Heading into 2023, more Americans are seeking meaningful experiences and a deeper understanding of locals’ way of life when vacationing in Mexico. Luckily for sun-seekers with their hearts set on Cancun, there are 3 incredible smaller, Magical Towns within driving distance of the city that make for the perfect day trip away from the crowded coast.
‘Magical Town’ is not a mere choice of words. It is an official emblem awarded by Sectur, the Mexican Secretary of Tourism, to certain towns and villages in Mexico with significant historical value. Pueblos Magicos usually date back centuries, and their rich tradition and folklore contribute greatly to the country’s identity.
Cancun itself may not be a ‘Pueblo Magico’, but it can be a great starting point for exploring the hidden wonders of the Yucatan Peninsula:
Driving 145 miles west of Cancun along Highway 180D, tourists will reach the intriguing city of Izamal, in the neighboring state of Yucatan, famous for its yellow-tinged houses, a vivid reminder of Mexico’s colonial past, and a vast archaeological complex called City of Hills, encompassing several Mayan structures and an outstanding step pyramid.
The allure of Izamal lies in its complex History. Formerly a vital Mayan trading hub, the urban landscape rapidly changed upon the arrival of the first Europeans, who stopped short of completely de-characterizing the region by building churches and monasteries where far older temples once stood, as a symbol of their dominance over the natives.
Even though the city was pillaged, and later rebuilt to serve the needs of the Spanish – e.g. most of the cut stone from Mayan structures was used to erect Christian monuments – it retains a unique Mesoamerican character, being officially a bilingual community where a sizable number of residents speak both Spanish and a dialect of the Yucatec Mayan language.
Strolling the cobblestone streets, you will find vibrant-colored colonial buildings, beautiful Spanish shrines, family-owned restaurants serving authentic Mexican dishes, and friendly locals proud of their multi-ethnic heritage. Izamal is also a pilgrimage site for many Christians, housing a colonial-era statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception.
An island-town 8.1 miles off the Caribbean coast of Mexico, Isla Mujeres is the closest municipality to Cancun out of the three listed. In fact, the city’s skyscraper-dotted skyline can even be seen to the west, and with the high frequency of ferry crossings connecting the insular community to the mainland all year-round, it couldn’t be easier to reach.
It’s accessibility is not its only strength: home to sandy beaches, turquoise-colored waters and marine parks, it is the closest it gets to a paradise on Earth. Unlike Playa del Carmen or Tulum, which have been overtaken by ravers and ‘Instainfluencers’, Mujeres has a far more relaxed atmosphere and is particularly favored by honeymooners and families alike.
That’s not to say you can’t have some fun here. There is a myriad of beach clubs, restaurants, and trendy bars to pick from, and an extensive list of outdoor activities to keep you busy for more than a short day, but you’ll find the island’s true charm lies in its laid-back nature and serene beaches, two qualities the much-busier Tulum clearly lacks.
Other than a sunny hotspot, Isla Mujeres is a major cultural destination, with evidece of pre-Columbian activity in the area as early as the 3rd century AD. According to folklore, it is a sanctuary for the Mayan goddess Ixchel, a lunar deity representing fertility and happiness; sadly, very little remains of the temples following the Spanish conquest.
Two hours southwest of Cancun, over the Yucatan state border, Valladolid stands among the most historically-charged, as well as one of the oldest European settlements in the Americas. Built in the baroque style all the way back in the 1500s, when the land was first colonized, it is an architectural gem that wouldn’t look out of place in the Iberian Peninsula.
The Convent of San Bernardino of Siena, ordered built in the 16th century, is the main point of interest here, featuring delicately-arranged woodwork and a long corridor of arches evocative of the Moorish palaces of Spain. The town’s cultural offer is further extended through its well-preserved Old Town, sinkhole pools and ancient ruins:
Valladolid is the last major city on the route to the primeval Chichen Itza, the top rated archaeological zone for a day trip from Cancun. When venturing this far west, tourists normally couple a visit to Chichen Itza with a two to three-hour stopover in Valladolid – just enough time to see the main sights, wander the Centro Historico and buy some souvenirs.
Staying in town for longer, you can explore underground cenotes – Samula and X’Keken are by far the most beautiful and tourist-friendly – and visit a museum, such as the landmark Casa de los Venados, a privately-owned property housing the largest museum-worthy collection of folk art in Mexico – entry fee is only 100 Mexican pesos, or roughly USD $5.13.
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com