Guanajuato is a most interesting city. It has a long history, and is a special place, with old-fashioned narrow streets sprawled over a valley in the mountains about midway between Lake Chapala and Mexico city. We got there by bus, a luxury ETN bus. This was our first trip in one of these buses, and we will do it again; it was comfortable and is a good way to get to cities in Mexico. Below is the route we took.
Guanajuato is the capitol of Guanajuato state. The other well-know city for gringos in the state is San Miguel de Allende, which we will visit after the days here. The city was founded in 1548 and thanks to the discovery of silver, it grew rapidly.
Guanajuato is a beautiful mountain colonial town. Many tourists and locals consider this city to be the most beautiful in Mexico. It used to be a major silver mining town, and many of the mines are still active. Because of these silver mines, in the 1800s, it was the richest city in Mexico. The city is built on very hilly ground, so virtually every point in the city is on a slant. The city has a network of underground tunnels that serve as roads, making this place really unique in the world.
The name of the city means “Hilly Place of Frogs” in the local indigenous language and so the frog is the city’s official mascot.
Guanajuato was also witness to events which changed the history of the country, including the 1810 independence movement begun by priest Miguel Hidalgo, and the 1910 revolution that overthrew Porfirio Díaz and established the current government of Mexico.
A bit of background (from wikitravel):
Unlike other Mexican cities that have an exact date of foundation, Guanajuato was the result of miner camping sites after silver veins were discovered between 1540 and 1558 and that eventually lead to a larger settlement. In 1558 a big silver vein was discovered in Guanajuato and produced nearly a third of all silver in the world by the next 250 years. The city was granted its city status in 1741 by Spanish King Philip V. Mining brought wealth to this town that spread towards its architecture and lifestyle.
The historic town of Guanajuato and adjacent mines were granted World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1987 and has been ranked by several travel magazines as one of the top travel destinations in the world.
We were booked into a fine old hotel, Hotel Luna on the main plaza, Jardin de La Union. The bus dropped us off at the bus station, on the edge of the city, and we took a 60 peso taxi ride to the hotel. Streets are blocked off near the plaza, so without much of an explanation, the driver dropped us and our bags off by the street, and pointed us down a hill. By asking, we found the hotel.
Jardin de la Union
The hotel is on the main plaza, the Jardin de la Union, the Garden of the Union. This is a small tree-lined plaza, with a typical gazebo in the center. This is the busiest area of the city for foot traffic and visitors.
It is surrounded by places to eat.
Mexican street musicians are everywhere here..
And what would a plaza be without a Starbuck’s Coffee?
Exploring near the Jardin de la Union
First we set out on foot to explore around our hotel.
Across from the plaza is a large abstract bronze sculpture, “La Giganta” by Jose Luis Cuevas. It depicts a giant woman with a man on her back. It was erected in the 1990s. Near it is a bronze of a musician, obviously by another artist.
From wikipedia on the artist:
José Luis Cuevas is a Mexican artist and was one of the first to challenge the then dominant Mexican muralism movement as a prominent member of the Generación de la Ruptura (Breakaway Generation). He is a mostly self-taught artist, whose styles and influences are moored to the darker side of life, often depicting distorted figures and the debasement of humanity.
Behind and to the right of “La Giganta” stands El Templo de San Diego de Alcántara (the Temple of San Diego), built around 1663, it is considered the first monastery that existed in the Real de Minas de Guanajuato.
Up the hill behind the temple, we had our first look at El Pipila. More about this iconic Guanajuato statue later.
We ate lunch at a place on the plaza, called “”Van Gogh.” Someone has a sense of humor. It was fun just to watch all the people and activity in and around the plaza.
We then started a bit of exploring, walking in the area near the hotel. This is typical of the area: streets blocked off for walkers, old buildings, narrow streets, a lot of people.
This sign got my attention. The taxi had driven us through tunnels. Now I see a walkway into them.
Naturally in this art city, around the plaza are people selling their works.
Below, the Templo de San Francisco (Saint Francis of Assisi Church), built of quarried pink stone by Franciscan friars in the 18th century.
There are lots of bronze statues here. Below is an abstract figure, “Angel” by Leonardo Nierman, a Mexican artist mostly known for his painting and sculpture. Nierman has had exhibitions in Mexico and abroad and much international recognition of his work. His work is abstract but still with discernible images from nature.
Houses on a hill in afternoon light.
One of many examples of buildings from the city’s rich past.
People sit under the shade of trees the surround the plaza.
Below, a vendor selling Papier Mache puppets.
A bronze face protrudes from the wall.
Everywhere you look there are intriguing alleys. They must go somewhere, I wonder?
After dark we walked around that area again, to see it all lit up.
Here is Templo de San Francisco under lights.
The narrow streets.
This is a landmark in the Jardin de la Union. The architecture of this theater is part Roman, part Greek and part Moorish, showing the Spanish roots of Mexican culture at the time. It was inaugurated in 1903 by President Porfirio Diaz, the same President Diaz who was overthrown in the Mexican Revolution a few years later.
The next day, city tour
This is the big day, a tour of the city. We hadn’t arranged a tour before the trip. At the bus station, tours were advertised for 150 pesos each, but in Spanish. Carol talked to someone at the plaza about a tour in English, but it was 1400 pesos each. She looked on the Internet and found an English-language site that offered tours, and she booked them. She thought that since the site was English, that the tour would be, too.
As we left the hotel, the morning light illuminated the plaza.
And we got a better photo of El Pipila, in good daylight.
Driving tour of the city
Our driver came and picked us up. We got on a nice van for the tour. Half a dozen people were in the bus. Carol asked the driver about English. He said that the tour was in Spanish. The two other gringas were surprised to hear this! During the day she tried to translate for us, with only moderate success.
Driving out, we saw another statue of Don Quixote, and his sidekick, Sancho.
We saw many nice parks and plazas in the city.
A tree-lined street from inside the van.
In front of the building is this statue with a plaque, Al Maestro, “To the Teacher.”
Below, a striking Guanajuato Victorian, the height of residential architecture of more than 100 years ago.
As we got up out of the valley, I could see how big the city really is. It is in a long valley, filled with houses and buildings all throughout the valley and climbing up the slopes.
I think to really understand the feelings of the locals, you need to know the story behind this statue. The figure is from the Mexican struggle against Spain for independence.
He is seen as the man whose heroic act in a key battle for independence saved the day and enabled the successful war against Spain for independence. He is a Mexican hero and a local one, too. Mexicans love and identify with their heroes of independence and the revolution. He is maybe the biggest such hero in Guanajuato.
El Pipila’s moment came during the early stages of the independence movement. The Spaniards feared the tensions in the Guanajuato region and barricaded themselves in the most fortified building of the city, the “Alhondiga de Granaditas”. The “Alhondiga de Granaditas” was built as the city’s grain storage facility, but the solid stonewalls and suitable vantage points for archers to repel attackers made it a sensible defensive position.
The Spaniard’s plan was to maintain their position until reinforcements could arrive to quell the rioters. This course of action appeared feasible until the brave actions of El Pipila. El Pipila, not fearing for his safety strapped a large stone on his back, picked up a bucket of tar and grabbed a flaming torch and ran at the only weak point of the structure, the wooden door.
On his dash to the door, the stone on his back protected him from the arrows of the Spanish defenders. Once at the door he coated it in tar and set the tar alight by his torch. The fire weakened the solid wood door and the smoke limited the sight of the archers allowing others to rush the door. The rioters forced open the door and flooded into the “Alhondiga de Granaditas”.
The rioters killed the entire Spanish garrison of troops along with the refugees and plundered the treasures that had been hoarded by the Spanish. This first victory inspired the masses and significantly enhanced the Mexican independence movement. El Pipila’s tale spread like wildfire and encouraged peasants to revolt. If a lowly crippled miner could rise up so could the entire nation. Years later the Spanish were driven out of Mexico, but this allowed even harsher Silver Barons to fill the void.
The Statue dedicated to El Pipila stands high above Guanajuato holding his torch high. At the base of the large statue is the inscription “there are still other “alhondigas” to burn”.
After driving up into the hills we came to his statue. It is a popular place to visit. There is even a tram from near the plaza where we were staying. I think it is also a romantic spot where young lovers can come to enjoy the view and each other.
Here is the statue from up close.
And below it is the center of Guanajuato.
Including the Jardin de la Union where we are staying.
Here is the big church, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato.
Houses sprawled up the hillside.
While Carol was standing there, a gold miner – I mean a man with a golden colored miner’s outfit and gold face paint – came to have his picture taken with her.
A vendor’s rack of various masks and wigs.
You should note that these first insurgents who captured the Alhondiga de Granaditas eventually fell. The four main participants – Miguel Hidalgo, Ignacio Allende, Juan Aldama, and José Mariano Jiménez – were shot by Spanish firing squads, and their bodies decapitated. The four heads were hung from the corners of the Alhóndiga, to discourage other independence movements. The heads remained hanging for ten years, until Mexico achieved its independence.
The City of Frogs
Now we have come out of the hills and are reentering the main part of the city, and we see the Plaza de Ranas (Plaza of Frogs). To remind you, Guanajuato means, “Hilly Place of Frogs.” This plaza is filled with sandstone carving – of frogs, naturally.
Here is a close-up of one of the statues, from www.travelblog.org; frogs doing what comes naturally.
One unique feature of the city is a system of underground tunnels used as part of the road system. They were originally to divert flood water in the rainy season, but changed into a key part of the road system to handle traffic in a crowded valley. By the time they were built, tunneling was a big skill of this mining city.
There are two parts of these tunnels.
The first was started in 1883 for flood control of the Rio Guanajuato, the Guanajuato River, that flows through the heart of the city. The tunnel was blasted out using dynamite, using the skills and expertise mastered during the many years of mining operations. The river diversion prevented flooding in Guanajuato since the construction.
The second part of the system was started in the 1960s, which diverted the river much deeper and used improved materials and techniques. The original tunnel showed signs of collapse and deterioration. The old river tunnels were strengthened, reinforced, and converted into a road tunnel to handle increased levels of traffic. The tunnels were big enough to allow cars, medium sized buses and vans, but prevent larger transport getting into the city. The first journey was in 1961. Several additional tunnels were dug during the late 1960’s and 1990’s.
This is an entrance into the newer part of the system. The old part has only single tunnels and entrances.
Inside the tunnels is a different world. To me it was kind of like “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” at Disneyland, with side tunnels and cars suddenly appearing on all sides. No warnings, no traffic controls, just controlled chaos.
Note that there are walkways at the side of the road, so there is foot traffic, too.
Castello Santa Cecelia
Back outside, here is what looks like a medieval castle.
It is. This is the Castello Santa Cecelia. It was built to look like a medieval castle in 1951. It opened with 20 rooms in 1952. Its roots go back to 1686 and a land grant to San Francisco Javier. The original site had hundreds of workers under the command of the Viceroy of New Spain working to process silver to make metal goods.
In the center of a roundabout is a statue of a miner with some kind of drill.
Museo de la Inquisicion (Museum of the Holy Inquisition)
Next is a grisly part of the tour, perhaps as terrible as anything I have seen, the Museo de la Inquisicion. This place “celebrates” (how can that be the correct word?) the Mexican version of the Spanish Inquisition.
In 1762, the first inquisition official arrived in the region. The inquisition officials were priests appointed by the Catholic Church to combat followers of non-Catholic religions, particularly Protestants. The expulsion of the Jesuits from Mexico in 1767 provoked additional conflicts between local elites and the Catholic Church, creating more fodder for the inquisition.
Another name for this place is Hacienda del Cochero, Hacienda of the Coachman.
We are greeted at the entrance by a skull coming right out of the wall at us, seeming to scream.
We walk into the hacienda.
A woman in a monk’s robe is our guide. She just speaks Spanish, and is apparently not bothered by the fact that these orders never were for female monks. Women were only nuns.
We were greeted inside the museum by a number of specially designed implements and machines to torture.
This is a chair.
Here is another chair, seemingly in use by a skeleton.
This room is filled with horrors. We have a spiked coffin-like box to the left, a simple ax and chopping block in blue light in the center, and an execution chair to the right. The execution chair has a metal spike at neck level, and the victim was strapped to the chair. A harness around his neck and lower face would be tightened to pull his neck into the spike, eventually causing death.
Here is a grave plaque for someone who died in 1757 before the inquisition started here.
Very old pistols, from the 1700s. Notice that the barrel of the top one is flared, so maybe it shot something like buckshot, not a ball.
There were cages where people would be suspended from the ceiling.
Spanish armor from the period. The museum uses colored lights, red and blue, to make the place more creepy.
Here was their version of waterboarding, a wheel that rotated the head under water.
This was a most important part of their toolset, a scale to weigh the gold and valuables that they seized from the victim.
As a tourist spot, they provide places for photos.
As a note, I got the clear idea that this effort was Franciscan. Now the Franciscans were, I think, mainly monks. In Mexico in those days there were not nearly enough priests. So monks would give masses and do many other tasks normally done only by priests. I wondered if torture was one of those tasks?
The exit to the museum shows just what a fort-like place this hacienda was. I don’t really know if this is where the torture chambers were, I think so, but not sure. If so, these thick walls would muffle any screams.
This museum has apparently existed for some time, but ten years ago something happened. Following the statements of Pope John Paul II in which he asked forgiveness for the things that the church had done during those years, they stopped hiding it. So now this part of the history of Guanajuato can be shown.
Stop for a sales visit
In the last years, Carol and I have enjoyed taking tours of places we travel to. I have noticed a part of this that I don’t like much–the planned visits to local tourist shops for a presentation and sales pitch. Maybe you like these, but I think they are a waste of my time, and I don’t like paying someone (the tour company) to take me to a captive sales operation.
Today we stopped at two places for four product pitches. A few photos from the first stop are below. Not shown is a shop that offered local liqueurs, sweets, and bottled hot sauces.
Here is the rock shop. Its name is La Veta De Cuarzo, “the Quartz Vein.”
The shop was filled with shiny stones in many forms: bracelets, necklaces, and table geegaws. Note that “geegaw” is defined as follows: “a showy thing, especially one that is useless or worthless.”
They have a row of stools where we were to sit during their presentation. What a waste for half an hour. But I guess the tour company filled our time.
One big tourist activity in Guanajuato is a mine tour. There are a lot of different sites where this is done. We were taken to Mina Experimental El Nopal, “El Nopal Experimental Mine.” This mine has operated since 1886, run by the University of Guanajuato, which uses it to provide practice for its Mineralogy students. It is an easy place to tour.
What you mainly see is a tunnel through the rock. The rock is hard enough that little shoring (bracing) is needed. There is a narrow rail track at the base of the tunnel, and a pipe and wire above to one side. The tunnel is only a little higher than a person.
They give out hard hats to wear. I wish I had gotten one with a light on the hat. Oh well.
Here is a modern drill that they showed. Not my photo, though, from static.panoramio.com.
Behind the group, in dark light, is the elevator that would take you to the interior of the mine. This was not on the route, though,
Museo de las Momias – Museum of the Mummies
Next on the tour, and a “must-see” for any tourist was the Museo de las Momias, the “Museum of the Mummies.”
Unlike most other mummies around the world, these were not specially mummified, but rather were preserved by the method of burial in the Saint Paola Cemetery next door. These corpses, rather than being buried in the ground, are sealed inside air-tight crypts, where the lack of oxygen slows the natural rate of decomposition. “The bodies dry out rather than putrefy, which leaves them in this state of mummification,” says Jesús Saltillo, one of the tour guides at the museum. Also, the mummification process of these corpses was a natural one, product of the salt levels and unique minerals found at Guanajuato.
They also are not ancient, but rather they are the bodies of common people from the 19th century who died of a cholera outbreak. The church sells long-term leases on their crypts. Families who choose not to pay about $100 for a 20-year lease are given the option of letting the body of their loved one be handed over to the museum or be buried in a common grave. If they are handed over, the museum curator will choose the “best” bodies for display. These are some of the bodies we will see today.
The mummies are a parchment-yellow color, their dried skin shrunk and molded around the bones which lie beneath the surface. The thinner areas of skin – such as the eyelids, genitals, cheeks and earlobes – have deteriorated faster, and in most cases little remains but flaky scraps and gaping holes.
Many of these mummies seem to be screaming. There are two reasons for this. The first is terrifying: during the epidemic, some were buried while still alive. The second reason is the the people who were exhibiting them, somehow re-formed the faces into a scream.
Some were wearing boots.
Some were dressed.
An area that is really touching is the display of the “Angelitos,” mummies of infants.
The corpses were buried in standing positions in narrow coffins.
Many are unsettling.
Below are the two most frightening.
On foot again after the tour
The tour is over now, and we are on foot in the center of the city.
We pass by one of many Don Quixote statues.
We found one restaurant on the plaza that was outstanding. We ended up eating there several times, and always enjoyed it mucho.
The place is Casa Valadez. This was some of the best restaurant food we have had anywhere in the world.
This was the bread plate served before the meal, fresh and warm – just baked.
Everything was perfect.
Back at the Plaza de la Union there is always something going on. We noticed many photo shoots and such in the few days we were there. This was a video shoot.
Giving direction to the actors.
They are ready.
At night, near the plaza
Walking in the evening with all the lights is one of the local pleasures.
This is the big cathedral, Cathedral Basilica Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato, “Our Lady of Guanajuato Basilica.”
The Plaza de La Paz, the “Plaza of Peace,” in front of the cathedral.
Near the Plaza de La Paz are a couple of statues, tonight with boys posing like the statues.
An open air restaurant across from the plaza.
Looking in the door of one of the many shops.
Back to the Plaza de la Union, there is a musical group singing, dressed in Cervantes-period costumes.
At night by the Plaza de la Union.
The entrance to our hotel, the Luna.
This is one of the real pleasures of Guanajuato. Our last day we wanted to explore on foot.
We soon found the Universidad de Guanajuato, the University of Guanajuato. The university traces its history back to the educational institute called the Hospice of the Holy Trinity, founded by the Jesuits, established on October 1, 1732, so it is a very old part of the city. Programs founded around this time included Mining, Law, Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. So this is where you would go to become a mining engineer. It is the largest university in the state.
The school mascot, or at least a prominent statue, at the base of the entrance stairway, El Minotauro, half-man, half-bull. This Minotaur is proudly displaying its fierce and mythical manliness, with red paint, blood dripping down his chest.
I love the views through the narrow streets.
House of Diego Rivera
This was one of our targets for the day. And we actually found it. (For the rest of the world who walk around with their smart phones and Google maps, maybe this does not seem as significant, but for us old-timers who use maps and written direction, this is kind of a deal, to find what you are looking for in an unknown city.)
I, of course, know a bit about Diego Rivera; that he was Frida’s husband, popularized the famous image of the calavera Katrina, and painted archetypal Mexican characters. Carol, with her art history background, knows him as one of the famous Mexican muralists. By far, the three most influential muralists from the 20th century are Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Siqueiros, called los tres grandes, “the three great ones.” All believed that art was the highest form of human expression and a key force in social revolution.
This museum is at the house where Diego Rivera grew up, giving an interesting view of the artist.
Poster in the lobby.
The museum is on three levels, connected by an elevator with graphics celebrating Diego Rivera’s works.
The lower floor is furnished with typical pieces from the era of his childhood. This seems like such a different time!
Photo of Diego Rivera.
In 1907 Rivera went to Spain and France where his artistic talent started to blossom. There he became acquainted with many of the new artistic movements, particularly Cubism, that had developed in Europe, and he met many famous painters, including Pablo Picasso.
A wall-poster, celebrating his work.
A sketch of Lenin.
In the 1920s Rivera was commissioned to paint several series of oversize murals in different locations around Mexico. An ardent Communist, he traveled to Moscow in 1927 to take part in the ten-year anniversary of the October Revolution. In 1929 Rivera married Frida Kahlo, who was a young promising art student at the time.
One of Rivera’s iconic Mexican figures. I am amazed by just how much he can express in a few lines. This is the kind of work I think of when I think of him.
I was interested that they showed some of the development of his work. He was well trained, and they show some early works from this period.
This is a nude. Early work, while he was still perfecting his art.
Cubist piece, from 1914, Portrait de Messieurs Kawashima et Foujita. Image from wikipedia,
A floral arrangement.
A man’s face, realistic.
Peace Dove, one of his last works, made a year before his death in 1956. I love the expressive simplicity of this piece.
Below, Rivera himself, as a pug-faced child, and Frida Kahlo stand beside the skeleton, Catrina. The original mural is in Mexico City. This is the center section of what is now his most well-known mural. From wikipedia.
Since we arrived just after the Day of the Dead, they had an altar set out for Diego and Frida.
Back out on the street. Many stairways up the hill.
The Hidalgo market
We see a big structure down the hill with an arched white roof. This is the Hidalgo Market. This was originally started as a train station, but was repurposed by President Diaz, just before the revolution.
The aging president Porfirio Diaz inaugurated the station in 1910, but then the station was rapidly transformed into a market.
The inauguration coincided with the centennial celebrations of Mexican independence, so the market was named after Miguel Hidalgo, one of Guanajuato state’s early Mexican independence martyrs. Porfirio Diaz had performed an amazing public relations act by transforming an expensive, unwanted structure into a building which Guanajuato’s residents would use, take pride in and, in doing so, recalled a local hero of the independence movement. None of this helped Diaz avoid the coming revolution, though.
Inside it is a jumble of vendors and stalls, spread over two levels.
Back on the street
Outside there is an entrance to the tunnel system walkways. These are all over the city.
Carol shops at a stall.
Walking back towards our hotel, we encounter the Jardín Reforma. It opened in 1861 and it was designed by architect Jose Noriega, who, years later, designed the Teatro Juarez.
Carol looks in another shop.
There is another professional photo shoot going on by the Teatro Juarez.
Festival Internacional Cervantino
Below is a poster for the recent celebration, the 400th anniversary of Cervantes.
There is not some historical connection between Guanajuato and Cervantes, but rather an enterprising college professor had an idea.
In 1952 Professor Enrique Ruelas Espinosa of the University of Guanajuato started the University Theater of Guanajuato. The next year they put on “The Entremeses,” (The Cakes) by Cervantes, eight short plays that humorously show life in Spain in the early 1600s. These performances were popular and caught on, so this performance series was continued every year. In 1972, it moved to another level.
As an extension to the theater work by government work in 1972 formed the Cervantino Colloquy, a international symposium to brings together Latin American cervantistas to disseminate and discuss the work of this great writer and playwright. This was combined with an expansion of the event, and promotion of it internationally. the 1972 festival in its new format attracted interest because of the influence of the politicians promoting it. Politicians loved this as an international event that would draw people to Mexico.
In 2005, Guanajuato was named “Capital Cervantina of America” and today boasts of having one of the cultural festivals that is world renowned. It offers live dance, theater, opera, visual arts, lectures, workshops and more. It is held in October.
Museo Iconográfico del Quijote
Don Quixote Iconographic Museum
The Iconographic Museum of Quixote was inaugurated in 1987 in the heart of Guanajuato. It is housed in an 18th century European-style building and has a collection of over 800 pieces, including oil paintings, acrylics, prints, bronze sculptures, handicrafts, ceramics, etc. The central theme is the figure of Don Quixote, alone or accompanied by one of the characters in the book.
The art is spread over 17 rooms and courtyards that display permanent exhibits accompanied by information on the pieces.
Our last stop of this visit to Guanajuato is at the Don Quixote Museum.
A bronze Don Quixote stands outside the entrance.
I will just show a few of the pieces that illustrate the range of the images and creativity of the artists.
I love how different images at varying scales are blended to make this large image.
The modern version of Don Quixote.
A classic painting. Its not always easy to be a Knight.
Sculpture and stairs.
I have seen this image of the dog many times before.
The painting below was about 15 feet high, in a stairwell. So when you look, imagine it looming over you.
You can see more of the art at the museum website, http://museoiconografico.guanajuato.gob.mx/pintura.html
We will go back
What can I say about Guanajuato? Superlatives are needed. We thoroughly enjoyed our few days there. We also found that luxury bus travel in Mexico is pretty easy and comfortable. We will go back, I am sure. It is worth more than the few days we had here. I think anyone traveling in Mexico should go to Guanajuato.