Mexico has been one of our best friends during the pandemic. While practically every other country in the world has shut Americans out of their borders, Mexico has welcomed gringos with open arms. They’ve spearheaded responsible tourism as well. Every plane, bus, hotel, and store has a temperature checker. Masks are required in public places. There are antiseptic floor mats to treat your shoes and hand sanitizer, which are required to enter any building. And the nation's "stoplight" system allows travelers to know the restrictions and potential risks associated with travel before they go.
The country has its share of silly rules, too: Shutting down entire town squares with yellow tape, closing archaeological ruins, and locking up cemeteries. But, hey, nobody’s perfect during this craziness.
Mexico is a wonderful composite of ancient civilizations, Spanish culture, and tequila all rolled into one delicious package. This nation has it all—archaeology, gastronomy, UNESCO sites, natural wonders—and it’s right next door. I’m not talking about visiting Cancún or Cabo. Those are great destinations for being lazy and spoiled, but if you want to delve into fascinating history and ancient culture, you have to start in the capital.
I flew to Mexico City one way ($100 from Houston) with the idea to visit the most beautiful cities of Mexico, many of which are just a two to four hour trip from the capital. I made my list and then created my driving route using Google Maps. Since I wasn’t sure how long I was going to spend in each town, I didn’t book anything except for the first two nights—my hotel in Mexico City.
I’ve found that putting myself on a schedule when I’m uncertain of driving times, delays, and how much I’m actually going to like a place can turn a trip into a race against time. After spending a few days visiting the capital, I rented a car and hit the road. Mexico has great highways, but you have to pay for the faster toll roads. Most do not accept credit cards, so you’ve got to have Mexican pesos handy. I made a clockwise circle starting from Mexico City, and eventually ending there as well. After completing my route, I booked a ticket back from Mexico City. You can follow my itinerary and have some amazing adventures.
Is it safe? Well, I’ve traveled to almost every state in Mexico, and in my numerous voyages I’ve yet to run into any cartel henchmen or kidnappers. It’s my opinion that there are parts of Mexico that are probably dangerous—this is the case in most countries, in fact—but they’re usually not the places where tourists go. Using common travel sense and not driving or going to isolated locations at night is a good start for keeping you out of trouble. Some of the towns mentioned here are among the safest in the country.
And one other tip: Several years ago, Mexico decided to kick up its tourism game by selecting the most unique and beautiful towns in the country and designating them as magical towns or Pueblo Mágicos. I’ve visited around 20 of the 121, and I’m always surprised and impressed at what each one offers. Acquainting yourself with the ones near your route will add some very interesting spots to your trip.
Teotihuacan and Xochimilco
These two towns are nearly two hours apart, but I was able to visit both in a day. Teotihuacan is a picturesque town, well known for its huge moon and sun pyramids. If you arrive early, you can beat the heat and see most of the ruins in a few hours. After you’ve visited the archaeological site, there are several underground cavern restaurants nearby that make a unique stop for lunch or a drink.
Xochimilco, a southern suburb of Mexico City, is full of ancient waterways built by the Aztecs to transport goods. These days the canals are outfitted in colorful boats with oarsmen to steer you along as you people-watch and knock back a few cervezas. You can also hire a group of mariachis to hop on your boat and play a song for $7, and you can buy food, drinks, and souvenirs along the way as well. Sunday is the most popular day for locals, when the waterways turn into a giant fiesta.
One tip for when things get back to normal: There are regular, direct buses that will take you from Mexico City’s north bus terminal directly to Teotihuacan, about an hour north, and back. They’re comfortable and inexpensive. Once you return to the bus terminal from Teotihuacan, you can take an Uber to Xochimilco for less than $10.
Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve
About two hours from Mexico City, the state of Michoacán is host to one of the most amazing insect displays in the world, the overwintering site of monarch butterflies, best witnessed from November to March. The reserve has a total of eight sites, but tourists can only visit El Rosario and Sierra Chincua. Here, billions of monarch butterflies arrive during the winter months and cluster together on the trees. When the sun comes out, they come alive. Imagine walking through a cloud of butterflies. It’s an experience unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
The butterflies depart each spring to Canada, but they don’t live long enough to make it to there, so it actually takes four generations of their offspring to get there and return in eight-months time. How they know their way back is a mystery.
Most of the sanctuaries are located within half an hour of Ocampo. There’s not a lot going on in Ocampo, other than a few restaurants and a place to regroup, so stay in Zitácuaro, 40 minutes south of the beautiful city of Morelia, about 2.5 hours west.
Janitzio and Pátzcuaro
The unusual island of Janitzio is another Michoacán treasure. It rises like a mountain in the middle of Lake Pátzcuaro and is the number-one destination in Mexico for Day of the Dead. But it's interesting any time of year.
To get there, take a boat from the town of Pátzcuaro to the island. Once you’ve disembarked, there’s a road that spirals uphill through shops, souvenir stalls, and restaurants. There’s a park at the top of the island with a quirky statue of José María Morelos, his fist extended toward the sky. It’s an odd enough sight, but even stranger when you realize that there’s a museum and winding staircase inside the statue. You can climb to the top for great views of the hyacinth-covered lake and smaller islands nearby. The cemetery is an interesting site as well, and the setting for one of the most celebrated holidays in Mexico: Día de los Muertos.
The island makes a great day trip and can be paired with an overnight stay in Pátzcuaro, one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos.
San Miguel de Allende
Its pink cathedral rises from the zócalo (main plaza) and its colonial buildings are meticulously maintained and painted. Between the art galleries, lively bars, boutiques, great restaurants, and Mexican culture at the highest level, this city wins my personal award for being the most beautiful in all of Mexico. It’s so picture perfect, you might think you’re visiting Epcot. Besides its charming squares, cobblestoned streets, and architecture, SMA was the setting for the Robert Rodriquez film Once Upon a Time in Mexico. It’s also home to lots of Americans who prefer to live on the other side of the Rio Grande. You may never want to leave.
It's a former mining town riddled with tunnels that were used to extract some of the largest deposits of silver in Mexico, but these days, those twisting labyrinths are now repurposed as underground roads that make it easier for pedestrians to get around above.
As a driver, it’s challenging and terribly interesting at the same time. Above ground, this is clearly San Miguel’s main competition when it comes to Mexico’s most beautiful city (and a UNESCO world heritage city, too). There’re breathtaking museums, cathedrals, and perfectly preserved colonial buildings.
The most famous tourist stop is the Mummy Museum. A collection of over 100 preserved bodies dug up from the local cemetery are on display—about the most macabre thing you’ll ever see. The tortured facial expressions and twisted bodies will haunt you and your Instagram page long after you’ve left the museum.
Santiago de Querétaro
This UNESCO city is worth a stop for its amazing 17th- and 18th-century buildings, as well as its beautiful aqueduct. It’s got a big city feel, and though it doesn’t quite have the cool vibe that San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato have, it’s not without its charms. The city makes a good overnight stop for visiting the beautiful Pueblo Mágico town of Bernal.
Puebla and Cholula
Two hours east of Mexico City puts you in Puebla. This sprawling city with a beautiful historic center boasts one of Mexico’s prettiest zócalos, a lively art scene, and lots of things made from Talavera, Puebla’s world famous tile. Two volcanoes rise to the west as you head to Cholula, which is touted as Mexico’s oldest continuously occupied city. It’s also the site of the great pyramid of Cholula, which is the biggest pyramid in the world. Much of the pyramid has yet to be excavated, but a visit to Cholula will keep you busy for a couple of hours. The town is charming as well, and it has quieted down from the days when Cortez roamed the streets.
Taxco is one of Mexico’s most interesting towns. Two hours south of Mexico City (and halfway to Acapulco), this city built in the mountains is the place to buy silver and hang out for a few days. Its winding, narrow cobblestone streets snake up to its main square and famous cathedral.
Breathtaking views, great restaurants, and old buildings impossibly perched on surrounding cliffs are a little reminiscent of Santorini without an ocean. Rooftop restaurants also abound, where you can drink a margarita and listen to the cathedral bells while the sun sets. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can visit an old silver mine or Casa de Figueroa, a colonial house with a dark history and hidden tunnels.
Visiting these towns will give you a completely different perspective of Mexico that most Americans never take the opportunity to see. If you travel fairly quickly, you can do this entire itinerary in about two weeks with stops in Pueblo Mágicos. Hotels and food are very inexpensive. There’re unique experiences you won’t find anywhere else in the world. What are you waiting for?