When it comes to history and culture, there’s nowhere quite as magical as Mexico. With its mysterious ruins, colonial architecture, and vibrant traditions, Mexico is a country rich in culture. Unfortunately, most tourists drawn to giant resort cities hardly ever get to see it. It’s easy to get lost within the sterile streets fraught with American franchises, but for travelers who are looking to make more out of a trip to Mexico, there’s plenty of magic to be found in Mexico’s secret villages.
The Magic of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos
In the last two decades, many towns throughout Mexico have been officially designated as pueblos magicos, or “magical towns,” by the Mexican Ministry of Tourism. These towns are recognized for their historical significance, cultural richness, and represent all regions of Mexico from the beaches to the mountains.
You might have heard of some of the more famous pueblos magicos such as Tulum and Sayulita, but among the 83 towns that hold the title, there are many that are still relatively undiscovered. Whether you’re looking for a unique day trip or ready to take a deep dive into the real Mexico, pueblos magicos are the perfect place to have an incredible, authentically Mexican experience.
San Sebastian del Oeste, Jalisco
A two-hour drive away from the beach city of Puerto Vallarta and nestled in the Sierra Madre mountains, San Sebastian del Oeste is a quiet escape. In this former mining town founded in 1605, there are many cultural stops, from the 400-year-old Church of San Sebastian to the former jail, which is open for visitors to take a peek.
You can spend your day exploring the cobblestoned streets of this town surrounded by lush mountains, but don’t leave without stopping in the town’s newest restaurant—Jardin Nebulosa. A beautiful secret, this restaurant serves gourmet and locally-sourced food at accessible prices. Make sure to try the creamy huitlacoche soup, which uses the famous Mexican truffle as its main ingredient.
Real de Catorce, San Luis Potosi
Once a successful silver-mining settlement, Real de Catorce is a Mexican ghost town located high in the Mexican plateau. There are many sites worth visiting, from the old bullring to the impressive Tunnel of Ogarrio, but most visitors are drawn to this town for spiritual reasons. In October, thousands of pilgrims come to celebrate the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. In spring, at the Temple of Immaculate Conception, you can see retablos, religious artworks that give thanks for miracles performed inside the church.
For tourists, this pueblo magico is best experienced by hiking the surrounding area’s beautiful trails, where you’ll find overlooks of Real de Catorce and remains of other mining towns.
Papantla is one of Mexico’s oldest cities, founded in the 13th century by the indigenous Totonacs and still thrives today as Mexico’s most unique pueblo magico. After the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, Spanish colonizers refounded the town, but Totonac culture is still apparent today. In fact, you’ll have a hard time looking away during one of the city’s most brilliant attractions—the flying dancers.
Performed 100 feet up in the air at the top of a slender metal pole, this traditional dance might look like the Evel Knievel interpretation of a German maypole, but this death-defying performance has deep roots in Totanac mythology. While the four dancers swing around the pole by ropes tied around their waists, one dancer stays at the top of the pole playing the flute and small drum, the music represents the voice of the gods.
The area near Papantla is home to the discovery of the vanilla bean. Every year the Xanath Festival is held to honor the originator of the world’s most popular flavor and the Totanac people who discovered and cultivated it.
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Not all of Mexico’s pueblos magicos are considered magical for their history. In some towns, like Mazunte, along the coast of Oaxaca, the magic can be found in the area’s incredible biodiversity. Not only is Mazunte a great place to appreciate the beauty of Oaxaca’s Emerald Coast and blue-green Pacific waters, but visitors will also find a down-to-earth Mexican beach town. Mazunte has drawn biologists and turtle-lovers from around the world. It’s one of the trendier beach towns in Oaxaca and you won’t be hard-pressed to find juice bars, yoga classes, and La Pizzeria, claimed by many to be the best pizza in Mexico.
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You might already have some interesting stories from your encounters with tequila, but there are many more adventures to be had by visiting the town of Tequila, the home of Mexico’s best-known memory eraser. Just an hour’s drive from Guadalajara, Tequila is worth a visit not just for its famous liquor, which was named for the town, but also to see the rolling fields of blue agave.
Learn more about the process of making tequila with a tour of one of the area’s distilleries. Jose Cuervo even offers a Cuervo Express tour, where you can travel to Tequila by train from Guadalajara. If you choose to stay a bit longer, you’ll have more time to explore Tequila’s main square or go hiking or horseback riding through the picturesque agave fields.
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Xilitla, San Luis Potosi
Xilitla is a pueblo magico that proves Mexico’s more recent history is just as worth celebrating as its colonial and ancient past. Xilitla is a charming town, but the real attraction can be found deep in the jungle. Las Pozas is a surrealist sculpture garden built by English millionaire Edward James in 1949. The design of the garden is a tribute to the surrealist movement of the early 20th century and features interactive sculptures, like the staircase to nowhere and other seemingly “unfinished” pieces.
Hungry after a day of exploring the sculpture park? Head back to Xilita to try the regional specialty zachahuiles, a.k.a. a six-foot-long tamale, which can be found in the afternoon at the Sunday market.
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While walking the steep and narrow streets of Taxco, you might feel like you’re in Spain as you look over the red-tiled roofs, the baroque towers of the Church of Santa Prisca, and the splendid mansions scattered throughout the city.
Taxco’s wealth is a product of its silver-mining history, which started with the indigenous people and continued with the arrival of the Spanish. Today you can visit the William Spratling Museum to learn more about the American silversmith who moved to Taxco in 1931 to reestablish the silver industry and influenced 20th-century Mexican design with pieces inspired by pre-Columbian Mexico.
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Bacalar, Quintana Roo
Without a doubt, Bacalar’s biggest attraction is the crystal-clear Lake of Seven Colors, which is a large and shallow lake that stretches for 26 miles. Aside from the beauty of Bacalar’s natural surroundings, this pueblo magico shows off its fascinating history at the Fort of San Felipe, where the Spanish settlers fought off pirate attacks and battled against the invading English army.
Travelers can take a dip in the Blue Cenote, just a 10-minute drive down the road from Bacalar’s main square. At a depth of 90 meters, this stunning, turquoise-blue swimming hole often attracts divers with its intricate cave systems hidden deep beneath the surface. There’s even a restaurant located right above the cenote, so you can spend the whole day at this incredible place.
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Izamal is a colorful pueblo magico—and that color is yellow. Although the Yellow City has a much longer history, the notable color of the walls dates back to just 1992, when Pope John Paul II came for a visit. The town chose to honor his arrival by repainting many of the buildings in its historic center with the Vatican’s colors—white and yellow.
Long before the pope’s visit, the town was founded by the Spanish in the mid-16th century on top of the ruins of an ancient Maya city and one of the biggest Maya archeological sites in the area. There are five large structures that can be easily visited from the town, including the Great Pyramid of Kinich Kak Moo, whose base covers more than two acres of ground.
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Valle de Bravo, State of Mexico
Located two hours away from the nation’s capital on the shores of Lake Avandaro, Valle de Bravo is a popular weekend getaway for many Mexico City dwellers. There are plenty of ways to stay active here, whether you’re windsurfing on the lake or hiking up to La Pena, an overlook that offers a magnificent view of the lake and the town.
It’s also an incredible place to view monarch butterflies, who migrate to the region in multitudes from Canada and the U.S. between August and October.
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Jamie Ditaranto is a writer and photographer who is always looking for her next adventure. Follow her on Twitter @jamieditaranto.