Aguascalientes may not be a destination that is currently on the minds of U.S. leisure travelers. But it should be. I venture to say that it’s a destination we should all have our eyes on for the foreseeable future. Located in the center of Mexico, roughly two hours’ drive from Guanajuato City and three hours from San Miguel de Allende, Aguascalientes is a state that is full of surprises and one that will be a welcome discovery for those who have nostalgia for the “old days” of Mexico.
“Travelers should discover Aguascalientes if they want to see the authentic Mexico,” said Guillermo Gonzalez-Engelbrecht, tourism consultant for the governor of Aguascalientes. “The capital of the state is a modern city,” he said. “But still, there is siesta time. The stores close in the afternoon and reopen later. Calle Nieto in downtown Aguascalientes is a street lined with the old-fashioned stores where you go and buy your locally made shirts, products and linens. Aguascalientes is like living in Queretaro and Guanajuato, but 40 years ago.”
I arrived in Aguascalientes last Monday for the state’s very first U.S. media fam trip. Not knowing what to expect, I arrived with an open mind. Never before has Aguascalientes been promoted as a leisure destination for U.S. travelers. It is mostly known for meetings and conventions, as well as the automobile industry. What I discovered was a destination rich in museums, history, culture, architecture, wine and nature. Plus, Aguascalientes is home to four Magical Towns, which are destinations representative of Mexican culture, architecture, history and beauty.
Aguascalientes is the birthplace of the iconic “La Catrina” calavera image, which is prevalent across Mexico for Dia de Muertos. The artist who created the legendary image was born in Aguascalientes and there is a museum devoted to his life’s work. Visitors can see the original stamp that was used to share the Catrina image with the rest of Mexico.
And the city of Aguascalientes was once one of the most important rail hubs in all North America. Trains from all over the country would have to stop in Aguascalientes before continuing north, south, east or west. Today, the retired railyard, Plaza de Las Tres Centurias, has been converted into museums, event spaces and a college of fine arts.
Just outside of the capital, the wine route of Aguascalientes includes more than a dozen vineyards and tasting rooms. The wine tradition in Aguascalientes goes back as far as the 16th century, and today the wines of the region are among the best in Mexico.
Plus, Aguascalientes hosts one of the largest festivals in Latin America — Feria de San Marcos. For several weeks in April, the streets of Aguascalientes come alive with live music, entertainment, dining, nightlife, charreria and more. Millions of visitors from all over Mexico and the rest of Latin America visit Aguascalientes to attend the event.
It’s an incredible part of Mexico.
Mexico as it ‘used to be’
I will admit, they do still have some work to do if it will be easily accessible and approachable to mainstream American travelers. For example, the state only has a handful of guides who are officially licensed with the state. The same is true for tour operators. But the secretary of tourism and the state are working to change this.
“We’re opening [a graduate program] for tourist guides,” said Gonzalez-Engelbrecht. “We’re working with the university to get certification for local guides and operators. We need much more people to get involved so they can organize those itineraries.”
That said, for travelers who know Mexico, for those who miss how certain cities “used to be,” Aguascalientes provides a much-missed return to “authentic” Mexico. You won’t find many international hotel brand names here. Most things are local, most things are Mexican. It’s better to know some Spanish here. When you visit Aguascalientes, you’re stepping away from all-inclusive resorts and travel packages, and for so many travelers, that is something they have missed when they visit destinations that have a much larger international presence — me being one of those travelers.
The tourism board in Aguascalientes is starting off promoting the destination to neighboring states like Guanajuato, Zacatecas and San Luis Potosi. Then they will begin to expand to promote nationally, and then they will move on to promote in the U.S. in Canada, predominantly where there are direct flights, including Houston, Dallas, Chicago and Southern California.
It’s a good place to start. There is so much to see and do in Aguascalientes, especially for travelers who love what makes Mexico … Mexico.
“You can enjoy the authentic Mexico [in Aguascalientes],” said Gonzalez-Engelbrecht.
So many destinations in Mexico have that as their tag line, but in Aguascalientes it feels like it goes deeper.
“You can go back in time and enjoy this walkable city,” added Gonzalez-Engelbrecht. “It’s very safe. But you can also stay in a nice hotel, have good food, enjoy the spa. It’s nothing like the beach. It’s nothing like the modern, luxury places. It’s a first-class vacation in an old-fashioned, authentic Mexico.”
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