So standing on top of the scenic mirador, all of Guanajuato spread out in front of me, it was pretty obvious that one day would never be enough to experience all the magic this city held. Heck, a lifetime might not even cut it! It was for this very reason I was so grateful that we had come with a group that included “professionals”. They gave us a place to start, and well, honestly, provided us with a driver who knew his way through the tunnels!
Our first stop was La Bocamina San Ramón. This was one of Guanajuato’s smaller silver mines and part of La Valenciana system. (La Mina Valenciana was the wealthiest of all mines in and around the city. 80% of all silver mined in Guanajuato was produced here.) From the site of Bocamina San Ramón, we had an stunning view of the surrounding mountains, responsible for giving Guanajuato the nickname “City of Frogs”, as some of the mountaintops resemble them.
We were able to descend about 60 meters through an old shaft into the mine. Today there is a a well-lit staircase that makes this a little bit easier. In the 1500’s, miners, some as young as 14 years old, relied on candles to light their way, as they made their steep descent over rock and dirt on a tree trunk fashioned into a ladder. All work was done with a sledgehammer and/or a chisel.
Climbing out, even with a lighted staircase, was somewhat strenuous. There were 60+ steps, some much higher than others. I kept myself in check by thinking of the young boys and men who shimmied up a tree trunk, often times carrying more than 70 kg of rocks. Children much younger than 14 worked outside of the mine, carrying buckets of water and sorting.
Needless to say, the life span of a miner, in or out of the mine, was short. Serious injury and death from falls, explosions, and cave-ins were frequent. Others developed respiratory and vision problems from the dust floating around in the air. Many miners were maimed during accidents with the chisels, drills, and dynamite. Believe me, I felt a little silly wearing a hard hat to protect my head just in case I bumped it on the rock wall while climbing the stairs.
The Spanish owned the mines and benefitted from the silver produced. This may explain why the first battle of the Mexican War of Independence was fought in Guanajuato. Infighting long after the War of Independence contributed to the continued inactivity in the mines. Porfirio Diaz, president in 1870, is credited with reactivating the industry. He invited French, British, and Americans to invest in mining.
While the money generated led to incredible cultural advances in Guanajuato, the working class and poor were truly paying for it. They were not allowed to take advantage of many of the improvements either. It is no real surprise that production completely stopped again during the Mexican Revolution. (And ironically, the very first statue of Padre Don Miguel Hidalgo was erected in the historic lake district, where once, only the wealthy of the city could enjoy boating and picnics.)
Today there are 16 active mines operating in and around Guanajuato. They are run by Canadian companies.
So, I had been to the very top and to the very bottom of the city. I was restless to get to the middle! But that group I was so grateful for before we started? They were now insisting we take a break for lunch!