Queretaro Mexico Travel Guide

Querétaro may not be the city that jumps to mind when you think Mexico, but it is possibly the most historically important city in the era of Republican Mexico. It was here that the revolution began that launched Mexico as an independent country, it was here that a revived Monarchy, under the Hapsburg Emperor Maximillian came to a bloody end, and was here that the current constitution was written and adapted.

(caption: The Queretaro aqueduct at night)

It also can boast a Centro area that has been well-preserved. That means that you can find architecture that still speaks the language of the 18th and 19th centuries.


Any touring in Querétaro will revolve around these two things, history and architecture. The tourist who enjoys either of these will have a good time in the city.

(caption: Images of Querétaro)

That doesn’t mean everyone else will be left out. There are lovely parks and plazas and the weather is almost always pleasant, so you can enjoy these in comfort. There is a vibrant downtown life, with lots of stalls, and shops selling crafts and trinkets, from the vulgar to the beautiful.

While not exactly a tourist city it repeatedly ranks as one of the cleanest cities in Mexico. Much effort has gone into making it an attractive destination for businesses and people. It is also one of the safest cities in Mexico. Rumour has it that the cartels keep their families here and keep the violence out. Whatever the cause it is a low crime city, making it especially attractive in an otherwise turbulent Mexico.

Querétaro is about three hours by bus from Mexico City, and sits at elevation of about 6,100 feet above sea level. It rests in a valley, surrounded by hills and mountains, which provide handy landmarks when you need to orient yourself.

The original city was situated on a low hill in that valley, and the present day Centro area occupies the limits of the old city. The city has grown to fill the valley and climb up the hillsides, but most of what makes Querétaro interesting and unique can be found in the confines of the old city.

Tourist Attractions in Queretaro

The logical place to start a tour is at the Convent and Temple of Santa Cruz. It crowns the hill of the old city and was critical to the growth of the city. If you travel in Mexico you will realize that there are plenty of churches and convents, so you might think my statement a bit of hyperbole. In this you would be wrong. There is actually a very interesting story connected with the convent, and the later success of the city revolves around this story.

(caption: The church of Santa Cruz from the plaza.)

As a city Querétaro was hampered by a lack of water. Without water it could not grow beyond its original confines. As the tale goes, the Mother Superior of the Convent made a special request to the Marquis de Aquilar that he undertake the construction of an aqueduct to bring water in from the surrounding hills. His motives for accepting the challenge were other than religious as he had been romantically attached to the Mother Superior when both were young and unencumbered. Neither time nor her vows had dissipated his love for her. That is how the story goes, and it is such a pleasant tale that I do not care to dig any deeper.

Whatever his impulse the facts stand: she asked, he did, and the city had water to grow. Its completion in 1738 marked a new era for the city.

That aqueduct stands just to the west of the convent. If you approach the old city from the Northeast, coming up the Avenida Los Arcos you will be travelling in the shadows of the aqueduct. This aqueduct disappears into a stone wall at the corner of an odd-shaped city block that includes the grounds of the convent and the temple. If you were to continue up the road another two blocks you would come to the central reservoir which served as a distribution point for all the water coming in by aqueduct.

(caption: Looking down along the Avenida Los Arcos.)

Not only did the aqueduct allow the city to grow, it gave it international recognition. The aqueduct was a point of pride for New Spain, and stories about it appeared in papers throughout Europe.

To fully enjoy the view of the aqueduct, and to get a good view of modern Querétaro I suggest that you turn right off of the Avenida Los Arcos at the point where the aqueduct enters the wall. This street is called Ejército Republicano and quickly leads to a small park dubbed the Pantheon de los Queretanos Illustres. It is an open square filled with statues of historically important citizens of Querétaro.

If your Spanish is good you can learn a lot about the city from the inscriptions. If it is more like mine then content yourself with the view.

(caption: A view from the Pantheon de los Queretanos Illustres showing the aqueduct.)
Continuing up Republicano will take you around the walls of the convent to the temple itself and the large plaza in front of it. As plazas go it is not my favorite, It is too large to encourage the intimacy found in the smaller plazas, but there is still a lot of activity.

If you chance upon the temple on a Sunday, your best bet is to enjoy a Mass, because the church stays busy all day. However, if you arrive on other days you may be able to tour the church and enjoy its architecture.

Its origin dates back to July 25th, 1531, when a stone cross and Saint James the Apostle appeared in the sky over the site of the current church. At the time of the appearance the hilltop was engulfed in a fierce battle between the Chichimeca people and forces of the Spanish conquistadors. The Franciscans erected a wooden cross to mark the miracle, but the locals knew they had seen a stone cross and weren’t putting up with any substitutes. A stone cross was carved and put in its stead, and that same crude stone cross now resides high above the elaborately carved altar, looking out of place, but very much a reminder of the history of the church.

(caption: The simple stone cross now has elaborate surroundings.)

The presence of Saint James at the battle also explains the official name of the city, which is Santiago de Querétaro. Santiago is Spanish for Saint James.

Starting in 1683 grounds of the convent also served as a college for missionaries, from which numerous evangelists ventured forth to spread the good news.

Not all of its uses have been of a religious nature. The convent served as a prison during the War of Mexican Independence. About fifty years later the Emperor Maximillian, the Habsburg prince recruited by Mexican monarchists to rule Mexico, made this his headquarters while he made his last stand in Querétaro. After his defeat a few miles away it served once again as a prison, this time for the Emperor, during the trial that led to his execution.

The Templo de Santa Cruz is fairly typical of the churches you will find in Querétaro, and throughout Mexico. Built of stone, it has a stucco exterior with a mixture of Classical, Renaissance and Baroque details. It has a bell tower and boasts two domes.

It is in the interior where Mexican churches shine. In the case of Santa Cruz this is quite literal as the numerous composite order columns that frame the niches have all been accented with gold. I am not an expert in church architecture, but I would call the style Renaissance, but with little Baroque flourishes. Compared with other churches in town it is restrained, but still far more ornate than I am used to.

This is an active church so be sure to mute your camera, if you have this option. Even in mid-day you will find multiple worshippers engaged in prayer. They are tolerant of visitors, but be considerate.

Passing through the numerous vendors in the plaza the next stop I recommend is a few blocks down Avenida Indepencia. This is the street that runs straight out from the front of the church. Take a left at the Y. A couple of hundred meters down, on the right, you will see a sign for the Casa de la Zacatecana.

This is a pleasant museum and your best chance to get inside one of the old-style homes. The house is decorated as it would have been at various points in the past, with each room decorated according to a particular theme. It doesn’t actually show you the furniture of the Zacatena, but it provides a great look at how the upper crust lived in 18th and 19th Century Querétaro. The cost of the museum is 35 pesos, but 20 pesos more will allow you to take still photos.

There is a special video that they ask that you watch that explains the history of the house. They offer it in an English version, which they were quick enough to insert when my Spanish failed me.

(caption: The main hall in the Louis the XVIth Style. I know this because each room is carefully labelled as to its contents and its style.)
As my special love is residential architecture let me take you aside and explain what you will see in this house. The Spanish brought with them a Mediterranean take on the proper layout of a house. This Mediterranean style informed the architecture of Mexican homes to the present day.

At the center of almost every grand “Meson” in Querétaro is an open court. Surrounding this court is a colonnade, or covered porch. Usually these houses are two stories high, so you have a two-tiered colonnade, which acts as a hallway to the rooms, which are on the exterior of the colonnade.

(caption: A view of the colonnade and courtyard from the second story. The open air courtyard has been glassed in since it was originally built.)

It would not work in colder regions, but in warm climates this is an excellent way to arrange your house. Usually a pool or fountain will grace the center of the courtyard. This helps cool the air on the ground floor which helps set up a good circulation where the air will warm and rise up the center of the courtyard opening, drawing in fresh air from below. This creates a nice breeze throughout the house.

Most of these houses will have classical-style pillars. The stone construction is likely to depend on the judicious use of arches. While they entered into a society that had its own customs and motifs the upper-classes looked to Spain for inspiration, so you will find little in the way of indigenous designs in most of these older homes.

So who is this Zacatecana? She is the most famous gold-digger in Querétaro. She was a woman of Zacatecas (another Mexican town in the silver belt) who married a man of wealth. They resided in this house for several years, but the wife was not happy. Divorce being difficult to come by she took a lover, and when that situation became untenable she had her lover, a servant, kill her husband. While she claimed that her husband had gone away on business and failed to return many did not believe her. Eventually revenge proved her undoing. Friends of the deceased murdered her in her bed and dragged her body out into the street.

When investigators dug in her basement they discovered not only the body of her husband, but the body of her lover. In the long history of Querétaro this crime matters little, but it is still the biggest scandal this city has to offer, and if the tourism ministry has a say in it, will not be forgotten anytime soon.

From the Casa proceed a few houses down to Calle Pasteur. Turn right and one block up you will enter into the Plaza de Armes. This is perhaps my favorite plaza in Querétaro, but there are so many good ones it is hard to judge. There are several reasons why I like it.

In the fountain in its center it has four hound dogs spouting water. It has the advantage of having a colonnade on two sides, and shade trees with lots of benches on three sides. It is always full of people, usually has music and lots of street vendors. Performing artists are also common and as I write this a man on six foot stilts is walking past me.

(caption: The dog fountain in the Plaza de Armes on a quiet Sunday.)

Where to Eat

My last two reasons for my fondness comes from my appreciation for good food. Two excellent restaurants front the East end of the Plaza. El Meson del Chucho El Roto possibly has better food, but the Restaurante 1810 has some specialties that appeal to my taste for the unusual. It was here that I first experienced ant eggs, crickets and corn fungus, over the course of many return visits.

Both restaurants have musicians playing on the sidewalks, with the musicians of each taking turns. Entres run in the $15.00 range, but salads and side dishes are price separately. Much of the seating is outdoors, under awnings, and you can see all the goings on in the plaza. You may find less expensive food, but you will not find better.

On the down side, or perhaps as a plus, street vendors will occasionally ply their wares to these seated next to the plaza. The restaurant staff will send them away if the are rude, so they aren’t particularly intrusive.

Queretaro Nightlife

The plaza is perhaps at its best at night. The Centro area stays busy most nights. On busier festival days the traffic surrounding Centro is as thick at midnight as it is at 6 pm. Midnight is about as late as I go, so I can’t vouch for the early morning hours.

(caption: A view of the Plaza de Armes with Chucho El Roto on the left.)

If you look around while you are enjoying your food, you may notice Querétaro is not a big draw for foreign tourists. They are scattered through the crowd, but you don’t see busloads. It is largely undiscovered. Most of the tourists are home grown. Unlike the big tourist cities you won’t find a lot of Anglo or Asian tourists here. It draws from Mexico, because of the history, and it draws locally, because it is a fun place

The Centro area draws a lot of people from the surrounding area, including Querétaro itself. There are a lot of festivals in the Centro area. I have seen it dead a few times, but most of the time it seems like there is something going on. It is an important entertainment venue, even for the locals.

As I write this there is perhaps more activity than normal. This is the Saturday before the day of the dead, and there are mimes, and clowns, and singers, and dancers plying their craft. Every plaza seems to have something going on. I can judge this because I have been here a dozen times before, but I can also say that these types of activities occur on a regular basis. Centro Querétaro is a busy, happening place.

Shopping in Queretaro

From almost any direction you take from the Plaza de Armes you will find interesting shops and the roads will lead to other plazas and other churches and you just can’t go wrong. However, when I tell my friends where to go I suggest that they take the small alley that flows straight south from the 1810. Calling it an alley sounds dangerous. It is really a footpath lined with small stalls, indigenous women selling textiles on the sidewalks and cafes and stores lining the way. This alley leads to others, also sporting stalls and shop. There is enough jewelry for sale to supply several cities, although most is of low quality and may well sport “Made in China”. These alleys, and some larger streets, are closed to automotive traffic. The city has done an excellent job at making the best areas of Centro pedestrian friendly.

My favorite vendor requires a turn to the left at the first intersection down from the 1810. To date I have bought bracelets, necklaces and earrings for every woman in my family from this vendor because he has a unique style that seems to coincide with mine. His prices seem reasonable, with bracelets and necklaces generally running from $20 to $100. The man at the booth is not the artist, but the artist does drop by and sometimes will be working on his jewelry at the booth.

(caption: My latest purchase from my favorite silversmith)
Another stall in the opposite direction is the only place I know that sells fish scale earrings. These do not look like fish scales until the vendor tells you what the are. Then you can see the resemblance. They are large scales and they have been dyed in vibrant colors. I am under standing orders to buy them whenever I find them.

Opals from Querétaro are famous. The region is the principal source for fire opals, a type of clear, red opal. They are mined here and a fair number of them make their way to the tourist trade in the city, although mostly what you will find are the lower cost opals. Many stalls sell them, but there is a good trade in fake opals as well. There are several lapidary stores that can teach you the differences in characteristics and quality and can show you a range of stones.

If you had ignored my advice on jewelry and continued on down the path from the 1810 you would eventually find yourself at Calle Corregidora, which is a sizable street. It was when I reached this point that I realized that my alley actually had a name. It is called “Andador Libertad”. It joins Corregidora at the Plaza Constitución.

A word here about the street’s name. A Corregidor is like a Mayor. The Corregidora is his wife. In this case it is named after a specific woman who was one of the leading lights of the Revolution of 1810. She is the most famous woman in Querétaro and probably more famous locally than any other figure of the revolution. Many places bear her name and there are several statues honoring her.

This Plaza Constitución looks a lot newer than the other plazas. It has modern art and doesn’t look like it was designed in the 19th century. This is because the city dug up whatever was there before to create underground parking. While the park looks new, and has young trees, it was probably a good trade. The Centro region is desperately short of parking. If you have a car, this is probably where you need to park it. Better yet, leave your car at your hotel and take a taxi to Centro.

Rather than cross the street to the plaza take a right. Shortly before you get to the next plaza you will come across the Museo Regional. It occupies part of the old Convent of San Francisco. The old town area is filled with old churches and convents, and I have a hard time keeping track of them, but the church of San Francisco was at one time a cathedral, the church home of a Bishop.

The Regional Museum is focused on the history of the area, starting with pre-Historic times. Cost is 46 pesos, or about $4. There are two things worth seeing here. All the displays, and the building itself, which covers two floors spread out over two courtyards. There is little in the way of ornamentation here, other than the carved columns, but it is interesting to see the structure of this stone construction.

The displays are first rate. You won’t be overwhelmed with the amount of displays, you can probably get through in an hour or two, but you will have a much better understanding of the history of the area by the time you leave. My favorite part was the display of historic maps, dating back to the earliest days of the settlement. You can see the city filling in as the maps progress.

(caption: The displays are all in Spanish. My reading Spanish is much better than my speaking Spanish so I was able to get a lot out of the displays, but even if you couldn’t I think it would be worth your time and money.)

There are also some very large oil paintings in the museum, blended into the displays. However there was one group off by itself, tucked away in a narrow corridor. These were not rectangular, having curved tops instead. Evidently they originally occupied a space under an arch. These date to the 18th century, but I could not find any more information about these. Unfortunately they are not displayed well. You are so close to the paintings, and yet they are up so high that you can’t get the proper perspective.

Nonetheless, there were some paintings I really enjoyed. Most were traditional, but there were a few newer paintings with a surrealist edge.

(caption: A 17th Century painting of the Virgin as the Queen of Heaven.)

You exit the way you came in, and if you continue to the right you come to the church of San Franciso and across from it is the Jardin Zenea. It is a plaza like all the other plazas, but it was created as a garden and the name stuck. Its sizeable bandstand is its distinguishing feature.

The Templo de San Francisco is a little like Santa Cruz, but it has only one dome. The basic decoration inside is similar. Lots of columns framing niches holding saints gilt with gold. There is more bare wall in San Francisco. Whereas in Santa Cruz all the walls were stuccoed and painted, in San Francisco you can see the individual stones. I liked that feature, that the structure doesn’t get lost in the art.

(caption: A view from within San Francisco looking back to the entrance.)
The one item I remember about San Francisco, the one that won’t blend in with all the other churches in my memory, is the large bas relief carving on the front of the church. Here a crusader is lopping off the heads of a few Saracens. I am told that the crusader is Saint James, which is definitely a misreading of history. It is unashamedly not politically correct, and it reminds us the church was once the church militant. Yet it is thoroughly anachronistic, since the crusades happened long before New Spain was conquered and Saint James happened long before the crusades. Perhaps it was an attempt to draw a parallel between the conquistadors and the crusaders. Certainly many of the conquistadors saw themselves in that light. The same spiritual energy that led the church to take the fight to the Middle East led Spanish knights to reconquer Spain, and their descendants to conquer new worlds.

(caption: A first century Saint James slaying 12th Century Saracens on a 18th Century Cathedral courtesy of a post-conquistador Spanish worldview.)

Across the park from the Temple is a commercial street, Juárez Norte. You are still in Centro, but East of the park you enter new territory. These are real stores, and the sidewalks are crowded, and there are lots cars. It is a neat area to explore, but it is no longer a tourist and entertainment area.

If you were to travel South on Corregidora four large blocks you would come to the Avenida Ignacio Zaragoza. Across this very wide, very busy street, and to the left, is a large park, Alameda Hidalgo. It is the largest green space in the city. When it is open it can be a vibrant place. I have found that it isn’t always open. It is a gated park, with only a few entrances. In front of the iron rail fence surrounding the park is a long row of vendors under the cover of canvas. These are not the artisan vendors of the old city. These are your purveyors of bootleg movies and knock off brand names and various factory seconds.

I would not consider it a tourist attraction except that there is something alluring about getting a great price for something, even if the source is questionable. This is not to say that this is bad merchandise. I am currently wearing a belt I purchased there for $5.00. It is a fine belt and was exactly what I was looking for.

Getting around Queretaro

The area in front of Alameda Hidalgo is the main bus stop for almost every bus in the city. With all these buses Zaragoza is packed with people and vehicles and stays in this near-bottleneck status. As a tourist you are probably more comfortable with a taxi, but if you are the adventurous type the bus system is first rate.

Six and a half pesos will take you wherever that bus goes. Whether you go three blocks or ten miles, the fare is the same. There is nothing posted at the bus stop to tell you where the buses go, so look them up in advance at Rutero Online.

As in most cities, the bus service tapers off late at night, so your bus may not be available to take you home.

Also note that there is a public wi-fi system in parts of Centro. You can get it at Plaza de Armes and other plazas, but I could not pick it up at Alameda Hidalgo. The network will show up as Qronectate. No password is required.

If you take a taxi, rest assured that you will not be taken for a ride in a bad way. The fares are determined by zones and the zone map and fares are posted on the window of the taxi. $5 US will take you about anywhere you need to go in the city, and most fares are less. It took me $9 US to get from the south side of town to Juriquilla, a northern suburb. That is 18 km. If you look up taxi fares for Queretaro on the internet, various calculators will show up. They are always much higher than the actual fares I encounter.

Where to Stay in Queretaro

If you have been following along on my tour you are probably ready to head back to the hotel about now. This brings up my advice on hotels. If you have good Spanish

there are some great old mansions in Centro that are great hotels. These are the kinds of places I would love to stay. Unfortunately I am always here on business, and company rules

put me up at one of the brand name hotels. These have the advantage of having English-speaking hotel staff, but lack the character of the Centro hotels.

Here is my short list of what I have experience with.

1. Holiday Inn Diamante, and Crown Plaza - I list these together because they are side-by-side and are run by the same company. These are in the hills to the North-East of the city and have an awesome view. The downside is that they are far away from anything. Their neighborhood is purely residential, without any restaurants. You will be taking a taxi.

2. Hilton Garden Inn - This is in the South-West of the City in the area known as Jardines de la Hacienda. In fact it is right down Zaragoza from Centro, but you have to cross a few highways to get there. It isn’t as fancy as the Diamante, but the neighborhood has lots of restaurants, coffee shops, bars, hair stylists and almost anything you would need. Walmart is even close by, but thankfully out of sight.

3. Holiday Inn Hilton Historico - This hotel is misnamed. It is outside of that what most people would consider Centro, but it is near some interesting older areas. I wasn’t impressed with the hotel, but it has been a few years.

4. Hotels Rio - In Centro. It is new construction built to look old. The rooms are small, but it has a pleasant courtyard. I have not stayed here, but have a friend who spoke highly of it.

There is more to see in Centro, but mostly along the lines of great old churches and more plazas and museums. Venturing a little further out there is the monument at the Cerro de las Campanas. This is where Maximillian made his last stand and where he was executed. It is perhaps not worth a trip just for this purpose, but if you are in the area it is a good place to stop. I believe it takes 10 pesos to enter.

The monument shares the hill with the Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro.To the North of the hill is the Avenida Universidad which runs on either sid of the Rio Querétaro. The river has walking paths along it and much of the street and the paths are covered in shade trees. It is as fine a walk as you can find in Mexico and probably a very good reason for being out and about in the University area.
The Avenida runs Northeast from the University until it is due north of Centro when it intersects with a street called Gutierrez Najera. If you turn south on this street you will come to the Mercado de La Cruz. This rambling market runs through several buildings and covers several streets. It has some of the same junk as at Zaragoza but it also has vegetables, butcher shops, and any kind of street food you can imagine. If you love to shop, this is a great place.
(caption: The Rio Querétaro isn’t large, but it boasts tree-lined streets and paths and wanders through some of the loveliest areas in the city.)

Fun things to do in Queretaro

One of the principal activities of tourists in Mexico is climbing old Mayan, Toltec or Aztec ruins. Querétaro can’t compete with the big boys but they do have their own little temple, El Cerrito, seven kilometers from downtown. I am currently staying at the Hilton Garden Inn and I can see it from my room. Half of the temple has been uncovered. The other half is still covered in trees.

It is not a big draw, but if old ruins are on your agenda, it is a short cab ride away. The number 5 bus will also get you there from the bus stop at Alameda Hidalga. The entrance is on the East side. The bus from Querétaro comes down a street named Miguel Hidalgo. When it turns left you need to get off. The bus will skirt the pyramid but there are no entrances on that side. Head down Hidalgo 200 meters and you will find the formal entrance. It is open 9 am to 3 pm, everyday but Mondays and certain Holidays.

(caption: The west half of El Cerrito is still covered in trees, but the eastern face is fully exposed.)

Querétaro can be reached by plane from Dallas, Houston, Monterrey, and Mexico City. By bus it is three hours from the Mexico City Airport. If safety is a concern, Querétaro is the safest city in Mexico. You are safer here than in many cities in the United States.

However you get here enjoy your stay.

Joffre Essley writes about places he loves when not blogging on residential architecture. He currently spends much of his time in Querétaro and surrounding cities.

In Depth Bio

Joffre Essley blogs on house design at House Design Coffee. Based in Ohio, he sometimes finds time to travel, and has managed to visit 25 countries to date. He has inspected roofs in Bosnia, eaten Couscous in Algiers, had a hotel mirror fall on him in London, and hitchhiked across the U.S., He spent a long weekend stranded in Cahersiveen, Ireland, learned to ski in Austria, attended pre-school in Belgium, and has been misunderstood in every language he has attempted to use. An engineer by training, and a writer by calling he finds humour all around him and generally succeeds in adding to it.

He tweets as @homesower, socializes on Facebook, and occasionally wanders over to his Google + account. He looks forward to seeing you there.

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