No towers or sky-scrapers loom above. I know of no elevators and can’t think of a building that has more than five floors. Yet I live in a vertical city. Guanajuato spills colorfully down the sides of a canyon. The streets, “callejones” wind up and down with labyrinth-like unpredictability. It’s beautiful, enticing and sometimes challenging.
The Spanish typically built their cities in orderly grids with “avenidas” running north-south, and “calles” running east-west. It must have been frustrating for them that the geography of Guanajuato wouldn’t conform to this logic. But what could they do- this is where the silver was.
Guanajuato’s verticality has its advantages. Once you know your way home from downtown, you really can’t get lost. If you’re going up, you’re going away from town and if you’re going down you’re going towards it. And you’re always going up or down. A well-traveled friend I met at language school commented that Guanajuato was the only place he’d ever been where by some strange vortex of both geography and geometry when you walk somewhere and back, it’s uphill both ways. It’s good for the muscles, heart and lungs. Rough on the knees. Bring good shoes.
People visiting Mexico are often overly concerned about keeping their digestive systems healthy. Fair enough, but the greater health risk here is from falling. Guanajuato has beautiful architecture that begs to be stared at. Don’t walk and gawk. Stop moving your feet when you admire the scenery. Locals have mastered getting around these uneven, step-filled streets. I once saw a woman walking up a callejon in four-inch heels while carrying a cake and talking on a cell phone. Don’t try this yourself.
While pedestrians enjoy ground level, or various ground levels, most of the vehicle traffic is underground. Ancient river beds serve as “subterranean” streets and the city is crawling with tunnels. This means that even if you know your way around the pedestrian passages in your sleep, you may have no idea how to get around by car. When I first came here I was suspicious when taxis would take a tunnel leading out of town, only to do a u-turn and head back in. Now I understand. That is often the only way to get from one point to another by car. Guanajuato is a great place not to have a vehicle.
The axis of Guanajuato descends below where the eye can see. The hills all around are spotted with silver mines, many of them hundreds of years old, some of them still producing. The ruins of the mines are incongruently scenic. Beautiful centuries-old stone structures, they are also the sites of unimaginable suffering and exploitation- and of course, the source of the wealth which created this city. They say that at one time 70% of the world’s silver was coming out of Guanajuato’s mines. Today, near the ornate Templo Valenciana, one can enter “boca mina” to get a brief tour.
Guanajuato will strain your feet, harden your tush and reward you with incredible vistas. It deserves a stop on any tour of central Mexico.Published in