The Tunnels of Guanajuato

As our ongoing search for the perfect retirement location continues, we stumbled upon Guanajuato, Mexico. The initial attractions were:

  • close proximity to the U.S.
  • affordable cost of living
  • mild climate
  • opportunity to stay for six months on a tourist visa

 

San Miguel

We found that the majority of expats tend to lean toward nearby San Miguel de Allende with its shopping and more manicured appearance, not to mention more English-speaking locals. We day tripped up to San Miguel and walked around town for a bit, but scurried back to Guanajuato as it was such a good fit for us. Despite the challenges, we prefer immersing ourselves in the Spanish-speaking culture of places like Guanajuato. We did not find a supermarket chain or a real estate office there; however, San Miguel was teeming with real estate offices anxious to sell and rent properties with typically-inflated gringo prices. The advent of such things tends to bring an end to the cultural purity we so desire.

Guanajuato contains many museums and beautiful buildings of baroque Spanish architecture and is said to be the most beautiful city in Mexico. A theater celebrating Miguel de Cervantes, author of “Don Quixote” (the best selling single-volume book of all time) stands in the centro district. The Don Quixote museum, also in the centro district, contains many paintings and sculptures of the subject by various artists and is chocked full of 19th century pieces. By the way, entrance is free on Tuesdays! The Hidalgo Market is housed in the former train station built in 1910 and designed by Gustave Eiffel. The market offers fresh produce, fresh meat, fish, and quirky household items. Complete with clothing stands, ice cream and other sundried items, it is the Mexican answer to the Walmart Super Center.

Hildago Market
University of Guanajuato

The University of Guanajuato keeps the town very young and vibrant. Many artists and musicians live and work in the city. The vast array of restaurants, from fine dining to simple street food, satisfy every palate and pocketbook depending on your preference. Street vendors sell various items from fine silver to local trinkets at much less than you would pay in the US. I found a coffee shop which I frequented many times with big bags of coffee beans, barrel tables and stools, providing a warm and comfy place to start the day.

We discovered the tunnels that run under the city when we arrived in Guanajuato. As a matter of fact, you have to travel through them to enter this city built in the bowl of the San Miguel mountains. They have become a subway system not unlike those in the large cities of the US, but that isn’t how they began. Silver was first discovered here by the Spanish in 1548 and the digging began.

 

Tunnel
Repurposed mining cart

In 1883 the same technique used for mining was employed to relieve Guanajuato of flooding by channeling the Guanajuato River out of the bowl through one of these tunnels. With the arrival of the automobile, the narrow streets became congested and a new use for the tunnels was born. In 1961, the first car drove through the Lagalarania Tunnel – the first and longest of the many hidden underground arteries to come. This insured the walkability of the lovely colonial town and allowed it to continue with its charming cobblestoned streets, Spanish architecture and old world feel of days gone by. Stairs were added, allowing people to park in the tunnels and enter various parts of the city from below which relieved both congestion and parking issues. No charge, by the way, for the parking.

The warm people of this fair city have a pride so strong that every night they band together and follow the lead of theater students from the University of Guanajuato. Dressed in black velvet conquistador outfits and wielding their stringed instruments, they sing together with gusto their standard cultural yarns of courage, hardship and unity. Swaying arm in arm under the night sky, the followers would serenade an area then were lead to the next plaza and start again. We followed them through several plazas, as we couldn’t seem to tear ourselves away. Nights later, we could hear them singing in the distance.

El Pipila

 

Funicular

The symbol of the city of Guanajuato is “El Pipila” (the nickname for Juan Jose de los Reyes Martínez Amaro), a miner who became famous for an act of heroism near the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence. On September 28, 1810, Spanish soldiers barricaded themselves in a grain warehouse, a fortress with high stone walls and thick wooden doors. These doors proved to be its weak point. With a long flat stone tied to his back to protect him from musket fire, Pipila carried a bucket of tar and a torch to the door of the granary to set it on fire. The insurgents, who far outnumbered the Spanish, were then able to storm through the burnt doors and kill all the soldiers. A monument of a muscular man holding a flaming torch stands high on a hill at the edge of town and guards over the city. El Pipila can be seen throughout the centro district in the park high above the city . Visitors can ride a funicular up the incline for $50 MXN ($2.69 USD) round trip, to and from the monument, enjoy a spectacular view of the city, grab a bite from one of the food stands, or buy clothing and souvenirs with logos of the city and El Pipila.

La Clave Azul

During our eight day stay, we met young girl from Michigan named Kelsey. Cheryl sat her soda can down to take a picture and Kelsey’s dog came over to lick it! We laughed and a conversation ensued. Kelsey had been teaching English as a second language (TESOL) and had lived here for several years. We walked her home and eyeballed her apartment just to get a feel of local living. We agreed to meet at the Don Quixote Museum after we all cleaned up to catch drinks, a bite and a walking tour of a portion of the city. We met and headed off to the Plaza de San Fernando and ordered some snacks at a small cafe with outside tables. Across from that cafe was the famous tequila bar, La Clave Azul, which Cheryl had read about before the trip. We did get to catch a meal there later during our stay and were pleasantly surprised with the ambience, the four small botanas and beers we ordered, although they don’t have a menu. With 3 different levels, we noticed one room was packed and people were passing a guitar around and singing along. Quite a festive place in the middle of the day!

After our meal, Kelsey lead us through a maze of small streets and we ended up at a bar that was so happening you had to order drinks with sign language. Yeah it was that loud with videos on the TVs and the buzz of the crowd. We watched Kelsey hold up 3 fingers then flip her hand around and hold up 2 fingers. The bartender produced three Victoria beers (the 2 fingers represented a V). Now Cheryl is very savvy to such things and noticed the other two national beers were Indio (thumb to forehead with 4 fingers extended symbolizing a head dress) and Sol (circle with thumb and forefinger). Dang, Cheryl can sign… for beer anyway. Keeper!

Night streets

I’m sure the party went on into the wee hours, but we took our leave since we’d be up in the morning searching for more diamonds in the rough of this little known spot.

We love this place and are sure we will return for an extended stay in the near future. We’ve been discussing looking for a house sit next year in Guanajuato since it is much warmer than Spain and the exchange rate is far better in Mexico. 1€ Euro currently costs $1.24 USD and $1 MXN peso costs .05 USD – hmmmmm. As we’ve seen most of the sites in Guanajuato, our next trip will be spent shopping for flats to rent and other opportunities. Now if we could only find a real estate agent.