They say that the town of Guanajuato can be seen in a single day, but no one who ever did left the next day. Guanajuato has a population 1/10th the size of Queretaro's and twice the charm. Guanajuato is squeezed into a narrow valley flanked by steep mountains, which makes its streets very narrow, steep, and winding. Many homes can only be reached on foot by traversing the town's claustrophobia-inducing alleys.
The Spanish found silver in the surrounding mountains in the 1540s and quickly sent soldiers and built forts and mines. Over time, more and more silver deposits were discovered. By the 1700s, Guanajuato was the world's largest producer of silver, making it the richest city in all of Mexico for much of the Spanish colonization period. That wealth is on full display in the town center, with my personal favorite example being the KFC housed in what was once a stately mansion.
If there's one thing a mining town can do well, it's using truck loads of TNT to blast tunnels through a mountain. Many of the city’s roads pass through a disorienting network of underground tunnels, originally built to divert flood water and later repurposed for traffic. This helps keep traffic levels down for us surface-dwellers.
When you emerge from the tunnels, Guanajuato's true form hits you like a ton of delightfully pastel-colored bricks. That statue up there is of El Pipila. Don't worry, I'll have a boring history lesson for you on him in a moment. For now, just enjoy the sights.
From a higher vantage point, you get a better feel of how this city is laid out. The city center is compact and mostly flat, while the brightly colored homes ascend into the hills surrounding it.
You can ride a cable car up to the top of one of the taller hills, where you've got a view of the whole city.
If you happen to turn around, you'll be confronted with the colossal statue of El Pípila, one of Guanajuato's local heroes. He became famous for his act of heroism in the very first battle of the Mexican War of Independence against the ruling Spanish. The insurrection began in a nearby town where Miguel Hidalgo, a criollo priest, had called upon the people join him in armed revolt. The mobj he assembled marched from Dolores, through Celaya and San Miguel, to Guanajuato, amassing thousands of rebels along the way. When they arrived, the Spanish had barricaded themselves (along with plenty of silver and gold) in a heavily fortified grain warehouse. The granary was a stone fortress with high stone walls and a wooden door.
With a long, flat stone tied to his back to protect him from the muskets of the Spanish troops, the local miner Pípila carried tar and a torch to the door of the granary and set it on fire. The insurgents–who far outnumbered the Spanish in the warehouse–stormed inside and killed all the soldiers and the civil Spanish refugees. Today, El Pípila's statue overlooks the city that he helped free, standing guard and serving as a handy point of reference for those attempting to navigate the twisting roads and alleys.
This is the Alhóndiga de Granaditas, the site of the first battle in the Mexican War of Independence.
At the heart of city center is the Plaza de la Paz (Plaza of the peace). It features a garden with a large sculpture, behind which stands the Basilica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato, built in the late 1600s. The plaza is surrounded by nice restaurants and old mansions now repurposed as commercial and government buildings.
The town is full of students thanks to the presence of the University of Guanajuato, which serves about 30,000 students throughout the region. It began as a Jesuit school in the mid 1700s.
If you need groceries, check out Hidalgo market (named for another hero of the Mexican Revolution, the aforementioned Miguel Hidalgo). Apparently, it was originally meant to be a major train station, but the railway project was dropped, so the structure was transformed into a grand market.
During the day, the city functions like any other. There is a blend of students and tourists (very few of whom were Americans) going about their day. At night, the city comes alive. If you simply follow your ears, you'll find yourself in Jardin de la Union, a triangular city square lined with dense shade trees and park benches and flanked by the patios of numerous restaurants, each sporting a mariachi band attempting to outplay their neighbors.
On the opposite side of the gardens, you'll find yet more landmarks, including the neoclassical Teatro Juarez, built in the late 1800s, and featuring nine sculptures depicting the Muses of Greek mythology.
Beside Teatro Juarez is the San Diego Church, sporting a Churrigueresque façade built in the late 1700s.
In front of the theater and church, every night, you'll find crowds forming around a group of young men dressed in classic colonial Spanish garb. The men are wielding guitars, mandolins, and tambourines, and are preparing to begin Guanajuato's most emblematic tradition. The group is called an Estudiantina, referring to the fact that the groups are mainly comprised of students at the University. The men lead "callejoneadas", or walking tours that mend through Guanajuato's twisting alleys, playing classic songs all the while, pausing between songs to recount and reenact the myths and legends of this bizarre place.
Having traveled through Mexico for about a month and a half at the time of this writing, I still look back at Guanajuato with the most fondness. It's a bizarre, beautiful, romantic place. I'm quite sure I'll be back, some day.