Tapalpa, tucked high up in the Sierra Madre, has long been a favorite weekend getaway and second home location for wealthy residents of Guadalajara.
Storybook red tile roofs, whitewashed adobe walls, and magenta blooms of bougainvillea pop against bright blue skies; pine trees scent the fresh mountain air; vehicles bump slowly over steep cobblestoned streets. Only 2-3 hours from Guadalajara by car, Tapalpa is a remarkably well-preserved and beautiful town. When Mexico began its “Pueblos Magicos” program to promote tourism to smaller, more traditional, towns, Tapalpa was the fifth one picked (the list now tops 80) for the designation. In addition to the charming, photogenic town itself, a variety of activities await visitors (particularly adventurous ones) in the surrounding countryside, including a forested hike to a towering waterfall, and a mysterious grouping of rock monoliths in the “Valley of the Enigmas.”
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Tapalpa proper is compact and easy to wander—let yourself get lost on the side streets simply taking in the beauty of the views, and you’ll easily find your way back to the main square. You won’t have to worry about dodging cars and trucks, either: the cobblestones are so bumpy and the roads so steep that no one drives more than a couple of miles an hour (be sure to leave your high heels in your hotel room).
At the heart of any colonial Mexican town lies its main church, and in Tapalpa’s central square, two versions built 300 years apart face each other: the Temple of San Antonio, erected by Franciscan settlers in 1650, and the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, begun in 1950 and, most unusually, made almost entirely of red brick.
Tapalpa’s version of the office water cooler is the pila, a fountain or trough where residents could gather water for themselves and their animals, while trading gossip. The pilas now function as memorials to the most sensational (and stabby) events in the town’s long history—each has a ceramic tile mural that tells a now-legendary story from Tapalpa’s past. The Pila del Perro, or Pila of the Dog, memorializes a loyal canine who led family members to the spot where his master had been stabbed to death and secretly buried by a romantic rival. The Pila del Colorada is is painted red, to better illustrate how its waters once ran red with another stabbing victim’s blood. There six pilas in total: collect them all!
Market Shopping and Eating
Oddly, for a Mexican town, Tapalpa does not have a covered central Mercado, but a daily outdoor market showcases local crafts and delicacies. A few stalls selling tacos, churros, and other foods are built into the side of the main church and stay open long after the temporary tents have packed up for the night.
Los Piedrotas and Valley of the Enigmas
No one knows for sure how Los Piedrotas—gigantic volcanic rock formations—ended up in this valley of grasses and wildflowers, but they make for an arresting sight. A somewhat cheesy tourist enterprise has grown up around the boulders, and in addition to climbing them you can zip line between two, or go for a horseback ride through what has become known as The Valley of the Enigmas.
A five minute walk from Los Piedrotas, across the field (beware the cowpats) and a small stream (look out for the tadpoles) runs a short ridge bearing evidence of the pre-Columbian cultures once ascendant in this area: a handful of rocks carved with petroglyphs. Should this hill one day be excavated by archaeologists, it might answer a few of the enigmas posed by this curious valley; for now, the significance of these rock drawings is up for debate.
El Salto del Nogal
The ride from Tapalpa to this breath-taking hike is short but, given the state of the roads, it won’t go by too quickly, giving you time to appreciate the sweeping views. Once you arrive, it’s an hour or more’s worth of hiking down steep rocky paths (choose your footwear wisely) until you arrive at first a smaller “appetizer” waterfall and then the impressive main cascade, the tallest in all of Jalisco state.
Off a turnoff near the top of the trail to El Salto, a row of naturally-formed caves provides some cool shade and a glorious view of the Nogal canyon. Rumor has it that revolutionaries hid out in these caves; the many unfortunate scrawls on the walls attest to their popularity with modern-day troglodytes.
On the way back from El Salto, stop off in the tiny town of Atacco, the first center of European settler activity in the region. In the 1600s, the Franciscans built an “Indian Hospital” for the care of the indigenous population—today a small apothecary with traditional herbal remedies for sale takes up one corner of the courtyard. There’s also a church, whose rickety floorboards don’t seem to have been replaced in the past four centuries.
Sunset at the Lake
On a more or less nightly basis the sky outside Tapalpa appears to burst into flames, and there’s no better place to get a 360-degree view than the nearby lake, Presa Salto de Nogal, where the water mirrors the fireworks in the sky.