Pueblos Magicos highlight Mexico's small-town gems
Usually, memories of my Mexico vacations feature stylish beachfront resorts and neighboring towns dedicated to tourists "” or cloudy recollections of loud music and cervezas. However, my recent visit to the city of Parras in the Coahuila desert was different. I was told it was a magical town, and I came away a believer.
The first thing visitors will notice here is that it is peaceful, with the city largely unchanged and untarnished since its inception in the late 16th century. And I knew I was in an authentic city of Mexico when I visited Parras' most famous attraction, Casa Madero and its Museum of Wine. I stood in a lush valley and looked out across acres of sun-drenched grapes hanging on the vine. This winery is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere, having first stomped on grapes in 1597. It is an oasis in the desert.
Beyond its vineyard, Parras has many draws. It's charming and off the beaten track, its history is built on top of several local natural springs and it hosts one of the most picturesque hilltop churches I have ever seen, Iglesia Santo Madero.
Parras offers several accommodation options that are commissionable for agents. Hostal Del Farol is 350 years old, and features 20 rooms filled with antique furniture and old-fashioned pedestal bathtubs, and it has an excellent restaurant just outside its front doors.
The Rincon Del Montero offers modern accommodations, cabanas or hotel-style rooms. It also has a golf course.
Both hotels offer agent commissions.
With all this, and only a little more than an hour outside one of Mexico's most industrialized cities "” the denim manufacturing stronghold of Saltillo "” I could not help but be impressed and taken in by Parras' magic.
The Making of "Magical Towns"
Parras is not the only magical town in Mexico. It is part of a unique project by Mexico Tourism called Pueblos Magicos. The Pueblos Magicos (Magical Towns) program seeks to develop awareness of some of Mexico's less-traveled destinations through the renovation and development of unique cities with historical significance. As Mexico's Tourism Secretary, Rodolfo Elizondo, points out, "Mexico is not only sun and beaches."
So far, Mexico has approved 23 cities countrywide to participate in this program and share in nearly $27 million for improvements and upgrades. With tourism up 17 percent from last year's spring quarter, Mexico is banking on this new project to broaden its popularity.
The money used has gone to the restoration of churches, convents, museums and art galleries, as well as the rejuvenation of town squares, plazas and historic downtown areas. The revitalization of building facades and creation of better access to these host cities has also been addressed.
Other common upgrades include increased and updated tourist directional signs; additions and expansions to parking and public restrooms; welcoming areas; beautification of parks; and financial support granted to local businesses specializing in tourism. Some towns are being wired with underground electricity as well, which upgrades power capability without infringing on the aesthetic qualities of these centuries-old towns. These changes not only welcome tourists, but also help boost community attitudes as locals reap the benefits of these everyday improvements.
The Pueblos Magicos, are located near popular tourist attractions or big cities, and all have historic or religious significance and a desire to open up their community to tourism. The plans for quality roads and modern conveniences to ensure travel comfort will make them perfect hubs for the exploring FIT, but it will take several more years to complete this formidable project.
After all, progress doesn't happen by magic.
PUEBLOS MAGICOS: Here are a few destination prospects carrying the "Magical Town" banner.
San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas
This colonial city, which has strong native influences and good shopping, offers several local landmarks, including March 31 Plaza (the central park) and San Cristobal Martir Cathedral. The city is known for its delicious locally grown coffee and 7,000-foot altitude. San Cristobal sports a local airport with national service.
Patzcuaro, in Michoacan
Historically, Patzcuaro translates as "the door to the sky where the Gods descend and raise," and not surprising, it is a religious center with churches and structures dating back to the 16th century. Patzcuaro is 30 minutes outside Morelia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 1541, Morelia hosts over 200 historic buildings many made with pink-colored stone. Buses can reach Patzcuaro from Mexico City.
Tequila, in Jalisco
The name may say it all. For those living in caves, Tequila is best known for its production of the alcoholic beverage of the same name. This city is 34 miles from Guadalajara on highway 15. The famed Tequila festival is held Nov. 29-Dec. 12 annually.
Santiago, in Nuevo Leon
This town is still waiting for Pueblos Magicos designation due in part to its charming town square. Tell clients to check out Las Palomas restaurant and the Hotel Santiago Apostol (group rates and an 8 percent commission). The town is just 45 minutes from Monterrey, which is the third largest city in Mexico.
For more information on the Pueblos Magicos, the sources below offer information on their Web sites in English.
Mexico Tourism Board
Written by Devin Galaudet