Pope's Mexico visit puts spotlight on magical town

  • March 2, 2012: Guanajuato, Mexico is the cradle of Mexican independence, a city with underground passageways and narrow winding streets that resemble medieval Europe.

    March 2, 2012: Guanajuato, Mexico is the cradle of Mexican independence, a city with underground passageways and narrow winding streets that resemble medieval Europe.  (AP)

  • March 2, 2012: The Juarez theater is lit at night in the colonial city of Guanajuato, Mexico.

    March 2, 2012: The Juarez theater is lit at night in the colonial city of Guanajuato, Mexico.  (AP)

  • March 2, 2012: The Basilica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato is lit at night in the colonial city of Guanajuato, Mexico.

    March 2, 2012: The Basilica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato is lit at night in the colonial city of Guanajuato, Mexico.

Walking uphill on cobblestone, I am struck by the altitude's perfect mix of hot sun and crisp air. A street vendor's cry echoes in a canyon of brightly colored stucco facades, and I can't help think this mystical, medieval-looking city is my favorite on Earth.

Though I hate to choose among Mexico's colonial beauties, Guanajuato remains unique no matter how many others I've seen. Perhaps because I spent two months there 15 years ago, my first extended stay in Mexico, and every street corner brings a memory. Or perhaps because I'm still taken with the city's energy and charm as if I were seeing it for the first time.

Guanajuato, founded in the mid-1500s on a rich vein of silver, is the birthplace of many things Mexican, including the fight for independence from Spain and famed muralist Diego Rivera. Its mummy museum, filled with dozens of naturally preserved corpses, boldly exhibits the Mexican comfort with death.

The city is the capital of the state of former President Vicente Fox, whose historic election in 2000 ended 71 years of single party rule. It's also one of Mexico's most conservative Catholic states, where an uprising took place in the 1920s over anti-religious laws.

A visit by Pope Benedict XVI scheduled to begin March 23 will put Guanajuato in the spotlight. But even before you take in its rich history, the scenery of a city built in a canyon at 6,600 feet  will sweep you away.

A cable car takes you in minutes from the city center to the main lookout, where the Spanish colonial domes, Gothic spires, and lavender, fuchsia, orange and blue houses look as if they were painted on the hillside by Rivera himself.

Underground, catacomb-like tunnels look like they're straight out of the Middle Ages, though they were built in the late 1800s for flood control. Today they handle the city's traffic, because many streets are steep alleyways and in some cases stairs and they can't accommodate cars. The tunnels' stone archways look particularly mysterious lit at night, and there are sidewalks for exploring, if you can stand the exhaust fumes.

The street life above also will grab you. Locals fill the city center on Thursday nights for no particular reason, lingering in the outdoor cafes along the Jardin Union (Union Garden), a tiled, triangular town square, or on the neoclassical steps of the 1903 porticoed Teatro Juarez.

Young actors dressed as medieval minstrels roam the square to recruit tourists for their "callejoneadas," street performances they lead through the passageways, singing and storytelling about betrayal and unrequited love.

Guanajuato's story is one of drama and legend. Callejon del Beso (Alley of the Kiss), where two balconies touch across a narrow street, was supposedly the scene of a Romeo and Juliet forbidden by their families to see each other. Legends say the girl was stabbed by her father when he saw the couple kissing across balconies, leaving her to die in her lover's arms.

At the Alhondiga de Granaditas, a massive stone structure built for grain storage, Spanish forces holed up and fired on advancing insurgents led by priest Miguel Hidalgo on June 28, 1810, the first battle for Mexican independence. Legend says a miner nicknamed El Pipila used a stone tablet to shield himself from the bullets and set the massive wooden door on fire, leading to an insurgent victory. Many historians say one man couldn't have done it, but a giant monument of El Pipila raising his torch can be seen all over town.

Hidalgo and three other independence leaders were captured and executed, their heads hung on giant hooks. The hooks remain today at the four corners of the Alhondiga de Granaditas.

Guanajuato has always been a popular place for Mexican tourists visiting their heritage, the equivalent of Americans doing Boston's Freedom Trail. Large groups of schoolchildren are ubiquitous around town with their guides.

Dolores Hidalgo, the town where Hidalgo made Mexico's first cry of independence in the church square, is just on the other side of the hill. The Valenciana mine, which dates from the city's founding and once produced 30 percent of the world's silver, is another short day trip, where you can see the gilded church altar and go into the now dormant mine shafts.

The home where Diego Rivera was born on Dec. 8, 1886, now has one of his most diverse collections, from Mexican landscapes to an impressionist painting of Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral and portraits from Rivera's cubist era. Rivera's family moved to Mexico City when he was 6.

Uphill at the city's public cemetery, families with small children line up to see the famous momias, or mummies, dozens of bodies bearing papery, weathered clothing and skin. They were naturally preserved some say because of the mineral-rich climate and the crypts, though no one knows for sure. They were dug up starting in the 1860s because their families could no longer pay burial fees, and put on display.

Many of the faces are frozen in ghastly expressions, one woman with her arms over her face, an indication curators say that she may have been accidentally buried alive. A man near her in the display case bears an abdominal stab wound.

Outside the city, the 60-foot Christ the King statue looms on a hill, marking the 1920s Cristero wars between religious zealots and an atheist government that banned even the wearing of priest collars in public. An earlier Christ the King statue was dynamited by federal troops in 1928, and pieces, including its head, are on display in the museum nearby as a reminder of what the church calls "the religious persecution." Pope Benedict XVI, who is too frail to the climb the hill to the monument, may fly over to see if from a helicopter.

For Americans, Guanajuato lives in the shadow of the more popular San Miguel de Allende, about 33 miles away, where ex-pats have transformed a colonial town into an expensive retreat of galleries and gourmet restaurants.

Guanajuato is not as upscale as San Miguel, though it has a polish it lacked 15 years ago, not to mention more menus in English. But you can still see burros tied to trees outside some of the poorer homes in the hills or being led packed with goods through the city center.

Nice rooms at a colonial hotel in the town center are less than $100. Good restaurants are scarce.

The Casa Valadez on the Jardin Union, considered one of the best, has dishes that are both bland and overdone. But it serves a tasty version of the local specialty, enchiladas mineras (miners' enchiladas), different from saucy, cheesy baked versions most Americans know. The tortillas are dipped in mild chile sauce, fried and filled with crumbled cotija cheese and shredded chicken, then smothered with cooked, diced carrots and potatoes, more crumbled cheese and jocoque, Mexico's thinner, lighter version of sour cream.

For an authentic experience, you can stay with one of the families who rent rooms to students at the university or at the language schools where foreigners come to learn Spanish.

The best cooking in Guanajuato goes on inside home kitchens and can be sampled at taco stands or in the metallic-domed Mercado Hidalgo. I learned to make enchiladas mineras from the late Senora Maria Olmos, mother of 11 who shopped at open-air markets daily for ingredients for her chile rellenos and meatball soup.

Today you can get a glimpse of her cooking from a taco stand run by her son Antonio and his wife Luisa on the uphill side of Plaza de Los Angeles, serving fried steak, chorizo and crispy tripe tacos adorned with chopped cilantro, raw onion and red or green salsa — delicious in their simplicity.

Guanajuato city is quiet and safe, though there have been incidents of drug violence in other parts of the state. Still, it has lost tourism due to fears that travelers, particularly Americans, have about the interior of Mexico.

Edith Miranda, director of the Escuela Mexicana, says the language school took a hit last year, losing nearly a third of the 100 to 150 students who come in the summer to learn Spanish. Some U.S. universities canceled their usual training programs and the school's representatives in the U.S. said they constantly received inquiries about safety.

"What you see in the media and the reality are totally different," she said.

She said the Pope's visit will be a big boost for showing the city to the outside world, and she expects a more normal summer this year.


If You Go...

GUANAJUATO: Click here for more on Guanajuato . Direct flights to Guanajuato (BJX) available from Dallas and Los Angeles. From Mexico City, flights are an hour, bus trip about five hours.