“Mexico is so dangerous! Why would you go there?”
That was one of the first things I’d heard from someone when I excitedly told them I was going. “But is it safe?” was another common question.
Unfortunately for Americans, the media paints our neighbor to the south as a land riddled with nothing but drug overlords, rampant gun violence, ruthless gangs, and bad water. While these things do exist (it’s still good advice to avoid drinking the water!), it is important to put everything into perspective. Some cities in Mexico are much safer by far than many places in the United States.
Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.Helen Keller
I don’t want to come across as flippant. There are places to avoid and you should do some cursory research before planning your trip. Just don’t discount the whole country because of a few trouble zones and don’t believe the negative hype. Especially that. Chicago has a reputation for homicides, mostly in the southern and western portions of the city; yet, millions and millions of tourists descend upon the Windy City undeterred by these statistics.
So, let’s step away from the television and radio for a moment and imagine a destination that is safe, friendly, compact, charming, beautiful, cheap, and filled with a plethora of delicious restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and dessert places. The weather is warm with few clouds and no humidity. Throw in a UNESCO World Heritage site, replete with historical churches, colonial buildings, cobblestone streets, and a mile-long aqueduct that will welcome visitors with its open arches.
Fantasy, you say? I can assure you that it is as real as the air I was breathing for a week in February. From an open-air roof deck overlooking palm trees and stone turrets with a backdrop of distant hills, I had begun writing this and practicing my ability to be digitally nomadic.
Welcome to Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico, known more commonly by its short name and the same name as the state in which it is located, Querétaro.
Three or so hours by bus from Mexico City, Querétaro is a bustling city of nearly one million. However, lingering in the city center you would never know that. Life here seems as peaceful as can be, with a population that appears to know how good they’ve got it.
The core downtown was indeed dubbed by UNESCO as a historical site as far back as 1996. The city is one of the fastest growing in terms of economy and population. As we approached the famous aqueduct from the airport drive, my host told me that it had been the first thing visitors would see 10 years ago. Now it just signals the entrance to the historical center, but the sprawl began halfway from the airport, just over a half hour away.
What brought me here was a meeting of sorts, but this was no business conference or training session. The group Location Indie‘s “Mexico Experience”–its third official gathering–brought together around 30 like-minded entrepreneurial souls yearning to break free from the shackles of an office desk to pursue their passions and incorporate more travel in their lives.
Our gathering space was a modified colonial building with a makeshift rooftop deck from which we had our daily meetings. Our gaze from that location took in the rooftops of old Querétaro, church domes jutting up along the skyline like mushrooms after the rain. Sunsets were nothing short of majestic.
City of Charm
The thing about Querétaro I liked the most was just being there, soaking up its charm, tranquility, good weather, and easygoing populace. I felt no pressure to be a tourist, yet there were surprises at every corner waiting to be discovered. Little side streets revealed a hidden shop or cafe that surely wasn’t there the day before. Eating establishments were so plentiful that it would take years to try them all.
The corner coffee shop barista at Calufe greeted me after my second appearance as if I’d lived in the area for years. In fact, I felt very welcome everywhere I went. I could tell from witnessing daily life here that there was something special about the place that I rarely encounter when traveling, and it wasn’t just my own mindset. People here appeared genuinely content, and that included the tourists.
My week in Querétaro started with a meandering walk around the city, beginning with a bountiful breakfast at the brand new Oaxacan restaurant a few blocks away from my Airbnb. Chilhuacle, named for the indigenous but rare hot pepper found in the southeastern Mexican state of Oaxaca, was recommended by my host and happened to be one of the few places I found open before 11 on a Sunday morning. I sat at a little table with a view of the open sky and a lemon tree above me. The temperature was already in the low 70s and there was not a cloud to be seen.
For under $10 US I feasted on a free appetizer of chips and two spicy salsa options, a mug of coffee, a chalice of papaya juice, and a platter with steamed vegetables, refried beans, and a thick omelet smothered in thick mole sauce, with fresh hot tortillas on the side. Cue the angels to sing.
Not familiar with mole (pronounced “mow-lay”)? As you can see from the photo, it’s a dark sauce made mostly from black poblano peppers, spices, and sometimes cacao. Oaxaca state alone is known for seven specific versions, and is probably the most popular origin of it but it’s found all over Mexico. Just like with any sauce, regional variations and chefs’ experimentations result in a tremendous array of options to choose from. I’m not sure which specific style of mole I had, but I’m pretty sure there was chocolate in it. I’ll take this any day over the Cadbury milk chocolate eggs you find at Easter time.
Waddling out of the restaurant, I attempted to exchange dollars for pesos at a convenience store, but they couldn’t do it. Luckily they accepted plastic and I had a whopping 63-purchase on my credit card. Most currency exchange kiosks were closed on Sunday, and I foolishly forgot my ATM card–the first time I’d ever done such a thing. I’ll have to add that to my list of dumb travel mistakes.
A couple of blocks (it’s unclear whether “block” is an appropriate measure of distance in a city with oodles of short crisscrossing lanes and alleyways) east of the grandiose Santa Cruz church and convent is the Mirador de los Arcos. This observation deck offered sweeping views of the rest of the city and its beloved arches.
Speaking of love, the entire construction of the aqueduct has utterly romantic origins, or at least that’s how the legends seem to have been passed down. Unable to consummate their relationship due to religious obligations, a wealthy marquis and pious nun agreed to live apart corporeally but together in spirit. Being rich, the marquis constructed an elegant house filled with world treasures and the finest materials, and built the aqueduct to deliver water to it. The maneuver resulted in the city’s first domicile with running water. The marquis bestowed his generosity to the rest of the community by channeling water to several fountains around town, which can still be seen today. Who knows if this is completely accurate, but who am I to disagree with such a dramatic story? The arches are well preserved and stretch for just under a mile.
I’ve already mentioned that Querétaro is a city for strolling. I could easily run through a list of must-see churches, squares, gardens, fountains, and historical monuments. I might continue to rave about the wonderful meals I ate and offer suggestions of other places I didn’t get to, but were vying for my attention. Still I believe the best thing to do here is just wander within the historical center.
Sometimes it takes a wrong turn to get you to the right place.Mandy Hale
The things is that when you start walking, you open yourself up to possibilities. Let your curiosity guide you to something that piques your interest. Especially in Querétaro, it’s likely that you’ll find your way to one of the main plazas, gardens, or fountains. The difference is that along the way you will discover so much more than a map or guidebook will tell you.
Bougainvillea fans out around windows of a house on a little side street, its color bursting in hues of deep magenta and crimson. Nearby schoolchildren are laughing and kicking a tattered soccer ball down the street. A man on the corner sells ears of corn and esquites made to order, while a doorway two houses down is ajar to allow an enticing scent of carne asada to waft across your nostrils. The azure sky is clear except for intricate power lines and a lone hawk soaring above towards the nearest church spire to roost.
This scene is from one block of a tiny street. You could easily miss these things in the midst of a busier street trying to check GoogleMaps for the location of that church you were supposed to see. Instead, just continue along the side street for two more blocks and there it is anyway.
Top Sights in Querétaro
Of course you may want a little guidance in order to not miss a few of the most interesting attractions, like the musical fountain outside of the Santa Rosa de Viterbo church. It is within the historical center, but could be easily missed if you didn’t venture far past the central square and gardens. In between the church and fountain, large white block letters spelled out the city’s name, providing the perfect photo op with a built-in geotag.
Beyond the simple pleasures of back street meanderings, my favorites from the week probably just scratch the surface. I could tell there is so much more to this city, but I am drawn to green spaces, architecture, and unusual sites. Here’s my list of favorites in no particular order:
- Jardín Zenea: arguably the heart of the city, this relatively small park bustles with musicians, pedestrians, and lovers with hands entwined. There’s a grand pavilion and a variety of trees making up the perimeter, with one of Querétaro’s many fountains tidily in the middle.
- Museo Regional de Querétaro: when visiting another city, especially one in which I plan to spend a little time, I tend to check out their city/region/state museum. I had the time and popped into the regional museum right across from the Zenea garden. The cost was only 60 pesos (about US $3), and even though the signs were in Spanish, the beauty of the grounds made the visit well worth it. The building was part of what was the San Francisco de Querétaro convent. On a Sunday there were very few people there, so I found myself in the sun-dappled courtyard under a grove of orange trees admiring the arched hallways above and a view of the dome on the adjacent building.
- Plaza de Armas: most cities have one of these, but my favorite part of it was that the central fountain had four dogs spewing water. It was cute and funny while being aesthetically pleasing. I sat on one of the benches Monday morning and ate my breakfast, facing the governor’s palace (aka Casa de la Corregidora).
- Monumento a la Corregidora: catercorner from the Zenea garden, this monument partially encircled by outdoor restaurants and more trees highlights one of the heroines of the movement for national independence, Doña Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez. It’s a great place to have lunch, read a book on one of the shaded benches, or stroll around with an ice cream cone.
- Plaza Constitución: in contrast to the verdant parks around the city, this square is mostly open air, which makes it a great place for sunbathing and people watching. It’s much more modern and there are mostly stores around it but it’s just on the other side of Zenea and less than a block from the regional museum.
- Fuente de Neptuno: prominently on a corner of the grounds of the Parroquia del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús “Templo de Santa Clara” church, the “Fountain of Neptune” is a major landmark in a busy pedestrian street just a few buildings down from the famed Casa de la Marquesa. The latter is the house that was built for the nun by the moneyed marquis and is now a fancy hotel.
- Plaza Mariana de las Casas: I’ve already mentioned the musical fountain next to the church where there’s a sign with the city name…this is that square. Aside from the fountain and sign, there are restaurants and within the plaza itself many vendors selling handicrafts and trinkets. It’s a pleasant way to while away the afternoon.
- Plaza de los Fundadores and el Templo y Convento de la Santa Cruz: opposite each other, these two plazas are really contrasting in style. The Founders’ Plaza is smaller and known for more al fresco eating venues, whereas the Holy Cross cathedral seems to loom over the rest of the city with importance and grandeur. A road separates the two but it is a great landmark of conjoined wide open spaces that allows for plenty of shutterbug dreams come true.
- Los Arcos: it goes almost without saying that the aqueduct is one of the favored sites in the city. The architecture, story behind it, and present day place in Querétaro’s history makes it one of the most memorable pieces of the city.
- Mercado de la Cruz: somewhat off the main central grid of the city, this compact but large market comes to life, especially on Sundays and in the evenings. Everything from pirated copies of the Bohemian Rhapsody movie to cilantro-infused chorizo to Superman costumes for children to leather shoes can be found here. In the evenings, the core of the market offers an endless array of taco stalls, juice bars, and everything in between. I enjoyed some delicious tacos and homemade horchata that filled me up and set me back a total of less than $5.
- BONUS – Compañía Cervecera Hércules: located a 15-minute Uber ride east of the historical center, I had to include this place not just because I like beer and wanted to check out a local brewery, but because this place is unique in its own right. A former textile factory turned into a brewery and beer garden complex that’s likely larger than the entirety of Vatican City, this place was unlike any other brewery I’d witnessed. It was challenging to find the entrance, but I was not alone; even the locals were perplexed. The beer garden is a huge open air courtyard with multiple side bars, stages, and other places to be. I didn’t even have time to explore the grounds. The beer was inventive, diverse, and delicious. If it weren’t for the 6:30 flight the next morning, I would have stayed longer and eaten. Definitely an unexpected highlight of the trip!
Part of the Location Indie experience included some excursions and meals, which began Sunday night with a blowout welcome dinner at an eclectic restaurant that could have been on the set of Game of Thrones. As we were meeting and greeting each other, I met someone whose mother was from my tiny Kansas hometown. After picking my jaw up off the floor, I considered this wild coincidence just one more reason why I knew in advance how special Querétaro would be. These serendipitous moments are what continue to make travel entertaining and exciting.
We all sat at an impossibly long table and the food began to come out in a seemingly endless fashion, one dish more intriguing than the one before it. There were few things that were familiar to me, but I easily recognized the fresh ground guacamole, tamales, gorditas, and mole sauce. One dish was made with crickets, which I’d actually had before in Washington, DC. Otherwise, few of the other multitudes of sauces and meats were familiar or explained. I have an adventurous palate, so this was a blast for me, but I wish I’d be able to identify all the food.
Pitchers of chia lemonade and hibiscus flower agua fresca kept coming. At the end of the feast we all got shots of mescal and a choice of dessert, which was a flan-like pudding or a type of cheesecake. I think I tried a little of everything, but there was no way all 40 of us could have finished it. I was thankful I had skipped lunch and just had a gelato.
The next morning, we embarked on a guided city tour that was much more historical than geographical, so I was glad that I had explored a bit on my own. It was interesting to learn of some of the history, though. I am always fascinated by historical details, but have trouble retaining the information. The time we spent in the Casa de la Corregidora was probably the most effective at getting across the lesson. There were three stunning murals inside that depicted various scenes and acts that were important to the revolutionary period in Mexico. The city is pretty much considered the birthplace of modern Mexico, as it was where independence was first declared. Twice it has served as the nation’s capital.
I’d like to go back to talking about the weather. I was there in February, so I won’t pretend to assume the climate is the same all year, but if there was an ideal temperature in which to exist, Querétaro is the magic bullet. Daylight hours ranged from the upper 60s to mid-to-upper 80s (that’s in the 20s Celsius). Only on the last day I was there did I see any substantial cloud cover. There was no humidity, and while the sun was hot, it was comfortably so. There were also no mosquitoes or flies that I saw.
The overnight lows reportedly reached down into the 40s (5 Celsius), but even the chilly post-sunset temperature felt more comfortable than it would in a northern climate. Early mornings were brisk, but it quickly warmed up. Most things were closed in the mornings anyway, and I was less motivated to go for my typical morning walks or the gym this time, so I only used my hoodie infrequently. If that’s not perfect weather for February for a non-beach location, I’m not sure what is.
Peña de Bernal and the “Pueblo Mágico”
The morning of our second full day together, we boarded two buses for Peña de Bernal, the world’s third largest monolith. I liked to think of it as the Sedona of the region, as I had heard of it described as a “magic town.” I later found out that “Magic Town” was an actual program of the Mexican government. However, I read in a well-known travel guide that this was a sacred site with special energy, so the “magical” title seemed to fit. There are certainly no questions about its title in the monolith category.
We didn’t actually climb to the very top, which would be tough even for experienced rock climbers. The site and the namesake town at its foothills was about 45 minutes east of Querétaro. It took a similar amount of time for us to ascend to the furthest hikeable point along the trail up. Once there, it was a glorious view of the surrounding valley, and we could see distant forests, deserts, the town below, and even a wine region.
The air was crisp and clear, and the only sound beyond us talking was the whipping of the winds. We had seen a few others on the trail, but no one else was at the top while we were. It was good we went early, because the descent was much warmer and we passed several groups of high school aged kids struggling to climb up. It’s one thing to have a perfect temperature, but it was a steep climb and definitely made us sweat.
Famished from the physical activity, we went into quaint downtown Bernal to feast on a meal of blue corn gorditas. I selected ingredients at random from the large menu of toppings, yet I knew nothing really about how they would be applied and in what combination or proportion. I also knew it didn’t matter because it was guaranteed to be delicious.
Irresistible to my curiosity, the little town plaza was only steps away from the lunch stop, so I took a quick peek before our buses left. Bernal town was like a mini Querétaro, compact and picturesque with an adobe church of radiant ochre and burnt sienna with a backdrop of the majestic mountain we had just scaled. I was ready to stay the whole afternoon right here.
A few of us stopped at a little ice cream cart and succumbed to a few scoops of tropical flavored delight on a tiny cone, sold by a friendly man who was happy to oblige us with free samples. The total cost for four of us was 65 pesos (about US $3.35). I never got to try the town’s specialty dessert, but I was plenty stuffed after all that.
Places to Drink and Eat in Querétaro
There was a certain amount of barhopping involved in this trip, though not quite as intense as I might have imagined based on prior gatherings with travelers. That turned out to be a very good thing, so as to allow me to get a decent night’s sleep each evening. Nightlife patterns were hard to discern; we would go to a place we’d heard about or passed by, but it would be closed on Tuesdays. But it was never a concern, for there were always plenty of bars to choose from. Here’s the rundown of where I went:
- Maria Y Su Bici: this was the place we had our welcome feast, and I’d already mentioned the mescal but they had plenty of other drinks. I didn’t order anything separate but tasted someone else’s mescal margarita and to this day I wish I’d ordered one. It was very refreshing and the smoky mescal mixed nicely with the tang of the lime and whatever else they put in there (I’m convinced there was a secret ingredient).
- Cantina El Faro: just two entrances away from my Airbnb, we happened to go here on one of the first nights after having a taco dinner at the nearby market. It was a popular little joint that was open every night late, and reportedly a good place for mescal. They also had bottles of regional beer, which is what we settled on. It’s a dive bar, and maybe a little hipster-y, but they brought out appetizers of jicama and chips, and I couldn’t beat the location.
- Alquimia: after attempting to go to three other places that were closed, we landed on this place a little over a block away from the Plaza de Armas. It’s more of a cocktail bar, which I was not in the mood for, so I got a bottle of Indio. Someone bought shots of cheap tequila, but that was the extent of that. I had been spoiled by the good mescal, but if I had to do it over I might try a rum drink.
- Gudwey: across the street from Alquimia, this place was larger but emptier, yet its beer selection made several of us happy. No drafts, but the bottled Mexican craft beers were impressive and there were several options to choose from. The bartender was friendly and accommodating by bringing us each beer from the fridge to look at so we could decide.
- Brewer Gastro / Erlum: aside from the multitude of confusing names, this was the first brewpub I visited in Q. They had several bottled beers on the menu that were brewed in house, from their sister brewery Toro, or from other parts of Mexico. The tap beers were on a chalkboard in the front bar, which was confusing. I tried several of their beers and enjoyed them, especially the IPA made with Ekuanot hops. They are not open on Tuesdays.
- Dodo Café: basically the bar wing of the Carranza 50 Terraza & Grill, this swanky cocktail bar gave us sticker shock after the cheap prices we’d seen everywhere else. Still, the drinks were less than what you’d find in the US and the creations in the menu (it was essentially a book) were works of art. I opted for something less fancy but more intriguing–a local corn liquor called “pox” (pronounced “poe-sh”). It tasted like a cross between a weak mescal and light tequila. I liked it, and had never heard of this type of alcohol before, so it was a perfect choice for me.
- Gracias a Dios: behind a back alley around the corner from the Plaza de Armas, we went here on a recommendation from someone’s Airbnb host. He had suggested not the main bar, but a hidden speakeasy bar within the bowels of this open-air dance club. It took some maneuvering and a wrong turn into a dark storage closet, but we eventually found this place tucked around the corner down the hallway to the bathrooms. The space opened up to a cellar-like bar serving exclusively Hercules beers and types of mescals and tequilas. This is where we spent the rest of the night. It was quiet and not at all crowded, compared to the boisterous main club.
- Maximiliano: one of the few gay bars in town, it was the last place I visited before leaving the next morning back home. The entrance fee was 200 pesos, but that included two drinks. The decor was mostly pink and Liberace-esque, with candelabras, statues, and a portrait of Maximilian. Since I went on the early side, it wasn’t too crowded. It was a mixed, casual crowd, mostly men. It probably would have been more fun if I didn’t have to get up at 3:30 to catch an Uber to the airport!
After the MexEx meeting, most people stayed around but were doing other excursions or working. I had to do the latter, but still got a chance to explore a little more and eat some more meals and have good coffee. Of the eating places I visited and haven’t already mentioned, here are some worth noting:
- Chinicuil: as part of our group, we had reserved the entire place exclusively for us and had a full four-course meal with agua fresca. The delectable items came out orderly, starting with uchepo (a small tamale covered in bean and tomato sauce), moving to crema de jitomate (roasted tomato soup), the main course filete borracho (“drunken steak”, which I had pre-selected; others chose from that, carved salmon, or stuffed poblano chile), and finally dessert of goat cheese flan.
- Café Amadeus: a German-Mexican café with a clear view of the arches, this place was nearly packed when I visited it on a Thursday morning. I received a free basket of bread with warm salsa to snack on as I waited for my order of huevos en nido, or “eggs in a nest” – a bed of shredded tortillas with poached eggs on top and smothered in a green chile sauce. Their menu had plenty of breakfast and brunch options and the coffee was really good.
- Maruca: around the corner from our headquarters and next to Maria y su Bici, this place was a pure delight and we had it all to ourselves. Recommended by someone who had gone the night before, it was another open air restaurant next to a fountain that they turned on just for us. The eager server explained in detail all of the menu items, unique ingredients, and offered some recommendations based on what we had asked about. I got another agua fresca with cucumber, spinach, and chia while we waited for the main courses. Isaac ordered a soup that was split fava bean and poblano chile, and the server brought spoons for us to try it–first individually and then together to blend the flavors. My meal was mole de cenizas, a stewed chicken breast stuffed with sautéed tomatoes and smothered in that thick mole I’d become addicted to.
- Súper Tamales y Atoles de Querétaro: this little hole in the wall place down the street from Brewer Gastropub served up cheap and filling tamales. I had the chicken ones, but they had pork and chorizo as well. I believe the cost was less than $3 US.
- El Buen Taco de Cecina: unlikely to be sought out by most travelers due to its location on Calle Ignacio Pérez, this was a tiny hole-in-the-wall taqueria not far from the coworking space I used on my last day in town. I ordered a sandwich on a sesame ciabatta bun filled with thick strips of pepperoni-like chorizo and a side of guacamole and sautéed shallot. The generous portion filled me up well beyond dinner time, and I washed it down with another refreshing horchata.
- La Antojería: while there are plenty of options to choose from that are likely better, I needed a quick afternoon snack and what better than a little chorizo quesadilla. They have an extensive array of fruit juices and smoothies as well.
- Piacere Italiano: this ice cream and coffee shop is the perfect afternoon pick-me-up. Looking for a little of both? Pick up an affogato with coffee ice cream. Instant happiness. Sit at the fountain along the Andador de 5 de Mayo and breathe in the sights, sounds, and solace of this peaceful city.
- Paletería Elias: if you haven’t tried paletas, they are like popsicles but with a wider variety of flavors and usually with cream or fruits, but really there are oodles of options. I limited myself to one, but could have camped out here sampling them. They seem to be more resistant to melting and the sticks are thicker and stronger than the flat ones I’m used to. Try one!
- Mushi Reposteria: their desserts are the epitome of decadence to the point of being unable to be finished, but they’re totally worth the attempt, especially if you have a chocolate sweet tooth. Their cappuccino was spot-on.
As I have recommended, to get the most out of Querétaro, put your walking shoes on. Even for those with mobility issues, getting around Querétaro would be easier than in many international cities. However, if you are tired of strolling or have only one day, you should consider the double decker red buses that many large cities have. There is also a trolley tour for around $10. Several tourist information kiosks are available in strategic spots downtown. I’m not sure if they have English speaking assistance, but they were certainly patient with my poor Spanish skills.
Querétaro has an “intercontinental” airport that serves Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, and Detroit, as well as several Mexican cities. It is a 34-minute Uber ride from the city center for $15-20 USD. Taxis are probably $5-10 more. There are buses, but my flights were all at odd hours and I didn’t want to waste the precious time.
I could have easily made a side trip to San Miguel de Allende, the monarch butterfly reserve in Michoacán, or even Mexico City, but I’m glad I stayed put right in Querétaro. It’s a city I fell completely and deeply in love with, and one that I hope to return to someday. I can’t imagine anyone not liking it, because there’s something for everyone.
Twenty pesos to the dollar. Have you booked your ticket yet?
Still feeling uneasy about safety in Mexico? Check out this article from an insurance company that has seen its share of catastrophic claims the world over: https://www.worldnomads.com/travel-safety/north-america/mexico/is-mexico-safe.
Updated March 24, 2019