- by Les Copan
This city was declared a National Monument by the Mexican Government, and a World Heritage Zone by UNESCO, and is a fascinating place to visit.
The area was named by the pre-Hispanic natives Quanashuato, which means ?Place of Frogs?, inspired by two large rock formations which resembled such animals. Because the Spanish has difficulty with the ?sh? sound the name evolved to the present spelling.
Spanish settlers arrived in 1546 when the Viceroy granted a licence to establish a cattle ranch in the area. Four years later a muleteer discovered silver, and changed the history of the world. So rich in silver and gold are the mountains around Guanajuato that several mines which commenced operating some 450 years ago are still producing.
Located in a narrow river gulch the town expanded. As it did so structures were built out from the river banks. Eventually these joined, forming a solid platform above the water. As time passed this too was roofed over creating a tunnel which became the main thoroughfare through the city. More than three kilometers in length it is the longest underground street in the world. Additional tunnels have been drilled through the surrounding rock so that most traffic through and about the city moves underground.
Such traffic as is permitted aboveground is confined to several very narrow, winding streets. I would not even attempt to take a trailer or motorhome through. In addition to the congested traffic, motorists have to contend with pedestrians on the roadway. Sidewalks, which are a mere 69 cm. (27 inches) in width, and have power poles embedded in them, force pedestrians onto the street.
Tourist attractions abound, but for the RVer there is little accommodation. A small RV park within the city, which I have never been able to locate, has such a steep incline at the entrance that longer vehicles cannot enter. A larger park is situated about 10 km. outside the city. While not having visited it, I?ve been told there are full hook-ups. The drawback of course, is the distance from the city necessitating taking a vehicle into town.
When Ivy and I visit Guanajuato we leave the trailer at San Miguel de Allende, drive over and stay at a hotel. On our last visit we stayed at the Hotel San Diego, an excellent hotel, right in the heart of the city, directly across from Union Garden where the crowds congregate during the evenings. Only a short block from the tourist office, where some employees speak English, and brochures in English are available, it makes a good headquarters for your visit.
Almost all tourist attractions are within walking distance throughout the city. Notables amongst the 11 museums situated in Guanajuato include the Quijote Iconographical Museum, a unique exhibit of works dedicated to ?Don Quijote?. Numerous sculptures, in a variety of materials, paintings, sketches, and embroidered wall hangings, all of Don Quijote and his pal Sancho, are displayed. Included in museum activities are art classes in painting and sculpture.
The Diego Rivera Museum is set in the 18th century house where the world famous muralist was born. Exhibited are furniture and objects belonging to the Rivera family along with a collection of his works. A must when in Guanajuato is a visit to the Alhondiga de Granaditas Museum, scene of one of the most courageous acts of the War of Independence, which I described in a previous article.
Other museums present exhibits of art, mineralogy, artifacts, and a display of animals which populated the area some 12,000 years ago.
Juarez Theatre, one of Mexico?s great architectural gems, is both a museum and an active theatre. After 30 years of on-again/off-again construction the theatre was completed in 1903. Built in the manner of the opera house with main floor seating and five tiers of box seats ringing the interior walls, the d?cor is dazzling. The entrance hall and foyers are decorated with a combination of Doric and Moorish styles, with many beautiful paintings and statuary.
Of particular note is the smoking room where gentlemen gather during intermission. The floor of this room is composed of opaque glass bricks. Purpose of this construction is so the ladies, assembled in the room beneath know when the men leave that room and can join them as they return for the balance of the performance.
The outer fa?ade of the building is equally impressive. A broad stone stairway, flanked by a pair of carved stone lions, and antique lamp standards ? a seating accommodation favored by university students who flood onto the streets during the cool of the evening ? topped by eight statues, representing the various arts, set along the cornice above.
Now stroll through the residential neighbourhoods. Up narrow, winding alleys, many inaccessible to motor vehicles, past brightly coloured homes, built tight against each other. Balconies extend over the sidewalks nearly meeting those from the other side, shutting out the light so there are doorways which never see the sun. Because of the step pitch of the slope houses on the street above often appear to be perched atop those one stands before.
Broad stairways, designed to make the climb easier, lead to tiny plazas where one is greeted by a fountain or a statue, usually of a revolutionary hero, and always benches where one can sit and watch the passing scene.
Traversing those steep walkways many times a day makes for strong legs. Sit in the plaza and watch the passersby. Delivery men toting heavy parcels, housewives to market for the daily purchases, university students ambling to and from classes, business men striding down to their offices and, of course, those well formed legs visible below the short skirts so much in vogue in Mexico today.
For variety wander through the parks and gardens. A very unusual park is one I have designated Frog Park (I have not been able to ascertain the correct name as it is not shown on city maps). I estimate the park to be no more than a couple of acres in size, and is adorned solely by 18 statues of frogs. Carved of stone or cast in concrete they sit in various positions about the park. Why? Even my guide could not give a reason for their being there. The assumption has to be that it reflects the origins of the city?s name.
A delightful attraction is the Callejon del Beso (Kiss Alley). A thoroughfare so narrow and twisting that at one crook the balconies of the houses on either side are only 68 cm. apart. Legend has it that at one time two lovers, one from each home, were forbidden to have contact with each other. To get around the restriction the lovers would ascend to their respective balconies from where they could lean out and hug and kiss to their hearts content without leaving their own balcony. The romantic Mexicans are so enamored with this legend that on an ordinary weekday evening Ivy and I had to stand in line for a considerable time in order to pay our 4 pesos, climb a winding staircase, stand on the balcony and reach across to prove to ourselves one could kiss a person on the opposite balcony, then down another stairway to the street.
Churches, theatres, the university buildings, government buildings, monuments and much more are all worthy of a visit if time permits.
As a final treat drive the scenic highway. Built along the crest of the mountains surrounding the city it affords unparalleled views. Stop at the statue of El Pipila, directly above the main plaza and the cathedral. Gaze down on the city and ponder all that has happened here during the past 450 years!