City of Heroes

San Luis Potosi deserves its spot on the must-see list of Mexico’s great colonial towns

By: Kevin Brass

Driving into town from the airport, San Luis Potosi looked like a prosperous industrial city, a landscape of factories, convenience stores and Wal-Marts. I was worried, thinking that maybe I would have been better off taking a trip to Detroit.

It wasn’t until we reached the center of the old city that I discovered why so many people rank San Luis Potosi as one of Mexico’s great off-the-beaten-path destinations. Once a capital of New Spain, the city, at its core, is a maze of pristine parks, old cathedrals and grand theaters. After a quick three-day sponsored trip, I was ready to add San Luis to my list of favorite colonial cities, joining the likes of Guanajuato and Oaxaca.

Wonders of Colonial Mexico

Like many other colonial cities, San Luis exudes an air of vibrancy and culture. Its growth was fueled by the treasures of silver and gold pulled from the surrounding mountains. Later it was a haven for heroes of Mexico’s fight for freedom, the city where Francisco Madero devised his famous Plan of San Luis Potosi, the spark of the 1910 revolution. As we toured the old city center, we passed a statue in one of the city’s beautiful squares honoring revolutionary firebrand Praxedis Guerrero, which was engraved “Independence or death.”

San Luis, as it is widely known, is still the thriving capital of the state of San Luis Potosi, the center of commerce for the stark high-desert region. In January, American Airlines started daily direct service from Dallas, in part due to the strong cultural and business ties between San Luis and Hispanics in Texas.

There are signs of new construction everywhere, and several U.S.-based hotel chains have properties in the area, including Hilton and Holiday Inn. We stayed in a new Country Inn and Suites on the outskirts of town, which I thought was an odd choice since it was so far removed from San Luis’ old-world charm. But I soon realized that staying outside the city center made it easy to avoid local traffic and hit the main highway for day trips exploring the region.

One day we visited the small village of Santa Maria del Rio, which is known for its handmade rebozos, intricate and colorful shawls. We left about 8:30 a.m. and arrived in the quiet town of old churches and lovely squares by 10 a.m., after an hour’s drive on a well-maintained highway through the breathtaking countryside of sage and towering cacti.

While Santa Maria made for a pleasant excursion, there was no comparison to the drama and splendor of the next day’s trip to the old ghost town of Real de Catorce, one of the wonders of Old Mexico. Tucked into a secluded valley deep in the mountains about a three-hour drive from San Luis, it was formerly one of the richest cities in the world, thanks to the treasures of silver and gold flowing from its mines.

To guard against bandits, the city is only accessible by a long narrow tunnel, which still provides the only entrance to the city. The modern Catorce is an exotic collection of stone streets and ancient buildings, a haven for artists and philosophers seeking visions of nature, which may or may not reflect the popularity of peyote in the region.

As we wandered the streets, we ran into a group of three American men in their 30s who had taken a bus to Catorce from Texas.

“We just wanted to go somewhere where we wouldn’t be overrun by gringos,” said Joe Orth of Houston.

The City Comes Alive

After a few hours exploring the old town, we piled into trucks for the ride up the mountain to the ghost town. As the trucks slowly bumped over the steep mule trails, more than once we let out a collective gasp when our driver navigated a turn, leaving us teetering dangerously on the edge of a cliff.

The ghost town stretches over the mountains in an intricate collection of stone ruins, most less than 200 years old. The abandoned mine shafts cut into the rock seemingly bottomless pits, where miners once risked their lives to bring out the precious metals.

The desolation of Catorce provided a stark contrast to the energetic atmosphere of the modern city of San Luis, which is home to several large schools. At night, the streets are alive with music and boisterous conversations flowing from cozy restaurants with old wood tables and white linen table clothes. One night a group of musicians in traditional costumes serenaded us on the streets.

“I thought it would be a small city,” said Maria Aboy of Aboy Travel in Plano, Tex., an agent on the fam trip. “It’s nothing like what I thought.”

Aboy plans to send clients to San Luis who love “going back in time to visit the old Spanish colonial towns,” perhaps combining it with a visit to Guanajuato, which is about a two-hour drive from San Luis. A trip to San Luis “is like going back to old Europe,” she said.


American Airlines now offers daily service from Dallas to San Luis Potosi.

Westin San Luis Potosi: An elegant hotel adorned with old stone arches and traditional Mexican art, located about 15 minutes from the center of town.

Country Inn & Suites: Low on the charm meter, but easy, clean and comfortable, located on the main highway about 10 minutes from the town center.

Callejon San Francisco: Just off one of the city’s most tranquil squares, it’s famous for its rooftop terrace and hearty beefsteak dishes. Universidad 169; 444-812-4508

Rincon Huasteca: On the outskirts of the city center, an excellent place to sample local delicacies, including exotic recipes made with regional cactus. Cuauhtemoc No. 232; 444-814-6003

San Luis is known for its festivals, which attract artists and performers from all over the region.
May: The Festival de las Artes runs for 10 days
July: Dance is spotlighted at the Festival de la Danza
August: Parade and celebration honoring the city’s patron saint, San Luis Rey

San Luis Potosi Tourism Office