What is the story behind the mummies of Guanajuato? The year was 1833. The place, Guanajuato, a colonial town in the center of Mexico. One day, townspeople suddenly became sick and died. First the very young or very old, then everyone else. In just a few weeks the population decreased substantially. Cholera! Panic ensued. People tried everything to ward off the disease; casting bizarre spells, applying strange and useless medicines, and prayer…lots of prayers. Still, the deaths mounted. As the corpses piled up, the devastated population buried them as quickly as they could to prevent the spread of the disease. The dead were placed in mass graves, multiple corpses were interred in single crypts, bodies were buried in shallow graves.
Time passed and the cholera epidemic was mostly forgotten. In the 1870s the local government imposed a tax on anyone that wanted to continue perpetual care for the graves of their relatives buried so long ago. Any bodies for which the tax was not paid were disinterred and stored in a warehouse. Once disinterred the townspeople were shocked to see that the bodies were remarkably well-preserved. In fact, they had been mummified. Scientist determined that the unique soil composition, arid, low-humidity weather and 6000 feet above sea level elevation of Guanajuato kept the bodies from decomposing.
The Mummies of Guanajuato Become Famous
The local population was fascinated with these mummies of Guanajuato and began sneaking into the warehouse to peek at them. Word spread and tourists began to arrive paying a few pesos to the local caretakers to allow them to see the mummies. Finally, the trickle of tourists turned into a stream and local authorities established a formal museum with admission fees that would generate income for the town. That’s how the Museum of the Mummies of Guanajuato came to exist. For decades the mummies were propped against the walls held up by ropes. Visitors could get as close as they wanted. Some tourists detached mummy parts as souvenirs. Fearing the destruction of a major tourist draw the local government remodeled the museum placing the mummies behind temperature controlled glass showcases. That’s where I first saw them.
The museum has its mummy celebrities. Foremost among these is Dr. Remijio Leroy. As a French immigrant with no family to pay the perpetual grave maintenance taxes, he was the first to be disinterred. The good doctor was a prominent citizen and as such was buried in a formal, elegant suit of clothing much of which was surprisingly well preserved.
Also on display is what the museum claims is the smallest mummy in the world, a fetus buried next to his mother that died of cholera. It is a sad exhibit. You can’t help imagining what the cholera epidemic was like in that small colonial town in 1833.
Sadder still is the legend of Ignacia Aguilar. Ignacia had a heart condition which caused her heart to slow to the point that she appeared dead. During one of her spells, her family believed she had died. In the rush to contain cholera, they buried her. When she was disinterred she was found turned over in the coffin, as if trying to push it open with her back. Her arms were lifted above her head. She appeared to have bitten her arm and blood was found in her mouth. I have decided to believe this story is only a scary legend created to drum up business. The alternative is just too appalling to contemplate.
The perpetual maintenance tax was eliminated in 1958 but the mummy exhibit endured. There are about 120 mummies 59 of which are on display. To this day the mummies of Guanajuato continue to be a major tourist draw for the town, especially during Halloween and All Souls Day.
The museum is open from 9 to 6 every day. A taxi will cost you about US$5 from the town center to the museum. Buses also leave from the town center going directly to the museum. Take the bus with the “Las Momias” sign (The Mummies).
DON’T IMAGINE GUANAJUATO IS JUST ABOUT MUMMIES
There is a lot more to Guanajuato than the mummies so don’t leave without seeing what else the city has to offer. Guanajuato was named UNESCO world heritage site in 1988. It is one of the most beautiful colonial towns in central Mexico and a major cultural center.
The center of the city is laid out among several hills making the streets too narrow for cars to pass and an excellent opportunity to explore on foot. There are many colonial plazas, churches and buildings that are worth visiting. The Plaza de la Paz is the center of town presided over by the Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato.
Other important and architecturally impressive structures include the Juarez Theatre, University of Guanajuato and the Basilica of La Valenciana. La Valenciana is the name of the local mine which at one point accounted for over 2/3 of all the world’s silver production.
A WEALTH OF MUSEUMS
This is a museum town. As in much of Mexico, the museums in provincial cities frequently astound with their beautiful presentation and high-quality displays. Three not to be missed museums are:
- Museo Regional de Guanajuato, Alhondiga de Granaditas. Learn the history of Mexico’s fight for independence from Spain.
- Museo Casa de Diego Rivera. This is the childhood home of the muralist Diego Rivera.
- Museo Exhacienda San Gabriel Barrera. If you want to see what a real hacienda was like at the height of the silver mining boom, this is it. This former hacienda was built by a colonial silver baron. The home is furnished with period furniture and the adjoining, beautifully landscaped gardens are an excellent respite from the busy city. Bring your camera.
For two weeks every October, Guanajuato sponsors performers from all over the world for the Cervantina Festival. The Cervantina, named for Miquel Cervantes, author of Don Quijote, is a cultural showcase of artists performing and exhibiting at about 50 different venues including theaters, plazas, museums and other venues.
The performances include dance, plays, street spectacles, film, photography and just about any form of artistic representation. If you can manage to be in Guanajuato during this time you will maximize your trip as this is a unique experience in a specular colonial venue. Be warned, you will have to book accommodations way before your visit.
I had almost forgotten how impressive Guanajuato is until I started writing down everything this city has to offer. If you are looking for a 2 or 3-day adventure about 5 hours north of Mexico City, Guanajuato is for you.
What are your thoughts on the mummies of Guanajuato museum? Have you visited macabre museums in other parts of the world?