From intriguing alleys to spectacular gardens – and plenty of history, food and art in between – Mexico’s Guanajuato state offers fantastic family diversions.
To soak it all up, split your time between two cities: artsy San Miguel de Allende, first settled in 1542, and Guanajuato City, which dates back to 1554 and is the birthplace of the Mexican Revolution (and painter Diego Rivera).
Both cities hold UNESCO World Heritage Site status and are a maze of tiny alleys and winding cobbled streets. Spanish colonial architecture, with plenty of pink adobe hues, sits against dramatic mountain backdrops. The food is incredible, whether you’re eating at a high-end restaurant or a taco cart, and museums showcase oddities and art that set this area apart.
And, a bonus: The cost of spending time in under-the-radar Guanajuato can be less than what you’d pay for a typical beach getaway. Flying into Guanajuato International Airport costs the same as going to say, Puerto Vallarta, but once you land you’re likely to find better rates for hotels, activities and more. There’s the opportunity to save up to 30 per cent in comparison with similar expenses on a beach vacation.
Here’s how to spend five perfect days in this intriguing state.
DAY ONE – San Miguel de Allende
After checking into the budget-friendly Hotel Real de Minas, walk 10 minutes to the heart of Old Town. Stop at Ki’bok Coffee for a Hemingway – their signature double cortado with cinnamon and foam – and head to Jardín Principal, a leafy town square across from the pink-spired 17th-century Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, a church filled with effigies of saints and a life-sized crucified Cristo de la Conquista (Christ the Conquerer) made in the 16th century by Indigenous people in Michoacán from a paste of cornstalks and orchid bulbs.
Placate the kids afterwards with a visit to candy store Dulce Catrina where the staff hand out samples – my kids loved the obleas with cajeta (wafers stuffed with goatmilk caramel) – then visit the shaded gardens and playground at Parque Benito Juarez. Dine that night on tapas, flatbread pizzas and churros (we dipped ours in a rum-infused chocolate sauce) at Luna Rooftop Tapas Bar atop the Rosewood San Miguel de Allende hotel, which offers stunning views of the city.
DAY TWO – San Miguel de Allende
Wake before sunrise to go ballooning with Globo San Miguel Tours to see the dramatic vista of the surrounding Bajio mountains and the Ignacio Allende Reservoir below. Grab tasty and wallet-friendly huevos rancheros with plates of fresh fruit in the cozy interior courtyard at Café Oso Azul (which often has a troubadour to serenade guests in the morning). Walk over to the Museo La Esquina del Juguete popular Mexicano – a toy museum filled with brightly painted alebrijes (spirit animals as seen in the Pixar movie Coco), a large collection related to “lucha libre” (freestyle wrestling) and so much more. Just around the corner is La Casa de las mojigangas, the workshop of Hermes Arroyo, an artist who creates towering papier-mâché figures used in parades and weddings to ward off evil spirits.
That afternoon, head to the Coyote Canyon Adventures ranch for a sunset horseback ride through canyons and scrubby desert surrounding the city before clip-clopping through the narrow streets of the Old Town. Tours end at a rustic bar where you’ll be invited to throw back a shot of mescal and outside is the best street food in the city, Andy’s Taco Cart, so grab a selection. They’re most famous for their al pastor tacos (filled with pork and pineapple), but the steak is outstanding, too. Sit on the sidewalk to eat them while you take in the rhythm of local street life.
DAY THREE – San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato
Head to to La Fabrica la Aurora, a sprawling historic textiles factory converted into an arts hub filled with studios, galleries, boutiques and antique stores piled high with intriguing finds such as the colourful, feather-adorned western hats at Heart of Mexico boutique. Geek & Coffee offers perfect mocha frappes and huge iced buns. Its gardens have a duck pond and small playground for the kids as well.
Leave San Miguel de Allende and drive 90 minutes east to Guanajuato and check into Hotel Indigo (historically a school, but now an art-filled boutique property with personality) before wandering the historic downtown to the funicular, which takes you up to the top of the city and the Mirador de El Pípila – a monument celebrating a homegrown hero of the Mexican Revolution. El Pípila, whose real name was Juan José de los Reyes Martínez Amaro, torched a granary where Spanish soldiers and wealthy citizens were hiding from revolutionaries. Head back toward the Jardín de la Unión and take a window seat at Casa Valadez, serving upscale Mexican fare and steaks since 1950.
DAY FOUR – Guanajuato
Explore the area with a guide from Guanajuato Walking Tours who’ll explain how this silver mining settlement grew into a thriving city that is a popular tourism destination for Mexicans, but remains under the radar to visitors from elsewhere. There are still operating silver mines and when you tour the beautiful campus of Universidad de Guanajuato, dating back to 1732, you learn that the university’s engineering department has its own silver mine.
The tour takes you through the alleys – some barely a metre wide, many with their own legends such as El Callejon del Beso (the alley of the kiss) where a young man was said to be slain by his girlfriend’s disapproving father – and into a network of underground roads that tunnel beneath the Old City. They were built using mining technology and ingenuity in the 1970s to fix a lack of roadways and parking, and now they lead you to centuries-old houses suspended precariously over the roads.
Lunch at award-winning modern restaurant Mestizo where fresh and bright flavours rule (think duck tostadas topped with mint leaves), then stroll down the street to the Museo Casa Diego Rivera, where the famed muralist was born, to see some of his early sketches and works by his contemporaries.
DAY FIVE – Guanajuato
Start the day at bustling Mercado Hidalgo, housed in an ornate stone and cast-iron structure originally built to be a posh train station in 1905, and make your way to the balcony level filled with craft stalls and souvenirs. A visit to the Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato is a must. It’s home to the city’s most infamous former residents, a collection of mummies who died in a typhoid epidemic in the 1870s. They were discovered to be mummified after their relatives stopped paying taxes to keep them in their graves.
Take lunch in the courtyard at Las Vieyras Restaurante, filled with contemporary sculptures that contrast against the historic stone walls of the Casa del Rector Hotel Boutique. Then, get picked up by a vintage Land Rover for an ATV tour of the mountains and city with Turismo Alternativo en Guanajuato. You’ll go through the same tunnels used for a car chase scene in last year’s Mark Wahlberg thriller Infinite – and stop at viewpoints along the way.
Enjoy your last evening back in Jardín de la Union and buy tickets for Las callejoneadas. This only-in-Guanajuato tradition began in the 1950s as a way for university students to make extra cash. Bands of students armed with guitarron guitar, mandolins, harps and even a double-bass, dressed in Don Quixote-inspired garb lead tourists on a musical journey through the alleys telling bawdy jokes and stories (such brilliant fun even if you don’t speak Spanish). The callejoneadas roam the square selling tickets before the performances, so stop whichever troupe looks the liveliest and follow them to the meeting spot.
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