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  • Writer's pictureDonna Zabel

Mexico's Colonial Gems

There are so many Mexico’s to explore, and I love them all. I love the indulgent Mexico of white sand beaches and pampering resorts. I love the Mexico of colorful markets and friendly artisans, a shopper’s paradise. I love the intense history of Mayan and Aztec cultures. And I am always drawn, as on this trip, to the fascinating colonial cities, evoking both the centuries of Spanish rule and the struggle for independence.

Many colonial cities are clustered in central Mexico, either a few hours by car or a short flight from the sprawling capitol city. I want to visit them all, but limited time meant I only squeezed in visits to a top three: Guanajuato, Queretaro, and San Miguel de Allende.

History and art are interwoven in Guanajuato. Here the Spaniards found rich silver deposits to fund their empire on the backs of the Indigenous population. Here are monuments to the revolution and places of history and legend. The extensive market area bursts with goods from local artists. Side streets from the imposing cathedral lead to restaurants, cafes, and the not-to-be-missed ancestral home of Diego Riviera and some of his many drawings and paintings. Sightseeing works up an appetite, and a lunch of ceviche and tortilla soup at the lovely Casa Valadez was perfect, although the outdoor cafes on a sunny afternoon were tempting. Another time.

Guanajuato is a city for romantics and romantic tales. At night, the city’s Estudantinas, young men from the university, dress in 16th century Spanish costumes and stroll the streets, serenading anyone on the many balconies. During the day there is always a line of young tourists waiting their turn in Kiss Alley or the Callejon del Beso. Only sixty-eight centimeters separate two balconies on either side of the alley. Couples wait their turn to kiss across the balconies, ensuring seven years of happiness, or a lifetime, depending on who is telling the story.

Nearby Queretaro is smaller in size and population, but with a past as grand and imposing as its larger neighbors. The impressive 18th century aqueduct is visible for miles, but the city’s charm lies in its cobblestone streets, colonial buildings, and center stage history. Here Hildago and his cohorts plotted the overthrow of the ruling Spaniards, aided by the wife of the mayor, imprisoned in her own room. Amidst tales of suspense and intrigue, the rebel leaders escaped to Guanajuato and officially began the 1810 revolution. Here Mexico’s only emperor, Maximilian I, was captured and executed after ruling only a year at Napoleon’s behest, thus ending the French occupation. Here the 1917 constitutional convention was held, ending the 30 years of rule under Porfirio Diaz.

Old churches and old colonial buildings dot the city, along with wide, inviting plazas surrounded by cobblestone streets and inviting shops. The draw for me, on a warm winter afternoon, was the delightful El Meson de Chucho El Roto. My fish baked in the style of the Yucatan was delicious, especially when washed down with the local wine.

San Miguel de Allende is the most well-known of the colonial cities, popular for decades with Americans retreating south to escape winter. It is also one of the prettiest cities. The architecturally stunning La Parroquia Church dominates the adjoining square. At night people fill the square, strolling among local vendors and musicians, along the labyrinth of cobblestone streets dotted with restaurants, art galleries and boutique hotels. During the day there are art schools teaching everything from weaving to sculpture, to drawing and painting, to silverwork and jewelry, to enameling and ceramics. You can find—or join—an international group of students working toward a Master of Fine Arts at the Instituto Allende Art and Language School under a visiting faculty from around the world. San Miguel beckons to everyone—come for a day, a week, or a month.

With all this art, San Miguel is a shoppers’ paradise, and stiff competition ensures quality, creativity, and soaring prices. I found it easy to spend time wandering among little galleries along the steep streets before returning to my adorable Casa Rosada. You will not find big hotels in San Miguel. You will find old haciendas turned into comfortable accommodations with open courtyards a lot of local flavor. The Casa Rosada, perfectly located just behind the central church and main square, is a colonial gem with a comfortable and colorful lobby, open spaces around the sixteen rooms, artwork and plants throughout, and a charming staff serving made to order breakfast.

I wanted to stay longer, to savor another delicious meal, to visit another historic and beautiful city surrounded by stunning mountains, to wander among the shops with handcrafts too unique to be mass marketed on the internet. But I had to get back to Mexico City, to another night at the lovely Gran Hotel de Ciudad, and to fly home. Luckily, Mexico is not too far away. I know I will be back.


If you’re dreaming of a trip to Mexico, DreamMaker Destinations is here to handle the logistical preparations so you can spend your time daydreaming about the adventures that lie ahead. We specialize in creating a personalized journey built to expand a traveler’s horizons and fulfill their dreams. For more information, contact DreamMaker Destinations.

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