Experience Mexico's Hidden Gems

Discover the beauty of colonial Mexico at one of these small, charming towns.

street in taxco mexico
Photo courtesy of Mexico Tourism Board 

California might have its gold and South Africa its diamonds, but the glitter of choice in Mexico is solid, sterling silver. Discovered during Spanish colonial times, the cities of Taxco, Zacatecas and Guanajuato all boomed on a silver rush and continue to be the best places to shop for exquisite silver jewelry, dinner pieces and decorative arts. Listed as World Heritage Sites, the romantic areas preserve their pristine old towns with ancient churches and palaces, leafy plazas and local ways of life that have faded in Mexico’s larger cities. Here, where to stay, where to play and (of course) where to shop for silver.


taxco mexico buildings
Photo courtesy of Mexico Tourism Board 

With its whitewashed walls, narrow cobblestone roads and red-tiled rooftops, Taxco is the quintessential Mexican town. Located about 100 road miles south of Mexico City, it lies at the northern end of Guerrero state and makes a convenient pairing with Acapulco for couples who want to combine silver jewelry and silver sands. Although silver was being dug out of the ground around Taxco before the Spanish arrived, the city took its present shape during an 18th-century silver boom that made it one of the richest places in the western hemisphere.

Silver is still the city’s pride and joy, with hundreds of workshops that create some of the finest jewelry pieces in all of Mexico. Their wares are sold in platerías (silver shops) scattered around the city center. Make sure that anything you buy is stamped with “sterling” or “.925.” Although the better (more expensive) pieces are found in the fancy shops near the plaza, bargain hunters may want to browse the silver section in the main market and a specialized Saturday silver market called Tianguis de la Plata. Après shopping, stroll around the bustling Plaza Borda and check out the Museo de la Plateria (silver museum) — its priceless collection includes amazing art deco pieces.

Even the best hotels are a bargain in Taxco. A favorite is the Hotel Agua Escondida, a classic colonial-style hideaway right next to the cathedral and within easy walking distance to the main plaza. The room decor is dominated by white tiles, black wrought iron and old-school, heavy wooden furniture set against brightly colored bedspreads, curtains and folk art. There are modern amenities too, like flat-screen TVs, fridges and wonderful showers. The poolside Café Bar La Terraza on the roof offers panoramic views across the old town, while Hacienda restaurant on the ground floor serves up excellent regional Mexican cuisine. There’s also a small spa (room rates start at $50 a night; aguaescondida.com).

spa in mexico
Photo courtesy of Hotel Agua Escondida


Much smaller than the other silver cities, Guanajuato, a jumble of brightly painted colonial buildings arrayed along a narrow ravine in the shadow of the Sierra Madre mountains, retains much of its bygone charm. It’s also a university town with a lively student population and a bohemian vibe that plays out in the cafés, cantinas and clubs. The old silver digs are located all around town and many give tours, including the legendary La Valenciana mine, which at one time produced 30% of the world’s silver.

Guanajuato’s other prime attraction is the Museo De Las Momias, where more than 100 mummies are on display. Many were residents who perished in an early 19th-century epidemic and were naturally mummified underground. Silver funded the flamboyant churches and mansions around the Plaza de la Paz, as well as the university, which rises like a white palace in the middle of town. Take the funicular railway (El Pípila) to the top of San Miguel Hill for a panoramic view of Guanajuato, and catch a show at the gorgeous Teatro Juarez with its redvelvet seats and gilt balconies. Jewelry shops in the old town offer a wide variety of silver designs both antique and modern. But Guanajuato is best known for silver rings, medallions and brooches bearing the pajarito (“little bird”) symbol. The Xocola-T chocolate boutique on Plaza Baratillo offers a sweet relief after all that serious shopping.

Spoil yourselves at the Villa Maria Cristina on the outskirts of town. Lodged in a meticulously restored mansion, this luxury boutique hotel flaunts just 13 rooms, all of them refreshingly different. The stylish Roche Bobois furnishings include oversized beds and comfy armchairs for listening to the Bang & Olufsen sound systems. The black-and-white marble bathrooms are outfitted with oversized tubs or steam baths. The small but plush spa boasts a sunken Roman-style pool and a wide range of body, face and nail treatments. The concierge can arrange golf at a nearby course (room rates start at $290 a night; villamariacristina.net).

historic building in mexico
Photo courtesy of Mexico Tourism Board 


Founded in 1546, Zacatecas (located about seven hours north of the country's capital) is one of the oldest cities in Mexico and one of the highest, perched 8,000 feet up in the mountains. The silver boom here was long and prosperous, flowing for three centuries. At one point the town was producing a fifth of all Mexican silver. That wealth went into the plazas, churches and pink-stone mansions that comprise the old town today.

In 1994, the city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the basis of its rich architecture and silver-mining history. There are jewelry shops all around town. But the best place to browse for the shiny metal is the Centro Platero de Zacatecas, a prestigious silversmithing school east of the city center where current and former students sell their wares at rates that won’t bust the bank. The old town boasts a number of colonial churches and good museums, but the two must-sees are the over-the-top cathedral and the Museo Pedro Coronel with its exceptional collection of 20th-century Mexican and global art.

historic building in mexico
Photo courtesy of Hotel Agua Escondida

Built into the grandstand of the restored San Pedro bullring, the all-suite Quinta Real Zacatecas is one of Mexico’s most visually stunning hotels. A mosaic of Iberian arches, bright colors and romantic lighting sets the mood from the moment you step through the front doors. The interior decor is a modern take on Spanish colonial elegance, with huge beds and lofty balconies looking down on the bullring, marble bathrooms with Hermès amenities and tubs easily big enough for two. La Plaza restaurant cascades down three levels of the old arena, which is now a flower-filled plaza. Or you can choose to snuggle up with a private meal in your suite thanks to the 24-hour room service (room rates start at $128 a night; quintarealhotels.com).