10 Mexican "Magic Towns" for 10 Charming Village Vacations
Mexico is a country of magical towns, each one typically dominated by a charming plaza, a slower pace of life, and perhaps a regional specialty dish or two. Even so, with most tourists typically flocking to the Caribbean beaches of Cancún or to the country’s impressive and cosmopolitan capital city, out-of-the-way villages often get overlooked. That's why the country's tourism ministry has drawn up a list of pueblos mágicos—villages it considers particularly rich or culturally relevant.
Tequila is more than just a hangover-inducing spirit that's loved or loathed by millions around the world. In fact, it's also an area, and one of Mexico’s coolest pueblos mágicos. Tequila-with-a-capital-T is the region from which tequila (the drink) takes its name, and, unsurprisingly, the main attraction of this lively town comes in the form of literally dozens of tequila factories offering tours and tastings year-round. The picturesque central church and adjoining plaza, where you can get fresh-from-the-grill elotes (corn), are also appealing.
The Mexican state of Querétaro rivals Brazil and Gibraltar when it comes to towering stone peña monoliths—one of them is the star attraction looming over the town of Bernal. Hiking to the top of the rock is an irresistible activity, but if you’re feeling less than energetic, there are numerous companies that can whiz you up into the hills by car to take a look at the peña from a distance. Giant stone aside, Bernal is one of the cuter pueblos mágicos, with markets and artesanías on offer in the center of town. To try the regional dish gorditas queretanas (stuffed corn-flour tortillas), make a beeline for the monolith's car park, where you’ll find stalls selling giant, cactus-topped delicacies.
One of Mexico City’s most popular and highly recommended day trips involves schlepping north by bus to the iconic (yet still mysterious) Teotihuacán pyramids. The Teotihuacán archaeological complex, with its murky origins and pre-Hispanic feats of engineering, possesses star status among Mexican attractions, so you’ll need to get there early to have the place all to yourself and snap those all-important tourist-free shots of the pyramids. Later, lots of other people will show up to share the magic with you.
A few hours southwest of Mexico City, Taxco is located in the state of Guerrero. While you’ve likely heard some shocking reports of violence in this southern state, it’s worth remembering that those events typically take place in the coastal regions. The sleepy northern silver town of Taxco? Not so much. Here, the day doesn’t get going until around 10am, so while you’re waiting for a coffee shop or two to open their doors, wander the cobbled streets that snake in and among the town’s whitewashed buildings, or grab a taxi up to the mirador (tower). Back in the center, have lunch on a terrace overlooking the impressive Templo de Santa Prisca and, of course, shop for some absolute sterling (silver) bargains. Word to the wise, though: Steer clear of alpaca, a.k.a. fake silver, and be wary if a seemingly friendly local tries to lure you into a pricey store—they’re almost certainly receiving commission on your potential purchases.
While running with the bulls is most heavily associated with Pamplona, Spain, Mexico’s smallest state of Tlaxcala, just east of Mexico City, offers up its own version of this ethically questionable pastime. Each August, the month-long festivities of the Feria de Huamantla culminate in a heart-thumping bull run through the town’s narrow streets. As an alternative for those who prefer magic town visits without potential hospitalization, consider heading to Huamantla around mid-August to witness the spectacular tapete-creating antics of "la noche que nadie duerme" (pictured above), during which the streets are covered with multicolored, sparkling artworks made from exquisitely positioned wood shavings.
You only have a narrow window—each year from the evening of November 1 to November 2, to be precise—to witness the Day of the Dead celebrations in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. Book in advance, because plenty of other people will have had the same idea. However, while Pátzcuaro is technically the magic town, for all the real Día de Muertos action, a visit to Isla Janitzio (located in the Lago de Pátzcuaro) is practically obligatory. Spend the afternoon in the village before hopping on a boat to the island, where people climb to a hilltop churchyard in the evening to light candles for their loved ones. Remember to remain respectful of those holding vigils.
Mexico’s most surreal destination in what’s an already pretty surreal country, Xilitla, nestled in the lush jungle in the south of San Luis Potosí state, has a certain misty and beguiling mountainous charm, but it’s clear that everyone’s really there to pay a visit to nearby Las Pozas. That 80-acre jungle sculpture park, which was crafted in swooping and mysterious concrete shapes by British eccentric Edward James over nearly 40 years in homage to his beloved orchid collection, is easily one of Mexico's coolest magic town attractions, especially for visitors who are transported by large-scale artwork.
As the home state of tourist favorites Cancún, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum, Quintana Roo probably rings a bell. However, if you deviate from the well-trodden tourist path even a little bit, heading south towards the Guatemalan border, you’ll be rewarded with one of Mexico’s most spectacular natural attractions. Lago de los Siete Colores (Lake of Seven Colors), named for its tonally distinct shades of blue, green, and turquoise, is the main draw in the magic town of Bacalar. Take a couple of days just to hang out lakeside in this laid-back village.
Renowned for spiritual goings-on and an elevated number of reported UFO sightings, there’s possibly something in the water in the intriguing (and perhaps literally) magic town of Tepoztlán, Morelos. Situated south of the capital—and not to be confused with the northern town of the same name in the State of Mexico—Tepoztlán is also one of the best pueblos mágicos for food lovers, particularly those who eschew animal products and are interested in the kind of delicacies that were eaten before Spanish influence. However, if Space Age spiritualism and vegan cuisine aren’t up your street, you can always hike up the Tepozteco mountain and explore the archaeological site squatting precariously at its peak.
Mexico’s not exactly short on colorful towns seemingly created for Instagram, but one that stands out amid the sea of pastel facades and zany street art—if only for real commitment to a theme—is Izamal, Yucatán. Better known as the Yellow Town, all the buildings in the heart of this unassuming pueblo are bathed in a pleasingly canary-colored glow, meaning you can’t help but feel at least marginally cheerful as you stroll through the streets and explore the sprawling Ex Convento de San Antonio de Padua, a monastery dating to 1561 (pictured above).