Heart of Mexico
Despite the U.S. State Department's travel warning concerning parts of Mexico, American citizens are visiting their southern neighbor in droves, with AAA naming Cancun as the top travel choice for Americans in 2018.
But while some may choose the coasts for their sexy attractions and luxury touches, those who want a taste of a more authentic Mexico should choose the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Guanajuato.
A hilly city of 70,000 (around 170,000 in the entire municipality) with winding cobblestone streets that hide cafes and charisma around every corner, Guanajuato's Mexican charms — especially during the festive Easter season — will leave the open-hearted traveler with an understanding of Mexico that’s rarely offered by cable news.
Unlike other Mexican destinations, you will rarely be badgered to buy trinkets or Chiclets in Guanajuato. However, you will not be coddled, either. Visiting Guanajuato — usually by a flight into nearby Leon and then a $40-50 USD taxi ride — is an intentional trip fit for travelers rather than tourists. And it offers plenty of first-rate hotel and restaurant options (our picks: Book a stay at El Meson de los Poetas, which hits the Goldilocks zone of not too far but not too close to the action, and eat at El Gallo Pitagorico, offering not only top-notch Northern Italian cuisine, but gorgeous views of the city).
But the real draw here are the cultural attractions, the museums and markets often frequented by Mexican locals. Visiting these top stops provides a timely reminder that you don't have to completely understand a culture to completely appreciate a culture.
El Pipila Statue, La Bufa and the Parador Turistico Sangre de Cristo
Once you've filled your stomach, work off that meal by taking a climb and looking out over the landscapes below.
Since Guanajuato is surrounded by hills, you'll have your pick of climbs, but don't miss the classic view from the Pipila, a statue of an indigenous silver miner who participated in the revolt against the Spanish in 1810, which can also be reached by the city's Funicular Panoramico. El Papila is not just a literal but a figurative overview of Guanajuato, a place to not only take in the view but also to contemplate the region’s long struggle between natives and colonizers. There's also the Parador Turistico Sangre de Cristo, which requires a taxi ride but offers even grander views of both Guanajuato and of the Bajio Valley.
If you're up for a hike — and there's no better way to see a city than by hiking — choose La Bufa, a stark cliff just outside of town that is too hot during the summer months but a doable challenge during winter and even late spring.
Hikers will enjoy the company of swallows and a peregrine falcon or two, and will often be rewarded by a stiff, steady breeze at the summit. (Guanajuato is a superb walking city; just be cautious on narrow city streets where walking too quickly around a blind curve could result in the exchange of a kneecap for a hubcap.)
Jardin de la Union
If Guanajuato is the heart of Mexico, then the Jardin plaza is the heart of Guanajuato.
Thick, boxy hedge trees offer shade from the noon sun that can feel too close for comfort at 6,600 feet of elevation, and the sound of splattering fountains mixes with the idle chit chat of chic locals and happy tourists. This is grade-A eye candy, so pick a good bench and practice that wonderful European habit of people-watching that elevates doing nothing to a full day's work.
Soaking up the atmosphere of the Jardin is the best way to shift into real vacation mode in Guanajuato, too. In this timeless town, the cultural exchange is more about time well spent than money well spent. (Counting how many locals had another person's hand in hand instead of a cell phone in hand was moving.) Sitting at the Jardin and trying to appreciate the culture is also a good way to transition from needy tourist to attentive traveler.
If you can't choose between all the delightful restaurants and cafes, visit the central market and let the food choose you. Whether it's sizzling carnitas wafting from the grill, the happy hum of a blender preparing a smoothie or the simple sight of a perfectly sliced mango, follow your senses to your heart's delight in this extraordinary spot. (The sight of the "mamey," a fruit that looks like the love child between a sweet potato and a kiwi, held me spellbound for minutes.)
And once you've had your meal — or finished that eighth small bite of the day — check out the market’s multitude of stalls, which provide an ideal way to understand the local artisan scene, and will provide you with the perfect souvenir to take back home.
Alhondiga de Granaditas
Mexican resort towns on the beach will have you sleeping away your afternoons, a necessary breather between endless parties. But the many museums of Guanajuato offer your brain — and heart and spirit, for that matter — real replenishment and a fascinating insight into the history of Mexico.
Start with the regal Alhondiga de Granaditas, the huge stone granary where Mexico's first victory against the Spanish took place. For anyone foggy about Mexico's unique place in world history (which, let's face it, covers a lot of people), a visit to the Alhondiga is a must. Through grand exhibits and art, learn about the events that shaped modern Mexico — including its independence from Spain, war with the U.S. and period of French rule.
Museo Casa Diego Rivera
Although many cities boast museums with the works of the great Diego Rivera, only Guanajuato offers a museum housed in the very home where he grew up.
This small but intimate museum offers not just Rivera's works but also a clear portrait of his upbringing and hints of what made him a masterful artist, revered worldwide.
Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato
A distinctive quality of Mexican culture, as anyone who has attended a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival knows, is its regard for death. Unlike many Americans who avoid direct discussions of death (as if that might help us avoid it), Mexicans embrace the fact that death is, well, where we are all headed.
The Museo de las Momias de Gunajuato, aka Mexican Mummy museum, approaches death not as some horrible end but as a surprising starting point for a discussion on the lives we should try to lead. Through thoughtful snippets of poetry and famous quotes on death tastefully displayed over the exhibits (favorite: “Every man dies. Not every man really lives.”- William Wallace), the museum provides a fascinating tribute to our unavoidable ends.
Thoughtful poetry aside, just know that this museum is certainly not for everyone. (In fact, a walk through this dimly lit place makes “The Walking Dead” seem like “Sesame Street.”)
Don Quixote Iconographic Museum
Just when you thought Guanajuato had no more treasure to offer, you'll discover that the city is the Don Quixote Cervantes Center of America, all due to the extraordinary story of one extraordinary man, Eulalio Ferrer.
Ferrer, a native of Spain, fled to France during the Spanish civil war. He survived French refugee/concentration camps in 1939 by reading and re-reading Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Qioxote,” featuring a protagonist whose dreamy optimism kept him going. When Ferrer found freedom in Mexico, he was so obsessed with Cervantes' famous knight-in-shining-armor that he collected and petitioned artists to produce as many paintings, engravings and sculptures inspired by “Don Quixote” as he could find.
The end result is the Don Quixote Iconographic Museum (and the city's annual Cervantino festival in October), and it is like nothing you have ever seen.
Mina and Templo La Valenciana
If you're overwhelmed by all the riches of Guanajuato and wondering where it all came from, take a city bus up to the Mina and Templo La Valenciana. The history of Guanajuato begins and ends with silver, loads and loads of it, dug out of surrounding hills, mostly by Native tribes pushed to exhaustion by the Spanish.
You'll get to clamber down into a mine — hardhat and all — and learn how miners pulled out so much silver from these depths that this mine alone, unbelievably, once accounted for 75 percent of all silver being traded worldwide (at least according to our guide). A walk through the massive, gilded cathedral on top of the mine, the Templo La Valenciana, gives you a good idea of where at least some of those treasures wound up.
Although Guanajuato is a tremendous place to visit any time of the year, timing a visit during an annual festival is certainly a bonus. The world-famous Teatro Juarez hosts the Viva la Magia de la Cultura Festival from March through September, and the March of the Flowers takes place the week before Holy Week. In October, the Cervantino Festival hosts troops from around the world for a two-week extravaganza. (Nearby San Miguel de Allende, a vibrant city with a bustling arts culture, has an impressive calendar of events, as well.)
And if your idea of a memorable spring break does not include blacking out from too much alcohol, visit during Easter to witness the otherworldly preparations for Easter Sunday, including the long processions on Good Friday. These preparations are by locals for locals, so being respectful and taking cues on how to act during these sacred ceremonies is well advised.
Ok. Fine. You've earned some drinks. And the night scene in Guanajuato will not disappoint. With a steady supply of youthful energy from the university, as well as costumed troubadours wandering the streets at night, you can party as hard here as at any beach in Mexico. (Just be warned: Falling down drunk on cobblestones is not the same as falling down on sand.) Guanajuato gets wilder as the night goes on, with street performers galore.
Ending your trip to Guanajuato with one raucous night out is a fine way to wrap up your experience in this beautiful city, for it's a place steeped in tradition but full of youthful zest. Viva Guanajuato!