Experience The Captivating Magic In The ‘Pueblos Magicos’ Near Playa del Carmen
Of all the enchanting places to discover in the vast country of Mexico, only 177 towns make the short list for Pueblos Magícos. In order to receive the honor of a “Magic Town,” the city must meet certain criteria. Notable characteristics typically center around natural wonders, important historical or cultural aspects, even phenomenal cuisine. Additionally, exceptional charm appeal plays a key role in the approval process. Travelers can expect unique and hospitable visitor experiences.
Due to its central location in the Riviera Maya,Playa del Carmen makes an ideal home base for exploring the magnificent region. Ultimately, if you’re in the vicinity of a Pueblo Magíco, you’re going to want to plan a stop. Scattered throughout Mexico, these sparkling jewels will fascinate you. From the birthplace of tequila to stunning 17th century cathedrals to remarkable Day of the Dead celebrations, each has its own wow factor. Indeed, we could write a book about these beautiful places in Mexico. But for now, we’ll highlight the 5 Pueblos Magícos near Playa del Carmen that could be a possible day trip.
Bacalar, Quintana Roo
Located on the southeastern tip of the state of Quintana Roo, Bacalar is renowned for its Lagoon of 7 Seven Colors. The cenote-fed, fresh water lake shimmers in the sunlight, showcasing several vivid shades. The turquoise, deep blue, sandy brown, and crystal clear aqua-hued lagoon is irresistibly inviting. Pontoon houseboats offering daily tours along with paddle boarders can be spotted from the fort above. The Fort of San Felipe (complete with cannons) is the perfect vantage point from which to absorb the picturesque views.
Despite hosting a growing number of awestruck travelers each year, the small town remains unassuming, which contributes to its allure. When walking the central square in the evenings, you can see groups of children sitting at their easels for an outdoor painting session. A handful of open-air pubs offer you a swing seat from which to savor a cold cerveza. Along the water are a few scenic spots to grab lunch, including La Playita, Katx, and Los Aluxes.
One Never-To-Be-Forgotten Night in Bacalar
Bacalar and the Lagoon of 7 Colors is approximately a 3-hour drive from Playa del Carmen. To experience the full magical ambience of this mini Maldives of Mexico, an overnight stay is recommended. For an otherworldly guest experience, opt for one of the thatched-roof water villas at Centro Holistico Alkaki. Apart from the lake bungalows, there are hostels, charming central hotels, and many cozy bed and breakfasts along the lagoon’s edge. Having said that, you won’t find opulent or grandeur accommodation options in Bacalar.
Nonetheless, while the huts are basic, the million dollar views make up for the modest decor and amenities. Without a doubt, the unpretentious lodgings and welcoming community exude the hospitable essence of this beloved country. Thus another reason why Bacalar tops our list.
Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo
Continuously on the list of the world’s most beautiful beaches, Isla Mujeres’s Playa Norte (north beach) is spectacular. The shallow, crystal clear waters compel you wade in for several meters and resign to their magnetic spell.
You’ll be amazed by the utter joy you feel basking in the sun and surf of this Caribbean paradise. Golf carts and scooters cruise along the coastline. Similarly laid-back, margarita-slinging bar tenders match the pace. Palm trees sway to the rhythm of the waves that lap the silky shores. This Mexican Caribbean gem presents island life personified.
Good to know:
From the Puerto Juarez dock in Cancun, a round-trip ticket for the 15-minute ferry ride to Isla Mujeres is roughly $20 USD. You can purchase the tickets online, with a convenient option of booking an open ticket valid for 6 months.
Once on the island, the choices for fun and adventure are plentiful. In the late spring and summer months, majestic whale sharks grace the area with their presence. The seasonal tours give you an up-close snorkel encounter with these gentle giants of the sea.
Just off the sun-soaked shores of Isla Mujeres, awaits the MUSA underwater museum. Over 500 life-sized installations were submerged on the Caribbean seabed with a goal to restore the area’s coral reefs. The thought-provoking sculptures depict important subjects including capital greed and minimalism. MUSA can be experienced two ways— scuba diving and snorkeling through the galleries, or via a glass-bottomed boat.
Alternatively, there are excellent water activities available without leaving the island. The breathtaking Garrafón Park is an all-inclusive reef park bursting with entertaining activities for sun and adventure seekers. From kayaks to zip lines and paddle boards to infinity pool bars, this scenic outdoor playground has something for everyone.
Speaking of gems, Izamal is another on Mexico’s roster of enchanting jewels. Unlike Tulum, many tourists are unfamiliar with this intriguing Pueblo Magíco. However the 3-hour road trip from Playa del Carmen is worth it. Firstly, the most noteworthy detail is that every building within the city limits is a bright, mustard color. Hence the nickname “The Yellow Town.”
Moreover, in 1993, Pope John Paul II preached from the colonial monastery, Convento de San Antonio. The commanding structure was built upon a leveled Mayan pyramid and is perched high over the rest of the yellow town. In fact, the construction of the whole town encompasses a former Mayan settlement of the Pre-Classic era.
Izamal boasts an authentic charm that derives from its markets, traditional cuisine, and whimsical horse and carriage rides. Every three or four months, locals assemble to celebrate customary festivals. These vibrant fiestas honor important patron saints and events, such as the Immaculate Conception each December. Differing from its usual tranquil vibe, the town comes alive with folk dancing and parades. The grand celebrations further add to the fascinating appeal and are just one more reason to visit.
Although it’s a lesser-known tourist destination, Valladolid has a lengthy list of fascinating attributes. Beyond the bright colors, the sensational street food, and the picturesque local cenotes, Valladolid offers an authentic charm courtesy of its intriguing history.
For a rather small population, the Magical Town presents 7 churches for exploring. From a former convent converted to a museum to the stately colonial San Servacio Cathedral overlooking the main square, the architecture is astounding. Not only are the structures impressive, but the history is captivating.
“The Sultan of the East”
Free walking tours that highlight the colonial splendor are offered every afternoon.You’ll come to understand the important significance the town played in the Caste War. As well, the guides share details of the dark history involving rebellions between the enslaved indigenous people and Spanish colonists. One church, considered so desecrated by revolting Mayan who savagely murdered city officials at the foot of its altar, was ordered to be torn down and rebuilt.
Despite the conflicts, Valladolid endured and now flourishes as a top off-the-beaten-path destination. At its heart, is the zocalo, Parque Francisco Canton. This shady main plaza features excellent street vendors peddling delicious Mexican specialties. Introduce your tastebuds to typical cuisine including marquesitas, esquites, and tamales stuffed with Cochinita Pibil, an authentic regional pork dish.
On your way from the city center to the Convento de San Bernardino, you’ll love the meandering stroll along the colorful Calzada de los Frailes, or Friar’s Avenue. Lining the cheerful street are quaint shops with everything from handbags and hammocks to perfumes and ice cream. An extra bonus conveniently on your way to the convent is Casa de Los Venados. This restored, 18000 square foot home hosts the largest private collection of over 3000 pieces of Mexican Folk Art.
A Co-existence Between Colonial History, Culture, and Captivating Nature
It’s hard to believe such a scenic, natural marvel exists in the city center. Yet Cenote Zaci harmoniously inhabits a city block along with the vividly painted coffee shops and 16th century buildings. The stowed away urban treasure offers an ideal opportunity to refresh yourself in its cool waters. The entrance fee is minimal, under $3 USD, and there is an on-site restaurant.
An additional limestone swimming hole, equally as impressive, is Cenote Suytun. The shallow Mayan pool lies about 8 km from the hub of Valladolid. In the late morning, usually from 11am -1pm, a mystical sunbeam shines through a small opening in the cave’s roof. The sunlight radiates a stone platform, which stretches to the middle of the water. Not surprisingly, this captivating sight has been featured several thousand times on Instagram and travel blogs throughout the years.
There’s no shortage of things to do and see in the area. Within a half hour from Valladolid, is one of the World Wonders, Chichen Itzá. Also in the vicinity are undeniably compelling attractions, Ek Balam and Hubiku Cenote Park.
Tulum, Quintana Roo
Undoubtedly, Tulum is a world-class travel destination. Its pristine beaches and former Mayan metropolis, residing on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean, are big draws for sure. But there’s a definite enigma in the air, which lures people from across the globe. Some say it is a place of healing, where spiritual connections develop. Others come for the artsy vibe, celebrating festivals and staying in awe-inspiring museum-inspired hotels like Azulik. Still others visit to unplug, soak up the sun, and delight in the exceptional gastronomy scene.
Tulum’s Top Attractions
While it is not a walkable city like Playa del Carmen or Valladolid, taxis and bike rentals are very accessible. A short taxi ride delivers you to the Tulum ruins, where optional tour guides take you on an engaging journey back in time. You’ll learn interesting facts on the social order of the Mayan civilization, as well as the astrological relevance incorporated into the design of the ancient city. What better way to end the tour than by taking a dip into the inviting Caribbean waters below.
Boat tours are available, which take you out for epic views facing the Tulum archaeological site.
A bike rental is a great way to go to explore the hotel zone along Tulum’s divine coastline. Stop at one of the dozens of outstanding beach clubs including Ziggy’s, Papaya Playa Project, or La Zebra. Indulge in a tangy margarita and bask in the glorious sun and sand, all the while absorbing the picture-perfect seascape . After some divine downtime, continue on the path and you’ll find the area is full of trendy shops for picking out the perfect memento from your trip.
In the heart of Tulum is a wide range of charming eateries, stunning Airbnbs, cute cafes, and holistic retreat centers. Due to the community’s diversity, you have a wide selection of impeccable menus to choose from. Not to mention the town’s commitment to preserving the environment. This passion for delectable food and sustainability means that visitors can enjoy excellent culinary offerings amidst open-air restaurants tucked into the jungle. Other-worldly dining experiences to add to your list include Kitchen Table, Gitano, and Nomade.
A Breathtaking Biosphere
Inevitably, if you want the fully-loaded Tulum experience, a car rental will afford you just that. Onward from the hotel zone, proceed south on that same road to enter into the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. This rustic, protected reserve comprises a variety of ecosystems. Lagoons, mangroves, tropical forests, marshland, as well as the Mesoamerican Reef System house an awesome mix of bird, marine, and land-dwelling species.
Beyond the idyllic coastline, there is not much as far as gas stations or restaurants along the dirt road. So be sure to fuel up both your vehicle and your body before you embark on the 2-hour drive. It can seem endless at times, but pause and allow yourself to take in the surreal beauty of this UNESCO Heritage Site.
Just prior to Punta Allen at the end of the road, there are a handful of blissful little hotels and beach clubs. There’s a good chance you’ll have the entire place (and beach) to yourself in this secluded paradise. Order a fresh ceviche (cured fish and prawn dish) and fall back into a hammock. Here, you’re destined to connect to the rejuvenating peace and energy of nature.
When you arrive at Punta Allen, fishermen guides will take you on a 3-hour tour for approximately $300 Mxn Pesos. Bring cash as it is a remote fishing village with little in the way of bank machines (or good cell service.) On these tours, it’s typical to spot dolphins swimming in the wild. Sian Ka’an is full of extraordinary surprises.
Without a doubt, paying a visit to these Magical Towns near Playa del Carmen will leave you spellbound. Happy exploring!