What I Love About Guanajuato

As I sit at my current Airbnb’s bistro table with a pillow under my butt to provide some semblance of a comfortable working space, I’m figuring out last minute logistics to get from my current city of Santiago de Querétaro to Ciudad de México. The bus will leave the next day and I’m excited to list out some potential blog ideas to share with you from Mexico City.

That’s when I realized I haven’t posted anything about the city I just came from. The city I spent Christmas and New Years in. Guanajuato, a city that quickly shot its way up the ranks of my favorite cities in the world and a place that I would definitely consider calling home in the foreseeable future. Maybe that’s why. Maybe it just felt like home rather than an exciting trip to talk about.

Let’s start from the beginning…

Usually, our interactions with a host includes a few texts over Airbnb or WhatsApp where we are instructed on how to enter a property and maybe given a brief guide to the area. That’s it, until we eventually message them asking where to put the trash out.

Veronique was different. Born in the south of France, she moved to Guanajuato around 20 years ago, first assisting with economic inequality with an NGO, then later to open a bistro in the city when she decided to stay permanently. I was beyond excited to use the kitchen of a French chef here. (I highly encourage cooking in your Airbnb while slow traveling.)

She kept constant communication with Rachel via voice messages, making sure we were comfortable and didn’t need anything. Approaching the holiday season, Veronique was out visiting the Baja Sur state but still wanted to make sure we were doing well. The day she was to come back, she asked us if we would mind if her friend dropped off her dog a short bit before her bus would arrive back in town. Already missing our fur-man, we said it would be no problem.

Meet Tzigane, a Belgian shepherd who loves his mom. A lot. We were cautious because of the uncertainty of how comfortable the larger dog would be with strangers in his house and if he would rummage through the groceries we had stored in the kitchen. Contrarily, his hobbies included leaning on you for more pets and whining at the front door for his mom to come home.

Veronique would arrive a couple hours later and list off some nearby restaurants and shops that we may be interested in.

We quickly developed a feeling of comfort in the city. Our daily routine evolved pretty quickly and we had a good schedule of activities that we lived around. Wake up, walk to the local charcutería and pick up a freshly-made baguette and some cheese to lunch on. On the way back, we would stop at Café Tal to grab a cortado or an americano before retiring back to our accommodation to get some work done. Side note: the coffee scene in Guanajuato can use some drastic improvements.

After making some progress on a new post or an online course, the day would soon hit near peak temperature. Being that our Airbnb was slightly subterranean, it didn’t get much sun and thus was a bit cold. We would use this time to go out and venture into the city center.

We were staying in the La Presa neighborhood. Southeast of the rest of the city, this area was named after the nearby dam and reservoir that capped the top of the hill. It is a mostly quiet street (except for the car that passes by with max-volume subwoofers at 8:30pm every night) with colonial architecture and a wide main road.

The walk to the city center took us past a few tienditas where we could stop for fresh produce before each meal for just a few cents each. We would also pass by a number of recommended shops. One of these was called Mucho Pan, a bakery that offers vegan-style pastries and lunch on Wednesdays and Fridays. Run by a Japanese-Mexican couple, they offered a tasty bao/salad lunch for 28pesos! Rachel and I each got one, a chai, and split a vegan brownie. When we were presented the check, I couldn’t believe it was so little. We would come back on other occasions to try a mille crepe, a matcha scone, and more.

The first major landmark we passed was the Jardin and Mercado Embajadoras. This was always bustling with people grabbing lunch or shopping for clothes at a multitude of stands. Not the biggest market in town, but it was always lively.

From here, the street got skinnier and the sidewalk became a one-person path. With oncoming pedestrians, it was a game of chicken to see who would do the tiring step-off, step-back-on routine with the sidewalk to make way for the other person. As you got close to the city center, something really cool happened…

You continue onto walking-only streets and the cars head underground!

Being a mining town in its heyday, Guanajuato created a series of elaborate tunnels beneath the city to divert water from the nearby river to prevent flooding. Today, they’re used to hide and limit traffic.

This makes for a nice walk through the busy part of town. We passed by countless colonial-style homes and buildings and some of the best examples of New Spanish baroque architecture in the form of cathedrals and their surrounding plazas. Constructed from local sandstone, the streets are filled with shades of green, pink, and red. Businesses range from local cafes to chain clothing brands. You’ll eventually find yourself in the defacto center of town, the Jardín de la Unión, a beautifully manicured plaza surrounded by nice restaurants and a Starbucks with no less than four entrances. On the western side of the garden are two focal landmarks of the city – Teatro Juárez and Iglesia de San Diego. Here, you’ll often find local university students dressed in classic outfits offering tickets to a late night Callejoneadas walk. Offered only in Spanish, these walks tell the story of the town with a lot of singing and laughter.

Further down the street, we passed by Mercado Hidalgo, the largest market in the city. Here, you can find hundred of stands selling souvenirs, produce, lunch, clothes, and more. I like the setup of this market because you can go upstairs for a birds eye view of the maze of stalls.

While there is little to no car traffic here, this is the busiest section for pedestrians and you may want to sneak away to regroup. That’s the beauty of Guanajuato. Slip through any nearby alleyway and you’ll come across a gorgeous plaza that’s a bit quieter than the main strip. There are still plenty of places to shop or eat, just less people to work around. This was also where we found our favorite street.

Essentially running parallel to the center walking street, Positos was more centered on the artistic side of the city. Here, we found artisan shops and art studios beside museums and jewelry stores. Almost every day, we could find a man decorating the calm road with the acoustics of his accordion. At the top of the hill was the University of Guanajuato, a place where you could find dozens of people taking pictures with the 133-step entrance.

We also found our favorite coffeeshop here, Café Conquistador. A bit pricier than the spot near our Airbnb, it was better. Here is also where we found our favorite museums. Museo del Pueblo de Guanajuato had a few neat rooms, but the key exhibit on the upper floor where you found a room-sized mural entitled “Tríptico Guanajuatense” by José Chávez Morado. Turn around and you get an awesome view of El Pípila. (More on him later…)

Further up the street is the childhood home of renowned muralist Diego Rivera. Partially converted in an exhibit, you can stroll through a recreation of what his daily life looked like on the bottom floor before seeing a lot of his work, portraits and murals, on the upper floors. A fascinating place to engage a little bit with the history of one of Mexico’s most famous artists.

By now, you know one of the things we like more than visiting a new place is finding really high up views of the new place. Viewpoints, miradors, vistas, whatever you want to call it, we seek it out. Guanajuato offers plenty of these.

View of a surrounding mountain with a cactus in the foreground.
View from La Bufa.

Situated in a valley, Guanajuato is surrounded by large hills and mountains of the Sierra Madres. The most famous hike in the area takes you to El Cerro de La Bufa. You can read more about that hike here.

One morning, Veronique asked us if we would like to join her on a morning walk with Tzigane. We accepted and began a stroll through the parks at the top of the La Presa neighborhood. Soon enough, we had gone up some stairs and taken a dirt path behind some shrubs and cacti before ending up on a hiking trail that didn’t show up on any maps and we never would have found without her. The path eventually split into two routes, one towards a lighthouse (which I still can’t figure out why there is a a lighthouse in this mountain city) and one towards a panoramic view of the city. We turned towards the latter and made our way up to a vista that gave us far-reaching views of the city and surrounding mining villages. The way back down, we passed by the reservoir where ducks begged for food from any passerby that would listen.

Remember earlier, I said to hang on for the story of El Pípila? I’ll share a quick recap of his importance and how his statue has the best view of the city.

Shortly after Miguel Hidalgo gave his famous Grito de Dolores inciting the Mexican War for Independence, the rebels arrived in Guanajuato. The Spaniard loyalists took shelter in the fortress-like granary, Alhóndiga de Granaditas. Unable to get past the Spanish gunfire, Juan José de los Reyes Martínez Amaro (better known as El Pípila) tied a flat stone to his back, crawled to the wooden door of the granary and lit it on fire, allowing the Mexican militants to enter and defeat the Spanish. His actions inspired his legacy as a local hero.

Because of his deeds, he is honored atop one of the hills of Guanajuato with a giant stone monument. While you can certainly hike your way up the winding alleyways and staircases, we opted to take the nearby funicular to the top for the incredible view of the statue and city below.

Often overlooked by its more popular neighbors, San Miguel de Allende and Santiago de Querétaro, we found Guanajuato to be perfect. We immediately felt at home from the warm embrace of the locals, expats, and the city as a whole. We didn’t feel like we were on the time crunch of a short visit, but rather we felt like we were at home and able to live each day at whatever pace we wanted to. Guanajuato is on my short list of places I’d like to spend more time in.

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