Charming Guanajuato, Mexico

My wife Q and I fell in love with the movie Coco. We love the music, the story, the characters, and most of all, the aesthetics.

Q had a chance to attend a panel discussion featuring one of the movie’s creators, Adrian Molina. It was there that she discovered the city of the dead in Coco was modeled largely after an old city in Mexico called Guanajuato. We both already loved visiting Mexico, she for the arts and culture, I for the cuisine. Naturally, Guanajuato made its way to the top of our list of places to go.

Late last year, we spent a few days there as a sort of belated honeymoon.

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Guanajuato is a city founded nearly 500 years ago by the Spanish as a mining town. What makes it so fascinating to visit is its layout. Unlike most colonial Spanish cities, Guanajuato is not laid out on a grid around a central Square and church. The city is instead organically nestled in a valley with its buildings and plazas connected by narrow alleys and staircases.

Despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s still relatively unknown to foreign travelers. We saw proof of that during our three days there. As we walked around the city, Q and I recognized the same tourists over and over in different places.

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Where we stayed

Accommodations in Guanajuato is a great value. The fact that it hasn’t been crushed by a wave of tourism means that most businesses are small and likely family-owned and operated. Hotels and Airbnbs are affordable and conveniently located.

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We decided to stay in an Airbnb because of the particular host we found. She is an American transplant who started an artisanal bakery staffed by locals in her house and also opened up a room to Airbnb guests. We seized the chance to stay with someone that could be both a host and guide.

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The house was perched along one of the sides of the valley with a great view of the rest of the city, but only a 10-minute walk to the center of town. We shared it with our host and her 4 dogs.

It was the perfect mix of light, color, and textures. It was built on terraces, with 3 or 4 split levels.

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Why it’s the perfect walking city

Guanajuato is one of the best cities in the world to walk around as a tourist. Of course, the geography, history, and culture are important factors, but there is one reason that eclipses the rest, its lack of car traffic. In Guanajuato, roads are narrow and many are just staircases. As a result, most are accessible only on foot.

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Cars are able to traverse the city but do so mostly underground in the many tunnels that were dug to prevent deadly flooding. So while it can be convenient to get from the airport to the center of the city by car, most short trips within the city are better done on foot.

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We actually visited just a week before Ken Block and the Hoonigan crew filmed Gymkhana 10 in Guanajuato. If you want to see a madman racing through the streets and tunnels of Guanajuato in a rally car and an ATV, watch this and this.

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Even with the relative absence of navigable roads, I still did spot some interesting cars, mostly old Volkswagens.

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Guanajuato’s streets have an organic quality that can only form over hundreds of years of continuous occupation. It’s a unique mixture of texture, color, geometry, and age; an age that comes through in the stone walls, cobblestone streets and, layers upon layers of colored paint.

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What to do

The culture of Guanajuato is difficult to miss because it’s a fundamental component of its identity. When we were there, we attended a wine festival, saw artists painting around the city as part of a painting competition, and went to a few museums, including the artist Diego Rivera’s childhood home. Q even entered and ran a 5k on a whim.

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The charms of a small city

Our trip to Guanajuato was a breath of fresh air. It was special because of how few tourists actually visit. It brought back memories of travel before smartphones and social media.

Nowadays, you can find enough on YouTube, Instagram, and blogs that you could completely see everything at a tourist spot before you even get there.

However, with these smaller cities, there simply isn’t that much on the internet, leaving you more surprise and adventure.

That’s not to say that there is something wrong with bigger, more popular places. Destinations like Tokyo, Berlin, and Mexico City deserve their notoriety. They really are as great as their popularity might suggest.

However, if you find yourself going to same places as everyone else, I have a challenge for you. Next time you travel, pick a smaller, less popular city. I bet you’ll find something special there.

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Thanks to Q for reading drafts of this.

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