Stopping to catch my breath up steep, narrow streets, I find myself standing rigid against a peeling plaster wall. Jostling for space on these cobblestone alleys lined with colourful stucco houses and iron fretwork is a constant negotiation. This time it’s between me and a donkey. Unsurprisingly, the donkey wins.\n\nThese stoic beasts of burden are a common sight in the city of Guanajuato in the Mexican central highlands for good reason. Over the past 500 years, despite the invention of motorised transport, nothing beats the sure-footed mule as the handiest way of delivering goods through cramped streets that wend and wind down the sides of a canyon.\n\nSpanish conquistadors came to this region in the 1500s, hungry to mine the rich vein of silver running beneath their feet. The colonial cities they built – commonly referred to as Mexico’s silver cities – still stand today. Of all these faded-but-splendid beauties, Guanajuato is arguably the most gorgeous and certainly the most unique.
Visited by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, this Roman Catholic city has numerous ornate cathedrals, but it is the highly unusual Mummy Museum that attracts its own kind of pilgrims. People from all over the world come to see the preserved corpses on display, still with hair and most wearing the petrified remains of their burial clothing, from suits to socks.\n\nThe mummies were discovered in the late 1800s when room at the local cemetery was running low and city officials ordered the disinterment of those whose families hadn’t paid ongoing costs. It’s easy to imagine how startled the gravediggers were to discover the arid soil had preserved some of the corpses. They stacked them in a nearby vault, where they remained for decades until it was decided to display them in a museum.\n\nIt’s still possible to visit a silver mine on the outskirts of the city, but for a different kind of underground experience, you can also visit the catacomb-like tunnels beneath the city. Following the path of a dried subterranean riverbed, the tunnels now serve as roads, making the city centre virtually free of traffic.\n\nIf you can stand the fumes, it’s even possible to take an underground walk. In the dim, almost mystical light, the tunnels’ stone archways look positively medieval – and back above ground, the theme continues.
Every October, the city holds a festival in honour of Miguel de Cervantes, Spain’s most famous writer, who lived and wrote in Shakespeare’s era. And almost every night of the year, actors dressed as medieval minstrels roam the streets singing loudly about betrayal and unrequited love followed by hoards of tequila-quaffing tourists staggering behind.\n\n“It’s a bit like Black Adder goes to Mexico,” my friend mused as we followed a procession one night to the Callejón del Beso (Alley of the Kiss), where two balconies touch across a narrow street.\n\nLegend has it a girl was stabbed by her father when he caught her kissing a boy across the balconies. She died in her lover’s arms and locals have been singing about it ever since.\n\nStreet life hums here. The main square, El Jardin Union, buzzes with outdoor cafés and buskers crooning to diners. Older Mexicans gather in the square to dance, religious processions happen any day of the week and art lovers are in for a treat too. Muralist Diego Rivera – husband of artist Frida Kahlo – was born here; his family home now a museum.
Towering on a hilltop just above the city centre is El Pípila, a statue in honour of Mexico’s fight for independence from Spain (which, as it happens, also started here).\n\nA cable car whisks you up the almost vertical slope to the statue in a matter of minutes. The views across domes, spires and multi-coloured houses look like something Diego Rivera could have painted himself.\n\nIf, after a few days in Guanajuato, you are hit with culture shock, the solution is easy. An hour or so away by bus is the town of San Miguel de Allende. Centred around a pink Neo-gothic cathedral, San Miguel has in recent years experienced a huge influx of American retirees.\n\nThe town is arty and vibrant and its large proportion of English-speaking inhabitants gives it a curious cross-cultural flavour. Its essence, however, remains purely Mexican, including, of course, the odd hard-working donkey.
Insider’s guide to…Guanajuato\n\nHow to say it: Guanajuato, pronounced gwan-a-wato, is almost in the dead centre of Mexico.\n\nWhat to eat: Try the local soup – sopa Azteca – a delicious tomato broth topped with tortilla crisps.\n\nTemperature: The region never gets too hot or too cold. The coolest months are January and February – pack a jacket and some warm socks. June through to September is the rainy season – pack a brolly.\n\nDon’t miss: In October, as many as one billion monarch butterflies migrate from Canadato the Mexican Central Highlands. Catch them if you can!\n\nFiesta time: If you’re there between October 31 and November 2, check out the Day of the Dead celebrations at the local cemetery.