First you walk through a church with no roof, gnarly roots twisting across the floor. Then you pass a building with rusty metal mining equipment attached to the stone block wall. Up a set of steps to nowhere and you have a panoramic view of the other ruins. Ghost towns in Mexico like Mineral de Pozos still have most of its bones intact.
Back in the 16th to early 19th centuries, when most of the world’s silver was coming out of Spanish mines in central Mexico, the region was booming with riches. Some of those colonial settlements grew into cities that are still thriving today, such as Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and Taxco. Others turned into Mexico’s version of abandoned ghost towns.
Because the structures were built in dry climates with stone and brick, they have survived without any preservation efforts, just losing their wooden roofs. On this 255-mile road trip, you’ll start in Mineral de Pozos, where the population was once 75,000 and is less than 3,000 today. Located 37 miles northeast of popular San Miguel de Allende, this eerily quiet, ruins-scattered ghost town is full of remnants from past centuries scattered around the outskirts of town.
The first and third stops on this road trip are “Magic Towns,” which got them an official government designation and infrastructure funding. This pueblo magico designation has gotten quite diluted as the number of places receiving it has swelled, but these are two of the best magic towns in Mexico.
Exploring Mineral de Pozos
While most visitors roll up to Mineral de Pozos in tour buses or vans coming from San Miguel de Allende for the day, especially on weekends, this is one of those destinations that gives off a whole different vibe once the day-trippers have left again. It’s best to spend the night here to soak up the atmosphere and to allow more than a few quick stops.
Visit Hacienda Santa Brigida de Morin first, a mining operation that the Jesuits founded in 1595. The three “ovens” sticking up in an empty field are the city’s best-known image.
Hike between wildflowers and cacti to explore the stone and masonry buildings of the former mining operation and hacienda, including a huge gulch where the minerals were once extracted in a not-very-refined method. You’ll still see bits of machinery that have been lying in place for centuries and buildings from the colonial age that have held up surprisingly well.
The closest concentration of abandoned towns, however, is west of the city where the Cinco Señores, Angustias, and El Triangulo sites are located. The hiking or biking route is five hilly miles gaining 300 meters of elevation if starting from the center and including Cerro de Pelon with an abandoned church on top.
Of course you can drive there if you’re not in the mood for such a workout. Unlike some cities in historic central Mexico, like the one I live in, it’s easy to find parking in Mineral de Pozos.
If you want to take a side trip or two while staying for more than a night, there’s a lavender farm nearby (with lavender popsicles and lavender-infused beer even) or you can go a little further toward Dolores Hidalgo and do some wine tastings at Guanajuato vineyards.
There are a variety of hotels for different budgets in Mineral de Pozos starting at around $35 per night, but since I was writing about the area when I visited, I stayed at two of the nicer places. If you’re not on a budget, see my reviews of Posadas de las Minas in the center and Mineral del Cielo Lofts on the edge of town.
Heading North to San Luis Potosi’s Ghost Towns
For the next leg of the trip, you’ll drive north from the state of Guanajuato into the state of San Luis Potosi.
Drive two hours north to Cerro de San Pedro, located just east of the namesake capital city of San Luis Potosi state. A mining settlement that boomed throughout the 1600s and 1700s, the town of less than 100 residents may make you feel like you’ve stumbled onto a movie set with its empty cobbled streets, centuries-old stone walls, and the never-modernized San Nicolas church, looking almost exactly like it did in the 17th century.
This is not a place to linger for days though: the footprint of the town is rather limited and after years of fighting and underhanded deals, there’s a working strip mine located just outside of town. Hopefully you make it by lunchtime so you can enjoy local dishes with a view at Terraza San Miguel or get Mexican-Italian fusion at El Nopal Cosmico (The Cosmic Cactus).
A Drive and Then a Tunnel Trip to Real de Catorce
After the short stop in Cerro de San Pedro, head 163 miles north to the once-abandoned town of Real de Catorce. You’ll have to park at the entrance and take a five-minute bus ride through the one-lane Ogarrio Tunnel to enter the desert settlement. Only residents and delivery people are allowed to have vehicles in the town itself.
Real de Catorce thrived from the late 1700s through the early 20th century, hosting more than 20 mines and even minting its own coins. The town then emptied out for decades until a few pioneers and investors started renovating the old stone buildings in the 1990s and now there are 14 hotels hosting travelers.
Rest up from the drive—you’re now at 9,000 feet in altitude. The first day, it’s best to stay in the flat center of town and just enjoy the atmosphere.
The next day, hike or ride a horse a half-mile uphill from the center up to the ghost town with a view to explore the crumbling church and other buildings. Y0u can do it on foot or go on horseback with a guide like I did with my family, immortalized in this shot with one of the ghost towns behind us.
Or take a three-hour jeep tour with Willys de Real de Catorce to the abandoned Socavón de Purísima Hacienda mining camp on a steep mountain road and look for peyote–the psychoactive cactus used in Native American religious ceremonies. (No picking though: the plant is protected for use by the Huichol people. )
This is also a popular mountain biking region. Set up a local mountain biking tour with Lalo Bicitours at the Meson de la Abundancia Hotel to explore other areas.
As with Mineral de Pozos, it’s best to spend some time here to get the full-on spooky effect at night when dim lights and the moon illuminate the old stone walls. The loudest sound might be the braying of donkeys when you spend the night in a hotel with a view like ours pictured here: Refugio Romano (starting at $65).
Continue the Central Mexico Adventure
To continue the adventure and make a complete loop when you’re finished here, drive 5 hours to Ciudad Valles, one of the great adventure capitals of Mexico. You can go waterfall jumping, waterfall rappelling, whitewater rafting, lake scuba diving, and all kinds of other heart-pumping activities.
Read more about all of that in this Huasteca adventure article I wrote a while back.
After that it’s a short drive to the Sierra Gorda Biosphere. The next city to the south is Queretaro, with an international airport.
Alternatively, if you’d like to explore a mining town that’s still thriving as a city, drive four hours to Zacatecas, a gem that’s surprisingly devoid of foreign tourists. It has what is probably the best mask museum in the country, a gondola that goes across the city between two peaks, and a hotel that’s in a converted bullfighting arena.
If you’ve got any questions about doing a road trip of ghost towns in Mexico on your own, hit me up in the comments!