Pueblo mágico. Magical village. That’s Guanajuato.
When I still worked at Lytx, I had a few Mexican co-workers who would often give me advice on where to go and what to do in Mexico. (Being based in San Diego, where you can take the public transit to Tijuana, grab a $2 Uber to the airport, and hop on a budget airline to go to Mexico City or Guadalajara for $69 round-trip, I go to Mexico often.) I had a friend who was recently in San Miguel de Allende and I asked one of them, Teresa, about the city. She said yes, that’s pretty, but you really need to go to Guanajuato.
For the longest time, I thought she meant the state of Guanajuato, which contains San Miguel de Allende. If you go to Google Maps and look for “Guanajuato”, you’ll get the state. So I thought, “well, that was weird advice, but okay.”
Then I was looking at my Google Calendar, where I have a separate calendar dedicated to events I want to attend, and saw that I hadn’t made any plans to be in Mexico for Día de Muertos. Since that’s in the middle of the week and I had plans to be in Minneapolis on November 3, I decided I could go for the preceding weekend.
A Mexican-American friend who had just spent four months traveling throughout Mexico recommended I visit Pátzcuaro for Día de Muertos. The neighboring big city is Morelia, which I had never heard of before. Morelia and Pátzcuaro are in the state of Michoacán, a state for which the U.S. Government has issued a travel advisory for U.S. citizens to “defer non-essential travel” (sorry, Mom).
Looking at Google Maps, I saw that Guanajuato is near Michoacán. Ahh, I thought. I’ll go there for the weekend before I head to Michoacán.
The big city in Guanajuato is León, with a population of 1.3 million. However, San Miguel de Allende is the most famous city in the state. I started clicking around on the map in the state of Guanajuato, and then I saw it.
Guanajuato is actually a city inside of the state of Guanajuato.
That’s what Teresa meant. Oops.
I later learned that this kind of semantic ambiguity is also employed with how people refer to Mexico City. People will say México and mean Mexico City, not the country as a whole in the same way that Americans say “New York” and mean the city, not the state. You can usually tell the difference by the context.
And, just for the record, I would like you to know that this has totally never confused me.
Anyway, I looked at tickets to the closest airport (Del Bajío, which is actually next to the town of Silao, equidistant from both León and Guanajuato), saw that there was a $100 flight on Aéromexico (which I almost never fly because it’s never the cheapest). Then I said: impulse plane ticket purchases are the best kind of impulse buy.
[You can learn more about finding cheap flights in my Cheap Flights Masterclass.]
That’s the story of how I ended up in the Tijuana International Airport at 2 am, waiting for my red-eye flight to Del Bajío. I was due to arrive two hours later, at 6:30 am. (There is a two hour time difference.) I slept about two hours.
I can’t imagine pulling this shit when I’m my parents’ age.
Getting to Guanajuato
After I touched down in the Del Bajío airport, I had two priorities: buy pesos and get to Guanajuato. I had selected an Airbnb and my host told me that a taxi to Guanajuato from the airport is usually $35-40. This was a lot of money. Surely, I could find a bus to take.
The airport was unreasonably busy at 6:30 am, especially given its distance from the major cities. That said, I didn’t see any buses. No problem, I said. I’ll call an Uber.
I had planned to sleep on the bus, but since I was taking a 45-minute Uber ride (for only $12—that’s $0.70/mile), I felt obligated to chat with my driver the whole way. He was very excited to tell me about Guanajuato and the town of Silao, which we passed through. An interesting note: in some areas of Mexico, there will be two roads which take you to a city. One will have tolls and be faster, and the other will be free, but less direct.
I asked my Uber driver: the government spent all this money to build a toll road so they could make money? Am I the only person who thinks that doesn’t make sense?
He shrugged, as if to say, that’s the government. Welcome to Mexico.
I shook my head. This is totally the kind of shit I would expect the American government to pull.
It was around 8 am when we arrived. Guanajuato was still waking up: the cobblestone streets were empty, void of cars and pedestrians, and the morning mountain air cast a glittering, fresh veil over the city like someone had just removed its protective plastic wrappings in anticipation of my arrival, so that I might find the place untouched and unmarked by the chaos of the outside world, and I now was privileged with witnessing its first waking breaths.
It was, I later thought, such a marvelous welcome. The designers of the festival cervantino understood that a visit to their city should be an experience.
My first thought when I got out of the car was: it’s so cold! My second thought was: I need espresso. A quick Google Maps search showed that nothing nearby was open at 8 (expect Starbucks—yuck), but a place called Café Tal opened at 8:30.
My third thought was: food. Somebody give me food.
My fourth thought was: This is Mexico! THEY HAVE STREET FOOD.
It took mere minutes to encounter a puesto that sold quesadillas and gorditas—MX$25 later ($1.31) and I was full. That was probably the best quesadilla I’ve ever had.
I couldn’t check into my Airbnb until around 2 pm, and I had some work to finish for my web development business, so I parked myself upstairs in the cafe and finished around 1:00, just in time to walk to the Airbnb. (An espresso is MX$22, or about $1.15. Guys, this is real life.)
I also want to take the opportunity to let everyone know that I totally did not get lost on my way to my Airbnb. But Guanajuato is so pretty—I didn’t mind.
Guanajuato is a city made for walking. The city takes its plazas very seriously, and dedicated roads and tunnels for cars keep much of the traffic away from pedestrians. (Just make sure not to accidentally wander onto one of these car roads, because it might be a while before you find some stairs to return to pedestrian land.) Most drivers would stop to wave me across the road, and I saw several signs signaling that pedestrians had the right-of-way, which was refreshing.
I felt the city calling me to explore it. When I arrived it was still very early in the morning and the city was empty. I imagine this is how the city feels when it isn’t swollen with tourists.
Many of the locals I’ve met express some kind of horror and anxiety upon seeing what their normally tranquil city has morphed into—like when a seven-year-old Jake saw his dad without a mustache for the first time and couldn’t reconcile the face of this new person standing in front of him with the face of the father he knew, and who would consequently run from his father for about two weeks (sorry, Dad); I see this same confusion—this same desire to run away—from some of the locals. They are accustomed to empty streets, not hordes of tourists crowding the cars off the road. “This is not my city!” one of them told me as we were walking the city after dinner.
During the festival cervantino, swarms of people trample, wander, strut, run, and negotiate their way through this old city. I am of the swarm, and collectively we spend the day familiarizing ourselves with Guanajuato’s disjointed color palette, seeking out shade to eat tacos and pan de muerto (a delicious bread made with anise, which for me evokes memories of Christmas custards my family makes with anisette), drinking horchata and agua fresca—or, if you’re that couple I found tucked away in a corner of a plaza, you’re drinking red wine out of a bag—and all of us, perhaps encouraged by some unknown power of the city, are experiencing with such force a hunger whose resonance nearly overpowers all other thoughts in our consciousness. It is a hunger for something we all wish to know: when do I get to return to this place?
How Gay is Guanajuato?
My answer to this question might be influenced by the fact it was the Festival Internacional Cervantino and most of the people I met were not natives, but Guanajuato is pretty gay. As a solo traveler, it was easy to hop on dating apps and find someone to grab food with or to meet up for drinks.
Guanajuato has two LGBT-dedicated bars and a few other spaces that are pretty hipster (and therefore LGBT friendly). W Club is the dance club, and Bar El Whoopees is the main bar. Golem and Fante were both gay-friendly places that I went to.
Concerning public displays of affection, I didn’t see any gay couples making out like I saw straight couples, but I saw a good amount of couples who would let hands brush while waking, or who feed each other and then look slightly embarrassed when you caught them doing it.
The impression I got from the locals is that Guanajuato is a liberal city. There’s a large university in the center of town (so there are tons and tons of young people) and the city hosts two international festivals each year—the Cervantes festival and an international film festival.
What to do in Guanajuato
Feather and the Wind’s comprehensive list of recommendations is much more complete than anything I could compile. Although I didn’t do this, you should also check out travel writer Tim Leffel’s street food tours. (Other travel bloggers at Venturists and Goats on the Road seemed to have loved it.)
Other Notes About Guanajuato
Guanajuato, the word, means “hill of the frogs”. The city might be obsessed with Miguel de Cervantes, but it is equally obsessed with frogs.
English is not widely spoken in Guanajuato, so I advise you to brush up on your Spanish before going. That said, the people I met who do speak English have excellent English—many of them work for American companies which are based in Silao, and the ones in management have to be able to report (in English) to their American supervisors.
Guanajuato is not a very accessible city. If you need to get around in a wheelchair or have difficulty walking, I don’t want to discourage you from visiting Guanajuato, but be prepared for thin, bumpy sidewalks, a lot of hills, and some difficulty getting around.
Finally, if loud noises trigger some response from you (for example, you’ve seen combat), be advised that booming fireworks go off often in Guanajuato to honor different saints. I first heard these in the morning, when I was waking up, and my first thought was: are we being attacked? We weren’t.
Have you been to Guanajuato, or do you want to go? Let me know what you think in the comments below!
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