GUANAJUATO, Mexico - Walking uphill on cobblestone, I am struck by the altitude's perfect mix of hot sun and crisp air. A street vendor's cry echoes in a canyon of brightly colored stucco facades, and I can't help think this mystical, medieval-looking city is my favorite on Earth.
Though I hate to choose among Mexico's colonial beauties, Guanajuato remains unique no matter how many others I've seen. Perhaps because I spent two months there 15 years ago, my first extended stay in Mexico, and every street corner brings a memory. Or perhaps because I'm still taken with the city's energy and charm as if I were seeing it for the first time.
Guanajuato, founded in the mid-1500s on a rich vein of silver, is the birthplace of many things Mexican, including the fight for independence from Spain and famed muralist Diego Rivera. Its mummy museum, filled with dozens of naturally preserved corpses, boldly exhibits the Mexican comfort with death.
The city is the capital of the state of former President Vicente Fox, whose historic election in 2000 ended 71 years of single-party rule. It's also one of Mexico's most conservative Catholic states, where an uprising took place in the 1920s over anti-religious laws.
A visit by Pope Benedict XVI scheduled to begin March 23 will put Guanajuato in the spotlight. But even before you take in its rich history, the scenery of a city built in a canyon at 6,600 feet will sweep you away.
A cable car takes you in minutes from the city center to the main lookout, where the Spanish colonial domes, Gothic spires, and lavender, fuchsia, orange and blue houses look as if they were painted on the hillside by Rivera himself.
Underground, catacomb-like tunnels look like they're straight out of the Middle Ages, though they were built in the late 1800s for flood control. Today they handle the city's traffic because many streets are steep alleyways and in some cases stairs, and they can't accommodate cars. The tunnels' stone archways look particularly mysterious lit at night, and there are sidewalks for exploring, if you can stand the exhaust fumes.
The street life above also will grab you. Locals fill the city center on Thursday nights for no particular reason, lingering in the outdoor cafes along the Jardin Union (Union Garden), a tiled, triangular town "square," or on the neoclassical steps of the 1903 porticoed Teatro Juarez.
Young actors dressed as medieval minstrels roam the square to recruit tourists for the street performances they lead through the passageways, singing and telling stories about betrayal and unrequited love.
Guanajuato's story is one of drama and legend. Callejon del Beso (Alley of the Kiss), where two balconies touch across a narrow street, was supposedly the scene of a Romeo and Juliet forbidden by their families to see each other. Legends say the girl was stabbed by her father when he saw the couple kissing across the balconies, leaving her to die in her lover's arms.
At the Alhondiga de Granaditas, a massive stone structure built for grain storage, Spanish forces holed up and fired on advancing insurgents led by priest Miguel Hidalgo on June 28, 1810, the first battle for Mexican independence. Legend says a miner nicknamed El Pipila used a stone tablet to shield himself from the bullets and set the massive wooden door on fire, leading to an insurgent victory. Many historians say one man couldn't have done it, but a giant monument of El Pipila raising his torch can be seen all over town.
Hidalgo and three other independence leaders were captured and executed, their heads hung on giant hooks. The hooks remain today at the four corners of the Alhondiga de Granaditas.
Guanajuato has always been a popular place for Mexican tourists visiting their heritage, the equivalent of Americans doing Boston's Freedom Trail. Large groups of schoolchildren are ubiquitous around town with their guides.
Uphill at the city's public cemetery, families with small children line up to see the famous mummies, dozens of bodies bearing papery, weathered clothing and skin. They were preserved naturally, some say because of the mineral-rich climate and the crypts, though no one knows for sure.
They were dug up starting in the 1860s because their families could no longer pay burial fees, and put on display.
If You Go
• Guanajuato: Click on Guanajuato at visitmexico.com/en-us/destinations; direct flights to Guanajuato (BJX) available from Dallas and Los Angeles. From Mexico City, flights are an hour, bus trip about five hours.