Saturday, July 17, 2010

Travel Destinations: Guanajuato, Mexico

Guest Blogger: Cindi Bower

Guanajuato, the capital of the state of Guanajuato, is located in the mountains of central Mexico. It's not a place that immediately comes to mind when people consider vacationing in Mexico. Many are familiar with Mexico's lovely beaches and the attractions in Mexico City, but few discover the treasures in the colonial cities of central Mexico.

Guanajuato is often referred to as "The Jewel of the Americas" and "The Crown Jewel of Mexico's Colonial Cities." It's come a long way from the days when the semi-nomadic indigenous people called it "Quanx-huato" or "Hill of Frogs" because it was so barren that only frogs would live in the area.

The area probably would have remained little more than a place for ranchers to graze their cattle if not for one important discovery in the mid-1550's. Silver and lots of it. Some of the world's richest silver veins were buried in the mountains surrounding the modern-day city of Guanajuato.

Silver made many of the Spanish settlers very rich. They built huge haciendas outside the city and fabulous mansions in town, some of which remain today. Some made generous donations to build and adorn Guanajuato's numerous churches. One man, the owner of the Valenciana mine, single-handedly provided the money to build the San Cayetano Church, otherwise known as the Templo la Valenciana.

Shopping for silver is just one of the many activities one can do in Guanajuato. There are a number of shops with silver jewelry for sale along the main street that passes from the San Francisco church, past Teatro Juarez and the Jardin de la Union to Mercado Hidalgo. You can even let the jewelry come to you if you prefer. Just sit on one of the shady benches in the Jardin and wait. Before long, women with silver jewelry in black cases will approach you and proffer their wares.

While you search for an unoccupied bench, take a look at the buildings surrounding the Jardin. Though most are hotels, restaurants and shops, they were originally the homes of some of Guanajuato's wealthiest residents. The interior of the building that houses Starbucks is particularly beautiful. If you walk in the large, center door, the passage leads to an interior patio topped by an impressive stained glass window. The railings and pillars that line the passageways on the second and third floors that overlook the patio give you a glimpse of how opulent the home once was.

Visiting the churches will show you the results of the money donated by the wealthy mine owners. The San Diego Church, across the street from the Jardin, had to be raised 20 feet and rebuilt between 1782 and 1784 due to extensive flooding. The second Marques de Rayas, owner of the Rayas mine, donated much of the money needed to rebuild the church. He and his family are buried in the elaborate El Senor del Burgos chapel to the side of the sanctuary.

There is a museum under the church that contains an excavated portion of the convent (monastery) that was attached to the original church. The museum has drawings of what the convent looked like when it was functioning. Unfortunately, the rest of the convent cannot be excavated as Teatro Juarez was built on the site.

The Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato, the large yellow church a block from the Jardin, is a favorite venue for weddings, baptisms and confirmations. The interior is quite impressive. Above the altar is a statue of Our Lady of Guanajuato, a gift from King Charles I of Spain in gratitude for the vast amount of silver that poured into his coffers from the mines of Guanajuato.

Plaza de la Paz, the location of the Basilica, is surrounded by several mansions built by more of Guanajuato's wealthy mine owners. One of the several homes built by the Count of Rul y Valencia, the owner of the Valenciana mine, now houses the Superior Court. If you ask the guards at the door, they will allow you to go as far as the interior, enclosed patio and get a taste of the way the rich lived in the 18th century.

The San Cayetano Church in Valenciana, built by the aforementioned Count of Rul y Valencia, is small but contains richly carved and gilded altarpieces. Several concerts during the three-week-long International Cervantes Festival in October are performed in this church.

There are a couple of shops on the plaza in front of the church, one of which, Ojo de Venado (deer's eye) sells folk art from all over Mexico. To the right of the church, there is a street that leads to the Bocamina San Ramon mine and hacienda. The Bocamina is the entrance to the mine, and while visitors cannot go into the mine itself for safety reasons, they can get a feeling for how difficult the life of a miner was. There is a small museum with mining equipment and artifacts from the mine's heyday.

A trip to Guanajuato wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Mummy Museum. It's rather ghoulish, but is very popular nonetheless. Between 1865 and 1958, the law required that if the deceased's relatives stopped paying upkeep on the deceased's crypt, the body would be disinterred. Cemetery workers found a percentage of these disinterred bodies had been naturally mummified due to Guanajuato's dry climate. The mummies were housed in a building, which was later converted into a museum when people began showing an interest in seeing the mummies.

Guanajuato offers plenty to do and see. Spend a couple of days, a week or longer enjoying the architecture, the art, the music and the culture in Guanajuato, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. It will be an unforgettable experience.

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