Ah Guanajuato. Charming, quaint and rather hard on the legs!
On our recent trip to Mexico we spent 5 days in this picturesque, colonial city in the heart of the country. Overall we loved it but it wasn’t all roses and unicorns. In this guide we’ll share the things we did and what we loved about Guanajuato, plus the stuff we didn’t love quite so much, in case you ever decide to visit. Which you absolutely should.
We went during June and the weather was, well, perfect. The 6600ft altitude meant that whilst the days were hot and sunny it wasn’t humid, and the night temperatures were cool enough to sleep without air con. Heaven. Having come from the unrelentingly steamy west coast we were very grateful for the respite.
Where to stay in Guanajuato
We stayed in a private room at Hostel Casa De Dante, partly because it came highly rated and partly because we were ready to meet some other travellers. We try and do that every now and again so we get to speak with other people and don’t and up killing each other; one of the challenges of couple travel when you live in each others pockets.
Overall it was pretty good. Our room was comfy enough and the staff were helpful and friendly. The breakfast was the best we’ve had in any hostel anywhere so far in Mexico with fresh juice, fruit and a hot dish each morning. We even arrived back one day to find a Union Jack flag on our balcony, which was a cute surprise.
Can you guess which room was ours?
What we weren’t quite prepared for was the location. Although clearly stated upon booking that ‘the property is located on the top of a hill and is accessed by a long, steep stairway of 150 steps’ we really weren’t prepared for what that actually mean’t. Because of the way the city lies within the mountains, the steps were VERY steep, uneven and 150 felt like a lot more than it sounds. At the high altitude and carrying backpacks, it was tough!
No need to go to the gym in Guanajuato!
Plus side, we got awesome views from the roof terrace. Downside, we had to walk up and down the stairs anytime we wanted to go out which, sadly, due to the patchy wifi or desire to use the cooking facilities, was pretty often.
Unless you’re staying right in the heart of the Guanajuato (in which case you are probably going to get a lot of noise) this is a city that requires a lot of walking and up and down steep steps. If you’re young and/or fit, lucky you! We found it quite a lot of hard work.
Things to do in Guanajuato City
So apart from getting a decent leg workout, what else is there to do in Guanajuato? Thanks to the University, one of oldest in Latin America, this is a city with a cool, laid back, youthful vibe. There is an energy and a diversity that gives it a modern feel, which seems a bit at odds with the strong colonial architecture and history but adds to the city’s uniqueness.
Wander the streets and marvel at the beautiful architecture
Established in 1548, Guanajuato was an influential colonial city due to it’s abundance of mineral wealth. Some stories from the pre-hispanic era report that gold nuggets could be found just lying on the ground and that the Aztecs established a presence there to collect metals for their religious elite.
Once the Spanish found the gold they soon sent soldiers and started mining the rich veins. One of the mines was so rich that, at it’s height, it was responsible for two thirds of the worlds silver production. The wealth of the city at that time resulted in the construction of particularly magnificent churches, some of which are considered to be the most beautiful examples of Baroque architecture in Central and South America, influencing later buildings throughout central Mexico. Wander around the city centre and you can’t really miss two of the highlights; Templo de la Compañia and Bascilica de Guanajuato
Templo de la Compañia is considered to be one of the finest examples of baroque architecture in Latin America
Strikingly yellow hued Bascilica de Guanajuato
Guanajuato is a city of brightly painted houses that spill down the mountainsides in a kaleidoscope of colours. The old mining tunnels, now turned into roads, criss cross below a city that appears deceptively small. Definitely the best way to appreciate Guanajuato is to just walk and get lost in the steep, narrow streets. When you’re not sure which way to go, just head downhill and you’ll eventually reach the town centre.
The maze of old mining tunnels, now roads, help keep the traffic off the streets in the centre.
Hang out at Jardin Unión
At the centre of Guanajuato is the main square ‘Jardin Unión.’ Here you’ll find the usual assortment of restaurants, bars and hotels surrounding a densely shaded plaza which, in the evenings, also plays host to numerous mariachi bands that vie with each other to play for the tourists. This is also the location of Starbucks, worth knowing if you need decent wifi, like we did when in Guanajuato.
Enjoy dinner and mariachi music in El Jardin Unión
Ride the funicular and visit ‘El Pilpa’
Overlooking Jardin Unión is the monument of local hero ‘El Pilpa.’ He can be reached either by a 15 minute hike up the steep steps, or by taking the funicular train just behind Jardin Unión. We found the best option was to go up in the funicular, which only takes a few minutes, then back down the steps. As a bonus, there’s some cool street art on the sides of the houses most of the route down. Also, marvel at how anyone can live in such hard to reach places – after all, there’s no Asda home delivery here!
Trust us, take the funicular up to the top
El Pilpa was having some work done while we were there, but still impressive.
Take the steps back down and enjoy some street art along the way
After all that effort and excitement you’ll no doubt be ready for a sit down and some refreshment. At the bottom of the stairs as you head back towards the town centre there’s a trendy little gastropub that serves good food called La Santurrona which we ate at and can recommend.
La Santurrona makes a great pitstop
Get romantic at ‘El callejon del beso’
Other things to do in Guanajuato include having a snog in ‘El Callejon del beso’ or ‘alley of the kiss’. In true Romeo and Juliet style, legend has it that in Guanajuato there once lived a girl who fell in love with a lad from the wrong side of the tracks. Unable to be together due to the girl’s father’s disapproval, the young man rented the room across from the daughter’s which, due to the very narrow alleyway meant that they could lean out from the balconies and kiss. Sadly the tale has a tragic ending, with the father finding out and killing his daughter, but tourists still flock to the alley where it’s said that if you share a kiss on the third step, true love will be yours forever.
Best not to take chances with true love!
Get creeped out at ‘Museo de las momias’
One place we really didn’t enjoy was Guanajuato’s premier tourist attraction the ‘mummies museum.’ Containing the gruesomely well preserved remains of some of the towns deceased residents, whose families were unable to pay the burial tax dating back as far as 1870. Due to an outbreak of cholera in 1829, cemetery space in the town was running out so the local authorities introduced a new ‘burial tax’ to enable bodies to remain at rest in perpetuity. Those unable to pay the tax had their loved ones disinterred and stored in a nearby building. Some of the bodies remained weirdly well preserved (thought to be due to the dry climate) and by the 1900’s these ‘mummies’ started attracting tourists and the caretakers began to charge a small fee to view them.
Today, the museum is one of the most popular attractions in Guanajuato and a reminder of the cultural difference in how death is reviled by us Brits yet celebrated by Mexicans. We found it uncomfortable and creepy and couldn’t wait to get out. The Mexicans, on the other hand, were happily smiling and taking selfies with the mummies!
If you’re of a sensitive disposition you may want to skip this particular attraction.
Not for the faint hearted ‘El museo de las momias’
Where to eat in Guanajuato
There isn’t a shortage of good food options in Guanajuato, with everything from tasty cheap street food to high end restaurants. Some of the places we ate at and can recommend include:
La vie en rose Owned by a french family, this gorgeously decorated cute cafe offers beautiful cuisine that’s a welcome change if you’ve had enough of tacos.
Truco 7 Authentic yet quirky Mexican decor and decent food with a good menu selection
Santo Cafe Cosy atmosphere with a good selection of affordable food, plus some vegetarian options.
Coverted seats at Santo Cafe
Do a day trip to San Miguel De Allende
If you don’t have time to go and stay in the UNESCO World Heritage city of San Miguel De Allende, it’s totally possible to catch the bus and do a day trip from Guanajuato. We did just that and you can read about our top 5 things to do in San Miguel de Allende.
We used Uber to get from our accommodation to the bus station and always had a great experience, knew what we would be paying up front and never waited more than 5 minutes for a driver. Other than taking the local ‘chicken’ buses or ‘collectivo’ minivans, it’s the cheapest way to go. Just be aware that it isn’t available everywhere in Mexico yet.
Other stuff we didn’t get chance to do in Guanajuato
There were plenty of things we didn’t get chance to do in Guanajuato and would do if we ever decide to go back. For example, we never made it to the home of the celebrated Mexican artist Diego Rivera, which is a now a museum showcasing some of his works. Or either of the two theatres, which apparently have wonderful musical performances for a modest entrance fee. We also didn’t bother to join one of the nightly troubadour tours, which, for around £10, sees you serenaded around the city by a gang of velvet clad musician/tour guides.
Something we’ve learned on our tour around Mexico is that if we try to cram everything in each time we visit a new place, we get burned out pretty quick! Long term travel as digital nomads requires a balance of being tourists, having days off where you just chill out and watch Netflix, as well as working. So we don’t beat ourselves up now when we don’t manage to see everything. Anyway, it gives us an excuse to return one day 😉
So, should you put Guanajuato on your bucket list? Definitely yes. Just remember to do your leg stretches first.