I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the entrance I made into Guanajuato this afternoon. My expectations about this great Spanish-colonial city were set high. As I negotiated the turns, intersections, topes (speed bumps) and traffic lights into the city my eyes roamed the hills, the roads and the people.
Where was the magic? Where was the history? I followed the signs to “Centro” and slowly climbed in elevation. Then at a critical intersection I made an abrupt lane change and headed deep into a tunnel. Dark and suffocating from gas and diesel exhaust. Varied pavement had my tires skittering like Mexican jumping beans. Then the proverbial light ahead beamed rays of bright sunshine onto a stone wall.
And above my heads were houses with protruding dormer like rooms jutting from facades painted in bright and warm colors. Then bam. Cruising through a tunnel again. Cars only moving in one direction, I spot a pull off where 30 or so people are standing and waiting. A bus stop. My god. All those people sucking in those fumes. The tunnels wind and twist. Just when it gets suffocating I blast into a sunlight zone with houses high above. Little alcoves and windows stream light and I negotiate loose “S” turns until I pop out onto a cobble-stoned street. Lost and bewildered by the transformation seemingly caused by scant journey by tunnel, it appears I have been thrust into a European town nestled into a ravine. The only hint of Mexico at first is the high-desert and dry umber colored hills dotted with agave, sage and cactus. Houses climb the ravine and teeter delicately while their painted colors hint at the towns true identity: a Mexican colonial town.
We waddle our bikes through narrow streets. Slow moving traffic and stop and go challenge me and my balance. I play a little game trying to keep the bike up and balanced without putting a foot down onto the centuries old stone road. Finally we rest our bikes just outside a church on the Plaza de La Paz. Colorful cafes line the walkway along the Plaza. Dozens of people walk up and down the walkway. Narrow streets climb the steep ravine and twist and turn around 300 and 500 year old buildings. The town exudes a youthful exuberance and artful creative atmosphere. This is due in part by the local university and art school and also exhibiting a bit of its lineage as the birthplace and home of perhaps Mexico’s most famous artist: Diego Rivera.
Why would the Spaniards build such a beautiful city on such steep and impossible terrain? Precious minerals. Settled in 1559 after the discvoery of rich mineral in the hills surrounding it including silver, gold, iron, lead, zinc. These discoveries financed the construction of one of Mexico’s most beautiful cities. Most of the town’s colonial history remains intact evident through the abundance of magnificent architecture including the a spectacular theatre, Teatro Juarez and the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato where we parked our bikes to explore this town. So important to Mexico and our world history, in 1990, UNESCO placed Guanajuato’s entire historical city center on its World Heritage List. Even more amazing is the fact that for more than 200 years 30-40% of the world’s silver were mined from Guanajuato state.
But even more, Guanajuato’s rich history is implanted into every educated resident of this wildly diverse country. Events that transpired here some 200 years ago make trips to Guanajuato like a pilgrimage. For it was here that the seeds of the first Mexican revolution were planted.