With its artistic appeal and historic heritage, Mexico City has long beckoned cultural travelers. However, just two hours west of that magnetic mega-city awaits a much more intimate destination, one that satisfies a deep and nostalgic appetite for Mexican life and culture.
Visiting Valle de Bravo is like taking a lengthy stride backward through time. Considered one of Mexico’s “Pueblos Magicos,” it is an idyllic, small-town community whose beauty resides in its homage to artistry and a relaxed, unhurried lifestyle. Here, white stucco walls trimmed in rust-colored paint hug weathered stone streets as they wind like serpents up the town’s steep hillsides.
A popular vacation spot for Mexico City’s elite, Valle de Bravo is rich in natural beauty, most notably due to Lake Avándaro, which bobs with boats and shimmers in the sunlight as visitors and locals partake in a variety of water sports. Interestingly, it’s a tremendous winter attraction for paraglider and hang glider pilots from around the world and is considered one of the finest locations for these free-flying sports. (Many Vallesanos agree that the best way to see their town is by gliding over it at 1,500 feet!)
While pilots venture here from all over the globe, the true honored guests wing their way from Eastern Canada, seeking winter refuge in the oyamel fir forests just 20 minutes outside Valle de Bravo.
In fact, monarch butterflies are one of the major draws of this lakeside community, and the forested microclimate of the Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary should be part of any Valle de Bravo itinerary. From November to March, millions of monarchs cling to the branches and eat nectar from blossoming flowers, offering all who trek up the hillside (by foot or horseback) intimate views of these delicate creatures.
Food is a cornerstone of the Valle experience and an important part of the town’s livelihood. The Municipal Market bursts with colorful produce: Ruby-hued radishes and vibrant green cactus paddles stack next to mounds of sweet mangoes, golden potatoes, blackberries and tomatilloes. On the streets surrounding the market, truck beds are piled high with ears of corn. The fragrance of sautéed onion and garlic wafts through the passageways while the sounds of sizzling skillets comingle with the churn of golden chickens cooking on large rotisseries.
On a day of sightseeing, it’s difficult to refrain from the many Mexican specialties sold on the side streets, from aguas frescas and homemade ice creams to esquites, plastic cups filled with corn kernels and mixed with chili, lime and mayonnaise. At the fast-casual Taco Alley, food carts lining a cobbled street churn out bistec and arrachera tacos with cilantro, onion and fresh salsa verde for hungry passersby.
Near the lake, the Embarcadero is lined with michelada bars like Mariscos el Lobo, which serves up frosted schooners of cold Mexican beer mixed with lime, clamato and seasonings alongside fresh seafood cocktails and pasta del mar. For an upscale dining experience, Dipao serves homemade pizzas and pastas in a quaint courtyard and Los Veleros or Soleado offers international cuisine and rooftop views. For a nightcap La Mezca de Valle offers mescal samplings, the perfect way to end the night before retreating to your hotel. While there are no Harper-recommended properties in the area, Hotel Avándaro or the eco-chic Hotel Rodavento are lovely places for an overnight stay.
Along with the town’s craft market, Mercado de Artesanías, the Avenue J.A. Pagaza is the idyllic place to shop for local goods, like handwoven baskets, made with long, elegant pine needles. At Naiva, Mexican artist Gloria Mendez’s hand-stitched art depicts miniature scenes of Mexican life and culture: A woman carrying bushels of flowers on her back or a farmer harvesting his agave, for example.
Puerta del Cielo Galería is a favorite for beautiful hammocks, milagro-studded religious art and decorative textiles. Its sister store, Cotantik, has a fine selection of rebozos (woven silk shawls trimmed in fringe) along with men’s guayaberas and interesting jewelry inspired by Mexican icons like Frida Kahlo.
Mornings in Valle are welcomed by the bright clang of church bells. The town’s two most notable churches are Parroquia de San Francisco de Asís and Templo de Santa María of Ahuacatlán. The latter is the oldest church in Valle de Bravo, built by Franciscan friars in the 17th century and housing an image of the “Black Christ,” which many believe has miraculous powers. The bells of both chime through the streets, reminding all who traverse here of time’s ephemerality.
Undoubtedly, there is an enchantment to Valle de Bravo, a thread of ease and tranquility, nostalgia and charm that weaves through its cultural fabric. Looking to the sky on a winter day, it’s not unusual to spot the curved, candy-colored wings of paragliders in flight. A simple walk through town is perfumed with fresh flowers wrapped in newspaper bundles on the street corners or homemade cooking wafting from somewhere nearby. At dusk, after the sun slips from view casting its last ripples of light on Lake Avándaro, the town’s Jardín Central comes alive. Families and friends, locals and tourists all congregate here, amid the manicured trees, the central bandstand and the scattered wrought iron benches, licking ice cream cones and spun sugar while listening to the chorus of birdsong.
In this place, all worries recede, replaced instead with an appreciation of life’s simple pleasures, its adventurous pursuits and the magic that’s found along the way.