Mexico is huge. Surprisingly so. It is also incredibly underexplored by foreign travelers, at least beyond the main tourist hubs. Cancun, Los Cabos, and Mexico City might see plenty of visitors, but venture beyond these enclaves and you quickly find yourself beyond the guidebook.
But part of the joy of Mexico is that there are extraordinary places to discover in almost every corner of the country. It is absolutely full of hidden gems, places that in other countries that would be the heart of the tourist trail that are just nowhere near the beaten track.
The touristy image of Mexico is of palm-fringed stretches of golden sand beach, of tacos and tequila, and the gentle soundtrack of a mariachi band. And Mexico has often leaned into its stereotyped image. In Playa del Carmen, every second shop (or at least that’s how it felt) on the Quinta Avenida is a ‘Tequila Museum’ offering free shots and cervezas mas frias que el corazón de tu ex. In Los Cabos I genuinely saw a waiter wearing an enormous fake ‘Zapata’ moustache on top of his pre-existing real one!
Perhaps because of its size, perhaps because of its (still) slightly sketchy reputation, the edges of Mexico are where everyone is familiar with. Tijuana, Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, Playa del Carmen – unwilling to venture too far into terra incognita, travelers head to the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, but aside from layovers in Mexico City, tend to avoid the country’s heartlands.
This is a great shame, as the center of Mexico is staggeringly beautiful, with a breadth of cultures and traditions that will take your breath away. Some of the most interesting, charming towns I’ve ever seen are just a few hours drive from Mexico City, but you won’t find too many places recommending Tlaxcala or Coatepec as vacation destinations.
As it happens, twenty years ago last year the Mexican government decided to do something about this. They launched the Pueblos Magicos (Magic Towns) initiative, promoting towns across the country outside the usual tourist orbit that had particularly rich cultural traditions, unique gastronomy, natural beauty, historical relevance, or important folklore. This has opened up some of the less accessible towns and cities across Mexico, putting them on the map at least, and giving them access to much-needed publicity and promotion.
Through a combination of luck, accident, design, and a penchant for running up stupidly high mountains in the middle of nowhere, I’ve managed to visit a fair few of these out-of-the-way, fascinating, and gorgeous little towns. So I thought I would write a very occasional series about the Pueblos Magicos of Mexico.
I can’t promise to be comprehensive – there are 132 official Pueblos Magicos, after all, and I’ve only visited a handful. I also reserve the right to occasionally stray from the official list and write about beautiful towns that aren’t really on the tourist trail but are not technically Pueblos Magicos, because shut up it’s my blog and I’ll do what I like.
So over the next couple of months (ha!) I’m going to take a little journey into the center of Mexico, a drive through some of the states that no one has really heard of let alone visited, and explore a few of the most amazing hidden towns and cities in this brilliant, bizarre country.