I live in Guanajuato City much of the year, a historic UNESCO World Heritage site full of historic architecture, pedestrian streets, and stairs climbing up the hillsides. One of the great things about living in the state of the same name though is all the adventure tours in Guanajuato—just outside the cities (including San Miguel de Allende) and in the countryside.
This is a highland state full of mountains, so it’s not hard to leave the urban environment behind to head into the hills. I do a lot of hiking, I’ve explored by horseback, and you can go out on ATVs, mountain bikes, or souped-up 4X4 vehicles if you’d like. There are canyons to hike or kayak, rocks to climb or rappel, and lakes to go kayaking on.
I won’t claim I’ve done it all in my adopted home state and I’ve got plenty left to explore in the future. I just attended (and was a speaker at) the Adventure Travel Mexico conference though, hosted in my home city this year, so I got the lowdown on some other fun adventures in Guanajuato to add to my list. Here are some highlights.
Hiking and Horseback Riding Above Guanajuato City
One thing I loved about being stuck in Guanajuato during the pandemic was that it was still really easy to get out into nature and get some exercise. From almost anywhere in the city, all you need to do is go up, up, and up some more to leave the urban environment behind.
The most popular hike in Guanajuato City you can do on your own or with a local buddy. You just head up to the Panoramica road, hang a right at the electric power substation, then follow the road then trail to the top. On the way you’ll pass a church in a cave and walk across a sheer rock face. At the top, the scenery is gorgeous in both directions. This is also a prime spot for rock climbing.
For longer hikes or ones that head to different peaks, you’ll need to connect with a guide or a local who knows the route. None of the trails are marked, probably because there are very few trees on the hills to block the view. You can usually figure out where you need to go since it’s just cacti and mesquite brush beside the paths. (Better to wear long pants and maybe even a long-sleeve shirt to avoid scratches from thorns.)
One local company that runs hiking tours is Cacomixtle. If you go to their bilingual website, you can see prices and booking information for hiking tours. Just remember that Mexico uses the $ sign even when referring to pesos, so if a tour is listed for $1,000 per person, that is really around US$50!
I went horseback riding through the mountains recently with local company Turismo Alternativo en Guanajuato. We left from a local ranch after getting there by pickup truck, went through their village, and then spent the rest of the time high above the city in the mountains. On the way back our cowboy guide stopped at a paleta (popsicle) place where they brought our favored flavors to us without us having to dismount.
It ended up being several hours long, but apart from my thighs being sore it all worked out well. The ride wasn’t technical and there were only a few spots where we had to go up or down steep sections. You can see more information (in Spanish only) on their website and get contact info to set up a tour with an English guide.
Horseback Riding With Coyote Canyon
In San Miguel de Allende, there’s a more established horseback riding company that’s been at it since 2000: Coyote Canyon Adventures. You can do a half-day trip with them that hits the prettiest parts of the canyon and provides some great views. I had the pleasure of doing this with my wife and daughter when the latter was young and it was a great day outside of the city.
The company runs much longer group tours though for experienced riders, multi-day trips that get you further into the countryside. There’s a variety of scenery this way, with places to stay along the way.
See more on their official tour website here and you can e-mail or call them in English for a quote on a custom tour.
Drive a 4WD Into the Guanajuato Countryside
Want to really get away from it all after a few days in San Miguel de Allende? Book a four-wheel-drive trip with Terra Dentro and in 45 minutes you’ll be in an area with no power lines, no houses, and no cell towers. (The company supplies satellite phones in case.)
They offer several different routes through wild spaces, including a hacienda route, a silver route (where precious metals moved on mules and donkeys back in the day), and the liberty route. The latter follows the footsteps of the first revolutionaries from Dolores Hidalgo to San Miguel to Guanajuato on back roads.
You can drive the rugged vehicle yourself, which is a big draw on its own for some guests, but you’re not roughing it on this trip. Eventually tables come out spread with food and local wines, with a great view to accompany your meal.
Tours run from four to eight hours. See more at the bilingual Terra Dentro website.
Into the Mountains on ATVs
The mountains around Guanajuato City and San Miguel de Allende are great places for ATV tours. There are lots of dirt roads that farmers and ranchers use, plus there’s an annual road rally race that runs outside the capital city.
You get to ride through mountains, across shallow rivers, and along ridges for an exciting experience of two or three hours. Just watch out for goats and wildlife! In the end you’ll ride back into the city, where you’ll get plenty of curious looks as you’ll likely be covered with dust and mud.
The company Turismo Alternativo en Guanajuato runs tours in the capital city, while ATV Extreme Tours runs them in San Miguel de Allende.
A Hot Air Balloon Over San Miguel de Allende
San Miguel de Allende often gets cited as the best small city in the world or the best city in the world period in glossy travel magazine readers’ polls. That’s partly because it has such a beautiful city center, anchored by an impressive gothic church that looks great from above as well.
You’ll get a whole different view of the city, the nearby lake, and the canyons by booking a hot air balloon ride over San Miguel de Allende. I’ll admit I haven’t done this because the one time I booked a trip, the winds were too strong and it wasn’t safe to go up.
During ATMEX though, a guide from Turismo Alternativo en Guanajuato took some of my conference mates up for the morning and they raved about it. One of those was my blogger friend Craig Zabransky of StayAdventurous:
The chance to float over San Miguel and view the landscapes of Guanajuato with a ride in a hot air balloon was certainly an adventure worth an early rise.
The excitement of the day starts watching the hot air balloons get filled with flames and then climbing into a basket before you take to the sky. The floating feeling instantly begins at liftoff and you can reach close to 600 meters in altitude with ease. The sunrise illuminates the sky as the world wakes up below your feet.
Then the hour tour ends with a soft landing and a celebratory glass of bubbly to cap off the experience. It was my first time in a hot air balloon during my travels to Guanajuato and I’d recommend it to everyone who visits.
Hiking Los Panales, Sierra de Lobos Near Leon
It’s hard to believe this hike through a nature reserve is less than an hour outside one of Mexico’s largest cities, beyond the industrial sprawl of Leon. With PiCaSo Tours, you board a van in the city and head out to the countryside for a hike that starts with grasslands, cacti, and desert flowers before a stop for a gorditas breakfast by a river.
You hike through Lajas River Canyon and eventually reach the giant stone monoliths known as The Honeycombs (Los Panales). The path goes higher to switch a view from the bottom to an overlook view from the top. The return is through an oak forest to make it a loop.
This is a great option for choosing one of the adventure tours in Guanajuato state for business travelers coming to Leon. It’s a way to get out of the industrial city and see more of what the rest of the state mostly looks like, away from the factories.
Kayaking by a Sunken Church and Through a Canyon
In Santiago Valley, southern Guanajuato state, there are a series of natural attractions that are almost completely unknown outside of the state. Well, they were until the sight of people kayaking through a church in the middle of a lake started showing up on Instagram in 2021.
Thanks to lower water levels for a few years, the Nuestra Señora de los Dolores church from the 18th century that was formerly under the water emerged above it. Lots of (mostly domestic) tourists started making the trip for the ideal photo op.
Less drought-dependent activities include kayaking through a beautiful canyon and across a lake or visiting a salt crater (Rincon de Parangueo) where you emerge from a tunnel to see the otherworldly landscape on the other side.
A company that offers all of this is based in the area, Ecovalle Tours. Enlist a Spanish speaker though if you’re not one yourself as they only have a Facebook page–no website–and that’s only in Spanish. Otherwise do some digging around online and find local operators to rent kayaks from. You can find the Rincon de Parangueo entrance with a combination of GPS and local directions.
Tierra Blanca and the Sierra Gorda Biosphere
Most of the Sierra Gorda Biosphere is in another state (see my article about it here), but it’s a sprawling nature reserve that eventually got extended into two other states as well, including Guanajuato.
Few foreigners make it up this way, in part due to limited promotion and communication in English, but those who make it experience a wild area with great paragliding, rappelling, and hiking opportunities.
It’s also a good region for astronomy and star-gazing since there’s not much light pollution in the area. Look for tour company Centro Vacacional El Salto on Facebook or Instagram to set up excursions, including one where you’re suspended on hammocks over a canyon. Not for those with a fear of heights!
For more information on what to do in the region, see the official tourism site here where there’s a dedicated section for adventure tours in Guanajuato.
All photos by Tim Leffel, a resident of Guanajuato, except where indicated. This article on adventure tours in Guanajuato was made possible by a financial partnership with the state tourism board, though as always, I only cover places I think are interesting to our readers and all opinions are my own.