Known as the third largest monolith in the world, Peña de Bernal is worth visiting just to see this unique mountain, though its charming streets and local cuisine make the town itself a worthwhile addition to your itinerary in its own right.
I’ll share here my experiences with the hike to the (near) summit, along with essential tips for reaching this remarkable destination.
You can also check out the video below where I show you the town, the hike, as well as various types of delicious gorditas that you can eat at the restaurants in town.
First: what’s a monolith?
What clearly put this town on the map is the unusually steep mountain that’s adjacent to it. This geological wonder rises to a height of approximately 1,421 feet (433 meters).
Known as a monolith or inselberg, it’s a type of mountain that gets its particular shape from millions of years of erosion. Softer rock is eroded away over millenia and what gets left behind is only the hard rock.
Explaining why Peña de Bernal stands alone in the landscape is that it’s believed to have once been the core of an ancient volcano.
Other examples of monoliths include the famous sugarloaf mountain in Rio de Janeiro as well as the Piedra Del Penol in the Colombian town of Guatapé. Having climbed both of these in past trips, I looked forward to hike up the Peña de Bernal, which is even taller than its brethren in Brazil and Colombia.
Unlike what some sources claim, the monolith of Bernal is not itself a UNESCO World Heritage site, however certain traditions of the indigenous Otomí-Chichimecas people that relate to the Peña de Bernal are recognized as an example of intangible heritage by UNESCO.
Should you stay overnight?
Peña de Bernal is quite a small town, so most visitors will check it out as a day trip. I opted for this as well, reaching Peña de Bernal from the nearby city of Queretaro.
Queretaro was a pleasant surprise and I can recommend it highly as a base. Although this city is not hugely well-known as a tourist destination, it has a beautiful old downtown. Queretaro is also thriving thanks to the presence of many Asian tech companies near it, so you’ll find a lot of culture and beautifully maintained plazas and parks. I thought staying in Queretaro and taking a day trip to Peña de Bernal was a good way to do it.
(Looking for a place to stay in Queretaro? I stayed in the somewhat amusingly named Kuku Ruku Hotel, which is affordable and highly central.)
It’s also possible to stay in Peña de Bernal itself. While it doesn’t have many sights to speak of besides the big rock, it does have quite a lot of charm, so I can see staying a night there being an appealing option.
You’ll be able to more easily see the Peña de Bernal at dusk or dawn, do the hike before the day-trippers arrive, and see the mountain and night when it’s lit up with floodlights. Before I decided to stay in Queretaro instead, I had my eye on the Hotel Mirador Real.
When to visit
Your main choice is whether to visit on a weekday or weekend, as the experience between them can be very different.
I visited Peña de Bernal on a regular Tuesday during which the town was calm. Only a dozen or so other hikers were on the trail. I recommend visiting during the week if you’d like the feeling of having the place to yourself. Many but not all of the souvenir shops will be closed, and while most of the cafes and restaurants are open, it definitely feels very quiet.
Based on the experiences of other travelers, I can say the weekends get far busier as many domestic tourists will flood into Peña de Bernal at this time. It’s not necessarily a bad time to go, just expect it to be a lot more lively, with all the restaurant terraces filled up with people and most of the souvenir shops open for business and selling their wares.
Besides the day of the week, the time of day can affect your hiking conditions a lot. The trail is completely exposed and offers almost no shade, so if possible, I would avoid doing it in the midday sun.
The trailhead is a little bit outside of town but easy enough to get to. Just head northwest of the town and you’ll find it.
There is a small ticket barrier where tickets should cost around 50 mxn / 2.50 usd each. A few souvenir huts line the start of the trail, after which it’s at most an hour to the top.
In some cases you will need to climb over some boulders using metal steps or some ropes provided. This should present only a fun and minor challenge for most, but if you have a particular disability, perhaps this could prevent you from completing the trail. If so, you’ll still get a nice view of the valley.
I should mention the trail does not go all the way to the top. This can be a little disappointing! Eventually you reach a viewing point with barriers and signs saying only those with mountaineering equipment are allowed to continue. As a hiker, you can only reach about two thirds of the way up. The views at the top are still impressive and worthwhile.
Remember to wear comfortable shoes, carry plenty of water, and take breaks along the way to admire the stunning vistas and catch your breath.
Other things to do in Peña de Bernal
Hiking up the mountain is definitely the main activity, though there are a couple of other things to check out in the town of Peña de Bernal.
Discover the town’s charms
Stroll through the charming streets of Peña de Bernal and soak up the laid-back atmosphere. Admire the colorful colonial architecture and browse the local shops for handicrafts and souvenirs.
Visit the Museo de la Máscara
A small museum showing a variety of over 300 masks in indigenous or traditional styles that were made by residents of Bernal for festivals and events. Only open on Fri-Sun from 11 AM until 7 PM.
Visit Templo de San Sebastián
Make a stop at Templo de San Sebastián, a picturesque church located in the heart of Peña de Bernal. Admire the neo-Gothic facade and step inside to explore the ornate interior, which showcases beautiful religious artwork and craftsmanship.
Try the local cuisine
Indulge in authentic Mexican cuisine at one of the town’s cozy restaurants. A lot of the restaurants and food stalls serve gorditas, which loosely translates as “little chubby ones”. They’re something a bit in between tacos and arepas and they’re served sizzlingly fresh.
Various meat and veggie options can be found, though one option I found particularly interesting was gordita de nopales, which contains chopped-up pads from the Nopal cactus.
How to Get to Peña de Bernal
- From Mexico City: The easiest way to reach Peña de Bernal from Mexico City is by bus. Head to the Central de Autobuses del Norte and look for buses bound for Queretaro. Once in Queretaro, transfer to a local bus or taxi to reach Peña de Bernal, approximately a one-hour drive away. Note that local buses depart from Terminal B, which is across the street from the coach area of Terminal A. Check for bus tickets from Mexico City to Queretaro here.
- From Queretaro: If you are already in Queretaro, getting to Peña de Bernal is a breeze. Simply hop on a local bus or take a taxi for a scenic drive of about one hour.
Flecha Amarilla and Flecha Azul are the two main bus companies serving the route to Peña de Bernal.
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