Mexico launched its Pueblos Mágicos (Magical Towns) program back in 2001 to recognize special places that “offer visitors a ‘magical’ experience—by reason of their natural beauty, cultural riches, or historical relevance.” Ten destinations were in the original round, including some of the ones below, with more added each year until the present.
Over the years the designation has been watered down, with some not-so-special towns added for questionable reasons. The notable ones are really memorable places though and some offer a slice of Mexico with a tiny fraction of the visitors as their coastal counterparts. Most are a bargain for lodging and food since only a few (like Tulum) see many foreign visitors. Here are a few highlights from around the country, each easily reached on a day trip from a major city.
Located in the state of Guerrero’s “Triangle of Sun” with Acapulco and Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, this white-washed Spanish colonial town was once an important silver mining center. Although the mines are depleted now, Taxco is still a major jewelry making center and is full of silver shops. At an altitude of 1,000 to 2,300 meters, it has hilly cobblestone streets between the white buildings and an aerial cable car with great views.
The spirit most associated with Mexico has a namesake town where much of it comes from. The town of Tequila is where tons of the blue agave fruit grown in the nearby region comes in daily to be turned into the distilled liquor. Jose Cuervo, Sauza, Orendain, and others are located in town or just outside it. Day trip visitors can get here by road from Guadalajara then explore the town and cantinas, or make the journey half the fun on the Tequila Express train to the Herradura distillery or the Jose Cuervo Express train to the largest one. This is a full-blown tourist town now, so don’t expect isolation, but it’s a lot of fun.
Much of the good coffee in Mexico comes from Veracruz and the municipality of Coatepec is right in the middle of coffee country. The population of the area is around 80,000 but it has an outsized wealth from the owners of the area farms, who built grand mansions and raised the culinary bar at the same time. This is a notable dining destination in Veracruz, with chefs making good use of the seafood and abundant tropical fruit from the nearby lowlands. The Orchid Museum Garden here is a big draw, with more than 5,000 species being cultivated and displayed.
San Cristobal de las Casas
This misty mountain city at 2,200 meters (7,200 feet) is a captivating mix of Spanish colonial architecture and traditions from a mix of indigenous groups like the Tzotzils and Tzeltals. Former president Felipe Calderón called San Cristobal de las Casas “The most magical of the Pueblos Mágicos” and many who visit here are captivated by the location surrounded by hills and the constant stream of colors from all the flowers and the indigenous ladies’ hand-made clothing. This is the cultural capital of Chiapas and a great base for taking advantage of all the nearby adventure activities.
This laid-back town in the southern Baja Peninsula is located midway between Cabo San Lucas and La Paz. Originally founded as a mission in 1724, it then became a sugar cane production center, which led to find mansions lining its streets. After a drought and a sugar price drop, the town fell on hard times before rebounding with other crops and expatriates drawing tourists with fine restaurants and art galleries. Todos Santos is now a thriving, artistic oasis that makes visitors want to linger longer than they had planned.
Located just down the road from one of the world’s major tourist attractions—Chichen Itza—Vallodolid nevertheless seems to permanently be off the radar of most foreign visitors to Mexico. It’s an attractive colonial town, however, with the requisite main square anchored by a grand church and an added twist in the form of cenotes (underground pools) located right in the city limits. It’s also just a mile from one of the most interesting sets of Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula, Ek’ Balam, which reached its peak between 770 and 840 AD.
Chiapa de Corzo
Just nine miles from the Chiapas state capital of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, this colonial town is best known for its massive main square and its intricate La Pila fountain, constructed in 1562 in Moorish style. That style, which Spanish settlers brought from Seville, also shows up in Chiapa de Corzo’s largest structure, the 16th-century Santo Domingo church. Santo Domingo is not just another large church though: it has the biggest bells in Mexico. A historically significant archeological site of the same name is nearby, with the oldest Meso-American tomb discovered so far found here and items uncovered that date back 2,500 years. For souvenir shoppers, key items produced here are lacquerware and marimbas.
Few would say “Cholula” if you asked them to name the largest pyramid in the world, but if you just go by the size of the base, this one is larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. It looks more like a mountain though, since by the time the Spanish arrived and built a chapel on top it was already buried under dirt and vegetation. The walk along the excavated pyramid parts, to the chapel on top, and through the tunnels underneath are the experiences that pull in the most visitors. Cholula town is worth exploring too, however, with its grand San Gabriel Monastery built in the mid-1500s and 36 other churches in the historic center.
Also in Puebla state, Cuetzalan is much tougher to get to, but worth the journey. Up in the mountains in an area once so remote all the stone for the houses had to be hauled up by donkey, I called it a “great backpacker town with no backpackers” in this Cuetzalan article. Nearby are waterfalls, temple ruins, and gorgeous scenery. Try the bargain-priced local fruit wine.
Founded in the 13th century by the Totonacs tribe, two of Papantla’s main claims to fame are vanilla beans and the nearby Tajin archaeological site. El Tajín was one of the major cities of ancient Mesoamerica, thriving between 600 and 1200 AD. It was unknown to the outside world for hundreds of years before being discovered by accident by a Spaniard in 1785. The third famous aspect of Papantla has spread far and wide: the Voladores men who slowly descend to the ground swinging from ropes tied to their feet and wound around a high pole. There’s bound to be a Voladores show when anyone visits, complete with elaborate costumes for the four flying men and the one who dances on top the pole, playing a flute.
Real de Catorce
One of the coolest spots I’ve ever visited in Mexico, this is in the greatest state that no foreigners have heard of: San Luis Potosi. This magic town of Real de Catorce feels really isolated before you even get there: after traveling a good part of the day you have to go through a narrow tunnel to enter it, a tunnel that can only let traffic go one way at a time. The whole place used to be nearly a ghost town after the mines stopped producing but has bounced back as a domestic tourism destination—and a place for thrill seekers to hunt for peyote. Hike or ride a horse up to the real ghost town pictured above.