“Follow the man in blue tights!” my friend Lola called, as we dashed into an arms-width alley following a group of strolling musicians clad in 17th-century garb. I’d only been in the gorgeous central-Mexico city of Guanajuato for over a day, but already I was learning this is a place where the past and present seemingly coexist.
Borrowing from a much older Spanish custom, Guanajuato’s university student musicians began the street-based entertainment in 1962. Looking for a way to earn extra cash, Estudiantinas musical groups armed with guitarrons, bandurrias, mandolins, double bass, and tambourines, as well as a playlist of traditional Mexican and Spanish songs, performed each night at 8 o’clock. By the time we’d bought tickets for our evening’s performance, Las Callejoneadas (as they’re known) had become an integral, and magical, part of Guanajuato’s identity.
Linking arms — so we couldn’t be pulled apart by the cheery crowd — Lola and I followed the pied-pipers along a cobbled path away from the main square and into the colorful lanes that make up hilly Guanajuato. Offering a merry history lesson and a few ribald jokes as they went, the musicians gave me my first snippet of insight into the unique beauty of the city’s 3,200 alleys and the people who inhabit them.
The traditional territory of the Otomi and Nahua People, and later the nomadic Chichimeca Nations — it was the famed Veta Madre (mother lode of silver) that saw this 1554 mining center grow from a rough-and-tumble Spanish settlement into a vibrant UNESCO World Heritage Site. As mine shafts snaked hundreds of metres down the hillsides, most of the wealth from mines like San Ramon flowed out of Mexico and back to Spain. As we set off with a guide from Guanajuato Walking Tours, I learned that this was when a liberated Mexico came into being.
Reacting to poor working conditions in mines that were considered “the depths of hell”, a social movement started when priest Miguel Hidalgo rallied the abused workforce to rise against Spain. This action led to the first major battle of the Mexican War of Independence and the emergence of the city’s first folk hero, a miner named Juan José de los Reyes Martínez Amaro (known as El Pipila) who flushed out the Spaniards by setting their stronghold on fire.
After gaining independence from Spain in the early 1800s, more of the mining money stayed put, and exquisite Baroque and neo-classical buildings continued to rise, thanks to the prosperity of the mines — and Indigenous slave labour. By 1900, more than 40,000 people called this beautiful, and unusual, city home.
Built in a river valley that was ill-suited to a fast-growing urban center, our guide told us that Guanajuato was at risk from the very start. The Rio Guanajuato frequently overflowed its banks, and in 1760 and 1780 two major rain storms not only flooded the streets, they destroyed buildings and took lives. The deluge nearly wiped out the town.
But, as luck would have it, the city was filled with skilled miners — and an ingenious plan was hatched to dig tunnels in order to reroute the river below the city. The drainage tunnels worked for a while, but eventually the river was damned and moved. Once again, old-school ingenuity ruled. Rather than abandoning the historic waterways, the tunnels were expanded and repurposed. Today, stairs around the city lead to the subterranean streets that carry much of the vehicular traffic that moves through Guanajuato — solving both a traffic problem and providing shady shortcuts for pedestrians.
Emerging from the cool of the tunnels — we continued to wind through the alleys in the place Mexican nationals affectionately call “the heart of Mexico”. It’s not hard to see why the city is so beloved.
While the region was witness to the bloodshed that changed the political fortunes of the country, it’s also the place where the country’s artistic culture was formed. In the Museo Casa Diego Rivera I learned this was the birthplace of the famed muralist and that his paintings and politics still resonate with visitors. Passing the site of the renowned International Cervantes Festival, the gorgeous neo-classical Teatro Juárez, and the art stalls at Mercado Hidalgo — it was clear the arts are thriving in the music and culture-filled city.
While not known for its foodie offerings the same way that Oaxaca, Mexico City, and Guadalajara might be, Guanajuato does revel in the traditional. Dishes including pre-Hispanic tlacoyos (corn tortillas stuffed with beans and cheese) and enchiladas mineras (enchiladas filled with a savory stew of carrots and potatoes) are found in many of the small, family-owned eateries that line side streets. More upscale places usually occupy prime real estate, and in Jardín de la Unión we took a window seat at Casa Valadez; enjoying the strolling Mariachis while indulging in margaritas and tasty enchiladas. A lunch at Mestizo brought even more contemporary offerings — the duck tostadas topped with mint leaves were memorable — as was the view from the second-floor windows.
But it was a mezcal and chocolate tasting with master chocolatier Jonathan Martínez Reyes of xocola-T Boutique that gave me a sense of how mixing the ancient with the new is an underlying theme influencing almost everything in Guanajuato. Our rooftop tasting took place at sunset as the city’s crayon-colored buildings glowed with warmth. Reyes served craft mezcals alongside handmade chocolates that highlighted traditional Indigenous ingredients — from the cacao itself to maize, chilies, and mezcal-worm salt.
Reyes explained his goal is to revive ancient flavors using modern techniques and blend the two to create something special. Much the way that old and new blend and create Guanajuato. The result is a city that’s both somber and joyful, and ancient and youthful. It’s this strong eye to the past and the future that sets the city apart and seems to remind inhabitants and visitors alike to act more kindly, live more deeply, and treat the future with care.
MORE ABOUT VISITING GUANAJUATO
Getting There: Guanajuato International Airport is situated just outside the city of León and is located about 19 miles (30 kilometres) from the city of Guanajuato.
Foreign Exchange Rate: $1 USD is worth approximately 20 Mexican pesos.
Where to Stay: Old or new? As a university town, Guanajuato has lodging options to fit almost any budget or style. Quinta las Acacias, is a boutique hotel set in a remodeled 19th-century mansion and located in a quieter section of town. Room rates in January start at approximately $140 USD. Antigua Trece, Hotel Fusión is a contemporary hotel built into a historic building in the heart of the city. Room rates in January start at approximately $70 USD.
What to Do: Music, mines and mummies! Tickets for the famous Callejoneadas are sold in the main square each afternoon and are good for that evening’s performance — so just choose the group you like the look of and buy your tickets. Bocamina San Ramón tells the story of the region’s mining history and gives visitors a chance to don a hard hat and venture deep underground. And no visit to Guanajuato is complete without a stop at the Museo de las Momias, where the mummified remains of early city dwellers are on reverent display.
Tourism Website: Visit Mexico’s website has a section dedicated to Guanajuato.