Treasured City

Guanajuato, Mexico, possesses the historic, the twisted, the beautiful, the grotesque, the festive -- and more.

Cover Story

July 25, 2004|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Special to the Sun

The world is full of places I would like to see; some I would like to see again. A few I would like to see again and again and again. Guanajuato is one of these. That's why during a recent three-month stay in Mexico, my wife, Susana, and I were so often there.

No destination is more compelling for us in that country, except perhaps the Mayan cities of the Yucatan. But those are museums, really, places where history stopped dead in time. Guanajuato (pronounced gwan-ah-WHA-toh), about 150 miles northwest of Mexico City in the cactus-choked foothills of the Sierra Madre, is a living city that evolved within its challenging topography unlike any other in the New World.

The word "Guanajuato," bestowed by the people who dwelled there six centuries ago, means "hilly place of the frogs." When the Spaniards came in the 1500s, they found enough silver in those abrupt hills to make it the richest city in Mexico. They gave it an appropriately solemn name: Most Noble and Loyal City of Santa Fe y Real de Minas de Guanajuato.

Today it is just Guanajuato, capital of the state of that name, and one of the colonial cities in and around the high region known as the Bajio that UNESCO has designated as part of the cultural heritage of humankind.

That means Guanajuato is among some 750 towns and sites around the planet recognized for exceptional historic value.

Everything about Guanajuato is unexpected. Its streets don't run at right angles to each other, as those of most other cities do. They go any which way, twisting and turning -- they even dive into tunnels and emerge at higher elevations. From above, Guanajuato must look like a nest of sleeping snakes.

The tunnels were dug a century ago to divert the Guanajuato River. In the 1960s, long after the river had burrowed deeper, the tunnels were converted to streets to help alleviate traffic. Inside them, you drive under painted balconies and bays overhanging the places where the tunnels break to let in light.

But Guanajuato remains traffic-jammed -- and tourist-crammed. Why?

One major draw is the Cervantino, an international festival of art, literature, music and dance staged every fall. It brings tourists and top performers from all over the world.

Mummy Museum

There is also the Mummy Museum. Having seen it 18 years ago, and recalling it as ghastly but novel, we thought we'd pass this time. There is much more to see in this university town of about 75,000 people who thrive on tourism, art, politics (as the state capital), all within Guanajuato state, rich by virtue of its leather industry, agriculture and, from neighboring Irapuato, the finest strawberries found anywhere on the planet.

Then I learned from a colleague at the newspaper where I was working, in nearby Leon, of all the changes at the museum: its enlargement ("more mummies"); its contribution to the city's economy ($1 million a year from thousands of visitors daily); and how the mummies are shipped abroad for legitimate research.

Well, we thought, why not? There are always lines at the Mummy Museum, people with faces full of expectation, some apprehensive, some trying to feign indifference to what awaits within. The man in front of us said he, too, had visited before.

He seemed embarrassed. I wondered what our faces might betray. Should I buy a T-shirt stamped with the image of the world's smallest mummy? What hideous fun!

We first visited the cemetery of Santa Paula behind the museum, Guanajuato's oldest. It is literally a mummy garden, yielding about 10 a year. Not all those buried there are mummified, however. The museum opened with 77 mummies on display.

All mummies, from Egypt, Peru, wherever, are grotesque. Guanajuato mummies are no exception. Visitors have fainted. During our first visit, the mummies were displayed in a long, horrifying line against a wall, with nothing between them and the public. Today every mummy has a glass case, a needed improvement. Before, some visitors, thinking the mummies were cardboard fakes, would pick off little pieces.

Guanajuato, full of museums, is itself a museum -- of architecture. It has everything from the modern to neoclassical, gothic and baroque, from its early sober expressions into the ecstatic anarchy of rococo, gems like the domed church of San Diego, finished in 1784, a building so finely proportioned that one might suspect the ghost of an ancient Greek temple builder had a hand in it. But it is baroque, and the best of Guanajuato is baroque.

The church stands before the Jardin de la Union, an intimate plaza bordered by hotels, cafes, shops, shaded by old ficus trees -- Indian laurels, as they're called here. The crowns of these trees are sculpted into immense square shapes.

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