First of all I have to begin by stating that I love Mondays. I love that they’re a fresh start: a new week begins and I’ll probably be well rested and in an awesome mood because on Sundays I sleep 14 hours. I also get a lot of things done on Mondays, they’re my heavy-duty day. I had been meaning to drive to Guanajuato City to run some uni errands for a while and I finally did it yesterday. It is only a 1-hour drive but the traffic inside the city is terrible, so I just thought I could spend the whole morning there.
I’d love to say that by now I am familiar with the city, but the truth is I always get lost. That is perhaps why I like it so much, its alleys are like Hogwarts’ changing stairs. This time I parked on Paseo de la Presa, a street which circles a both the dam after which it gets its name and a small park. This used to be the posh part of the city in colonial times, so the houses here are very big and old, with flowers hanging from their balconies and crooked, thin trees climbing their walls. It is a part of the city I like very much because it’s away from the general hubbub of the city centre.
This time I was looking for a coffee shop I have heard much about, La Victoriana. By the time I discovered it is closed on Mondays I had already walked a bit too much to give up on coffee, so I just kept walking. And it was good that I did, for not too far from there I saw a small sign of a cat standing on a coffee cup over the letters CAFÉ-TAL. The entrance was enigmatic enough to make me want to go in, only a big staircase could be seen from the outside.
Isn’t it wonderful to find places we like by accident? CAFÉ-TAL immediately became one of my favourite coffee shops ever. Not only because the coffee is ridiculously cheap, but because it is very good. The place is quiet and spacious, there are only a few tables distributed along a huge room which is minimally decorated. I had one of the best soy lattes of my life and honestly I don’t ask for much more to begin my week.
When I was in kindergarten, the local government of León, my hometown in Mexico, bought the land my school was on and we had to leave. Staff and students helped move everything from blackboards to chairs to the new premises which were, as it seemed to me at the time, in the middle of nowhere. I spent less than a year in the “old school”, and many years waiting for the workers to finish building whatever it would become.
In 2010 they finally finished and inaugurated a gigantic area dedicated to culture and arts. It is called the Cultural Forum and it’s composed of a huge library, a museum, and a theatre. The whole place is gorgeous and one of the only things I feel has changed for the better here. The gardens are usually quiet and well-kept, the museum has a wide variety of expositions and the theatre, oh boy, the theatre.
The Bicentennial Theatre, for that is its name, is a very unique place. Very modern in its looks, it can hold up to 1,500 spectators. Its acoustic is one of the best in the world and the best in Latin America. I often think it’s funny that such a wonderful architectural wonder is here, in León, for it surpasses the country’s most famous cultural enclosure, the National Auditorium in Mexico City. It is a well-kept secret, perhaps. Many kinds of performances take place here, mainly operas. In the four years that I lived in Mexico City, I still came back to several operas and concerts, the most memorable being a performance by Diana Damrau (she sang two songs from My Fair Lady and it doesn’t really get much better than that).
Today, after several months, I took a walk to work instead of taking the car, and I passed the Forum. Few things have changed, if only it seems prettier now. A few people were basking in the sun, a few others sitting under a tree. There’s a new section to the gardens where many statues by national artist stand, watched by a stern-looking guard. I still think it funny that such a place stands like an oasis between the busy city centre and a soccer stadium.
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The question I get asked a lot by foreign friends is if I know any cheap ways to travel to the “hottest” spots in Mexico. If I am completely honest, I think there’s no way you won’t end up spending a lot when visiting, say, Cabo, Cancún, Playa del Carmen or even Puerto Vallarta.
While they are wonderful places in which nature and ruins do live up to the hype, the truth is they’re often overcrowded, negected and very expensive to stay in. There are some hacks such as renting houses in the outskirts of these cities, but they might not be the safest alternatives.
This is why I’m putting together a few places in the centre, an area I’m much familiar with, that are much cheaper and that will give you a real taste of my country.
Guanajuato City, Guanajuato
How to even describe Guanajuato? It is one of the oldest Spanish establishments in Mexico because of its silver mines (now silver is gone, but you can still go on an expedition in the mines and even dig up some quartz). “Guanajuato” means something like “place full of frogs”, although I’ve never seen one there. It is one of those cities in which time seems to be forever still; its crooked alleys, old Spanish mansions and ample parks with kiosks and flowers certainly take you back to colonial times.
During the day, the city is alive in its many markets, live music in odd corners, historical tours and museums. Food from the markes is delicious and very cheap, and so are drinks in most bars. During the night you won’t be bored, either, since its nightlife is legendary.
Although it’s a very hot spot for American expats, Guanajuato has remained a simple city. The only time of the year in which it gets many tourists is during the Cervantino festival, in October. The rest of the year it is easy to find old houses converted to hotels and cheap hostels. Food and drinks are also very cheap (some bars sell beer for MXN$20.00, which is like US$1.00), and most museums give you a huge discount if you have a student card. Some places I recommed are Molino del Rey * (especially cheap for large groups!) and La Abadía,* which is a bit more fancy but still very affordable. You can also read more about the city here!
San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato
San Miguel is probably the most popular city in Guanajuato, which means it’s still not very crowded compared to any beach. While it’s gotten famous for the number of Americans living there, it’s also a big scene for art galleries, wine and gastronomy, and of course, nightlife. However, recently a lot of small eco-hotels and youth hostels have sprung out of nowhere, making it a great time to visit the city.
San Miguel is in many ways similar to Guanajuato: crooked alleys, churches everywhere, baroque mansions. But it is a cooler city in many ways, it is certainly more relaxed and has a boheme vibe about it. The food here is incredible, and although restaurants might not be the cheapest, street food is also awesome and cheap. Last time I went I stayed at Casa de los Soles. You can read more about San Miguel here.
San Luis Potosí, city and state
San Luis Potosí is the perfect weekend getaway. The city itself is full of museums, plazas, gardens, churches and restaurants, and it’s not hard to fing traditional hotels in the city centre. It’s also close to many other beautiful towns, such as Real de Catorce.
However, the real highlight of the state is the town of Xilitla, famous for the surreal gardens designed by Edward James, the many waterfalls and the Leonora Carrington museum. Xilitla is awesome for hiking, too! And there are plenty of wooden cabins where you can rent a room or even a bed, like in a hostel. The places of these are arounf MXN$200 per night. I would recommend renting a car to get around the state and visit as many towns as you can.
The small town of Bernal is right at the skirts of one of the biggest monoliths in the world, the Peña de Bernal. The monolith itself is awesome for hiking and climbing, and the town is full of food stands, small restaurants and quirky spots, as well as live music and parties in the weekends.
It’s very cheap to get to Bernal by bus from Mexico City or from Querétaro, and once there you can rent a cabin or a room for affordable prices. Hiking the monolith is also free and, if you have equipement, so it climbing. Food is also very cheap if you avoid the two or three steak houses in town, stick to street food, specially gorditas! You can read more about the town here. Last time I went I stayed in a very comfy and very cheap cabin in a property called Villas la Bisnaga*. At night we could actually see the stars and the only sounds were the coyotes howling.
Xichú is a pretty unknown town in Guanajuato, partly because it’s high on the mountains of the Sierra Gorda. If you do go here, you’ll have to get a room in a guest house there, as they don’t have online booking services. You’ll also have to blend in with the locals, since there are no “attractions”, the town itself is just a plaza and a few ice-cream shops, a church and a small garden. It’s a town lost in town, if you want wifi you’ll have to rent an old PC. But it’s a real taste of Mexico, no doubt one of the last genuine experiences you can have here.
Also, very close to it there’s a set of waterfalls called Ojo de Agua, where you can swim in crystal-clear waters. The journey to Xichú is not easy though, the roads are very crooked, so be safe and drive during the day.
I couldn’t skip my hometown! Although León is one of the biggest cities of the country now, it still feels like a town. There are many luxurious things you can do here, big hotels and golf courses, but there’s also a cheap side to it, if you know where to go. The city centre is the best alternative—I recommend this beautiful hotel* only two blocks from the centre—, since you’ll find cheap accommodation, great street food, cheap restaurants, cool cafés, and many historic landmarks such as the Cathedral, the Expiatorio church, the Arco de la Calzada, the Manuel Doblado Theatre.
If you’re into outdoor activities, León is also great. The Metropolitan Park is huge and offers camping areas, picninc areas, cycling and running tracks, a huge dam where you can fish, etc. And it’s free unless you use the parking lot, which is very, very cheap. You can even go to the Sierra de Lobos and rent a cabin, do horseback riding and other extreme sports. If you visit the state of Guanajuato, it’s cheaper to rent a car and visit all the highlights: León, Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo, San Miguel de Allende, they’re really close from each other. Also, don’t hesistate to ask for any personalised recommendations, I’d love to help!
Have you been to the centre of Mexico? Which places are your favorites?
*Disclaimer: If you book any of the hotels mentioned above via these links, I receive a commission from Booking.com. This does not affect the price whatsoever!
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San Miguel de Allende is yet another wonderful small city in Guanajuato. Not unlike Guanajuato city, San Miguel is a cultural centre, a place where baroque architecture comes together with the many modern artistic manifestations that take place in the city centre. San Miguel is also a very chic, touristy place — about one fifth of its population is foreign— with a vibrant atmosphere day and night. In terms of gastronomy, nightlife, culture, nature and climate, this is one the best cities to visit in Mexico.
The streets of San Miguel are not that different from those of any other colonial town in Mexico, and yet the number of art galleries and absence of traffic lights gives them an extra charm. San Miguel combines some of the most characteristic things about Mexico, including the food, the mojigangas (giant dolls), baroque architecture and narrow, crooked alleys— but it is also one of the most cosmopolite, global cities in the country. You can find food from all over the world — I recommend, for example, Mare Nostrum for great pizza—, a nightlife scene that brings together people from all countries and ages, a very varied cultural scene and a paradise for cheese and wine lovers.
The first stop should be the main square. There stands the principal landmark of the town: la Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, which is unmissable because it’s some kind of pink neo-gothic, and it is visible from almost everywhere in town. In front of it there’s the Allende garden. Around the area there are many restaurants and cafés, as well as ice cream stands and all kinds of handicrafts. However, most of the really good restaurants are not at the main square, and the best place for handicrafts and souvenirs is the Mercado de Artesanías, just a 10-minute walk north. Right next to it there’s a nice guest house called Casa de los Soles, which is a moderately priced and nice accommodation.
As with most other places in the world, the best thing is to just get lost and wander around. The streets of San Miguel are just beautiful, with their buganvilia vines, cobbled paths and colorful balconies. Walking south from the main square you’ll find Parque Juárez, a nice park in which to take a stroll, buy souvenirs or snacks and even watch local basketball games.
During the day and specially on weekends, the centre of San Miguel is usually busy. However, it is at night that it really comes alive. Last time I was there, my friends and I really enjoyed our evening at Limerick, an Irish pub. Early in the evening it is a regular pub, but later it becomes a nightclub, and a really fun one. I think what makes San Miguel’s nightlife special is the international, chill vibe it has. Another cool place for dancing is El Grito (both places are near the main square), or Mamma Mia for live music and food. After hours of dancing, you’ll step out into the street, walk towards the Parroquia and see many food stands lined up in the street. One of those offers some of the best (and cheapest) burgers I’ve tried in a while. San Miguel does not sleep during the weekends, so no matter how late you find yourself hungry, out in the cold, windy streets… you’ll find something to eat.
If it is during the morning that you find you’re hungry, I would definitely recommend going to a small place called Bagel Café. They have different kinds of home-baked bagels, good coffee and bacon.
The charms of San Miguel are, however, not just in the city centre. Its geographical location and altitude (1,900 m above sea level) make it a wonderful place for a hike. Just half an hour away from the city you’ll find a protected area called Cañada de la Virgen. There is an archeological site there that is huge and not very well known, but the real thrill about it its the views you can get while hiking or horseback riding there. You can hire a horse or a hiking guide that will take you into the main canyons of the area, there are different eco-tourism companies you can contact directly once in San Miguel. If you’re interested in wine, you can also visit one of the many vineyards around San Miguel. Last september I visited one called Cuna de Tierra, which is beautiful and I totally recommend (they also sell their wine at a small store in the centre of San Miguel, try the nebbiolo), it is only 40 minutes away by car from San Miguel.
Basically, what you need for a weekend in San Miguel is a hat, sunscreen, a jacket and an empty stomach.