Off-the-beaten path near San Miguel: Two Mexican cities worth exploring

A crafts seller in the village
 of Bernal near Querétaro

Among the Spanish colonial towns of central Mexico, San Miguel de Allende gets all the attention. With its art galleries, quaint hotels, elegant restaurants and one of the largest concentrations of ex-pat Americans and Canadians in Mexico, it's an easy place to be - too  easy for my tastes. 

Within an hour's drive are two far more interesting cities that North Americans often overlook. Guanajuato and Querétaro, both World Heritage sites, are often promoted as day-trip destinations from San Miguel. I've always thought it should be the other way around.

What I like most about these cities is that they have more than tourism going for them. They're real cities with universities, restaurants and cultural attractions that cater to middle-class Mexican residents, and on weekends, Mexican tourists enjoying time out with their families. You won't find as much English spoken in these towns as in San Miguel. Neither will you find a Starbucks. What you will discover is impressive architecture, a diverse collection of museums, authentic regional food and friendly people not used to seeing Americans.

Guanajuato's historical center 

Spain, Italy, France? It would be easy to mistake Guanajuato  for a medieval city in Europe. Part of what's called the Bajio - the high plains of central Mexico 6,000-8,000 feet above sea level - the city is the capital of the state by the same name which includes San Miguel. 

Guanajuato became Mexico's most prominent silver-mining city after the Spanish colonized the area in the 1500s. They built stately mansions and churches, and following the War of Independence against the Spanish in the early 1800s, the Mexican president enlisted French architects to design elaborate parks and gardens. But it's the streets, or rather lack of them, that make Guanajuato unique among Mexico's colonial cities.

The historical town center lies at the base of a maze of more than 600 callejones, or alleys, that wind around steep hillsides above a bowl-shaped valley. With the exception of four small one-way streets above ground, traffic flows underground through a series of tunnels, like subways, only for cars -- some dug originally to control flooding; others more recently to alleviate traffic.

Guanajuato street scene

Houses painted in swatches of pink, purple, and orange crawl up canyon walls threaded with secret passageways and stone stairways.  A giant statue of the Mexican war hero El Pípila hovers over the town on a plateau reachable by a steep climb or funicular. Traffic flows mainly through a net- work of underground tunnels, leaving only a few surface streets, mostly reserved for pedestrians. 

Guanajuato is  “like Venice without the water,” says local pastel artist Laura Rangel. “You get surprised at every step.”

The museums here are exquisite, and there are several worth a visit, including one devoted to Don Quixote, the Spanish literary hero in Cervantes' "Man of La Mancha." There's a house museum dedicated to the artist Diego Rivera, who was born in Guanajuato, and the Peoples Museum, where colonial-era religious art is displayed inside a 16th-century residence.

The best part about wandering around compact Guanajuato, however, is the surprise discoveries that reflect the city's appeal to a mix of students, young professionals and families.

On weekends, the French-styled Teatro Juarez morphs from an elegant symphony hall into a town gathering spot when crowds gather on the steps to munch on ears of roasted corn, watch mimes and listen to strolling mariachis.

Teatro Juarez

Not to be missed is an evening with the Callejoneadas, groups of young musicians dressed in medieval costumes who parade visitors through the alleys (called callejones) strumming guitars and mandolins, singing, and reciting folk tales. 

The Callejoneadas 

Worth a side trip out of town are nearby ceramics villages and the old Valenciana mine, still producing silver and gold. Nearby is the Temple of La Valenciana, also known as San Cayetano, an 18th century church made of pink stone with an intricately carved facade. Its golden altar is a reminder of the wealth that the Valenciana Mine and others like it produced.

The most unusual excursion has to be a trip to the Museo de las Momias -- the Mummy Museum-- at the public cemetery, a 10-minute taxi ride from town. Dozens of  corpses are on display, just a few of hundreds that have been exhumed from the public cemetery since the mid-1800s. Many, but not all, were found well-preserved with lifelike forms and facial expressions. Explanations are vague, but the theory is that mineral deposits in the water (the bodies were taken from vaults built into walls, one on top of the other, rather than from underground) and the tendency of some materials to absorb humidity from the atmosphere caused the mummification. It's all a little gruesome, but Mexicans come from all over to see this museum. It's by far the most crowded in Guanajuato.

Queretaro's historical center

Santiago de Querétaro, often called Querétaro, is the capital city of the neighboring state of Querétaro. Arriving at the bus station isn't the best way to gain a first impression of what awaits.  Much of the modern city is residential, commercial and industrial sprawl, but a short cab ride ($3 most anywhere) brings visitors into one of the most well-kept and lively historical centers in Mexico.

Pedestrianized-streets, parks and squares filled with snack vendors and outdoor restaurants draw Mexican families in the evenings and on weekends when the whole area feels like a carnival. Mimes and street performers share the Plaza de Armas with balloon sellers and locals relaxing on iron benches in front of a stone fountain. Women bring pans of homemade flan to the Mercado de la Cruz to sell by the slice. Church squares turn into outdoor dance floors on Sundays with drummers whipping Zumba dancers into a frenzy. 

Zumba dancer in the church plaza

Founded by the Spanish in the 16th century, Querétaro's historical core became a World Heritage Site in 1996. Former monasteries house museums such as the Museo de Arte de Querétaro where exhibit spaces surround a courtyard filled with carved sandstone archways and gargoyles. Trolly tours stop at historic churches and the Queretaro aqueduct built in the 1700s. Narration is in Spanish, but the young guide leading a tour I took recently volunteered English explanations even though my husband and I were the only non-Spanish speakers in the group.

Wine- lovers might be surprised to find out that Guanajuato and Querétaro are among Mexico's biggest grape-growing regions.  Despite its Spanish roots - wine-making was introduced by the Spanish conquistadors in the 15th century - Mexico has not historically been a wine-drinking country. That's changing as wine has come more popular among the middle class. The wineries produce mostly red blends and a few whites from grapes that grow well in the high-altitude climate with warm days and cool mornings and evenings. Little is exported due to government taxes as high as 40 percent, but many of the wineries invite visitors in for for tours, tastings and food and wine pairing lunches or dinners. 

A carriage ride through the vineyards at Cuna de Tierra winery 

A 30-minute drive from downtown Guanajuato, along a remote mountain road, is Caminos D'vinos, a new winery that's part of a housing and hotel development on the Ex-Hacinda Jesus Maria at the entrance to an abandoned silver mine. A project involving the Lintel Group, one of Mexico's largest construction firms, and the Sustainable Mexico Foundation,  part of its purpose is provide jobs and economic opportunities to two surrounding poor communities. It will be a few years before Caminos produces wine made from the 30,000 vines it imported from France. In the  meantime, it plans to start production next year with grapes it plans to purchase from others including Cuna de Tierra, an award-winning winery in nearby Dolores Hidalgo.

The region's biggest destination winery is Querétaro's Freixenet, a Spanish-owned winery  known for its sparkling cava. With parking for tour buses and vendors selling everything from grape-shaped earrings to tacos, the winery draws 200,000 visitors annually. Riding through the vineyards on a trolly feels a bit like visiting a theme park. More relaxed and personal is Bodegas de Cote, opened next door to Freixenet last November. Customers enter a softly-lit lobby next to a glass-enclosed winery. A restaurant with a wrap-around terrace overlooks the vineyards where Avan Flores, a  young chef from Mexico City, composes "tapas'' lunches, pairing the bodega's six wines with six small plates.  Afterwards, visitors can tour the vineyard with a guide, either on foot or by bike.

The terrace restaurant at Bodegas de Cote 

Mexicans thoroughly enjoy spending weekends in both of these cities. In the two and a half days my husband and I spent in Queretaro recently, we didn't run into another North American. Nor did we find many English menus. No worries. At Maria y su Bici (Maria and her bicycle), a restaurant specializing in food from Oaxaca, we simply pointed to what everyone else was ordering -  pizza-shaped tlayudas or toasted tortillas topped with seven types of mole plus chicken, cheese and vegetables. As we were leaving, the man sitting next to us asked how we liked our meal. I told him we loved it, but were glad we ordered just one order to share.

Me with a "side dish'' of Nopal cactus
 cooked in cactus leaves

He pointed to his full stomach, and said "Welcome to Mexico!''  It was a phrase I've heard in more remote parts of the country where there are few American tourists, but not one I expected to hear just an hour's drive from San Miguel.


  1. Sounds like a great trip and your story makes me want to go there!

    1. If you do, add Zacatecas and Morelia to your list!

  2. Mexico is part of North America. Hence Mexicans are North Americans.