My first impression of Guanajuato was, “Wow, this city reminds me of Rome!” After two days of wandering around its pristine cobblestone streets, discovering one jaw-droppingly beautiful plaza and church after another, I was proclaiming it the most beautiful city in the world. By day five I was looking at apartments.
Guanajuato is a city that I could happily live in the rest of my life, and that is high praise from a vagabond like me. Aside from its astonishing colonial architecture, exquisitely landscaped plazas, and ideal weather, the city has a vibrancy unlike anything I have felt elsewhere in Mexico. This is partially due to the 20,000 students who attend the University of Guanajuato, located right in the city’s historic center; the university’s fine arts focus is the impetus behind many of the cultural seminars, workshops, and exhibits that occur throughout the year. But the vibrant energy of Guanajuato is also a result of its history.
It is said that in 1548, a muleteer named Rayas, who was camping in the hills around what is today the city of Guanajuato, found silver ore inside his bonfire. The land belonged to the New Spain Viceroyalty at that point and the King of Spain was quick to take note; by 1571 the city had been founded on the wealth of what would, for many centuries, be the richest mine in the world. Nouveau riche mine owners poured money into creating a city that would reflect their social standing, building theaters and mansions and funding churches that rivaled one another in opulence.
Today, the heart of the city is Plaza de la Paz, anchored by stunning Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato Basilica. Just one of more than 35 old churches in the city, the Basilica glitters gold in the late afternoon sun, framed by exotic furry green plants and tall black sculptures. Around the corner, Jardin de la Union is the favorite gathering place for locals. From the outdoor cafes to the steps of Romanesque Teatro Juarez, where crowds gather each night to watch street performers perfect their acts, this plaza bustles with activity into the wee hours.
A remarkable feature of Guanajuato are its tunnels, which divert vehicles beneath the city. This was not planned; the city was built over the Guanajuato River, which flowed through tunnels beneath the city. However, after years of raising buildings to accommodate repeated flooding, a dam was constructed and the river was redirected into underground caverns. The empty tunnels were paved with cobblestones and lit for automobile traffic, leaving many of the upper level streets for pedestrians.
From its historic center, narrow curving streets and steep staircases climb past jewel-tone houses that cling precariously to valley walls. Every step brings another delight: doorways open to lushly landscaped interior courtyards, murals decorate long stretches of wall, boughs thick with salmon and magenta Bougainvilla overhang sidewalks.
While other Mexican cities are showing signs of stress from difficult economic conditions currently plaguing the country, Guanajuato remains pristine, with hardly a scrap of trash lying about, and eminently safe. Perhaps that can partially be attributed to its silver mines, which are still among the richest-producing in the world, but more likely it has to do with a community that takes great pride in the fact that the historic center was declared a UNESCO Word Heritage Site in 1988. Not surprisingly, the city is one of the country’s most important and most popular tourist destinations. What is surprising, however, is that very few Americans know about this undiscovered cultural gem in the geographic center of Mexico.
This article is part of the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Travel Blog Carnival, where this week’s topic is “magical/memorable city experiences.” If you wish to read about Blogsherpa’s favorite cities, cruise on over to Travel With Den Den, the travel blog of Denise Pulis, who is hosting this week’s carnival.