Movies about Mexico seem to be centered around the cartel,
depressing living conditions, and gun violence. (Can we say stereotype?) It’s
no wonder Americans believe it’s “dangerous” to go to Mexico. One of our
favorite movies, Once Upon a Time in Mexico has all that and more. It’s a story of love, revenge, strategic political crap, and witty remarks all filmed in one of the most colorful and historical areas in Mexico.
Why would I talk about a movie produced almost two decades
ago? Because it’s still one of the best written movies out there with film locations around Guanajuato City, San Miguel de Allende and Queretaro (where we currently live). These three cities represent the heart of Mexico with their Baroque architecture, natural beauty and local life.
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About the Film
Once Upon a Time in Mexico’s intricate plot and characters keep you on your toes. It begins with CIA agent Sands (Johnny Depp) recruiting El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) to kill General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil) who has been hired by the Cartel leader Barillo (Willem Dafoe) to assassinate the President (Pedro Armendariz Jr.) and overthrow the government.
General Marquez killed El Mariachi’s wife (Salma Hayek) and daughter, so this would be the perfect revenge. Sands also hired AFN officer Ajedrez (Eva Mendez) to follow Barillo and convinces former FBI agent Ramirez (Rubén Blades) to come out of retirement to avenge his partner’s murder (who was killed by Barillo). Other characters come into play to add a few interesting twists, action-packed chases, and gunfights during the Day of the Dead celebrations.
The story supposedly takes place in Culiacán, which is a real city in the state of Sinoloa. But all the film locations were shot in Central Mexico in the states of Guanajuato and Queretaro. Surprisingly, no one else has watched this movie over and over again (like me) to pinpoint the landmarks in the film. So here is your unofficial guide to film locations within the states of Guanajuato and Queretaro that appeared in Once Upon a Time in Mexico.
Hacienda Jaral de Berrios
The movie opens with what looks like a derelict movie set with makeshift vendors selling guitars. It isn’t, it’s now the abandoned Hacienda Jaral de Berrios. Once a prominent estate with its own post office, railroad station, church, and schools, today it has fallen into ruin. Many old haciendas have been turned into boutique hotels in different cities, but the location of this hacienda is far from many attractions and modern conveniences.
Hacienda Jaral de Berrios was built in the early 16th century and produced gunpowder and mezcal. Today, you can tour the hacienda to see the Corinthian columns, grand courtyards and ceiling frescos. You can also try their artisan. Tour the museum and see how they make their unique mezcal by steaming instead of smoking in conic shaped ovens.
How to get there: Hacienda Jaral de Berrios is located near the small town of San Felipe Torres Mochas between Dolores Hidalgo and Mineral de Pozos on Highway 51 in the state of Guanajuato. The trip to San Felipe Torres Mochis is about a 90-minute drive from San Miguel de Allende. The hacienda is another 25km past the turn off to San Felipe.
Unfortunately, it has been closed to the public because of COVID.
The Presidential State Room in the Legislative Palace- Guanajuato
The Sala de Sesiones of the Legislative Palace of Guanajuato is featured several times throughout the movie as the Presidential Palace (interior). You’ll see it when introduced to the President, a dinner celebration, and during the final shootouts. The windows open to the Plaza de la Paz near the big yellow church Basílica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato. The Neoclassical façade you see today on the outside of the Legislative Palace was constructed in the late 19th century and inaugurated in 1903.
Visit the Palacio de los Poderes Facebook page to learn more about the history and see the inside of the Legislative Palace.
La Parroquia and Statue of Friar Juan- San Miguel de Allende
As El Mariachi plays his guitar and remembers his lost love, Carolina, a statue of Friar Juan de San Miguel smiles down on him. Friar Juan is credited with naming the town after the archangel Miguel.
A magnificent tilt shot shows of La Parroquia shows off its natural pink sandstone and intricate details. Built in the 17th century with a traditional Mexican façade, the gothic features were added in 1880 by self-taught architect Zeferino Gutierrez who was inspired by postcards and sketches of European churches. Nicknamed the “wedding cake” for its ornamental spires and natural pink sandstone coloration, it’s one of the most recognized churches in the world.
The inside of the church is more elaborate than what is shown in the movie. The church holds services and weddings throughout the week. If you get a chance to visit, make sure to wear pants or a long skirt to show respect. Central Mexico is more conservative than Mexican beach towns.
Hotel Posada de Santa Fe- Guanajuato
During a flashback scene, El Mariachi and Salma wake up in what looks like a simple traditional hotel room and run from gunfire down a drab 70s style hallway of a hotel. The Hotel Posada de Santa Fe in Guanajuato is an eclectic mix of colonial and 20th century styles. Historically, it was the Embassy of Prussia from 1864-1867. This hotel is centrally located steps from Teatro Juarez in Guanajuato, though the outside chase scenes were filmed in San Miguel. This part of the film was supposed to be in the prequel, Desperado.
The real rooms in the Hotel Posada de Santa Fe are much nicer than the “room” in the movie. The grand staircase is impressive, and pictures hanging in the hallway show the filming of Once Upon a Time in Mexico. You can also visit the rooftop where they filmed El Mariachi talking to his amigos about his mission of revenge.
Calle Insurgentes- San Miguel de Allende
Still in the flashback, Carolina and El Mariachi jump from the hotel onto a moving bus on Calle Insurgentes. This street has several landmarks but has also gone through some renovations and paint jobs over the last decade. You can see the old stone Templo de Santa Maria in the background, though it has been painted yellow since the movie was filmed. This church will be seen again during the motorcycle chase scene after the first big shootout.
Another church that is highlighted in a scene is the 18th century Oratorio de San Felipe located on Insurgentes #12 street right at the turn. (Look past Johnny Depp!)
Plaza de Toros 41 Recreo- San Miguel de Allende
Bullfights are typical in San Miguel between December and April. Sands meets the President’s assistant at the Plaza de Toros. Mexico has adopted the bullfighting tradition and you can find a Plaza de Toros in many cities. Walking up Calle Recreo, you would never know there was a bullfighting amphitheater behind the simple doors.
The Lake Scene
A 10-minute drive from San Miguel de Allende’s Centro, the Laja River spills into a ravine and creates a lake. Now whether this is the natural lake/river scene where Sands tries to drown the dead body of Belini (Cheech Marin) it’s tough to say, but it is the closest body of water to the city.
Church of the Immaculate Conception- San Miguel de Allende
The church in the background ringing its bells is the Templo de la Purísima Concepción. It’s distinctive yellow dome with a statue on top is easy to recognize. Construction began in the mid-18th century, but the dome was completed in the late 19th century by architect Zeferino Gutiérrez. Take some time to read the words of wisdom painted on the interior doorway as you enter.
University of Guanajuato- Guanajuato
The University of Guanajuato was used for the outside shots of the “Presidential Palace”. Established in 1732, the university has changed its name several times throughout history, but continues to offer programs in law, the arts, and many other programs. It’s open to both national and international students.
Santo Escuela de Cristo- San Miguel de Allende
Sands passes by a Moorish-style tower as he is on the phone with FBI agent Ramirez in one scene. La Santa Escuela de Cristo was built in 1732 and is located next to La Parroquia.
Jardin Zenea and Templo de San Francisco- Queretaro
Ramirez on the other end, is walking through Jardin Zenea past the portico in Queretaro. When he gets off the phone, the orange church behind him is the Templo de San Francisco. This is one of the most spectacular churches in Queretaro. Its former convent is now the Regional Museum with several artifacts from pre-Columbian nomadic tribes to the Mexican Revolution displayed in its old cloister rooms.
Nacional Teatro de la Republica- Queretaro
As Ramirez is following Billy Chambers (Mickey Rourke) over to a street vendor, you can see the Nacional Teatro de la Republica in the background. On May 2, 1852, the Neoclassical Theater of the Republic opened under the name of Teatro Iturbide. The theater has been the location of many historical events such as the sentencing of Maximilian I and the creation of the 1917 Constitution of the United Mexican States. Today, it promotes national and international art and films.
The Teatro de la Republica is located at the intersection of Calle Angela Peralta and Calle Benito Juarez.
Plaza Civica and Templo de Nuestra Señora de La Salud- San Miguel de Allende
Time for a shootout! The best shootout scene in the movie happens between Cucuy (Danny Trejo, a.k.a. Machete) and El Mariachi in the Plaza Civica. This plaza is always abuzz with activity and vendors, and is the perfect backdrop for a large Christmas tree during the holidays. A statue of General Miguel de Allende, an important figure during the War of Independence in 1810, a school and fountain are also within the plaza.
The Templo de Nuestra Señora de La Salud is another church that is easy to recognize for its carved seashell appearance on top of the church
Parque Juarez- San Miguel de Allende
Parts of the motorcycle chase scene run through Parque Juarez, a green space south of San Miguel’s Centro. On weekends you may see painters selling their art, and sometimes they have some festivals with vendors lining the narrow pathways. The park is a nice shady spot to relax anytime of the day.
Hospital Scene and Plaza de Baratillo- Guanajuato
Mexico does have modern hospitals, but since hospitals are not on the usual tourist circuit (except when emergencies arise), I’ve skipped where this could be located. But pay attention near the end of the hospital scene when the “doctor” runs down the road and around the corner to a car. In the background is a large fountain and narrow street. This fountain is in Plaza del Baratillo in Guanajuato.
Day of the Dead Celebration in Guanajuato
Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout Mexico between October 31 and November 2. The procession in the movie was staged sometime during the summer. How do I know this? Other shots show green fields in the countryside. It’s only green between June (when the rains come frequently) and September. By the end of October, the grass has turned straw yellow.
The Day of the Dead procession took place along the walking street near the Parroquia de Basílica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato, the yellow church in the background. This church was built between 1671 and 1696. Walk inside, and you will see the focus of the main altar is the image of Our Lady of Guanajuato (Nuestra Señora de Guanjuato), who is the patroness of the city. She was donated to the city by King Carlos I of Spain and his son Felipe II in 1557.
Outside the church is a small plaza with a garden known as Plaza Mayor and Plaza de la Paz. Former mansions, now restaurants, shops and government buildings, surround this beautiful area in Guanajuato Centro.
Anche de San Antonio Y Intersection- San Miguel de Allende
Sands has his final shootout scene on Ancha de San Antonio where it splits into Zacateros and Coda. This is one of the main roads leading into San Miguel’s center. An Italian restaurant, Antigue Trattoria Romana, resides in the background building.
Final Scene- Picacho Mountains
The good guys walk off into the Picacho mountains while El Mariachi returns to his village and plays his guitar on top of Hacienda Jaral de Barrios. The End.
So if you haven’t been to Central Mexico, watch this movie to explore the three main cities of Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende and Queretaro. And if you have visited these cities, this movie is perfect for a walk (and shootout) down memory lane.