Histrionics in Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende

Discover the birthplace of Mexican independence—and a lot of fun—in the state of Guanajuato

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Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende

Our four-part guide exploring Mexico in design, history, food and art continues with the birthplace of Mexico’s independence in the state of Guanajuato, with time spent discovering The Turkey, forbidden passion, Mexico’s Da Vinci (and other dramatic tales!) in Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo, Atotonilco and San Miguel de Allende.

guanajuato travel

A panoramic view of Guanajuato City from the El Pipila Monument.

If you travel to Mexico’s state of Guanajuato, here are two tips for you: 1. Don’t get stuck locked in a stall of the public bathroom at Ex-Hacienda Gabriel de Barrera, and then crawl out underneath the toilet partition door, laughing so hysterically that you have to pee again halfway through squeezing your way out of the enclosure. 2. Don’t forget to turn off your cell phone when you wander into the Parish of our Lady of Sorrows so it won’t keep yelling “Proceed to the route! Proceed to the route!” during High Mass quiet time when parishioners are down on their knees praying.

That said, here’s tip number three: Don’t miss either of those places—or several others that my friend LG and I visited when we took a one-week vacation to this birthplace of Mexico’s independence. We chose this central Mexico spot for its colonial vibe—not because we’re history buffs (hell, I can’t even remember the date I got married) but because we live in a coastal town and we wanted something other than “la playa” for play.

Since the Del Bajio International Airport in the capital city of Guanajuato was one of the closest major airports to our main destination, we decided to land there, spend a couple of days in this once-upon-a-time, silver-mining town and then hire a tour guide to take us to San Miguel de Allende just over an hour away.

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One of the themed, formal gardens of Captain Gabriel de Barrera’s mansion, which was built at the end of the 17th century using the riches from the silver found in Guanajuato. The estate is now a museum, open to the public.

Guanajuato City

Funiculi, funicula, who doesn’t love a funicular railway cable car—especially when it’s not running and you have to walk from the pink sandstone El Pipila Monument at the top of the mountain down to the center of town and back again? But no matter. Standing high above the historic center in front of a ginormous—60 foot—El Pipila, LG and I had a panoramic city view dotted by cathedral domes, houses and apartments that travel heaven’s color wheel.

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The colorful streets of Guanajuato City.

Who is El Pipila (translation: The Turkey)? He’s Juan José de los Reyes Martinez Amaro—the from-zero-to-hero, learning-challenged, physically disabled man of courage, born in 1783, who walked like a turkey and was made fun of by everyone in town until…drum roll…he tarcoated and set ablaze the door to the Alhondiga de Granaditas, allowing the rioters to come into that granary and kill the bad-guy Spaniards who were waiting for more troops.

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Colorful alleys in Guanajuato City.

Conquistador killer or not, perhaps a limping El Pipila wouldn’t have found the walk down to the town’s center as charming as LG and I did. We loved wandering through “real” Mexico—narrow, cobblestone paths that wind their way between home fronts where electrical wires dangle from thin balconies with iron railings, and ancient front doors of carved wood stand below ornate iron sconces attached to cracked plaster walls.

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The narrow Alley of the Kiss is part of a musical walking tour in Guanajuato City.

Despite its steepness, I found this meandering trail more romantic than The Alley of the Kiss, a 2-foot-wide walkway with a Romeo-and-Juliet true tale (rich girl meets poor boy, he rents a room opposite her balcony, daddy catches them kissing across the alley and kills them both). This place of forbidden passion is a stop on a musical walking tour—called a callejoneada—lead by University of Guanajuato students. While playing and singing traditional ballads and folk music, they snuck us through tiny streets we never would have found on our own. Too bad the entire tour was in Spanish. LG and I missed the joke about dos Americanos. I wonder who they were laughing at…

The callejoneadas leave from Jardin Union, the central plaza where the city’s heart beats to the tune of classic Mexican guitar from mariachi bands; Champagne glasses tinkling from restaurants, bars and cafes lining the square; non-stop parades; sellers hawking trinkets; acrobats juggling fire; and students amusing onlookers with their performances by the steps of the Teatro Juarez.

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Parade participants dress in a variety of costumes.

LG and I couldn’t help but be in awe of the stunning architecture. Looking up for too long hurts your neck I discovered, but it’s well worth a little pain to glance up at buildings like the 17th-century Basilica of our Lady of Guanajuato that has the oldest piece of Christian art in Mexico; the Templo La Valenciana, which, some say, was built by a silver baron to atone for exploiting the miners; and the architect Jose Noriega’s 1872 Teatro Juarez. Gushingly gorgeous, Dictator Porfiro Diaz must have been a fan of audacious but it looks like he couldn’t decide whether to have Noriega go Roman, Greek, Moorish or Asian for its style. According to my brochure, this was once the most-famous theater in all of Mexico.

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Street entertainers regale crowds with bagpipe music.

With all the magic of spontaneous fun, like stumbling upon a group of merry makers that consisted of a duo of bagpipe players, a flag twirler and two scantily clad belly dancers, we didn’t feel the need to go on many tours. While we missed the house where Diego Rivera was born (it was closed when we were there), we did buy tickets for the aforementioned Ex-Hacienda Gabriel de Barrera, an elaborate, 5-acre homestead with themed, formal gardens planted over the area where workers once processed silver; a private chapel with a gold-leaf-covered altarpiece; and a Baroque-influenced mansion built at the end of the 17th century with silver-mining money. We taxied—it’s about a mile west of the city center.

And I hesitate to mention that, yes, we did buy tickets to the Mummy Museum, a horrific display of exhumed, just-more-than-100-year-old dead bodies, some still wearing clothes. All I can say is, don’t.

On the Road from Guanajuato City to San Miguel de Allende

Yum, tequila ice cream! Not so yum, avocado ice cream. And downright yuck, fried pig-skin ice cream. Yep, the town of Dolores Hidalgo—a must-stop on our tour guide/driver/history buff Daniel’s list—is definitely serious about its ice cream. Ice cream carts—probably more than 20 of them—stand at each corner of the town’s main plaza. But although the place is dripping with frozen treats, the main reason Daniel of TransportArte (transportartemexico.com) brought us there was to tell us about the city’s history as the birthplace of Mexican independence in the 1800s.

Still clutching my colorful cup of cactus-pear ice cream (rating: yum), Daniel took LG and I across the street from the plaza and stood us in front of the Parish of Our Lady of Sorrows, beginning the tale of how local priest Miguel Hidalgo (his statue stands at the plaza’s center) rallied the people to rise up—“right at this very spot!” he said. Apparently, the Father called his parishioners to arms during a Sunday Mass in 1810. Within minutes, the entire town of Dolores Hidalgo defected and there was mass rioting. Father Hidalgo raised an army of more than 6,000 men and led them to several victories. Folk heroes don’t die easy, though. When he was finally captured, it took two firing squads and 16 musket bullets to kill him…at least, that’s how the story goes.

Way before he died under gun fire, Father Miguel Hidalgo introduced the craft of ceramic making to Dolores Hidalgo, so our next stop was a perfect segue: a behind-the-scenes tour of Talavera Juan Vazquez, a large ceramics factory in the middle of town. We viewed the mixing of clay and water, the filling of molds, molds drying in the sun, polished and then baked. But the real fun was watching as dozens of local artisans painted intricate designs on the unfired vases behind the showroom. Since we’d already bought pottery at Majolica Santa Rosa in Santa Rosa de Lima, though, our ceramics budget was kaput. Next trip, we promised…

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The Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem inspired the design of the Santuario de Jesus Nazareno de Atotonilco. The complex, which consists of a tower, several chapels, the main church and other annexes, js a pilgrimage site. Thermal springs flow under the ground here.

One more stop before heading off to San Miguel de Allende, just a few miles away: Atotonilco and a tour of the 18th-century Santuario De Jesus Nazareno de Atotonilco. From the outside, the structure looks more like a fortress than a church. Inside, baroque mural paintings, which took artist Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre a period of 30 years to complete, adorn the walls and ceilings. It’s not surprising the artist is dubbed Mexico’s Da Vinci and the church nicknamed the Sistine Chapel of Mexico. The murals, etched altars and sculptures fill the church—and me—with wonder.

guanajuato mexico atotonilco antonio martinez de pocasangre murals paintings

Inside the Santuario de Jesus Nazareno de Atotonilco, the walls are covered with a silver plating. Murals, painted in the 18th century by Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre, depict scenes from Mexico’s Independence War as well as from the Bible.

San Miguel de Allende

“I love to go a-wandering” and we did sans knapsacks (although flip-flops were probably not the best choice I ever made for meandering through cobblestones). By aimlessly stumbling our way through San Miguel, we not only enjoyed the historic district’s 17th- and 18th-century buildings, the delight of El Jardin (the main park in the city’s center), and the Fabrica La Aurora (a former textile factory filled with art galleries, design stores and artist studios about 10 minutes from the city), the unexpected also popped up—surprises we may have missed had our noses been stuck within the pages of a tour guidebook.

One day, sort of lost, sort of not, we turned a corner and I found myself—literally—face-to-face with a puppet as big as the moon, made out of papier maché. We had happened upon a wedding procession led by a giant groom and bride. The looming bride towered over me, leaning in for, I dunno, a kiss? (Between you and me, the real groom looked like a model out of Esquire—I wouldn’t have minded kissing him.) Apparently, the 15-foot-tall mojigangas (as the giant puppets are known) have their roots in the 1600s when the Spaniards brought in their Los Gigantes, fashioned, in part, to ridicule the aristocracy. This day, we were witnessing a farcical representation of the happy couple who, with their entourage (a tequila-carrying donkey, a sombrero-wearing singing duo with guitars, and a small bridal party), were probably making their way to The Rosewood San Miguel de Allende, the fancy hotel where wedding parties often stay.

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Fifteen-foot tall bride and groom mojigangas accompany the real bride and groom to the wedding reception. Note the bride’s sneakers to help her navigate the cobbled streets.

We ventured to The Rosewood ourselves for appetizers and drinks at the Luna rooftop tapas bar but, like a lot of San Miguel, margarita-sipping expatriates filled the seats. Although the view of the city was fantastic, with the hotel’s English-speaking staff and clientele—and hefty prices—we might as well have been having appetizers at The Hotel Del Coronado. Although people flock to this much-loved luxury hotel, this rooftop experience left us feeling like we never left home.

san miguel de allende mexico travel teatro juarez doric columns architecture

Teatro Juarez, in San Miguel de Allende, features Doric columns topped by bronze statues from Greek mythology.

For the “real” Mexico, we picked up a copy of the weekly newspaper, Atencion San Miguel from San Miguel’s public library (where I bought an interesting twisted papier-maché vase) and read about the free Baile Folklórico at the historic Teatro Ángela Peralta. The theater, located in the heart of downtown, was built in 1873 and opened by the reigning queen of opera in Mexico, Ángela Peralta. We stood in line with our tickets in hand and were amazed that we did not see one gringo-gringa in the bunch. It was free! It was cultural! It was local! What was wrong with the expats and tourists? There certainly was nothing wrong with the ballet of folk dances performed. And the costumes! Fantastico! If you’re lucky enough to be in San Miguel during one of these performances, don’t miss it. There, tip number four!

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A Ballet Folklórico dancer in traditional costume.

It seemed as though every day of our stay in Mexico was a fiesta day, so it wasn’t surprising that on our last day we discovered yet another parade (and yet another walk since this event was a little bit more than a mile uphill from the town center). This parade was in honor of Fiesta de la Santa Cruz (when the mother of Constantine, St. Helena, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to find the original Holy Cross—Santa Cruz). Granted, there were lots of crosses, but mostly we saw babies, children and adults in traditional native costumes, with elaborate headdresses, feathered wrist bands and beaded ankle bracelets—and some with faces painted like skeletons. It turns out that during May, four historic neighborhoods in San Miguel de Allende hold their annual celebrations. We were watching the celebration held on the fourth Sunday in May in Valle del Maiz. The elaborate fireworks that followed this party were a spectacular way to culminate the festivities—and our south-of-the-border vacation.

The Details


We used Airbnb for the two places we stayed—both within walking distance to town. Airbnb.com

Casa Picachos in Guanajuato
This spotless, two-bedroom, new-construction home has an interesting high, brick ceiling in the living room and a cute little kitchen. The patio has a view of the Bufa Mountain. Hostess with the mostest, Judith, even picked us up from the airport.

Casa Dharma Retreat in San Miguel
A hippy-style, two-bedroom artsy studio (pictured below) sits within a compound that feels as though it’s in the middle of a rain forest. It’s a dog-lover’s delight, too, as hostess Patricia has three pups that wander the compound.

EAT: San Miguel

Tío Lucas
If you get Caesar salad (it’s good), they usually make it at your table. The margaritas are also delish. We were there on a Saturday night when a Cuban jazz band was a great addition. Mesones 103, Centro, Zona Centro, (+52) 415-152-4996, facebook.com

Café Rama
This is an artist-owned space with art-filled walls and an eclectic menu that runs from breakfast (get a fresh “jugo verde”—pineapple, orange, parsley, spinach and ginger juice) through dinner (the flautas filled with mashed potato at dinner were a favorite). Nemesio Diez 7, Centro, (+52) 415-154-9655, caferamasanmiguel.com

La Sirena Gorda
Translated, the name means The Fat Mermaid and that translates to a seafood restaurant with a lot of framed pics of fat mermaids. We ended up there late—after 10 p.m. The owners were seated at the table in front of us, entertaining friends, so food was at its best (we had tuna towers and shared an artichoke) and the live band was non-stop fun. Privada Hernandez Macias 85, (+52) 415-152-5019, facebook.com

EAT: Guanajuato

Trattoria D’Elena in Hotel San Diego
Get a table on the second-floor balcony so you can watch the ongoing hullabaloo on the street below. The place overlooks the Jardin del Union and the Teatro Juarez. Jdn. de la Unión 1, Zona Centro, (+52) 473-732-1300, latrattoriaguanajuato.com

Casa Valadez
There’s plenty from which to choose—either at breakfast, lunch, or dinner (try the bunelos for dessert). If you sit next to a window, a mime from a passing parade may delight you with his antics. Jdn. de la Unión 3, Zona Centro, (+52) 473-732-0311, casavaladez.com

EAT: Dolores Hidalgo

Carnitas Vicente
Even after a ton of ice cream, we still wanted lunch so our tour guide took us to this no-frills, authentic spot that’s great for carnivores but not so great for vegetarians. LG loved the handmade tortillas and fabulous salsas. I devoured the juicy, tender pork cooked for hours in a giant steel tub. Av Norte 65, Centro, (+52) 418-182-7017

mexico travel4 Ways to Mexico

Watch for the full four-part series on Mexico travel as we explore design, history, food and art in Los Cabos, Guanajuato, Valle de Guadalupe and Oaxaca.

Categories: Design Destination: Mexico