Guanajuato State is located primarily in the mountains, close to the boundary where the dry north meets the more lush south. During colonial times, it was in the heart of New Spain. Guanajuato City and San Miguel de Allende are two of the city’s that made up the backbone of the new colony. They have both become the most popular destinations for visitors. Guanajuato became rich after a massive silver deposit was discovered nearby, which made both the colonists and the Spanish Empire quite rich.
The region became quite rich, and the accumulated wealth that was extracted from the earth is on display throughout Guanajuato today. Many of the buildings in both these cities are the remnants of this period of prosperity. The region is quite beautiful and there were many things to explore during our visit. We had 11 days to travel between Guadalajara to Mexico City and we wanted to see as much as we could on the way. We spent two nights each in Guanajuato and San Miguel, exploring both the cities and the surrounding areas.
While both places are quite different, they do share some similarities; narrow city streets, colourful colonial buildings and baroque monuments such as churches and plazas.
The region has a history that dates back thousands of years before the arrival of the Spanish. There are remains of early settlements, such as the Chupícuarios, who developed city’s and agriculture in the area. There was a lot of amazing things to see and history to learn about. We could have easily spent several weeks exploring the state.
While we only had a short time to explore, we tried to make the best of it. There were many great things we didn’t have time to squeeze in but it only stokes the fire for a potential return. We will definitely be going back as soon as possible, as we have now only scratched the surface of Guanajuato. Our list of things to go back for is longer than the list of things we actually did. For now, let us get back to focusing on what we did do.
Wandering around the colonial streets with beautiful brightly coloured buildings, was our favourite part. It was a photographers dream. We visited several historic locations including many churches and museums. We are excited to show off some of our choices. If there is something you think we’ve missed, leave us a comment below!
From the botanical gardens in San Miguel to the Museum of the Mummies in Guanajuato, we were able to have some some amazing experiences in a short time. The following list – in no particular order – are the 8 Incredible things we did in Guanajuato State.
8 Incredible things we did in Guanajuato State
1 Sanctuary of Atotonilco (San Miguel)
The Sanctuary of Atotonilco is located a short distance outside of San Miguel de Allende. This complex was built by Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro during the 17th century. Incredible murals have been painted on the walls and ceiling of the church. Today it has become a major pilgrimage site for Mexicans and tourists alike.
The sanctuary complex is located in the rolling hills just outside of San Miguel and it is a great half-day trip outside of the city. The trip only takes about 20/30 minutes. We took an Uber there and the local bus back.
The fortified sanctuary and church was built because of a vision that Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro had of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns on his head, covered in blood and carrying a cross. It was built in the 17th Century. While it looks somewhat plain and almost even run down when viewed from the outside, the real treat of this church is located inside.
The star attraction of Sanctuary of Atotonilco are the baroque murals which have been painted onto the walls and ceiling of this destination. The murals were painted over a 30 year period by Antonio Martínez de Pocasangre. These murals are painted throughout the sanctuary’s nave and chapels. In the murals the artist has depicted scenes from the Bible. The murals have given this location it’s star power, and it has sometimes been referred to as the Sistine Chapel of Mexico.
Guanajuato State was at the heart of the Mexican Revolution, and both Guanajuato and San Miguel played a major part in the battle for independence. The revolutionaries used the capture of the Alhondiga (Guanajuato) and Atotonilco (San Miguel de Allende) to solidify their positions. The region isn’t lacking in historic importance.
The Atotonilco has been designated as a UNESECO World Heritage Site, sharing the title alongside the colonial center of San Miguel de Allende. It has been described by UNESCO as an “exceptional example of the exchange between European and Latin American cultures”. It is one of the 20 cultural sites in the country (and over 40 total) that have been bestowed with the UNESCO honour.
2 Charco Del Ingenio Botanical Gardens (San Miguel)
We’re going to move into something a little bit more off the beaten track with a walk through the garden. The botanical gardens of Charco Del Ingenio is located about 20 minutes outside of the historic center of San Miguel. This beautiful natural garden was one of the top things we explored in San Miguel de Allende.
We had no idea what to expect during our visit. All we knew was it was highly recommended from what we had seen online. It was only a short Uber ride up the hill to the Botanical Gardens, so we decided to give it a try. Spoiler alert; we’re glad we took our chances. It quickly became one of our favourite attractions in the city. We found an incredible collection of different species of flowers, cactus and bird species contained in this park. There are many great walking trails that wind their way through the park making it the perfect place to spent the afternoon outdoors.
The 88-hectare park and nature reserve is dedicated to the preservation of different species of plants from across Mexico, some of which have lost their natural habitats. There were many flowers in bloom, which allowed for some incredible pictures of the different flora and fauna.
The nature reserve is home to many types of cactus from across Mexico, some of which were taller than we were. There is a large man made reservoir, where there were ducks and other water birds. We were even lucky enough to see a few Monarch Butterflies, towards the end of their migration from as far away as Canada.
To top it all off, there is a great viewpoint of San Miguel de Allende towards the end of the walking route. The views of the colonial city center from above we’re quite the reward. We spent just over two hours slowly wandering around this incredible garden. We can’t say enough nice things about this great spot. It was the perfect place to spend a relaxing afternoon in San Miguel.
3 Diego Rivera Museum and House (Guanajuato)
Diego Rivera is one of the most important artists in Mexican history, who in the post-revoloution era of Mexico became well known for his murals which can still be found throughout North America. He was a leading figure of the muralist movement in Mexico.
Diego Rivera is a folk lore hero in Mexico and is known best for his large scale murals. His legacy is difficult to appreciate in a museum as most of his most famous works don’t travel. The best way to see his body of work is to travel across North America, primarily in Mexico. We were lucky to visit Mexico City a few years ago, and got to see some of his murals at Bellas Artes.
He became famous north of the border as well, painting murals in New York and San Francisco. One of his most famous is located in Detroit, known as the Detroit Industry Murals. There are 27 murals that depicts the history of the Ford Motor Company that were commissioned in 1932, near the height of his fame.
The museum has many of his earlier or lesser known paintings alongside many of the sketches that were the early designs for some of the murals we have seen. The Museum in Guanajuato is built inside his family home, where he was born in 1886. In 1975 it was transformed into a museum, where it displays many of his sketches and early paintings and tells the story of his life.
The first floor of the museum has been restored to how it would have looked when he lived here. He was born into a middle class family, so it shows the living conditions in the city at the turn of the century.
Unfortunately, there are no photos allowed inside the Diego Riviera portion of the museum, so we have no teasers to display. Our visit to Guanajuato coincided with the start of the Cervantino, which is an annual arts festival held in the city.
At the museum, we were lucky enough to visit the lower gallery during the same time the artist was giving a speech and describing his artwork. It was Mexican artist José Castro Leñero was the featured artist and he was displaying some of his work, part of the Sea of Memory series. It was a nice added bonus.
We recommend visiting some of Diego Riviera’s murals before you come to the museum, as it’s best experienced with a little bit of knowledge about the history of the artist and the other muralists of Mexico, primarily Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Alfaro Siqueros.
4 Historic Center & Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel (San Miguel)
San Miguel de Allende has a beautiful city center, and it’s easy to see why it’s become such a popular place for visitors to Central Mexico. It has become a destination for foreigners and artists, which has revitalized the city center with a sophisticated metropolitan vibe.
The original settlement built by Juan de San Miguel wasn’t destined to last, but the city was re-established in 1555 just over a kilometer to the east where there were two springs that would help the city sustain itself. San Miguel de Allende was located along one of the major trading routes between the silver mines of central Mexico and Mexico City. The silver mines in Zacatecas and Guanajuato would share much of their riches with San Miguel. Many of the great buildings found in the city were built in the mid 18th century, when the city was at its cultural peak.
There are many incredible restaurants in the city catering to the expats and transplants. By the early 1900s the city had fallen victim to the slow march of time. The city and its incredible baroque architecture was rediscovered and the city has gone through a renaissance in the 20th Century, drawing many foreginers and expats to move here to escape the winters of the north.
One of the first “expats” who came here was an American artist by the name of Stirling Dickinson, who arrived in 1937. Since the 1950s, it has attracted many foreign artists and expats who have brought the city back to life.
San Miguel de Allende is one of the most beautiful places we visited on our most recent trip. It is easy to see why it has become one of the most popular destinations for visitors to Central Mexico.
5 Mina la Valenciana & San Cayetano Church (Guanajuato)
Located in the hills about 7 km outside of the historic center of Guanajuato, Mina La Valenciana was one of the most productive and richest mines in the region. The vein of silver was discovered in the middle of the 1500’s and still produces high quality silver today.
The discovery of silver in the hills outside of Guanajuato City made the new colony of New Spain and the Spanish Empire very rich. By the 18th century, the mine at Valenciana produced over 60% of the world’s silver. These mines are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The vein of silver was first discovered in the 16th century, and it reached its highest production levels from 1768 to 1804. At it’s peak in 1887, it produced over 15,000 tons of silver. The mines employed thousands of people and made the region quite rich. Many of the incredible buildings in nearby Guanajuato are a result of the riches produced here. Valenciana was one of the most productive mines in the region and is still being mined today.
This part of the mine is now a museum, and it has been restored to its 17th century height. During our trip to Guanajuato we took the bus up the hill to visit. The mine isn’t always working at full capacity, so many of the out of work miners will take you for a tour and explain how the operation works. The mine shafts go deep into the mountains to a depth of over 700 meters. It is the largest silver deposit that has been found in Mexico.
We traveled deep down a staircase in the dimly lit mine shaft to a depth of 60 meters. It gave us a pretty good idea of wha the conditions were like. The tour we took only went 60 meters, but it still gives an idea of what the conditions were like. It took us about 30 minutes to explore the museum and the cost was less the 50 pesos each, so it was definitely worthwhile.
Back on the surface, the entrance to the mine has been restored. On the top of the hill is the San Cayetano Church, built in the “churrigueresque” style that can be found throughout Mexico. It was constructed between 1775 and 1788 by the owner of the mine as a thank you for his good fortune. Inside the church there is plenty of opulence, with silver and gold flake throughout the church, mirroring the riches found below.
6 Museum of the Mummies (Guanajuato)
Mexico celebrates death in a way that few other countries around the world do. This fascination with death is on full display in Guanajuato at the Museum of the Mummies. There are over 100 mummies on display here. It is one of the most unique attractions we visited in Mexico during our trip across Central Mexico.
Please be warned, a visit to the Museum is not for the faint of heart. This is definitely one of those “weird” things you don’t find too often. These were real people, who had stories, lives and families. The museum is home to over 100 naturally mummified human remains and the museum is a reminder that what happens to your body when you’re gone isn’t always up to you.
Mexico has a unique relationship with death; anyone who has celebrated the annual Day of the Dead will understand this. Many of the mummies found at the museum are the result of a cholera outbreak that happened in the city during the mid-1800’s. Between 1870 and 1958, when the city was running out of space in its cemeteries, they implemented a tax that families needed to pay for a permanent burial. Those who could not pay had their bodies removed, and they were stored in nearby stone rooms. The dry climate of Guanajuato preserved the bodies in a form of natural mummification.
The museum came about because of the locals curiosity about death. At some point in the late 1800s or early 1900s, the cemetery workers began charging a few pesos for people who wanted to visited these well preserved bodies. It was officially turned into a museum in 1969.
The museum is more formal today, now known as the El Museo de las Momias (Museum of the Mummies). It is home to the world’s smallest mummy, as there was a pregnant woman who’s body was removed, and the fetus has survived in a mummified state. It is set up in a very tasteful way that celebrates the ongoing cycle of life and death. We certainly understand that this might not be at the top of most visitors lists, curiosity got the best of us too. It is definately one of the most memorable things that we did on our trip to Guanajuato.
7 Museum of Alhondiga (Guanajuato)
Located in the center of the old city of Guanajuato, the Museum of Alhondiga is located in an old grain storage building that played an important role during the Mexican Revolution. The museum has many displays chronicling the colonial history of Guanajuato, as well as highlighting the pre-columbian civilizations that lived in the area.
The Spanish first explored the region in the 1500s and soon after silver was discovered in the surrounding areas, the area quickly grew. Guanajuato was one of the original 12 regions that made up New Spain. During the 18th Century, the region experienced a boom as a result of these found riches. During this peak, nearby mines such as Valenciana shared their wealth with the new city. The city grew quite prosperous because of this and many of the city’s historic buildings are a result of the riches found deep within the earth. This wealth wasn’t evenly distributed and the European born Spanish profited at the expense of the other settlers and original inhabitants. The Spanish had fought off many attempted uprisings throughout the 1700s.
Guanajuato would soon be at the center of the Mexican War of Independence, and the Alhondiga would play a leading role. In 1810, the revolutionaries fought against the ruling Spanish, who had locked themselves inside of the Alhondiga. The insurgents would eventually kill all of those who were inside. This was one of the first and most important battles during the war of independence. It would take another 10 years for the revolution to run its course, but it was a success. the Empire of Mexico was founded in 1824.
This former grain storage facility, originally built between 1798 and 1809, has been turned into a regional museum. Inside there are some great exhibits exploring the history of the region.
The museum holds many artifacts from the pre-columbian society that occupied the region before the Spanish arrived. One of these early civilizations were the Chupícuarios. The museum tells the story of the birth of modern Mexico, following the storied history from colony to empire and eventually the modern state of Mexico. There are many old photographs and displays telling the story of the city and the surrounding region.
Guanajuato City today is a lively city, full of artists and students. The city definately likes to show off its artistic side. Mexico’s most famous artist – Diego Riviera – was born in the city. The Museum of Alhondiga is just one of the many great museums to visit in the city. We only had a few days to explore Guanajuato, and this was definitely one of the highlights.
8 El Mirador (San Miguel)
We thought the best way to end our adventure through Guanajuato was to showcase the viewpoint of El Mirador. While not much more than a small plaza where bus loads of tourists come to take pictures, it is definitely the best place to come to get a view of San Miguel de Allende.
Whenever we travel somewhere new, we always like to try to find the best view and this one was pretty hard to beat. The El Mirador viewpoint is located a short walk (or an even shorter taxi ride) up the hill from the historic center of San Miguel de Allende. After our visit to the Botanical Gardens (which is already up the hill from the center) we decided to walk here. It was mostly downhill.
San Miguel de Allende’s skyline is dominated by the church towers of the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, which we had explored earlier in the day.
The rolling hills of the countryside and the architecture of the city center was the perfect backdrop for some incredible photos.
San Miguel de Allende was founded during the 16th Century, with the city that survived until today placed its roots in 1555. The historic city center of San Miguel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is one of the most important cities during the colonial period of New Spain. The city played an important role during the Mexican War of Independence,
The city gets it’s name from two historical figures; Juan de San Miguel and Ignacio Allende. The first was, San Miguel, who arrived in the 16th century. This monk set up the first church and dedicated the town to Archangel Michael. Allende was one of the great heroes of the Mexican War for Independence, who died as a Martyr during the conflicts. San Miguel was his birthplace. It is worthwhile place to explore for a few days, and the historic city has been well taken care of.
One thing we learned later is that we visited El Mirador at the wrong time of day. Apparently this is the place to watch the sunset in San Miguel. We definitely missed a golden opportunity. The light was perfect, so we were not unsatisfied with our view. We just wanted to make sure we mentioned this so that you won’t make the same mistake that we did! Either way, don’t miss a chance to take in the view from El Mirador.