Guanajuato City, a bit more genuine and gritty than polished, pricey, and expat-heavy San Miguel de Allende, is a must-visit if you’re traveling in or around Central Mexico. While it’s not a destination with lots of things to do per se, it’s perfect for slow travelers. The hiking trails are numerous and contain so many beautiful, and completely different, views of the surrounding mountains. It’s one of the best cities I’ve ever visited for exploring on foot, albeit hilly, so I’d suggest arriving without much of an itinerary and give yourself plenty of time to explore.
A once prolific silver mining town, Guanajuato offers stunning colonial architecture in a rainbow of colors. A lot of the tourists here are Mexican nationals (it’s always a good sign when it’s a local vacation destination) so most shop/restaurant owners will only speak Spanish. In our experience, they will slow down so it’s easier to understand if your language skills leave something to be desired (like ours).
Guanajuato is a university town, so it has a pretty young feel and you will definitely see lots of students walking around with backpacks. While I’ve heard there’s a wonderful nightlife scene, that isn’t really something we enjoy, or is in our budget this time around, but if you’re here to party, there’s a myriad of rooftop bars to choose from.
Guanajuato isn’t particularly known for its cuisine, but I do have a few recommendations for you later on which include enchiladas mineras, a dish specific to this region.
Even visiting during the busier season (December), Guanajuato has a very laid-back feel, especially if you avoid the main walking streets, which can get crowded at times. While the walking streets don’t have any car traffic, I found the side streets to be much more enjoyable and cars were infrequent.
As an introverted, easily overwhelmed, and sensitive traveler, these are the activities I really enjoyed during our 2 week stay in this eclectic city.
The most popular hike, for good reason, is El Cerro de la Bufa. My partner, Kelton, posted a great step-by-step guide for navigating this trek. It’s an easy to moderate hike until the very end, which does require scrambling up some rocks, but as long as you use your hands, and wear decent shoes, you’ll be fine!
If you still have energy, there are countless paths you can get intentionally lost on accessible from the El Cerro de la Bufa path. Bring snacks and sunscreen though. There’s no sun protection up here so even if it’s cool, you’ll probably get burned.
Another fun hike we got to partially tackle, thanks to our Airbnb host, is called Mirador del Faro. El Faro is a lighthouse covered in graffiti that boasts an incredible, but different view of the city than La Bufa. The trail starts at the very end of the Paseo de la Presa, behind the Parque de las Acacias and the San Renovato Dam.
Some of the trails in this area were once used to bring silver back to Guanajuato from the nearby mountain mining towns. Even if you don’t make it all the way up to the lighthouse (we didn’t), you’ll have a fantastic view of the dam and the original “old town” section of the city. If you continue walking past the lighthouse trail, you will get to the Calderones climbing area which has some pretty impressive twin boulders.
El Pípila is a local hero who was originally from San Miguel but came to Guanajuato to work in the silver mines. This enormous statue of him, carrying a flaming torch known as the torch of liberty, towers over the city. During the Mexican War of Independence, he ran into musket fire to set fire to the wooden door of a granary where the Spanish troops had barricaded themselves.
You can make your way up to the monument by riding the Funicular (located behind the Teatro Juárez) or simply walking uphill. We rode the Funicular ($70 MXN round trip each), but if I did it again, I’d probably take the Funicular up and then walk back down, to see more of the colorful side streets. I’m sure you’re sensing a common theme here, but the view is incredible. I don’t think I’d ever tire of seeing this city from above.
Visit the local art galleries and museums
Guanajuato has a thriving cultural scene, full of art, theater and music. Every fall, they host the largest cultural festival in Latin America called Festival Internacional Cervantino with “more than 2,500 artists from 33 countries…159 performing arts events and 90 activities in visual arts, film, literature, and artists’ market.” The “overflowing non-stop cultural agenda” goes on for almost three weeks (festivalcervantino.gob.mx).
Even if you’re not visiting during the festival, there are so many activities you can still enjoy which showcase the artistic vibe of this city. One of the top recommended activities, a city tour hosted by Callejoneadas Guanajuato, is led by estudiantinas. They are typically local students, dressed in Renaissance-era garb who perform musical and comedic skits through singing and guitar playing, while telling fables of the city.
If you are roaming the streets at night, you will likely overhear these performances and all the laughter that goes along with them. Unfortunately for us, the performances are entirely in Spanish, so we decided to forego this, as we felt we wouldn’t understand any of the stories or jokes. If you speak or understand Spanish, I would definitely make this tour a priority.
What we opted to do instead was browse all the local art galleries (of which there are many). Conveniently, many of them are located in the same area, on Calle de Positos in Zona Centro. This is a great place to look for souvenirs for yourself, or friends and family who appreciate art, while supporting local artists.
On the same street, you’ll find the Diego Rivera House Museum, which includes several floors, one of which shows what his childhood home may have looked like when he lived in Guanajuato. The galleries display different phases of his work, from self- portraits to murals to cubism.
Try enchiladas mineras
If you’re going to do something, do it right. I only tried enchiladas mineras from two places, but I feel pretty confident in saying that no one could make them better than Enchiladas de Lupe. Hidden on one of the side streets near the kissing alley (El Callejon del Beso) is a small restaurant which is only open between 6-11 PM. There are only five or so tables inside, so you might have to wait a little while depending on how busy it is.
We were lucky enough to get a table with a front row seat to the “action”. An older woman, who I imagine is Lupe, was elbow deep in a large griddle, with oil in the center to cook the tortillas and chicken, and piles of chopped potatoes and carrots on the sides. Another woman handed her clumps of queso fresco to put inside the tortillas, and would then put a heaping handful on top of each completed plate. A well-oiled machine, it was a pleasure to watch and obvious that they had been perfecting this dish for years. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Explore the Presa de la Olla neighborhood
If you walk up Paseo de la Presa, you’ll see a lot of impressive architecture including high end residences, a hipster-ish concept house, a handful of cafes and restaurants, and various government buildings. As you get to the end of the road, it will fork around a gorgeous enclosed park that leads you directly to the Olla Dam, where you’ll see locals relaxing, lots of ducks, and even rowboats that can be rented.
There are a few food stands at the far end, and another dam meant to reinforce the first called San Renovato, which is painted bright red and decorated with various mosaic artworks. If you look on either side of this dam, you’ll see a giant snake and alligator sculpture. While these dams were built to protect the city from flooding caused by runoff of the nearby hills, they were not successful during a major flood in 1905.
While there’s not a lot to do here, it’s worth grabbing a coffee at Café Tal and strolling around to take in the views. This is also where you will find the trail head for the lighthouse hike I mentioned earlier.
The Mummy Museum
We opted out of this experience, although it is by far the biggest attraction in Guanajuato. When I first heard about this place, months before we actually came to Mexico, I was pretty excited to go. I have an interest in morbid things and the closer to home, Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, which showcases various medical oddities, is one of my favorite museums I’ve ever been to.
However, after researching Museo de Momias more thoroughly, and reading some reviews, I have to say, it felt a bit exploitative to go. The mummies in question were quite literally evicted from their resting places because they had no family or loved ones to pay the tax that was required to keep their remains interred. They include a foreign doctor who came here to help treat the local population, several babies including a premature fetus which is the smallest mummy in the world, and an unfortunate woman who was likely buried alive by accident.
For years after discovering how well preserved the corpses were (all the way through the 1950’s), gravediggers would show them off for a few pesos, as they sat propped against a wall underneath the cemetery, waiting for someone to claim them. During this time, identifying information was stolen off the bodies as souvenirs.
Considering how well preserved these mummies are, still with hair and clothing, and clear facial features, I started to feel like it was more voyeuristic than educational. Additionally, the way they are being displayed and stored, in standing upright positions, is not ideal for their preservation.
This is clearly a personal decision, and many people opt in favor of visiting, so I decided to include this activity and leave the choice up to you!
A few quickie food/drink recommendations
We ate at our Airbnb often to save money, and Salgadeira was a place we frequented to keep snacks available. They have fresh baked bread (go early because they run out), olives, various cheeses, cold cuts and a delicious guava almond jam. It’s located close to the Presa de la Olla neighborhood.
There’s not a big coffee scene in Guanajuato, and while we frequented Café Tal more often because it was so close to our Airbnb, we really liked Café Conquistador, which is in centro. If you go, try the moka!
Mucho Pan has delicious deserts including a vegan brownie and a Mille Crepe cake but they also serve a small lunch on Wednesdays and Fridays for a steal. On the day we went, we got a steamed bun (Kelton’s had barbecued meat and mine was vegetarian with cellophane noodles and mushrooms) and a side salad for only $28 MXN or $1.40 USD!
I hope this is a helpful starting guide for your visit to Guanajuato, or inspires you to visit this magical little city. I fell in love the second we arrived and could definitely see myself returning to live here someday. It has that small town feel (our host calls it a “village”), but no shortage of culture to keep things interesting.
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