11 of Mexico’s Best Kept Secret Cities

Rich Francis

Swansea, Wales

Move over, Mexico City. Begone big Cancun. This list is all about seeking out the hidden towns of Michoacán, Jalisco, the Yucatan, and beyond. It spans from coast to coast, through cowboy canyons, and across plantations of yucca and agave, looking to pin down places that you won’t forget in a hurry.

From the tile-fronted palazzos of Pueblo all the way to the wave-crashed coast of the Riviera Nayarit, you’ll get stuck into stacks of tacos while admiring some gorgeous colonial-era architecture. So, raise a tequila! Drop your quesadilla! (Just for a moment). Let’s get stuck into 11 of Mexico’s most beautiful towns…

Santiago de Querétaro

Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico.

A whole city now sprawls around Santiago de Querétaro’s old town. But you can still limit your visit to the heritage area. Neatly organized in lanes that run parallel across each other, it’s a peaceful neighborhood that’s largely pedestrianized. The eastern side of it all is where you’ll catch most of the mainstay sights: the great domed Church of San Francisco and the ancient Plaza de Armas with its laurel blooms. The western half of the district is where the locals go. Check out Mariano Matamoros alley, which has more beer bars and tequila outlets than its namesake Catholic priest would probably have approved of.

Morelia

The heart of Michoacán is found in Morelia. At night, when the sun dips low between the Baroque towers of the Morelia Cathedral, there’s nowhere better to be than on the Zocalo Plaza. Entertainers and guitar-strumming buskers topped with sombreros move between the arcades there, while the clink of cold cerveza comes from the countless bar-cafés. All around that main square you’ve got a city of low-rise buildings. They sometimes give way to squares that bloom with jacarandas. Other times, they leave off for the arches of El Acueducto, the 17th-century water source for the town.

San Pancho

The clockwork of life moves slowly in San Pancho. Avocado sellers call out on the sidewalks in the morning. Ranchers ride their mustangs up the crooked stone streets in the evening. Mariachi bands serenade surfers who strut home from the breaks, salt in hair, board in hand, as the sun sets. Small but lively, this is surely one of the best-kept secrets of the Riviera Nayarit. After a day on the sand, be sure to hit Taquería Los Arbolitos for 50-cent tacos and beans under bougainvillea. On a sunny day, head south or north on the coastal trails to find beaches like Playa Clavellinas where not another soul is in sight!

San Miguel de Allende

A one time hotbed for Mexican resistance against Spain in the independence wars of the 1800s, San Miguel de Allende is now hailed as one of Mexico’s most breathtaking stops. A new lease on life came in the 20th century when American war veterans began settling here after WWII. They quickly fell in love with the cobbled alleys, the hedge-trimmed main plaza, and the cool highland breezes that roll through the canyons. Fast forward a couple of decades and the town draws thousands each day, touting the neo-Gothic La Parroquia church and the arcaded Centro Cultural, to name just two stunning highlights.

Guanajuato

Mexican independence day Celebrations in Guanajuato, Mexico.

Guanajuato is built on a rabbit warren of tunnels. They were once riverways that gushed beneath the old mining town, but they’ve long since dried up and have been ingeniously converted into traffic arteries hidden below the ground. Above ground, meanwhile, is a city that clings to bluffs and crags. The barrios are painted vibrant orange and yellow and jungle green as they cascade like a rainbow flag down to the plazas below. In the center, the University of Guanajuato building stands out spectacularly, flaunting whitewashed walls with spiked spires. For views, there’s hardly a rival to soaring El Cerro de La Bufa: a fluted peak that crowns the southern districts.  

Yelapa

Beachside in Yelapa, Mexico.

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads! But that’s not because we’re hurtling 88 miles per hour into the future. It’s because we’re whizzing across the Bahía de Banderas to cute little Yelapa. Just the journey in is cotton candy for the Instagram feed! The waxy boughs of ficus trees lean over the huts, dropping down with the slopes of the Sierra Madre to a pearly Pacific Ocean. And there Yelapa sits, tucked under coconut palms with a dash of golden sand to its front. Paradise!

Tequila

No, this isn’t a mid-article order for everyone’s favorite Mexican tipple! It’s actually a town in its own right. Sat between the beige-hued canyons of wild inland Jalisco, the small speck on the map has been fueling spring break parties and hedonistic booze sessions since anyone can remember. Its gift to the world? Tequila, of course! You can taste it at virtually any stop around the train station, but the José Cuervo Distillery often takes the biscuit. As a destination, Tequila is also stunning. Agave plantations frame the hillsides, a stone-fronted church adorns the plaza, and ice cream-colored cottages abound.

Tulum

There are loads of reasons why Tulum has become fodder for Instagram feeds the whole world over! It’s a truly stunning corner of the Riviera Maya. Unlike anywhere in the region, the ancient temples come right up to the coast. You can see them crowning craggy cliffs above the azure Caribbean and the cotton-tinged sands below. All around that is a dedicated archaeology area, the Parque Nacional Tulum, spreading out in a patchwork of mangroves, sea grapes, and boulder-speckled inlets where the odd spring breaker can sometimes be seen tanning by the waves.

Tepoztlán

View from Tepozteco mountain, Tepoztlán, Mexico

One of the so-called Magic Towns, Tepoztlan is famed for its rich heritage and photogenic appearance. Cobblestone arteries feed the center. They shoot past daffodil-tinged casas and open onto a square with an age-stained Spanish church topping the plane trees. But there’s older history than the colonial era. Tepoztlan Mountain – that serrated ridge nearby – was considered by the Aztecs to be the birthplace of Quetzalcóatl, the serpent god. The upshot? Mexico’s ancient traditions are alive and kicking here and you may need to dodge the odd meditating New Age yogi as you wander the streets!

San Sebastian Bernal

There are moments when San Sebastian Bernal looks more like a curated film set lifted from a Spaghetti Western than a bona fide Mexicana town. But it’s certainly the latter; it was founded way back in 1642 by Spanish settlers. It’s just that those pastel-painted saloons, the adobe casitas with their jutting ceiling joints, and dusty streets rimmed by shady arcades and ochre-tinged church spires are almost too good to be true. Meanwhile, the horizon is dominated by the twisted crag of Peña de Bernal: a Jurassic-age mountain that gnarls ominously on the skyline.

Puebla

Puebla, Mexico.

Hailed by foodies as the country’s culinary capital, Puebla huddles under the snow-mantled Pico de Orizaba that crashes through the clouds southeast of Mexico City. The preserved historic center here is a crisscrossing grid of cobbled lanes and low-rise buildings, often fronted by traditional Talavera tiles where Puebla does its best Porto impression. On the Zocalo square (the main plaza), you can wander between packs of jacarandas and palms watching the world go by. Look up from there and you’ll spy the brownstone towers and filigrees of Puebla Cathedral (dating from the 1500s). Or, you might catch the Los Fuertes citadel, a flashpoint in the 1982 wars between Mexico and France, that sits atop the hazy Cerro de Guadalupe.