In the past several decades, Valle de Bravo in México state has gone from a beautifully preserved colonial town with small posada hotels and boat trips around the lake to a beautifully preserved colonial town with upscale shopping, boutique hotels and gourmet cuisine.
Playground to Mexico City’s rich and famous, locals will tell you it’s been a double-edged sword — tourism has brought jobs and money to this Pueblo Mágico (magical town), but also raised rents and the cost of living.
But unlike somewhere like San Miguel de Allende, where you might be tempted to ask where all the regular people live, a lot of local charm has been preserved here, with beautiful natural surroundings and even some great street food and traditional cuisine still intact.
Part of what draws tourists to the area, especially Mexico City residents escaping the smog, is nature. Avandaro lake, the town’s most prized possession, is the result of a 1930s hydroelectric project. With the lake came lakeside mansions and resorts, and more recently a tourist-friendly boardwalk replete with floating restaurants, picnic areas, vendors hawking crafts and parasailing rides.
The lake is a good jumping-off point for nature-seekers. Simple boat rides with a local guide run between 500 and 1,000 pesos (US $27-$54) depending on the length and speed with which you want to ride. These are pretty basic affairs with a run around the lake and a peak at some of the lake’s quiet inlets. For a more upscale option there are sailboat rentals available from private owners and companies.
The nearby Velo de Novia waterfall is lovely, but even more so is the network of trails in the park where it’s located, which seemingly most tourists never explore. You can walk along the river and all the way to the lake for a swim (if you don’t mind chilly water).
Other walking, hiking and biking trails can be found in the nearby Monte Alto State park reachable on the bike path that extends from the junction of Rt 1 (Carretera Valle de Bravo-Toluca) and the Acatitlan highway and then along the latter until you reach the park’s entrance. (You can also take a cab and be there in about 15 minutes from downtown).
I know the mention of parasailing caught your eye earlier and it’s true, several local companies take you up for what is an incredible view of the valley and lake below.
Another option for getting that view is La Peña, a rocky lookout located in town, a 30-minute hike from the entrance. The view is 360 degrees of the lake and valley below and makes a nice spot for sunset.
The other side of Valle life is having yourself a slow and lazy pamperfest that includes a massage at one of the local spas, a meander through the boutique shops on 5 de Mayo street, and dinner at one of the town’s high-end restaurants, many of them Italian — Dipao, D’Ciro, Batucada, Trattoria Toscanos.
Up until recently the most upscale accommodations have been outside of town – Hotel Rodavento, El Sanctuario, Misión – but Rodavento has recently opened up two new luxury hotels within the city limits – Casa Rodavento and Rodavento Cinco – that now make staying in style downtown easier than ever. Casa Rodavento also has a great onsite restaurant (international food, local ingredients).
For a more budget-friendly trip, there are dozens and dozens of posada hotels downtown (like Real Hotel San Agustín just steps from the town’s main plaza), but they fill up on the weekends so it’s best to reserve in advance.
Lots of mediocre international and Italian restaurants are in the mid-range, so why not go much cheaper and more delicious and check out the street food scene.
The local market has tons of good food stands during the day, and in the afternoon/evenings the esquites (roasted corn) sellers set up on Villagrán street which meets the taco vendors on El Arco street at a V.
I recommend the taco stand closest to the junction where the two alleys meet. Local nieves (water-based ice cream) are also delicious and come in all kinds of wild flavors. Be sure to buy from a vendor and not in a shop because they’re always better on the street.
The Saint Francis of Asis church is located right on the square and it’s a beautiful piece of neoclassical architecture built in the late 1880s. There is also the Joaquín Arcadio Pagada Museum, dedicated to a native-son poet priest from the 1800s.
The museum contains his personal effects as well as a gallery where every three months a new exhibit features a different local artist.
If you are craving space and silence and don’t have a rich friend to loan you their lake house for the weekend there are plenty of hotels and homes outside the city limits that will keep you out of the hustle and bustle.
And there is always the option of staying in smaller, nearby Avandaro, a more earthy, crunchy upscale, with organic grocery stores, smoothies and lots of outdoorsy types.
All said, Valle de Bravo is a fun weekend escape, which for foreign tourists still offers luxury rest and relaxation with prices within reach. In addition, if you take the time to walk through town and sample some local cuisine you will also find that its heart hasn’t been replaced by some Disneyland-esque vibe —it’s still sweet, historic and full of charm.
Lydia Carey is a freelance writer based in Mexico City.