Biodiversity is the buzzword for the Sierra Gorda region.
From mountain tops to deep abysses, you can transverse distinct landscapes in the same day, surrounded by unique flora and fauna.

Travel Guide For Sierra Gorda

Top 5 For Sierra Gorda

things to do sierra gorda queretaro

Puente de Dios

The hike through a canyon alongside a transparent river is spectacular enough, but the surprise ending of Puente de Dios makes it even better.

On the Mission trail

Visiting any one of the five UNESCO Missions gives you a glimpse into unique blend of Christian and indigenous architecture.

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The deep, dark abyss

A hike through the forest takes you to this remote hidey hole, which is home to one of the few remaining macaw colonies in Central Mexico. At sunrise, they exit in droves.

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Sparkling Green

The water of Rio Ayulta is so blue it almost glows, and the area is rural enough that you can still camp right next to the river. There are plenty of swimming holes to explore.

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Sky High

Around the lookout of Cuatro Palos, you can find hiking trails and camping sites with spectacular vistas. Wake up above the clouds and watch the sun rise.

About Sierra Gorda

This ecological región to the northeast of Queretaro – which also creeps into the states of San Luis Potosi, Hildalgo and Guanajuato – lands you in the middle of an ecological paradise.

Located around six hours from Mexico City, the trip there crosses steep mountains and deep valleys in the Sierra Madre Oriental range. It’s a time-consuming drive, but the reward is off-the-beaten-path experiences, and an environmental richness that puts it among the top ecological areas of Mexico.

The rugged terrain of Sierra Gorda contains a myriad of destinations that take you on a journey through Mexico’s past. There are archaeological zones, fossiles sites from when it was covered in water, and UNESCO-protected Franciscan Missions. But the real attraction is the stunning animal and plant biodiversity and natural experiences. You’ll be taken through cloud forests, humid jungles, and semi-arid deserts, and that’s before you get to the really exciting stuff – crystal clear rivers, limestone caves and giant sinkholes.

Sierra Gorda is especially valued for its diverse ecosystems. These various microenvironments are due to the rugged terrain and varied rainful. The mountainous landscape blocks the moisture coming from the Gulf of Mexico, making the east humid and jungly, while the west is semiarid scrub brush. If you’re lusting for a rural and wild escape, Sierra Gorda will please any hardcore naturalist.

Sierra Gorda At A Glance

Where To Stay In Sierra Gorda

Two good hubs to base yourself are Pinol de Amores and Jalpan, which are among the larger towns of the area and central to several sites. Sierra Gorda is also full of camping grounds. Along Rio Ayutla and Rio Escanela are some of the best places for camping.

  • The Mission Chain sets up you in historic locations; Mission Conca is set in a lush garden, while Mission Jalpan is more central.
  • Near Conca, you can find the modern Hotel Los Laureles with cabin-style accommodation, and Cabanas 5 Pinos is located near Pinol Amoles.
  • Along the banks of Rio Ayutla, you can find the camping grounds of Los Sauces, La Huerta, Villa Los Pinos, El Platanal of Playita, Cabana 3 Rios and Las Brisas; near Puente de Dios is the camping ground ‘Campamento Peña de la Gloria.

Things To Do In Sierra Gorda

Puente de Dios

Sierra Gorda’s jewel is undoubtedly the ‘Bridge of God,’ a rock arch etched out by the Escanela River. You can swim in the chilly pool under the arch, or get massaged by waterfalls that trickle through the rock (more so in rainy season). It’s a 30-minute hike along Cañón de la Angostura (Canyon of the Narrows), with a crystal-clear river, curious rock formations, and steep canyon walls.

The area is surrounded by local folklore and mystery; a drunk man once rambled that it was home to the devil and was then tied up a tall tree with no memory; a woman was also found perched on a rock wall that was otherwise impossible to access and required expert help to get down.

At the height of rainy season (July to August), the water can rise above the river trail. You can still reach Puente de Dios by taking the higher trail of 1–2 hours, which also leads to Peña de la Gloria waterfall, which only forms in rainy season. There are several ‘Puente de Dios’ in Mexico, so put ‘Sierra Gorda,’ ‘Pinal de Amoles,’ or ‘Queretaro’ to get the right one. From the main road, it’s 5km of windy dirt road to reach the Escanela River and Mina Grande community.

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Rio Ayutla

It’s easy to miss the turnoff to the humble town of Ayutla, and as you drive through the rural village you’ll probably second-guess your decision. But you’ll be glad you found it. In the middle of this towns runs some of the best stretches of the Ayutla river, plus some small waterfalls and swimming holes.

You’ll find shady campgrounds under mango, citrus and banana trees, and plenty of riverside picnic spots to spend the day in nature. The campsites are spacious enough that you usually do not need to pre-book, except during holidays when they completely fill up with local tourists.

The town only offers some small grocery shops and food stalls but you can find everything you need in the larger towns nearby. It’s a great natural backdrop to wake up to, and then explore the nearby sights during the day. If you come during low season, you can have the river to yourself.

“Las Adjuntas” of Ayutla and Santa Maria Rivers

Here you can watch Rio de Ayutla and Rio de Santa Maria clash currents. They are distinctly different: Ayutla is transparent blue, cold and rocky; Santa Maria has thermal, earthy water and a shallow sandy bottom. More so in rainy season, you can see the fight between the brown and blue rivers as they meet at what is coined ‘las Adjuntas’, the join.

When you drive between the town of Jalpan and Concá, you’ll cross a big bridge. From there you will see roads that lead down to the river, where you can find swimming areas, camping spots and walking trails along the river.

During Easter, this area comes alive with a local festival of concerts, volleyball, small bars and food stalls. You can also kayak along the river, and find small cascades and swimming holes.

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Jalpan

As the largest town in the region, this is the main hub of the Sierra Gorda – but it’s also got plenty of charm to give you other reasons to visit. With its colonial architecture, cute narrow walkways and a bustling main square, it’s easy to spend a half day here. Jalpan sits on the cross-road to Rio Verde and Xilitla, so no doubt you’ll pass through it at some point. It’s a great jumping point to access the rest of the region, with more hotel opportunities and direct bus routes from Queretaro (Primera Plus) and Mexico City (Flecha Amarilla from the Central de Autobuses del Norte station), plus other nearby cities like Xilitla, San Luis Potosi and Rio Verde. Nearby you can also visit the Jalpan Dam, if you’re interested in fishing, hiking or camping.

On the Mission Trail

To evangelize Mexico’s interior, five Franciscan missions were built in the mid-18th Century. Their unique facades incorporate creative elements of the Indigenous populations, coined “Mestizo Baroque.” They show the exchange of values and cultural coexistence between the two societies, and are recognized by UNESCO. Besides the angels and saints you’d expect, you’ll find corn, vegetables and local stones. The five Missions are:

  • Santiago de Jalpan (1751–58), and Nuestra Señora de la Luz de Tancoyol are the oldest.
  • In Landa de Matamoros, Purísima Concepción (or Santa Maria del Agua de Landa) is the most elaborate; plus visit San Francisco del Valle de Tilaco, with its curious mermaids.
  • The mission of San Miguel Concá is in Arroyo Seco, where you’ll also find the Arbol Milanerio, or ‘Millennial Tree,’ the second-widest in Mexico (22m diameter). It sits in a natural spring that serves the town with crystal water. You need to cross a sports field to find it.
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El Madroño Fossil Reserve

Wandering among the red sand dunes and limestone allows you to get close and personal with numerous fossils, some dating to the Jurassic Period. Today, it’s 1500 meters above sea level, but 100 million years ago it was a shallow marine area. It’s better visited in dry season, to avoid the red mud which easily stains. Nearby is the town of Landa de Matamoros; which boasts the pilgrimage Feast of Purisima Concepcion (the Immaculate Concept of Virgin Mary) on 8 December.

Sotano de Barro

It is quite the adventure to get to this giant sinkhole – what they call a ‘sima’ or chasm – but the reward is great: at sunrise and sunset you can catch a glimpse of one of the few remaining colonies of military Macaws in Central Mexico. The chasm is so large – around 420 meters at its widest part – it could fit a Boeing 747. It was formed 1.5 million years ago when the bedrock collapsed, leaving a 455m-deep hole. The most spectacular sight is when the military macaws leave their nests in the morning to feed, around 7am. It’s about a two-hour hike (7km) to reach the sinkhole, so it is recommended to stay in the cabins (or camp!) in the community of Santa María Cocos, and start around 5am. The ascent takes you up some 1000m to the cave rim. It is required to go with a local guide, who you can find in the town, and donkeys are available. You’ll see a sign to the town off of the road between Jalpan and Río Verde (Federal Highway 69), which takes you on around 30km of dirt road.

Chuvejé Waterfall

The Cascada de Chuvejé is a local favorite and one of the closer waterfalls to Querétaro (around 170km or three hours’ drive). This 35m waterfall is more spectacular in rainy season, although the water is easily muddied, even more so if there are lots of visitors who brave the cold water (like during Semana Santa). You can access the waterfall by driving through around 5km of dirt road, then hiking around 30 minutes through the forest. Camping is allowed anywhere along the river, with areas for swimming. It is located near Puente de Dios; if time is limited or you’ve just come from La Huasteca Potosina, Chuvejé could be skipped in favor of more time in the other places.

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Pinol de Amoles

Massive tourism is still yet to arrive to this mountain village, and there’s plenty of hidey holes which you might even have to yourself. In this red-roofed mining own, you can see 100-year-old adobe houses, narrow streets, and the local temple dedicated to San Jose. It looks all the more mysterious when clouds descend upon the town. On the highway (San Juan del Río–Xilitla highway at kilometer 135.5), you’ll pass by a narrow canyon, which when the cloud descends, appears as if you’re entering heaven, hence the name ‘Puerta del Cielo’ (look to one side for a fire brigade, and on the upper side a chapel for Virgin Mary). Like Jalpan, Pinol de Amoles is a good base to explore the nearby sites, such as Puente de Dios and Chuvejé waterfalls. Closeby, you can also find the historic Ex-Convent of Bucareli. In Ahuacatlan, you can visit the Mission of Our Lady of Ahuacatlán de Guadalupe, or explore the subterranean abyss, the Sotanito de Ahuacatlan, with a local guide. Inside the Cueva de los Riscos, located 3km from the Huajale community, you can find a rock in the shape of a bell tower, which emits a similar sound when you hit it. A local guide is needed. Pinol Amoles is at one of the higest points in Sierra Gorda, surrounded by confier forests and two rivers. There are places to camp, such as Campo Santo or Cruz de Palo, but you’ll need jackets as it’s a cool area year-round. In March you can join the festivals in honor of San Jose, where you can experience the local music and a dance competition, Concurso Nacional de Baile de Huapango.

Cuatro Palos Lookout  

When you reach the highest point between Queretaro and Sierra Gorda, you can stop at this lookout to see the meeting place of two ecosystems: oak forests meet semi-desert landscapes. From the top of the Cerro de la Media Luna (Half Moon Mountain) you get the best panoramic views of spectacular ridges and giant cliffs, sometimes even above the clouds. You can also find camping, tours and other accommodation offered by the local women’s cooperative.

On the Federal Highway 120, you’ll see the community of La Cañada; at kilometer 132.5, turn down a dirt road 5km until you arrive at the community of Cuatro Palos. There you can hire a guide and hike for approximately 5km or 25 minutes to the point of observation, on a trail which ascends to 2700m above sea level.

cuatro palos sierra gorda queretaro

Stay with Local Communities

The mountains of Sierra Gorda are full of small, barely connected communities. Some communities open their doors to outsiders, where you can experience rural Mexican life first-hand – a true adventure with hardly any tourists in sight. La Trinidad is one such community in the heart of Sierra Gorda, where you’ll find cabins and one telephone that sometimes works (book a week in advance). San Juan de los Durán is another remote community, where you can book cabins with views over lush valleys, and hike through shady pine forests. Around Jalpan and Conca are even more remote communities; you can visit Xi’ Ui o Pame communities, where they still speak their indigenous language; one you can drive to, while the other can only be reached by several hours of hiking. When they stop speaking Spanish and revert to their indigenous language, you know it’s time to leave. Ask the locals to direct you.

Support Women’s Workshops

There have been several efforts to boost local tourism, such as the ‘Food Trail,’ which highlights several women-run restaurants serving regional goodies. You can also visit co-operatives to buy – or make your own – artisanal goods. The ‘Las Mariposas Ceramic Workshop’ is the collaboration of women artisans from Soledad de Guadalupe, where experienced potters pass on knowledge of their traditional pottery. There’s also an embroidery workshop (Taller de Bordados) in La Colgada, which employs women from the local communities, some who walk hours to join this women co-operative. You can also find locally produced foods and natural remedies. This interactive page shows you all the options.

Cañón el Infiernillo

This canyon and a cave (Gruta de Xahjay) is just 2.5hrs from Queretaro. The local macaws start each day sqwarking in this canyon, also know as the canyon of Sauz de Guadalupe. With walls reaching almost 100m, its hard for even the light to enter in some parts. You can rappel, and there is also a fun jump of 15m for the adventurous. You can camp in Saúz de GuadalupeNearby you can double up your visit with a trip to a Presa de Zimapán, for boating and fishing.

Cañon del Paraiso

You’ll need to crane your neck up 330ft of rockface to see the light peaking through. Over millions of years, the Extoraz River has carved its way through walls streaked with black marble, which adds to the ethereal landscape. For adventure activities, there’s kayaking, hiking, cycling, or rappelling. You can also find cave paintings and petroglyphs from the Chichimeca tribes that roamed central and northern Mexico in the pre-Hispanic era. Take the exit to Extoraz or Peñamiller, and from there you can hire transport and guides to take you the final few kilometers to the canyon. There is also an annual cycling competition that passes through the canyon. It’s easy to visit here on a day trip from Pinol de Amoles.

Tancama Archaeological Site

This archeological site dates back to around 200–900AD, located between Jalpan and Landa de Matamoros. The unique feature of this sites is the circular and semi-circular structures, which are typical of the region. You can find around 62 buildings to various degrees of preservation, built by the La Huasteca culture. Two other archaeological zones include the Ranas and Toluquilla Archaeological Zones, which are near to each other and closer to Queretaro at around 2.5hrs.

Visit a Cave

There are a couple of caves near the town of San Joaquin, which are worth a quick look if you have spare time. After a short walk through a forest, you’ll see a hole in the hill; entering La Esperanza Grottoes (9am–6pm) takes you underground via a spiral staircase to reach its stalagmites and stalactites. Grottos los Herrera (10am–5pm, closed Mondays) has a boardwalk and six areas to visit; enjoy the beautiful surrounding scenary on your trip there.

The water is more transparent and blue in the drier months (during winter, November to March), although being a mountainous region, temperatures can drop at night. During the summer rainy season, especially in August and sometimes in September, some sites may close due to flooding. It is hotter and more humid during the day, but nights can be refreshingly cool. In recent years, the rainy season has been starting later, so it’s hard to predict when sites may close. In any case, you usually get a different kind of experience, as some sites have alternate routes and sites that come alive when it rains.

Queretaro has been pro-active in developing tourism in the Sierra Gorda region, although it is still relatively a rural area with few services. One example is the promotion its local cusines through the creation of the Ruta del Sabor (Tasting Trail). Just look for the sign to find the designated community ‘fondas’ serving cheap and traditions food. Carretas and Karina restaurant in Jalpan are old favourites. It is otherwise relatively safe to drive and use public transport, although the usual safety tips for Mexico apply. If you’re driving, be aware that there are not a lot of gas stations along the side of the road, so make sure you never let your tank drop less than a quarter of a tank.

The government tourism site: Queretaro Travel Local News (in Spanish):

 

Two good hubs to base yourself are Pinol de Amores and Jalpan, which are among the larger towns of the area and central to several sites. Sierra Gorda is also full of camping grounds. Along Rio Ayutla and Rio Escanela are some of the best places for camping.

Hotels and Airbnbs in Sierra Gorda

  • Mission Conca sets you up in a historic location, with its own chapel, and a restaurant set in an old refractory. 
  • Mission Jalpan is from the same chain.

Cabins in Sierra Gorda 

  • Sierra Gorda Cabins and Rincón de Ojo de Agua cabins are eco-cabins in San Juan de los Durán.
  • Near Conca, you can find this new and modern Hotel Los Laureles that incorporates cabin-style accommodation.
  • Casa Ecologica is just outside of Jalpan de Sierra, where you can find small cabins and houses, each with their own kitchen and living space, plus traditional sauna and holitic therapy.
  • Cabanas 5 Pinos is located near Pinol Amoles

Camping in Sierra Gorda 

  • Along the banks of Rio Ayutla, you can find the camping grounds of Los Sauces, La Huerta, Villa Los Pinos, El Platanal of Playita, Cabana 3 Rios and Las Brisas. Most of these places offer cabins, while hotels in the area also sometimes offer camping in their grounds, if you want access to better facilities.
  • You can also camp in the grounds of Puente de Dios, although it is at your own risk as there is not enclosed security. Nearby, there is a closed camping area called Campamento Peña de la Gloria.
  • Another popular zone, closer to Queretaro, is Campamento Las Trancas, with cabans and camping áreas.
  • Campamento de Bucareli (Rivera del Río) – you can visit cave paintings just 300m away.
  • Campamento El Jabalí and Campamento Rivera del Río are near Pinol de Amoles.

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Feature CC Image credit: Comisión Mexicana de Filmaciones, A01272891 via Wikipedia (cuatro palos), Tobiascontreras via Wikipedia (pinol de amoles), Andreadcv via wikimedia (tancama).