I just moved back to Guanajuato after living there three years on two occasions before with my family. I don’t write about the place all that much on this blog, however. First of all I don’t want to always be talking about Mexico since my books cover the globe. Also I don’t want to be on the s%#t list of my fellow few hundred expats here. They like the fact there aren’t too many of us here and their biggest fear is that this will turn into another San Miguel de Allende or Ajijic, where gringos have taken over the place.
I don’t think that’s a realistic fear: this city is too mountainous, too car-unfriendly, and it’s quite tough to get by in without having a functional level of Spanish. The other expats will openly criticize you here if you don’t at least make an effort to learn the basics. I do write about it now and then as a freelance writer, however, and talk about my adopted home town in interviews when asked.
On that note, I once appeared on The Amateur Traveler podcast discussing where you would spend a week in the state of Guanajuato. Search for it on iTunes and Stitcher or go stream it on the Amateur Traveler blog. One huge omission on that podcast interview though: I forgot to mention the mummy museum! It’s creeptastic if you’re into that kind of thing:
Where to Eat in Guanajuato
Let me get this out of the way first: this is not a gourmet dining city like Oaxaca, Puebla, or even Puerto Vallarta. If you decide to go out to a top-end restaurant every night for dinner in Guanajuato, you’ll be done with that project before the week is up. No celebrity chefs from the capital are going to be moving here anytime soon.
Lower your expectations and enjoy simple and tasty food prepared with no pretension. Load up on queso fundido, enchiladas mineras, and green pozole. You’ll find 100+ rather basic places that are geared to locals and Mexican tourists, with prices to match. It’s really hard to spend more than $50 for two on dinner here even if you’re drinking a lot, more often your tab will be $20 or less for a couple. If you just want a plate of tacos, enchiladas, or a torta so stuffed with goodies it’s hard to hold together, the equivalent of a few dollars will cover it. The street food is a good bet here at places where you see good turnover and it’s the real deal.
The second time I lived in Guanajuato I launched a street food walking tour. It was mostly a way for me to get out of the home office and show foreign visitors around the city. A few months after I launched, Nick and Dariece from Goats on the Road went on the tour with me. You can see their review of the tour here and they made a cool video as well that I’m embedding below:
A few other bloggers came through town later and wrote about the tours. See run-downs from Venturists, Amateur Traveler, Wee Gypsy Girl, and Live Dream Discover. We even made it into a National Geographic Publishing book that the duo behind Honeytreks put together.
I didn’t promote this side hustle project very heavily when I was the only guide because I travel a fair bit and hated to turn people down when I was away. Now there are five bilingual guides in place to meet demand and we added night “bars and tacos” tour and a non-food historic walking tour. So no matter when you’ll be here, check out the Guanajuato Food Tours website for prices and booking. And some photos that will make you hungry. (There’s also a historic Guanajuato Walking Tours program if you don’t want to chow down or hit the bars.)
The non-Mexican food options in Guanajuato are limited, but there are several quite good Italian places right in the center. If you’re really craving something different you can find sushi and a good French bakery that serves meals as well. Thankfully there aren’t many fast-food chains here. You’re limited to KFC, Subway, and Dominos in the center, McDonald’s on the outskirts at the mall.
Where to Stay in Guanajuato City
This is a relatively small, compact city, but plan on doing a lot of walking. There are really just two winding streets that have cars on them in the historic center. Every other street and alley is pedestrian-only–including the ones leading to people’s homes. So don’t be thinking you can bring your out-of-shape self here and take taxis everywhere. If you have mobility issues, stay as close to Teatro Juarez and the Jardin Union as possible. It’s relatively flat in that area. Otherwise you’ll be going up and down a lot of stairs and hills–at more than 6,000 feet above sea level. This is a good place to shed a few pounds without going to a gym.
Since most of the tourists coming here are Mexican, prices are quite reasonable. You can find cheap hostels for those on a backpacker budget, double rooms for $25-30, or luxury hotels that cost about half of what they do down the road in San Miguel de Allende. There seem to be at least three hotels on every block and none of them are chains you’d recognize, so forget cashing in loyalty points. Nearly all are independently owned and run. You’ll find a great selection on Booking.com: just don’t get stuck with something outside of the center.
There are also probably 100+ rooms, apartments, and houses for rent through the various rental sites, so that can be better if you’re doing more than just passing through for a night or two. You can rent our house if you need 3 bedrooms and are going to stay for a long stretch when we’re not there.
A while back I made two videos for the people in my Committed group of Cheap Living Abroad that toured houses and apartments people were renting in central Mexico for $250 to $600 a month. If you want to check them out now, do a search on my YouTube channel. If you subscribe while you’re there, even better. The prices haven’t really gone up since I made those. The peso is down against the dollar and this is still a college town without loads of foreigners driving up the prices.
The Cervantino Festival
Every year in October, Guanajuato hosts the largest music and arts festival in Latin America. The Cervantino Festival is an extravaganza that goes on for three weeks, with a wide range of concerts, dance performances, and an invasion of street performers. Most of the outdoor events are free, while people that you’ve actually heard of will have a ticket fee. Tickets are usually quite reasonable by international standards and I’ve seen a lot of terrific shows. It can be hit-and-miss from year to year though depending on the rotating host country and rotating Mexican states.
If you’re planning to attend, know that this is the highest of high seasons for Guanajuato and you will have to reserve well in advance. Not only are you competing with other tourists for lodging, but all those musicians and dancers have to stay somewhere too. Many of the locals get grumpy in October because the streets are packed and some restaurants have been known to raise their menu prices to cash in. It’s a fun, electric time to be here though if you get your act together on the planning front.
Day of the Dead in Guanajuato
There are more famous places to go for Day of the Dead and the locals would probably prefer you visit those instead. Patzcuaro, Oaxaca, and Mexico City are all fine places to go in early November. If you do come here though, you may feel like you stepped into Coco minus the high-rises. The people here are not getting dressed up to make tourists happy. They are doing it because they’ve been doing it to make themselves happy for a hundred years. They were putting up the alters and visiting the cemetery long before that.
Just exercise the normal steps of restraint. Ask before taking photos. Don’t be a jerk in the cemetery. Remember that any altar you see has real ancestors on it. That is not the background to stand in front of for a stupid selfie. Be a good person and you’ll be welcome in my adopted city. even better.
What to Pack for Guanajuato
Whether you are going to my city or San Miguel de Allende, understand that you are 2,000 meters or more above sea level. It’s easy to think, “I’m going to Mexico” and pack like you’re heading to Puerto Vallarta. You’ll be buying long pants and a jacket after arrival if you do.
The days are usually quite warm and sunny in this area, with temperatures in the mid-70s to low-90s all year, with low humidity. When the sun goes down it cools off though. You’ll see people sitting at outdoor cafes all year long, but the jackets get heavier in January when it can dip down below 50F. The rest of the year it’s usually 60s and 70s at night. Bring some layers you can put on and take off, especially if you’re renting a house: there’s no insulation and usually no heat in the homes apart from space heaters.
Bring a refillable water bottle because you’ll need to stay hydrated: most hotels have those 5-gallon bottled water containers you can fill from. A Steripen as a backup would be a good idea. Nobody drinks straight from the tap, including most Mexicans. Any water-based drinks, ice, or ice cream will be safe, even from street vendors.
Bring good sunglasses and a sun hat. Sure, you seldom see the Mexicans seldom wearing either, but their eyes and skin are probably less sensitive than yours. Last, bring comfortable shoes for lots of walking, sometimes on uneven surfaces. There’s little pressure to dress up for anything, even if you go to the symphony.
Wednesday 28th of October 2020
I'm returning to Guanajuato in April after a long absence, and I'm trying to decide if I should have cataract surgery in the U.S. or there. Any thoughts?
Monday 2nd of November 2020
If your insurance covers it, have it at home. If not, in a big Mexican city. Not Guanajuato, in other words. Leon maybe, but I'd go to Mexico City or Guadalajara, personally. Ask around on some expat boards or Facebook boards for recommendations.
Tuesday 13th of November 2018
This is my second time here, six months first time, will be staying at least one year. I agree with most of what you report. Good look finding reasonably priced apartments in the center of town, we are now a 20 minute walk from the center. My wife and I are both 75 and walk two to four miles + daily. You should be in decent shape if you live here, we have no problems with the elevation . We do have several local friends that speak excellent English, you can get by here speaking little Spanish but speaking Spanish certainly helps, having a high level of street smarts also helps. It does not take long to become familiar with the area. Medical care here is excellent, the local hospital here is not cheap though. We do have a car here as do most of our Mexican friends, we drive to León monthly, Costco, Oriental Market, excellent street food. We have lived in San Miguel but prefer it here, this is real Mexico not full of North American tourists, the tourists here are mostly Mexican. The locals are very friendly and there is very little crime here. If you live here and drive you can find parking close to central. Just remember you are a guest in this country. I might ad there are a few excellent restaurants here. Paul
Friday 16th of November 2018
Thanks Paul. "A few" is the key on the restaurants. I'm in the process of checking out some new ones, but that won't take long. With a car, of course, you can hit the suburbs where there are more. I have found the medical costs to average around 1/4 or less of the USA costs. But we haven't had to do anything too complicated. What has been expensive for you?
Monday 12th of November 2018
What's really tough is informing others about places you love. I've stopped crowing about my finds, as I'm justifiably worried that they too will succumb to the maddening crowds.
Case in point: Mérida. Up until last year, it was fairly easy to book nice apartments in Centro for 600-800 USD per month. Now, it's double that. And it seems that in every passing week, a new upscale taquería, ceviche joint or mezcal bar opens its doors. ¡Ay Carumba!
The wife and I have our little places that aren't frequented by tourists. Yet. But I'll never disclose what or where they are.
Welcome back to México. Try not to post much more about Guanajuato. Why spoil it for yourself? (I'm HALF kidding).
Friday 16th of November 2018
Yeah, that's always tough. But someone else will spoil it anyway. Conde Nast votes a place like San Miguel "the best city in the world" or someone puts out a best-selling book that romanticizes Ubud and it's game over. Then everyone starts calling it "spoiled."