Guanajuato was the inspiration for the Tierra de Los Muertos in the recent Disney Pixar movie, Coco. It’s easy to see why. The town, a World Heritage Site of approximately 200,000 personas, is clustered up and around a circle of hills that plunge into narrow valley and the city center. Brilliantly colored houses stuff the hills — it’s difficult to see where the hills begin and/or the houses end. Colonial Spanish churches, buildings, and courtyards fill the city center. A chaotic labyrinth of cobblestone pathways and alleyways and stairways connect the town, most of which are too small for cars — as such, interconnected tunnels, which were originally constructed during the town’s silver-mining past, are now used to route human and auto traffic beneath the town.
I did not, however, pick up on the Coco connection right away — someone told me about it later. Guanajuato initially reminded me of the city in another cartoon, All Dogs Go To Heaven. As soon as we pulled into our spot (that’s the actual spot we camped in above) and exited the van, we were greeted by a cacophony of hoots and howls. While we’d heard some folks complain about the dogs on our favorite travel app, iOverlander, I found it soporific. A few dogs barking is annoying. Thousands of dogs barking is like white noise.
The barks aren’t the only sound you’ll hear in Guanajuato, however. In the city center, street musicians crowd every corner. Most of the musicians, which is a generous description, seemed more concerned with collecting a peso than carrying a tune. However, you’ll hear at least one type of musician, the Estudiantinas, troupes of musicians from the local university, that can both play and sing but also tell a story.
Or at least we think they tell stories. We understood approximately 0.03% of what the fast- and smooth-talking leader of the Estudiantinas said as he led our group of Callejoneadas, a term for a group of folks touring the city by foot, up and down and through various alleyways and alcoves, some less than a shoulder-width wide. Most of the stories are about love. Some about history. In addition to listening, you’ll sing songs, drink grape juice out of neti-pot-looking cup fashioned after a frog, and be guilted into buying roses. You may also propose to someone. I may have inadvertently proposed to the abuela (grandmother) next to me at one point.
The Estudiantinas also contribute to the college-town vibe — the only university in state resides here. Everywhere you walk, Hispanic hipster (which is similar to US hipster) students are carrying packs and chatting on cellphones and sipping lattes. The businesses in Guanajuato, especially in the city center, also caters to this demographic. You’ll see fancy restaurants for when ma and pa visit, art galleries featuring the latest student showcase, dive bars for, you know, and ample street-side vendors, also for you know, all surrounded by some of prettiest colonial architecture and courtyards I’ve seen outside of Europe.
To really get a sense for all that architecture, one must kiss the feet of the statute El Pipila, a nickname for a local hero of the War of Mexican Independence. You don’t actually have to kiss his feet. But you do have to get there. Somehow. You can take a taxi or Uber. Walk several perilous flights of stairs. Or take The Funicular, a gondola of sorts that slowly moves eight to ten people up a severely sloped track to the top of the hill (“Funicular” is easily the best name I’ve ever heard for a people moving machine). Once atop, you’re blessed with a panoramic view of the city (see photo below). And hotdogs wrapped in bacon.
Wrapping anything in bacon excites me. As does the charisma of Guanajuato. When walking the city, it feels like a frenzy is festering beneath the surface, as if a fiesta, a parade, a race, or a dazzle of rabid zebras will erupt at any moment from any one of the uncountable alleys. And indeed, three of things happened while we were there — the race, which seemingly came out of nowhere, was blasting Rage Against the Machine as we passed (see video below); this fact alone further cemented Guanajuato as one of my favorite cities yet visited on this trip.
Guanajuato is an intoxicating city — and you don’t need any of the good and local Cerveza Gambusino beers to find that out (though you should try a few). You just need to stroll around. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more vibrant city, both color- and energy-wise, most anywhere.