Vanlife diaries #49: Tlaquepaque & Guadalajara, Jalisco to Guanajuato & San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
We wrapped up several wonderful weeks in Jalisco by visiting the state capital and Mexico’s second largest city, Guadalajara, which was far more delightful than we’d imagined. The end of the week brought even more excitement as we headed inland to Guanajuato, getting farther off the tourist track and eventually exploring three-time winner of “Best City in the World”, San Miguel de Allende.
What we’ve been up to this week
After a wonderful few days spent exploring Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest freshwater lake, and the charming towns that surround it, we backtracked north to Guadalajara to finish our time in Jalisco with a bang.
So far, we’ve spent more time in Jalisco than any other state of mainland Mexico, owing to its incredible diversity of cultural experiences, beautiful landscapes, and magic towns. I wasn’t expecting much from Guadalajara and had even suggested omitting it from the itinerary in the interest of time (you’d be amazed how quickly 6 months in Mexico flies by), but it ended up being another fantastic destination— particularly Tlaquepaque.
Once its own city but since incorporated into the urban sprawl of Guadalajara, Tlaquepaque has retained the relaxed atmosphere and cultural charm of a much smaller town, hence its designation as a Pueblo Mágico.
If you’ve been reading my weekly updates for a while, you’ll recall that I’ve become intent on seeking out these “magic towns”, an official honour bestowed upon historically, culturally, or naturally significant pueblos throughout Mexico.
Without exception (and by definition), these are always shining examples of local heritage with heaps of worthwhile attractions, well-maintained town centres, and a tendency towards increased safety— in the case of Tlaquepaque, the police directed us to park on a well-lit street where they would be patrolling all night.
We enormously enjoyed our time in Tlaquepaque, whose city blocks are dominated by street sculptures, colourful art, and manicured gardens, and even took the opportunity to sample a number of local delicacies that had long been on my list.
The first was tejuino, a traditional corn-based beverage topped with lime sorbet that is native to Jalisco and rarely found outside the state. It is only about 2% alcohol thanks to the short fermentation process and it’s sold from countless vendors around the plaza, handed off as a sweet treat to locals and visitors in an enormous plastic cup.
We also sampled the truly inventive and very delightful Mexican treat of tostilotes, a variation on the equally popular tostilocos (also called dorilocos) sold throughout the country.
Both snacks involve cutting open a small bag of Tostitos or Doritos (hence the name) and stuffing it full of an almost nonsensical amount of toppings and sauces, which you then eat directly out of the bag wth a spoon. In the case of tostilotes, those contents are grilled corn, cotija cheese, butter, cream, chile, lime, and all the hot sauce your little heart might desire.
When I first saw tostilocos in Baja, I assumed this was a street food specifically catering to gringos who are interested in developing a heart condition or at least children with no concept of cholesterol, but I’ve since seen Mexicans of every single age eating tostilocos and tostilotes as if they are a food group.
And if it’s good enough for the locals, then it is absolutely good enough for me— and really, it was excellent, I will absolutely be eating this in the future. It combines all the cheesy appeal of elotes with the crunch of Doritos and is among Mexico’s greatest culinary contributions to humankind.
Although neither were necessarily new foods, we also loved the local pulque spot, charmingly named Tlaquepulque, which serves 2 different styles of this ancient fermented agave beverage (one of my favourite things in Mexico, described at length in this post) and a variety of curados (pulque blended with fruit).
But the highlight of our time in this little Pueblo Mágico came purely by coincidence. As we were walking through a market, a Mexican man called out to us in English and offered to answer any questions we might have on the area or where to go. Born in Cuidad Juárez in Chihuahua, Mexico but currently residing in New Mexico, Gilbert and his wife were spending 6 months renting a room in Tlaquepaque and enjoying the Mexican winter.
After much conversation, Gilbert invited us to listen to mariachi, which was proudly invented in Jalisco— every day at 3.30pm, a full mariachi band performs at El Parián de Tlaquepaque and you can sip drinks or nibble snacks at any of the restaurants that surround the enclosed plaza (which claims to be “the world’s largest bar”) to enjoy the music.
Incredibly generously, Gilbert ordered us an enormous cantarito (a traditional Jalisco cocktail made from tequila, grapefruit soda, and a whole heap of fresh-squeezed citrus) and even a plate of chips to share while we waited for the mariachi, but soon he learned from a passing musician that the performances had been reduced to weekends only since COVID. Determined to show us a good time, Gilbert paid the entire mariachi band to perform 2 songs directly at our table.
Not only was the drink wonderful, the setting beautiful, and the music truly amazing— we were once again astounded by the generosity of Mexican people. It seems every week that I have some new story of being taken on an impromptu private tour QUERETERAO LINK or waved away from a transaction without paying or even being handed a gift, and ultimately it is a constant reminder of how special this country and its people are.
While the media may portray a different perspective and the incoherent rambling of lunatics (Trump ugh) suggests that Mexico is full of unscrupulous criminals who exist only to take advantage of every situation, the reality is that this is one of the most inclusive, welcoming, kind, overwhelmingly generous countries I’ve ever visited.
People are genuinely excited that we’re here and they want to share their country and their culture with us! It’s an incredible feeling and something very rare indeed— I certainly don’t have stories like this from a majority of the other 45 countries I’ve travelled through. Mexican people continue to make our experience here even more special and I’m determined to let everyone know about it.
Incredibly impressed by Tlaquepaque, we headed into the Centro Histórico on Wednesday to explore Mexico’s second-largest city.
After parking our van in a secure lot (a modest $12USD to park for 2 full nights, where of course we also slept in our van), we spent a majority of our time walking enormous distances across Guadalajara to take in all the impressive sights.
While in the city, we checked out MUSA, a wonderful free local art museum showcasing a variety of paintings, photography, and mixed media works from Mexican artists.
And, of course, sample some of the local cuisine! Today, we tried tortas ahogadas, a meat-filled sandwich “drowned” in a spicy tomato-based sauce and topped with onions and cilantro. We followed it up with a delicious raspado (which literally translates to “scraped” and is a sort of shaved ice, but made with real fruit), but perhaps the ultimate highlight was chilaquiles made with pipian verde mole, an incredibly rich sauce made from pumpkin seeds, among other things.
One of the highlights of our 2 days in the city was wandering through the overflowing and overwhelming aisles of Mercado San Juan de Dios, certainly the largest market we’ve yet seen in mainland Mexico (and indeed the largest we would be seeing for quite some time).
Like most of the markets in Latin America, there were a few items that might constitute souvenirs, but a majority of the contents were household items and general wares available for locals who come here to shop. Similar to how we’d visit a mall in the USA or Australia, Mexicans visit these massive, multi-tiered markets to buy everything from shoes and shirts to lemon juicers and brooms to loose spices and herbal supplements.
Visiting these mercados doesn’t always serve an immediate purpose to travellers (unless you’re in the market for traditional straw Christmas beads, which we just happened to be)— but its value is in cultural education, an opportunity to glimpse into local Mexican life and learn more about how people live in other parts of the world.
The organised chaos of San Juan de Dios is a prime example, and it’s impossible not to feel slightly awed by the way that things just seem to work here in a way that wouldn’t be possible in our own overly bureaucratic countries. There’s an elegance to the rows of stalls, for example, that seem to sell the exact same things as their neighbour, and yet there’s never more than friendly competition for your business— everyone seems to accept that they will win some or lose some customers to the adjacent stall, and no one ever fights for more than their share.
It’s a novel concept, but one that pervades much of Mexican culture: take only what you need for your family, and if you should find yourself with a surplus, then help your neighbour. If you aren’t going to buy it from my stall, at least by it from the one next door!
Guanajuato City, Guanajuato
Bordering Jalisco to the east is the oft-overlooked Guanajuato, a state with some of Mexico’s most magical cities, colourful laneways, and striking architecture.
Aside from the now world-known San Miguel de Allende (which has for multiple years been named “the best city in the world”), much of Guanajuato state is off the main tourist track, or at least for international travellers— this, of course, was a large part of the appeal!
Though the streets were packed with tourists, they were all domestic travellers and Mexican families, and we remained the only gringos in Guanajuato for our entire stay in the city.
The crowds actually made the experience that much more exciting, and the fact that we were surrounded by Mexicans also made it feel decidedly more authentic than the resort-bustle of Puerto Vallarta or the drunken backpacker vibe of Sayulita.
We arrived into Guanajuato after a 4.5hr drive from Jalisco, directly into the capital city (which is also called Guanajuato) via a network of underground tunnels carved into the rock.
There were some initial concerns about our van fitting through these tunnels, and of course there was the novel problem of loosing GPS signal each time and emerging into the daylight like confused voles with squinted eyes and no sense of direction… but we came to appreciate the tunnels as yet another thing that makes Guanajuato unique.
When we did finally arrive into town, we were immediately smitten with the colourful vistas, cobbled laneways, and infectious spirit of Guanajuato City. From a variety of new foods (like the guacamaya) to the callejoneadas (a traditional evening singing parade that wanders through the alleyways), there’s something distinctly different— and VERY magical— about this part of Mexico.
And that’s one of the most wonderful things about travelling through Mexico, the fact that it feels like 20 countries rolled into one. Each region has its own food, culture, traditions, climate, geography, landscape… and the result is feeling like you’ve arrived somewhere entirely foreign each time you cross state-lines or pass from one region into the next.
The diversity of this country is truly staggering and, though I’ve often praised other destinations for that very thing, I think it’s never been truer than in Mexico.
We spent our days in Guanajuato taking in expansive views of the city from the Pipila Monument overlook (which we visited multiple times via an unending series of stairs climbing up the hill from the centre of town), wandering through busy markets, and then perching at outdoor cafes to sit back and watch the city just teem around us.
Every corner of Guanajuato is some bright splash of colour or architectural marvel, but it’s also an important place in Mexican history— Miguel Hidalgo and his peasant army marched to Guanajuato in 1810 to begin the Mexican War of Independence. This remains a great source of local pride and the city is covered with monuments and landmarks dedicated to this significant moment in history.
Among Guanajuato’s other notable historical contributions is being the birthplace and hometown of Diego Rivera, the esteemed Mexican painter who was commissioned internationally throughout his illustrious career and who later married Frida Kahlo, perhaps the only other Mexican artist whose fame eclipsed his own.
With the intention to visit their shared home (which was also Frida’s childhood home) in Mexico City, which has been preserved as a museum to Frida Kahlo, we took the opportunity in Guanajuato to visit the museum housed in Diego Rivera’s childhood home and dedicated to the evolution of his artistic career.
Though neither of us are typically inclined towards art museums, we were suitably impressed by the enormous collection housed within the three-level Museo Casa Diego Rivera and the obvious diversity of his talent from sketching to cubist painting. Walking through the kaleidoscope laneways of lovely Guanajuato, it seems entirely fitting that this is the kind of place to birth an icon.
Cañada de la Virgen, Guanajuato
Our introduction to the city began with a visit to the nearby Cañada de la Virgen, an incredible Otomi archaeological site built in 530AD. After the empire declined and abandoned the complex around 1050AD, it was lost to the jungle for nearly a thousand years before being excavated and opened to the public in 2011.
Visitors to Cañada de la Virgen are limited to a single shuttle each hour, so it is far less crowded than other archaeological sites, but it was admittedly difficult to follow all of the information shared by our group’s Spanish-only guide (of course not for the rest of the group, who were all locals).
Among the things I did manage to understand were that the original name of the site has been lost to time, but that it is believed to be a temple dedicated to the moon.
The Otomi people were particularly interested in the sky— the entire complex was built to correspond to significant astronomical criteria, including facing celestial north, where the stars rotate in a circle directly overhead throughout the year and the moon travels up the stairs throughout its cycle.
During the solstices, the sun and moon rise within specific parts of the pyramid and illuminate key features— a staggeringly precise accomplishment for an ancient civilisation, but not unlike what the Incas achieved with Machu Picchu or how the Egyptians designed Abu Simbel in such a way that sun would illuminate the inner temple only twice yearly on specific dates.
As with any archaeological site, it’s humbling to witness the incredible sophistication of the Otomi people and how their spiritual and religious connection with the earth enabled them thrive in a time before the moon cycles were on Wikipedia or the stars were accessible via an app.
All of their knowledge of the sky was directly observed and painstakingly recorded, and now the temple stands as a testament to the ancient people who inhabited Mexico long before it was Mexico.
San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato
Our final stop of the week (though it actually overflowed into the next calendar week), was to the aforementioned hotspot of San Miguel de Allende, located just an hour from Guanajuato City.
This little town has grabbed Travel+Leisure’s coveted “best city in the world” award 3 out of the last 5 years, and with its striking baroque architecture, colourful terraces, and vibrant expat community, it’s easy to understand why so many have been enchanted by SMA.
Naturally, we were keen to investigate for ourselves— it took us a little while to make it outside after Dan came down with a rather severe bout of 24hr food poisoning, but by Tuesday he was largely recovered and we were ready to get amongst it.
La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, the iconic pink-hued church that dominates the central plaza and much of the surrounding skyline, was even more impressive in person.
And despite being midweek, the central plaza and surrounding gardens buzzed with a palpable energy as mariachi bands serenaded eager onlookers and all cameras pointed to the Parroquia.
Unlike so many of the places we’ve travelled in Mexico thus far, SMA was notably full of gringos, a majority of whom are expats or retirees who’ve chosen to make their home in this colourful Mexican town.
The prices are somewhat reflective of that— substantially higher than nearby Guanajuato, but still very low compared to the US or Australia, hence the appeal. And what you’re paying for is one of the cleanest, safest, most international pueblos in Mexico, which to many is worth a few extra pesos and the sacrifice of a truly authentic local experience.
With that in mind, we indulged in an incredible Lebanese lunch from Fenicia (the town is renowned for its varied worldwide cuisine) and cocktails from one of the city’s many rooftop bars.
As the sun descended over the colourful churches and leafy laneways, I couldn’t deny the beauty and oft-cited magic of San Miguel de Allende, but part of me also longed for the rough charm and grittiness that is characteristic of Mexico and yet notably absent from SMA.
This was a wonderful visit, and I’m sure there will be many people hot on my heels for this, but I think we actually preferred the effortless charm of Guanajuato to the pristine beauty of San Miguel de Allende.
Where we stayed this week
Just to keep nearby destinations together within a single post, this weekly update runs from Tuesday to Tuesday:
- Street parking in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco (free; 8 Feb)
- Secure parking in the centre of Guadalajara, Jalisco (266p for 44hrs; 9-10 Feb)
- Boondocking on a hill overlooking all of Guanajuato city, Guanajuato (free; 11 Feb)
- Street parking on the shores of Presa de La Olla in Guanajuato, Guanajuato (free; 12 Feb)
- MX Hotel in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato ($32USD per night; 13-14 Feb)