Guanajuato: The Mexico You Haven’t Seen Yet

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Guanajuato, in the Middle of Mexico, Has Much to Enjoy

By Irene Middleman Thomas

Visiting the crater of San Nicolás de Parangueo began as a LONG 500-meter journey through a dark rocky tunnel through a mountain passageway.

Upon finally exiting, we were astounded and awestruck by what looked like a shimmering snowy landscape as far as we could see. The white surface was actually volcanic ash covering an enormous caldera (or crater lake.)

Over 30 inactive volcanic craters are located in the Guanajuato, Mexico town of Valle de Santiago, but only seven, the “Siete Luminarias,” are recognized and protected as national monuments. On weekdays, the craters are blissfully quiet and rather surreal in their stillness.

The Real Mexico: Guanajuato

Seeking the REAL Mexico, without the chain restaurants, the all-you-can-drink bars, and throngs of tourists? Guanajuato (pronounced gwan-ah-HWAH-to) just might be your new bucket list destination.
map of guanajuatoGuanajuato is one of the most diverse of Mexico’s 31 states, with vibrant eco- and adventure tourism, intriguing cultural traditions, history and enticing gastronomy.

It is home to 32 Protected Natural Areas, six “pueblos mágicos” and five archaeological sites.

Located in north-central Mexico, the mountainous state of Guanajuato is well-known for its Spanish colonial cities of León, Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende, along with an array of smaller towns, each with its own identity.
But there is so much more to see and do in this under-discovered state, for those adventurous and curious enough to explore it.

San Miguel de Allende

Both San Miguel de Allende and the town of Guanajuato (the state capital) host beautifully preserved 16th Century Spanish colonial baroque architecture and unique customs, which have placed them on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
The author sitting in the volcanic ash at San Nicolás de Parangueo

Their city centers are adorned with many small plazas and colonial-era mansions, churches, and other buildings of multi-hued sandstone, intriguing visitors to walk and walk and walk.

Surrounded by hillsides, with homes stretching up on seemingly endless stairways, these are cities not advisable for those with special needs.

Strolling down the narrow twisting lanes, passersby enjoy endless discoveries – a rooftop flower pot with tumbling vines, cats peering from tiny windows, doorways draped in traditional archway decorations and more. Galleries, boutiques and bistros beckon everywhere.

Festival of Cervantes

Thousands of visitors from all over flock to  Guanajuato city during October’s annual Festival Internacional Cervantino, a cultural fest of opera, theater, film, art exhibitions, talks, concerts and dance recitals in 70 venues.

While this time of year is especially known for its Don Quixote-themed traditions, all year long, Guanajuato’s troubadour-led “callejoneadas” take festive groups singing through the town’s narrow lanes, tunnels, and alleyways.

San Miguel de Allende, in Guanajuato Mexico.
Guanajuato Mexico.
The interior of the Basilica is incredibly ornate, with endless weddings and quinceaneras
The interior of the Basilica is incredibly ornate, with endless weddings and quinceaneras

The musician leaders, typically the University of Guanajuato students, are adorned in medieval Spanish velvet breeches and finery.

The town is renowned for its subterranean passageways and tunnels, built in the late 1800s to combat constant flooding. Some streets are fully or partially underground, and touring the tunnels can be a fun adventure.

Popular with Ex-Pats

San Miguel de Allende is so popular with expats from around the world that an estimated 10 percent of its population is made up of non-Mexicans.

San Miguel de Allende is regularly named” the best small city in the world” by various readership polls in travel magazines, due to its year-round temperate climate, its colonial city center and again, the internationally diverse population.

Nature in Guanajuato

While most tourists head for Guanajuato’s larger cities, as noted above, those wanting more of a nature-based and adventurous visit seek out the rest of the state for kayaking, bird-watching, volcanic crater touring, zip-lining, ATVing, and extreme (and not-so-extreme) hiking in the surrounding canyons and mountains.

The Solis Dam, near Acámbaro, is a fascinating place to kayak. While it is a beautiful natural area, paddlers can also visit the Puruagüita sunken church, which has been underwater for more than 70 years. Many features of the church, are still visible to kayakers, including its paintings.

The state boasts many thermal water and hot spring spots, especially between nearby San Miguel de Allende and the town of Dolores Hidalgo, stemming from subterranean volcanic activity. While it is true that areas with less tourism might be more difficult for those with limited Spanish, they offer more “authentic” experiences and Google Translate is usually available to assist.

Town of Taranducuao

The studio of Javier Servin in Tarandacuao
The studio of Javier Servin in Tarandacuao

One of my favorite hidden gems is the small town of Tarandacuao in southwestern Guanajuato, renowned in Japan and Korea for its unique, intricate style of ceramics, yet under-discovered by North Americans.

The famed studio of Javier Servin hosts several charming casitas set among lush gardens featuring life-sized animals decorated with mosaic ceramic pieces.

I fell in love with my casita, meticulously and lovingly decorated with whimsical folkloric art and antiques, and found myself buying a gorgeous ceramic platter.

Irene Middleman Thomas at the the San Miguel Parque de Aventura, waiting for her ATV adventure
Irene Middleman Thomas at the San Miguel Parque de Aventura, waiting for her ATV adventure

ATV Fun in the Mountains

Another exciting option is a visit to the San Miguel Parque de Aventura, just outside of San Miguel. Here, certified guides take guests on rented ATV’s into the surrounding mountains and onto the cobblestone hilly streets of San Miguel (a heady, but fun experience!)

The park offers various adventure packages, including 150-meter-high 7-station ziplining, hiking, ATVing, horseback riding, hot air balloon expeditions, mountain biking, and more.

Check out the gorgeous two-hour sunset ride that ends up at the city’s summit to view a spectacular end of the day.

Pinal del Zamorano

Some more intrepid visitors head for the “Sierra Gorda Guanajuato,” which has a protected natural area called “Pinal del Zamorano” between the municipalities of Tierra Blanca and San José Iturbide. Here, the archaeological zone “Arroyo Seco” boasts ancient cave paintings.

Ziplining is an adrenaline rush at the the San Miguel Parque de Aventura
Ziplining is an adrenaline rush at the the San Miguel Parque de Aventura

Pueblos Mágicos” is a program launched by Mexico’s Secretariat of Tourism,given to towns with unique historical, culinary, cultural or traditional significance.

There are now 132 “magical towns” in the country, with six in Guanajuato: Dolores Hidalgo, Comonfort, Jalpa de Canovas, Mineral de Pozos, Salvatierra, and Yuriria.

One of the most intriguing is Mineral de Pozos, a ghost town that was once bustled with gold and silver mines.

Now, it is home to giant cacti more than 400 years old, incredible photo opportunities, and unique gastronomy (try “colonche,” the fermented fruit of a red prickly pear; a watermelon salad, or squash flower quesadillas.

Magical Yuriria

Yuriria is another worthwhile “magic town” to visit, with its extensive man-made lagoon, the first of its kind ever to be built in Latin America.

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The architectural heritage preserved in Yuriria includes the monumental Ex Convento Agustino Nunnery built in 1550 and El Templo del Señor de la Preciosa Sangre de Cristo Church.

The town is also famed for its artisanal ‘tule’(regional grass) weavings, especially tapestry and basketry.. Handicrafts made with corn leaves, traditional ‘rebozos’ or Mexican shawls, and small wooden canoe toys are also created in Yuriria.

Some of Guanajuato’s rural areas offer local traditional and quite exotic cuisine, such as‘Caldo Michi’ (fish stew), frog legs and mole with ‘charales’ (dried and salted fish).

Some more culinary delights offered include ‘buñuelos,’ peanut tamales, chickpea atole (a hot drink similar to a thin cereal), and a variety of sweet breads affectionately nicknamed fruta del horno.

La Laguna and Lago Cráter

Two nature reserves are in this region as well.La Laguna and Lago Cráter are home to animals such as the gray fox, the white-tailed deer, and migratory birds.

The state has five archaeological zones open to the public: Peralta (Abasolo), Plazuelas (Pénjamo), Cañada de la Virgen (San Miguel de Allende), El Cóporo (Ocampo) and Arroyo Seco (Victoria,) each with its own features.

Mexico is so much more than its glorious beach towns. Perhaps your next trip could be to the state of Guanajuato, the interior “heart of Mexico.”

Find out more about this unique part of Mexico, Guanajuato. This story was sponsored by the Guanajuato Tourism Board, but the opinions are the author’s own.

Irene Middleman ThomasIrene Middleman Thomas lives in Denver, but wishes she lived in Mexico! She was born in Brooklyn but moved to Colorado at age 14. A life-long journalist, she specializes in travel writing, which she has done for many in-flights, daily newspapers,  and magazines such as Ladies Home Journal, Costco Connection DRAFT, AAA En Compass, and more.

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