I traveled through the central and eastern part of Mexico mostly by bus from January through March, 2020. My plan at the beginning had been to stay only one month, and only in Guadalajara. I ended up staying two months and traveling through eight different states where I visited eight magical towns and a few other UNESCO listed towns.
Shortly after my arrival in Guadalajara, I learned about the whole initiative of “Pueblos Magicos” during a day trip to Tequila, Zapopan, Tlaquepaque and Tonala. After seeing these colorful towns full of culture and natural beauty I decided that I would have to extend my trip. I wanted to see and experience more of this magic that Mexico had to offer. Mexico’s beauty is addictive and seeing just one city was not going to do it for this wanderer!
WHAT ARE PUEBLOS MAGICOS?
To show that Mexico is more than beaches and fun in the sun, the Mexican Ministry of Tourism with other agencies’ support created the initiative of the “Pueblos Magicos” or Magical Towns. This initiative was launched in 2001 with 32 towns and later relaunched in 2010 with even more government support. Every single one of the 32 towns was given a budget to continue to improve its infrastructure, image, and experiences offered while maintaining local traditions and festivals. Part of the criteria to be given this important status is to have a population of at least 5,000 people. By 2012, the country had named an additional 51 towns as Pueblos Magicos bringing the total to 83 towns located in 31 different states. This initiative has been so successful that the more popular towns see as many as 20,000 tourists on the weekends. As you can imagine, this has brought in a lot of revenue in Tourism creating tons of new jobs for these places. In 2019 Mexico increased the list to 121 Pueblos Magicos. All of these towns possess what are known as “magical” qualities such as astonishing beauty, rich history, preserved old traditions, festivals, etc. And if that wasn’t enough, Mexico also has 35 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the most out of all countries in the Americas, and #7 in the world!
MY CHOICE OF TRANSPORT TO SEE THESE PUEBLOS MAGICOS…
Travel by bus in Mexico is super easy, safe, and cheap compared to other modes. Almost all places in Mexico can be reached by bus. There are various companies that offer many route services covering major cities and towns. The ones that are most known and that I used are ADO, Primera Plus, and Zina. Each tends to specialize in a particular region. You can always look up the one that covers the route that you want and book your ticket online, or buy your ticket at the bus terminal 30 minutes before the departure time. You can also use an online broker like Reservamos.mx to buy in advance but they charge a commission. Not all Mexican bus company websites will accept a foreign credit card but Reservamos.mx does. The buses that cover long routes of three or more hours will usually offer reclining seats with leg rests, WIFI, movies, snacks, one drink, and toilet service. All these amenities are included in the ticket price.
After spending about a week in the state of Jalisco (see my post on this) I decided to continue east to the state of Guanajuato. I began by visiting its capital city of the same name.
Its original name is Quanax Huato in the local indigenous language of Purepecha, which means ” hill of frogs”. It is located in a narrow valley in the Bajio region. It is mostly known for its narrow alleyways, mountainside stairways, and colorful homes. Its growth was attributed to the abundant minerals in the mountains surrounding the region which made the city rich and one of the most influential during colonial times. This city was the site of the first battle of the Mexican independence war. It was named a World Heritage Site in 1988.
What makes it special: its mining history, colonial architecture, colorful houses and buildings, narrow alleyways, underground tunnels, and historic museums.
Must see’s: University of Guanajuato, Mummy Museum, Alhondiga de Granaditas, Monumento al Pipila, Callejon del Beso, Jardin de la Union, Museum Casa Diego Rivera, Plaza de la Paz, Teatro Juarez, the Tunnels, Panteon Santa Paula.
- Walk around and get lost in the city’s narrow alleyways, plazas, and underground tunnels. End with a hike to the Monumento del Pipila for the best high viewpoint of the city at sunset and take the funicular down.
- Join a “Callejoneada” just outside of the Teatro Juarez every evening. These are done by a group of university students that will sing and dance old Spanish songs as they walk you around some of the best alleyways of the city. They usually end them at the Callejon del Beso.
- Take a local bus from the Alhondiga de Granaditas to the Valenciana mining area and visit Bocamina San Ramon and Bocamina San Cayetano, two of the mine’s entries that are open to visitors. Your entry ticket will include a guided visit. Afterwards visit the stunning church of La Valenciana.
SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Guanajuato
Just an hour and a half away by bus from the capital city, you find San Miguel de Allende, one of the most beautiful places in Mexico. It used to enjoy the status of magical town until it became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008. This gorgeous city is definitely one of my favorite in the world and one of the most picturesque I have ever seen. The name is actually a combination of two names- Juan de San Miguel- the Franciscan monk that founded the city and Ignacio Allende- one of the heroes of the revolution against Spain. I happened to visit during the celebration of the “natalicio” or Allende’s birth date. For a few days there were parades and parties on the streets plus a free concert with Armando Manzanero and Francisco Céspedes. If you grew up in a Latin country or with Latin parents, you should at least know who Manzanero is!
What makes it special: Everything! Really! you will never run out of things to do, places to see, restaurants to try, streets to walk, museums to visit. It is located in the highlands of Guanajuato offering great year-round climate, charming cobblestone streets, and stunning neoclassic colonial architecture.
Must see’s: Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, El Jardin Main Plaza, Museo Historico de San Miguel de Allende, Mercado de Artesanias, Museo la Esquina del Juguete Popular, Mojigangas de San Miguel.
- Walk around and get lost in its cobblestoned streets admiring the architecture, the churches and hundreds of colorful houses with beautifully decorated facades, balconies, and doors. Make sure to walk down San Francisco street and get a picture with the Mojigangas- the giant carnival dolls wearing traditional Mexican dresses.
- Take a walk up to a “Mirador” or viewpoint of San Miguel de Allende to see this beautiful city light up after sunset. Take a “Tranvia Tour” up or down from the mirador to get the historical facts and stories behind every major landmark. They will include a tasting of Mexican sweets at an artisan shop right across the mirador.
- Eat your way across town, and definitely try the churros and a hot chocolate at Churreria y Chocolates San Agustin.
SANTIAGO DE QUERETARO, Queretaro
Only one hour and a half by bus you find Queretaro to the Southeast of San Miguel de Allende. This is the capital city of the state that goes by the name of Queretaro. The state itself has eight Pueblos Magicos but I only had time to visit the city. Queretaro is the fastest growing city in the country, it has a vibrant economy and hosts many large international companies. I focused on the historical center and its famous pink-stone Aqueduct.
What makes it special: Definitely its 74-arch Aqueduct built in the early 1700s and its UNESCO listed historical center with its well preserved colonial past. This is the place where the Mexican Declaration of Independence was signed.
Must see’s: Historic Center, Queretaro Aqueduct, Zenea Garden, Plaza de Armas, Queretaro Cathedral, Teatro de la Republica, Queretaro Regional Museum-INAH, Templo and ex-convent La Cruz. This is a large city so there are many different squares, historic buildings, parks and museums all around the center.
- Walk around the historic center, get lost exploring its many streets, cafes, churches, countless fountains, and squares. Queretaro still retains a lot of its 1700’s architecture, it has 204 blocks, 1,400 historical monuments, 72 fountains, and 42 religious buildings. Take a break on one of the many benches in the Zenea Gardens while charging your phone in one of the electric outlets and enjoy some people-watching.
- Go northeast of the Zenea Gardens on Calle 16 de Septiembre and find the “Tranvia Queretaro”. They offer different tours, definitely do the tour that ends at the Queretaro Aqueduct. The historic trolley will drive you around some of the most important sites of the city center and will end with visit of the Queretaro Aqueduct. You will be dropped off on the Calzada de los Arcos where you will do a short walk uphill to get one to one of the best views of the Aqueduct – “Mirador Los Arcos”. Just across the street you will find the Pantheon of the Illustrious Queretanos with a beautiful church and monuments to honor some of the city’s historical figures. You will have a history guide on the trolley during the entire 2-hour journey.
TEOTIHUACAN, Estado de Mexico
Just an hour northeast of Mexico City you find the Archeological Complex of Teotihuacan. First settled in 400BC it became the most powerful and influential city in the region by 400AD. The name of Teotihuacan was actually given by the Aztecs when they found the city in the 1400’s, it means “place where the gods were created”.
What makes it special: Its vast archeological complex covering an area of eight square miles and housing many buildings, plazas, temples and pyramids. The main buildings are connected by the Avenue of the Dead.
Must see’s: Inside the complex- the Pyramid of the Moon, the Pyramid of the Sun, the Citadel, and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (or Feathered Serpent). If staying in the area, visit the town of San Juan de Teotihuacan if you want a taste of the local life.
- Walk around the entire complex with a local guide that you can hire at the different entrances. Climb the Pyramids of the Sun, the Moon and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl.
- Have a cocktail lunch or dinner at the restaurant La Gruta. It is a pretty pricey restaurant located inside a giant cave. They also allow visitors to take photos from the top of the cave where you can see the restaurant down below. At the end of your service the waiter will bring you a lit candle that you will walk through the restaurant and up a set of stairs going up to the highest point in the cave. This is part of a traditional “rebirth” experience; which he will explain through some story-telling.
VALLE DE BRAVO, Estado de Mexico
During a visit to Mexico City I had the pleasure of spending a few days with some close friends from a previous job. They invited me to spend a long weekend in Valle de Bravo with their family. This is a gorgeous and quite popular town located on Lake Avándaro and surrounded by beautiful mountains. This is a major weekend-getaway for people that live in Mexico City.
What makes it special: The Lake Avándaro, the wooded mountains surrounding the town, the beautiful historic center, and the nearby Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
Must see’s: Piedra Herrada Sanctuary, Lake Avándaro, Velo de Novia Waterfall, Mirador La Peña, Parroquia de San Francisco de Asis, Reserva Monte Alto.
- This town is a great base to go see the Monarch butterflies during the migration season. Visit the Santuario Piedra Herrada inside the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
- Take a nature hike up to the top of the State Reserve of Monte Alto to the highest point and paraglide over the lake. If not paragliding, enjoy the views and watch people as they take off in their tandem paraglides. It is a beautiful forest with amazing views. There are also plenty of mountain bike trails in the area for all levels. The best part about this town is that they offer mountain biking child care services.
- Walk around the town and around the lake and enjoy the beautiful cobblestone streets, parks, churches, restaurants and bars.
A Pueblo Magico located in the Trans-Mexican volcanic belt in the highlands of Michoacan. It is known for its rich mining history.
What makes it special: Its location inside a lush canyon and being a great base to visit two of the five sanctuaries inside the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve- El Rosario and Sierra Chincua.
Must see’s: Casa Parker Museum, Monumento al Minero, Mirador de La Cruz de Hierro, Parroquia de San Simon Apostol, Templo de la Inmaculada Concepcion, The Monarch Mural, Sierra Chincua Sanctuary, El Rosario Sanctuary and the Virgen de Guadalupe Cave.
- Hike up to to the Cueva de Guadalupe. Spend the afternoon hiking up a very steep trail that will take you to some great views of the town below. At the top you will find a beautiful altar for the Virgen of Guadalupe made inside a blue painted cave, decorated with tons of flower arrangements. The trail head is not marked but you can find it going North on Hidalgo Boulevard just outside of the town center.
- Watch the sunset from the Mirador de La Cruz. An easy walk from the town center.
- Visit the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. If you have time I would recommend visiting both El Rosario and Sierra Chincua sanctuaries. See my previous post on this. One of the best experiences I’ve ever had!
The city of Oaxaca is one of the most beautiful and most popular tourist destinations in Mexico. It is located on the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains.
What makes it special: Its colonial era buildings, its magnificent gastronomy, archeological sites and indigenous cultures. The city hosts the annual popular festival of the “Guelaguetza” which features dances, parades, and pageants of the women of the state’s seven regions.
Must see’s: Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman, Oaxaca Cathedral, The Zocalo, Mercado de la Merced, Mercado 20 de Noviembre, Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Soledad, and the Andador Turistico.
- Take a cooking class and try as many different restaurants and cafes as you can. Do a mezcal tasting and a mole tasting.
- Walk around the city and check out different churches, cafes, and squares.
- Take a day trip to Santa Maria de Tule to see the Tule Tree, a 2000 year old Montezuma Cypress tree. Or a day trip to see the Impressive Hierve El Agua with petrified rock formations that look like waterfalls, and its mineral pools. Or a day trip to Mitla, Santo Tomás Jalieza, or Teotitlan del Valle to learn about the region’s traditional weaving. Or a day trip to visit the ancient ruins of Monte Alban, Yagul, and Mitla.
- Take a tour of some of the Mezcal Distilleries for a fun afternoon of tasting.
Another one of Mexico’s great Pueblos Magicos. A tranquil, sleepy town with a very bohemian vibe. This place is definitely loved by backpackers and expats.
What makes it special: Its beaches, abundant marine life, and surrounding lush hills with hiking trails to wonderful viewpoints of the nearby bays. You can find yoga and meditation classes in different centers throughout the town. There is a very popular place called Hridaya Yoga where you can join a 3-day or 10-day silent retreat.
Must see’s: Punta Cometa, Playa Mazunte, Playa Rinconcito, Playa San Agustinillo, Centro Mexicano de La Tortuga.
- Hike to Punta Cometa to watch the sunset. You can always find someone selling beer at the top. This is the most southern point of Oaxaca and it offers amazing views of the ocean and the surrounding bays.
- Take a boat tour to see the whales (when in season), dolphins and turtles. Opt to snorkel and swim with the dolphins. The tours are offered daily and the captain will always take you to see the most famous landmarks on the water.
- Take a yoga class or a meditation course.
- Take a day or overnight trip to one of the many gorgeous beaches of Oaxaca State such as Puerto Escondido to the West, or Bahias de Huatulco to the East.
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Chiapas
This is one of those very special towns in Mexico that you just don’t ever want to leave. A jewel on Mexico’s list of Pueblo Magicos with colorful houses, beautifully preserved colonial buildings, and cobblestoned streets.
What makes it special: All of its rich indigenous cultures. The colorful artesanias markets. It serves as a great base to countless adventures in the beautiful state of Chiapas. The pleasant cool and crisp mountain climate. The charming pedestrian friendly streets.
Must see’s: Andador de Guadalupe (main promenade), Ambar Museum, Kakaw Museum, Cathedral of San Cristobal, Plaza March 31 Zocalo, Casa Na Bolom, House of Textiles of the Mayan World, Guadalupe Church, Mercado de Dulces y Artesanias.
Must do’s: The beautiful surrounding towns and highlands offer a ton of great day trips and adventurous activities. There are many tour operators and agencies in town offering various options for day trips, overnight, and multi-day trips.
- A visit to Cañon del Sumidero- Take a day tour or a bus to visit the town of Chiapas de Corzo where you can get on one of the 2-hour boat tours that take you through the canyon. Then follow it with a ride up the mountains to check out the best viewpoints of the canyon.
- Take an all day tour to visit the stunning blue waterfalls and pools at Aguas Azules, the Misol Ha waterfall and the archeological site of El Palenque.
- Take a tour to visit Montes Azules Nature Park from where you will take a boat to reach the Yaxchilan Mayan Ruins on the Usumacinta River on the border with Guatemala. In the afternoon visit the Bonampak Mayan ruins. All of these have temples with well preserved carvings and colorful murals.
- Book an overnight tour in the Lacandón Jungle and stay at one of the local family’s camps. Take a guided walk through the jungle to find jungle-covered Mayan ruins and beautiful turquoise pools.
- Visit the indigenous communities, experience local festivals, and learn all about the indigenous groups’ textile making cultures of Zinacantan, San Juan de Chamula, Coita, Suchiapa, Acala, and Chiapa de Corzo. For this I highly recommend booking with Experiencias Chiapas, they provide very authentic experiences with great story-telling.
A tranquil, quiet, and simple fishing town with lots of natural beauty and beautiful white sand beaches. You can find very affordable hotels or airbnb offers near the beach or in town. Or you can opt to visit it on a day tour from Merida (capital city) located only one hour away. If you spend time in Merida, I recommend going to the Cenote Xlacah.
What makes it special: Its natural beauty all around including the flocks of flamingos and pelicans that visit the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve and the Real de Salinas (salt fields). The sea in this part of the peninsula is calm, of an emerald green color, and feels like a giant swimming pool.
Must see’s: Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve, Real de Salinas, Mangroves of Dzinintun, Playa Sur Celestún, Playa Norte Celestún, Ojo de Agua Baldiosera.
- Take a boat tour from the beach to enter the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve and admire the groups of flamingos all around. The boat will reach the mangroves of the reserve where you can spot crocodiles. Visit the Ojo de Agua to swim in its crystal-clear waters and spot wildlife.
- Take a 4×4 tour to the Salinas to learn about the salt production in the area and spot more flamingos.
- Try the delicious fresh seafood of fresh ceviche, shrimp and fish at one of the laid-back beachfront thatched roof restaurants.
A beautiful and charming colonial town located in the middle of the Yucatan peninsula.
What makes it special: Its location in lush jungle near some of the most important Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and Ek’Balam. It is also a great base to visit some of the best Cenotes in the region.
Must see’s: San Bernardino de Siena Convent, Church of La Candelaria, Cenote Zaci, Xkopek Bee keeping Park, and Mercado de Artesanias.
- Rent a bike and visit some of the most famous cenotes, southwest of town like Dzitnup, Xkeken, Samula, and San Lorenzo Oxman, or Suytun to the East. There is a well-maintained bike path to reach these. Don’t forget to check out Cenote Zaci right in the middle of town.
- Check out the narrated history of the town during a beautiful light show projected on the walls of the San Bernardino de Siena Convent. Offered every night in Spanish and English at 8:00pm and 9:00pm respectively.
- Learn all about the bee keeping practices and taste the wonderful honey of the Melipona bees at Xkopek Bee-keeping Park. They offer guided tours everyday. They also offer beautiful cabins in the middle of the jungle or a camping site to stay overnight.
TULUM, Quintana Roo
One of three Pueblos Magicos in Quintana Roo State. Tulum is well known and sometimes preferred over bustling Cancun by people looking for some relaxing beach time.
What makes it special: The Mayan ruins built on beautiful limestone cliffs overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The wonderful white-sand beaches and blue ocean waters.
Must see’s: Tulum National Park, Gran Cenote, Cenote Calavera, Downtown Tulum, Zona Hotelera.
- Spend the day admiring the beautiful archeological Mayan ruins of the port city of Tulum. After a guided tour of the different buildings and temples, be sure to check out the fantastic views of the ocean from the high cliffs near El Castillo (the Castle Tower).
- Eat and drink at one of the many great restaurants in downtown Tulum.
- Chill on one of the many beautiful white-sand beaches of the Zona Hotelera- Tulum Beach, Pescadores Beach, or Paraiso Beach.
- Rent a bike and ride from town to two nearby beautiful Cenotes to the north- Cenote Calaveras and Gran Cenote.
These are just some of the places that I got to visit during my two-month stay in Mexico. I am sure I will continue to travel to Mexico many times in my life, there is just so much to see.
Next time you plan a trip to Mexico, I encourage you to explore beyond Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Mexico City and discover some Pueblos Magicos and UNESCO listed towns. No matter where you go in Mexico, you will always find beautiful places, lots of culture, great food, incredible hospitality, and lovely people.
Mexico is truly addictive!!!