Whether you like it or not, you will probably end up in the industrial city of León, 56km west of Guanajuato, thanks to its importance as a main bus hub within the state of Guanajuato. Also, it's only 20km from Aeropuerto Internacional del Bajío. It's unlikely you'll need to stay here; bus connections are plentiful.
The attractive town of Jalpan centers on the mission church, constructed by Franciscan monks and their indigenous converts in the 1750s. It's the gateway to the five missions. Not surprisingly, given its tropical climate, Jalpan specializes in artisanal – and very delicious – ice creams served in many heladerías (ice-cream shops) around town.
Less than 100 years ago, Mineral de Pozos was a flourishing silver-mining center of 70,000 people, but with the 1910 Revolution and the flooding of the mines, the population dwindled. Empty houses, a large and unfinished church (note the dome!) and discarded mine workings and shafts were the legacy of abandonment.
With a population of pop 4000, the tiny town of Bernal is quaint, if touristy, and you can cover it in an hour or so. (Note: it comes to life during the weekends; many things are closed from Monday to Thursday). Its drawcard is the 350m-high rock spire, the Peña de Bernal, the third-largest monolith in the world and considered mystical by many Mexicans.
The impressive ruins of La Quemada stand on a hill overlooking a broad valley 45km south of Zacatecas, 2.5km east of the Zacatecas–Guadalajara road. The remote and scenic setting makes the ruins well worth the day trip from Zacatecas. The area is known to have rattlesnakes; keep an eye – and ear! – out. The exact history and purpose of the site are extremely vague.
Cañada de la Virgen
Opened in 2011 after many years of archaeological excavation and negotiations with the owner (who donated the ruins and surrounds to the government to allow for public access), the Cañada de la Virgen is an intriguing pre-Hispanic pyramid complex and former ritual and ceremonial site located around 25km southeast of San Miguel, dating from around AD 300 to 1050.
If you happen to be interested in archaeology, check out El Cerrito, a 30m-high pyramid-like structure sitting atop a small hill located in El Pueblito, 7km from central Querétaro. Archaeologists, who are still excavating the site, believe it was occupied between AD 600 and 1600 by the Teotihuacán, Toltec, Chichimec, Otomí and Tarasca cultures.
About 10km east of Zacatecas, Guadalupe boasts a fascinating historic former monastery, the Convento de Guadalupe. The Convento was established by Franciscan monks in the early 18th century as an apostolic college. It developed a strong academic tradition and was a base for missionary work in northern Nueva España until the 1850s.
The pleasant but unremarkable town of Matehuala (pop 80,000), between Saltillo and San Luis Potosí on Hwy 57, is the compulsory changing point for buses north to Real de Catorce. The bus station is just west of the highway, 2km south of the center. From Matehuala, Estrella Blanca, Noreste and Transportes del Nord all have services.
Sierra Gorda Missions
In the mid-18th century, Franciscans established five beautiful missions in this remote region, including at Jalpan. These were inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2003. Founder Fray Junípero Serra went on to found the California mission chain. The restored churches are notable for their extraordinary and colorful facades carved with symbolic figures.
Santuario de Atotonilco
The hamlet of Atotonilco, 11km north of San Miguel and 3km west of the Dolores Hidalgo highway, is dominated by an extremely important sanctuary, at least in the eyes of Mexicans. The sanctuary was founded in 1740 as a spiritual retreat, and Ignacio Allende married here in 1802.