Travel Thursday: The Magic, Surrealism and Romance of Guanajuato
I recently traveled to the state of Guanajuato in Mexico for a friend’s destination wedding. While many people may imagine of sandy beaches or redwood forests when they think of the ideal destination weddings, Guanajuato, one of the most historic regions in Mexico was one trip I simply could not miss.
Located in the Central region of Mexico, Guanajuato has always been on my bucket list of places to visit because of the richness in culture and history that I knew I would find. It offers incredible architecture, beautiful art, food that even now my mouth waters for, and so much to experience for the traveler who is looking for the authentic Mexican experience in a surreal and magical destination.
There was so much to see, do, eat, drink, enjoy in Guanajuato that it is so hard to share it all. Although we were there with a larger group, my partner and I had already put together an itinerary of things we had to hit on our journey. While I have not included everything here, I’ve given the MUST SEE/DO locations that will make your trip to Guanajuato a fulfilling one.
Food and drink was plentiful so to recount my gastronomical escapades would be eternal. But I will share one or two spots per destination where you can feed your taste buds and wet your whistle.
Upon arriving to Guanajuato’s capital city, Guanajuato, I was immediately taken aback by the immense colors of homes sitting atop the hills of the town that grew larger as we approached. We drove into the city’s center via Guanajuato’s calles subterráneas (underground streets) that weave in and out of each other and magically transport you through its arteries of passage from one side of the city and opens into the heart of the city’s plaza. Like nothing I had ever seen before, these catacomb-style streets are one of the city’s most iconic sites and are nothing short of an eerie scene from a horror movie. But they’re amazing!
We checked into the Hotel Edelmira Boutique a beautiful hotel situated in Guanajuato’s main plaza that dates back to the nineteenth century. Our group enjoyed the historic architecture mixed with modernity of the hotel’s indoor pool, exposed brick, and incredible sites overlooking Guanajuato’s grandeur.
Located atop a hill overlooking the breathtaking site of all of Guanajuato, this giant statue of a miner who was one of the first heroes in the struggle for Independence. Standing at the foot of this statue really lets you take in the essence of Guanajuato with its rainbow of houses, churches, and tiny roads.
El Callejón del Beso (Kiss Alley)
Without a doubt Guanajuato tapped into our romantic side with its illustrious alleys and colorful streets. But quite possibly the most famous and legendary street in all of Mexico is a tiny alley where two buildings are just less than 5 feet apart from one another. Legend has it that two unfortunate lovers shared a romance that ended in death at the alley. Kissing on the third step of the callejón promises to bring a couple 15 more years of happiness and love. So of course…we had to!
Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato (Mummy Museum of Guanajuato)
This oddity is one of the trip stops that is most popular on any visit to Guanajuato. As we entered this museum, we were immediately overcome by a morbid curiosity turned churning feeling in our stomachs. The dozens of bodies that are now preserved in the museum tell a historic tale of Guanajuato’s government and struggles with class. Spanning over 150 years since the first mummified body was extracted from the Santa Paula Pantheon, this museum will leave you wincing even though you won’t be able to look away.
Museo Casa Diego Rivera
For the art-lovers out there, the home of Mexican painter Diego Rivera is located not far from Guanajuato’s central plaza. We toured Rivera’s childhood home and experienced lots of his early works that were undoubtedly inspired by his hometown.
Eat & Drink
La Clave Azul – Some of the greatest mezcal I have tasted outside of the state of Oaxaca. This hidden gem in Guanajuato is at the end of an alley that becomes a three-story cantina decorated by eclectic artifacts and memorabilia. We drank here until the wee hours of the morning and even closed down the bar. Right before wandering off to the Callejón del Beso.
Enchiladas Mineras (miner enchiladas) – This street food will make you utterly happy! After a long day of touring (or a night of drinking) this twist on regular enchiladas is something typical of Guanajuato and whose name comes from the many silver mines located in the state. Enchiladas smothered in sauce, queso fresco, potatoes, carrots and served with a side of equally delicious chicken. You are bound to find these anywhere while you are in Guanajuato—but the best places are called fondas, which is a restaurant right out of people’s homes. Don’t be afraid! This is some of the best food around and at a very small fraction of what you would pay at a regular restaurant. If you can get some recommendations from locals or your hotel, take them up on their suggestions. You’ll be dreaming about those enchiladas for months to come.
On a day trip toward San Miguel de Allende, we stopped at the town of Dolores Hidalgo which is known to be the town where the battle for Mexican independence was born. Here is where the famous Mexican cry for independence was first shouted by Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla—a shout that is often heard in regional music from Mexico.
Tumba de José Alfredo Jimenez (Resting Place of José Alfredo Jimenez)
Prior to reaching the town’s plaza, we arrived at resting place of José Alfredo Jimenez, who is the godfather of Mariachi music. Hundreds of people gathered the colorful sarape mosaic to pay their respects to the man who gave birth to a Mexico’s most popular genre of music. Believe me, it’s like what Graceland is for Elvis fans.
Plaza Principal – Jardín del Grande Hidalgo (Main Plaza)
Dolores Hidalgo is one of Mexico’s primary producers of ceramics, which we saw in every single storefront. These hand-painted pieces of art
Around the town’s central plaza we were welcomed by homemade ice cream vendors that offered unconventional flavors. Flavors such as butter, cactus, beer, tequila, avocado, shrimp cocktail and more--this definitely is not your typical Baskin Robbins.
Eat & Drink
Nieves (Ice Cream) – Anywhere around the main plaza in Dolores Hidalgo you will find these vendedores de nieves (ice cream vendors) where you will have your pick some obscure ice cream flavors. This is the livelihood of these vendors and they take pride in making visitors smile. Take advantage of the endless samples they provide and try yours in a cup or in a cone.
San Miguel de Allende
A great appeal to traveling to Guanajuato for me was the possibility of visiting San Miguel de Allende. This colonial-era city is known for its vibrant cobblestoned plaza, baroque Spanish architecture, colorful artwork, lush parks and some of the finest dining in Mexico. Just this year, San Miguel de Allende was voted the Best City in the World by Travel + Leisure. But before all the hype, this city had been on my bucket list because of the bohemian lifestyle that ex-patriots find endearing. Many foreigners travel to San Miguel de Allende and decide never to leave because they fall in love with the city’s charm. While there are many foreigners inhabiting San Miguel de Allende and essentially gentrifying neighborhoods and businesses, you need to venture out into the city to see the magic and witness the surrealism of the architecture.
Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel
This hauntingly stunning baroque-style cathedral is the focal point of San Miguel de Allende as it broods before the city’s central plaza. The pink hues church’s towers are iconic around the world. A must see stop on a trip to San Miguel de Allende, this church dates back to the late 19th century. Whether from afar or close up, the neo-gothic parroquia makes for a perfect backdrop for your travel photo album or Instagram (no filters needed – cuz if it ain’t baroque, don’t fix it!)
Biblioteca Pública (Public Library)
None of my trips are complete without visiting at least ONE library—what can I say? It’s a librarian’s dream! After walking around for over an hour hitting itinerary spots, I couldn’t help making a B-line for the Biblioteca Pública. The library is located at the converted 18th Century Convent of Santa Ana (even cooler!) and has incredible reading rooms with murals touching every inch of the ceilings. The library has a café and bookstore and serves as a community center for the foreigners who have become residents of San Miguel de Allende. The library was started in 1954 by a Canadian, Helen Wale, who wanted to bring books and literacy to the children of San Miguel de Allende…and over six decades later I got to geek out in all its glory.
La Esquina: Museo del Juguete Popular Mexicano (The Corner: Museum of Popular Mexican Toys)
Located on a converted building on a corner (for which it gets its name) is a museum dedicated to the traditional toys of Mexico. From masks from the turn of the century to the modern-day curiosities, La Esquina provides a historical and beautifully artistic look at the craft of toy-making. Each gallery space is setup to feature toys by theme which include toys around the regions of Mexico, friendship, play kitchens, playing house, fairs and carnivals and more. This was a quick stop in our trip to San Miguel de Allende, but I quickly reverted to an 8-year-old version of myself when I saw the life-sized luchadores (wrestlers) taking up a corner of the museum. La Esquina is just another aspect of the whimsy that you will find in San Miguel de Allende.
Eat & Drink
San Agustín Chocolates & Churros (Do I need to translate this one?!) – If you’re looking to fill that sweet tooth, this café specializes in churros and other confections. It’s a great sign when you see a long line out the door—don’t run away! It is worth the 10-15 minute wait. When you’re ready to order, I suggest you try their combination order and try a churro filled with chocolate, cajeta (caramel), or condensed milk. You’ll thank me later!
After a weeklong of incredible adventures exploring the romance, mystery, magic and surrealism of Guanajuato, we arrived in the city of León, the state’s largest city. León, whose name means ‘Lion’, is the state’s (and possibly the country’s) largest producer of leather goods and most populous. This leg of the trip to León resulted in a different experience. We checked into the Hotel NH Collection León Expo, a recently constructed, modern hotel full of amenities that our group really enjoyed—including breakfast every morning, a spa, and a pool that I’m sure we would have enjoyed had it been in full repair. While we had spent lots of time exploring rural and traditional areas of the state of Guanajuato, León provided a more urban, bustling and thriving city.
Plaza de Armas (Plaza of Arms)
Like many of the plazas you will find around Mexican towns, the Plaza de Armas in León is the watering hole experience. Couples, families and people of all ages gather to enjoy ice cream, food, and entertainment. The Plaza de Armas is located right before Municipal Presidency Hall of León where outside of its front doors clown performers entertain children and laughter ensues in the afternoons.
Arco Triunfal de la Calzada de los Héroes (Triumphant Arch of the Heroes)
Constructed in 1883, this arch symbolizes the pride of the people of León. It is dedicated to the heroes of the Mexican independence. Atop the arch is the statue of a mighty lion which welcomes all who visit the arch to the zona centro, the city’s downtown area. The arch, reminiscent of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe is a focal point of the city and the most visited location in León. Fountains and a tree-lined promenade make for memorable pictures and Instagram posts.
Zona Piel (Leather Zone)
No, it’s not what you think! While León is the highest producer of leather items in Mexico, you won’t find EVERYTHING leather there—but you can find just about everything. From shoes to wallets to bags to hats and jackets—everything is crafted in the state of Guanajuato and is way more affordable than anything in the states. I spent an afternoon browsing around shops and ended up picking up some gifts—haggling is pretty fun!
Eat & Drink
Panteón Taurino (Taurus Cemetery) - If you eat ANYWHERE in the city of León you have to try Panteón Taurino. This restaurant resembles a bull ring where the images of deceased bullfighters decorate the walls, bullfighting is on the televisions, and the tables are tombstones with defunct the names of bullfighters. While you wait for your beer or parrillada (personal barbecue) you will witness the servers jump on the bar and simulate a bullfight that commands audience applause and participation. This restaurant is a staple in the city of León and located just outside of the zona centro.
Like I mentioned—there is so much I could have included here about travel to Guanajuato, but from what I have shared are some of my favorites moments and places of this trip. The greatest thing about this trip, however, was that we went with a group of people who were easy going, fun, and up for exploring. We met some great people on this trip that we would like to travel with again. Without those memories, Guanajuato would have not been the same. So find yourself a group of friends who are up for some city exploration and take yourselves to the city of magic, legends, and mummies and I dare you to not fall in love.