I’ve never met a pueblo magico I didn’t love. These 132 “magic towns” are a designation of the Mexican government, a program launched in 2001 to promote tourism in smaller communities that offer natural beauty, cultural richness, history, archeology, cuisine, and the arts. I find the small-town residents, like everywhere in the world, to be especially friendly and welcoming.
Some pueblos magicos are easily accessible to foreigners — near an international airport or tourist destination, like Cancun or Mexico City. Others are near Mexican cities you can fly to from a U.S. airport, like Houston. And still others are accessible from Mexico City on one of Mexico’s budget airlines or first-class buses.
My husband Barry and I have by no means visited them all, but we chip away at it every year when we winter in Guanajuato, in the Colonial Highlands. And some we like so much we go back to! Here are six of my favorites:
Valle De Bravo
“Valle,” a 2.5-hour bus ride from Mexico City, is a pretty, tree-lined town with whitewashed houses and red terracotta roofs. It has a generous plaza, with the traditional church, trees, benches, vendors, and people of all ages congregating. During the weekends, Valle gets busy with escapees from Mexico City who have second homes there, but during the week it’s muy tranquilo.
There’s much to do in and around Valle. You can rent kayaks and windsurf on Lake Avandaro, and take a short hike up La Pena, a rock, for a commanding view of the town and lake. Check out two spiritual centers of different faiths in the area — a Tibetan Buddhist temple, the tallest in the Western Hemisphere, and Marantha, a Carmelite retreat sanctuary, consisting of landscaped gardens and three chapels with stained glass, carved reliefs, and paintings of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
In season (December to March), you can visit Piedra Herrada, 40 minutes away, where you can see clouds of monarch butterflies taking flight as the day warms up. Or, if you’re a hiker, take a taxi to the Nevado de Toluca volcano, the fourth highest peak in Mexico, and explore the many paths and the volcanic lake.
Patzcuaro is an autentico mountain town of 80,000 with a mixed colonial and indigenous flavor, surrounded by forests and lakes and located just 45 minutes from the international destination of Morelia, the capital of the state of Michoacan. Dozens of small shops line the cobblestone streets, along with a daily street market selling low-cost fresh produce, meat, poultry, spices, condiments, and other basic household goods. The town is particularly well known for the indigenous craft villages that surround its lake and for its annual Day of the Dead festivities on November 1 and 2.
One of the most relaxed colonial towns in the Yucatan, Valladolid lies at the exact midpoint (two hours each way) between Cancun and Merida. Despite its small size, it has an abundance of restaurants, cafes, and hotels, and is very clean with wide, unobstructed sidewalks. The town boasts its own cenote (fresh-water pool) right in the center, a perfect refreshing break on hot days, as well as a former convent with 16th-century wall frescos and sacred art. Valladolid is also conveniently located near several iconic Mayan archaeological sites, including Chichen Itza and — even better — Ek Balam.
“Tequis,” a town of 28,000, is located about two hours from the city of Queretaro in central Mexico. It’s filled with whitewashed and brightly colored buildings festooned with bougainvillea. “This has to be the poster child for the word ‘charming,’” I said to Barry, as we strolled around. It reminded us of the very popular expat town of San Miguel de Allende — but without the traffic and the gringos.
Tequis boasts several lush parks, one with a freshwater spring. Located on the Mexican altiplano, the town is nestled in a valley surrounded by mountain peaks. It’s a perfect base to explore the area, which is a tourist’s mecca, dotted with vineyards, ruins, restored haciendas, and thermal spas.
Jalpan De Serra
Jalpan, about 3.5 hours from the city of Queretaro, is an attractive town set in the middle of the Sierra Gorda, a mountainous bioreserve in the state of the same name. It is home to one of five missions built by the Franciscan priest Junipero Serra, who later designed the missions in California and for whom the Bay Area freeway 280 is named.
The “mestizo baroque” style of the Mexican missions is a mixture of both Spanish and indígena Native motifs and is much more elaborate than the style of the missions Serra built later in California.
The Jalpan mission is right on the jardin (town square). Conca, the smallest mission, considered the most mestizo, is especially worth visiting, both because the highway to get there takes you through beautiful scenery, and because the village of Conca is so charming.
Besides the missions, near Jalpan, you can visit waterfalls, river walks, swimming holes, limestone grottos, and ruins.
Located 1.5 hours from Jalpan, Xilitla is a pretty town, best known for Las Pozas, the whimsical sculpture garden built by Edward James, the wealthy Englishman who lived there between 1949 and 1984. The garden consists of a series of natural pools and waterfalls interspersed with dozens of surreal concrete structures linked by winding jungle walkways. Pagodas, curious temples, four-story monuments, staircases, arches, bridges that end midair, all surrounded by trees and climbing plants, fill the dreamlike world of the park. One structure is named “The House on Three Floors Which Will in Fact Have Five or Four or Six.” Wandering around, I felt like I was in Alice in Wonderland.
For newcomers to Mexico who want to check out a couple of pueblos magicos, I’d recommend flying into Mexico City (MEX), from where you can easily visit two or three of them on Mexico’s first-class buses. The designation “pueblos magico” is indeed accurate, as most of the ones we’ve visited really are magical.