Guanajuato, in the center of Mexico, is a spritzer city where the wine of culture, beauty and history color infuses the effervescent student atmosphere. The city, five hours north of Mexico City (but accessible directly by plane), is a walker's paradise. You can explore the historic center with its steep, much-used lanes without repeating your route for days or stick to the more level main street, taking you past noble colonial houses in Plaza de la Paz, a century-old market designed by a Frenchman, old buildings put to new uses, and hundreds of Guanajuatenses going about their daily life.
What better introduction to Guanajuato's red, blue, ochre and rust colored houses than riding the funicular up a short, steep hill from downtown to the giant statue of the national hero known as the Pipila? That intrepid rebel shielded his back with a stone slab while he torched the door of the granary where Spanish soldiers sheltered during the opening confrontation of Mexico's War of Independence exactly two-hundred years ago.
To return downtown from the Pipila, take the cable car back or walk down a lane (callejon) to the city's most sociable plaza, the Jardin. If you walk, you will be going through hillside neighborhoods, passing little shops (abarrotes), small boys rolling a lime back and forth to each other, a gasman with a hundred pound tank of propane on his shoulder.
At the bottom, walk to trapezoid-shaped Jardin where you can sit on a green metal bench to watch the world go by, or tourist fashion,, head for a table in front of a hotel on the plaza where you can sip or eat. Don't expect quiet with your drink. You will be sharing the plaza with mariachi players, loudspeakers, hawkers calling out their wares, people talking. The Jardin is also where guides congregate trolling for customers and where on weekends you're likely to find an artist selling colorful chalk drawings.
If you still have a packet of salt from your flight, when you pass a tortilleria, buy fragrant fresh corn tortillas and dig in.
Secret and Not-so-Secret Gems
Mexicans often make Guanajuato a destination for its 13km. of tunnels and Mummies Museum. Either a taxi or a minibus (sprinter) will take you through the tunnels.
A new destination is the Museum of the 19th Century, so far not in the guidebooks. There you will see banknotes issued by the Bank of Guanajuato, old magazine articles detailing the horrors of the 1905 flood that devastated the central part of the city, and art work and artifacts bringing to life the century before the Revolution.
If you've never entered a Mexican baroque church with spectacular golden altar pieces, take a taxi (about 35 pesos) up the long, winding hill road to the San Cayetano church in Valenciana. The church is still in use for religious services as well as being the venue for some of the most memorable important concerts during the annual International Cervantino Festival (see below for more details on the Festival).
Along Positos, in the center of Guanajuato, you can visit the row house where Diego Rivera lived until he was six, at which point his father decided Guanajuato was too conservative and moved the family to Mexico City. Now a museum, the house displays examples of Rivera's work from his early European-influenced years through 1940s drawings of the new volcano Paricutin. The ground floor rooms contain furniture of the period.
Back at the Jardin, you'll see the elegant façade of the Teatro Juarez, opened while Porfirio Diaz was Mexico's president, a time much better for the wealthy than the poor. No wonder that a few years later, Mexico exploded in revolution. For 50 pesos, at specified hours you can go inside to see the galleried auditorium with its Moorish embellishments, the art-nouveau bar and the upstairs lounge. Before or after, walk over to the side lobby of the Hotel Santa Fe. to see a contemporary oil painting of a turn of an elegantly dressed audience at the turn-of-the century Juarez .
Tip: The Mercado Hidalgo, Embajadoras Market and Calle Alondiga are great places to see the non-European elements in the Guanajuato blend.
Starters or Where to eat in Guanajuato
At Plaza San Fernando, a five minute walk from the Jardin, you have a choice of eating outdoors or in. As you walk through the plaza, note the stone paving reminiscent of Lisbon. You'll have your choice of Mexican specialties at the restaurants on one side, crepes served under the trees at the back, and authentic Japanese food at a small restaurant on a lane to the left. All the prices are reasonable to moderate.
El Abue Restaurant and Wine Bar, San Jose 14 in the Plaza del Baratillo, is an indoor retreat serving a well-prepared lunch of several courses: soup, large salad and the main dish of the day plus fresh fruit drink, 70 pesos. The a la carte menu features enchiladas El Abue and fresh pasta. A favorite of travel writer Tony Cohan, El Abue is more expensive in the evenings.
For the pulse of the city, head toward Truco 7. On the walking street of the same name, you'll arrive at a multi-roomed restaurant that is a magnet for both tourists and Guanajuatenses, three-generation families included. A fine destination for a bowl of Mexican onion soup, cappuccino in the late morning, or a full meal anytime, served in a Guanajuato/Berkeley-like atmosphere, as unlikely as the combination may sound. The overworked wait staff is always on the run, the service slow in this popular place.
After Dark in Cuevano (novelist Jorge Ibarguengoitia's name for Guanajuato)
Thursday nights you'll see students thronging the area between the Jardin and the Teatro Juarez. From there, you can continue to an inexpensive classical concert in the patio of the Iconografico Museum. The Symphony Orchestra plays most Fridays at 7:30 in the Teatro Principal.
Looking for an urbane night spot where jazz or rock musicians play (some instrumentalists moonlighting from the Guanajuato Symphony) starting at the very Mexican hour of ten? That would be The Zilch, upstairs by the Jardin. On Plaza de la Paz, La Saeta's trova (ballad) singer, Monica Lara starts at the same time on Fridays and Saturdays (pasta available).
If leaf tea served through a filter is more to your taste, the Lechon Ilustrado up Cantaritos from the San Roque Church has books for in-house reading and frequently an exhibit or other happening. For more lowdown on nightspots and restaurants, ask your B&B host or other friendly person.
The Big, Rainbow-Colored International Cervantino Festival
For seventeen days in October, Guanajuato hosts this international cultural festival, with stellar performers from several continents. In 2010, audiences could see the Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan, listen to Croatian pianist Ivo Pogorelich play Liszt, take in a Mexico City theatre group performing Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano in Spanish, hear opera singers wearing market aprons as they charmed the throng in The Mercado Hidalgo. At San Cayetano in Valenciana, the Emerson Quartet did the United States proud.
There were also contemporary concerts galore and many free events: nightly pop events, including Winton Marsalis, by moonlight behind the Alhondiga, international and Mexican film cycles, and street theatre in the plazas. Fireworks on the opening and closing nights, of course.
For a detailed look at 2011, see the schedule online in June at the link above. The early bird gets the best festival tickets and accommodations, whether B&B, hotel or hostel.
Getting to Guanajuato: The Leon-Guanajuato international airport serves the two cities. Some travelers take the alternate route to Mexico City and then a comfortable bus for the five-hour ride north.
Travel Tip: The lower-priced Cervantino tickets by American standards may balance travel costs. And pack for the layered look. October days are usually warm, followed by cold nights.