Have you ever been to the Sierra Gorda Queretaro? If not, you should include this unique off the beaten path destination in your Mexico travel bucket list. Why? In this post, I will tell you all about its amazing landscapes, waterfalls, colonial churches in the middle of barren valleys. I am sure after reading it and seeing the pictures you will start packing.
I was exploring the beautiful colonial city of Queretaro and as usual, I never check online on the things to do in a place ( you should do it, though :)), but I was asking around and talking to people about their favorite things to do in Queretaro and surroundings. That’s my favorite way of discovering things that locals do and off the beaten path places.
I was talking to my new friends in the vegan restaurants Sawa who couldn’t stress enough how beautiful the Sierra Gorda is, its landscapes and hidden waterfalls, its pretty towns, and old convents buried in forgotten places in the middle of the forest. They “warned” me about the somewhat scary and yet spectacular winding roads and cliffs with dramatic views.
And I couldn’t help but start planning my trip to the Queretaro Sierra Gorda and see it myself. It was just too appealing to leave it behind.
And because I believe in synchronicity so much, I need to tell you this other part of the story before diving into the itinerary.
I was trying to find a way to go to the Sierra Gorda on a guided tour because I didn’t exactly know how to get to all the waterfalls and the famous lookout Cuatro Palos by myself without a car. It seemed impossible to reach by bus. And I was right.
One day, while I was visiting a hotel in Queretaro I noticed a brochure about Queretaro surroundings which was mentioning this young guide, Bernardo, taking people around on tours from Pinal de Amoles, in the heart of the Sierra Gorda.
I thought that it was serendipity in action and I contacted him immediately. He was so kind as to explain how to get there and how we would have organized the tour of its beautiful home, the Sierra Gorda, that he knows like the back of his hand.
Because I was alone and I booked two days tour (which eventually became three) he even gave me a discount, because, as he eventually explained, he normally has group rates which make individual rates become really affordable. If you are only two, it will be good enough to make it a great deal price for all the amazing sites that you are going to see, as your days will be packed with amazing things to do in the Sierra Gorda and places to see.
For the more adventurous ones, he can also take you to more challenging tours with rappelling and other fun stuff!
But now let’s dig into my 4-day itinerary from Queretaro to the Sierra Gorda, in Mexico.
- SIERRA GORDA QUERETARO ITINERARY OVERVIEW
- DAY 1 – SIERRA GORDA QUERETARO ITINERARY – BERNAL PUEBLO MAGICO
- DAY 2 SIERRA GORDA QUERETARO ITINERARY – PINAL DE AMOLES – THE WATERFALLS´ ITINERARY
- EL CHUVEJE
- RIO ESCANELA – CAÑON DE LA ANGOSTURA Y PUENTE DE DIOS
- WHAT TO PACK FOR THE WATERFALL’S ITINERARY IN THE SIERRA GORDA QUERETARO
- DAY 3 SIERRA GORDA QUERETARO ITINERARY – PINAL DE AMOLES – BUCARELI – CUATRO PALOS
- DAY 4 SIERRA GORDA QUERETARO ITINERARY – THE OLD MISSIONS TOUR
- A FEW HISTORICAL FACTS OF THE SIERRA GORDA MISSIONS
- MORE PICTURES
- FOR FURTHER READING
- LIKED IT? SAVE IT FOR LATER
SIERRA GORDA QUERETARO ITINERARY OVERVIEW
Here is the overview of my itinerary. In the map you will see some road trip information but I did everything by bus, so keep it in mind.
- DAY 1 – PEÑA DE BERNAL
- DAY 2 – PINAL DE AMOLES – TOURS TO EL CHUVEJE AND PUENTE DE DIOS
- DAY 3 – PINAL DE AMOLES – EX-CONVENTO BUCARELI AND MIRADOR CUATRO PALOS
- DAY 4 – MISSION FRANCISCANA IN JALPAN (HALF A DAY) AND BUS TO XILITLA
But let’s check out all the beautiful places I have visited in the Sierra Gorda in Queretaro, day by day.
DAY 1 – SIERRA GORDA QUERETARO ITINERARY – BERNAL PUEBLO MAGICO
Bernal is one of the colorful and picturesque Pueblo Magicos in Queretaro. It’s not actually in the Sierra Gorda but since it was on my way there I thought I would fit it into my itinerary. I actually met up with an Italian traveler whom I met in one of the Facebook groups and decided to visit Bernal together. Then we would have gone separate ways the following day and he continued with his own itinerary while I moved on to the Sierra Gorda. We arrived a day before and found a place to stay. We didn’t bother booking online as we would have just checked what’s available and bargain for a cheap stay, nothing fancy.
In the morning (which is day 1 of our Sierra Gorda itinerary) we got up early and without breakfast, we started our hike to the Peña de Bernal, a very easy hike suitable for kids as well and very easy to find. The trail gets to a certain point after which you will need to climb with ropes and special shoes. Not for me:)
After admiring the spectacular views we started the descent and we arrived back to Bernal right in time for a late breakfast in one of the typical local restaurants, where you can find “gorditas”, which is are sorts of tacos but thicker and that you can stuff with all sorts of fillings. I was vegan at the time and I found delicious vegetables, from mushrooms to beans or spinach or other local herbs.
After walking around town, enjoying the local life, and taking some pictures we decided to say goodbye and move on to our respective itineraries. He was going back to Queretaro which was easy. Just one hour bus.
In my case, it was more complicated. When I asked the tourist office how I could have reached Pinal de Amoles I was told I had to take one bus to the intersection on the main road, then move to the opposite side and wait for another bus for Cadereyta, another supposedly interesting Pueblos Magicos of Queretaro which I have missed, unfortunately. And from there I should have taken another bus to Pinal de Amoles, for a total of 5 hours or so.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you exactly how to do that but whether you are traveling from Bernal or Queretaro, at the bus station or the tourist office, or even your guide, they will be able to tell you.
Suffice to say I arrived safely in Pinal de Amoles after a spectacular bus ride during which I could see exactly what my friend and the brochure were saying about the Sierra Gorda: an ever-changing landscape. It’s almost surreal how you change from desert to tropical jungle, barren rocky mountains with frightening cliffs in such tiny space. I was sure, then, that a great adventure was waiting.
ABOUT PINAL DE AMOLES
Once I arrived in Pinal de Amoles, the bus station was just past the lookout with the usual colorful sign that you can find in almost every tourist village in Mexico. I could see the cute little hilly village built around a church and its tiny square just down the valley.
Most of the time you can’t even see it because the town is completely covered by a blanket of clouds. For this reason, the National Geographic (Spanish edition) called it, the town that disappears.
Pinal de Amoles is located in the heart of the Sierra Gorda which makes it the perfect hub from where you can explore the area, every day a different bit. It is a tranquil and colorful town with winding and steep roads and delicious food.
I am not sure why it hasn’t been proclaimed Pueblo Magico yet, but rest assured you will feel the magic when you are there.
I was staying in a hotel that Bernard found for me. I wasn’t very happy with it because it was super cold (it was January) and the hotel didn’t have heating. I was sleeping with a wool hat, scarf and gloves, and 4 heavy blankets.
But it was completely my fault because I told Bernard I had a 200 MXN budget for a hotel and that’s what he found at that price. My bad. You might want to look into Posada Restaurante y bar which is right by the main plaza and has cute decent rooms with heating. Or all, if you have a car o you might want to consider the following cute places:
- Cabañas Las Terrazas – Curva Colorada, Pinal de Amoles, Qro., México•+52 441 100 3810 )
- La casa de los cuatro vientos – Puerto del Rodezno S/N, Pinal de Amoles, Qro., México•+52 442 124 5894
In my hotel, of which I don’t even remember the name, luckily I had a super hot shower where I stayed for about half an hour to warm up before wrapping myself in all the warm clothes I had and crawled under the thick layers of blankets (which in the following nights became thicker). Mind it was January. Nights are super cold but days are warm. In fact, I have even swum in the waterfalls. I’ll tell you about it in a bit.
DAY 2 SIERRA GORDA QUERETARO ITINERARY – PINAL DE AMOLES – THE WATERFALLS´ ITINERARY
The first day was focused on the waterfalls area, my favorite part. Bernard picked me up at the arranged time and off we went. The sun was shining as a sign of a beautiful warm day, and I was already forgetting about my freezing night.
We headed to El Chuveje first, where a lovely easy hike was waiting for us among a thick jungle and along a river. We met some local workers who lived there and took care of the hiking trails making sure the path was clean and walkable. I was the only tourist, the sound of nature was only interrupted by our voices and yet, I felt as if I was disturbing.
It was only a 2 km easy walk. I stopped a couple of times to take a few shots until we got to the spectacular waterfall. I didn’t swim this time, too cold and I was looking forward to seeing the next spot, even more adventurous.
RIO ESCANELA – CAÑON DE LA ANGOSTURA Y PUENTE DE DIOS
After another 40 minutes drive, we arrived at our next destination. It’s only a 3 km walk, but the most entertaining one. You basically walk along the river Escanela on man-made and improvised bridges hopping right and left of the river through the Cañon de La Angostura. If you look up you realize why it’s called a canyon, as the tall walls of rocks tower over the river which is carving its way up to the Puente de Dios, forming natural pools with small waterfalls here and there. It’s like a natural waterpark. Despite the cold, once we arrived at the Puente de Dios I couldn’t resist and jumped in the water pools while Bernard kindly recorded my bravery. Luckily I have uploaded the magic moment to my Instagram main account so I can now share it with you because I have lost the original video.
Although I loved absolutely everything about my tour in the Sierra Gorda, Queretaro, the Cañon de la Angostura, and Puente de Dios were probably the highlight.
Now if you are wondering whether you can make it or not, I assure you anybody can, and I am the living proof. I am super clumsy and I stumble all the time even on normal roads, so I was a little concerned about walking through and over boulders, but it’s completely safe and super easy.
WHAT TO PACK FOR THE WATERFALL’S ITINERARY IN THE SIERRA GORDA QUERETARO
- swim suite
- water (preferably in recyclable water bottles)
- towel and a change if you plan to swim
- hiking shoes
- comfortable pants
- rain jacket (just in case)
- camera 🙂
I was happy with my swim and hike but to my surprise, the day was not over. Since we had some time left and it was a sunny day we wrapped it up with a lovely hike from Bernard’s home, where I also had the chance to meet his lovely wife and cute little kid. We hiked a steep but very short trail to get to what is called Heaven’s gate since it’s the highest stretch of road in Queretaro, besides being enclosed between two rocky walls, just like a natural gate.
DAY 3 SIERRA GORDA QUERETARO ITINERARY – PINAL DE AMOLES – BUCARELI – CUATRO PALOS
On the second day, we drove all the way in the middle of the so-called “semi-desert” with spectacular winding roads running through the moon-like landscape. Our first target for the day was the Bucareli old Franciscan mission one of the 5 renowned Missions of Queretaro.
Declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003, they represent the united efforts of the Franciscan priests and local community and the idiosyncrasy between catholicism and the indigenous religions. One of the main important elements to represent this profound connection is the “mestizo Baroque” style of the facades which shows the significant indigenous influence.
The Old Mission of Bucareli is my favorite among the 5 (I have actually seen 3 of them) because of its unusual location in the heart of a semi-desert region surrounded by soft barren hills and dry land. You feel like you are in an old Western movie.
If you walk not far away from the back of the Church there is a spectacular look out where you can admire the breathtaking scenery, one of the many you will enjoy during this day, full of surprises.
After a visit inside Bucareli Mission and the small town nearby, we went down those houses that you can see from the above picture. It’s a nice small resort where you rent one of the cabañas and enjoy rich meals and many activities they organize for you. It would be a great opportunity to enjoy this magical place and the surreal atmosphere fully.
CUATRO PALOS LOOKOUT
But the surprises are not over. As I told you this day is packed with spectacular views and breathtaking sceneries and that’s where my day ended, on the most amazing and thrilling view of Queretaro, the mirador Cuatro Palos.
Located at only 30 minutes drive from Pinal de Amoles, at the top of the Cerro de la Media Luna, Cuatro Palos lookout is undoubtedly one of the most scenic spaces in these mountains of the Queretaro Sierra Gorda. From there you will have a 180º view that will leave you speechless. On a clear day, you can see as far as the Pena de Bernal and the Bucareli Franciscan Mission. Looking at the surrounding space below the lookout you will have an example of the mixed variety of the Sierra Gorda landscape where oak forests meet the semi-desert and large cliffs rise above flat barren lands.
Local tourism is quite popular here especially for outdoors lovers. I know a community of “crazy” bikers that hike all the way on top of the mountain to launch themselves on their bikes down to the steep trails to the bottom of the valley.
You don’t need to be so extreme to enjoy these spectacular views. Actually, the best way to include Cuatro Palos in your itinerary is to camp there and wake up in the morning at sunrise. You will normally see a cloud-bed covering the entire valley and the sun rising above. I have missed that but it must be spectacular.
The community charges a small fee to hike to the viewpoint, with proceeds going to improve the tourist infrastructure.
WHAT TO PACK FOR THIS TOUR
Cuatro Palos is freezing cold so be prepared to wear and pack the following
- hiking boots
- wool socks
- hiking t-shirts
- windbreaker better if with a double layer
- gloves and hat
DAY 4 SIERRA GORDA QUERETARO ITINERARY – THE OLD MISSIONS TOUR
I was supposed to do only 2 days tour with Bernard, but he was so knowledgeable and professional that when he explained about all the missions available to see in the Sierra Gorda and their history, and couldn’t just go away without seeing them, so I asked him to take me around for another day. Luckily he was available and we decided that the following day we would have seen the spectacular Concá mission in Arroyo Seco and after a few other stops he would drop me off at the bus station in Jalpan where I took my bus to Xilitla to continue with my journey towards the Huasteca Potosina. But let’s see our stops step by step.
San Miguel de Concámission is the smallest of the Sierra Gorda and dedicated to the Archangel Michael and located in the small town of Arroyo Seco.
Concá is a Pame word that means “with me.” Just like the other missions, what’s remarkable about Concà as well is the kind of decoration crafted on its facade, large flowers, foliage, and coarse figures, definitely a mark of the indigenous work. You can also spot the image of the Holy Trinity at the crest along with a rabbit (another Pame symbol) and a double-headed eagle, again evidence of the syncretism of the Catholic and the indigenous symbolism.
At only 10 minutes walk from the Mission you can admire a secular tree, according to the guide, the second biggest tree in Mexico measuring about 22mt and older than the Spanish invasion. I wonder how many stories it would be able to tell if it could speak. 🙂
Mission Concà Hotel
If you decide to explore more in the surrounding area before leaving the Sierra Gorda, you might want to check out this iconic hotel in the middle of nature, at a few minutes’ drive from the Concà Mission. The hotel can also organize tours for you to explore the surrounding area, but you can also enjoy some peace and tranquillity by the swimming pool in the lush tropical garden.
JALPAN DE SERRA PUEBLO MAGICO
After a stop to see the Mission Concá hotel and on the river banks to take some pictures of its azure waters, we moved on to our next and last destination, Jalpan, to check out the Mission located in the heart of the town.
Jalpan is an officially proclaimed Pueblo Magico of Queretaro and you can easily spend a day exploring the town’s historical center and enjoy a local meal. Here are the main things to do in Jalpan de Serra, which we also did.
MUSEUM OF THE SIERRA GORDA
Located in one of the oldest buildings of the city the Museum of the Sierra Gorda, offers interesting information on the evolution of the Sierra Gorda along the years.
The highlight of Jalpan remains the Church, or ex mission spectacular facade. It’s been built in 1758 and dedicated to James the Greater, the first evangelist. The Santiago mission is formed by a cloister and the church with a chapel annexed. The most significant element of the church the ornate portal on the facade with representations of Our Lady of the Pillar (symbol of Spain) and the Virgin of Guadalupe (Mexican icon), as well as a double-headed eagle, as a symbol of the blending of the two cultures. Other details, made with stucco and stoneworks are mainly representations of nature along with small angels and eagles. Representations of Saints combine with local images including the double-headed Mexican eagle devouring a Serpent.
We also had time to take a walk around the Jalpan Dam, a water resource so immerse in nature that has become a protected wetland, fundamental to the biodiversity of the area and home to an astonishing variety of birds. Great for birdwatchers. My bad I lost my amazing pictures I took from one of the watch towers along the banks.
Around 3 pm Bernard dropped me off at the bus station where I had my bus to Xilitla, another Pueblo Magico where I would visit the enchanted Garden of Eduard James. But that’s for another post.
A FEW HISTORICAL FACTS OF THE SIERRA GORDA MISSIONS
- The local inhabitants of the Sierra Gorda were called the Chichimecas but there were subgroups established in different regions, among which the Pame, Ximpeces, Guachichils, and the Jonaz.
- The Spanish dominated the far west and the far east of the Sierra Gorda (today in the states of Guanajuato and Hidalgo), but could not dominate the center in what is now Querétaro. This is because of the rugged and difficult terrain and the fierce resistance of the locals, especially by the Jonaz.
- Only after 200 years of attempts, the Spaniards won over the fierce indigenous people in the so-called Guerra de Sangre y Fuego (War of Blood and Fire) where the Pames, the Jonaz, and Ximpeches were ultimately exterminated in 1740.
- An old Chichimeca legend called “Sacrificio del Cerro de la Media Luna” narrates that after the Spanish conquest many of the Chichimecans even preferred suicide to slavery.
- It was Captain Jose’ de Escandon y Helguera who lead the Spaniard’s victory and then founded Jalpan de Sierra in 1744. He assigned the task to Friar Junípero Serra, known as “the prince of the missionaries” or “the eternal pilgrim” to re-establish peace with the local indigenous people through evangelization.
- That’s why Jalpan de Sierra – Jalpan means “place on sand” Nahuatl and de Serra from the friar’s name.
- The evangelization was consolidated with the construction of five Franciscan missions in the area, declared by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites since 2003.
- La Misión Santiago, at Jalpan’s heart, was the first to rise, between 1751 and 1758.
- Bucareli Mission was founded in 1797 by Franciscan Juan Guadalupe Soriano for the evangelization of the local Jonaz. The full name of the mission is the Purísima Concepción de Bucarelí. It was never finished with only part of the monastery, the mines, and the church visible. On 4 February, mass in honor of Francis of Assisi is performed here, in a small chapel with still remains, but no roof. The mission was completely abandoned during the Mexican Revolution in 1914 and construction officially suspended in 1926.
Are you ready to plan your own trip to the Queretaro Sierra Gorda? Bernardo speaks English and is a certified guide who can take you everywhere you wish and create a customized itinerary for you.
Disclaimer: I don’t have any commercial partnership with Bernardo of any sort. I am just offering genuine feedback on what was my experience.
FOR FURTHER READING
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- Valle de bravo – Mexico: a travel guide to the Mexican Hamptons
- Airbnb Cozumel: the 11 pretty homes to rent for a perfect vacation
- Las grutas de tolantongo – the complete guide
- Renting a car in Mexico: everything you need to know not to get ripped off