In the mountainous high desert known as the Bajio several hours northeast of Mexico City, the state of Guanajuato tells Mexico’s story better than any other.
During the 1500s, mule trains followed the 360km-long Antigua Camino Real from the Spanish gold and silver mines in Zacatecas to Mexico City. At San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato and other way stations, wealthy mining barons constructed European-style cities around magnificent domed churches. Their walled homes with columned arches, flower-filled patios and wrought-iron balconies reminiscent of Moorish Spain have changed little in more than 400 years. Centuries later, Mexico’s War of Independence was staged here. Cities like San Miguel de Allende and Dolores Hidalgo - named after their national heroes - have been named national monuments.
Despite an influx of gringos (10,000 strong in San Miguel), these colonial gems retain their Mexican character. And thanks to the altitude (about 2,000m above sea level), the spring-like temperatures and low humidity are hard to beat.
Close to natural hot springs, San Miguel de Allende is better-known for its superb shopping and abundance of fine restaurants (about 250!). A mecca for artists and craftsmen, it’s a great place to try your hand at anything from sculpting to making the perfect Mexican mole.
Often overlooked by Americans keen to shop in San Miguel, the capital city of Guanajuato (an hour away) has a youthful energy and sophisticated cultural scene - capped by the October Cervantino Festival drawing world-class performers, dance companies and symphony orchestras for a 3-week celebration of the works of Spanish author Miguel Cervantes. Many regard the city - named a UNESCO World Heritage Zone in 1988 - to be one of Mexico’s best kept secrets. Dolores Hidalgo, renowned for its colourful Talavera ceramics, and Mineral de Pozos, an abandoned mining town already tagged “the next San Miguel”, are also great places to explore.