We have photos, fame and guidebooks to tell us about the big, must-see destinations in a country, but what about the little ones? How do you find those cute little towns that typify the way people live outside of the mega-city?
The Mexican Ministry of Tourism wants to help. In 2001, they created the Pueblos Mágicos program, which recognizes certain towns for their natural, cultural or historical uniqueness. Towns designated as Pueblos Mágicos must be close to (within 200km) an existing, popular tourist destination, must maintain a present day community (population of at least 20,000) which is committed to maintaining local customs and traditions, must meet architectural guidelines and must have some distinguishing characteristic(s) which make them special – which is to “magical”. Examples include Taxco- a charming town famous for its silver, Angangueo located at the edge of the monarch butterfly reserve, and Peña de Bernal which sits at the foot of an impressive (and supposedly imbued with supernatural powers) monolith.
It’s sort of like a UNESCO list for small towns in Mexico. Unlike the UNESCO list, sites listed as Pueblos Mágicos are audited annually and some have lost their designation for not keeping up with the criteria.
Once they receive the designation, a Pueblo Mágico receives financial support from the Mexican government for the development of tourism related infrastructure and businesses.
Some of the pueblos I’ve visited have more magic than others. Along with government investment, the designation invites gentrification- that old dynamic of tourism changing the very thing the tourists are coming to see.
Overall though, I think the program is a good thing. It allows travelers to see some charming places that are close, but not on, the well beaten track. And of course, it allows those small towns a chance at our tourism dollars.
Currently, there are 83 Pueblos Mágicos, yet another side of Mexico worthy of your visit.