Everyone knows about Mexico City & Cancun. San Cristobal de las Casas & Tulum are huge on the backpacker scene and loads of people rave about their experiences there. But no-one ever seems to speak about Mexico’s northern cities.
We assumed that was because there wasn’t much to see, but as we were travelling through this part of the country anyway thought we may as well plan a few stops on our journey. I’m so glad we did! We could not have been more wrong in our original assumption – these cities were some of the friendliest and most beautiful that we visited in the whole country.
Monterrey is Mexico’s 3rd largest city and has a reputation for being slightly dangerous, thanks to it’s proximity to the US border and a history of violence between drug cartels. However the city is now perfectly safe for travellers (obviously exercising a certain amount of common sense!) and so rewarding for people who do make the trip.
We chose to stay in the gorgeous Barrio Antiguo neighbourhood close to the city centre. Not only are the cobbled streets and colourful houses beautiful, but the area has lots of trendy new bars and a surprisingly large amount of vegan restaurants! I was very happy here.
On our first day of exploring we hit up three of the cities major museums, all located around the Macroplaza.
The Museo de Historia Mexicana was fascinating even though there was little information in English – it forced us to start practicing our Spanish early on! They had artefacts from the Aztecs, Mayans & other indigenous peoples, and a large section on the Spanish conquest and the kingdom of “New Spain”.
Next door the Museo de Noreste gave us an insight onto the history of Northern Mexico, covering the same time-period that we learned about while at The Alamo in Texas – very interesting to hear both “sides” of the story!
Finally we made our way over to Museo del Palacio, a small museum of local state history. By this point we were on information overload and only skim reading the displays, but at least the building was beautiful! And a very popular spot for wedding photos as we discovered.
The following day we met up with a local who we’d contacted through Couchsurfer. After lunch at a nondescript taco stand, Pavel (an architecture student) asked if we’d like to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art (MARCO) with him. We were less than enthusiastic, given how much culture we’d crammed in the day before, but agreed anyway since he seemed so keen.
To our huge surprise, it turned out to be the best thing we did in Monterrey and probably my favourite art gallery I’ve ever visited! The building itself is a part of the experience, designed to be appreciated as much as the art it houses – hence why our new architect friend was so passionate about the museum.
Obviously there were no cameras allowed inside but I did sneak a few phone snaps of some of the highlights, which included the original “Paul Smith” pink wall, an amazing exhibition of glowing string sculptures and the Mona Lisa painted in peanut butter & jelly!
San Luis Potosi
San Luis Potosi (SLP) is known for being one of the main industrial centres in Mexico with a booming automotive sector. In fact, BMW Group have just started developing a new $1 billion assembly plant in the city. (Also, apparently Ford were due to make a similar investment until a certain small-handed president became involved and pulled the deal!)
What many people don’t realise is that it also has a beautiful historic centre which became designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. We spent hours wandering around going in no particular direction, just taking in the colonial architecture.
Ready to rest our feet we stumbled across an awesome little craft beer bar called La Oruga y La Cebada (The Worm & The Wheat). We settled in at a sunny window, made friends with Martín the barman and enjoyed a few local stouts along with stories about the breweries who made them.
Similar to Monterrey, we reached out to the Couchsurfer community while in SLP. This time a lovely couple of engineers, Yuliana & Luis, offered to put us up in their home for two nights. They were another example of some of the amazing hospitality we experienced all over Mexico. We spent our evenings out for dinner with them chatting about life in Mexico, life in Scotland and most importantly why we all want to travel!
San Miguel de Allende
We arrived in San Miguel de Allende (SMA) hungry but also in need of some relief from the fried, cheesy, unhealthy Mexican food we’d been picking up while on the road. It seemed ideal that the first thing we stumbled across was an organic, vegetarian shop / cafe!
We split an avocado sandwich and a beetroot salad, and I don’t remember ever seeing either of us so happy to eat some raw vegetables!
We had less than 24 hours in SMA before starting our bus journey to Mexico City, so happily fuelled up we set off to explore with an aim to cover as much of the town as possible on foot.
The narrow streets seemed to get more and more colourful with every turn!
I was getting so tired out walking in the heat and couldn’t figure out why I felt a bit strange, until I remembered that SMA is at an altitude of nearly 2000m! It definitely took a bit of getting used to. When arrived at the main square luckily there were plenty of churches to duck into for a seat and a quick cool down while admiring the vast amounts of gold and marble used to decorate.
La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel is definitely one of the most impressive inside and out with it’s pink Neo-Gothic façade. It’s easy to see why it’s one of the most photographed churches in Mexico!
As we only had one night in SMA we decided to treat ourselves to a cocktail at the uber-fancy Rosewood hotel. The Luna Rooftop Bar has the best views in town, so we settled in right before sunset.
Every table has a set of binoculars for prime viewing / spying! It also gave Martin something to do as I set about taking a million photos of the skyline.
Luna Bar seemed like the perfect opportunity for our first taste of mezcal in Mexico. I went for a twist on a classic margarita, Martin chose a smokier concoction with cucumber and lemongrass. Both strong and delicious.
The sunset didn’t disappoint, with the clouds turning the same shades of orange and dusky pink as we’d seen in the streets earlier. San Miguel de Allende is definitely one of the prettiest towns in Mexico, if not the Americas.
Heading to Mexico City the following morning, we felt like we still only scratched the surface of northern Mexico. Thanks to our new Couchsurfing friends we left with a huge list of more magical towns & outdoor adventures which we’ll need to try next time we visit this vast & beautiful part of the country.
Please, if you’re visiting Mexico soon, look further than the Cancun coast and consider trying the northern states instead!