I just completed another visit to Mexico, once again starting in Guadalajara, but then doing a 9-day driving trip through the heart of the country. This new year is Mexico’s bicentennial and centennial (independence from Spain and the revolution, respectively), and signs denoting the historic routes of the country’s history have sprouted up all over the place.
Our trip took us through a lot of the old colonial center of Mexico, with special mention for Patzcuaro and its surrounding region, and our amazing trip to the wintering grounds of the Monarch butterfly high in the Michoacan mountains. But for Streetsblog readers, there is a city in Mexico that is a must-see: Guanajuato!
I didn’t know much about Guanajuato before I went, except that there were mummies there, and it was a former mining capital, built in the mountains. It was once a prosperous capital of the Spanish colony, and later during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, it had a second glory period as the mines again became a source of great wealth. I learned a lot about the history of Mexican independence, which starts here in this region. The father of Mexican Independence, Miguel de Hidalgo, led about 80,000 farmers and miners to this city in 1810 to attack the Spanish authorities. He was captured a few months later and his head hung with some other rebels on the outside of the granary (today the same building is a great museum of Mexican Independence, well worth a visit). But years of guerrilla war ensued, and by 1823 Mexico was independent. Interesting to contextualize Mexican independence in the same period with the French Revolution, the Haitian revolution, and not long after the U.S. emerged from British colonialization; also, this region, Guanajuato-Bajio, was the economic powerhouse of Mexico in those times, so it’s little wonder at the birth of capitalism that the successful merchants and mine owners would contribute to the political movement against colonization.
What I didn’t know before going, and found breathtaking and inspiring, is that Guanajuato today is largely a city for pedestrians, flaneurs, and loiterers! It’s a bustling Mexican city, but unlike most urban centers in our southern neighbor, the city was never bulldozed to make way for a modern street grid.
Somehow, urban planners in the 1950s had the foresight to realize that the charming alleys, stairways, plazas, and narrow streets should be preserved and enhanced. Today, Guanajuato is a designated World Heritage Site by the United Nations, and it retains an incredible old-world charm, reminding me more of an Italian city than anything I’d previously known in Mexico (though on this trip I discovered Patzcuaro, another place that retains a good deal of its historic beauty and charm).
There are almost 300 taxis rolling around, and tourists are strongly advised to avoid driving in to the city center. Because not only is the city a crazy, delightful labyrinth of alleys and stairways, with few thoroughfares for cars and even fewer places to park, but underneath the city is a surprising network of tunnels that seem to have a life of their own. Pedestrians walk in there, cars go through four-way intersections with barely a pause to just miss each other, and the urban ritual of waiting for parking places (precariously tucked into the side of the tunnel rights-of-way) can quickly back up traffic in the dimly lit subterranean tunnels.
Starting in 1946, the local government began to refurbish the state college, and soon after embarked on an extensive effort at rehabilitation. Due to the city’s location at the bottom of a canyon, it had been subject to flooding from time to time, being completely submerged in 1905 (signs everywhere indicate the level of inundation). The main river was in a tunnel under the city, but as part of the 1950s planning, a dam was built and the river diverted, opening the tunnel as a transit space. More tunnels were built during that decade and into the 1960s, so that the city above was preserved while cars were shunted below.
The cascading pastels and brightly painted homes that rise on either side of the city center are as delightful as the beautiful views across the steep valley that the intrepid walker earns on an ascent. But what took my breath away over and over again was the experience of turning a corner, or popping out of a stairway, and finding myself in one of what must be well over a hundred charming pedestrian-only plazas that seem to be everywhere. Guanajuato’s residents clearly know how to enjoy city life together. Every possible corner and available space has been made into a plaza, usually with benches, trees, and often a fountain or a sculpture to anchor it.
One of my all-time favorite books, which I’ve probably mentioned here before, is Italo Calvino’s "Invisible Cities," wherein he whimsically describes imaginary urban spaces full of improbable stairways, nooks and crannies, plazas, inside-out relationships between built and natural environments, and much more… Nothing is more fun than entering an unknown city and wandering until good and lost, and all the while discovering vistas and public spaces that one can only wonder about: just how amazing is it to live with this as part of your everyday existence? Visiting Guanajuato will inspire my imagination for the rest of my life!