Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Wake up and smell the pine trees at three retreats in central Mexico

White sand beaches and colonial churches are beautiful, but there comes a time when you need to smell pine trees and the lingering smokiness of a campfire in your hair.

I have spent years scouring the internet and pestering friends about places to camp in Mexico, but as I get older I find sleeping on the ground is no longer a joy and snuggling up in a cozy cabin is much more my style.

Here are three delightful retreats in central Mexico that I have found and loved, each just a few hours outside of Mexico City, yet a world away.

In the northern Sierra mountains of Puebla, Zacatlan de las Manzanas is a tiny town with the country’s longest functioning Franciscan church and a flower clock famous throughout the country. This is the home of Latin America’s first clock factory and also a hub of apple cider making, whose season culminates in the crowning of the apple queen at a yearly apple festival.

There are a handful of places to take in the majesty of the surrounding mountains and the evening fog that rolls in over them, but my favorite is the Tlatempa Campamento. The cabins are built right into the side of the mountain but without much clearing of trees, creating lots of emerald shade.

Zacatlán's flower clock.
Zacatlán’s flower clock.

The style is full-on hippie-rustic. Expect construction using recycled materials (like glass bottles and brightly-painted tires) and an emphasis on preserving nature (dry toilets, composing, etc). Tlatempa has a warm, hospitable vibe. There is a restaurant at the property’s highest point that makes down-home dishes.

Cabins and a camping platform are available — definitely ask for the best views of the valley when you reserve.  This is not a place for anyone with mobility issues as the way to and from the cabins is a series of stair trails that remind one of the Swiss Family Robinson. There is lots of local hiking to be had as well as the Piedras Encimadas Valley just 30 kilometers from town.

The physical beauty of the Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes is even more romantic than their love story. Monuments to nature’s wonder, you can get breathtaking views of both in the Paso de Cortés, where a visitors’ center for the Izta-Popo Zoquiapan National Park sits surrounded by nothing but sweeping prairie and these two giants on either side.

A few kilometers deeper into the parque and you will find the Buenavista Villa Turistica, a campground with a dozen or so cabins, a restaurant, and small man-made lake. I suggest visiting during the week if you can when the tourist crowd thins and you will have the place basically to yourself.

Cabins are simple, sturdy king-size or full-size beds, fireplaces, a few shelves to store your things and bathrooms. Smaller cabins accommodation two to six people and there is a massive family inn for big groups. The complex itself is pleasant to wander around, and several people have vacation homes built in a rustic style similar to the rest of the complex.

But exploring Itza and Popo (as they are lovingly called) is the best attraction in the area. There are several walking trails from the visitors’ center and great photo opps. The pass is over 11,000 feet above sea level so even in warmer months expect to have to bundle up, at least at night. Also make sure you check the activity status of our friend Popo — when he’s spitting ash the park is off limits.

One of the cabins at Buenavista.
One of the cabins at Buenavista.

Probably my favorite on this list is Rancho Santa Elena, a former hacienda once owned by members of the Hernan Cortés family. Part of the charm of this small handful of cabins is that there are three small kitchens for guests to use.

The best set-up is in the gallinero-style cabin with its own outdoor kitchen attached to the back. The two gallinero cabins sit side by side, each with a king-size bed and a loft with either two twins or a full mattress. The other cabins in the main hacienda building have full beds and an area with bunkbeds but feel like a tighter fit.

There are also 10 camping spots scattered through the acreage and a massive cabin that sleeps 15 for big groups.

The hacienda has acres of hiking trails and a small reservoir for swimming (although at its fullest the water is freezing cold) and kayaking.

The hacienda provides trail maps but the trails aren’t well marked at the moment. Hopefully that will be something they improve in the future.

Also, several mountain biking trails and courses are set up throughout owing to the fact that the owner’s daughter is Daniela Campuzano, who represented Mexico at the Rio Olympics in mountain biking.

A walk through the pines, just a few hours from Mexico City.
A walk through the pines, just a few hours from Mexico City.

The closest town from the ranch is about a 20-minute drive. There is a small shop with some basics (they even have wifi) but it’s best to bring all the food you need as what you can find is limited. The kitchens are 100% stocked with pots, pans, dishes and hand towels.

The view of the surrounding mountains, the silence and the pleasant but invisible staff make this place an absolute delight.

So now you know, if you want to hunker down and get cozy cabin-style in Mexico, here are three great options for fireplaces, mountain views and clean forest air. As an added bonus each of the places I mentioned is pet-friendly (some for a fee). See you in the woods!

Lydia Carey is a freelance writer based in Mexico City.

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