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While most travelers enjoy visiting well-known sites, the most passionate travelers long to find the lesser-known places — those that retain an authentic culture that has not been overwhelmed by the trappings of mass tourism. To that end, the Mexican government in 2001 created the designation “Pueblos Mágicos,” or Magic Towns, to train a spotlight on small cities and towns that have held onto a genuine cultural character.
Over the ensuing years, the list of Pueblos Mágicos has grown to include 121 places around the country, ranging from small villages that provide gateways to natural wonders, to beach towns that have managed to hold onto their laid-back charms. The benefits to local communities are clear: Not only does the program lure tourism pesos and keep citizens from having to leave their hometowns in search of work, but it also encourages the preservation of cultural traditions. In many of these towns, older generations are able to pass on the recipes, building techniques, and craft-making customs of the past to new generations. Discover six of Mexico’s most charming “magic towns” and what to see when you get there.
The town of Orizaba would be worth a visit if only for its prime position beneath the glacier-capped Pico de Orizaba — the highest mountain in Mexico and third highest in North America. Few visitors to Mexico expect to see snowy peaks during their trip, but linger in Orizaba long enough and you’ll see serious mountain climbers on their way to tackle the 18,491-foot summit. The town has plenty to offer architecture and culture fans, too: a palatial 1894 city hall designed and built by Gustave Eiffel (he of the Parisian landmark), a picturesque riverwalk, and a cable car that whisks passengers to the top of a hill with a spectacular view of the mountain.
The town of Loreto, believed by scholars to be the oldest human settlement in Baja California, is also a favorite destination of modern vacationers for its accessible resort vibe, fishing excursions on the Gulf of California, and golf courses. Look past the glitz, though, and you'll find the reason that Loreto was granted the Pueblos Mágicos designation: easy access to unspoiled natural beauty, as well as several lovely and colorful buildings left over from the town’s colonial era. Notable in its bevy of architectural beauties is the Misión Nuestra Señora de Loreto, a church built by Jesuit missionaries in 1697 as they launched their campaign to convert the inhabitants of the peninsula. The missions play a big role in Loreto’s historic significance: The town is also the beginning of the Camino Real (Royal Road), which stretches more than 1,200 miles all the way to Sonoma, California, and was built to maintain a link between the Spanish missions that dotted the Pacific coast.
Like a set for a Western movie, the rustic highland settlement of Creel is made up of old one- and two-story buildings fronted by sidewalk overhangs and arranged along a few dusty streets. Log buildings, a colorful railway station, and the brilliantly colored native dress of the local Indigenous Tarahumara people complete the cinematic vision of this little town. One of Chihuahua State’s three Pueblos Mágicos, Creel was perhaps selected for the program not simply because of its charms, but also for its proximity to Copper Canyon, a stunning series of canyons, waterfalls, and quirky rock formations. The Tarahumara are known for their prowess at long-distance running, so some of the tourists who arrive are runners who come to the region to compete in ultramarathons and study the ways of these canyon-dwelling superathletes.
Tulum, Quintana Roo
Tulum is known as a beachy enclave for wealthy hippie-chic expats, but if you look carefully, you’ll find that it hasn’t strayed too far from its roots as a traditional Maya village. Founded in the sixth century — with the ruins to prove it! — Tulum was a walled port city for the Maya Empire, but was abandoned not long after the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. For modern visitors, Tulum’s extensive and impressive ruins are well worth exploring, as is Sian Ka’an, a biosphere reserve recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site that surrounds the town. Tours of the reserve, led by local Maya people, reveal the wild natural beauty and resources that originally drew them to the region: the crystal clear cenotes (or subterranean rivers), the lush jungles, the canals, and the pristine beaches. The cuisine, even that served in hotel restaurants, often uses traditional techniques, like steaming leaf-wrapped seafood in underground ovens and using ingredients derived from the bark of local trees.
When scholars talk about the layering of history, an image of Cholula’s 16th-century Nuestra Señora de los Remedios church, perched high above the town on a pedestal, could be the accompanying image. That pedestal — and indeed, the very hill that rises from the town up to the church — is actually a massive, overgrown pyramid with origins dating back to the third-century Olmeca-Xicalanca peoples. By the time the Spanish arrived, bringing Christianity with them, the pyramid was so obliterated by scrubby growth and grass that they believed it to simply be a hill topped by a mysterious stone structure, which they were happy to use as the foundation for their new church. In fact, the stone structure is the flat top of a stepped pyramid, the base of which is four times larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza.
This juxtaposition of Cholula’s different worlds is what makes it so enchanting. Just under the surface, the hulking pyramid is a reminder of the town’s history as a sacred site, while centuries-old traditions such as glazed talavera pottery, or even the visual proximity of the region’s two natural wonders — the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl — serve as fascinating counterpoints to modern Cholula’s thriving and inventive restaurant and brewery scene.
El Quelite, Sinaloa
An hour north of Mazatlán on Mexico’s Gulf of California, the rural village of El Quelite offers a respite from that popular resort town’s modern bustle and glitz. El Quelite was originally settled as a rest stop between the mines in the mountains and the coast, and it earned some notoriety as a place where bandits sometimes robbed the mine-wagons filled with precious metals. As in those historic times, horses are still a common sight along El Quelite’s cobbled streets. The charming, quaint town — filled with colorfully painted adobe homes with balconies and gardens laden with flowers — draws regular visitors for the local cuisine, which is bolstered by produce from surrounding farms. Another draw? The locals play a version of a 3,000-year-old Mesoamerican ballgame called Ulama.