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Treasure of the Sierra Madre Oriental

By Marshall S. Berdan | Published: September 17, 2019

View from the El Pipila terrace with the canary-
yellow Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato in the 
foreground. 

It’s hard not to wax lustrous about Guanajuato, a true gem of a city stunningly set in the central Mexican heartland, especially when seen from the terrace below El Pipila, the Modernesque stone statue of the legendary hero of the first battle of the War of Independence against Spain that overlooks it from the south. Boxlike stucco buildings in pastel coral, mustard, and periwinkle climb the brown hills of the narrow Rio Guanajuato Valley, providing depth and contrast to the churches, theaters, university, parks and municipal buildings that line the winding streets of Guanajuato’s magnificent colonial core directly below. 

It’s a city begging to be captured on film, and on this cloudless summer morning, several dozen predominantly domestic tourists are doing just that while vendors of trompada (a hard local peanut candy) circulate among them, plying their wares. I seem to be the only obvious Gringo, and that, too, pleases me, who has come for the day from American-rich San Miguel de Allende.     

What the Spanish found here nearly 500 years ago was even more pleasing to them: gold and eventually silver—tons of it. By the mid 1700s, Guanajuato was the leading silver mining center in the world and colonial Mexico’s richest city, a legacy that is still readily apparent and easily unearthed.  

The main altar inside the Templo
de San Cayetano.

To start where Guanajuato started, I take a public bus to La Valenciana, located on the ridge north of town. Two-thirds of Guanajuato’s silver production came from the mines here, which collectively accounted for 30% of the world’s production for close to 250 years. In appreciation for nature’s largesse, the mine’s 18th-century owner, the Count of Valencia, built the imposing pink-stone Templo de San Cayetano here in the Baroque style and adorned it with not one, not two, but three massive gilded altars.

Entrance to the historic 
Mina el Nopal. 

A half mile behind the temple, I take a quick trip down into the original 1557 shaft at Bocamina Sam Ramon and check out the mining museum. Two miles farther along, I take a more in-depth, guided tour (in Spanish) of the horizontal central shaft of the Mina el Nopal, which dates from Guanajuato’s second silver rush in the 1860s and is still being “worked” by students at the local School of Mines.

Back in town, I begin my exploration of the prominent legacies of Guanajuato’s mineral wealth, particularly its many Baroque churches, the most magnificent of which is the canary-yellow Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato. Above the main altar is the lady herself: a bejeweled 8th-century Madonna purportedly donated by King Carlos I and his son, the future Felipe II, in 1557. This provenance, if true, would make it the country’s oldest Christian work of art.

A block north lies the Templo de la Compania, built by the Jesuits in 1735, whose large, ornately carved Churrigueresque stone façade belies its less imposing interior. Inside, I find a group of older women praying the rosary in unison.  

Not surprisingly, Guanajuato’s wealth and its importance to the Spanish crown attracted the attention of Mexico’s first crop of revolutionaries. They had responded to the celebrated Grito de Dolores of Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costillo, parish priest in nearby Dolores, on September 16th, 1810. That attraction turned fatal at the Alhondiga de Granaditas, the fortress-like granary that had been built outside the city walls at the turn of the 19th Century. Here, on September 28th, Father Hidalgo led his ragtag army of 30,000 against the 500 barricaded men of the local Spanish garrison. But they were unable to gain access until a local miner by the name of Juan Jose de los Reyes Martinez (Il Pipila), protected from the gunfire that rained down on him by a stone strapped to his back, smeared the front door of the granary with tar and set it ablaze. It would be another 11 years—almost to the day—before independence would be secured. These days the Alhondiga, which is just as impressive on the inside, serves as a regional museum.  

For a late lunch I stop at the two-story wrought iron and glass Mercado del Hidalgo, whose clock tower was designed by none other than Gustav Eiffel. When the trains for which it was designed failed to arrive, it was converted into a public market. At one of the many food stalls on the ground floor, I load up on carnitas with serrano chilis for just 18 pesos.     

With time and appetite for only one more museum, I decide against the patently offbeat Museo de las Momias (a collection of eerily preserved victims of a cholera epidemic in the 1830s that were unearthed decades later when their descendants could no longer pay cemetery fees) in favor of the Museo Casa Diego Rivera, birthplace and childhood home of Mexico’s most celebrated 20th-century artist. The downstairs is furnished as it would have been during Rivera’s youth, while the galleries upstairs trace the development of his prodigious artistic talent.   

By now, it’s late afternoon and time to make like the locals who have begun their evening promenades along Guanajuato’s commercial thoroughfares or taken seats at the many cafes that spill out into its many small plazas. Under the gazebo in tree-lined Jardin de la Union, a band has started playing, forcing the itinerant mariachis to cool their well-polished boot heels. Across the way, on the steps of the Beaux-Arts Teatro Juarez (a major venue for the annual Cervantes Festival), artists are displaying their work. Conspicuously absent is the vehicular chaos that mars similar settings in other Mexican cities. After a series of devastating floods, the Rio Guanajuato was diverted in the 1960s and its former channels converted into subterranean roadways.

A couple kissing on the Callejon del Beso (Alley of the Kiss)
A common sight on the romantic
Callejon del Beso (Alley of the Kiss).

By now, I’m regretting that I have only come for the day and so will have to miss out on the four times weekly callejoneadas, in which student minstrels lead paying tourists on spirited (in more ways than one) evening ambles through the town’s narrow cobblestone passageways (known as callejones). But I can at least anticipate part of it by heading directly myself to the two-foot wide Callejon del Beso (Alley of the Kiss) over which opposing balconies once gave a pair of star-crossed lovers a few blissful moments. It all ended tragically, of course, but that doesn’t stop a half dozen couples from queuing for their turn to pucker up.

For unaccompanied me, there’s just enough time for a quick hike back up El Pipila where another group of cameras is poised to capture the late afternoon sun kissing Mexico’s erstwhile silver capital in shafts of golden light. Beautiful Guanajuato has clearly inspired a few more love affairs of its own today, all of which appear destined for a delightful ending. 

About the Author

A headshot of Mike Berdan

Marshall S. “Mike” Berdan is a veteran travel writer who has been to more than 60 countries. He speaks conversational French, Spanish and some Swedish. His daughters attended El Lago del Bosque for two summers.

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