Return to Guanajuato
Of all the colonial cities in the center of Mexico – San Miguel de Allende, Morelia, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, Querétaro, each of which has its distinctive charms, and all of which, part from San Luis Potosí are UNESCO world heritage sites - my favourite, at least for the moment, is Guanajuato.
For one thing, Guanajuato is much more a walkers’ city. Its physical site, spread out over a number of hills, has made conventional road building difficult and so it does not have the grid lay-out of many Mexican cities. Instead it is full of windy streets and alleys, called callejones. I was informed there are around 20,00 callejones in Guanajauato, of which around 3,000 are named.
One of Guanajuato’s great and simple pleasures is to gently amble around the city, allowing oneself to get lost, yet knowing that the easiest way to find oneself is to walk downhill and return to the center.
Another great attraction of Guanajuato is that the buildings, by and large, are on an intimate, human scale. There is little monumental architecture, however impressive, wanting to impose itself on the viewer, which served to assert the dominance of the Spanish over the indigenous population. Walking around Guanajuato in warm sunshine, a source of continual delight is to discover, just around the corner, a simple, brightly coloured, beautifully proportioned house, blending into its surroundings, and with an obvious human touch like flowerpots or the name plaque of the family who live there.
I recently had the chance to spend a few days in Guanajuato, which was my fourth visit to the city in the six years I have lived in Mexico. Americans particularly, terrified by the bad US press about Mexico, and imagining it as a failed state overrun by drug gangs, should take the chance to visit Guanajuato. The atmosphere is deliciously relaxed. This is not, of course to underestimate the difficulties of other Mexican cities like Ciudad Juarez, Matamoros, Torreon, or Chihuahua but just to point out that Mexico is a huge country and cities like these and Guanajuato are worlds apart.
Guanajuato has traditionally been a destination for Mexican tourists, in contrast to its neighbour, just over two hours away, San Miguel de Allende, which has particularly been a magnet for US tourism. This is changing now as more foreigners are discovering the delights of Guanajuato.
Such delights include – what I still think is the best regional restaurant I know in Mexico - Las Mercedes. I, along with other people, for example Steve Sando, have written rave reviews of this in the past. I visited it again, and found it more up-market than I remembered – for example the waiters now wander around with dinky little high-tech mouthpieces and microphones to communicate directly to the kitchen, which I found a little off-putting – but the food is still exquisite. It is both a distinctly regional restaurant and also a highly creative modern one, which makes extensive use of local ingredients – notably the fruit of the cactus, Xonocostle, whose repertoire ranges from being a key ingredient of the Margarita of the house to the base for a tuna steak. A meal for two, including three cocktails and two glasses of excellent Mexican wine, cost around $60, which is great value for such elegant, high-class cooking.
Incidentally, one of the peculiarities of Las Mercedes is its location. It is in a residential area high on one of the northern hills of the city, which means it is not a restaurant that will attract passing trade. You have to know about it to go there.
Although there are a plethora of largely mediocre restaurants in the center of the city catering to the tourist trade, with a little effort, it is possible to eat very well in Guanajuato. The owner of the B&B where I was staying (more of him later) recommended that I visit El Abue (short for el abuelito, the grandfather), which is just to the north-west of one of the nicest squares in the city, Plaza del Baratillo. I liked it very much. I also went back to a small Japanese restaurant, the food writer and historian Rachel Laudan recommended to me, which is in a narrow callejon just to the north-west of the Plazuela San Fernando, and this was as good as I remembered it from beforehand.
Talking of Rachel Laudan, who used to live in Guanajauto and so knows it well, I remembered that she had written in her blog about excellent candied fruit that can be bought in Guanajuato. Following her blog’s recommendation, I visited the shop Dulces El Cubilete, about half a block from the main Hidalgo market – also well worth a visit. From a large selection of candied fruit and local sweets, I bought candied figs, lemons, peaches, and Xonocostle, all of which were terrific. Rachel’s advice, apart from just eating them as they are, is to bake them in bread and cakes.
As often now, before visiting somewhere, I look on Trip Adviser to see what restaurants and hotels are being recommended. Not surprisingly, Las Mercedes is their number one restaurant by a mile. By a similar huge margin, their number one B&B is la Casa Zuñiga. All of its considerable number of reviews are five star, and many mention the great breakfasts, the lovely comfortable, spacious rooms and particularly the friendliness of the American owner, Rick, and his Mexican wife, Carmen.
In addition, the Casa Zuñiga has an interesting location, just below the famous monument of El Pípila - the miner who courageously managed to burn down the door of the Alhóndiga fortress in the first battle of the Mexican movement for independence when Hidalgo and his 20,000 army arrived in Guanajuato to find the Spanish troops holed up in the heavily fortified Alhóndiga. This location offers fabulous views across the city. It would not be ideal for anyone unable or not wanting to do a little walking up and downhill – though all guests are given free passes to the funicular – but really it would be hard to find a more impressive location.
The cost of the B&B, at 1000 pesos per night for a double room (about 70 USD) is more than I typically pay in Mexico – it is usually easy to find good hotels at cheaper prices – but for the quality of the experience here it is more than worth it. I reckon I ate the best tamales, home-made by Carmen’s cousin, that I have ever eaten in Mexico at one of the breakfasts. Especially if you stay for more than a couple of nights, the feeling is of having a very comfortable and decidedly private room in a friend’s house, with spectacular views over the city, where you also get to eat huge and tasty breakfasts.
The owner, Rick, more than goes out of his way to make everyone welcome and share his knowledge about and enthusiasm for Guanajuato. For example, when he learned that I had arrived in my car, and that it smelt of gasoline following a spill of petrol in the boot, he offered to clean the boot carpet for me the following day using a high-pressure hose. When this had more or less got rid of the smell, he then arranged for the inside of my car to get the most thorough cleaning it had ever received, during the course of which a set of keys I had lost two months ago were happily rediscovered.
As if this was not enough, when I got talking to him about Guanajuato’s history and the role of the mines in its past, he offered to take me, my friend, and another couple, to visit the mines on a Sunday morning. This was not something I had done before, and it was fascinating.
Guanajuato is important in Mexican, Spanish and world history for having a huge and rich vein of silver, along with other deposits such as lead and copper. This was discovered by the Spanish in the early sixteenth century and they immediately set to work exploiting the mines, and creating a workforce of indigenous people, who were little more than slaves. Twenty per cent of the wealth coming out of the mines went directly to the Spanish Crown, which basically funded the Spanish army and maintenance of the Spanish empire. At one point, the owner of the Valencia mine (an early forerunner of Carlos Slim?) was the richest man on the world. The Valencia mine is still being mined and part of it can be visited.
The history of the mines is a terrible story of exploitation. For many years, including the first half of the twentieth century, the average working life of a miner was ten years. This was the time it took for the dust they inhaled as a result of using heavy jack hammers to kill them. An American company arrived in the early part of the twentieth century to help pump water out of the mines, noticed that the listings were rich in valuable deposits of silver and other minerals, and promptly took it all back to the USA to be processed.
I had not appreciated before the extent to which Guanajuato was key in the Spanish colonialization of Mexico, which is why it was the site of an important early battle in the movement for independence. Rick told us how when Hidalgo and his make-shift army confronted the Spanish troops in the Alhóndiga, one of their weapons was to stone the Spaniards by hurling stones at the rate of 9,000 every two seconds, which led to a covering of 60cms of stones on the roof of the Alhóndiga.
Curiously, despite all this significant history in relation to the mines, it seems to me to be relatively little exploited for tourism in measure to its importance. Rick seems to be doing an effective one-man job to reverse this situation.
If it seems like I have raved about Rick and the Casa Zuñiga too much and for too long, all I can say is that I believe generosity deserves to generate a response in kind. As you can see, I think that if you have a 1000 pesos to spend on accommodation per night, have a good appetite, and want to visit a delightful Mexican city, you should definitely stay at Casa Zuñiga.