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Spanish Culture Endures in Guanajuato, Where the ‘Impossible Dream’ of an Independent Mexico was Born

Many Latin American cities have monuments that hover above. Jesus presides over Rio, of course, and an aluminum statue of his mother, dubbed the Virgen de El Panecillo, is taller and dominates the Ecuadorian capital of Quito; military leaders such as Simon Bolivar are immortalized, often on horse back, in bronze and stone throughout South and Central America, usually in busy locations that draw the gaze of visitors. So, when I arrived in Guanajuato and stared up to the top of the hill overlooking the city, I wasn’t surprised to see a gleaming cream-and-gray-colored monolith towering above.

The statue is of a man with short-cropped hair holding a torch with his right hand and raising it toward the sky. It’s neither Christian nor overtly military. If I were in Europe, I would have thought it was a neo-Classical depiction of a Greek or Roman figure of myth or ancient ruler. Guanajuato is in the heart of Mexico, though, and its icon appeared unlike any other statue I have seen south of the United States. Most unbelievably is the story behind the monument, which goes to the core of modern Mexico.


El Pípila is a statue that honors a hero of the Mexican Revolution, a deformed laborer who took bold action against the overlords of Guanajuato. At top, modern-day Guanajuato is a friendly, colorful city filled with art and culture. (Adrian Brijbassi photos for VacayNetwork.com)

Looking at the gargantuan monument named El Pípila you would’t suspect that the man who inspired it suffered from a deformity or the ridicule his condition caused. It appears like it could be Atlas or Prometheus, but Juan José de los Reyes Martínez Amaro was a 28-year-old miner living a destitute life when he inexplicably became the hero of Guanajuato and sparked an uprising throughout Mexico, leading to the nation’s liberation from Spain.

Like the American Revolution, the Mexican War of Independence was fought by colonial residents against their European monarchs and the governors they appointed to rule a territory in North America. A superior military strategy, led by George Washington, defeated the British but the Spanish fell to a peasant revolt launched in Guanajuato and nearby San Miguel. The fuse that galvanized the movement occurred on September 28, 1810, when a group of irate miners, led by priest Miguel Hidalgo, gathered outside of the Guanajuato granary in the center of the town to demand better wages and more food. In response, the elite land owners and merchants turned the granary into a fortress.


Surrounded by mountains, Guanajuato glimmers at sunset. This view is from the Casa del Rector Boutique Hotel. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

Amid the chaos, Amaro watched and listened. He had a wobbly gait that begot him the slang nickname for a hen turkey, El Pípila, and rendered him to the lower rungs of status. Compelled to prove himself, he found the gumption to rifle tar across a stone slab and then strap that heavy weight to his back; Atlas, after all. With the black tar exposed, he told a fellow miner to light the flammable substance and then Amaro hustled as fast as he could toward the granary door. In his awkward stride, he lumbered to the front of the makeshift fortress, called Alhóndiga de Granaditas. From the top of the stone steps, Amaro threw his spine and the burning tar attached to it into the door. The wooden entry burned and the rest of the miners raced into the granary, overthrowing the municipal rulers before nightfall. When Mexican residents in other parts of the country heard how the people of Guanajuato conquered the Spanish, they replicated Amaro’s technique, running stone slabs aflame with tar into whatever fortification their oppressors were ensconced in.

MORE GUANAJUATO: Modern Highlights

The battle for independence lasted until the 11th anniversary of El Pípila’s heroics, with the Spanish relenting on September 28, 1821 and committing to a draft of the “Declaration of Independence of the Mexican Empire”. Amaro’s sudden action forever links Guanajuato to the independence movement that forged a free Mexico. Ironically, though, the city is also an enduring center for Spanish cultural importance, both historic and contemporary.


Don Quixote statues abound in Guanajuato, which hosts an annual festival inspired by “The Man of La Mancha” author Miguel de Cervantes. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

Now a state capital with 194,000 people, Guanajuato hosts the annual Cervantino festival, the largest and longest-running Latin American celebration in the world. Launched 52 years ago by a theatre professor who was enchanted by “The Man of La Mancha” and other literary works of Miguel de Cervantes, the Spanish author from Madrid, Cervantino is an easy-to-adore event that takes place each October, leading into the Day of the Dead (Dias de los Muertos) festivities.

Young men in medieval wear — tight-fitting jerkin jackets that have tufts at the shoulders, knee-length knickers, and long black socks that resemble the hoses worn centuries ago — become troubadours, marching through some of the town’s narrow 1,800 alleys, or callejones, and its lovely main square that is ornate and quaint, pleasant and joyful. The men dance and sing, and present flowers to women in a touch of chivalry from years past. Their presence during the two weeks of Cervantino underscores the hallmarks of Guanajuato: It’s a safe, clean, friendly city with an incredible amount of youthful energy that is represented in its arts and culture, some of which is an homage to its most famous son — famed muralist Diego Rivera.


Teatro Juarez is the primary venue for the Cervantino festival, a major cultural attraction in Mexico. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

“The city lives for the tourists and the festival is a chance to expose our art and to experience art from other places. For me I can see our city through another artist,” says Alonso León Jaime, who shows his work throughout the city and in galleries beyond. “For example, we see the tunnels in the city every day but artists come from somewhere else and they are very interested in them and why they are there. They create artwork that reminds you that Guanajuato has this unique thing.”

The city has 25 miles (40 kilometers) of tunnels beneath it that were originally constructed as infrastructure to support the mining industry (there are still 17 silver mines operating in the region). They have become a key part of how the residents of Guanajuato get around, with buses and taxis using the tunnels for transportation. The passageways add to the quirks and novelty of the city, which is set against the peaks of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range and is highlighted by numerous colorful houses that burst in yellow and hues of red at sunset. The 23 churches, including the striking Basilica of Guanajuato, represent the other part of Spanish colonialism that is thriving in the city: Catholicism. Along with the churches, there are macabre aspects that are an attraction.

alonso leon jaime artist

Alonso León Jaime produces artwork that is displayed at Pali restaurant and elsewhere in Guanajuato. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

The purgatory museum in the old part of Guanajuato shows the demonic actions of the Spanish Inquisition and the museum of Guanajuato is known for one spooky display, the mummies. For their first anniversary, Alejandro and Patty Juarez chose the city where modern Mexico began for their holiday. And it was the mummies, not the history or the arts or the landscape, that drew the couple to Guanajuato. “We know about the history and the churches in Guanajuato but it was the mummies that we came to see,” Alejandro Juarez said while on a bus tour of the city. “We have been impressed by how beautiful the city is.”

While many in Mexico are fascinated by the mummies, the international community is still captivated by Guanajuato’s main event.

“Cervantes is the father of the Spanish language, so it makes sense that he would be at the heart of a festival that celebrates Spanish art and culture from around the world,” says Cristina Vazquez, the first Mexican woman to be part of the Board of Directors of the U.S.-led Association of Professionals for the Performing Arts (APAP). The organization is a world leader in the arts and Vazquez was one of the curators for the American contingent at the 2023 edition of Cervantino. “Mexico retains a strong connection with Spain in a lot in the performing arts. It’s a part of the culture for Mexico and Guanajuato has been a part of that heritage for a very long time.”

teatro juarez night guanajuato

Teatro Juarez is the heart of Guanajuato and the premier venue for the Cervantino festival. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

Born in León, a city in the state of Guanajuato, Vazquez now lives in Chicago and returned to her home nation for the arts festival that draws 2,000 performers and tens of thousands of tourists. Launched in 1972 by playwright and theater director Enrique Ruelas, Cervantino features two weeks of theatrical works and musical concerts. Even when the city is hosting the festival, Guanajuato is a vibrant place, thanks to its beautiful university that has an enrolment of approximately 45,000 students. One of the youngest municipalities in Mexico, the city retains its artsy vibe throughout the year.

The contemporary feel builds on two distinct legacies that make Guanajuato feel eternally youthful: Amaro’s heedless feat that launched a revolutionary movement and Cervantes’s optimistic prose that engages people 400 years after it was published. As Don Quixote famously said, “To dream the impossible dream, that is my quest.” Guanajuato lives up to the sentiment in that phrase, invigorating creative ambitions and imploring witnesses to cheer on.



During Cervantino, young men don period costumes and perform songs throughout Guanajuato as well as help tourists navigate the festival. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

Getting There: León/Bajio International Airport is the gateway to Guanajuato. Flights arrive daily from numerous U.S. cities. From the airport, it is an approximately 30-minute drive to the historic center of the city.

Where to Stay: Don’t let the three-star rating fool you — Antigua Trece Hotel Fusion is an exquisite place to base your stay, with comfortable beds, large bathrooms, and a fair breakfast service. The hotel features a rooftop patio for drinks and panoramic views of the city. It’s walkable to Teatro Juarez and the city center. Nightly Rates: The cost for a single weekend night in March starts at 1,840 Mexican pesos ($105 USD), based on a recent search of the property’s website.

Where to Dine: I enjoyed three fantastic restaurants in Guanajuato, each of which would stand tall against just about any other establishment in Mexico:

las vieyras mexcal guanajuato

At Las Vieryas, sample Mezcal from the Guanajuato region as well as Oaxaca and other spots in Mexico famed for producing the elixir. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

  • Las Vieyras is a fantastic restaurant with a long and outstanding Mezcal list. Located at the Casa del Rector Boutique Hotel, Las Vieyras has a secluded outdoor space that creates a pleasant atmosphere for al fresco dining. Exemplary dishes include the sustainable green ceviche ($20.50 USD), featuring a catch of the day from Baja California, and burrata ($20.65 USD) with tomatoes from nearby San Miguel de Allende.
  • Pali is a work of art in more ways than one. The restaurant doubles as an art gallery and during my visit it was showcasing Alonso León Jaime work. Its menu is a range of excellent local and national cuisine, highlighted by fish tacos ($16.75 USD) and its homemade salsas.
  • Casa Valadez is across from Teatro Juarez and deserves curtain calls of its own. It features a sizzling filet mignon that comes on a grillplate shaped adorably like a cow as well as decadent seafood selections. Chef Karen Valadez is noted in Mexico for her “Iron Chef” appearances and creative flavours.

Another restaurant worth mentioning is Trattoria Centro, located inside the Hotel San Diego and featuring coveted tables that overlook Teatro Juarez and the busy activity in front of it. During Cervantino, the streets teem with people and musicians, which makes for lively entertainment while you dine. Trattoria features pastas and pizzas; try the Divine Comedy ($21.30), which includes beef medallions topped with shrimp and a cream sauce. The food is a cut below the three restaurants mentioned above, but the setting is impressive and it has a good wine list with a few Mexican selections that visitors will want to sample.

Dining Tip: Guanajuato is known for its chilaquiles, which is made from strips of fried corn tortillas topped with salsa and cheese, and sometimes chicken. Almost every restaurant will have them available for all meals of the day.

Foreign Exchange: $1 USD equals 17.16 Mexican pesos (MXN).

Adrian is the founder of VacayNetwork.com and Vacay.ca, and the co-founder of the travel-trivia app, Trippzy. A former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing and fiction. He has worked with leading destination marketing organizations, developing digital and social media strategies, and providing them with content marketing solutions. He has visited more than 40 countries and spearheaded the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Visit in Canada annual list that debuted in 2012.