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Discover Mexico’s magical towns

Helen Alexander

Senior Contributor

What makes for a magical town? It might be a place of incredible natural beauty, a destination that’s filled with awe-inspiring architecture, or the home of a delicious culinary style. With more than 100 pueblos mágicos dotted around the country, the destinations below are just a short distance from some of the biggest and busiest cities in Mexico. Take time out from your city sightseeing itinerary, when travel allows, and head to these sleepy spots that promise to enchant visitors with their under-the-radar charms.

San Cristóbal de las Casas

Situated in the remote and rugged highland region of Chiapas, San Cristóbal de las Casas is one of the larger towns to be named a pueblo mágico and yet its cobbled streets and spire-studded skyline mean that it’s bursting with old-school charm. Nestled in a jungle valley, San Cristóbal is surrounded by densely forested mountains, and the best way to get a sense of the town’s isolated location is by walking between the two hilltop churches of Templo de Guadalupe to the east and Templo de San Cristóbal to the west. Ascending the winding staircases leading to these two attractive religious sites might leave you feeling a little breathless, but the views are definitely worth it – from the lush countryside to the rows of coloured flags that flutter overhead. 

Cuetzalán

Immerse yourself in the culture of indigenous Náhuatl and Totonaca people in this hidden village that clings to the side of a rocky mountain. Cuetzalán is a three-hour drive from the attractive city of Puebla, and yet the morning mists and surrounding wilderness lend it a tranquil middle-of-nowhere atmosphere. Lace up your hiking boots and spend a day trekking between waterfalls – the Cascada Las Brisas and Cascada del Salto are only a few kilometres away and feature several refreshing natural pools. Make sure you are there on a Sunday when the tiered main square with its ornate bandstand becomes the centre for a bustling market that attracts traditionally dressed locals from all around. If you are very lucky, your visit might just coincide with Danza de los Voladores, in which performers scale a towering wooden pole in front of the grand cathedral before ‘flying’ to the ground via a rope that’s tied to their feet. The ceremony is so important to Mexico’s heritage it was recognised by UNESCO in 2009. 

Taxco

With old-school Volkswagen Beetle taxis whizzing up and down Taxco’s steep alleyways, it’s easy to forget what decade you are in. Situated three hours to the south of Mexico City (CDMX), this compact city owes it rich reputation to the seams of silver that were discovered before the Spanish arrived and have been mined ever since. In between the terracotta-tiled, whitewashed houses are hundreds of workshops and platería (silver jewellers) where talented artisans spend their days making and selling pieces that have been inspired by eye-catching pre-Hispanic designs. True to the area’s mineral wealth, the main square of Plaza Borda is surrounded by grand colonial buildings and overseen by the imposing twin towers of Santa Prisca. Built in the 1750s, step inside this imposing cathedral to gaze in awe at an interior that’s filled with gilded treasures and ornate decorations. Finally, come sunset, enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the town by jumping on a cable car to the top of Monte Taxco. 

Cholula

Also situated a few hours’ drive from CDMX, and easily accessible as part of a day trip from Puebla, Cholula offers an incredible blend of pre-Hispanic ruins and colonial grandeur. Have your camera at the ready to capture an iconic shot of the 16th-century Catholic church Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, which is prettily perched on top of Tlachihualtépetl, the largest pyramid base in the world. If that historic blend of architectural styles wasn’t enough, the whole scene sits in front of the dramatic snow-capped peak of Popocatépetl – one of the country’s most active volcanoes. Within the pyramid, a labyrinth of underground tunnels has been excavated and is waiting to be explored.  

Valladolid

While the Yucatán Peninsula attracts sun seekers and history lovers with its beach resorts and the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá, not many visitors make it to the attractive city of Valladolid. If the pastel-coloured houses and fashion boutiques lining the cobblestone streets weren’t enough of a reason to check out this pueblo mágico, the nearby cenotes (underwater caves) promise to add an adventurous twist to any travel itinerary. The result of a hugely powerful asteroid impact that took place millions of years ago, these beautiful natural formations are dotted all over this part of the world. Take a dip in the two pools at Dzitnup – X’Kekén is known for the imposing stalactites hanging from its ceiling, while a small opening in the limestone roof at Samulá floods the cavern with natural light. Refuel with a plate of cochinita pibil – pork that’s marinated in achiote (a paste made from the annatto seed) and sour orange before being wrapped in banana leaves and barbecued or baked in a pit. This delicious dish is just one of several Yucatán specialities that are only served on the peninsula.

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