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Central Mexico’s Colonial Gems and Natural Wonders
You’ll find Mexico’s colonial heart in the central states of Guanajuato and Michoacan, occupying a vast altiplano stretching between two mountain ranges. Their cities and towns, nearly a mile above sea level, are blessed with a mild climate year-round—a so-called land of eternal spring. They also beckon with many of Mexico’s oldest colonial settlements, dating to the 16th century and many recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. These towns are not, however, preserved under glass. Instead on a stroll around their zocalos, or town squares, you’ll meet locals enjoying the shade of their trees or a concert on the square’s bandstand. 

Forging authentic connections is a goal of the following itinerary, created by Josh Alexander of ProTravel International, a member of the AFAR Travel Advisory Council. It goes beyond cultural and architectural highlights, with days set aside to visit the winter home of millions of monarch butterflies, get hands-on cooking lessons, and the dramatic geological formations of the Sierra Gorda, still home to some indigenous communities.
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    Day 1
    Arrive in Morelia
    You’ll fly today to the airport for Morelia, halfway between Mexico City and the Pacific Ocean. Established in 1541, this colonial city has more than 200 historic buildings, many in the pink stone characteristic of the region. With its typical colonial street plans and buildings with Renaissance and Baroque details, the entire historic center has been added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. A driver will meet you at the airport and transfer you to one of two hotels for your stay.

    The 12-room Casa Grande occupies an 18th-century house in the heart of Morelia, just a short walk from the city’s cathedral. You’ll stay in a spacious junior suite, in this hotel with typical tiled floors and period pieces. Or you can settle into the Villa Montaña, located to the south of Morelia’s historic district. This hotel is modeled on a typical hacienda with landscaped grounds, while many of the 36 rooms have traditional beamed ceilings and city views.
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    Day 2
    A Tour of Historic Morelia
    Your personal guide will meet you at your hotel to start your tour through the colonial streets of Morelia, Michoacán’s capital city, including the large main square, flanked by the pink stone cathedral. You’ll brush up on your Mexican history during a visit to the Casa Natal de Morelos, a museum within the house of José Maria Morelos, a hero of the Mexican War of Independence—the city was renamed in his honor. Other stops will include the Music Conservatory, the Bishop’s Palace, the College of Saint Nicolás, where you will learn more about Morelia’s past, and the aqueduct on the edge of the city center.

    The afternoon’s agenda calls for a private Purepechan cooking demonstration at the famous San Miguelito Restaurant where you will learn the art of wrapping tamales. Have fun with some hands-on practice while learning an about this ancestral tradition, for lunch (included) you will sample some of the region’s specialties.
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    Day 3
    Patzcuaro and Santa Fe de la Laguna
    After breakfast you will be picked up for a full-day private guided tour of the colonial towns of Patzcuaro and Santa Fe de la Laguna.

    Patzcuaro is a cultural and artisanal center for the state of Michoacán, on the southern shore of the lake of the same name. You’ll explore the markets and stores along the colonial plazas and streets lined with historic buildings. The Plaza Vasco de Quiroga (or Plaza Grande), the main square, and the Casa de los Once Patios, constructed in 1742 for Dominican nuns, lend the city much of its charm.

    You will continue on to visit Santa Fe de la Laguna, a town recognized for its clay (barro). Here you will visit the studio of a local artisan to observe their work in progress and meet members of the local indigenous community. In Santa Fe you will have lunch in the home of a local family, where you will enjoy their home-cooked regional dishes while you learn more about the culture.
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    Day 4
    Paricutín Volcano
    After two days of exploring some of the cultural highlights of the region, today you will turn your attention to some of its natural highlights: the Paricutín Volcano and the Barranca del Cupatitzio National Park. Your guide will meet you at 9 a.m. to make the most of this full-day excursion.

    You’ll drive toward Paricutín, a volcano that appeared in 1943, emerging from a cornfield and growing to a height of 1,391 feet. Two towns were evacuated and hundreds of people had to permanently relocate. You’ll explore the area on horseback, learning about the sudden destruction that the volcano brought and seeing the ruins of an old church caught in the lava flow. You will also likely see steam rising from the rocks close to the summit of this dormant volcano.

    After the two-an-a-half-hour ride you’ll break for lunch before heading on to Uruapan to visit Barranca del Cupatitzio National Park, a botanical garden. Last but not least, you’ll pay tribute to one of Mexico’s best-loved exports at an avocado orchard. Mexico is where the avocado tree originated more than 10,000 years ago and the country’s volcanic soil and abundant sunshine provide the perfect conditions for producing excellent avocados.

    Upon completion of your visit you will be driven back to your hotel in Morelia.
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    Day 5
    El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Reserve
    After an early breakfast, you will check out of your hotel and depart with your guide on a two-hour drive to El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Reserve. It’s a chance to witness the millions of butterflies that flock here annually. Between November and March, the butterflies migrate from locations farther north in the continent, some traveling distances of almost 2,000 miles to winter in the mountains of Michoacán.

    At a height of some 10,000 feet above sea level, El Rosario has spectacular views, including countless butterflies in the branches of the oak and evergreen trees and carpets of butterflies on the forest floors. You can reach it along a path by foot or by horseback.

    Your journey continues to San Miguel de Allende, roughly three hours by car from El Rosario. You’ll settle into your hotel (either the Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada or the Rosewood San Miguel de Allende) and enjoy the evening at your leisure.
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    Day 6
    San Miguel de Allende & Dos Buhos Vineyard
    After breakfast, your personal guide will meet you at your hotel for a walking tour of the colorful historic center of San Miguel de Allende. You will visit the city’s most important sites including the famous Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel church, famously designed by the indigenous stonemason Zeferino Gutierrez working from a postcard depicting a Belgian church. On your tour, you will also learn about the history of San Miguel and the role it played in Mexico’s War of Independence.

    At noon, your guide will drive you just outside of central San Miguel de Allende for a visit to the Dos Buhos Vineyard. You will be greeted with a glass of cold sangria (or bottle of Sentia water) before you begin your private tour of the property, the vineyards, and the winemaking facilities. You’ll experience the fruits of their labor over lunch paired with five wines. Your meal of cheeses, quiche Lorraine, salads and cold cuts can either be packed into a picnic basket or served under a beautiful mesquite tree on an antique table with elegant settings.

    After your tour and lunch at the vineyard, you will be driven back to San Miguel de Allende by your guide for a visit to El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden. This nature reserve features a varied collection of cacti and other Mexican plants—many of which are rare and endangered. You’ll have time to explore the gardens and learn more about the diverse range of flora before it’s time to head back to your hotel with your guide for an evening at leisure.
  • Day 7
    Take a Hike!
    Don your hiking boots: the agenda calls for a full-day private excursion to Vergel del Bernalejo, a gorgeous forest approximately one hour north of San Miguel de Allende. It’s part of the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, a vast area of almost 1,500 square miles of canyons, rivers, and crags. Indigenous communities like the Otomi and the Chichimechas still make their home here, among a remarkable diversity of 2,300-plus plants and animals ranging from pocket gophers to black bears.

    At Bernalejo Hill (Cerro de Bernalejo), a dramatic geological outcropping, you’ll be able to hike extensive trails or, if you prefer, Josh Alexander can arrange for mountain bikes so you can cover more miles as you explore the area. Afterwards you can unwind and even swim at Media Luna, a beautiful thermal freshwater lagoon and park, before you return to San Miguel de Allende.
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    Day 8
    Last-Minute Shopping and then the Journey Home
    You’ll have breakfast at your hotel and time to shop for crafts and gifts from the boutiques and markets of San Miguel before a driver meets you to take you to Mexico City’s airport for your flight home.