Shoehorned into a narrow ravine, GUANAJUATO was for centuries the wealthiest city in Mexico, its mines pouring out silver and gold in prodigious quantities. Today it presents an astonishing sight: upon emerging from the surrounding hills you come on the city quite suddenly, a riot of colonial architecture, tumbling down hills so steep that at times it seems the roof of one building is suspended from the floor of the last. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, Guanajuato is protective of its image: there are no traffic lights or neon signs here, and the topography ensures that there’s no room for new buildings. The town’s pristine reputation was cemented in 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI chose Guanajuato (and neighbouring León) as the only stops on his Mexican visit.
Today the city of around 170,000 has plenty of life in its narrow streets, many outstanding places to eat and drink, and lots to see: churches, theatres, museums, battlefields, mines and mummified corpses, to name but a few of the city’s attractions. There’s an old-fashioned, backwater feel to the place, reinforced by the local students’ habit of going serenading in black capes, the brass bands playing in the plazas and the city's general refusal to make any special effort to accommodate the flood of (mostly domestic) tourists.
Guanajuato’s main thoroughfare is Juárez, but below this passes an underground roadway: the Subterráneo Miguel Hidalgo. It was built as a tunnel to take the river under the city, but the river now runs deeper below ground, and its former course, with the addition of a few exits and entrances, has proved very handy in preventing traffic from clogging up the centre entirely; more tunnels have since been added to keep the traffic flowing.
Halfway along Guanajuato’s main thoroughfare, Juárez, the Plazuela de los Angeles is little more than a slight broadening of the street, but from here steps lead up to some of the city's steepest, narrowest alleys. Just off the plazuela is the Callejón del Beso (20m up Callejón del Patrimonio and turn left), so-called because at only 69cm wide, it is slim enough for residents to lean out of the upper-storey balconies and exchange kisses across the street – naturally enough, there’s a tale of star-crossed lovers associated with it. The legend of the Callejón del Beso is classic Romeo and Juliet: two young lovers – in this case Doña Ana and her suitor, Don Carlos – separated by mean, feuding parents. The story has a fittingly tragic ending; in a desperate bid to see his love, Don Carlos bought the house opposite Doña Ana’s, across an alley so close they could hold hands. When Ana’s father caught them, he was so incensed he stabbed his daughter to death at the window – poor Carlos was left kissing her lifeless hand. Today it is said that couples who kiss whilst standing on the third step of the Callejón del Beso are guaranteed seven years of happiness.
In 1810, Father Hidalgo approached Guanajuato at the head of his insurgent force – mostly peons armed with nothing more than staves and sickles. The Spanish, outnumbered but well supplied with firearms, shut themselves up in the Alhóndiga. The almost certainly apocryphal story goes that Hidalgo’s troops could make no impact until a young miner, nicknamed El Pípila (“the Turkeycock”), volunteered to set fire to the wooden doors – with a slab of stone tied to his back as a shield, he managed to crawl to the gates and start them burning, dying in the effort. The rebels, their path cleared, broke in and massacred the defenders wholesale. It was a short-lived victory – Hidalgo, later forced to abandon Guanajuato, was eventually tracked down by the royalists and executed. His head and the heads of his three chief co-conspirators, Allende, Aldama and Jiménez, were suspended from the four corners of the Alhóndiga as a warning to anyone tempted to follow their example, and there they stayed for over ten years, until Mexico finally did become independent.
Guanajuato’s two-and-a-half week Festival Internacional Cervantino (early to mid-Oct) is the city’s top fiesta, a celebration of sixteenth-century Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes and his most famous character, the hapless romantic, Don Quixote. The festival features performances by international and Mexican musicians, dancers, theatre groups and street-performers, and each year a different region or country is picked to be the focus. The festival has its foundations in the 1950s, when students performed entremeses – swashbuckling one-act plays from classical Spanish theatre – outdoors in places such as Plaza San Roque. These still take place here, and you don’t need good Spanish to work out what’s going on, as they’re highly visual and very entertaining. Guanajuato actually plays host to several boisterous festivals, including the Fiestas de San Juan y Presa de la Olla (June 24), when fireworks, fairground rides and the crowning of the “Reina de las Fiestas” (Queen of the Festivals) take place on the saint’s day at the Presa de la Olla, and the Apertura de la Presa de la Olla (first Mon in July), the traditional opening of the dam’s floodgates to sluice out and clean the city’s riverbed (celebrated by local dances and serenading).