No matter where you are in Mexico, there’s a good chance you’ll be within easy reach of one of Mexico’s magical towns – or Pueblos Magicos.
There are now 132 Pueblos Magicos scattered throughout Mexico. This is an increase from the initial four in 2001, and at least one in each of the 31 states.
These towns are not supernatural, but each has been carefully selected for its unique charm and commitment to tradition.
These magical towns are a must-see for anyone who wants to see the riches of Mexico. However, residents have to follow certain rules.
What makes a Pueblo Magico?
To be designated Pueblo Magico, a municipality must meet certain criteria.
- A population of at most 5,000
- You must not be more than 200 km from major tourist destinations
- Demonstrate cultural or symbolic relevance
- Name historical monuments
- Accessible public transportation
- Designate an area for local tourism
- Crate a special Pueblo Magico committee
- In the town, establish a “Tourism Development Program”.
- Public safety and health services must be guaranteed
Although there are many applicants to the program, only a few new Pueblos Magicos have ever been accepted. When 11 Pueblos Magicos were founded, the last time that any new towns were awarded this title was in 2005.
This status can be lost. To retain the Pueblo Magico title, towns must maintain their cultural significance and preserve their traditions.
Two of the original Pueblos Magicos were removed from the list in 2009, Tepoztlan (in the state Morelos) and Mexcaltitan (in the state Nayarit). Tepoztlan’s status was restored one year later. Mexcaltitan took another ten years to regain their title.
Pueblos Magicos are also able to be upgraded. Although it has only been done once, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato’s state, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
A lack of federal support made it almost impossible for the programme to continue a few years back. The scheme was partially decentralised, and is now supported at the state level.
What is Pueblos Magicos really like?
Fortunately, I have the opportunity to tell you from firsthand how these magical towns look – or at most what one looks like.
Izamal was one of the first Pueblos Magicos I visited last year as part of a larger trip through the state Yucatan.
Because of its unique color palette, it is one of the most well-known towns in the scheme. Actually, I was unaware that a visit to the Yellow City, as Izamal is affectionately called, was on my trip itinerary. Instead, a colleague pointed out an article he had written previously for Euronews Travel which highlighted the beauty of the town.
When I first heard about the Pueblos Magicos program, I was worried that these towns would feel too much like theme parks or model villages. They wouldn’t feel authentic and could feel almost trapped by their status.
Izamal feels, however, very real. Although it is stunning, it doesn’t seem so polished or snared in the pursuit of perfection. It’s instead a beautiful town with a strong sense history and tradition where ordinary people live and work.
It dates back to 750 BCE, and has been continuously occupied ever since. Izamal has witnessed civilisations rise, fall, pyramids be built, colonial forces arrive, and all of this is evident throughout the town.
Because it is surrounded by the ruins of ancient Pyramids, Izamal is also known as the City of Hills. It also houses a 16th century monastery, which is yellow as well.
Izamal’s streets were explored by quadbike, which I recommend highly as a mode for transport in towns like this. I was then able to stroll through the monastery as it set. It was amazing to see the light in the Yellow City at that time. I recommend taking a trip to Izamal.
Are Pueblos Magicos a positive thing?
Although my experience with Izamal was positive, the Pueblos Magicos program is not intended to improve the lives or livelihoods of local residents. While tourism can be a great way to create new jobs, it doesn’t always translate into material improvements to the locals.
Mexico’s tourism sector is vital. It attracts over 41 million tourists annually, making it the 7th most visited country in the world (prepandemic). Tourism accounts for almost 10% of Mexico’s GDP. Pueblos Magicos is a key part of spreading that investment across the country. The programme encourages tourists to explore Mexico’s smaller towns instead of focusing only on resort areas and major cities.
According to Raul Valdez Munoz (a researcher who analysed the program’s impact , the Pueblos magicos scheme was credited with saving many historic sites and providing funding for restoration of “historic centers, monuments, and churches”.
Valdez Munoz found that smaller towns have not benefited from the program. Instead, the economics of larger cities in the area have been financially better off. Tourists prefer to stay in bigger towns and make short trips into Pueblos Magicos.
It has also been discovered that certain towns have spent funds on “projects that concentrate on tourists by ‘earlying’ structures – making them look older or more grandiose than originally,” states community planner Gibran Lile-Hurtado.
Lule-Hurtado emphasizes that, while the Pueblos Magicos program has many benefits, there is a risk that towns will continue to place more emphasis on authenticity than preserving real-life tradition.
“This pattern may be seen in the appearance buildings designed to attract tourists, but without much consideration of the town’s cultural history,” Professor Anna WiniarczykRazniak.
“For instance, some buildings look colonial even though they have nothing to do Mexican colonial history.”
Winiarczyk–Razniak concludes that there is no evidence that the lives of residents in Pueblos Magicos are significantly better. However, she emphasizes that it is possible for people to start to notice more tangible benefits with a little more supervision.
Lule-Hurtado agrees. He points out that similar programs have been tried in other countries and that they can be very successful at both the local and national levels if managed well.
All experts agree that Pueblos Magicos shouldn’t be avoided. Many people also note how the program has helped to re-shape Mexico and allowed for travel to areas many foreign visitors wouldn’t normally visit.
If you are looking to experience Mexico differently, it is worth exploring if you can add magic to your trip.