Guanajuato, Mexico has always marched to the beat of a different drummer. It’s the state that began the fight for Mexican Independence. It’s a place where artists come to be classically trained and paint outside the lines. It’s also home to Travel + Leisure’s “2021 World’s Best City.” While San Miguel de Allende may be the state’s shining star, we’ve traveled all around central Mexico over the past five years and can tell you that that’s just one of the many charming places and unique things to do in Guanajuato. Follow our guide to get off the beaten track and fall in love with the unexpected.
The Lost City of Cañada de la Virgen
When the Otomi civilization went into decline around 1050 AD, their perfect city of pyramids was abandoned and forgotten for 1,000 years. Only opened to the public in 2011, this is one of Mexico’s newest ancient attractions. Getting there is half the adventure, where you’ll take a van through private property to a canyon hiking trail that leads to this impressive temple complex. Using astronomy as their guiding principle, the site faces celestial north so the stars seem to rotate around it. Notches in the pyramid line up perfectly with the moon at key times in the lunar calendar and solstices. The best part of this archaeological site? There aren’t any crowds. We went with our guide Dali of Discovery Tours and felt like this little-known world was open just for us. FYI: The two people in the photo are my mom and her buddy Bill. When they heard we were returning to our beloved Guanajuato, they decided to join our adventures around the state!
The Boho Ghost Town
What was once a 16th-century ghost town is coming back as a trendy getaway. Blending its indigenous roots with its gold mining legacy and artistic flair, Mineral de Pozos is as charming as it is curious. Try pre-hispanic cuisine, frolic around a lavender field, go to the spa for a beer bath, and if you time it right, catch one of their film or art festivals. No matter when you go, it’s a sight to see the mining relics and posh shops set against the stark desert landscape.
With so many colonial cities to explore, you probably wouldn’t think about sleeping in the woods. But just 25 minutes outside of San Miguel de Allende, at the foothills of an ancient volcano, you’ll find the idyllic and luxurious Glamping San Miguel. Three geodesic domes surround an outdoor lounge with colorful pillows, a firepit, and telescope to gaze at the stars or horses that wander around camp. Each dome takes its own character—from European refinement to Mexican street art—and all are equally plush with fluffy linens and en-suite bathrooms. The owners are a fun young couple who joined us for an evening of grilling fajitas, roasting s’mores, and clinking cervezas. And if you’re looking for something extra unique with your luxury camping, book a traditional cacao ceremony or falconry lesson.
The Sistine Chapel of Mexico
The tiny town of Atotonilco beholds an 18th-century chapel with mural work that would give Michelangelo a run for his money. Artist Antonio Martínez de Pocasangre spent 30 years painting every square inch with religious scenes so lifelike the cherubs seem they might flutter down from the ceiling. The quality and intensity of the Baroque artwork has earned it a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The Mummy Museum
Not an Egyptology study nor a horror movie set, Guanajuato City’s Museo de las Momias is the curious story of a graveyard gone wrong. In the 1800s Guanajuato required relatives to pay a grave tax and if they failed to pony up each year, great granny would get dug up. Though something even stranger was happening below the cold and arid ground…bodies were naturally mummifying. This process would normally take centuries, so this novelty and a newfound opportunity to collect on old debts, inspired a museum and it’s still open today.
The Global Gardens of a Spanish Hacienda
Transport yourself to the opulent days of 17th-century Guanajuato, when this region accounted for two-thirds of the world’s silver production, and the Spanish were living their best life. Behind the walls of the Ex-Hacienda de San Gabriel, you can see a bit of the Barrera family’s mining operations, their home decorated with the finest furnishings of the day, and landscaping like you’d never imagine in the mountains of Mexico. Wander the English Garden, Roman Garden, even an Oriental Garden, and imagine a life where money is no object.
Ever-Changing Street Art
Go beyond the pristine Centro Historico of San Miguel de Allende, and see how locals express themselves without the UNESCO guidelines. An art-loving expat from North Dakota (aka “Fat Bastard”) has paired up with an accredited Mexican guide to lead walking tours through the neighborhoods replete with cutting-edge street art. We followed them three miles through San Rafael, and it seemed all the walls were covered in graphic works of Aztec gods, Day of the Dead Catrinas, the Virgin of Guadalupe, or a psychedelic dream in spray paint. Wall space is at a premium, so the murals are constantly being painted over, making way for new expression and a tour that’s different every time. This by-donation art adventure goes out on Wednesday and Saturday mornings and proceeds go directly to the artists and a mentorship program for local kids.
The Ice Cream Capital of Guanajuato
Every school kid in Mexico knows that the town of Dolores Hidalgo is where the battle for Mexican Independence began…they also know it’s the best place to get ice cream. Lined around the grand colonial plaza of this Pueblo Magico (Mexico’s national designation for a town of historical or cultural interest), are vendors ringing tiny bells and singing out “Nieves, nieves!” Forget chocolate and vanilla, they are offering flavors well beyond Baskin Robbins…soursop, tequila, shrimp, Angel’s Kiss, wine, cactus fruit, and dozens of other exotic flavors. Of course, we had no idea which to pick, so we asked for a sample and they kept ‘em coming with a smile. We must have tried five flavors before we settled on dragonfruit and pulparindo (the beloved spicy, sweet, and sour tamarind candy of Mexico) then found a seat on the plaza’s wrought-iron benches, people watching families sharing a sugar high.
Pop-Up Prop House
At the turnoff to Atotonilco, Museo Mexico Lindo appears like a mirage. Despite their self-proclaimed title of “museum,” it’s more of a prophouse meets funhouse. Wander around the facades of western saloons, take a selfie with a wooden Pancho Villa, or size up a 20-foot-long motorcycle. Things are for rent, sale, or made to the specs of your imagination.
Wander the labyrinth of alleyways in Guanajuato City and sneak a lucky kiss on the romantic Callejón del Beso. Legend has it that forbidden lovers lived across the street, but with balconies only 27 inches apart, their lips could still meet. Today it’s tradition for couples to climb up to their respective verandas and lean over for a smooch, all while the tourist paparazzi captures the moment from down below. Locking lips is said to ensure seven years of happiness so it’s certainly worth a shot.
For more fun things to do in this state capital, read our blog on “The Happiest Little City.”
Which of these unique and unusual things in Guanajuato would you do first?
Thank you to the Guanajuato Ministry of Tourism for sponsoring this post! For more information on one of our favorite states in Mexico, check out Guanajuato.mx