After a month in Mexico City, I was itching to travel around Central Mexico and visit the colonial heartland. Kevin agreed to an 11-day road trip before we had to come back to Mexico City for our flight to Quito —as long as I planned everything.
It took me weeks to research the possibilities, including destinations, bus routes, hotels, and activities. Eventually I narrowed our trip itinerary to Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Santiago de Querétaro, and Puebla. Although Kevin wanted to go to Guadalajara, we decided it was too big of a city to spend such little time in, and it would be better to save it for our next trip to Mexico.
After all that planning, our trip went off without a hitch (although there was a bit of grumbling on Kevin’s end regarding budget), and I’m so glad we took the time to explore more of the country. Here is our itinerary and trip highlights, as well as some recommendations if you are planning to spend time in one of Mexico’s great colonial gems.
Central Mexico Itinerary
Day 1 – 3: Guanajuato
Initially, the only city that I had heard of previously was San Miguel de Allende, however I read of Guanajuato’s alleged superiority to San Miguel de Allende on countless (quite heated) discussions in TripAdvisor forums on the basis of it being “quieter”, “cheaper”, “prettier”, and with “less expats”. I decided that we had to visit both in order to offer thoughts on this rivalry.
One of the things that struck us about this city was that it was busy. Sure, we happened to come during the week of Valentine’s Day, but we were blown away by how many students, locals, and tourists were walking around. TripAdvisor commenters had me believe that Guanajuato was the supposed quieter sister of San Miguel de Allende, but Jardin de la Unión at night seemed as busy as Union Square in San Francisco during Christmas.
However, commenters were right that Guanajuato is charmingly pretty. Think colorful houses, narrow cobblestone streets, gorgeous colonial churches, romantic serenades table to table, and a rich history in Mexico’s fight for independence. Overall, we did find it a bit lacking of things to do (that we were actually interested in), and I could feel Kevin’s sense of relief when we left to go to San Miguel de Allende. The amount of time spent there (3 days) was perfect.
How we got there: Primera Plus from Mexico City Norte Terminal to Guanajuato (4.5 hours)
This was our first experience riding a “first-class” bus in Mexico. We fell in love and we are now staunch advocates of bringing more luxury bus experiences to the United States. Americans deserve personal TVs, leg rests, WiFi, and lunch goodie bags too! We particularly enjoyed the see-thru door separating the guest compartments from the driver so he can listen to his music as loud as he wants without disturbing the other 50 people on board (Colombia and Ecuador need this!).
Where we stayed: Casa Tepozanes
Recently renovated, charming, and within walking distance to the heart of Guanajuato. Note that this hotel does not have street access (very common in that neighborhood) so it was very confusing to get to from where our taxi dropped us off. If you have a lot of luggage, we recommend choosing another hotel that has street access.
Our favorite things to do in Guanajuato:
Visit Teatro Juarez
Built at the turn of the 20th century, the Neoclassical entrance of this historic theatre reminds you of the Pantheon in Rome , with its tall columns and statues of the Greek muses. The eclectic interior is just as spectacular, with European and Oriental influences.
Visit Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato—or on second thought, don’t
Imagine a city that required its residents to pay a grave tax for their deceased relatives. If they didn’t pay, the unfortunate corpse would be dug up to be moved. Due to the burial conditions, the corpses had actually turned into mummies, and decades later, those mummies are now on display in a museum (I guess the city is making money on them one way or another!).
I initially felt very excited to come here, but afterwards, I felt uncomfortable confronting such a visible form of death and decay. Maybe it was from seeing the world’s smallest mummy (a fetus from a pregnant woman), or maybe it was the possibility that some of these mummies were buried alive at the time of their entombment. Kevin on the other hand, loved it!
Ride the Funicular to see the Monumento al Pipila and the best views of the city
A funicular is like a railroad train car being pulled by cables. Walk behind Teatro Juarez to ride the funicular up to Pipila, and bring your camera to take the prettiest skyline pictures of Guanajuato. Pipila is the local hero of Guanajuato who reputedly stormed the Spaniard-occupied Alhondiga (see below) with nothing but a stone tied to his back as arrows and fire rained upon him.
Visit Alhondiga de Granaditas to learn about Guanajuato’s role in Mexico’s Independence
This grain exchange and warehouse has a sad history as the site of a famous clash during the Mexican War of Independence. Rebels against the Spanish loyalists stormed the Alhondiga and killed everyone inside, including civilians. This massacre troubled Miguel Hidalgo, who decided to not commit to moving forward to Mexico City. We’ve read in many museum exhibits that this was thought to be a mistake, and ultimately the Spaniards were able to regroup, capture and execute the insurgent leaders (including Hidalgo), and then hang their heads along the four corners of the Alhondiga de Granaditas for ten years. It is currently a museum with detailed exhibits (mostly in Spanish) about the Independence.
Drink flavored mezcal shots at our favorite bar, Fante
Accessible within a small alley next to 100 Montaditos, and directly across from University of Guanajuato (apropos), Fante was our favorite bar. Loud, dark, and staffed by college students, we were initially drawn in by the lure of cheap drinks according to Foursquare. And cheap they were! They offer MEX$15 flavored mezcal mini shots, and on Thursdays (when we went), they were selling them for only MEX$10, which is fifty cents USD. I think we tried each of the available flavors: arandano (cranberry), avena (oatmeal), chocolate, fresa (strawberry), piña (pineapple), miel (honey), mango, and more. The taste winner was surprisingly oatmeal. They also serve flavored pulque.
Day 4 – 6: San Miguel de Allende
For three years, it had been my dream to visit San Miguel de Allende, known for being one of the most romantic cities in the world. And finally I was there! On my honeymoon with my husband celebrating our first wedding anniversary, no less. The awe and wonder slightly faded as we left our hotel to venture around our neighborhood, Guardiana. Sure, these colorful houses covered with blooming flowers were pretty, but they also looked new and expensive. The local market was also in a modern two-story building and sold more imported cheeses than we thought possible. We saw American tourists and expats left and right, and heard English everywhere. It seemed we were just in an upscale neighborhood of an American city. Was the magic in this famous city gone?
It wasn’t until we started heading towards El Centro (downtown) that we started feeling the magic. In fact, we got caught up in a wedding procession on their way to the reception. We—and about 100 actual guests—were following the happy bride and groom, a singing mariachi band, several donkeys, and giant traditional puppets called mojiganga down several blocks of cobblestone streets. Locals and tourists alike came out of their colorful homes and restaurants to watch us go by. When the wedding party turned into their venue, Kevin and I continued on to El Centro, and had our first sighting of the famous Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel just as the sun began to set.
It is hard to put into words, but to me, there was so much art and beauty in that moment that I’ll remember it forever as magical. All at once, I saw the gorgeous colonial architecture I had been looking for, perfectly landscaped trees and flowers, endless assortment of shops and rooftop restaurants, and I heard mariachi bands softly serenading couples sitting in Jardin Allende. It was an incredibly romantic moment in the most beautiful place.
Since our short 3-day visit, I’ve also heard others say that San Miguel de Allende is a Mexican Disneyland—as in, it’s almost too perfect. It’s a city that loves tourists and expats, and therefore caters to them. For some, that means a loss of authenticity. For others, it’s what helps drive the economy, raise the local wages, and supplement the local artist community. For Kevin, it’s a reason he couldn’t wait to get out of there sooner (but he also admits it is beautiful). For me, it’s a special place that everyone should go to at least once in their lives.
And how does it compare to Guanajuato? In many ways, they are alike. They are both colonial cities with a rich history, with residents who are experts at landscaping trees and love painted houses. And everyone can probably agree that San Miguel de Allende has “more” of everything, from a larger variety of better restaurants and boutiques to Instagram-worthy houses and spaces. However, it’s also busier and more expensive. But whether more is better is entirely up to you and your pocketbook. If we had to do it over again, personally I would have chosen to spend more time in San Miguel. There’s nothing calling me back to Guanajuato, whereas I would love to bring my family and friends to San Miguel de Allende.
How we got there: Primera Plus from Guanajuato – San Miguel de Allende (1.5 hours)
Where we stayed: Posada Francia
A beautiful home owned by the sweetest French lady. Although relaxing and peaceful, we would have loved to stay closer to El Centro.
Our favorite things to do in San Miguel de Allende:
Admire the architecture of La Parroquia
La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel is the crown jewel of San Miguel de Allende. No picture of the skyline is complete without its pink limestone peaks poking through. The Neo-gothic exterior was built in 1880 (the church itself is much older) by an indigenous bricklayer who taught himself architecture. The legend goes that his inspiration came from looking at postcards of Gothic churches from Europe, including Antoni Gaudí’s La Sagrada Família in Barcelona . To our disbelief, the church was amazing, even more so when we heard of the back story. It’s not the biggest or grandest church, but it is the most unique. You will find yourself taking pictures of it from every angle.
Dine rooftop at fancy restaurants
Speaking of angles to take pictures of La Parroquia—the best angle is from any of the dozens of rooftop restaurants and bars. Our favorites are:
- Luna Rooftop Tapas Bar: Located on the rooftop of the Rosewood Hotel, it’s supposedly hard to get a table reservation. Instead we walked past the bar where there was lounge furniture and fireplaces. There was a lot of room, so we sat down, and instantly got served drinks and tapas. As the tallest building in this small neighborhood outside of El Centro, Luna has a near 360 view of the entire city.
- QUINCE: The food did not blow us away. We recommend sitting at the bar during sunset and enjoying what is probably the best view in the city. It’s right across the street from the Parroquia.
- La Posadita: Right next to QUINCE. It’s more of a restaurant, so ask if you can be seated on the terraza facing the Parroquia. Although it’s right next to Quince, they have a weird outer wall which might block your view of the Parroquia if you’re seated at the wrong table. However you can always look behind you to see the rest of the city instead.
- Salon Oaxaca: If you’re getting tired of the Parroquia background, there are hundreds of other beautiful buildings to gape at. For example, the two churches that can be seen from the rooftop of this gastropub. This place is also perfect if you’re just looking for a cute, cool spot to drink mezcal and eat tacos with your friends on a rooftop with string lights everywhere. We loved, loved their guacamole!
For a child, it’s probably one of the most frustrating places you can go to, since you can only look at (and not touch) more than 1,000 handcrafted toys. For older Mexicans, it’s a trip down memory lane to reminiscence about their childhood. For us, it was a great way to spend a few hours, and fascinating to learn about the regional and cultural differences between the juguetes.
Ride water slides at Xote Parque Acuatico
After visiting countless museums and galleries, we were “cultured” out and needed a fun break. Kevin suggested the water park, which was honestly his best recommendation ever. We took a cab there (it’s slightly outside of town) and paid around $5 USD per person for park admission. It will be tough trying to get a cab back to town, so feel free to ask the staff to call a taxi for you. Remember to bring your own towels, they charge $5 for towels in their gift shop.
I’ve read that they’re crowded on weekends, but we went on a weekday and there wasn’t any lines. In fact, there were a few times where we were the only ones using the slides. Proceed with caution, though: after some goading, we both went on their most extreme slide, “Vertigo”, and somehow escaped with our lives (although Kevin got a bad scrape on the back of his leg).
Eat a french pastry at Panio
A stark white building belies the buttery goodness that lays inside. Our friends, Robyn and John, introduced us to this wonderful cafe/bakery/bar. We only wish we found out sooner so we could have gone every day! A one-stop-shop for bread, pastries, fancy kitchen items, as well as for ordering breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks!
Day 7 – 8: Santiago de Querétaro
Coming from San Miguel de Allende, Santiago de Querétaro (or simply, Querétaro) was a natural stop on our road trip towards Puebla. Although it doesn’t have any hard-hitting, don’t-miss attractions, this proved to be the “hidden gem” of our trip. Kevin loved Querétaro, and said he wished he could have spent more time there. It was less expensive, less busy, and with less tourists. Querétaro is also reputedly the safest city in Mexico, and we did feel perfectly at ease walking around El Centro at night. There’s several little plazas (all with perfectly landscaped trees) where people just sit around, talk, and listen to music. With not a lot of tourists, there’s a casual, local vibe that Guanajuato and San Miguel were missing. We didn’t go to any museums or take any tours here, so we want to come back and spend more time to fully learn about the history of this city, and its people.
How we got there: ETN: San Miguel de Allende – Queretaro (1 hour)
We sat on the first floor of the ETN bus and we had an amazing amount of room. Our seats reclined about 140 degrees and we each had our own TV. Unfortunately ETN’s lunch service is pitiful. I got a ham and cheese sandwich that was barely edible.
Where we stayed: Hotel Casa Altamira
Beautiful, modern hotel with a perfect location off of Calle 5 de Mayo. We loved our stay except that our room window’s lock was broken (which the hotel management eventually came to fix) and the bathroom door could not close because it didn’t fit the doorway.
Our favorite things to do in Queretaro:
Eat a guajolota at Guajolotas De Tulancingo
I’m going to cry thinking about this. There’s nothing better than eating fried Oaxacan cheese with salsa verde and unidentifiable meat on a flour tortilla sandwiched between two grilled pieces of bread. I would go back to Queretaro just to have this again (and again).
Day trip to Bernal and climb the Peña de Bernal
The best way to work off all that fried cheese you just ate is by hiking one of the tallest monoliths in the world. Take a short 30-minute Fleche Azul bus from Queretaro’s main bus station to Bernal, a very small and quaint pueblo magico. Note where your drop-off point is—you’ll need to catch your return bus back on the opposite side of the street. Walk 15-minutes into downtown Bernal to catch a moto-taxi that will take you to the bottom of the monolith.
I did this hike by myself and I underestimated the strength of the mid-day sun. Try to arrive early and bring lots of water. You won’t be able to hike to the top unless you bring climbing equipment, but there are still plenty of lookout spots along the way to take the perfect Instagram selfie.
After you’ve hiked back down, unwind with delicious food and drinks at funky Restaurante El Mezquite. Their courtyard has perfect views of the monolith.
Walk around and people watch
Now on our third colonial city, my mind was becoming numb to museums and colonial architecture. Instead, we enjoyed people watching in any of the various plazas and gardens in El Centro Historico. On Tuesday night, we saw a large group of locals dancing salsa in Jardín Zenea. It was very casual, and anyone could get up and join in.
Eat traditional Oaxacan food at Maria y su Bici
This place is a little pricey and a little touristy but the presentation is worth it. Our food came on gorgeous plates and our (huge) drinks came in halved coconuts. Also, if you ever wanted to try eating insects, here’s your chance! Insect soups and insect tacos are a Oaxacan specialty.
Day 9 – 11: Puebla
Only two hours from Mexico City, Puebla is the fourth-largest city in the country. There’s something for everyone here, from a delicious food culture to unique pyramids to beautiful colonial buildings. I saw a lot of “San Miguel vs Puebla” comparisons on the internet, and I knew we had to add this destination to finish our colonial city road trip.
Puebla is famously known for their mole poblano. An old legend states that a group of nuns heard that an archbishop was going to visit their convent. They threw in dozens of ingredients (including chocolate, chilies, and nuts—basically anything in their kitchen) into a large pot and served the sauce on top of an old turkey. Today, there are countless mole poblano recipes, but they are usually made with 20 ingredients or more. Beyond mole, Puebla is also known for tacos arabe (the tacos you know and love but with grilled pork), pelonas (sandwich served on fried bread), and cemitas poblanas (sandwich with sesame seed bun).
Many Americans love to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, and most confuse it as the date of Mexico’s Independence (September 16). May 5th is actually the date of Mexico’s victory over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, and although recognized as an important date in Mexican history, it’s only really celebrated in Puebla. This historic win is commemorated because the French army was known to be the best in the world at the time, and this was an inspirational moment for all of Mexico to take pride in. (Nevermind the fact that the French eventually regrouped, fought again and won, and went on to capture Mexico City and replace the government with their own ruler.)
How we got there: ETN: Queretaro – Puebla (4 hours)
(I got the same terrible ham & cheese sandwich in my ETN lunch bag.)
Where we stayed: Airbnb
We recommend staying in the center of town either on or around the Zocalo. Although busier and noisier, you’ll be glad to be near an ample amount of restaurants and bars.
Our favorite things to do in Puebla:
Visit the all-gold Rosary Chapel, or “eighth wonder of the world”
There is said to be over 365 churches in Puebla, and if you decide to only go to one, make sure it is this one. Built in the 17th century, the Capilla del Rosario, or Rosary Chapel, is famous for being the definition of “extra”. The super Baroque style is magnified as gold leaf adorns almost every fixture, and it becomes abundantly clear the builders didn’t meet a filigree they didn’t like. Personally, the style was so overwhelming, it was too garish for my taste. They offer tours (more like a history lesson while you’re seated on chapel pews) in Spanish.
Walk through an underground tunnel in the Great Pyramid of Cholula
For the largest man-made structure (and pyramid) in the world, the Great Pyramid of Cholula looks awfully like a hill. And that’s because it is a hill—it’s just artificial. It was built 2300 years ago, continuously added to for a 1000 years, and then abandoned for hundreds of years. It was overgrown with dirt by the time the Spanish came in 1519 (who built a church on top of it), and it wasn’t rediscovered until 1910. It would be much more impressive if they excavated the entire pyramid, but there appears to be a lack of interest, as well as debate on how to do so without disrupting the 500 year old church on top. My personal opinion is that this two-thousand-year-old pyramid is much more important—culturally, historically, and archaeologically—to the people of Mexico.
From Puebla, we took a taxi to the base of the pyramid which took 20 minutes. After purchasing tickets (about $4 USD per person), we walked through a tunnel underneath the pyramid (very scary) and around the archaeological site where we got to see the buildings that have already been excavated. We then walked up to the hill to see the gorgeous 360 views of Puebla and of the towering Popocatépetl volcano in the distance.
Eat cremitas at the old-school paletería, La California
Stepping into La California is like time traveling to 1935, when it was first opened. There’s an old soda fountain, antique scale, fluorescent lighting, and delicious flan and cremitas served out of plastic cups. Cremitas are a version of creme brûlée that is made with milk instead of cream.
Buy talavera pottery at Uriarte Talavera
So technically we actually didn’t get to do this. A sign said they were closed for renovations or repairs when we arrived. I was disappointed, but I heavily encourage others to go (I believe they’re now open) and send us pictures! Uriarte Talavera is the largest producer of talavera pottery in Latin America, and it’s been said they’re the “Rolls-Royce of ceramics”. Although originating from Spain, talavera is a style of glazed hand-painted pottery that has been made in Puebla since the 16th century.
Day 12: Mexico City Airport
How we got there:
- Estrella Roja: Puebla CAPU Terminal – Mexico City Airport Terminal 1 (2 hours)
- Estrella Roja is the best bus company to use if you’re going between Puebla and Mexico City airport. They offer multiple bus departures from CAPU (Central de Autobuses Puebla) and we found their buses to be clean and comfortable. They also have the best goodie bags (audiophones, chips, and delicious pastry treats).