Home » 5 towns in Mexico’s highlands to visit before everyone else does

5 towns in Mexico’s highlands to visit before everyone else does

written by Marie-France Roy June 4, 2017
Guanajuato Mexico

Most people go to Mexico for the sand and sea, but vast areas of the country are covered by mountains and dotted with charming colonial towns and cities. You can’t say you know Mexico until you have visited its hinterland.

Here are five colonial towns in the highlands of Mexico that will make you forget the beach – for a while, at least. The best part: they’re all just a bus journey away from Mexico City.

Oaxaca

Oaxaca Mexico

Dance performance in the shadow of Templo Santo Domingo, Oaxaca

Oaxaca has become my favorite town in Mexico. Almost unknown to travelers during my first visit in 2006, it now welcomes visitors from around the world, including a small community of North American expats. Yet it still retains the feeling of an authentic Mexican town.

To get to Oaxaca, you need to head southeast from Mexico City. It will take you over six hours by bus, or you could fly.

Oaxaca’s charms go beyond its well-maintained and colorful colonial center. As the birthplace of mole sauces, its cuisine rivals Mexico City, and its coffee shops wouldn’t feel out of place in North America. Try Los Pacos or La Olla for typical Oaxacan cuisine.

Oaxaca Mexico

Pedestrian Calle Alcalá at dusk, Oaxaca

At 1500 meters, the winter climate is near perfect with almost constant sun and spring-like temperatures. The cultural scene hops with concerts, movies, live music, exhibitions, and lectures, many of them free, in addition to a plethora of museums. Art and artists are everywhere.

Indigenous villages in the surrounding valleys host markets on different days of the week. You will also find artisan workshops, mescal factories, and ruins of pre-Hispanic civilizations, such as Monte Alban and Mitla.

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San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende

Street vendors in the market streets of San Miguel de Allende

Four hours by bus to the northwest of Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende is the first place I visited in Mexico in 2001. Already back then, it was well known within the expat community, and even appeared as a romantic backdrop in novels.

The compact historical center is a showpiece of cobblestone streets, elaborate church facades, and perfectly restored colonial buildings in shades of ochre, rust, and salmon, their windows girdled by wrought-iron balconies.

On the main square, handicraft and balloon sellers amble around perfectly trimmed trees and flowerbeds. Musicians play under the arches of adjacent buildings. And the Parroquia, a Gaudí-esque confection of a church, towers over it all.

A busy calendar of lectures, movies, and concerts, organized by the English-speaking community (especially from January to March) co-exists with lively Mexican festivals.

Increasingly upscale, San Miguel is not a budget place anymore (and, honestly, neither is it off the beaten track). However, if you want Mexican flavor wrapped in a neat well-ordered package, and you don’t speak any Spanish, you’ll be comfortable here.

WHERE TO GO IN MEXICO, ACCORDING TO AN INTREPID TOUR GUIDE

Guanajuato

Guanajuato Mexico

Bell Tower of Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato

Only an hour by bus from San Miguel, Guanajuato is a larger city and capital of its eponymous state. Although increasingly popular with expats, it remains a little grittier and more authentically Mexican than its neighbor. By the same token, English is not as commonly spoken, so some basic Spanish will be helpful.

Little cubic houses in all shades of the rainbow tumble down the slopes of rolling brown hills. Narrow cobblestone streets climb between walls, leading to small plazas with gurgling fountains and stone staircases. Callejón del Beso is an alley so narrow that a local story tells of star-crossed lovers who were able to kiss from their respective balconies on each side.

Both a Unesco World Heritage City and university town, Guanajuato is home to an international art festival (Festival Cervantino), Diego Rivera’s home (now a museum) and the magnificent Teatro Juárez. It was also the site of an early battle that led to Mexico’s independence from Spain.

Ride the funicular up to the viewpoint and take it all in.

DISCOVER GUANAJUATO ON THIS SMALL GROUP ADVENTURE IN MEXICO

Morelia

Morelia Mexico

Posing with one of Morelia’s beautiful fountains, Fuente de Villalongín

Capital of the state of Michoacán, Morelia lies four hours by bus to the west of Mexico City. Its location at an altitude of 1920 meters gives it warm days but cool nights.

Founded by the Spanish in 1541, it was renamed Morelia in honor of Morelos, one of Mexico’s independence heroes. Two of his houses have been turned into museums. Buildings in the colonial city center (a Unesco World Heritage site) date mostly from the 17th and 18th century, and are constructed from pink cantera stone, giving the city a warm glow. Wandering Morelia’s narrow streets, where bougainvillea climb up the stonewalls, is a pleasure.

The massive cathedral, built in a hodgepodge of styles, forms the backdrop for a lighting and firework show every Saturday night at 9pm. Other sights include the aqueduct and Palacio Clavijero, which showcases visual arts.

Morelia Mexico

Café tables under a covered arcade, Morelia

As a university town, Morelia enjoys a youthful population and features free public concerts and art installations. If you have a sweet tooth, don’t miss the Mercado de Dulces y Artesanías, filled wall-to-wall with candies!

Despite its assets, Morelia sees few foreign tourists. It’s a good choice if you want to enroll in Spanish classes and benefit from a full immersion experience.

Pátzcuaro

Patzcuaro Mexico

El Sagrario church, Patzcuaro

Less than an hour southwest of Morelia and about 200 meters higher, little Pátzcuaro enjoys clean air, clear light, rough cobblestone streets, and courtyards filled with flowers and cacti. It’s the most peaceful and relaxing place I have found in Mexico so far.

Dating from the pre-colonial era (1320s), the town still has an indigenous feel and many of the buildings are made from adobe, their walls painted white at the top and brownish-red at the bottom.

Some of the church facades look somewhat shabby, but this only adds to the quaintness. Free concerts and traditional dance, handicraft markets (check out Casa de los Once Patios), and a variety of good restaurants make you forget the frigid winter nights.

Patzcuaro Mexico

Outdoor seating at a local restaurant, Patzcuaro

Take a day trip to the pre-Columbian archaeological site of Tzintzuntzan, or board a boat on the lake to reach the pedestrian island of Janitzio, with its 40-meter hollow statue of Morelos (which you can climb).

EXPLORE PATZCUARO ON THIS 15-DAY TOUR OF THE MEXICAN HEARTLANDS

These five colonial towns are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the riches of Mexico’s interior. Puebla, Taxco, Querétaro, Cuernavaca, Zacatecas, and San Cristóbal de las Casas are other inland towns that are definitely worth a visit.

Eat your heart out beaches!

Tempted to see these beautiful cities? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group adventures in Mexico.

(Image credits from top to bottom: All c/o Marie-France Roy at bigtravelnut.com, except and Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende c/o iStock)

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4 comments

Carol Ritchie April 27, 2018 - 5:14 am

Just to SMA and loved it. Yes, there are many expats but many, many Mexicans as well. The town square “el Jardin” is full of Mexican families enjoying themselves every night of the week. I had a wonderful week there!

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Marti August 22, 2017 - 6:28 am

Merida in the Yucatan is a great city base camp. Heck, you could hang out there for a week or two and not run out of interesting things to do and food to eat.

Reply
rick be June 4, 2017 - 12:39 pm

San Miguel de Allende has been an expat town for 50 years; Oaxaca is a bit touristy but very authentic & the nearby Ruins interesting-you can take a city bus there like I did. The others might be too authentic for me,tho I know Guana is trying to attract some visitors.

Reply
Alex June 24, 2017 - 9:14 pm

SMA is still the best expat town 🙂 Everyone needs to check it out 🙂

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