You know that saying, “saving the best for last”? That is exactly how I felt about Guanajuato, the final city on our central highlands tour.
Guanajuato was a silver boomtown. It was discovered almost by accident by a group of men moving through the area. They stopped to rest overnight during their travels. They built a fire to keep themselves warm. In the morning, they found molten silver under the rocks they had used in their campfire ring. Word quickly spread, and the city grew like mad, as everyone wanted in on the riches silver mining could bring.
It was that seemingly overnight growth, a city planner’s nightmare, that gives Guanajuato its rich character today. Separate communities were built around each of the mines, complete with their own churches and plazas. Where one town ended, another began. As a result, there are many areas of the city where there are no streets – -just alleyways or sidewalks – – connecting the neighborhoods and making a lot of places throughout the city completely inaccessible to cars. Miners designed elaborate tunnels under the city to move their silver, not roads
And today, believe it or not, that tunnel system is the road system! (So maybe the miners built roads after all…) Every time we needed to move from one side of the city to the other, we headed underground. I was utterly amazed to see cars parked along the curves of the old tunnels, as their drivers waited for buses to bring them to the surface and drop them off as close to their destinations as possible. Had I been driving, there is no doubt in my mind that I would still be down there. The majority of tunnels/roads are unlit and signage is at a minimum.
To better appreciate Guanajuato we headed to the scenic mirador. We were greeted with the most impressive view. The city is shaped like a narrow bowl. The bottom is filled with churches, plazas, schools, museums, and theaters, while homes and buildings in every shade on the color wheel creep up the mountains which make up the sides. Most of these homes are reached by steep staircases built into the side of the mountains. Of course, living in a bowl has its downside, particularly during the rainy season. The Guanajuato River used to flow under the city, leading to very frequent flooding. A dam was built in the 1960’s that finally put a stop to this. Today, Calle Miguel Hidalgo, one of the underground roads built using the mining tunnels, follows the river’s original course.
The scenic mirador is also the site of the statue, El Pípila, in honor of a local hero during Mexico’s War of Independence. Juan José de los Reyes Martínez Amaro, el Pípila (so nicknamed for his freckled face) was a miner originally from San Miguel de Allende. Shortly after Don Padre Miguel Hidalgo rallied Mexicans to rise up against the Spanish, the first battle took place in Guanajuato. The Spanish barricaded themselves (and all their riches) in a stone grain warehouse. Their fortress had one weakness; a wooden door. Legend has it that el Pípila strapped a stone tablet to his back for protection from musket fire and snuck up to the door of the granary. Once there, he tarred the door and set it on fire, clearing the way for the freedom fighters to gain entry and bring defeat (and death) to the Spanish hiding inside. I did not locate any of the 260 “Road to Independence” markers on this trip, but I am certain they are there.
Standing above the city, I could not help but fall in love. Gunajuato looks like I feel most days: chaotic (in a good way), creative, and festive! I finally pulled myself away from the view. I was ready to take my chances in those tunnels again. Ah… to stand in the middle of the bowl, and to add my own colors to the mix.