In the Shadow of Don Quixote, another of Mexico’s wonderful small cities awaits the curious traveler
By Kent E. St. John
GoNOMAD Senior Travel Editor
I cannot help but get jealous when I read about writers that actually live in foreign lands. It’s been building steadily since reading about Peter Mayle’s adventures in A Year in Provence. The last straw was reading On Mexican Time, by Tony Cohan.
I too was going to move to a foreign destination… well at least for a week. My move had to offer a small village feel yet interesting nearby sites. I wanted to play in the garden and pick fresh herbs, catch the local bus and greet my neighbors in the village square as the sun sunk. After much research I found my temporary home abroad in the village of Valenciana, Mexico. Its noble name, Meson San Cayetano, (see accompanying story) will be long remembered by my family and I. Lord of all I See
As I walked into the 18th century villa in the village of Valenciana I knew I had struck gold, make that silver. In the valley below lay Guanajuato a colonial gem and at one time the source of two thirds of the world’s silver.
“Actually,” my host Camelo said, “you are staying in the villa constructed by El Conde de Obregon y Alcocer, the founder of the ancient Valencians Mine. The original mine is just on the other side of the zocolo.”
I immediately thought of adding some extra letters to my name in the Spanish tradition. Villa living at campground prices wasn’t going to be too hard to take. The immense vaulted ceiling of the great hall combined with Moorish conches and wrought stone arches made me a hero with my wife, son and his friend. Especially breathtaking was the walled-in garden area. The shade provided by the purple blossoms of a jacaranda tree and ancient well proved a pull too strong for us to head into Guanajuato as planned. We explored our town.
The village is small and situated around a miniature plaza. It’s a lived-in village with only one restaurant and some quality craft shops (see details on right). The crowning glory of the village is the Templo de San Cayetano, one of Mexico’s most beautiful Baroque churches. While its façade is elegantly carved it is its interior that stuns.
It’s rumored that the Count had silver dust mixed into the cement binding the building blocks. The gold leaf altarpieces brought over from Spain are a testament to the wealth from the ground below. Our next stop not far from the church proved that point exceedingly. After donning supplied hard hats we climbed down into Boca Mina or, the mouth of the mine.
The Conde de la Valenciana restaurant provided an ideal place for us to discuss all we had discovered in our little town. Its food was as delicious as the colonial building was beautiful. While it has a wonderful folk art shop, we found an incredible store nearby. The Oja de Venado: arte popular Mexicano had hand crafted art works gathered from all over Mexico by local Americano Randy Walz.
The step-carved stairs took us deeper into the bowels of the earth. The narrow tunnels twisted and turned. Bare light bulbs seemed to sink down below us forever. The climb back out was an agonizing step-by-step ordeal. We had to wonder how the miners could carry 75 pounds of ore out every day for 10 hours a day. How many had died poor to build the treasures of Mexico and Spain?
As with many treasure-filled towns the tourists headed back to their hotels in the city below and we headed back to the Casa to lounge amidst lush gardens and historic walls. After lighting all seventy candles in the great hall we languished and lit the fireplace to settle in over our home-cooked meal, fused with herbs from the garden.
Down in the Valley
Strangely enough the local indigenous tribes of the area called it Quanax-juato – Place of the Frogs. Little did they know that Guanajuato would become an UNESCO city and a colonial treasure. Taking the bus for the two-mile ride was a great way to begin our trip to the big city. Guanajuato is a university city and its options will please any traveler. Its geographical position makes for narrow cobblestone streets with small parks punctuated with leafy trees.
The strangest museum I have ever visited is the Museum of the Mummies. Death has always been viewed differently in Mexico. For example, the Day of the Dead (Dia de las Muertes) is a major celebration, colorful and in honor of those that came before. At one time a family had five years to pay for a loved one’s grave.
If not the body was dug up and the family was to make other arrangements. The combination of dry air and soil composition has left a display of over 170 mummies. Some were still in the burial clothes and all over 100 years old. It’s macabre but an interesting look at life and death.
On a lighter vein is the Museo y Casa de Diego Rivera. Rivera is one of Mexico’s most revered and well-known artists. The house he was born in has a vast collection of his works on the top two floors. The first floor is displayed in the period furniture and layout when Rivera was a child. As you travel upwards, the paintings reflect his change in style.
The Alhondiga de Granaditas, or old granary, was the site of one of Mexico’s biggest battles for independence from Spain. Its fortress-like structure now houses history and art exhibits. Nearby is the Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato, home to Mexico’s oldest piece of Christian art. Felipe II of Granada sent the wooden image of the Virgin Mary in 1557. Just behind the Teatro Juarez is the station for the funicular that will take you up to the El Pipila Monument, dedicated to a hero of the War of Independence. The view of the whole city, best done at sundown, is not to be missed.
To discover the real attraction of Guanajuato is to make no itinerary. Every turn will present a treasure or slice of Mexican life. Being home to one of Mexico’s largest universities has provided Guanajuato with world-class venues. Premier among them is the Teatro Juarez.
This magnificent theater was built during a surge in the silver mining boom from 1873 to 1903. The building is an eclectic mix of Doric exterior, French foyer and Moorish interior; the architecture alone is worth a visit. Some of the performers in attendance have ranged from the Bolshoi Ballet, Chinese Acrobatic Troupe to Luciano Pavarotti.
Even if there is no event scheduled just steps from the theater is the pearl of the city, the Jardin de la Union. The Jardin is the beating heart of Guanajuato. Under the thick trueno trees at the plaza’s center is the bandstand. Around it are the wide red tile sidewalks that lead to numerous restaurants and cafes and hotels. The wrought iron benches provide the perfect spot to watch the people parade in the calm of the Mexican twilight or early morning.
It is one of the largest art festivals in Mexico. From around the world various artists vie for a chance to perform at this prestigious festival. If you cannot make the festival there is the Museo Inconograafia del Quixote open all year. It sponsors performances and art works by such as Piccaso. It’s no wonder that the city has been a favorite for European travelers for years.The Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote, should be renamed the Man of Guanajuato. Yearly the International Cervantino Festival is held in honor of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote.
Market to Market
As we leave the Market Hildalgo, designed as a French train station, one evening we pass estudianias, students dressed in medieval costumes, gathering to lead callejoneadas (sing alongs) through the narrow callejones or alleyways of the city. With the bounty of edibles to be enjoyed, we will leave that entertainment for another night. Tonight I am headed home to prepare a meal fit for the new El Conde de Obregon, myself, at least for the rest of the week.
Guanajuato’s nearest airport is shared with the city of Leon and located about 30 miles away. Aeromexico,
American, Delta and Continental service it.
Mexico City’s airport is the next closest. Bus service is available from there by ETN tel: 01 800 907 1400.
Meson San Cayetano:
Truly a find for those looking for a different Mexican experience and is a prime example of highland
colonial Mexico. It features included breakfast and maid service. It’s a proverbial, “secret garden”.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org (camelo castillo) website or call In Mexico 4 73 26449
In US 01 52 473 732-6449.
Guanujauto Hotels and Restaurants:
Hotel Luna Guanajuato:
Located on the Jardin de la Union is a colonial hotel in the city’s historic center. For over 100 years it has maintained a presence that is ideal. A restaurant is available right on the plaza.
Tel: 01 52 473 9720
Hotel Posada de Santa Fe:
The most popular hotel in the city, this virtual museum overlooks the Jardin and worth a look inside for the art works. The restaurant is good, the location better.
Tel: 01 52 473 2 0084
Conde de la Valenciana:
A must stop when visiting the town of Valenciana. It’s colonial charm; great food and dignified service require it. Only open for lunch. Fte. A Plazuela de la Valenciana. Tel 01 52 473 732 2550.
Alhondiga de Granaditas, Tue-Sat 10:00-14:00, 16:00-18:00, Sun 10:00-15:00. The massive city granary built in 1798-1809, where loyalists sought refuge during the first battle for Mexico Independence when besieged (1810) by Miguel Hidalgo at the outset of the war against Spain. Now holding a historical museum with several pieces of Chupicuaro Culture.
Diego Rivera’s House Museum. Tue-Sat 10:00-18:30, Sun 10:00-14:30. Birthplace of famed muralist Diego Rivera now filled with a comprehensive collection of his and brilliant artist Frida Kahlo’s works.
The Mummy Museum. Mon-Sun 9:00 to 18:00. It’s adjacent to municipal cemetery. More than l00 bodies line the museum’s walls in glass cases. Some still wear their burial clothes, and others are, quite literally, just skin and bones. They have been preserved by the chemistry of Guanajuato’s soil.
Don Quixote Iconographic Museum. Tue-Sat 10:00-18:30, Sun 10:00-14:30. Manuel Doblado 1. Free entrance. (473) 732 6721, 732 3376, Fax 732 6117. It’s dedicated to the main character of Cervantes’ l7th century novel. Collection of objects by Ocampo, Coronel & Dali among others with the image of the thin errant knight of dismal countenance, and his short squire, Sancho Panza.
Valenciana Mine. One of the richest silver mines ever. In 1810 the San Jose shaft reached 527 m deep, the deepest on earth at the time. Today, the modern mining company offers tours year round, to one of the older pits behind the San ayetano/Valenciana Church. Small museum with models of the mining works of Guanajuato. Hardhats provided.
Jardin de la Union, small park with indoor and outdoor restaurants. Usually the meeting point for locals and tourists. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, a brass band plays old-fashioned Marches. Hidalgo Market. Inside the castiron of a french railroad station, this market offers fresh produce as well as folkart of the region (pottery, candies, snuff boxes, etc.)
Juarez Theater Built in 1875 by engineers Jose Noriega, Alberto Malo & Antonio Rivas-Mercado, and commissioned by former president Porfirio Diaz in 1903. Facade with neoclassical colonnade and frontispiece crowned by the Muses. Ojo de Venado:
Calle Camino a Bocamina Tel: 01 4 731 10 55
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Kent St. John was GoNOMAD’s Senior Travel Editor since the website was founded in 2000. During that time he circled the globe many times, visiting more than 80 countries. Sadly, he passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. He had an appreciation of subtleties, always finding a way to capture the nuances and essences of a destination, whether he was whale-watching in Nova Scotia, riding the rails in Australia, bungee jumping in China or worshipping the sun on a beach in Brazil.