It’s Valentine’s Day and shiny, heart-shaped balloons look out of place against Guanajuato’s traditional architecture. On first sight, I instantly recognise this as a city that doesn’t need extra decoration of the tacky, plastic kind.
On approach, it’s hard to grasp the beauty of colourful, ramshackle buildings tumbling down mountains towards the historic centre. Here, the sounds of Mexico – Ranchera music, barking dogs, passionate voices – rebound throughout the valley, combining with the spicy smell of street tacos.
For the uninitiated, driving is a nightmare, though that’s the payoff for such panoramic scenes. To find our hotel, we reversed precariously up steep laneways, dealt with Google directing us to ‘turn right’ off cliff sides and switched between awe at the views and frustration at another dead end. In favour of sanity, we gave up and drove back out of town to a hotel with easy parking.
Uber, taxis and your legs are the best modes of transport for exploring this incredible Mexican town.
Things to do in Guanajuato
Whether you drive, walk or circle the Panoramic Highway in a taxi, getting up high is one of the top things to do when you visit Guanajuato. The views don’t stop and you’ll find a few places to safely pull over for a happy snap. Many hotels offer balconies and rooftops to enjoy the scene, and it’s well worth it to pay extra for the privilege.
Though there’s plenty to do, I was happiest ambling along a colourful labyrinth of laneways, sipping sangria on rooftops and stopping to gawk at buildings like the rose-tinged Templo de San Francisco. Getting lost is inevitable in the historic district, however, landmarks guide you for the most part. Along the way, quirky shops filled with Mexican candies, homemade ice cream stalls and those ever-present street tacos beckon relentlessly.
Explore UNESCO-Listed History
To get from one side of town to the other, you drive through intriguing, rock-encased tunnels, some of which offer pedestrian paths and parking spots. In the town’s early mining days, the tunnels were constructed to prevent flooding, rather than direct traffic out of the centre. This insight into the past adds to Guanajuato’s ‘living museum’ appeal, founded as it was by the Spanish in the early 16th century.
With the silver boom came the spread of the picturesque city built haphazardly into the mountainside. Now, it appears as if it was cleverly designed for a postcard. You see everything from Mexican-colonial to Baroque and neoclassical architecture, along with half-built cement shacks with tin roofs and turquoise walls adorned with hanging flowers. Visit the mines and venture into the shafts, at Mina el Nopal.
It’s impossible to miss the elaborate Teatro Juárez, Guanajuato Basilica’s deep yellow magnificence and the rustic San Roque Church. Whether you appreciate them as majestic backdrops or for their religious symbolism, the city’s jumble of churches, temples and eclectic buildings create an awe-inspiring setting.
Visit Guanajuato Tourist Attractions
Guanajuato can’t help but attract tourists, it’s just too pretty. However, the city is still underrated in terms of Mexico’s hotspots for travel. Venture up into the hills and you’ll soon find yourself in the midst of kids playing soccer in alleyways, stray dogs sniffing around crumbling walls and street side food stalls bursting with happily-munching locals.
That’s not to say you won’t find tourist attractions if that’s what you’re looking for. At the top of the list is the macabre Museum of the Mummies. It gives you an up-close look at the mummified remains of residents who were buried in the city’s cemetery, many of whom obviously suffered grisly deaths. They’re no longer in the ground because the fees weren’t paid for their plots.
It’s certainly one of the most bizarre museums I’ve ever explored, and, once inside, a quick glance around was enough for me. However, it was an interesting reminder of how uncomfortable squeamish Westerners (like me) tend to be with death, as opposed to other cultures.
Next up is Diego Rivera’s house. The late husband of Frida and famous artist lived there as a child. It’s now a museum and gallery, filled with early works and exhibits. For views with a splash of fun, take a ride on the funicular. The tram-car heads straight up the side of the mountain, with sweeping views of the city and an intimate look at the statue of local hero, El Pípila.
Eat, Drink and be Mexican Merry
The University of Guanajuato ensures the student population thrives, so bars, pubs and plazas generally buzz with action. Walking the streets of the historic district on sunset and beyond, especially on weekends or special occasions, is a battle of the fun-loving crowds. Musical Callejoneadas alleyway shows blend with laughing families and smooching couples, creating a ready-made, open-air party. It’s a romantic destination that’s also grungy, loud and youthful within its historic backdrop.
When you visit Guanajuato and you’re hungry, take advantage of the never-ending parade of churros, tacos, pastries and tamales on the streets. Then, there are cool cafes, swish restaurants and alfresco dining options with views to die for, featuring cuisine from around the globe. An honourable mention must go to Santo Cafe, for its exquisite, photo-ready spot on a Venetian bridge overlooking a cobbled lane.
On or off the tourist path, Guanajuato captivates your senses with a colourful explosion of history, culture, ramshackle appeal and grandiose scenes, both manmade and natural. The vibe is friendly, a tad hectic and authentically Mexican, despite a quaint, European veil and an abundance of souvenir shops.
Sometimes confusing, always stimulating and visually spectacular at every turn, Guanajuato is a truly unique corner of the world that begs to be explored.