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Guanajuato: Mexico's Hidden Jewel

Perhaps the most interesting town in Mexico: ramparts, Mexico's 'Statue of Liberty,' Mummy Museum, and more.

Can you name a walled city on a hill, founded in 1559 and located in North America? One whose bright pastel homes resemble an Italian seaport, but whose ancient somber stone core feels like Quebec City, or Toledo, Spain.

Give up? It's the little treasure of Guanajuato (pronounced Gwah-nah-kh-hoo-ah-tow), a small city isolated in the mountains, about equidistant between Mexico City and Gudalajara. You may not have heard of it, but Guanajuato's cultural richness and architectural intrigue make it well worth the trip.

Unlike most walled cities, its walls were not built to keep intruders out, but reach up to protect walkers from the precipitous drop to the riverbed and the underground highway that runs alongside it. Its serpentine streets run up and down as much as side to side; in many spots, the quickest way between streets is up a flight of stairs.

A very good overview tour (with English guides occasionally available) is coordinated by the tourist office (at the plaza where Juarez meets Cinco de Mayo); they'll also give you a detailed map, with city streets on one side and nearby regional attractions (hot springs, craft villages) on the other. We learned from our knowledgeable 15-year-old guide that Guanajuato has 35 churches—and 45 bars!

The half-day tour includes one of the last working silver mines (though not a trip down the shaft), a trip to the Pipila statue—whose scale and local importance are similar to the U.S.'s Statue of Liberty—and also a unique and macabre Guanajuato attraction, the Panteon.

This is a museum of mummified human remains—not swaddled Egyptian style, but exposed for all to see. Apparently, some sections of the local cemetery are so dry that the bodies are preserved. And since the city is short on space, those whose relatives can't afford to keep paying rent on the grave are exhumed—their desiccated bodies shown off in illuminated glass cases along the dark halls. The mummies—they look like leather sculptures—show how differently we greet death. Some seem to scream; others are relaxed, finally at peace.

To fully appreciate the Guanajuato of today, you need a quick course in the town's rich and diverse history. In Spanish colonial times, its major industry was silver; and there are still a few working mines in the area. In the 19th century, the town played a major role in the revolution against Spain. It was captured by Father Miguel Hidalgo, leader of the independence movement, in the early days of the fight for self-rule.

Traces of that battle are easy to find today; in the Alhondiga, a grain storehouse where the Royalists hid, and in the huge statue to Pipila (José Barajas), that can be seen from almost any point in the city below. Pipila's statue, incidentally, is a short, if fairly vertical walk from the center of town, and affords great views of the downtown area and the surrounding mountains.

Pipila burned the Alhondiga under Hidalgo's orders; later, the severed heads of Hidalgo and three other revolutionaries were displayed there for ten years, as a grisly warning. Today, the Alhondiga is a wonderful museum, with not only exhibits on the uprising and other town history, but also two murals by Chavez Morado, a strong pre-Columbian art and artifact collection, and displays of local crafts.

While in a painterly mood, tour Diego Rivera's birthplace. Perhaps the best-known of Mexico's world-renowned 20th century muralists, Rivera also painted smaller works, a number of which can be seen here.

Visual arts are only one aspect of Guanajuato's cultural attractions. Only 80,000 people live there, but Guanajuato is a major performing arts venue. The city is home to the annual Cervantes Festival; every fall, world-renowned musicians, actors, dancers, even puppeteers descend upon its twisted alleys and cliffside homes. And during the rest of the year, the plazas and parks are still crowded with musicians -- once while strolling in the Jardin del Union (Guanajuato's central square), an informal survey showed almost every tenth person carrying an instrument.

The university-sponsored "entremeses" are professional-quality theater performances, given outdoors in the courtyard of the Plazuela de San Roque. The center of town boasts two large, elegant theaters: the Juarez and the Principal, both of which offer frequent performances.

Around the corner, the mustard-colored cathedral has a silver-dominated interior so ostentatious it would be blinding in the sunshine. An internationally known school of mime and clown arts attracts many students from the U.S. and Europe. And bibliophiles --Spanish speaking ones, anyway -- will appreciate the twenty-odd outdoor bookstalls congregated near the university.

Formal attractions aside, plan to spend some hours just walking around, enjoying the multiple levels of architecture, winding cobblestone streets, steep stairways to nowhere, massive fortress walls, intricate arches and sculptures. Guanajuato is lively at almost any hour, except the early morning. The streets and markets are always bustling, and you're bound to find impromptu live music and dance. When it gets too intense, there's plenty of respite in the benches of the many tree-lined plazas, or in an ice-cold mineral water and a plate of guacamole at a sidewalk cafe.

For us, Guanajuato was the jewel of Mexico: the standout in a month-long journey that covered nine major destinations and numerous smaller ones. Perhaps it will be for you as well.

Click here to read more about our bus trip around Mexico.

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.


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