In a plaza of this enthralling colonial city, I came across a historical marker that gave me a chill. It said a patriot was executed here in 1810, shortly after Mexicans began their fight for independence from Spain. The bloodiest battle took place across the way in a blocky stone granary called the Alhóndiga de Granaditas. A young Indian named Juan Martínez, known as El Pípila, set fire to the wooden doors, allowing Mexican rebels to burst inside and slaughter Spaniards who had taken refuge.
These days the Alhóndiga is a museum, and a statue honoring El Pípila overlooks the city. Bent on learning more, I signed up for a tour of other sites that were key in the quest for independence, all in or near Guanajuato, including the spot where revolutionary priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla first called Mexicans to arms Sept. 16, 1810.
Guanajuato (GWAH-nah-HWAH-toe), founded in 1554 and given city status in 1741, is a museum in its own right. Cobblestone streets wind past historic buildings stacked on steep hillsides. The home where I stayed while attending language classes was more than 300 years old. Charming plazas invite one to rest and enjoy vistas of aged, softly colored buildings. Traffic is routed through a warren of dark, rock-faced tunnels that look like passages in a mine — fitting because Guanajuato's rich silver lodes, discovered in the mid-1500s, made the city fabulously wealthy by the end of the 18th century.
These days it's the history that is rich, drawing visitors to a city of more than 100,000, the capital of a state of the same name. My tour started in Guanajuato's city center and moved on to the church in Dolores Hidalgo, about 40 miles northeast, where Father Hidalgo uttered his rousing speech, the Grito de Dolores (Cry of Dolores), which kicked off the Sept. 16 rebellion. The church faces a central square filled with trees and, on Sundays, children playing with toys hawked by vendors. Bystanders cluster around stands dispensing ice cream in such wild flavors as mole, chicharrón (pork cracklings) and cerveza (beer). The Talavera-style ceramics for which the city is known add more local color throughout town.
From the church, Hidalgo and his followers marched to a jail and freed the prisoners. The jail is now a museum with exhibits devoted to Hidalgo and a lifelike re-creation of the liberation.
A pair of revolutionary heroes Our van drove about 20 miles south to the sanctuary of Atotonilco, where Hidalgo obtained an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe for his banner and adopted her as patron of his cause.
In this elaborately painted 18th century church, I was intrigued by elderly women with huge crucifixes hanging from their necks and rope whips fastened at their waists. It seems the pious of Atotonilco flog themselves with these whips, which are sold at stands outside.
The tour ended about 10 miles southeast in San Miguel de Allende, the birthplace, in 1779, of independence hero Ignacio Allende. We listened to our guide tell the story of his life outside Allende's home, now a museum.
My interest whetted, I decided to see Hidalgo's birthplace too, in the southwestern part of the state. It would be an easy trip, less than 60 miles from Guanajuato, and a friend offered to drive.
The route took us across agricultural fields, past industrial sites and into the busy city of Irapuato. The last part of the road was lined with stands selling strawberries, Irapuato's key crop. The baskets of fresh berries were tempting, but instead I chose delicious crystallized berries in a strawberry-red box.
We continued past Abasolo, where Hidalgo was baptized, to a towering statue of the priest. It marked the turnoff to the hacienda where he was born on May 8, 1753.
Toasting history with tequila This year was the 250th anniversary of that milestone, and we were in the right place for a toast. The hacienda is now home to the Corralejo tequila company.
Most people think tequila comes only from the state of Jalisco, where the town of Tequila is located. But the first tequila in Mexico was made at this hacienda when Hidalgo was a toddler.
The old buildings came back to life when Corralejo took over in 1996. The plant was inaugurated by Vicente Fox, then governor of the state of Guanajuato. When Fox won the presidential election in 2000, Corralejo shipped an enormous cask of tequila to the main plaza in Mexico City to provide free drinks for passersby. That cask is on display at the hacienda, marked prominently with Fox's name.
Agave plants decorate the spacious grounds, which include a premium brewery that opened this year. Daily tours explain the process of tequila making, from pressure cooking and grinding the agave hearts to fermentation, distillation in copper stills and aging in wooden casks. I watched as one type of Corralejo tequila, Reposado, went into long, slim, dark blue bottles. The workers wore blue shirts, and the adjacent town has adopted the color too. I even saw blue trim on a chapel across the tracks.
Tours end with a taste of Reposado in a salesroom where visitors can buy shirts, hats and other souvenirs. The shop opens onto a bottle museum — two rooms lined with liquor bottles from all over the world and a whimsical, ceiling-high stack of soft drink cans that looks like pop art.
Hungry, I was happy to learn that Corralejo has a restaurant too. The small dining room, furnished with heavy, rustic tables and chairs, looks out onto huge storage casks. Photos and old newspaper clippings line the walls. Cabinets hold traditional pottery. The tiny, elaborately tiled kitchen reminded me of colonial convent kitchens.
We ate pollo a la mexicana — chicken cooked with tomato and green chiles — along with crisp quesadillas and enchiladas with red chile sauce, all accompanied by a pitcher of horchata, a cool rice drink.
Ready to plunge even deeper into Mexican history, we drove to the ruins of Plazuelas, an astonishing archeological site discovered recently and undergoing restoration. The turnoff, about 12 miles beyond Corralejo, is at a place called Buenos Aires. (You won't see a sign for it on the highway.) This little community hardly rivals the Argentine city. A few kids on bicycles and a burro were the only signs of life.
The dirt road became increasingly rutted. After three or four miles of lurching, we could see the grand array of deserted buildings. The site is large, and experts say there may be much more to discover.
Plazuelas lies at the base of hills on a long slope that enabled the unidentified inhabitants to see distant attackers. The settlement contains well-laid-out temples, a ceremonial altar and a ball court. Walls are thickly layered with smooth stones and rocks. Openings indicate a drainage system. Ravines on either side are lined with rock and may have been bridged.
Feeling a sharp sting, I looked down and saw brambles with thorns as sharp as barbed wire. It's best to wear sturdy walking shoes here, not sandals.
A short distance from the main complex, we examined a large, flat boulder carved centuries ago with a map of the site. Nearby is another boulder with a map, its significance not known. Experts say the people who lived at Plazuelas may have been the first to build pyramids in Mexico. The site is not yet officially open to the public, so our visit was a rare look at ruins of this caliber without the kind of tourist throngs that crowd Monte Albán in Oaxaca or Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán.
Rebellious past, tranquil present With history still on my mind, I returned to Guanajuato, and on my last night in town I joined a callejoneada, an excursion through historic alleys led by young singers in romantic Spanish costumes. Tourists sat on worn stone stairs across from the Alhóndiga while boys led games that seemed silly, considering what had happened after the Sept. 16 uprising. Independence leaders including Hidalgo were executed less than a year later. Their heads were displayed for years in cages hung from the corners of the building here.
Mexico did gain its independence a decade later, but it's the beginning of the revolution — the history of Guanajuato — that is so compelling today. Bars, discos and pizza places inhabit buildings of an era past, and sidewalk cafes look out onto the same streets that once swarmed with rebel fighters.
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Getting a true taste of Guanajuato
From LAX travelers can fly to León's Aeropuerto del Bajío, the closest airport to the city of Guanajuato. Nonstop service is on Aeromexico and Mexicana, direct service (at least one stop, no change of planes) is on Aviacsa, and connecting service (change of planes) is on Aeromexico, American, Continental and Mexicana. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $250.
A taxi booth in the airport sells tickets for the 25-minute drive to the city. Cost: about $27.
The tour to independence sites departs daily from tourist booths in the city center. It lasts eight to nine hours and costs about $15.
To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (international code), 52 (country code for Mexico), 473 (area code) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
My home stay was arranged through a language school, Academia Falcon, 80 Paseo de la Presa; fax 731-0745, http://www.academiafalcon.com . Fancy hotels are on the edge of town, but it's more convenient to stay in the center. Prices begin at $20 for a private room and three meals. The following are well located:
Hostería del Frayle, 3 Sopena; telephone/fax 732-1179. In a 17th century building. Doubles $73.
Hotel Embajadoras, Parque Embajadoras; 731-0105. Rooms surround a pleasant patio. Doubles $43.
Hotel Posada Santa Fe, Jardín de la Unión No. 12; 732-0084, fax 732-4653, http://www.posadasantafe.com . Opens onto Guanajuato's main plaza and is surrounded by restaurants and shops. Doubles $117, including American breakfast.
Hotel Mesón del Rosario, 31 Avenida Juárez; 732-0666, fax 732-3284. Built in 1784. Doubles begin at $40.
WHERE TO EAT:
I ate primarily in the home where I stayed, except for visits to one place in town and three excellent restaurants in the outlying area.
Truco 7 (the name is the address), 732-8374. This is one street over from the Jardín de la Unión in the center of Guanajuato. I stopped here for good coffee and corn pie. Traditional Mexican cuisine. Entrees $2-$7.
Casa del Conde de la Valenciana, Valenciana plaza, 732-2550. In an old mining town just outside Guanajuato. Menu includes traditional and innovative Mexican dishes. Try the cold soups, served in a ring of ice. After lunch on the patio, visit the restaurant's stylish shops. Entrees $7-$11.
Real de la Esperanza, Kilometer 5 on the Guanajuato-Dolores Hidalgo Highway; 732-1041. Up the hill from Casa del Conde is this restaurant designed to look like an old church. It doubles as an art gallery. The specialty is chile empanado, a poblano chile stuffed with cheese and pecans, wrapped in puff pastry and served with two sauces. Good margaritas. Entrees $7-$16.
Restaurante de la Sierra, Kilometer 14 on the Dolores Hidalgo-Guanajuato Highway in Mineral de Santa Rosa; 102-5036. In a small town in the hills. Tour groups stop at this restaurant, which serves traditional food, to sample locally made mezcal. Try cecina (about $5) — thin dried pieces of beef as crisp as corn chips. Entrees $1-$7.
TO LEARN MORE:
Mexican Government Tourism Office, Mexican Consulate, 2401 W. 6th St., 5th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90057; (213) 351-2069, fax (213) 351-2074, http://www.visitmexico.com .
Also: Mexican Government Tourism Office (Mexico City), (800) 482-9832.
— Barbara Hansen
Barbara Hansen writes for the Food section.