When I first set foot in Guanajuato, this city in Mexico’s central plateau reminded me of Rome. By the second day, I was proclaiming it the most beautiful city in the world. After five days of wandering around its pristine cobblestone streets, discovering one jaw-dropping beautiful plaza and church after another, I was looking at apartments.
Guanajuato Mexico is a city where I could happily live 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 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 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.
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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, this plaza bustles with activity into the wee hours. And culture vultures will appreciate the array of museums in the city, which range from the Museo Regional de Guanajuato Alhóndiga de Granaditas (a granary that was turned into a fortress during the Mexican War of Independence) to Museo de las Momias, famous for its display of the startlingly well-preserved mummies of Guanajuato.
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 the 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. Hardly a scrap of trash can be found lying about and the city is eminently safe. 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, Guanajuato Mexico 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 its neighbor to the south.