TWENTY FOUR HOURS IN THE CITY OF GUANAJUATO
by Andrew Chalk
The lay of the land: Guanajuato is the capital of the Mexican state of the same name. I was there recently as the guest of Tequila Corralejo, who are based near the city and have agave fields, their distillery, a leather factory, and a glass bottle factory in the area. The distillery and the production of Corralejo are so fascinating that they are described in a separate article. Here I assume you have just a day to explore the city, so I take you on a Sherman’s March through some of the things that I found to be high points.
History Note: Guanajuato thrived historically because of silver mines in the area that, in the colonial era, produced more silver than anywhere else in the world. Silver is basically spent now, but it leaves a legacy of massive construction including the unusual spectacle of underground roads.
Mid-morning. Arrival: Nonstop flights from most major U.S. cities arrive at Guanajuato International airport (often indicated on tickets as Guanajuato/Leon), reflecting the large number of U.S. companies invested in the area. Drive southeast for about thirty minutes to the City of Guanajuato.
11am: Arrive in Guanajuato city (approx. population 180,000). Ordinary neighborhoods cluster around the colonial core, which is the beating heart of this place. The core is set in a valley surrounded by steep sides with multi-colored homes built (sometimes spectacularly) up the sides.
Noon: Drive ends at hotel to check in or leave bags until formal check-in time (usually 3pm). We chose the Hotel Camino Real, a comfortable mid-tier hotel at the top of a main street that stretches from the hotel down into the heart of downtown.
12:30: Walk from hotel down into town for a spot of lunch. The choices are mesmerizing. Not just in the numbers of eating establishments but also their variety. If you want foreign food (e.g. Chinese) no problem. However, we want to stick firmly to local cuisine in our brief stay.
12:50: Lunch at a non-pretentious counter in Hidalgo Market. We choose tacos followed by chicharrón from a vendor nearby. The chicharrón resemble elephant’s ears in their post-cooked state (one would easily feed several people) so request only the amount you want.
We follow lunch with a tour of Hidalgo Market, set in an 18th century wrought-iron building built by Ernesto Brunel. It has considerable architectural charm although it is showing the exigencies of time now. I would buy all of my meat and vegetables here if I lived in Guanajuato.
13:45: The market is close to the center of town, which makes it a great place to begin a tour of the historic town center. Being the middle of the day the place is bustling with activity. We work our way towards the Basílica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato and take a self-guided tour. Beautiful understates the precise and flamboyant classical architecture which dates from the seventeenth century.
15:00: We grab a cab to take us to the statue of El Pipila, a local hero of the city. This is the best view of the city. From here the multi-colored buildings of the city lay out like a tapestry beneath you. Your sight line takes you to the scrub strewn mountains beyond town. The dramatic changes in altitude make you almost want to para sail down, James Bond style, but there is a safer way. Just past the overlook balcony is a funicular railway that will not only take you down, but to just yards from Teatro Juarez, one of the most beautiful theatres in Mexico. In an idiosyncratically local practice, the entrance/exit to the funicular is almost unsignposted.
16:00 Walk to the Museum of the work of Diego Rivera, one of Mexico’s most famous artists. Impressively staged in his birthplace the artist’s murals inspired a whole school of Mexican art. There are many museums in Guanajuato (including one of mummified bodies uncovered from a local cemetery), this intimate place is one of the best.
17:00: Haircut at a hairstylist jammed with locals. I don’t know how it started but I have got into the habit of getting a haircut in foreign countries I visit. At $8, communication largely by sign language, and done with fastidious care, Guanajuato was one of the winning calls.
20:00: Dinner at Casa Mercedes. From our hotel it takes a 10 minute ride by taxi to get there. Later we will walk home and it will take less time, as the restaurant is on the same hill as our hotel but perched just a couple of hundred feet further up. The taxi had to drive around the hill, the steps we walk down to get back are direct. Such is the elevation in Guanajuato.
Casa Mercedes (sometimes indicated as Restaurant Mercedes) was my culinary apotheosis in Guanajuato. It is an upscale, reservations required, type restaurant that you might find in a major city. I have sought out upscale Mexican in Mexico and the U.S. I have found some, e.g. Ramona at Nizuc in Cancun under Jose Meza, El Restaurante at Las Ventanas al Paraiso in Los Cabos that have impressed me. Nothing has been on a par with the work of local boy Jesús Cárdenas at Casa Mercedes. Try this for a resume (Michelin stars in parentheses): Celler du Can Roca, Spain (3*), Orfila, Spain (2*), Restaurant Denis Martin, Switzerland (2*), and Oriol Castro,Spain (1 star). Blending French technique with local ingredients he extolls a keen understanding of ingredient combination. Try, in particular, his Huitlacoche Soup with Mushrooms, Corn and Epazote, or Ancho Pepper Stuffed with Pork Meat, Fruit, Nuts, and Pepper Cream Sauce.
Unusually for Mexico, the restaurant has a large selection of Mexican wines. They vary in quality, but show some promise. For a real kick-arse after dinner drink go with the Correlajo 99000 Añejo. A long slow sipping tequila that just might give newcomers respect for the tequila category.
23:00: Hotel Camino Real bar until [DETAILS OMITTED TO PROTECT THE IMPLAUSIBLY INNOCENT].
07:00: Breakfast at the hotel where a combination of International hotel crowd pleasers share space with bona fide Mexican chili sauces.
09:30: Taxi ride back to the airport, during which I reflect on the trip. What were my enduring impressions? The striking topography of this town is the first thing that hit my senses. The civil engineering of the underground roads of the town, accomplished a century ago, is remarkable. The thriving core of the city with its market stalls piled high with produce show an economy that is working. The quaint backstreets radiate charm and an air of mystery. The fine colonial era architecture exemplified by the basilica. The food from street food to fine dining tells you that this is a population that appreciates food and the meal together. I know that 24 hours does not do this charming, vibrant town justice and resolve to return.