A Little Photoessay… Snapshots & Stories from Colorful, Colonial Mexico

The streets of colonial Mexico pulse with color and life. Before traveling, I glimpsed this pocket of culture and history only through small photographs of sun-drenched cobblestone streets making an appearance in my school text-books. And on a good year, my family visited a museum and I peered at the traditional clothes and colors in the works of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and the other greats to come out of Mexico.

The small town of San Pancho, Mexico is one charmed me — it was cute, tiny, and exactly what I wanted earlier this year. At the end of my time in Mexico however, I realized I had seen very little outside of a small pocket of the country. Three weeks before meeting my dad in Panama, I scoured the scribbled notes and hand-drawn maps in my notebook, each entry scrawled in haste as a new friend gave a passing recommendation. Together this advice formed a rough tapestry across the country, dotting small towns and big cities and showing the phone numbers of new friends in each place keen to share a coffee.

Guanajuato, Mexico

Friends first put Guanajuato on my radar when I was looking for a small town to travel to with my niece Ana. Those travel plans fell through and I forgot about Guanajuato until I looked at my notebook and saw the city was directly on my upcoming travel path. This town has a perfect mix of tourists/locals—local sites are in Spanish because the majority of tourists visiting Guanajuato are local within Mexico. My Spanish got better quickly! :)

With a route mapped, I shouldered my backpack and traveled overland from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City with stops in Guadalajara, Guanajuato, and San Miguel de Allende. My bus left the coast and cut inland to small, low-slung towns and a few capital cities. Guadalajara’s size and traffic overwhelmed me (I’m not a big-city person), but the history won me over before I left town. Guanajuato and San Miguel charmed me with unique visual identities and intriguing cultural shifts that come with traveling through colonial Mexico. Gone was the relaxed mix of expats and coastal Mexicans I had lived with for months, nor did I find the trendy, cosmopolitan inhabitants of Guadalajara. Instead, indigenous Mexicans filled the parks and street-side stands selling tamales and fresh tortillas, tacos and fried dough, quesadillas and elotes.

Below are 20+ photos and stories from the tiny, colorful towns of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende; next month I’ll tackle the big cities and sights in Guadalajara and Mexico City.

Guanajuato, Mexico

Mountains and hills surround Guanajuato, which makes for great hiking but variable weather too. The weather alternated between warm and sunny to cool and overcast, but that didn’t stop the town squares from filling with vendors and locals in late afternoon to snack and chat.

Guanajuato, Mexico

The steep hillsides throughout Guanajuato make deliveries quite tough. My hostel had a vertical 10 minute walk up a hillside — these pack animals (are they donkey or mules, no clue) wandered along the main boulevard behind their owner for a spate of deliveries each day.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Charmed by the cobblestone streets throughout San Miguel de Allende, I spent both days on photo walks through town talking to the vendors and exploring the tiny hole-in-the-wall spots for coffee and tacos. Though expats and language schools fill San Miguel, the locals were friendly and keen for conversation as I wandered.

Guanajuato, Mexico

Following the common street-food wisdom of “find the longest line and eat there” I found this woman whipping out tacos, quesadillas, and a number of things I could not name. I ventured for a corn gordita stuffed with cheese and nopal (shredded cactus) — the conventional wisdom served me well because it was delicious!

Guanajuato, Mexico

Translation: “In Mexico, a day without chili is like a day without sun.” They take this sentiment to heart because there were days the tears streamed down my cheeks as I ate. :)

Guanajuato, Mexico

These guys worked on the corner I had to walk past to leave my hostel and head into town and they were hilarious. I often had my camera slung across my shoulder and one night they were quick to call me over and insist I take a photo of the guy on the left. More specifically, they told me I just couldn’t leave Guanajuato without a photograph of his bigote … which means mustache. I obliged (photo here . . . it is an impressive ‘stache) and they collapsed into laughter; afterwards, each time I passed by the street stand they erupted into rousing cheers.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

School children play kickball in San Miguel de Allende’s main courtyard and as the sun slipped lower, more children must have finished their homework because they all burst into the central plaza to join the game.

Guanajuato, Mexico

The Catedral de Guanajuato, the main church in the city dominates the downtown skyline and created a buzzing square of activity joining the various areas of town. In the evenings street-food stalls set up in the cathedral’s shadow to pedal tacos, churros, and treats to the nighttime crowds.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

More like a castle at Disney World than a parish church in the heart of colonial Mexico, La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel is a gorgeous pink sandstone gothic church right in the city center.

San Miguel de Allende, MexicoGuanajuato, Mexico

Guanajuato, Mexico

A wander through the back-alleys of Guanajuato twist and turn up the hillsides. I loved the cactus plants and colors accenting this house . . . bright and charming in the warm Mexican sun.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

One of my favorite dishes (and one that is hard to find vegetarian), this tortilla soup was perfect on the cool overcast days (honestly, I ate it almost every day).

Guanajuato, Mexico

Guanajuato, a UNESCO World Heritage town center, is often voted one of the 10 prettiest colonial cities in Mexico and it’s easy to see why. I took this shot from the Alhóndiga de Granaditas — the museum is wonderful, only in Spanish, and filled with school children if you go too late in the day.

Guanajuato, Mexico

A colorful town square in downtown Guanajuato with a delicious veggie restaurant run by the Hare Krishnas just to the right — tasty and affordable if you’re needed a specifically vegetarian fix (and that can happen in Mexico a lot given how much cheese I ate day in and day out).

mexico

The twins on the right raced me to the top of the hillside in San Miguel while their mother laughed at our antics. Naturally, they beat me to the top, but I was rewarded with some chatter with their mom as I caught my breath before continuing up the hill. The mariachi player on the right was a sweet older gentleman who serenaded me as I journaled one afternoon in a courtyard in Guanajuato.

Guanajuato, Mexico

Journaling in a shady courtyard with my afternoon coffee at hand — my best blog posts and introspection are written in longhand, so this is how you usually find me on a random afternoon on the road.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

The pretty, gothic church in San Miguel is lit up on the city’s skyline.

Guanajuato, Mexico

The view from my hostel in Guanajuato, which I loved. This was the reward for hiking uphill every day to La Casa de Dante.

Mexico’s interior was friendly, open, and a wonderful place to travel. I haven’t yet blogged about the assumptions and fears many people have in traveling to Mexico, but these two pretty towns were  a reminder to me that each new place I travel offers unexpected places, people, and friendships.

Quick Tips: Visiting Guanajuato, Mexico

Where to Stay: La Casa De Dante is the best budget accommodation in the Guanajuato, bar none. It’s easy to book on Agoda or Hostelworld, and it’s a gorgeous spot with sweeping views of the city.

What to Do: Wandering the small back-streets and alleys is a highlight of both Guanajuato City and San Miguel de Valle. These cities having charming squares and tiny cafes in shady plazas that are delightful. More formally, you shouldn’t miss Alhóndiga de Granaditas, a museum in the town city. Go early as school children fill the place in the afternoons. You can’t miss the Catedral de Guanajuato, and you shouldn’t. Be sure to wander at different times during the day, as it’s particularly stunning when washed in the yellow late-afternoon sun. Same with Museo Casa Diego Rivera, the exhibits are well done and provide an important background on one of Mexico’s favorite artists. The city has a lot of street food and interesting markets, too. Mercado Hidalgo is the biggest market. You could take a street food tour, or just wander and sample and enjoy. The Mummy Museum is popular, but it’s not my thing so I skipped it, but not visiting horrified many Mexicans that I talked to, who consider it a must-visit. And lastly, you’ll want to get some height and pretty views over the city. If you’re staying at the hostel, then you already have some gorgeous views. Consider taking the funicular to the statue of Pipila, or you could take a hike on foot with water and half a day to explore.

What to ReadThe People’s Guide to Mexico is the best alternative guidebook to Mexico and comes highly recommended for the culture and history. You still might want a Mexico Lonely Planet for the logistics if you are backpacking the area ‚ I nearly always have a proper guidebook on me — but the People’s Guide is the hands-down best option for history and better understanding all aspects of the culture. If you prefer story with your history, then Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico is a memoir that will explain the culture while wrapped in interesting narrative.

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45 Responses to A Little Photoessay… Snapshots & Stories from Colorful, Colonial Mexico

  1. GoneWithaWhim December 12, 2016 at 1:58 am #

    Absolutely love your photos. ❤️❤️ I’m traveling to these towns this week and I’m super excited 😊 Great post!

    Can you please tell me which hostel you stayed at? The view look fantastic!!

    • Shannon O'Donnell December 13, 2016 at 12:56 am #

      It’s a gorgeous spot! I stayed at Hostal Casa de Dante. It’s a 15 minute walk from the city center, but I never regretted choosing it because the views are just beautiful and the breakfast is so tasty. Have an amazing trip! :) http://www.casadedante.com

  2. Shayne December 28, 2014 at 11:02 pm #

    Your photography is inspiring. I’ve been to each of these cities and while I thought my photos are good, I now conisder them barely adequate. Thank you so much for sharing them.

    • Shannon O'Donnell December 29, 2014 at 10:59 pm #

      Aw thanks! I appreciate the support, and the reminder to come look at these photos and remember how much I enjoyed visiting them! :)

  3. Zummies September 16, 2014 at 6:50 pm #

    lol, awesome! I’ve been living in Gto for just over a year now and all those images are my daily routines. That guy with the G on his shirt that had you take a picture of his relative’s bigote ALWAYS signals me over when I walk by. “Guero! come! eat!” … and I do. He also runs a fresh juice stand in the mornings. And the 3 “gorditas” that make the gorditas, I believe the tough to pronounce food is the tlacollo (fried and folded masa tortilla with cheese and beans inside). Took me like 2 months to say it right.

    Gto is a great place to say, especially for the Cervantino festival in October (which Japan will be hosting this year). Unfortunately, I’ll be traveling south when it starts. And, though I only blog for friends and family to keep in touch, I shared all my Gto stories and will probably get back to writing in a month. http://www.paulliegoround.com

    I’ll be sure to point you out if I see you when I head south… if you end up visiting Latin America again soon. Have fun!

    • Shannon O'Donnell September 16, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

      I love that you know the same guy with “G” on their shirt. He always had such fun and joy that I loved my quick chats each night. I am not sure when I will make it back down to Latin America, but I would love a coffee if our paths ever cross. Safe travels south!

  4. Sofie Couwenbergh April 30, 2014 at 8:09 am #

    Great shots!
    You write your posts on paper? Respect! I like writing on paper but my handwriting is so awful that I usually can’t read it anymore myself after a day or two, unless I really try to write ‘pretty’ (at university, I copied all of my notes on my computer as soon as I got back from class, truth!)

    • Shannon O'Donnell May 1, 2014 at 1:37 am #

      Thanks Sofie! And much like you, half the time my notes aren’t legible if I wait too long, but i tend to write them and then dictate them to transcribe with Dragon Dictation app on my phone, that helps my glow of writing :)

      • Sofie Couwenbergh May 1, 2014 at 2:22 am #

        I’ve already heard from several people that they use the Dragon app, or another kind of dictation app. I haven’t tried that out yet. I think just typing suits me better. Also, I imagine Boyfriend would get quite annoyed if I’d be walking around the apartment babbling while he’s watching tv :D

        • Shannon O'Donnell May 1, 2014 at 6:54 am #

          Hah! Yes, you do have to go to a private place. I use it to day my hand from carpal tunnel, otherwise it is faster to type. :)

  5. Mely C. January 24, 2014 at 9:27 am #

    Impressive photos! Lovely Guanajuato. I hope you will allow me to share some of these pictures on my blog.

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 24, 2014 at 11:17 am #

      Thanks! And just let me know what you had in mind and with link attribution I am sure we can work it out. :)

  6. travellingforfun January 7, 2014 at 5:25 am #

    Great photos, super colour.Reminds me of my time in Mexico.

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 7, 2014 at 10:42 am #

      Thanks! It’s such a gorgeous and colorful country, it surprised me how pretty the towns are. :)

  7. Renee — RambleCrunch December 7, 2013 at 6:50 pm #

    Lovely photos, Shannon. Next month we’re leaving Chapala and heading for Morelia (about 2 hours from G & SMA), where we’ve got a small apartment in the Centro Historico. I’m looking forward to the change. Please do pop by for a visit if you’re ever in the neighborhood!

    • Shannon O'Donnell December 7, 2013 at 8:46 pm #

      It’s a gorgeous region of Mexico! I haven’t visited Morelia but have heard good things. I am not sure when I’ll make it back that way, but I would love to cross paths with you someday for sure! :)

      • Renee — RambleCrunch December 27, 2013 at 8:04 pm #

        Yes, that would be wonderful. If you find yourself nearby, I hope you’ll pop by for a visit. :-)

  8. sanju November 26, 2013 at 2:22 pm #

    Maxico my lovest city. When I 8 years old I went there with my father.

  9. Rebecca and the World November 9, 2013 at 3:10 am #

    I love Mexico! I haven’t been to Guanajato or San Miguel and they look like great places.

  10. Shannon O'Donnell October 20, 2013 at 10:45 am #

    Thanks Yana! Just saw this comment, I really appreciate you stopping in and sharing your story. Congrats on starting your own blog, it’s a slow process but rewarding to share the journey! I will take a look, safe travels :)

  11. Chad September 30, 2013 at 9:17 pm #

    Looks awesome! I always wanted to go but never had the chance!

  12. Corinne Vail September 27, 2013 at 10:34 am #

    Love, love, love these photos. So colorful. I love the yellow stairs! So sunny!

    • Shannon O'Donnell September 27, 2013 at 12:06 pm #

      Thanks Corinne! That’s my favorite shot as well, I’d love to have such a colorful house one day! :)

  13. Bridgid September 26, 2013 at 1:06 pm #

    I love these photos – especially the shot of the kids playing soccer and the little girls in their uniforms. And what a charming town. I’ve added it to my list of places to see … Lovely blog post, Shannon!

    • Shannon O'Donnell September 26, 2013 at 1:50 pm #

      Thanks Bridgid! Those school girls were just too cute to handle; they thought it was hilarious that I was winded on the 500 or so steps up the hill :)

  14. Mountains and Giraffes September 25, 2013 at 9:34 am #

    Hi Shanon!
    I’ve been following your blog for a couple of years now, you were one of the first RTW travellers that lit up the desire to go on my own RTW.
    Plus, I love this post, the pictures are so vivid and beautiful – i will definitely add mexico to my list.
    In the hopes of becoming an inspiring traveller my self, i started a blog. It’s still in development but slowly it’s growing.
    You are welcomed to look around,
    http://mountainsandgiraffes.com
    Thank you,
    Yana

  15. BeyondBlighty September 23, 2013 at 10:26 pm #

    That architecture reminds me a lot of Cartagena in Colombia. Who’d have thought?! I really want to go to Mexico, although I must admit that the two things pulling me there most are the whale sharks at Isla Mujeres and Coco Bongo night club in Cancun!

    • Shannon O'Donnell September 24, 2013 at 11:11 am #

      Cartagena, really? Nice, I haven’t been to Colombia yet, but it’s pulling me in the same way Mexico pulls you! Whale sharks are also on my list, I missed them by mere days when I was in Honduras a few years ago! :)

  16. Susan @ Travel Junkette September 23, 2013 at 4:29 pm #

    These are so cheery, Shannon! My favorite is the house with the cactuses. I’d love to live in a colorful house someday — I’ve always wanted to start the house of brightly-colored houses in the States!

    • Shannon O'Donnell September 23, 2013 at 6:24 pm #

      I love the cactus one too! And I do love how colorful the neighborhoods and towns are in so many other places — we need to start a movement! :)

  17. Time Travel Plans September 20, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    Guanajuato is such a colorful town. It’s a shame that I live in Los Angeles and have never ventured into Mexico past Tijuana and Ensenada. As you mentioned, there are a lot of fears associated with visiting Mexico because we so often hear about the drug cartels there. But your photos definitely have me curious.

    • Shannon O'Donnell September 21, 2013 at 12:42 pm #

      It’s all about where you go in Mexico. I lived in LA too, and we never really ventured down there. But, there are many cities in the lower interior and coasts that are simply lovely and a fun adventure! Friends of mine near Puerto Vallarta regularly do the couple day drive down the coast for surfing and what-not! :)

  18. Seattle Dredge ✈ September 19, 2013 at 1:46 am #

    ah, I love those colourful walls. Great shots.

  19. Beth September 19, 2013 at 1:00 am #

    I love the colors of Mexico!
    Oh, and that church! Like a Disney castle indeed… :)

  20. The Wondernuts September 18, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

    By your photos, I would not be able to tell it was tiny. It looks flourishing and most definitely colorful. =)

  21. Renuka Singh September 17, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    Mexico is charming to the core!

  22. Jeanne Boyles September 17, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    thank you David…brings back great memories

  23. Eric | Venture2Adventure September 17, 2013 at 10:32 am #

    Guanajuato has just moved to the top of my list for Mexico. Great photos, especially the on of the mariachi.

    • Shannon O'Donnell September 17, 2013 at 10:59 am #

      It’s worth a visit and several bloggers have even rented places and stayed there for a bit because they fell in love with the vibe! :)

  24. Claire @ Vegetating Earth September 17, 2013 at 10:22 am #

    Wow wow beautiful photos! Mexico is one of the top countries I want to visit.

    • Shannon O'Donnell September 17, 2013 at 10:56 am #

      Thank you so much Claire — Mexico is so photogenic with all the sunshine and bright colors, I hope you make it there soon! :)

  25. Andi Perullo September 17, 2013 at 9:59 am #

    OMG I have chills…these pictures are gorgeous! My favorite is of the little kids playing futbol!!!

    • Shannon O'Donnell September 17, 2013 at 10:53 am #

      That’s mine too! They had such fun, and I can’t imagine playing ball under the shadow of such a pretty church like those kiddos do, what a life. :)

  26. Darlene Television September 17, 2013 at 7:57 am #

    “A day without chiles is like a day without sun…” Sol means sun. Alma means soul, as in alma mater or soul mother.

    And chili is that stuff with meat styled as con carne; to address the pepper it’s chile, like the country, which resembles a long, thin one.

    • Shannon O'Donnell September 17, 2013 at 8:02 am #

      So true and thanks for the correction! Not sure why I wrote soul as I actually didn’t know the translation of soul being alma — wires in my brain must have crossed! :)

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