Spanish Colonial Mexico
Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende are jewel-box cities with a wealth of culture and centuries-old European architecture.
By Irene Lacher 06/02/2014
Here’s my idea of a travel nightmare —
flying hours and hours only to land in a place that resembles Los Angeles, cluttered with the same chain clothing stores and fast-food joints I left behind. so imaginemy surprise when I disembarked from a flight of less than three hours to find cities with stunning European-style architecture and cobblestone streets from centuries past, where I didn’t see an American business — or an obvious American, for that matter — for three days.
I’m talking about central Mexico, not one of the beachy destinations most Americans associate with our neighbor to the south, but a couple of remarkable inland cities — Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende. San Miguel de Allende is the better known of the two because of its history as a haven for American retirees, Spanish-language students and artists, who appreciated its Baroque and Neoclassical buildings and art schools, like the Escuela de Bellas Artes in former cloisters. Less famous here is the much larger Guanajuato, which has enough spectacular churches and cathedrals from the 16th century on to satisfy any rabid aficionado of historic preservation. And both cities consistently make the list of Mexico’s safest destinations.
Guanajuato and San Miguel’s architectural treasures were mostly built at the height of Spanish colonialism, earning them both UNESCO World Heritage Site status in recognition of their special cultural significance, bolstering forces for preservation. In 1540, the Spanish found gold deposits in Guanajuato — “hilly place of frogs” in an indigenous language — which caused the population to mushroom. Spanish soldiers, Creole adventurers and native laborers arrived and discovered even more precious metals. A century later, Guanajuato was a world capital of silver production, and by the 18th century, the Valenciana mine on the city’s northern border was yielding two-thirds of the world’s silver output. The city’s wealth spurred construction of mansions, churches and plazas, many of them still preserved to varying degrees, a fact not lost on its many Mexican tourists. From the hilltop dedicated to local hero El Pípila, the pink or green sandstone structures combine with multi-hued adobe buildings below to form a crazy quilt of color. As beautiful cities often do, Guanajuato, birthplace of artist Diego Rivera, has attracted art and music riches as well. (Museo Casa Diego Rivera, his childhood home and art museum, is a must.) And history buffs will find plenty to savor here and in San Miguel, where rebels fomented two wars of rebellion — the Mexican War of Independence (1810–1821) and the Mexican Revolution a century later.
The closest airport is Del Bajio International Airport (BJX), also known as Guanajuato International Airport, in Silao, an industrial hub that produces leather goods and GM trucks (although the airport is identified with the nearby city of León). United and Delta have several flights a day from LAX to BJX, but they only have one daily nonstop in either direction — and I strongly advise you to book it, because the other flights can easily take twice as long. Thanks to the Mexico Tourism Board Los Angeles, we were able to take a United red-eye landing around 6:30 a.m., but the experience was unexpectedly painless, because our hotel let us check in as soon as we arrived.
We stayed at Villa Maria Cristina, a lovely Relais & Chateaux hotel near state offices in Guanajuato’s quieter east side. (Guanajuato city is the capital of the Free and Sovereign State of Guanajuato; some of the best-tended colonial buildings house government offices.) The classical French property has been in the same family’s hands since it was built as a residence in 1800, and period details like elaborate molding, beautiful Mexican tile and heavy wooden shutters are lovingly restored. It opened as an elegant 13-room hotel eight years ago and is in the midst of expansion onto two adjacent properties. (You might want to wait until construction is finished around the end of summer, when the villa will have a total of 36 suites, a second restaurant and bar, a children’s pool and play area, a movie theater and more.) The hotel is proud of its Institut Paul Bocuse–trained chef, Mauricio Navarro Spamer, who serves seasonal fusion cuisine. And we were particularly impressed by the cheery and helpful concierge, Cecilia Munoz, who resolved what could have been a big problem when my companion left behind his medication — she hand-delivered it to our San Miguel hotel the next day.
Bring along good walking shoes, because you really don’t want to drive in either city and cabs are plentiful and cheap. (And not one driver tried to overcharge us. Taxis don’t have meters, so you agree on the price — which you can research in advance — before you get in.) Mile-high Guanajuato is carved out of a narrow valley and the streets are narrow and extremely hilly, as its name promises. (And the hills don’t stop at doorsteps. Building floors typically have numerous levels, linked by stairs. Mexicans may have recently surpassed Americans in obesity, but not the people we saw.) And forget about a grid. Cars and people constantly weave through curvy streets and numerous underground tunnels built in the last century.
People of all ages stroll the streets and plazas well into the evening. Pull up a chair at one of the outdoor cafés circling the lively El Jardin Union, and sip margaritas as the parade passes. Bands of costumed musicians visit each restaurant, but we were most intrigued by the musicians in front of the baroque Iglesia de San Diego, drawing a crowd for a callejoneada — a roving party of 10 musical University of Guanajuato students, known as estudiantinas, and the occasional game tourist. Next door to the church is the opulent Teatro Juárez, a blend of Moorish, Roman and Greek styles, crowned with bronze statues of eight of the nine Greek muses (the story is one didn’t fit).
One of Guanajuato’s most famous attractions is El Museo de las Momias (the Mummies Museum), a collection of 108 naturally mummified bodies of 19th-century cholera victims who were disinterred when their relatives failed to pay the tax to keep them buried. That ended in 1958, when disinterring was banned. The popular museum has inspired such artists as Werner Herzog and Ray Bradbury, but I just found it strange and sad.
I much preferred exploring landmarks like the lavish 18th-century Church of San Cayetano de la Valenciana, built with the wealth produced by the Valenciana silver mine steps away. The extensively gold-leafed walls and altars look well maintained, perhaps subsidized by donations requested near the exit. And while the mine is still in operation after lo these many years, only the now-shuttered original entrance from 1558 is open for tours.
We’d been told not to expect English to get us very far in Guanajuato, but we were assured that it was more widely spoken in San Miguel, where as much as 20 percent of the population is reportedly expats. Not only did we not find San Miguel to be “a Mexican Disneyland,” as a reluctant tourist wrote on a Tripadvisor forum — a lot of people we met spoke only Spanish, although they were polite and patient with our attempts at linguistic charades.
The much smaller San Miguel (pop. 80,000), 1¼ hours away by bus or car, was once a stop along the silver route from Guanajuato. It’s a truly lovely place with adobe buildings freshly painted ochre and brick-red and cobblestone streets meant for exploring. We stayed at the upscale Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada, a cluster of six converted residences from the 16th to the 18th centuries, with lushly landscaped courtyards for a heart. The building housing the lobby and Andanza Restaurant, embellished with Mexican antiques and elaborate wood-beam ceilings, was built in 1590. As for the other buildings, who knows? A hotel employee said it would cost 30,000 to 40,000 pesos ($2,300 to $3,100) to exhume their history from government archives. “In Mexico,” she said, “money talks.” (If so, it must be the lingua franca of human history.) The hotel also operates the Sazón cooking school in an 18th-century mansion, where you can drop in or design your visit around classes in healthy Mexican or regional cuisines or take a guided market tour. (And while you’re there, pop next door to the Mercado de Artesanias [Artisans’ Market], where bargaining is accepted and you can get good prices on Mexican pottery, folk art and clothing.)
The main plaza in San Miguel is El Jardin, abutting the pink-sandstone Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, which is beautifully lit up at night, and the fascinating Casa de Allende Museum, the former home of the ill-fated Mexican revolutionary Ignacio Allende, after whom the city is named. But when evening comes, look upward. San Miguel bustles with rooftop bars with stunning night views of the cityscape. A lot of the action takes place near the Jardin, but we stumbled upon a quieter bar with a spectacular view, a shimmering pool and a great bartender (ask for Rafael) — the Sky Lounge atop the boutique Hotel Nena.
Not surprisingly, this is also a fine town for dining on cuisines that range from Mexican, natch, to Japanese and Italian (although the pizza and pasta, while yummy, somehow tasted Mexican too). But one of our tastiest experiences was our visit to De Temporada, a 10-minute cab ride from town. De Temporada (which means “seasonal”) has a slightly different take on farm-to-table cuisine — this is a table-to-farm restaurant, a funky colorful hut on the organic family farm of Iliana Lanuza, who studied food sociology and earned a master’s degree in food politics in London. Her menu is small but always seasonal. After wolfing down her perfectly crisped pork belly, rich gnocchi and just-dug salad and green beans, we dove into her homemade ice cream. I went for the maple-ginger, and I must say her ice cream is the best I’ve ever had. Ilianadoesn’t have an alcohol license, so BYOB if you’re so inclined, for a small corking fee. Then spend the afternoon gazing off into the fields and give your feet a rest — let your mind do the wandering.
IF YOU GO…
Getting Around: Once you’re in Guanajuato or San Miguel, taxis are plentiful and cheap. But strangely, cabs are the only public transportation that goes directly from the León airport to Guanajuato — and the tab can be quite steep. I wouldn’t advise making the same mistake I did when I had the hotel arrange the airport pick-up in advance. The half-hour trip ended up costing 800 pesos ($62), twice the price of hailing a taxi at the airport and enough to make New York cabs seem like a bargain. You can take a taxi from Guanajuato to San Miguel for the 1¼-hour trip, but I opted for one of Mexico’s luxurious intercity buses — Primera Plus and ETN offer snacks, drinks and Spanish-language movies — for around $8.50 per person. And shuttle transportation (which turned out to be a car just for us) from San Miguel back to airport — about 1½ hours — cost $58 for two with BajioGo (bajiogo.com).
If you’re calling Mexican hotels from the U.S., add the country prefix of 52. And be sure to ask them about deals and packages.
Where to Sleep
Villa Maria Cristina (named after the owner’s mother) is a sophisticated boutique hotel designed to recreate the aristocratic Mexican lifestyle, with 13 spacious rooms and suites, featuring high ceilings, hardwood floors, dark wood accents, Mexican folk art and antiques and classical French furniture from Roche Bobois. Amenities include an upscale restaurant serving Mexican and international cuisine, a spa with a Roman-style sunken pool, a business center and more. Rates range from 3,770 to 9,750 pesos ($291 to $754).
Paseo de la Presa de la Olla No. 76, (866) 424-6868 from the U.S., villamariacristina.net
Hotel Boutique 1850 is located in the heart of the action, mere steps from the Jardín de la Unión. This contemporary-style hotel has 20 rooms and suites, which Tripadvisor reviewers recommend selecting in advance (check out the hotel website). Pampering amenities include Spa 1850, Casa Valadez restaurant, the rooftop One Bar and a pillow menu. Rates, which include an American breakfast, range from $145 to $250.
Jardín de la Unión 7, Centro Histórico, (473) 732-2795, hotel1850.com
Funkier hotels that intrigue include the well-located El Mesón de los Poetas (The Inn of the Poets), a restored 18th-century residence with 31 rooms, each dedicated to a different poet (mesondelospoetas.com); Hotel Balcón del Cielo at the top of the funicular may have the best views in town (travelbymexico.com/guan/balcondelcielo/index2.php); and Castillo Santa Cecilia could be great fun for visitors who dream of sleeping in a medieval castle — it was actually a mining hacienda in the 17th century, remodeled as a castle-hotel in 1951 (castillosantacecilia.com.mx/).
Where to Eat
Mexico Lindo y Sabroso is a great place for authentic, affordable and fresh Mexican food with charming indoor and outdoor seating in a courtyard and on a terrace overlooking a park.
Paseo de la Presa 154, (473) 731-0529
Los Campos Restaurante, ranked Guanajuato’s No. 1 eatery by Tripadvisor reviewers, is a cozy space off Plaza Baratillo owned by recovering Canadian Michael Dunlop and his Mexican wife, Rocio, who serve a creative, constantly changing menu of rustic Mediterranean cuisine with a Mexican accent.
#4a Calle de la Alameda, Plaza Baratillo, Centro Historico, loscampos.mx
Where to Shop
La Casa del Quijote carries a variety of artisan-made items, from colorful textiles and pottery to distinctive clothing and, yes, silver jewelry.
Sopena 17, Zona Centro, (473) 732-8226, lacasadelquijote.com
Xocola-T is an upscale shop selling one of Guanajuato’s specialties — candy. The tiny boutique offers a surprisingly wide variety of chocolates freshly made onsite with Mexican cacao from Tabasco and Chiapas.
Baratillo 15, find it on Facebook.
SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE
Where to Sleep
Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada is a luxury hotel with an unbeatable location, close to the busy city center but far enough away to get some sleep. Behind the traditional wooden doors fronting its six elegantly restored buildings are canopy beds, beautifully landscaped gardens, a spacious pool surrounded by stone arches, a sculpture garden, Andanza Restaurant, the Laja Spa and Sazón cooking school. Naturally, it made Condé Nast Traveler’s readers’ list of the world’s best hotels in 2008 and 2013. Nightly rates range from $320 to $705 for the Presidential Suite.
Hospicio 35, (415) 152-7040, casadesierranevada.com
Rosewood San Miguel de Allende may look like it’s been there forever, but the sprawling pink hotel, recently built in the traditional style, opened in 2011 with 67 rooms, all with a balcony or terrace. The 13-acre property includes tiered pools, five restaurants and bars, arts and cooking classes, children’s activities and menus and more. Nightly rates start at $300.
Nemesio Diez 11, Colonia Centro, (888) 767-3966, rosewoodhotels.com/en/
Casa Shuck Bed & Breakfast started out as a private 18th-century villa and morphed into an intimate inn with 10 spacious rooms, great views, gardens highlighted by an ancient jacaranda and highly reviewed service. Check out the distinctive La Biblioteca Suite, which has a mini-library and two French doors opening onto a stone terrace. Contact the hotel for rates.
Garita No. 3, Centro, (415) 152-6618, casashuck.com
Where to Sip
You can’t go wrong with any rooftop bar here, but I vote for the Sky Lounge atop the boutiquey Hotel Nena, which is quiet, romantic and has unobstructed city views — not to mention a great bartender named Rafael, who makes a mean margarita.
Nemesio Diez No.10, Centro, (415) 154-7129, hotelnena.com.mx
In a city that appreciates its past, La Sirena Gorda (The Fat Mermaid) gets extra points for being San Miguel’s oldest cantina. The main room is adorned with oil paintings of, well, fat mermaids. Try their famous ginger margaritas and upscale bar food, such as shrimp and bacon tacos.
Barranca 78, (415) 110-0007, find it on Facebook.
Where to Eat
For foodies, De Temporada is a must. It’s a funky colorful shack on an organic family farm 10 minutes from town by cab, which will cost 80 to 100 pesos ($6 to $7.75) each way. The proprietor, Iliana Lanuza, is a fascinating San Miguel native who studied food sociology in London and quotes M.F.K. Fisher on her website. But her super-fresh rustic menu is a sensual delight. Don’t miss her homemade ice cream, and check out the website first to avoid getting lost.
Rancho La Trinidad, Camino a San Miguel Viejo KM 8, (415) 151-0673, de-temporada.com
A short walk from the main square, La Parada is a sophisticated restaurant with a lovely outdoor courtyard serving better Peruvian food than I had in Peru a dozen years ago. Their ceviches are the most creative I’ve ever encountered; mine came with mango, toasted coconut, corn and leche de tigre (a Peruvian citrus-based marinade). Try one of their Peruvian pisco-based cocktails, and ask the waiter what’s good that evening.
Recreo #94, (415) 152-0473, laparadasma.com
We stumbled into La Crepe for Sunday brunch since it was across the street from our hotel, not expecting much, but we were happily surprised. It’s an intimate space, located in a leafy outdoor courtyard behind an art gallery and Agave Sotheby’s International Realty, with decent coffee and generous portions of chilaquiles and Mexican-style eggs. Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada’s Wi-fi works there, so if you’re staying at the hotel, you can read the morning paper on your phone.
Hospicio #37, Centro, (415) 154-9435, letseat.at/lacrepesanmiguel.com
Where to Shop
Sure, the Mercado de Artisanias (Artisans’ Market) a few blocks from the main square has schlocky souvenirs, but it also has beautiful Mexican pottery, textiles and folk art, including hand-carved wooden angels and punched-tin Christmas trees lit from inside, for far less than you’ll pay along the main tourist drags — and a tenth of what you’ll pay online. But come prepared to bargain.
Mixta is one of several boutiques here with carefully curated selections of clothing, jewelry, textiles, home décor, artwork, furniture and more by local designers. It’s not cheap — a colorful cotton shawl runs around $125 — but after perusing the sale table, I was able to snag an adorable cross-body leather bag painted with flowers and a Day of the Dead skull for $31.
Pila Seca #3, (415) 152-7343, mixtasanmiguel.com
With more than 120 art galleries, you could spend your entire visit exploring the work of Mexican artists. Even if you’re not that dedicated, you won’t want to miss Arte Contemporaneo, which represents such prominent artists as Luis Granda, Jordi Boldó and Alberto Castro Leñero.
Sollano #13, Centro, (415) 152-5742, arte-contemporaneo.com.mx