Mexico boasts a wealth of colorful, historic towns to discover. Outside of the main tourist destinations, much of the nation remains blissfully off-radar for foreign travelers, meaning an authentic experience is easily had. Here, we list the most fascinating and beautiful towns to visit during your trip to Mexico.
Campeche, on the Gulf of Mexico, has an abundance of colonial pastel-colored houses with arched doorways and intricate balconies. Following heavy pirate attacks in the 17th-century, the city built itself an elaborate defense system, including thick ramparts with bastions. This mixture of urban and military history has made it a Unesco World Heritage site, spurring comprehensive renovation around the town. Today, it is one of Mexico’s best-preserved colonial towns but visitors are relatively few and you can expect a warm welcome from locals. Nearby, you can visit less-known Mayan sites including Hochob and Dzibilnocac.
San Miguel de Allende
The town’s role as an important stop on the silver route from Zacatecas to Mexico City in the 17th and 18th centuries has left San Miguel de Allende with a rich colonial heritage. With its winding, cobblestone streets and well-preserved Spanish mansions, it attracts plenty of visitors. On the plus side, its popularity means fine restaurants and carefully restored boutique hotels are in plentiful supply. Exploring can be thirsty work, but San Miguel has some stunning spots for a drink; check out the rooftop terrace at La Posadita, right opposite the dome of the Parroquia, the largest church in town.
This colorful, colonial town hangs onto the sides of a steep ravine with narrow alleyways twisting between leafy squares and colorful Baroque and Neoclassical buildings. Guanajuato’s wealth came from a nearby silver mine, once the world’s most productive. For the best view, head to Templo de San Cayetano, an ornate church with a pink façade built by mining entrepreneurs on a hill outside of town. Guanajuato’s student population gives it a youthful, lively atmosphere, with plenty of cafés (including popular Café Conquistador) and bars. Leave some time for painter Diego Rivera’s childhood home, now housing his work, as well as a visit to the bizarre mummy museum.
The profusion of monumental churches – 70 in the historic center alone – and ornamental fountains underline Puebla’s historical wealth and strategic importance. The lavish mansions are decorated with the city’s renowned colorful tiles whilst gourmet delights are Puebla’s other claim to fame, with the national dish chiles en nogada originating here. Visit nearby Cholula, which has a church for every day of the year. From here you can outstanding views of Popocatépetl, the nearby snow-capped volcano, which happens to be one of Mexico’s most active.
The ornate pink limestone buildings with intricately carved façades of Zacatecas are testimony to its past mineral wealth; at the height of production, the town produced a third of the country’s silver. Set in a valley and surrounded by mountains, the city is riven with steep alleyways bearing storybook names such as Tenorio (womanizer) or mantequilla (butter). The grateful silver barons helped to build Zacatecas’ many churches and convents and the stand-out 18th-century Baroque cathedral. Make time to visit the Museo del Arte Abstracto Manuel Felguérez, worth seeing if only for the building itself; a former seminary turned prison that’s now converted into a light-filled exhibition space. Time your visit right to see a traditional Matlachines dance.
San Cristóbal de las Casas
If you’re interested in indigenous cultures, head to San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas. The mountain town serves as a capital for different groups of Mayan descendants, who come to sell their crafts in the cobbled streets. San Cristóbal de Las Casas is a well-preserved colonial town with a bohemian vibe, well endowed with cafés and artisan markets. Nearby villages, where traditional customs and beliefs continue to thrive, offer a great window into Mexico’s native cultures. Visit the Museum of Mayan Medicine to get an insight into the beliefs behind local customs.
Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark
Pátzcuaro is the center of the indigenous Purépecha people, and a curious blend of native and colonial cultures. Its colonial legacy can be seen in the elegant mansions and a generous array of churches. The intact native culture makes it a great place for handicraft shopping. The town’s mixed heritage also means Pátzcuaro is ideal for experiencing Mexico’s renowned celebrations, including Holy Week and Day of the Dead. Head outside to discover peaceful Lake Pátzcuaro dotted with small islands. One of them, Isla Janitzio, has a 40m (131ft) monument to Jose Morelos, one of the leaders of the independence movement, which provides great views of the lake.
Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark
Tlacotalpan, which has kept its Aztec name and means ‘between the waters,’ is an old river port in Veracruz, where not much has changed since the early 19th-century. The town, characterized by low-rise, rainbow-colored buildings with arched passageways and red-tiled roofs, is surrounded by vivid green sugar cane plantations. Strangely, this Unesco-listed site remains very much under the radar for tourists. If you’re looking for the real, laid-back Mexico, Tlacotalpan is a good starting point.
Architectural Landmark, Natural Feature
Xochimilco is more a suburb of Mexico City these days, but it makes for an easy day trip from the crowds and smoke of the big city. It’s famous for its 105-mile canal network; all that is left of the lake that Mexico City was constructed on. The best way to explore the area, with its gardens, greenhouses, and buildings ranging from run-down shacks to luxury restaurants, is by sailing on the colorful barges. Think of Bangkok’s canals, add loud boats with mariachi bands on them and you have Xochimilco.
Oaxaca, located in a valley and surrounded by mountains, is the city with everything. Quaint colonial streets lined with bright houses and stately churches, archaeological ruins in the shape of Monte Alba, vibrant indigenous cultures and a thriving modern art scene. If that’s not enough, Oaxaca is also known for its delicious cuisine, including seven officially recognized different types of mole, the delicious – and at times spicy – Mexican sauce. The dishes feature uniquely local ingredients including types of corn, chilies or herbs. Follow your nose through the city’s aromatic markets, street food carts and restaurants.
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