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City of Guanajuato
Posted by: HoboSylvain | 2013-11-16 21:13:19 | Guanajuato, Guanajuato, Mexico
Keywords: architecture, city, Historic, Landscape
'Guanajuato' means “Place of frogs” in the local indigenous language but, surprisingly, you won't see many representations of the frog in the city, nor in the souvenir shops, even though it's the pet of the city. It's a city built around mines and the topography is very special. There's one thing you won't find in Guanajuato is a straight street. But you will find things you will never find anywhere else, like tunnels under the city, canyon-like sub-terranean streets and little charming 'callejóns'. It's even more prettier than Zacatecas in my opinion, but it's also more tourist oriented (in a good way).

As I explained in my article about the UNESCO site of the Historic town of Guanajuato, the mine was created because of silver mines found in the area in middle 16th century. It was a very important silver-extraction site for more than 3 centuries. Even today, it still produces silver, but in a more modest scale.

Contrary to Zacatecas which is also a mining city of a great beauty, Guanajuato has made herself welcoming for tourists. There are tons of little plazas to rest, a few parks, lots of benches all over the place (including in tunnels!), many tours and many tourist information booths. Both are capitals of the state of the same name as the city, both are about the same size (100K to 150K people), but they present a whole different picture to the visitors.

It's fascinating to see the inginiosity deployed in Guanajuato to deal with the topography. First, in the past, they had to deal with flash floods and water containment. It's a common problem in most Mexican cities because they don't have a good drainage system (I've seen streets transformed in rivers after just a big shower), but especially in Guanajuato since the city is in the bottom of a basin. Today, they have very clever flood indicators (especially in the sub-terranean streets and tunnels), you will see a flood indicator panel like below... the green, yellow and red markers are at the bottom of the post.

Right from its foundation, Guanajuato had some canyon-like streets, because of the topography. The most famous (and probably the longest) is the street Hidalgo. Walking on this street will make you feel like you're travelling in a labyrinth because you rarely what's up there. Although the street is opened on the top, the walls on the sides of the streets often make 10 metres high. It also goes through a series of tunnels.  The tunnels have sidewalks and even bus stops! (because there are staircases to reach the surface).

These tunnels were created starting in the 1960's due to the increasing number of cars in the city. Since there are many streets where cars cannot go because it's just too steep, that concentrated the traffic into the lower streets (more or less the historic centre). Because those streets cannot be expanded and cannot be transformed in high-speed lanes because of the pedestrians around, they began to create a series of tunnels underneath the city. It was logical... since they had the expertise of digging mine shafts. Although most are simple single-lane traffic with no connection, there are some that are double-lanes, both ways, and there are even tunnels intersecting others.

Since the city is very tourist-friendly, they also have a funicular to go from the historic theatres district to the top of a hill with a very popular attraction... the statue of El Pípila. He's a popular hero who in the time of the war with the Spaniards, strapped a large rock on his back to protect himself from the bullets and go put the fire to the a Spanish fort. Here's a video of my ride on the funicular... you'll see the stunning view of the city at the end.

Topography also forced the city into creating 'callejóns', which are basically small pedestrians alleys (usually too steep for car traffic, but also too narrow) that go uphill. These small side streets are extremely typical of Guanajuato and represent one of the signatures of the city. There are tours organized to visit the callejóns. The most famous of them is 'Callejón del beso' (The Alley of the Kiss). It is named because of a city legend about a young couple who couldn't be together because of the strict father of the girl... but the man was able to rent a house just across the callejón of his love... and through the balconies (only 70 cm or so apart), they could see each other. When the father discovered that, he killed his daughter right on the balcony... and her lover kissed her life-less hand one last time.

Because of that legend and because of it's sheer beauty, Guanajuato is often seen as the most romantic city in Mexico. But it is more than a pretty face with wits in terms of civil engineering, it is also a very cultural city. Every year (for more than 40 years now), they have the Cervantino Festival (usually in October, but also spans to November for additional events and conferences). Guanajuato is the Cervantes capital of the Americas. And everywhere in the city you'll see sculptures about either the author or his works. Including large sculptures of Don Quijote and Sancho, a Cervantes theatre, a museum, etc.

Speaking of museums, Guanajuato has a very particular one that is quite unusual: a mummy museum. Not the ones from Egypt... but ones preserved accidentally locally. In mid 19th century, they had to do some excavation in a cemetery to move the bodies around and they found a first mummy, then others. They are apparently preserved due to the soil composition. The mummies are now part of the identity of Guanajuato. They have been featured in many films and since 2007, they have an official museum.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time in Guanajuato and it's so far my favourite Mexican city.

Related posts:
Cahokia Mounds
Historic centre of Tlacotalpan
San Francisco
San Francisco architecture


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