The Essential Guide To Guanajuato: Mexico's Best Kept Secret

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The Essential Guide To Guanajuato Mexico.

23 February 2024

Things To Do In Guanajuato: The Essential Guide

Feb 23, 2024 | Mexico | 1 comment

As we’ve repeatedly told anyone who’ll listen, we LOVE Guanajuato. For its authenticity, its food, and for its unabashed energy.

As one of Mexico’s most historically important cities – not to mention one of the most colourful – we reckon you’re going to love it, too.

Situated just four hours or so northwest of Mexico City, it’s the capital of Guanajuato state. Most international visitors to the state head to the dazzling San Miguel de Allende, 90 minutes away by road. Only a tiny percentage find their way to Guanajuato city.

To compare the two, if San Miguel de Allende is the state’s immaculate Disneyland version of a traditional Mexican heritage town, Guanajuato is its grungier half-sister, complete with crumbling buildings, lung-busting hillside alleyways and a complete lack of self-awareness.

As such, it takes a little while to draw you in. But, after two months living in an apartment overlooking the centre of town we got to know it pretty well. We’d go as far as to say it felt like home.

So, in this essential guide, we’ll feature the best things to do in Guanajuato and how to get the most out of your stay.

Table of Contents

Click on the link to go straight there…

Things to do in Guanajuato

About Guanajuato

The Guanajuato tunnels

The museums

  • Museo de las Momias
  • Alhondiga de Granaditas

The funicular to El Pipila Monument

A self-guided walking tour

Hiking the surrounding hillsides

  • Cerro de la Bufa
  • Cerro de la Sirena

The food scene

Guanajuato nightlife

  • El Pipila at night
  • The callejoneadas
  • Mariachis & other street performers
  • Bars
  • Traditional cantinas

How to get there

When to go

Final thoughts

Map

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About Guanajuato

To truly appreciate the place, it would make sense to get a basic understanding of the history of Guanajuato, and its place within Mexico’s heritage, before visiting.

It was founded in 1559 on the back of the surrounding gold and silver-rich hillsides. Indeed, until the 19th century, its Valenciana mine produced 30% of the world’s silver. But, when the King of Spain decided that he’d very much like to increase his share of the mineral riches, the colonial barons weren’t happy. And neither were the miners, whose allegiance to the Jesuits was tested by a royal decree in 1767 expelling them from the colonies.

All of which led to the Mexican War of Independence in 1810, beginning in nearby Delores and escalating in Guanajuato as the rebels (led by Miguel Hidalgo) achieved their first victory. And it made a folk hero out of a certain Juan Jose de los Reyes Martinez Amaro (aka “El Pipila”), who heroically paved the way for the rebels to storm the Alhondiga de Granaditas (a large, grain warehouse), where the Spanish were holding out (along with their booty of silver). They even built a sandstone statue in his honour on one of the hillsides.

After independence was achieved in 1821, the city’s wealth continued to grow, resulting in many of the grand buildings that still exist today. Together, the silver mines and historic centre were recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1988.

Nowadays, domestic tourists visit in large numbers, eager to get their photograph taken in front of El Pipila’s statue. Their numbers are matched by a youthful university population, whose students gave rise to Guanajuato’s unique callejoneadas – troupes of fancily dressed wandering minstrels who play music, sing and tell stories as they lead cheering groups of tourists through the narrow, steep streets of the historic centre.

Indeed, it’s this quirkiness that sets the place apart from other Mexican destinations.

 A view from above of a town with colourful buildings

Check out the Guanajuato tunnels

Another quirk of Guanajuato is its patchwork of subterranean tunnels that are used by drivers and pedestrians alike.

Originally introduced in the early 19th century to divert the Rio Guanajuato, which regularly flooded the streets during the wet season, they became less important after a dam was built further upriver, stemming the flow of water. Instead, they were converted into road tunnels to ease the flow of traffic through the historic centre. Including many of the bus routes.

All of which makes reading a map of Guanajuato something of a challenge, as the subterranean tunnels crisscross the ground-level streets and plazas of the city.

You’ll find plenty of pedestrian access points to the tunnels. And we did use a couple of them to get from A to B without having to negotiate our way through hillside communities. But you wouldn’t want to spend too much time down there as the fumes from the cars, buses and lorries (not to mention the noise) are not pleasant.

Nevertheless, they’re a fascinating part of Guanajuato’s history and are worth at least a cursory visit on foot. We’d suggest taking the pedestrian access points in front of Mercado Hidalgo and Jardin de la Union.

A cobbled road leads out of a stone tunnel
A staircase leads out of a stone tunnel
A red car in the distance is driven out of a stone tunnel

Visit the museums

There are plenty of museums in Guanajuato, ranging from the historically significant to the most ghoulish we’ve ever seen.

For instance, if you’d like to learn more about the city’s mining history, there’s a museum at La Valenciana mine, 6 km from the centre of the city. With its entrance restored to its 17th century former glory, visitors can drop 60 metres inside a mineshaft, along with an ex-miner guide (Spanish-speaking only). Amazingly, the mine continues to be exploited today at a depth of over 500 metres.

Elsewhere, the Museo del Puebla de Guanajuato features art displays celebrating the history of the city. And Museo Casa Diego Rivera is the famous artist’s childhood home.

Iconografico del Quijote is a museum housing the world’s largest collection of Don Quixote-related art and memorobilia. Which might seem a little random. But the collection was donated by an exiled Spanish intellectual with a fixation for the author, Miguel de Cervantes. Something that Guanajuato has embraced fully by holding the annual world-renowned International Cervantino Festival.

Meanwhile, the Alhondiga de Granaditas is the actual building that El Pipila and his rebel comrades stormed at the outset of the War of Independence. It too is now a museum and includes some stunning murals by Jose Chevez Morado.

For more information on these museums, head to our walking tour of Guanajuato article.

Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato (Museum of the Mummies)

OK, buckle up, because this museum is not for the faint-hearted. In fact, you might decide that it’s not for you at all.

Essentially it’s home to remarkably preserved human corpses (many dating back to the 19th century) that were naturally mummified in the dryness and warmth of the mineral-rich soil. They were first discovered in 1865 when gravediggers excavated the tombs belonging to families who had not paid the requisite annual “burial tax”. And, quick to see a business opportunity, they started charging curious visitors a fee to see the corpses, still in their burial clothing, propped up in a kind of ghoulish identity parade.

Nowadays, it’s a major attraction for domestic tourists who willingly queue for hours to see them. Which is in itself a reflection of how Mexicans view death and the afterlife – it’s a reason to celebrate as well as mourn. We experienced those beliefs during the Dias de los Muertos (Days of the Dead) celebrations in Oaxaca and found it quite uplifting.

But we’ll still admit to feeling a bit uneasy as we wandered past the grisly, contorted figures – some of whom appeared to be frozen in their final throes of agony. Most upsetting was the sight of a row of infant corpses in boxes. And even a six month old foetus with its mother.

If you can look past the fact that many non-Mexicans would consider it a bizarre freak show, it’s still a jaw-dropping experience, nonetheless.

Although, subtle it isn’t.

Disclaimer: We DID say Guanajuato is quirky!

The skull of a skeleton in black and white
The skull of a skeleton in black and white
The skull of a skeleton in monochrome
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Take the funicular up to the Pipila Monument

Pretty much everyone who visits Guanajuato will head to this iconic monument at some point. And not just because of its historical significance. It also happens to come with a magnificent panoramic view of the city below.

Be prepared for school parties and tour groups to join you up there, unless you go before 9 am.

It’s possible to walk up to the monument via a number of steep alleyways. But most people take the funicular (located behind Teatro Juarez) instead. And you can always walk back down afterwards.

Full details in our El Pipila article.

Take yourself on a self-guided walking tour

And, if you choose to take the funicular you can save your energy for a walking tour of Guanajuato. Of course, you could sign up for one of the tip-based or premium walking tours. But we found it such a great place to simply wander around and randomly head up into the cobbled alleyways that stretch out above the historic centre.

However, we’ve put together our own self-guided walking tour, which starts and ends at Plaza Allende, taking in all the main places of interest. Including Guanajuato’s central plazas of Jardin de la Union and Plaza de la Paz.

We can honestly say we never tired of walking the same route as there’s so much daily life going on that it doesn’t feel repetitive.

 A yellow church with a red dome on a town square
Plaza de la Paz

And keep an eye out for some of the fantastic street art dotted around the city. Particularly the murals on the junction between Temescuitate and Sto. Niño, the wall opposite the Vamos con Lalo restaurant, and the Aztec mural on the staircase just off Pochote (en route to El Pipila).

We spotted this interesting piece on another route to El Pipila. Although we’ve absolutely no idea what it’s supposed to represent.

A painting of a cockerel inside a heart-shaped hole in a brick wall

Hike in the surrounding hillsides

Once you’ve walked your legs off around around the city, you might also want to consider exploring the hillsides.

Hiking in Guanajuato can be strenuous. And not just because of the steepness of the terrain. At an elevation of 2,045 metres (6,700 feet), it can take a little time to acclimatise. But climbing an additional 300 metres to one of the surrounding peaks is something else.

However, the are two hikes in particular that are worth doing. Both offer spectacular views of the city and the surrounding mountains. And they can both be done without the need for a guide. Just plan to do them in the morning to avoid exposure to the hottest part of the day.

Cerro de la Bufa

The most famous is the route to the crags and crazy rock formations of Cerro de la Bufa. The trail is a well-worn one and starts beside the ISSSTE Clinic Hospital car park. Although, there are several deviations to the route along the way.

Once at the top, there’s a plateau to explore and various areas to take a seat, drink some water and admire the astonishing view.

 A large rock formation

Bizarre rock formations on Cerro de la Bufa

 A slim, white statue looks out over a valley from a cliff edge

A Madonna-like statue overlooks Guanajuato, wth Cerro de la Sirena opposite

Cerro de la Sirena

As an alternative, Cerro de la Sirena is easier to access as the trail leads directly from the centre of town. We’d also say that it offers the better view.

In fact, Ian liked it so much that it became something of a morning ritual – usually ending with breakfast at one of the eateries around Plazuela Baratillo.

 Looking down on Guanajuato with my boots in the foreground

Another view of Guanajuato, this time from Cerro de la Sirena

Explore the food scene

Guanajuato isn’t a fine dining destination. But, for authentic and delicious Mexican street and comfort food there’s a bountiful supply. Indeed, our most memorable dishes were from simple food stalls and unpretentious restaurants that don’t cater specifically to tourists.

Local dishes include the mighty Guacamaya – lashings of roasted pork, crispy chicharon (pork rind), salsa and sliced avocado stuffed inside a bread roll.  And Enchiladas Mineras – a variation on traditional enchiladas, modified to satisfy the hunger of Guanajuato’s silver miners.

Look out for dishes that include “alternative” ingredients, too. Like huitlacoche, for example. It’s a fungus that grows on corn and is something of a speciality in these parts. Meanwhile, Xocola-T is a chocolatier on Plazuela del Baratillo that boasts ground chapulines (grasshoppers) and gusanos (caterpillars) on its list of fillings.

For our recommendations on the best breakfasts, tacos and other street food in Guanajuato, head over to our article taking a deeper dive into Guanajuato’s food scene.

A bread roll filled with meat, salsa and avocado

Lucnh fit for a King – Guacamaya

Experience the unique Guanajuato nightlife

Guanajuato nightlife is noisy. But in a good way.

Don’t expect wall-to-wall bars pumping out dance tunes or rock music. Although there are some of those around. Rather the downtown ambience is one that embraces live music, exciteable audiences, overworked food vendors and a general hubbub of families having a good time.

It’s when the city really comes alive and you realise why so many domestic tourists descend on the place throughout the year.

El Pipila at night

Make sure you find time to take another funicular ride upto El Pipila Monument around sunset to see Guanajuato at its best. As the sun descends behind you, the hillside opposite is bathed in a sumptuous golden glow.

And, as darkness approaches, the city’s patchwork of colourful buildings are illuminated by thousands of lights, culminating in the beautifully lit buildings and monuments around Jardin de la Uniun and Plaza de la Paz. From the viewing platform it’s a wonderful sight.

And, from that vantage point, you’ll undoubtedly hear the shouting, whooping and laughter that begins to fill the streets below around this time. That’ll be the callejoneadas – Guanajuato’s famous wandering minstrels.

 Looking down on Guanajuato lit up at night

Plaza de la Paz and Jardin de Union at night

The Callejoneadas

Also known in Guanajuato as estudiantinas, these troupes of singers, dancers and all-round entertainers were originally the domain of the city’s students. Attracting crowds of people with their traditional costumes, they’d set off into the alleyways, streets and plazas, playing their instruments and stopping to tell jokes and stories.

Nowadays it’s more of a commercial affair. The callejoneadas spend the late afternoon around Jardin de la Union selling tickets for their roaming shows (100 MXN / £4 when we were there). And then, when they have enough people, off they all go for an hour and a half of bawdy Mexican fun.

Suffice to say, everything is in Spanish, so it might be hard to follow if you don’t have a sufficient grasp of the language. But it’s difficult not to get wrapped up in the whole joyousness of the thing. Of course, you could always just tag along at a safe distance and not buy a ticket. Not surprisingly, this is frowned upon and you’re likely to be asked to pay anyway.

A group of people being entertained in a passageway

A group of callejoneadas and their audience head up an alleyway

A road is blocked by a group of musicians and its audience

Even the traffic has to stop if the music is underway

A statue of a man playing a guitar-like instrument

A tribute to the artform in Jardin de la Union

Mariachis & other street performers

If the thought of several groups of callejoneadas competing with each other sounds like audible chaos, try and factor in another group of live musicians thrashing out tunes to anyone who’ll listen in Jardin de la Union.

We witnessed a mariachi band, dressed in white, performing around the central bandstand. At the same time, a nearby group of cowboys with electric guitars, trumpets and a mobile drum kit played their hearts out to a restaurant packed with largely uninterested diners. And, all around, further musicians and mariachis readied themselves for their moment in the spotlight as if they were competing in some kind of outdoor Mexican talent contest.

It might sound chaotic. And it really is. But it never failed to put a smile on our faces as we wandered amongst it.

A man with a guitar stands facing another man on a bench

Tuning up in Jardin de la Union

Bars

However, if you want to get away from the ongoing cacophony, you’ll find plenty of bars along our self-guided walking route.

Our favourites include Black Mamba 61, a tiny bar where they whip up amazing craft cocktails at very reasonable prices. You can pair them with tapas, too.

Los Lobos is a grungy multi-roomed bar with classic rock playing in the front and 80s synth-pop at the back. Not much to shout about in terms of the quality of drinks but we enjoyed the atmosphere and music as a change from the normal Mexican fayre.

Pulques “El Guiso” is a narrow bar with street art decor that specialises in pulque – an alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant. No, we didn’t fancy it, either. But their craft beers were good.

As were those from the huge selection at The Beer Company Guanajuato. It’s basically a bottle shop with an upstairs drinking area and rooftop terrace. You simply select your bottle or can from the shelving and they’ll bring a cold one to you. Great if you don’t mind paying more for a craft beer rather than the usual Mexican staples.

If you prefer your bars to be intimate and old school, head to La Clave Azul, with its gorgeous, classic interior and free tapas with every drink between 2 and 5:30 pm, Tuesday to Friday.

Traditional cantinas

Of course, if you want to experience Mexican hospitality at its most basic, a visit to a traditional cantina is a must. Typically, they’re tiny, no-frills drinking bars behind stable doors. And traditionally, they’re male-only venues. But those rules are a lot more relaxed nowadays. And Guanajuato has a few worth discovering.

Los Barillitos, near to Mercado Hidalgo, only has three or four tables with chairs to sit on. But it does have the additional “water feature” of an open urinal in the corner. Not that it bothered us too much as the inquisitive clientele kept us fully occupied.

Similarly, in Cantina La Cubana we found it difficult to buy our own beers as they just kept on coming, courtesy of a group of four at the bar.

Our favourite cantina, however, was La Selva in the Pastita neighbourhood. Perhaps slightly more upmarket than the others in town, but with English-speaking staff and live music, it was worth the extra walk from the centre.

How to get there

The nearest airport is Del Bajio International Airport (BJX), located near the town of Silao, some 30 km away. There are international flights to the airport from the United States. However, there is no public transportation from there to the centre of Guanajuato so the only option is to hire a car (not recommended – driving around the city is a nightmare) or take a taxi.

To be honest, most visitors arrive by bus, either from Mexico City, Guadalajara or San Miguel de Allende.

The bus from Mexico City to Guanajuato takes roughly five hours and departs 10 times per day from the northern bus station (Autobuses del Norte). The two main companies are Primera Plus and ETN, which operate very comfortable luxury buses. We prefer ETN because of their extra levels of comfort. You can buy your tickets at the bus station but we always prefer to book ours online in advance. Especially to book tickets nowhere near the toilet at the back of the bus!

The bus station in Guanajuato (Central de Autobuses de Guanajuato) is outside the centre, simply because the large inter-city buses can’t negotiate their way through the city’s notorious tunnels. Local buses pick up right outside the airport to take you into the centre. Or you can simply hire a taxi.

The bus from San Miguel de Allende to Guanajuato (Primera Plus and ETN) takes roughly an hour and a half. Although we found it convenient to travel between the two using the carpool app, BlaBlaCar.

The route from San Miguel continues to Guadalajara, which is another four hours away.

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When to go

The first thing to consider is that, at over 2,000 metres, the city is at a relatively high altitude. So evening temperatures can drop no matter what time of the year you go – but especally during the winter months.

In all honesty, determining the best time to visit Guanajuato is subjective as the climate is pretty stable all year round. However, to distinguish between the “dry” and “wet” seasons, October to March is the driest period, which coincides with the largest crowds and the highest accommodation prices.

April/May and September/October are the shoulder seasons, where putting up with an increase in rainfall is balanced by less crowds.

The main two festivals take place in July (Guanajuato International Film Festival) and October (International Cervantino Festival).

 An alleyway with an arched ceiling
De la Arcos – near Jardin de la Union
 A street with decorative lanterns hanging across it
Del Truco – near Plaza de la Paz

Final thoughts on things to do in Guanajuato

Without doubt, Guanajuato is our favourite city in Mexico. Having spent two months there – including over Christmas and New Year – we’re excited about going back. After all, there’s still so much for us to see and do. Not least to experience at least one of the festivals, re-aquaint ourselves with the fabulous street food and stumble across some more ridiculously steep alleyways.

We’d suggest you try to allow at least two nights (but preferably three or four) to fully appreciate the city’s many charms. And, because the bus services in the region are so good, we’d recommend combining your visit with Guadalajara to the west, San Miguel de Allende to the east and Morelia / Patzcuaro to the south.

Iconografico del Quijote Museum

El Pipila Monument

Jardin de la Union

Plaza de la Paz

Mercado Hidalgo

Museo Alhondiga de Granaditas

Museo Casa Diego Rivera

Museo del Puebla de Guanajuato

Plazuela del Baratillo

La Valenciana mine

Museo de la Momias

Funicular station

Cerro de la Bufa

Cerro de la Sirena

Black Mamba 61

Los Lobos

Pulques "El Guiso"

The Beer Company Guanajuato

La Clave Azul

Cantina Los Barilitos

Cantina La Selva

FAQs

How far is Guanajuato from Mexico City?

Roughly 370 km (230 miles). How long it takes to travel depends a lot on Mexico’s horrendous traffic. But by far the best way to travel from Mexico City to Guanajuato (and vice versa) is by luxury bus – which will take anything between four and six hours.

How do I get from Guanajuato to San Miguel de Allende?

Luxury buses run between Guadalajara and San Miguel de Allende several times per day, calling in at Guanajuato’s out-of-town bus terminal. Local buses ply the route, too for a cheaper price. Or you can use the BlaBlaCars carpool app.

Guanajuato v San Miguel de Allende - which do I choose?

They are very different places to visit so it depends on what your expectations are.

San Miguel is upmarket, super-clean and caters for more well-heeled Mexicans and North American expats – with prices to match. Guanajuato is much more rustic and caters largely for domestic tourists.

Our advice would be…don’t make a choice, go and see both!

Is Guanajuato safe?

Guanajuato state has its cartel problems, but the city of Guanajuato is relatively safe (as is San Miguel de Allende). The usual caveats apply, such as being aware of your surroundings and not wandering off into quiet, dimly lit streets at night. But we can honestly say that we didn’t see a sniff of trouble – nor did we feel uncomfortable at any point – during our two-month stay. And we walked EVERYWHERE.

What did you think?  Do you have any recommendations of your own on things to do in Guanajuato? Or perhaps you’re planning to visit in the near future? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
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With so many things to do in Guanajuato you might stay longer than expected. So here's our essential guide on how to get the most from your visit
With so many things to do in Guanajuato you might stay longer than expected. So here's our essential guide on how to get the most from your visit

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Ian and Nicky New Zealand

Hi, we're Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we'd like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.

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