We first saw Guanajuato on Masterchef Mexico several months earlier, appearing as a modern picturesque city in the heart of the country. Despite having backpacked through Mexico before, I had previously stuck to places on the more obvious backpacker trail, such as San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, and Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca state. Even having read many travel blogs, we hadn’t heard much about any of the beautiful places just north of the country’s capital.
Upon finding a free copy of Lonely Planet back in Bogota, our interests were further piqued by Guanajuato’s listing (#12 – high by all accounts considering that Mexico is the country that just keeps on giving!) and we were intrigued by the sound of its ancient colonial centre set within a steeped valley, accessed via tunnels and thoroughfares carved into the surrounding mountains.
Guanajuato is in fact a beautiful and wealthy university city with a large tourism industry, situated in the state with the same name, just to the south of San Luis Potosi. The city is UNESCO for its rich history of silver and gold extraction, although its abundance of colonial buildings and world-famous annual international arts festival “Cervantino” keep people coming. In the 18th century, the city was the world’s biggest silver extractor, which lead to Guanajuato becoming the wealthiest city in Mexico. The glut of available capital resulted in investment in spectacular architecture, such as La Valenciana church, and the city still boasts some of the world’s best examples of Baroque style.
You only have to visit to feel the city’s class and quality. Cookie-cutter families fill the street’s cafes, laughing and enjoying sunny afternoons. Men in stetsons and leather boots stop to embrace old friends; smiling ladies wave to invite you into their boutiques with open arms, welcoming you to their city.
Arriving by bus from Guadalajara, we were brought to a bus station outside of town. Taking an Uber to the centro historico, we found ourselves in an enchanting ancient town, in the half-light casting shadows on turrets and corbels.
Dipping through arches formed in the surrounding walls, we entered a curved street with ornate facades. Steeped in a valley, hundreds of coloured houses appear to drip down the mountain like a water painting. By night, lights illuminate their edges and give the city a warm glow. At the valley base, ancient stone buildings line the zig-zagging cobbled roads providing a never-ending layered effect; great for photography, not so great for cars!
We entered via the Plaza Baratillo (a cute little place with a few bars) and then climbed the ancient steps in a narrow alley to our hostel; Corral y Comedias (not recommended). We couldn’t wait to get out to explore the city, and so left for a few blue-beer cocktails at one of the cool bars in town; Golum. Golum is a three-storey late night venue with a beautiful roof terrace serving cocktails and freshly made barbecue tacos. Mexico is incredibly good value. We ordered ourselves a plate of pork tacos for about £1 each!
The following day we were off on a self-guided walking tour to explore the city’s main sights, which included several churches, theatres, and the main university. In true Mexican style, each one of these buildings is beautifully constructed and has its own story to tell.
After climbing the steps to the church connected to the university, we passed the last few hours of the day browsing the beautiful craft markets and artist’s stores under colonnades. Once again temperatures were up in the thirties.
We didn’t have time to visit one of the city’s main attractions; the mummy museum. Whilst a little gruesome, Guanajuato has immense pride for the embalmed bodies of many cholera victims from the 1800s. The bodies are on display in glass cabinets, many with petrified faces.
In the evening, we headed out with a few others who were staying in our hostel. Our destination was the bustling square under the San Francisco church.
A long-held tradition in Guanajuato; by night, groups of Mariachi gather at the plaza to auction themselves off to excited tourists. Each band has about a ten-minute slot to perform, whilst a scout runs around selling tickets. After selecting your Mariachi, you then gather with a huge group of Mexican tourists to trail the band through the winding alleys and steps around the ancient town in what I can easily say is one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful, fun, unpretentious, interactive and engaging entertainment shows you could ever have the pleasure to enjoy. And it costs about £5 each.
The two-hours of singing and dancing, and listening to local folklore tales was really spectacular and intensely cultural. What could be better? Oh, forgot to mention you also bring your own booze, and they provide you with a little ceramic jug which you cheer with every ten minutes! We were the only six non-Mexicans out of the whole group of about one hundred people; it felt amazing to be able to experience such a precious Mexican tradition.
The Mariachi night was easily one of the best things I have done in my life and I would love to experience it again in the future. Guanajuato is a lovely city with a lot to offer (a lot more than we had time to do it justice) and we will definitely be returning. Another incredible place just a stone’s throw away from the big city, and another great addition to Mexico’s growing repertoire of amazing destinations.