Beyond the usual suspects like Cabo and Playa del Carmen, Mexico is home to many culturally rich places, complete with hidden gems you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. We're talking about the Pueblos Mágicos of Mexico.
Translated to magical villages, the Programa Pueblos Mágicos was started by the local tourism board in the early 2000s as a way to encourage visitors to forgo their all-inclusive resorts and instead soak up the country's rich history. Today there are over a hundred magical villages included in this cultural awareness program, and each possess a magic all its own. Whether you want authentic architecture, cobbled streets, cuisine from an age-old recipe, or to talk with someone who has watched their city evolve, these 10 places are beyond anything else you will ever experience.
Taxco de Alarcón
One of the oldest mining towns in North America, Taxco de Alarcón is an architectural gem nestled between mountains and hills about 125 miles outside of Mexico City. Best known for its silver jewelry production, you’ll definitely want to purchase some of the handmade silver rings, bracelets, and necklaces as a gift for those back at home. As with most cities boasting high elevation, viewpoints are also plentiful and a must. For the best view of the city, take the cable car.
Real del Monte
The British colonial vibe may seem out of place in Mexico, but during the mining boom of the 1800s, Real del Monte was home to Brit workers who left their architectural influence behind. Far from the aesthetic of a typical mining town, you'll instead find sloping cobbled streets, picturesque fountains, and vibrant multi-colored homes. The traditional food you want to try is the Paste, an empanada stuffed with meat and potatoes. Consider it fuel as you admire the many artisans selling silver and wood handicrafts along the street.
Parras de la Fuente
An agricultural wonderland, Parras de la Fuente translates to “Grapevines of the Fountain.” You know what that means... wine, and lots of it. With wineries dating back to the early 16th century, the winemaking tradition of this town is really the only activity you need to be concerned with. Enjoy a glass or two with essential dishes like chicken tamales and pork roast. When you need to sober up for a bit, visit Estanque La Luz to swim in the impossibly clear mountain-fed waters.
For those who love the water, look no further than the soft white sands of Bacalar in the popular region of Quintana Roo. Bacalar’s crystal clear lagoon makes it a quiet paradise for snorkelers and divers alike. The food is equally incredible, with a mixture of delicious dishes like lobster and snails. When you’re ready for dry land, prepare yourself for craftsmanship like you’ve never seen before: hammocks, baskets, woodwork, and traditional clothing. Trust us, the hardest part of your stay in Bacalar will be deciding what to bring home with you.
Also known as "the city of three cultures", Izamal is a colonial city built on ancient Mayan ruins that combines features of its pre-Hispanic past, the colonial period, and the present. Basically, it's a mashup of cultures and time periods that will take your breath away. Long walks on the cobblestone streets are the best way to absorb the impressive churches and colorful homes. To add to your sweet escape, make sure you try the cassava (yuca plant) with honey.
Though it’s the third-largest city in the Yucatán Peninsula, the chill vibe of Valladolid will put you at ease the second you walk down its pastel streets. After you cool off with a jicama margarita, be sure to hit the local clothing boutiques for gorgeous indigenous garments that will dazzle you as much as the colonial architecture does. Valladolid was built on top of the Mayan settlement of Zací, and you can head underground to Cenote Zací (a surreal urban sinkhole) when you’re ready for a fresh change of scenery.
San Cristobal de las Casas
One of the very first cities built in North America, San Cristobal de las Casas is a museum-lovers paradise. Start at the Sergio Castro Museum (which boasts almost 100 ceremonial costumes) before moving on to the Mesoamerican Jade Museum (which is filled with jade replicas of different objects). The food here is an interesting mix of indigenous and Spanish influence; enjoy cold meats and sausages, then wash it down with Pox, a spirit distilled from corn that was used for ceremonial purposes in Mayan times.
The oldest settlement on the Baja California peninsula, Loreto offers everything from Spanish missions to turquoise beaches. Take full advantage of both by kayaking through the day and taking an architectural walk at night. If you’re into amazing flora and fauna, Catalan Island is an ideal place for you to nerd out on some ecological wonders.
Magical and lush, when you first set eyes on Xilitla you'll enter a state of complete and total awe. Adventure tourist types will be enthralled by all the waterfalls and mountains, but Xilitla’s true claim to fame is Las Pozas: the only surrealist sculptural garden that exists in the world. Built by an English millionaire by the name of Edward James, you can expect to find stairs to nowhere and whimsical mazes in the middle of the rainforest. Yeah, pretty cool.
Another mining town, Mapimí is a wild beauty located in the heart of Mapóní Bolsón Biosphere Reserve, a natural preservation area of diverse ecosystems in the region. With over 400 years of mining history, the historical center of Durango offers a mixture of gothic cathedrals and stories from their mining heyday. A must-see is Ojuela, which became a ghost town after the busy mines were flooded and abandoned long ago. Thrill-seekers can zip line on the Bridge of Ojuela and sail across the 19th century suspension bridge.
Love Spanish architecture? Check out Spain's Sagrada Familia.