If you’ve never heard of Malinalco, you’re not alone. Though it has been designated as a “Pueblo Magico,” or “Magic Town,” it is virtually unknown to foreign travelers—even for those who frequent Mexico City, just seventy miles north, and even for those who take day trips from Mexico City, who overlook it in favor of Valle de Bravo or Puebla.
I myself was never aware of it until earlier this fall, when I was introduced to it by travel colleagues. Looking at pictures online, I saw its green, mountainous terrain, along with the small town with the small square, and the mountaintop archeological sites. A small “magic” town in the middle of the mountains? It was an easy sell for me.
Seventy miles southwest of Mexico City, Malinalco is a combination of rural beauty, cultural significance (a prerequisite for becoming a Magic Town), and adventure—both soft and extreme. You can arrive by car or bus in about two hours, depending on traffic.
A good amount of local tourism has resulted in a fair number of hotel options, many in the same vein as the Hotel Asoleadero, small inns with two dozen or so rooms and a pool. You can also tent camp at Malikualli.
Ancient History, Ruins
The origin of the name “Malinalco” is believed to come from the Aztecs. It is thought to mean “Where they worship Malinalxóchitl,” a reference to the Aztec belief that one of their Gods, Malinalxóchitl, was abandoned in the town (if you’re interested in more of that history, go here).
High above and overlooking the town of Malinalco is the Aztec ruin of Cuauhtinchan. The first thing that’s cool about it is that you have to access it just like they did in the old days—you have to walk up to the top of the cliff, 426 big steps in total (it is paved and well maintained).
Once at the top, the view of the town is spectacular, worth the climb in itself. The cliffside ruins are etched into the mountain and thought to have been an important training ground for Aztec warriors. Having a guide will help it come to life, and you can visit Cuauhtinchan as part of a cultural tour.
What does it take for a destination, surrounded by other destinations, to be discovered? Well, time, for sure, but what else? In today’s world of social media, is it a thoughtful cultural story or moving history? Most likely it’s going to be an over-the-top picture on Instagram. Malinalco always had the culture and history, but thanks to a company called Maliemociones, it now has the category of “epic adventure” sorted out, too.
The mountains surrounding Malinalco are by no means set in stone—they are crusty and layered, with many small foothills, bluffs, and cliffs. Maliemociones takes advantage of this topography with an accessible yet exhilarating outing they call “crack camping.”
You hike up the side of the cliff to where a horizontal crack has formed. You tie up with ropes as you enter the crack, then hang out and cook dinner on the ledge. After, you continue into a narrower part of the crack, where you sleep with your feet towards the ledge and the ceiling a mere three feet from your face. The next day, you rappel back down to the forest floor. You’ll want to bring your camera.
Speaking of epic adventures, canyoneering and rappelling opportunities are everywhere in Malinalco, many overlapping with the seasonal waterfalls.
Just because this is an “unknown” town doesn’t mean you won’t get your dose of traditional Mexico. Local food carts feature tacos and dulces, and the rural hills around Malinalco offer the space for agave to be grown and mezcal to be made. All around the countryside are small, independent producers, most on their family farms.
Take a tour to check them out and taste the differences.
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