When you think of travel to Mexico, chances are you imagine the crystal-clear waters and soft-sand beaches of one of the country’s beach or resort towns.
However, Mexico offers more than its scenic waterfront destinations.
Think more central and you’ll find picturesque Guanajuato, the state with a capital that shares the same name.
Surrounded by the Sierra de Guanajuato Mountains, Guanajuato was built in a valley that’s full of colourful buildings, winding cobblestone streets and callejones, which are alleys far too narrow to accommodate vehicles. Visitors can expect to get their steps in — up and downhill.
In fact, Guanajuato is known for its tunnels, constructed through mountain rock, which diverts traffic away from the city centre.
“One of the tunnels was originally built to prevent the Guanajuato River from flooding the city, and the others used as roadways,” shares Gabriel Alcaráz, Bilingual Tourist Guide, with Transportes Turisticos de Guanajuato (TTG). “Calle Miguel Hidalgo is probably the most famous underground road. It runs nearly three kilometres long.”
Tourists can jump in a cab or Uber to get to their destination but tour companies, such as TTG (ttg.com.mx), are one way to maximize a visit, offering standard and customized options.
“TTG is the largest tour company in Guanajuato with a history that dates back to 1972. We provide many options that include guided tours and cultural walks, as well as transportation and transfer services — in Guanajuato and elsewhere throughout Mexico,” says Alcaráz.
This option offers peace-of-mind to any newcomer, particularly when navigating complex city streets or tunneled roadways (expect to get lost at least once on your own in Guanajuato city), or if requiring a quick ride to or from the airport.
TTG operators are SCT accredited, and the guides are SECTUR accredited, which ensures quality, professionalism, and the top training standards from the Federal Tourism Secretariat.
“It is very important to us to make sure we accommodate our guests’ plans and itineraries. The nice thing about Guanajuato is the many choices,” Alcaráz says. “There’s art, architecture, history, music, adventure, festivals, and still more to do and see!”
Expect mariachis bands
Guanajuato is a cultural experience.
Expect mariachis bands in the city’s historic centre square with entertainers or callejoneadas (which roughly translates to street performers), food vendors, and patioed restaurants.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, the city’s mix of Baroque and colonial architecture is made all the more stunning by buildings of blue, pink, yellow, green, and orange.
“Guanajuato is also well-known for its romance,” adds Juan José Álvarez Brunel, Secretario de Turismo del Estado de Guanajuato. “Certainly, it is cultural, but the city also has a beauty and an atmosphere that is suited to the romantic.”
Case in point: The Alley of The Kiss, so named because it’s narrow enough for two lovers to kiss from opposite sides of the street. Based on a legendary, local love story, a kiss on the third step for lifetime happiness.
A bird’s eye view of the city also provides a romantic way to spend an evening.
Catch the Funicular Panoramico, an inexpensive ride to the Monumento al Pípila, a monument that commemorates the city’s famed war hero — which also offers the best views of Guanajuato.
Or perhaps, a night at the theatre is in store. Teatro Juárez (built in 1872, though incomplete until 1903) is in the historic centre square.
With its classical exterior and art-deco interior, self-guided tours are available, as well as performances by some of the world's finest artists and ensembles.
Visitors might also catch the Orquesta Sinfónica de la Universidad de Guanajuato. Guanajuato offers one of the finest universities in Mexico, and that’s its orchestra.
Across from the Teatro Juárez is the Jardín de la Unión, the most beautiful and lively square in the city.
Along with mariachi and regional bands, there are tunas (musical groups) that offer guided tours while singing throughout the alleys of the city.
More adventurous visitors might consider a cultural tour via bike, ATV, or horseback through the city. TTG also offers ecotourism and adventure tours, including those for runners.
The Ruta de los Barrios ensures more than 1,000 steps through the city’s alleys and squares.
Or sightseers can opt for a scenic, yet challenging run through the Sierra de Guanajuato. It’s also possible to find canyoning and rappelling tours.
“We truly have something for everyone…whether visitors want to go outdoors to the market, buy local crafts, see museums, or enjoy a wonderful meal and stay in a lovely hotel, we can provide for all of the interests,” says Brunel.
A boutique hotel is an ideal option in Guanajuato. This is where guests can continue to find romance, architecture, and history.
For example: the 1850 Hotel Boutique (yes, because it dates back to the 1850s) is in a neoclassical building, with spacious rooms that feature French classical and contemporary designs. It also has a spa.
The Edelmira Hotel Boutique is steps away from the Jardín de la Unión and features a colonial-style structure with archways, a restaurant, and a spa. Its domed terrace is a must-see with excellent city views, providing a nice option for a night in with a glass of wine. The staff is also extremely friendly and helpful with plans for around town.
“Guanajuato also offers a certain luxury,” says Brunel. “We are open and welcoming to all, including the LGBTQ community. We want everyone to enjoy and experience our beauty and our culture.”
No tour of the city is complete without mention of Guanajuato’s historical significance to Mexico.
“It is the birthplace of Independence,” shares Alcaráz. “Guanajuato was the site of the first battle of the Mexican War of Independence between Mexico and Spanish colonial authorities.”
Father Miguel Hidalgo, a parish priest, invoked the efforts to fight for autonomy. After Independence, the province of Guanajuato was made an official state in 1824, with the city as the capital.
San Miguel de Allende
About a 90-minute drive east of Guanajuato city is the European-esque city of San Miguel de Allende.
Similar to Guanajuato, San Miguel is known for its Colonial and Spanish architecture, narrow cobblestone streets, the main square (El Jardín), and historic churches and monuments. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“To be designated by UNESCO as such relates to a city’s universal value, including how it preserves the buildings, its cultural, traditions, its food, and so on,” says Brunel. “It is quite meaningful, and San Miguel received the honour in 2008.”
Whereas Guanajuato is a larger, somewhat livelier university city, San Miguel attracts international artists, travellers, and expats. Visitors will find one-of-a-kind shops, cafes, international restaurant options and, occasionally, someone to converse in English with.
“You’ll notice this is very much an artists’ city,” says Alcaráz, whose company also offers tours of San Miguel. “For example, Escuela de Bellas Artes was a former monastery that was converted into a fine-arts school in 1938, and now serves as a gallery with famous murals.”
This includes an unfinished mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros, who was a Mexican social realist painter. But visitors need not enter a gallery to find murals. You’ll notice the colourful street art as you meander through the city.
Parque Benito Juarez, a 10-minute walk from the city centre, is a peaceful park that also hosts artists, including crafts and jewellery vendors. There’s a vibe to San Miguel and locals claim that there is rose quartz that’s formed naturally underground, giving the city its glow.
The city is also part of Guanajuato’s Circuito del Vino, or wine trail, which stretches from Dolores Hidalgo to San Miguel de Allende. Guanajuato has about 25 wineries, including some award-winning and organic, high-altitude wines.
For instance, Caminos D'Vinos is the highest vineyard in Mexico at 7,200 feet above sea level.
La Santisima Trinidad produces wine, olive oil, and dried lavender and essential oil. It also offers a tasting room in San Miguel, shared with local microbrewery, Cerveceria Allende.
Although winemaking originated with the Spanish in Guanajuato, the modern practices are recent and date back to the early 2000s. The soils closest to San Miguel are believed to be some of the best and most natural, which are ideal for producing organic wines.
Viñedo Dos Buhos (two owls), an organic vineyard not too far from the city centre, has been experimenting and optimizing its grapes since 2005. The “two owls” name refers to the merging of two cultures with the same vision, which merges traditional winemaking with modern, yet non-invasive technologies.
“We are really pioneers,” says Lucero Lagarde, sommelier and operations manager at Dos Búhos. “We believed in the vines but didn’t know at first which type of grapes would accept the region because there’s no historical evidence to know for sure if, for example, Cabernet Sauvignon or Sila would grow. We started with 12 different grapes to see which took well to the area and only two types didn’t like it. So, we continued with the other 10.”
Lagarde talks with passion about the vineyard. She recalls planting one vine, in particular, that began to grow a leaf within days.
“For me what’s magical is how much life has to be going through the row and this vine to begin producing the leaves for grapes within days, and not weeks. It’s very exciting to see.”
Currently, there are only four certified organic vineyards in Mexico, and Viñedo Dos Buhos (dosbuhos.com) is proudly one of them.
“We take the organic certification seriously and beyond only the soil — all the way to the end of the verification process, doing everything naturally, traditionally, and by hand. So, even the harvest is done by hand, meaning we can choose our grapes individually to ensure the finest quality.”
Viñedo Dos Buhos also supports local charities such as Feed the Hungry and Jóvenes Adelante, which supports a scholarship program for students in Mexico, and Ópera Guanajuato, which supports young musicians.
“I am very proud of the way we do things here,” adds Lagarde. Dos Buhos offers several tours, including picnics and tasting and pairing options. It’s worth tasting the vineyard’s orange wine (but that’s not citrus in flavour). It involves an ancient winemaking technique, which leaves the grape skins on during the fermenting process.
“Each tasting is meant to be savoured and an experience in and of itself,” she says.
Clearly, romance abounds within the state of Guanajuato. It’s a worthy addition to any travel list.
6 things to do in Guanajuato / San Miguel
1. Festival fun. Mexico is well-known for its share of festivals, and Guanajuato City is no different. The Cervantino International Festival takes place every October and is dedicated to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra — author of the famous Spanish novel, Don Quixote de la Mancha.
“This three-week event is one of the most renowned of its kind in Latin American, offering a mix of music, theatre, arts, literature, and film,” shares Gabriel Alcaráz, Bilingual Tourist Guide, with Transportes Turisticos de Guanajuato. This year marks its 49th year and the festival will be held from October 13 to 31, 2021.
Learn more here.
2. Mining minerals. A city tour will share about Guanajuato’s rich mining history. “La Valenciana — once one of the largest mines and one that’s still in production today — accounted for about two-thirds of the world’s silver production,” says Alcaráz. “It made Guanajuato the leading silver-extraction in the 18th century and one of the wealthiest cities in Mexico for a period.”
3. Horseback riding. From a romantic package that takes riders to a sunset viewpoint to a pub crawl ride that stops at different tavernas throughout the old, colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, to half and full-day riding excursion, Coyote Canyon Adventures offers a horseback-riding experience that suits almost everyone.
“We also offer week-long excursions that take riders across part of the Sierra Madre range, which once crossed on horseback the Mexican heroes of Independence,” says founder, Rodrigo Landeros. “It’s a six-day and five-night camping adventure in the Guanajuato mountains.”
Learn more here.
4. Flying high. The most scenic way to experience San Miguel de Allonde is from above. Volé En Globo’s sunrise air-balloon flight offers the best early-morning views of the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site in central Mexico. You can also expect a traditional toast to celebrate the ride afterward.
They’re on Facebook at VoleEnGloboSMA.
5. Museum hopping. From the Museo de las Momias (yes, this “Museum of Mummies” showcases actual mummified remains of previous state residents), to the Museo Iconográfico del Quijote (a restored 19th-century home with 600 pieces of art inspired by the novel, Don Quixote), to the Museo Palacio de los Poderes (an architecturally beautiful re-construction of the original legislative palace, built in 1753), there are 15 museums in Guanajuato…and more in San Miguel.
6. Shopping local. Mercado Hidalgo, or the Guanajuato Market, was originally built to house a train station during the early part of the 20th century. Today, it offers an eclectic mix of new and old, as well as fresh fruit, bread, sweets, and more.
San Miguel’s Mercado de Artesanías is the market to visit for a souvenir for home, including traditional Mexican blankets, pottery, jewellery, crafts, etc. However, there are several markets in each city, including specialty ones. For example, Tiangui Organico is an organic market that’s held every Saturday, a short walk from Centro in San Miguel.
Most visitors from Canada can enter Mexico without restrictions and Canadians are not required to present a negative COVID-19 PCR or antigen test upon entering the country (you will, however, need a negative PCR test to return to Canada, which you can get 72 hours before travel at the airport).
Guanajuato, in particular, has done an excellent job keeping its COVID cases low.
“We were recognized by the federal government as the state that has handled the pandemic in the best way,” shares Juan José Álvarez Brunel, Secretario de Turismo del Estado de Guanajuato. “We actually ran a free, online training program for more than 3,000 organizations in tourism that related to COVID safety and the precautions to follow.”
Expect temperature checks and hand sanitizer for entry at most restaurants, shops, and hotels. Masks are also mandated both indoors and outdoors.
“We’ve been keeping track of the re-activation of our economy using the symbol of a traffic light, with the red, yellow, and green,” says Brunel.
Red, of course, would mean stay home. Currently, however, the state is at yellow, which allows public establishments to allow a 70 per cent customer capacity.
Always check the status and regulations before travel as they might change.