywhere. Another great discovery.
- La Creperia – Subida de San Jose #14
For a French girl, it is not always easy to find delicious crepes outside France but I have to admit that the crepes from this place were just amazing (the exact same that we would eat in France!) and for a very reasonable price (well not like in France this time…).
- El Tapatio – calle Lascurain de Retana #20
El Tatio is probably the restaurant that served us the most delicious food. They offer traditional Mexican cuisine. We had breakfast there once (I had my favorite, the delicious chilaquiles!) and also diner (I had “bistec con cebollitas” : a thin slice of beef served with onions, black beens and arroz, that you can eat in a taco).
- El cafe Tal – Callejon Temescuitate Calle Sangre de Cristo No. 1 y 4
As a coffee lover, I like to drink coffee with a strong taste and it is sometimes hard to find good coffee in Mexico where the “Americano” is preferred to the espresso. But at Café Tal, I had an amazing coffee. The waitress explained that their coffee beans came from Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas and that they were making their own blend. This place is not to be missed if you are a coffee addict like I am!
For this get-away trip, we had a limited budget and we were looking for a cheap hotel in the historic center to make the most of our time Guanajuato. We chose the Murillo Plaza hotel when we saw the pictures of the terrace. We would have our morning coffee there and would go up there at night too to relax after our long walking days. We had an amazing view over the city. The room was decent for the price we paid and the staff was very friendly and helpful.
So now you know everything about Guanajuato ! I hope I managed to make you want to go! As far as I am concerned, I really enjoyed this city and I can’t wait to go back!