If your travel destination is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, chances are its going to be a pretty good place to visit. Guanajuato made the list in 1988, and after my first day of exploring the town I wondered what took UNESCO so long?!!! This is the first city I’ve ever visited where you, literally, can close your eyes, point your camera in any direction, and never fail to capture something quite wonderful!
Although the town is properly spelled Guanajuato (and pronounced “Gwahna-WAH-toe”), I soon started calling it “Guana-WOW-to” as each evening’s downloads from my camera became more and more incredible.
But Guanajuato was much more than pretty colors and historic architecture. The people, the music, the clean and safe streets, and its wholesome, youthful, exuberance quite simply charmed me off my feet. I’ve been all over the U.S., much of Canada, and some of Europe, and yet, little Guanajuato, Guana-WOWto beats them all!
So, how did I start my explorations of this city? Well, the RV park owner, Carlos, suggested I catch the city bus that stops out on the highway near the front entrance to the park. He also offered to call a taxi if I’d prefer to get transported that way. It seems no tourists are stupid or CRAZY enough to try actually DRIVING into the city.
Why? Because it’s a geographically-constrained compact city dating back to the 1500’s with houses literally built on top of each other up the sides of steep hills surrounding the city center. These steep, narrow, alleyways (callejones) are hard enough just to try and even walk! Therefore, most vehicles actually get around town via an ingenious network of underground tunnels (remnants of the city’s days as one of the foremost silver mining capitols of the world).
Now what tourist would be stupid enough to try driving a town like this? Yep, that’s me!
But, I actually carefully did my homework online first, consulting various maps, satellite views, and online travel forums. Then, I printed each map out before I attempted to drive them (as GPS doesn’t work so well from under ground!).
I started my adventure with a terrific 10-mile rim road tour of the city called the Panorámica:
The entrance to the road (point A) was a bit dicey and some intersections not well marked, but I just followed a city bus that seemed to know where it was going and it kept me on the right road as we climbed up to the rim.
We came to a crowded narrow bend in the road and I realized we were at the top of one of the most popular attractions in town, the giant statue of Independence war hero El Pípila (point B on the map above). Click the link for his fascinating story of leading the rebels to their first victory in Guanajuato! While gazing at the monument, I happened to notice a nice city parking lot right next to it (which made it super-convenient to drive back to for a sunset photo shoot the next night)!
For tourists without cars, there’s an excellent funicular (incline railway) that brings you up to the monument’s overlook from the city center. The views from the top are quite something during the daytime…
But even more stunning at dusk! The gold building is the Basílica de Nuestra Señora, and white gothic structure behind it is the University of Guanajuato.
As we zig-zagged along the Panorámica, we reached point C on the map above, the lovely Jardin de Las Acacias next to the city’s original water reservoir, Pressa de la Olla.
The northeastern section of the Panorámica went through more humble neighborhoods (between Points D and E on the map). Less color on their houses here, but still visually interesting. Can you imagine walking up those stairs everyday? (and that was just from the rim road--at least 3 or 4 more sets of stairs just like them down into the town center below).
We slowly snaked our way to the west side of town where some of the hillside casas seemed a bit newer, as in only a hundred years old rather than three hundred!
Finally, we ended our drive (point F on the map) back onto the main Highway 110 and slowly crawled our way back out of town. More time to take more photos out the car window!
And to experience my first drive through one short tunnel on Highway 110!
That tunnel was so much fun that I knew I had to drive more of them. The next day, I set out to find the underground parking lot that is supposedly right in the center of town. After a few wrong turns (thankfully, all still above ground), I finally found a super-simple way to get to and from the main downtown parking lot:
Now bear with me a minute for the detailed instructions—I want to remember these for next time I visit!
While driving north on Highway 110, following the signs for Dolores Hidalgo and “Zona Centro.” At Point A on the map above, you’ll come under this large arched bridge:
and will see Point B immediately after the bridge. Here, the main highway jogs left and up to the double tunnel (seen below on the far left). The “Zona Centro” exit takes you off to the right where you’ll start going down a two-way cobblestone street and then into a one-way tunnel beneath Juarez street heading east.
The parking garage is very well marked (look for the “E” signs to your right at Point C on the map). The garage entrance is also at a small section where the tunnel opens up to the sky above, so you’ll see some daylight shining through here as well.
The multi-level, modern parking lot will hold regular passenger cars just fine, but is likely too tight for larger pickup trucks to navigate due to the sharp turns needed to drive to each level. The price can’t be beat, though--- only 14 pesos an hour (US$1.08)!
When leaving the parking garage, you take the first tunnel to your right and follow the signs for “Leon.”
This will lead you down a single long straight tunnel out to daylight again and Guanajuato Blvd (point D on the map where there’s also a large Mega grocery store shopping center up to your right). Guanajuato Blvd. takes you straight back to Highway 110. A super simple loop right in and out of town!
There’s a staircase across from the parking garage that puts you out right onto Juarez street across from the Plaza San Roque and within just a couple few blocks of all the major tourist sights in the historic town center.
You’ll only be 2 blocks from the Mercado Hidalgo, where you can find all sorts of tourist t-shirts, souvenirs, fresh produce and meats, and a variety of other foods.
Juarez street links up just about all of the city plazas and churches, so it’s a pretty easy town to walk and get around in.
Sadly, you can even find a KFC and Dominos Pizza on Juarez street (at least they’re located in historic buildings and are prohibited from using neon signs!).
The rest of Juarez street more than makes up for these minor failings…
But, oh, this is still just a taste of this fabulous city! I’ll share more photos of the plazas, churches, music, and callejones in the next post. Stay tuned!