Architecture / Mexico / Travel

The Serpentine Streets of Guanajuato: Lemons to Lemonade

Mountain View 2

Mountain terrains can be hazardous to your health. There’s the obvious heart-galloping hikes up the hills, which are survivable with a bit of huff-’n-puff and a slower pace.

House on Hillside

But in the mountains, Mother Nature has a few arrows in her quiver which aren’t so controllable: rockslides, avalanches, and in the case of Guanajuato a century ago – floods. But this city hasn’t survived without tenacity, and the solution to Guanajuato’s flooding problem has to be one of the best lemons-to-lemonade projects I’ve seen.

view of Hidalgo Statue

For hundreds of years, the Rio Guanajuato flowed right through the middle of town. Routine, rainy season floods were an annual problem, not only for property damage, but loss of life. Eventually, the town grew tired of the threat, and decided to do something about it. The first step was digging tunnels to route the river below the city (these were miners after all). The drainage tunnels worked for a while, but weren’t ideal. Next, engineers rerouted the river, totally removing the flood problem, but then the city was left with a bunch of empty, underground tunnels. And it’s these tunnels that transform the lemons … to lemonade.

Guanajuato Tunnels

In a master stroke of civil engineering, the tunnels were reinforced and paved, and now carry much of the vehicular traffic that moves through Guanajuato. Underground sidewalks and bus stops were added in the tunnels for pedestrians.

Inside Guanajuato Tunneljpg

Underground traffic alleviated congestion on the surface streets, cut down on pollution, and enabled city government to pedestrianize most of the historic district.

Guanajuato Tunnel w Pedestrians

And this pedestrian area forms the calm, relaxed heart of the beautiful historic area.

The brightly colored lines represent the labyrinthine tunnel system of Guanajuato.

The brightly colored lines represent the labyrinthine tunnel system of Guanajuato.

If you visit, you’ll notice that maps of the city include both the surface streets as well as the tunnels, and they can look downright intimidating. Surface streets wiggle up and down the steep terrain, and the haphazard tunnels zig and zag right through town. So basically, the street map looks like drunk day at the worm farm. But don’t worry. The quiet streets and romantic alleyways of Guanajuato make getting lost a pleasure, and we’ve truly never seen anywhere quite like it.

Guanajuato Callejon

As travelers, we’re always on the lookout for new ideas and creativity. It’s a pleasure to see that city government in Guanajuato was thinking outside the box decades before it was fashionable. And what a huge difference it made.

Happy Trails,
James

Guanajuato tunnel

Photo Credits:
4. By Gussisaurio via Wikimedia Commons
5. By hexodus via Wikimedia Commons

56 thoughts on “The Serpentine Streets of Guanajuato: Lemons to Lemonade

  1. Oh I loved this. You explained (and understood) the whole tunnel thing better than I did. We only had a few hours in Guanajuato, but it was the tunnels, the steep narrow winding streets, and the colourful buildings that most captured my attention. Beautiful city. I’d like to go back. Are you there right now? Alison

    • Alison, I read about the tunnels before our arrival, and the explanation didn’t make a lot of sense. But seeing them, and riding through in taxis, make it a bit easier to understand. But seeing their routes plotted on a map defies logic. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern that makes sense. The good news is that they work, and make the town a much more pleasant place. Yes, we are here now, but only for a few more days. ~James

  2. Those colours just keep coming – wonderful pictures and a great story.I have often claimed to have been to Mexico because I have been to EPCOT World Showcase but you are giving me a taste for the real thing.

      • Thanks for the encouragement. I have said this before but generally for us in the UK Mexico is all about the coastal resorts rather than the interior but these posts from James and Terri are giving me something to think about.

      • Even for us Canadians and Americans it’s all about the beaches and resorts – not that appealing. We spent 4 months in a little fishing village, and then some time in San Miguel and Guanajuato that James and Terri have been writing about, and some time in the state of Oaxaca – went to an indigenous festival, and did some hiking in the mountains. It was all fabulous, and so different from what we’d expected.

    • Andrew, I agree with everything that Alison has said. Even though we live on an island, and enjoy the beach, we aren’t really “beach” people. At least not in the standard vacationer’s definition. This is our second big trip to Mexico, and I can highly recommend it. Mexico City is huge, noisy and not the most pleasant of places, but it has museums and ruins that every visitor should see. We also visited Oaxaca, and it was very nice as well. And the three city circuit we’ve just finished has been wonderful. Our next trip will probably be the Yucatan and the ruins around Merida (in the winter when things cool down). So put it on your list, and I’m sure that you won’t be disappointed. ~James

    • Sue, I don’t know the details of relocating the river, but this mountain area is relatively arid. What that usually means is that most of the year, the river will be no more than are a trickle. And the only problem times are during the rainy season. I don’t think that serious flooding has been a problem recently, so they must have it figured out. ~James

      • Definitely good news. The description of the flooding made me think of the terrible flooding and mudslide in Vernazza in Cinqe Terre a few years ago. We were heartbroken to hear about the devastation and loss of life in one of our best travel stops. They have worked very hard to protect the town from such an event again. The dangers of mountainside living.

      • We’ve hiked the Cinque Terre Sue, and it’s a lovely area. I didn’t know about the flooding there, and am surprised because this area, like Guanajuato, is relatively arid. But one of the problems in mountainous areas, is that there can be a thunderstorm miles away, which causes big problems downstream. And frequently, it happens with little or no warning. ~James

    • Chris, definitely plan some time in Guanajuato. It’s small, but it has such a relaxed feel that you’ll love it. (It will only take a couple of days to figure out which of the small, shady plazas has your favorite bench.) The university is here as well, and having all those students around helps give the city a lively vibe. ~James

    • Martha, so as not to rub it in, I won’t tell you how perfect the weather is here in the mountains. Interestingly, the nights get cool (someone other than you hard-core northerners might say cold), but our apartment doesn’t have or need heat. It’s an old place (probably 200 years or so), and the walls are 2 feet thick. So it has the perfect natural heat/cool cycle throughout the day. ~James

  3. What a fascinating city! As Andrew mentioned above, most of what we read about Mexico is on the coast. I knew that some Mexican cities were founded by Cornish tin miners, but not much else about the country’s mining areas. Your posts have inspired me to read more about this city and I look forward to your next posts!

    • Thanks Catherine. San Miguel de Allende has been an American hangout for decades, but after being in a few other places, I’m surprised that more Americans don’t vacation in Mexico (inland, not on the coasts). It’s so close to the US and easy to get to, the people are friendly, the food is great, it’s history is interesting, and most places are relatively inexpensive. That sounds like a good vacation spot to me. ~James

  4. You have me thinking about putting Mexico back on my list of places to visit. All you ever hear about is the bad things. Your posts have certainly shown the colorful historic side that I would like to visit! What a crazy map!

    • Laura, you should put it on your list. Mexico, like every other country in the world, has places that aren’t safe. But, the media has definitely overplayed the danger in Mexico. As we mentioned earlier, the State of Michoacan is on the US State Department warning list, and obviously, parts of the area are dangerous. But Morelia is 125 miles from the drug gang areas, and we felt perfectly safe. It really is just about doing your research, and taking common sense precautions. ~James

    • I have to absolutely second what James said. We lived in a beautiful apartment in La Manzanilla (a small fishing village on the Pacific coast) for four months, and travelled to the state of Oaxaca for 3 weeks for a festival and some hiking in the mountains, and visited Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende, and Guanajuato. I would recommend all these places. We never once felt afraid or unsafe. People were warm, friendly, helpful, and very proud of their heritage and culture. Mexico is so much more that the drug troubled US border states, and gringo resorts. Happy travels, Alison

  5. How we loved Guanajuato! Aren’t those underground roadways fabulous? Have you had the joy of taking a taxi ride through them yet? That can be an exciting adventure. :)

  6. Such a clever way to utilize what the city has already had. I don’t think many cities around the world are like Guanajuato in terms of infrastructure optimization. Thanks for the information, James!

    • I’m with you Bama. I don’t know of any other city that has dealt with this problem in this way. It seems to work well, and the quality of life improvement is sweet. ~James

  7. S.w.e.e.t. and colorful. What a place for adventure. This post is delightful and interesting. The history of success gets kudos from me. Love to hear how cultures, peoples, governments put their heads together for the greater good. :-)

    • Jennie I agree. Some jackhammer-totin’ engineer might take exception to your use of the word “elegant”, but that’s exactly what it is. And why haven’t more cities tried this solution? Whether for flooding or not, I can think of lots of cities that could benefit from less auto traffic and more pedestrian areas. ~James

  8. “Drunk day at the worm farm…” Now there is a description I will have to remember. As for the comments on safety, Peggy and I have never had a problem in Mexico. That doesn’t mean you aren’t careful. Common sense goes a long ways, wherever you happen to be traveling. –Curt

    • Thanks Curt. Finally, someone out there who can appreciate a good turn of a phrase. As to safety, our motto has always been “If it doesn’t look or feel safe, it probably isn’t.” We could be mugged tomorrow, but we’ve been traveling a long time, and never had any serious problems. You’re right, common sense goes a long way for sure. ~James

  9. It’s fascinating to me how civil engineering projects can have knock-on effects which change the character of a city. Do you mind if I pin this on my civil engineering for travellers board (I just started with pinterest)? Things like this are great to have bookmarked for “little engineers”.

    • I not only don’t mind Bronwyn, I’d be very happy to have it posted on Pinterest. This project had wonderful results, and maybe if more little (and big) engineers see it, the idea will spread. I’m sure that this type of thing has been done elsewhere, but nothing of this scale (that I know of anyway). Thanks for getting the word out there, and please send a link to your page. Thanks ~James

  10. I am pleased to read your comments on this Mexican journey. I have been living in a small mountain village for seven years. The weather is lovely, the air clear and locals friendly. There is much diversity in Mexico….enjoy!

    • We’ve had a wonderful time in Mexico, and totally agree that there’s an incredible diversity. On future trips we will visit other parts of the country, and are looking forward to it. ~James

  11. The topography of Mexico is so wonderfully varied, and your photos help me to appreciate it all the more. I also love how the cities have preserved so much of their charm from the days when they were first built. The tunnels are something new to me. Thanks for the insight and illustrations. – Mike

    • After seeing the positive impact these unusual tunnels have on life in Guanajuato, I had to write about them. And this trip has shown us three very different places that have preserved their architecture, and it’s made all the difference. We’re already thinking about itinerary options for the future (Yucatan in winter?). Hopefully, our posts have introduced our readers to a side of Mexico that they weren’t aware of. For Americans in particular, it’s a fun, close, easy travel option, and one that we can heartily recommend. ~James

    • We had heard of Guanajuato, but prior to this trip, we really didn’t know much about it. And we’re so glad that we came, and hope that our post inspires others to come. ~James

    • A project like this is what happens when the town is run by miners. I read about it before we arrived, and didn’t really appreciate what a positive difference it made for the town. Just when you think you’ve seen it all. ~James

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