Guanajuato is one of Mexico's most beautiful and well-preserved colonial cities. Built high in the mountains, Guanajuato is a maze of narrow and twisting streets, many of which are passable only on foot.
The city was founded in 1548 to exploit the silver and gold discovered in the surrounding mountains. For a time, Guanajuato's La Valanciana mine supplied more than half of all silver reaped by the Spanish crown. Even today, some nearby silver, gold and lead mines are still producing.
The wealth produced by the silver mines is reflected in Guanajuato's grand buildings and lavishly decorated churches. But Guanajuato was, and still is, also a center of learning. The University of Guanajuato was founded in 1732 by the Jesuits and remains today one of Mexico's most prestigious universities. Students, visible throughout the city, give Guanajuato a lively air that ensures it will remain more than just a carefully preserved museum piece.
Guanajuato also holds a special place in the history of Mexico's struggle for independence from Spain. In 1810, the city witnessed a battle between Spanish Royalists – the mining barons and large landowners of the day – and a ragtag force of peasant farmers, miners and other disenfranchised citizens led by Father Hidalgo de Costilla (remembered as the "Father of Mexican Independence"). Father Hidalgo's forces won the day when Juan Jose Martinez (known as "El Pípila," the young turkey) set fire to the door of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas (a stone, fortress-like granary) where the Royalists had sought refuge. The Royalists were defeated, the city was sacked and many people were massacred. The victory, however, would prove to be short-lived. The following year, Hidalgo and three other leaders of the revolt were caught and executed in Chihuahua. Their heads were brought to Guanajuato and hung from hooks at the corners of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas, where they remained displayed until 1821. Today, the hooks are still visible and a large statue of El Pípila, with his torch raised, stands high above Guanajuato.
Unlike other Spanish colonial cities, Guanajuato lacks a large, rectangular central plaza surrounded by broad, straight avenues. Instead, the central meeting place is the small, triangular-shaped and leafy Jardín de la Unión (Union Garden). The garden has a central bandstand where concerts are presented several evenings a week, benches for weary pedestrians or people watchers, and is bordered along one side by sidewalk cafés. Radiating out from the garden, dictated perhaps more by the necessities of terrain than the ideals of cartographic logic, are a tangle of narrow streets – most of which, I am pleased to say, are closed to vehicular traffic and offer many opportunities to make discoveries on foot.
Away from the central historical district, traffic is allowed on the streets and it can become a confusing maze for the uninitiated (such as your humble narrator). The situation would be even worse, however, were it not for an equally confusing maze of tunnels that runs beneath the city and diverts much of the traffic that would otherwise have to battle for position on the surface streets. In a sense, Guanajuato has a subway – only you drive your car through it rather than ride a train. If you know the ropes, I am sure the system works quite well. As a first-time visitor, however, I found myself going in circles for a while.
Guanajuato was a wonderful city to visit. If you haven't seen it already, it's definitely worth adding to your list.