Categories: MexicoPhotographyTravelWorld Heritage Sites

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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. :)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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, 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.

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).

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.

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.

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

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 Read: The 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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This post was last modified on December 13, 2016, 1:32 am

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

  • 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!

    • 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! :)

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

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

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

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

  • 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!)

    • 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 :)

      • 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

        • 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. :)

  • 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!

    • 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!

  • 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.

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

  • 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!!

    • 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

  • Hi Shannon,
    I was wondering if you could give me some insight on photography in Guanajuato. I am planning on a lifestyle photoshoot in the streets of Guanajuato. I love the colorful streets and buildings, do you have any spots you found you loved to shoot at?

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