Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende – A Pair of Colonial Treasures

Mexico is, and always will be, defined by its beach cities. But there is much, much more to Mexico than sand and sea. There is a rich history melded together by the Spanish conquerors and the indigenous peoples… and you won’t find it at the beach. You need to step inside Mexico to really begin to discover and appreciate the soul of the country. It’s here in Mexico’s gorgeous colonial cities that you’ll find the very heart of this magnificent culture.Central Mexico is filled with colonial treasures, and two of the most alluring are the cities of Guanajuato (gwah-na-whah-toh) and San Miguel de Allende. Looking on a map, you’ll find them northwest of Mexico City and just southeast of the city of Leon. If your gateway is Leon, you’ll be an hour from Guanajuato, and if you leave from Mexico City, you’ll have a very pleasant four-hour deluxe bus ride to either city. The cities, though only an hour apart, offer completely different opportunities for travelers. Each is unique with its own personality, charm and style.

I had always heard a lot about San Miguel de Allende. This wonderfully eclectic and mesmerizing city has one of the largest populations of Americans living in Mexico. It has the unique ability to maintain all of its historic grandeur while thriving as a cosmopolitan art community. In 1951, the founding of the Instituto Allende, dedicated to the study of all forms of art (and considered the largest school of fine arts in Latin America for English-speaking students), established San Miguel as a city devoted to creativity.

Local musicians pepper San Miguel’s shady town square in the shadow of the brilliant La Parroquia church. A European postcard inspired its builder, bringing to life Mexico’s version of a gothic cathedral. The narrow cobblestone streets keep things intimate while the galleries and shops are bustling with Americans interested in original works and regional handicrafts. Most everything is within walking distance and a self directed walking tour takes you past countless cozy restaurants, fantastic inns and small hotels. (Check out the Casa de Sierra Nevada, it’s one of Mexico’s finest small luxury properties with an absolutely astounding gourmet restaurant.) If you’re just beginning to explore Mexico’s colonial cities, this is a good place to start. Safe, popular, and filled with plenty of Americans and English speakers, you’ll adore San Miguel.

Guanajuato, on the other hand, is purely Mexican. You won’t find many Americans here, but you’ll be glad you came. This town is so magical that it’s difficult to describe in words. I personally feel it’s one of the most amazing cities in all of Mexico. It has mysticism and charm only rivaled by the small Italian villages in Tuscany or the Andalusian cities in southern Spain. Founded in 1557 as a silver mining town, Guanajuato is built over a maze of unusual subterranean street systems. Once used as control channels for floodwaters, the roads twist and turn through stone arched tunnels that bring you to the surface in various locations throughout the city. Above ground, you’ll find one of the most picturesque and colorful displays of architecture anywhere in the world. Splashes of bright greens, blues and yellows give the perfectly preserved buildings a storybook quality. A labyrinth of tiny streets, alleyways and steep stairwells cover the hillsides. This feels much more like a medieval village than a colonial city. If you’re into photography, you’ll be in heaven!

At the city center is the Jardin de Union. Cafes, shops, colonial buildings, and the Teatro Juarez encircle this pristine V-shaped plaza. (Constructed from 1873-1903, the Juarez Theater is a beautiful combination of Doric, French and Moorish architecture.) Also a very safe city, exploring on foot is the best way to appreciate the multitude of sites. First time visitors may want to hire a guide as some of Guanajuato’s treasures may be rather complicated to find within the city’s layout. From churches to fortresses and museums to national monuments, Guanajuato is a real gem. Mexico’s colonial cities are worth a visit. So why not add to your next beach vacation and discover some culture?