As soon as I arrive in Guanajuato, I have the urge to go to the ridge above, to look down on the winding streets and alleys making up this Mexican town with almost no straight lines. I need to take it easy at this altitude, so I buy a ticket for the funicular railway that climbs the steep mountain to a huge stone statue of Pipila, a local hero who struck a blow against the Spanish rulers in this hotbed of revolutionary activity.
In later years Guanajuato took on other claims to fame: hometown of painter Diego Rivera, home of former president Vicente Fox, lively college town and host to a major arts festival each year. What draws me here, however, is the cool mountain climate and pedestrian-friendly atmosphere of this UNESCO World Heritage city.
After admiring the panorama of brightly painted houses perched on hills and grand churches near the center, I descend on foot through a maze of alleys and stairs, occasionally catching a peek inside a house when someone exits. Apart from a few barking dogs, it's a peaceful walk. Most of the automobile traffic runs through a maze of tunnels underneath the city - originally built to divert floodwaters and later enlarged so the streets above could keep their original dimensions.
This is not a city of sedentary, car-loving couch potatoes. It's hard to turn around in any plaza without seeing half a dozen people eating ice cream or some kind of street snack, but all get their daily exercise whether they want it or not.Just getting home from the butcher shop or tortilla store is a workout. Each morning I hear the calls of Agua! from the drinking water delivery man and Gas! from the propane tank delivery man, who must haul their wares up the stairsand ramps by hand and dolly.
City planners have taken the natural advantages of the topography and beautiful architecture and added their own twists to make the city still more attractive. Ornate iron benches and potted shrubs fill even the smallest plazas, and terra-cotta pots of geraniums line the stairs and car ramps leading down to the tunnels. Street signs on the sides of buildings are made of stone or glazed clay.
Every evening when I stroll through the main Jardín de Unión plaza, a band is playing in the gazebo: salsa, chamber music or even Sousa marches played by a brass band and flutes. At night a group of students dressed in the garb of 17th-century Spain parades through the streets and back alleys, playing minstrel music and telling jokes to a crowd that has paid to join the party.
I have dinner one night in an outdoor restaurant with Tony Cohan, a resident novelist and travel writer who has penned several books about Mexico. This is a great city for a writer, he says. There are interesting scenes and characters almost everywhere you look.
At first I'm puzzled by the T-shirts in the shops, many covered with frogs, others depicting Don Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho Panza. It turns out the town's original name was Quanax-juato, the place of frogs. The other iconic figures represent the Cervantino festival celebrated here each October in honor of Miguel de Cervantes - the Spanish writer tagged as the world's first novelist. I'm here at the wrong time for the festival, but I visit the Don Quixote Museum, which is filled with works from all over the world. I am fascinated by the range of art inspired by one novel: abstract sculptures from obscure Mexican artists, a surreal painting from Salvador Dalí and the T-shirt-ready print from Picasso.
The Museo de los Momias is the big draw, however. Skipping this Mummy Museum is akin to skipping the pyramids in Cairo, though the mummies here have little in common with the cloth-wrapped kind in Egypt. Guanajuato's mummies are strangely preserved corpses, victims of relatives who didn't pay their grave tax and were exhumed from their spots in the ground. Because of local soil conditions, the bodies are amazingly well preserved, their skin still intact.
The minerals in the soil around Guanajuato have done more than preserve these unfortunate residents. They actually built much of this grand city. A good 50 years before Jamestown was settled in America, silver mining kicked in here and flourished for three centuries, supplying a major portion of the Spanish crown's riches. I don my hard hat and venture with a guide down into the shafts of the old Valenciana Mine - one of the richest silver finds in history. My guide speaks only Spanish, but I comprehend enough to get the general idea: This was hellish work. The indigenous workers extracted the minerals by hand - there were no flashlights back then, or safety precautions. Some miners started as young as 14 and did not survive into their mid-20s.
The legend behind the ornate Templo de Valenciana church next to the mines is that the Spanish mine owner made a deal with Saint Cayetano and, by extension, with God: Make me rich and I'll build a fantastic church in your honor. Now there is something more than bygone wealth to show for all the blood money. The gilded church has stood since 1778. Every surface is spectacular, with a gold-laminated altar, huge original oil paintings on the walls and detailed gilded woodwork that must have taken a team of workers years to carve.
On my last night, everything seems to come together. I enjoy enchiladas and a Negra Modelo beer in a café in front of the Basilica, the city's centerpiece church, completed in 1796. I stroll by the 19th-century Teatro Juárez, which is almost never open for performances, and see that a U.S. children's choir is performing in a guest appearance; I'm treated to great acoustics in a grand concert hall. On the way back to the apartment I've been renting, I pass the same street accordion player I have passed each night.
This time, with a pang of sadness that I'm leaving, I drop my remaining coins into the cup his wife is holding and continue up a few steep alleyways. I haven't seen one frog; but as I pack my clothes, I throw one new item into my carry-on bag: an English translation of Don Quixote de la Mancha.