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
|About Sierra Gorda|
|Best time to travel Sierra Gorda|
|Top Things to Do in Sierra Gorda|
|Is Sierra Gorda safe to travel?|
|How to get to Sierra Gorda|
|Where to stay in Sierra Gorda|
Top Picks for Sierra Gorda
|The hike through a canyon alongside a transparent river is spectacular enough, but the surprise ending of Puente de Dios makes it even better.||Visiting any one of the five UNESCO Missions gives you a glimpse into unique blend of Christian and indigenous architecture.||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.||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.|
Sierra Gorda at a Glance
|The traditional food in La Huasteca includes Enchiladas Potosinas, bocoles (stuffed corn tortillas), zacahuil (giant tamales), molotes (stuffed fried corn batter), and cecina (a thin marinated steak).|
|Local specialities include coffee, oranges and fresh sugar cane juice, plus pottery, woven and embroidered products, and hammocks.|
|The festival of Santo Niño in Jalpan is a regional pilgrimage on January 6, while the Convivio de la Amistad on May 1 brings together communities to share food at La Playita. The local traditional music, el huapango, is best displayed during the
Festival del Huapango Arribeño, in Xichú.
|There are public buses from Queretaro to the larger towns, and shared mini-vans (colectivos) between the smaller towns. From Mexico city to Jalpan, it is about six hours.|
|There is no airport directly serving the Sierra region. The closest airport is Queretero, which is around three hours (164km) from Jalpan.|
|In the height of rainy season, typically August, it is humid and some places close due to intense rainfall. In the mountainous areas, the nights can get particularly cold, especially in winter.|
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.
Best Time to Travel Sierra Gorda
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.
Things to Do in Sierra Gorda
Puente de Dios
The jewel of Sierra Gorda is undoubtedly the ‘Bridge of God’, a natural rock arch etched out by the Escanela River. You can swim in the chilly pool under the arch, or get massaged by the small waterfalls that trickle down 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, steep canyon walls and Alamo trees to keep you company.
The area is surrounded by local folklore and mystery; a drunk man was once rambling that it was the area of the devil and was found tied up a tall tree with no memory; a woman was also once found perched on a rock wall that was otherwise impossible to access and required expert help to get her down.
In the height of rainy season, typically July or August, it can close if the water levels cover the trail. However, you can still reach Puente de Dios by taking the higher trail of around 1–2 hours, which also leads to the Peña de la Gloria waterfall that forms only in rainy season.
There are several ‘Puente de Dios’ in Mexico, so make sure you put ‘Sierra Gorda’, ‘Pinal de Amoles’, or ‘Queretaro’ to get the right one. From the main road, it’s 5km of dirt road until you reach the community of Escanela River or Mina Grande.
On the Mision Trail
In one of the last attempts to evangelize the interior of Mexico, five Franciscan missions were built in the Sierra Gorda in the mid-18th Century. What makes them unique are the facades that blend the creative efforts of the missionaries and the Indegionious populations, coined “Mestizo Baroque”. Today they stand testament to the exchange of values and cultural coexistence between the two societies, and are recognized by UNESCO. Next to the typical angels and saints you’d expect, you’ll find corn, vegeatables and local stones.
The five Missions are:
- The earliest, Santiago de Jalpan (1751–58), and Nuestra Señora de la Luz de Tancoyol are located in Jalpan de Sierra.
- In the town of Landa de Matamoros, you’ll find Purísima Concepción (or Santa Maria del Agua de Landa) with the most elaborate façade of the five, plus San Francisco del Valle de Tilaco, with its curious mermaids.
- The mission of San Miguel Concá is in Arroyo Seco.
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.
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.
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.
“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, deep, cold and rocky; Santa Maria has thermal, earthy water and a shallow sandy bottom. Especially in the 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 Jalpan y Concá, you’ll cross a big bridge. From here you will see roads that lead down to the river, where you can find swimming areas and camping areas.
Farther down, it’s easy to miss the turnoff to the town of Ayutla, but there you can find shady campgrounds under mango, citrus and banana trees. The campsites are spacious enough that you usually do not need to pre-book.
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.
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 that 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.
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.
Arbol Milanerio in Conca
The ‘Millennial Tree’ is the second-widest tree in Mexico with a diameter of 22 meters, only surpaseed in circumference by the Tule tree in Oaxaca. The Milanerio is located in the community of Concá in the municipality of Arroyo Seco. It sits on its own island among a natural spring that serves the local community with clear, blue water. It’s a little tricky to find the entrance, as you have to cross a sports field to find it. It’s a great 10-minute stop if you’re visiting the Conca Franciscan mission, one of the five missions is the Sierra Gorda territory.
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.
Cañón el Infiernillo
This canyon and a cave (
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.
Support Women’s Workshops
There are a couple of co-operatives where you can 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 their knowledge of the traditional regional pottery. From the community of Zoyapilca, follow a paved road for 8km until you reach the community of Soledad de Guadelupe.
There’s also the ‘Embroidery with Nature Motif’ workshop (Bordados con Motivos de la Naturaleza) in La Colgada, which employs women from the local communities, some who walk hours to take part in this women-owned co-operative. You can find more local products, such as Pure Life Foods (Alimentos Pura Vida), Organic Bees (Abejas Orgánicas), and Vale’s Remedies (Remedios Valen).
Stay with Local Communities
With wild living conditions, it’s no surprise that Sierra Gorda is 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 communitiy in the heart of Sierra Gorda, where you’ll find cabins and one telephone that barely 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 which you can drive to, while another 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.
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.
Safety and Travel Tips for Sierra Gorda
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.
Transport in Sierra Gorda
Look for buses to Jalpan or Pinol de Amores to base yourself. You can find buses from Mexico City, Queretaro and other large cities nearby. Once you’re in the region, you will find small shared vans – called colectivos – that can take you between the smaller towns. However, connections are not always direct, and you may need to change buses several times.
It is generally more comfortable to rent a car and drive yourself – some sites are remote and far from the bus stations and colectivo drop-off points. The roads are a mix of good and poor condition, and you will find yourself on dirt roads in several cases.
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.
Hotels 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.
The government tourism site: Queretaro Travel
Local News (in Spanish):