Early June, 2013 – We had been in Puerto Vallarta for over two months, loving the fancy shore-side resort life, but the beautiful colonial cities in the interior of Mexico beckoned. Back in Zihuatnanejo, our friend Francisco (1/3 down the page), who sells pretty painted plates from a folding table on the street, had told us he had lived all over Mexico. When we asked him which place was his favorite, he instantly said, “Guanajuato.”
Where? He repeated the name and then spelled it for us (a rough pronunciation is “Whanna-Whatto” ).
Even though Francisco is usually quite a jokester, he went on very seriously to say this was a place we absolutely should not miss. He explained that the city was built on several hillsides and there were lots of colorful houses, old cobblestone streets and alleyways, and that there was a community of artists and musicians that gave the place a special spirit. It sounded wonderful. Even though we had never heard of it, Guanajuato zoomed to the top of our bucket list.
The bus from Puerto Vallarta to Guanajuato is a very easy and comfortable 10 hour ride (it goes direct with just one stop), and we arrived in the late afternoon just in time to see the breathtaking views from the Pípila overlook. Wow! Francisco was right. This place was incredible.
Every house was a different color, and no one was shy about painting their home lavender or turquoise or pink or emerald green. Several yellow and red church domes rose above the houses, and the grand University of Guanajuato building was a dazzling white in the center of it all.
We quickly discovered that Guanajuata is all about climbing up and down stairways. The heart of the city is in a valley on the ground floor, but the buildings rise up along the sides of hills, and the fantastic Carretera Panorámica (or Panoramic Road) encircles the entire city up above.
After soaking in the magical view of the city from this overlook, we took the Funicular cable car ride down into the city center. How cool it was to creep down the mountain in this window-lined car and watch the buildings grow tall around us until we arrived in the throbbing heart of Guanajuato’s Centro.
The main part of Guanajuato’s Centro is the Jardin de la Unión, a triangular city square that is lined with dense shade trees and park benches and has a bandstand at its center. A cacophony of music rises up from every corner of this park as costumed mariachi bands, sax players, classical guitar players and wandering minstrels serenade anyone and everyone within earshot.
One end of this park is anchored by the ornate Teatro Juarez, a stunning theater whose facade is defined by a row of elegant columns and a collection of sculptures on the roof. As we wandered closer to the theater, we noticed a street performer with a big clown nose entertaining a crowd on the steps.
Our cameras instantly sprang into action to capture his act and his audience, but this guy was even faster than we were. Suddenly turning his back to his audience, he wheeled around to face us and began to pose for us like a swimsuit model, contorting himself into all kinds of provocative poses. Everyone was laughing, but we suddenly noticed all eyes were now turned towards us!
We played right along with him, encouraging him and shooting away, pretending to be high fashion photographers. The audience laughed and clapped — and then he rushed over to us with his hat out looking for a tip! The audience roared.
He’d pulled one over on us! Mark turned his pockets inside out in jest, but soon found a few pesos to reward his funny act.
The next day we saw him again. He instantly started miming and pretending to take photos of us! We responded by doing goofy poses for him. Suddenly, he rushed over to us, his wallet open as he fingered a dollar bill inside, as if to tip us.
This was the spirit we found in Guanajuato. Fun-loving, free-wheeling and happy.
For the rest of our stay, all of our forays into town began and ended with Teatro Juarez as our main landmark, and the next day, just a few steps from the theater, we bumped into a man dressed in complete Medieval garb. What the heck? Out came the cameras!
We quickly learned that dressing up and wearing costumes is an integral part of Guanajuato street life. Wandering away from the city park a few paces, we came to Plaza de La Paz and the beautiful brilliant yellow Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato. Talk about stunning! Not only did the vibrant yellow of this enormous building light up the whole plaza, but someone had decided to trim it in scarlet. What a combo – especially for a church!
I was just tipping my head back to admire this gorgeous cathedral when Mark nudged me and pointed. Right in front of me was another man in tights. What next? This guy was dressed a bit like Robin Hood. I whispered to Mark, “I bet he’s a drama student at the University.” Well, my whisper must have been just a little bit too loud, because the guy suddenly gave me a huge grin and a nod. “Yes!” he said in English. “We’re performing tonight at Teatro Principal. Come and watch!”
There’s nothing like a university town for action, energy, crazy stunts and the arts!
Guanajuato has a whimsical soul, from performing clowns to men in Renaissance costumes to Crayola colored churches. So it was no surprise at all when we saw a man painted head to toe like a green copper statue rushing past us with a briefcase in hand. Whatever he was up to, we didn’t want to miss it! We quickly hustled along behind him to see where he was headed.
In no time at all, he had set himself up as a permanent looking water fountain statue. It was exceedingly hot in the sun, but he had a clever water pump setup where he perpetually poured a glass of water that dribbled into a pool at his feet.
The bronze statue a few doors down didn’t have it quite so good. He had baked in the sunshine so long that under his sombrero was a skeleton’s face with dark, sunken eyes. A little kid came over to him and giggled as he rolled his eyes at him.
Guanajuato was rapidly capturing out hearts. There was an excitement in the air here that was palpable, and everywhere we looked people were smiling. Our trip to Oaxaca last year had been our favorite inland tour to date, but just like Francisco-the-plate-painter in Zihuatanejo had told us, Guanajuato was special.
The city is made up of a zillion little curvy streets and alleyways, and we soon got lost as one beautiful street after another drew us in. There are no straight roads in the entire town, and nothing runs in parallel either.
We just poked our heads around corners and were invariably smitten by what we saw. Then we’d head off down the alleyways to see what might lie around the next corner.
We passed many happy hours this way each day, zig-zagging from one end of the city to the other, and we fell into bed utterly exhausted with aching feet each night. It was so much fun!
The thing was, we just never knew what we might find. Turning one corner, we both stopped short when we looked up and saw a donkey, burdened with heavy sacks, standing in front of an Oxxo store.
These convenience stores are similar to Circle K or 7-Eleven — not the kind of place you’d expect to see a donkey tied up with a huge load of sacks on his back!
But what really got us was the color. There are no inhibitions in this town. If your favorite color is purple, then paint your house purple!
We joked that the town council meetings where these colors get approved must be quite lively. But we later learned from a cab driver that this isn’t far from the truth. Building owners must get city approval for their color choices.
On the flip side, the municipality pays for all exterior painting and repairs. This is apparently true for all of Mexico’s “Magic Cities” (Pueblos Mágicos). And the type of paint is carefully specified — no gauche glossy finishes allowed!
One afternoon we looked between two buildings and saw a stairway that went straight up to heaven. This wasn’t just a one story or two story staircase. This was a set of stairs that went up and up and up.
We started up the stairs, just to see what was beyond the highest stairs we could see. When we got up that point, the staircase continued, with as many stairs above us as there had been below.
We walked up these stairs in the company of a few other people for a ways. But they stopped at various doorways, took out their keys, and disappeared inside. Their lives are lived entirely up and down, carrying groceries and everything else up six or eight flights of stairs to get home.
We continued trudging upwards, turning every so often to compare our height against the mountain on the far side of the city. A quarter of the way up, then halfway… it continued on and on.
Looking down the unending staircase, we saw a man climbing towards us carrying a huge propane tank on his shoulder. He climbed slowly up towards us, balancing the tank on his shoulder no-handed.
As he neared us, Mark said something to him about the tank being heavy and the stairs being long and the work of carrying the tank being hard. He huffed and puffed once or twice, rebalanced the tank on his shoulder, smiled, and said, “Pan comido” (“piece of cake”). Then he climbed on past us and disappeared around a bend.
Wow. I wonder how many deliveries he has to make in a day?!
Living with your home on a staircase rather than a regular street is one very different way of living!! As we continued on, the view behind us became ever more sensational, but we wondered where the heck we would come out.
We stopped to ask a group of older men that were chatting among themselves if we were actually going to come out somewhere or if we were wearing ourselves out for nothing and would find a dead end at the top. “Oh yes!” they said, “There’s a great view at the top. Keep going.” We took a deep breath and carried on, secretly wondering if the joke was going to be on us or if those men had been sincere.
Suddenly we heard a dog bark and we whipped around to see a cute little face peering at us from a roof terrace. Because the homes on this steep hill don’t have yards, all the dogs live on the roofs!
Finally, we came out at the top and were rewarded with an easy stroll along the Panoramic Road looking out over the entire city below. What a sight!
A few days earlier, when we were prowling along a different staircase, Mark had discovered a wonderful mural that depicted the story of heroism that put Guanajuato in the history books. Guanajuato was a town that was built by the immensely wealthy Spanish mine owners who set up shop in the mid-1500’s to extract silver, gold and other precious metals from the mountains.
The Spanish enslaved the local indigenous people for over 200 years to do the miserably hard mining labor for them (mining slaves lived an average of just 5 to 10 years after they were put to work in the mines). When the miners and other indigenous people rose up against the Spanish in the Mexican War of Independence, the Spanish citizens and soldiers of Guanajuato barricaded themselves in the local granary that served very well as a fort because it had extremely thick stone walls.
A young indigenous miner, who’s nickname was El Pípila, strapped a flat stone onto his back for protection and took a torch to the wooden door of the stone granary, leading the way for a brutal indigenous attack on the Spanish inside. This was one of the first major defeats of the Spanish in the War of Independence, and Pípila became a hero.
Up on a hill in Guanajuato, there is a huge statue to honor this brave man, and as we emerged from our very long walk upstairs from the bottom of the town, we found ourselves face-to-face with this statue.
Guanajuato has stairways everywhere, and the University is no exception. Rather than the usual ten or twelve stairs that lead up to most university buildings, this staircase seemed to be a true ladder of success with many many stairs to get there!!
Ironically, Guanajuato is not just a town of hills and stairs and steep alleyways. We soon discovered that there is an entire maze of tunnels that wanders below the streets of Guanajuato. This underworld of tunnels makes a wonderful diversion for car traffic and also offers walkers a way to get from place to place in total shade.
Whether going up to the sky or down into the “subterreneo” below the city, we were loving our stay in Guanajuato, and we hung around for quite some time.
Where is Guanajuato? Here is a map showing some landmarks: