The Coolest Little Town in the World – Guanajuato, Mexico
In all my 20 years of roaming the planet, I think Guanajuato, Mexico might be the coolest town I’ve ever discovered.
Certainly a few towns in the Indian Himalayas, like Dharamsala, Rishikesh and Rewalsar are in the running as super cool towns. And then a few towns on the old Asian trading route in SE Asia, like Penang, Malaysia and Hoi An, Vietnam are in the running, too.
So let’s just say that Guanajuato is among the top 10 coolest, most interesting towns in the world. According to Lash.
Guanajuato’s ultra-cool stamp is the result of several factors: the town’s unique topography and layout, its history as the center of Mexico’s historical silver rush, its huge arts & street performance scene and its gorgeous historic architecture.
Guanajuato’s unique topography -tunnels and subterranean roads
To start with, Guanajuato is situated in a steep, tight ravine. The downtown section is located in the heart of the ravine, while densely-packed, colorful neighbor homes squeeze up the steep hillsides all around.
From just about any point in town you can glance up and see a hodgepodge of bright housing climbing the hills, practically above your head.
Because of the ravine’s contours, Guanajuato’s roads all wind and twist around up and down through town. That contrasts greatly from almost all other towns & cities in Mexico, which are all laid out on flat grid plans.
But most interesting of all, many roads are subterranean – right inside (or I should say, right under) downtown!
Several are completely enclosed in tunnels, while others are open to the sky, banked by thick stone walls that are, in turn, the bases of the buildings above. In many spots in town other roads cross over those subterranean streets and you can look down onto traffic below and the dense stone walls.
Many buses run through the tunnels, so passengers are often dropped off underground, then have to climb up stairs to reach ground level. In total, Guanajuato has 23 tunnels in town.
It all gives Guanajuato a mysterious medieval castle feeling.
The Center of Mexico’s Silver Mines
In the mid1500s the Spanish discovered silver in the hills surrounding Guanajuato. This quickly created a silver rush and the accumulation of vast wealth among the mine owners.
For the next 250 years Guanajuato and a few nearby towns produced 20% of the entire world’s silver. Needless to say, a lot of wealth poured into the towns. Incredible buildings and churches were constructed in Guanajuato, as well as the nearby towns of Gueretaro, Zacatecas and Leon.
But not only silver was discovered here. More than 20 other minerals were regularly uncovered as well, including manganese, jasper, several types of quartz, crystal and pirite to name a few. They were all mixed in together in the mineral-rich hills of central Mexico.
Eventually the silver and mineral deposits dried up. The mines closed.
Nowadays, several of the original mines are still located a few miles uphill from downtown Guanajuato. None of them are operational, but several are open for interesting, educational tours. A highlight of visiting Guanajuato!
Not surprisingly, many shops selling a huge selections of minerals are located just outside the mines.
Gorgeous Historic Architecture
Not surprisingly, given Guanajuato’s silver rush history, the town is packed with gorgeous, elaborate government buildings, private homes, churches and cathedrals.
This actually is true of most Mexican towns and cities established by the Spanish in the 1500 and 1600s all over Mexico. However, as the center of silver wealth, Guanajuato has some exemplary architecture and incredibly ornate churches.
The town’s unusual topography and layout also gave rise to some interesting architecture and unusually placed buildings. Two of Guanajuato’s deservedly most famous and gorgeous buildings include the Juarez Theater (Wow!) and the cathedral – Basicilica de Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato. Both feature super-elaborate, jaw-dropping interiors.
Guanajuato’s many plazas also come in unusual shapes and sizes. They are triangular, oblong, irregularly shaped. Several contain fountains. Most are full of shady trees and pretty vegetation/gardens.
Art and Museums
At some point in its history, Guanajuato became a huge arts center. The important University of Guanajuato has a massive and well-known art and music department with thousands of students.
Several of Mexico’s most famous and talented painters hail from Guanajuato, including Rivera Diego! His original family home is now a museum showcasing the family home and several of Diego’s paintings from different periods of his illustrious career.
Other famous artists include the husband-wife team of Olga Costa and Jose Chavez Morado, whose former home/studio in a historic hacienda is also now a museum, showcasing both their home interiors and paintings.
Museo del Pueblo de Guanajuato is another former home turned museum, displaying changing exhibitions of Mexican artists as well as the very unusual house. Upstairs is a huge private church installed for the wealthy former owner, complete with a huge mural by Morado.
There are several other great art museums and galleries around town as well.
Music and Street Performances
Guanajuato is full of music! Classical orchestras and operas perform in Juarez Theater and in the open-aired pavillion in Jardin Plaza, just out front. Roving Mariachi bands and other forms of traditional Mexican musical groups play every evening for diners at Jardin Plaza. Student groups set up along various streets, hoping for donations.
Then there’s the troupe of musicians dressed up like European royal court entertainers who wander around Jardin Plaza every evening who perform amusing theatrical songs in front of historic church, Templo de San Diego.
Simultaneously, every evening in and around Jardin Plaza many other impromptu street performers play to the crowds: mimes, clowns, human statues and others.
Various festivals and events happen throughout the year, adding more variety to the nightly performances. Among the most noteworthy are the Medieval Festival, International Film Festival, Book and Culture Festival and an International Organ Festival.
Other Unique Attractions
This famous museum is one of a kind in the world. People flock there to view (and get creeped out over) nearly 100 naturally-preserved mummies.
The mummies were discovered basically by accident when previously buried corpses were dug up in the early and mid 1900s to make room for new burials. Instead of finding the normal decomposed skeletons, the diggers found mummies, complete with dried skin, hair, clothes, facial expressions and even genitals nearly perfectly preserved (albeit dried up like freeze-dried fruit).
It’s all the result of Guanajuato’s super dry climate and the heavy mineral deposits in the ground.
The mummies are displayed in stand up cases along the walls. They’ve each been given names and are as unique as living people.
Several mummified babies count among the artifacts, including the world’s smallest mummy – a 7-month old fetus that was born prematurely – alongside his mother.
It’s a fascinating museum!
Museum of Don Quixote
This is the world’s only dedicated Don Quixote museum.
It contains a huge collection of artworks – paintings, sculptures, ceramics, postage stamps and other memorablia created on the theme of Miguel Cervante’s famous novel character, Don Quixote, and his side-kick, Pacho Sanchez.
Many paintings were done by Mexico’s most famous artists. Others by foreign artists. In all, it’s a collection of superb paintings and other works of art.
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