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Blue and pink houses seem to tumble down hillsides when viewed from El Pipila, a sky-high statue on a hill above downtown Guanajuato. Ochre church domes and green stone mansions rise beside tiny plazas. Guidebooks tell travelers the view from the monument will help them figure out the 16th-century mining community, located in the Sierra Madre northwest of Mexico City. It left me totally discombobulated. So many buildings were packed so colorfully along invisible streets that I had no idea what I was seeing.
Instead, I chose the Jardin de la Union, the main plaza’s dense wedge of trees and benches, as headquarters for reviewing maps over coffee or beer. The city of Guanajuato as well as its mines and surrounding communities make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site. After two days, I had a grip on the major plazas, churches, museums and callejones — narrow alleys weaving between houses so jam-packed that upper balconies seem to meet in a beso, or kiss. Unwilling to navigate the city’s underground maze of traffic tunnels, I hired a guide to lead me through me the city’s history while visiting mines and mummies.
Once the wealthiest city in Mexico, Guanajuato was founded in 1559 by European explorers seeking the New World’s riches. They uncovered gold, tin, lead and a motherlode of silver in what’s now called the Valley of Mexico. Mines quickly appeared in the rugged Sierra Madre, supplying some 40 percent of the world’s silver in the 16th and 17th centuries. Mine owners were awarded grand titles of nobility and commissioned elaborate mansions and churches for their regal city.
The capital of its eponymous state, Guanajuato, has retained all its original charm and a cultural wealth that rivals Mexico’s finest colonial cities, including nearby San Miguel de Allende. Guanajuato is not nearly as popular with tourists and expatriates as that artsy enclave, but its hotel rooms are already booked solid for late March. Why then? Because the Pope is coming to town.
Major EventsPope Benedict XVI will be in Mexico from March 23-26. According to the 2010 census, Guanajuato is Mexico’s most Catholic state. A 67-foot-high statue of Jesus Christ atop Cerro del Cubilete marks the geographic center of Mexico just outside the city of Leon. Guanajuato was chosen as the perfect headquarters for the Pope’s entourage.
Pope Benedict will stay in Leon while meeting with Latin American bishops and will visit state offices in the city of Guanajuato in a secured motorcade including the popemobile. On March 25, the Pope will celebrate Mass at the Parque Guanajuato Bicentenario facing Cerro del Cubilete. Officials estimate that 700,000 Catholics will attend the Mass. Locals foresee one million or more devotees descending upon the state. Guanajuatenses know their city will freeze during the event, which segues into Semana Santa (Holy Week) and Easter. The crowds are sure to remain well into April, but Guanajuato is accustomed to large groups.
Thousands of art aficionados flock to the city every October for the Festival Internacional Cervantino, celebrating its 40th anniversary in October. A member of the European Association of Festivals, the superb Cervantino is one of the world’s finest cultural festivals. The event presents 18 days of cultural immersion, including more than 70 different productions and 100 performances by artists from roughly 30 countries. So far, Poland, Austria, Switzerland and Sinaloa are on the 2012 schedule.
Cultural HighlightsCultural events take place nearly every day in Guanajuato. One night, I joined a packed house at the ornate Teatro Juarez to hear the Orquesta Sinfonico de la Universidad de Guanajuato, the best Friday-night ticket (less than $7) in town. Other times I ticked off a half-dozen dazzling churches, catching evening weddings in the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato and Sunday Mass at the gilded 1747 Compania de Jesus.
The hours flew by at Museo y Casa de Diego Rivera, where the master muralist was born in 1886. Small rooms contain an amazing collection of Rivera’s sketches, drawings and paintings from his earliest drawings to portraits, including a graceful nude of Frida Kahlo, and sketches for famous murals. Muralist Jose Chavez Morado’s collection of artwork and oddities fills the nearby Museo del Pueblo de Guanajuato. Almost next door, the Museo del Siglo XIX covers Guanajuato’s history. A few blocks away, the massive Museo la Alhondiga de Granaditas, an 18th-century granary, covers regional history through the Mexican Revolution. And the Mercado Hidalgo, designed after a French train station for Mexico’s 1910 centennial, beckons with tempting local candies.
No visit is complete without a tour to the many mines and picturesque mountain towns including La Valenciana Cayetano. Another attraction is the momias, a display of mummies exhumed when Guanajuato’s cemetery needed room for fresh bodies. Clients can give that one a pass if short on time. But, as they come to know Guanajuato, make sure they stop by El Pipila to embrace the colorful sprawl.
Where to Stay
Alma del Sol:Clients should spend a few nights in the heart of the city for the full effect, but warn them to bring earplugs. Church bells, music and traffic can hamper sleep. This charming bed and breakfast has four giant rooms in a restored house beside the Compania, with mountain views from the rooftop terrace and excellent Mexican breakfasts; the owners also have La Casa de Espiritus Alegres, an eight-room B&B filled with folk art, located a few minutes from downtown.www.casaspirit.com
Quinta las Acacias:Seven bedrooms in a restored 19th-century mansion reflect European influences, while eight suites feature Jacuzzi tubs and surround a gorgeous cactus garden. Great homemade muffins accompany breakfasts under the dining room chandelier. www.mexicoboutiquehotels.com/lasacacias
Where to Eat
Clave Azul:Thanks to Cristina Monte Romero, owner of the splurge-worthy Artlalli Folk Art Gallery, I ate one of my best inexpensive Mexico meals of all time at this hidden cantina. For less than $15 total, we consumed six beers plus fresh veggies, soup, homemade tortillas, shredded beef, ranchero beans and garlic roasted potatoes. Have clients look for the cantina on an alley on the south side of Calle Positos by the museums — or stop by Romero’s great gallery for directions.
Mexico Lindo y Sabroso:Yummy pozole verde and cochinita pibil are among the flavorful Mexican favorites at this colorful cafe in the La Presa neighborhood by the government offices. Your clients will be eternally gratefully for this tip.