I dragged my feet onto the last of the 360 odd stairs I’d just climbed. My heart was a giant softball pounding against the inside of my chest. And my lungs were empty balloons gasping for air.
We were walking back to our guesthouse which sits high on a hillside overlooking Guanajuato Centro in the valley below. The town of Guanajuato sits at an elevation of 2000 metres and my body was protesting at the lack of oxygen.
Discovering Guanajuato Centro
The day began as it usually does, with us going in search of breakfast. We love breakfast! We can skip lunch and even dinner if we have to, but we get darn cranky without breakfast.
After walking down the stairs, which is so much easier than going up, we walked into the centro historico. But I guess the people of Guanajuato aren’t early risers because it was 9 a.m and nothing was open.
Fortunately, Guanajuato is full of plazas that are perfect for people watching and making friends.
It’s how we met Grace and John.
They seemed like any other elderly couple sitting on a park bench enjoying the morning sun. And I guess they were. Except that at the age of eighty, they’d sold everything they owned to move from America to Guanajuato.
In their own words, they’d “left it all behind” to start a new life in Mexico. And, judging by the number of people who stopped to say hello to them, they’d settled in well.
They’re a wonderful example of living life to the full no matter what your age is.
And it’s not like they’re in perfect health either. Grace walked with a cane and John told us he’d recently had a pacemaker put it in. Their bodies might have slowed down but their sense of adventure hadn’t dwindled at all.
When they heard about our breakfast woes they gave us an insider tip on one of the most popular cafes in Guanajuato.
Found across the Campanero bridge Santo Cafe is all about the location. Its most popular tables sit on a charming bridge above a busy alleyway. Diners come to relax, people watch, and listen to the buskers below.
Of course, they indulge in some eating and drinking too!
The breakfast deal here is good, with eggs, bacon, toast, juice, and coffee or tea. The coffee is Americano style so I had to order my latte separately. It confused things when it came time to pay, but the coffee was strong and creamy and totally worth it!
The meal was a decent size and we were able to skip lunch. Which helps the purse strings when you’re travelling on a budget.
The Alleys and Plazas of Guanajuato
The best way to see Guanajuato is to lose yourself in its cobblestone maze. It was built into the mountain without any real plan and became a tangle of alleys, stairways and plazas.
There’s nothing like discovering a place on your own and Mexican Guanajuato is perfect for exploring on foot.
You never know what you might find!
Walking around the town centre we could see why Guanajuato is considered one of Mexico’s most beautiful cities. A UNESCO World Heritage site, we were captivated by its colonial architecture, brightly coloured buildings, cobbled alleys and lively plazas.
Many houses in Guanajuato are small and located in narrow laneways that leave little room for play. Realizing the need for public spaces in a cramped maze-like town, Spanish city planners built plazas that are scattered all over the city.
It’s where people come to catch up with friends, play board games or to just chill with a cool drink.
They’re more than simple social hubs though. They’re an integral part of the city’s cultural fabric, where concerts, street performances and festivals like the International Cervantino Festival are held.
Juarez theatre is considered to be one of Mexico’s premier theatres. The inspiration for the design of Teatro Juarez comes from ancient Greek and Roman legends, which you can see in the building’s imposing pillars and bronze statues.
We were looking forward to seeing the inside and it’s possible to do a self-guided tour, but it was closed when we visited Guanajuato. The theatre is still in use and it would be wonderful to take in a show when there’s a performance in town.
Sometimes street performers use the theatre’s front steps but we were out of luck.
Basilica of Guanajuato
We’ve visited many churches and monasteries on our career break, and they’ve all been different with each country having its own characteristics.
The Basilica of Guanajuato was built in the Mexican baroque style and has an appealing earthiness. Painted mustard yellow with desert red detail it’s a visually striking and imposing building.
The Basilica is dedicated to the patron saint of the city Our Lady of Guanajuato (Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato) and it houses a jewel-encrusted image of the Virgin Mary. The icon is said to have been hidden in a cave for 800 years and was presented to the town in 1557 as thanks for the huge amounts of silver it produced for the Spanish monarchy.
The Alley of the Kiss
A fun thing to do in Guanajuato is to visit the Alley of the Kiss.
Legend has it that two young people who lived across the alley from each other fell in love. The girl’s father didn’t approve and forbade them from seeing each other. But the alley is so narrow their balconies almost touched allowing them to meet and kiss in secret.
Naturally, the girl’s father found out and it all came to a tragic end.
It’s a bit odd, but they say if you stand on the red step and kiss your loved one you’ll have a lifetime of good luck.
Of course, we couldn’t resist the chance of a kiss.
The Guanajuato Funicular
The Guanajuato funicular climbs one of the steepest hills that surround the town. It takes the pain out of climbing to the best viewpoint and reaches the statue of El Pipila which commemorates the town hero.
You’ll find it right behind Teatro Juarez and tickets cost $30 pesos one way.
Three times we headed to the funicular and three times we were distracted by something interesting we found. In the end we didn’t make it. But it didn’t really matter because the view from our street was just as spectacular.
Warning: Some people may find the photos at the bottom of this section disturbing.
It’s strange that such an enchanting and historical town should have the world’s most macabre museum. Stranger still that El Museo De Las Momias (the Mummy Museum) is Guanajuato’s most popular attraction.
Visiting a museum full of mummified dead people may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the Mummy Museum is surprisingly popular. And just about every local will recommend visiting it.
Please note this is not a family-friendly attraction!
With over 100 mummies it’s a little creepy. And we recently met someone who found it so disturbing she had to walk out halfway through.
The mummies look like something from a horror show with their mouths open wide in silent screams of terror. It freaks people out, but it’s actually part of the natural dying process. When the jaw muscles relax the mouth becomes slack causing an open-mouthed expression that looks like a scream.
So where have they come from?
When exhuming the remains of a doctor at the Santa Paula Cemetery, way back in 1865, cemetery workers were astonished to discover a mummified body.
An annual fee had been imposed on the families of people intered there and many of the families were poor. If they couldn’t pay, then the bodies were exhumed and the crypt given to a fee-paying customer.
Over time more and more bodies were found.
It’s believed Guanajuato’s soil, high altitude and the corpses being sealed in air-tight crypts caused the bodies to dry out and mummify.
People were fascinated by the strange phenomenon and workers started displaying the mummies in a nearby building. Eventually, it turned into one of Mexico’s most visited museums.
The collection includes local men, women and sadly children. There’s even a fetus that’s said to be the world’s smallest mummy.
We found it oddly fascinating but wondered how ethical it is to put dead people on display. Would they have given their consent if they were alive?
The Mexican government has defended the museum saying that Mexican’s celebrate death as a natural part of the cycle of life.
And the Mayor of Guanajuato had this to say:
The Mummies are a part of of Guanajuato’s heritage and for this reason we conserve, preserve and share them with the visitors that come to our city in search of them.
What do you think?