Mexico City Road Trip Guide to Malinalco, a Butterfly Sanctuary and Valle de Bravo
This is a Mexico City road trip guide to Malinalco, Piedra Herrada Sanctuary and Valle de Bravo. This is a short 400km multi-day trip. The information below is chock full of details on places to stay, eat and things to do.
While most travelers who come to Mexico City are focused on activities within the metropolitan area, there are some extremely charming getaways just a few hours away from the city limits. January, February and March offer the special bonus of being Monarch butterfly season, so a friend and I decided to take the long, scenic route to see them, stopping off to see local markets, small towns and natural wonders along the way.
MEXICO CITY ROAD TRIP VEHICLE
The vehicle for this road trip was one of the main attractions. We rode in a completely revamped 1990 vintage VW bus. The bus belongs to Jorge Reich, owner of the company Matilda 70. Matilda 70 has just started a road trip service out of Mexico City. The basic concept is tourists arrive either with an itinerary or without, and Jorge takes care of all the details, does all the driving and stops along the way wherever you’d like to eat, sightsee or take photos.
The road trips he offers are to locations 6 hours or less from Mexico City, and the prices range from $30-$80USD per person, per day. The bus seats 6 and Jorge provides a cooler of drinks and snacks along the way. This kind of Mexico City road trip combines the best part of bus travel–no driving or car worries–with the best part of car travel–you can listen to your own music, stop where you like, and don’t have to be cramped in with strangers for hours.
We mainly took backroads for the beauty of the scenery and to take advantage of the slow travel vibe of riding in a vintage vehicle. The bus goes up to about 65 miles an hour at its maximum, which feels plenty fast, but it’s not the kind of vehicle you travel in when you are in a hurry to get from one place to another. The ride is part of the fun.
There is an unending list of things to do in Mexico’s capital city. Not only is it the cultural, economic and artistic center of the country, it’s also filled with 28 million people and stretches out over 1,200 square kilometers. It would be impossible to reduce the city down into a few soundbites of where to go and what to see, but here a couple quick highlights.
Lodging in Mexico City
- Stara Hamburgo: One of my favorite city hotels, big enough to be lively, small enough to get personalized service. Stara has an incredible view of the city from their rooftop as well as a stellar location in the up-and-coming Colonia Juarez. The best rooms are apartment-like suites with separate living spaces and cozy outdoor patios on the first floor, lodging runs from $220 to $400USD.
- For a cheaper option, try Hotel Milan in Colonia Roma, it’s clean, safe and has an incredible location on Alvaro Obregon, the neighborhood’s main drag, rooms are about 50usd a night.
Things to do in Mexico City
- Zocalo: To get your bearings head to the center of it all, the city’s giant plaza, the zocalo. From here you can see the Metropolitan Cathedral, check out Diego Rivera’s murals at the Palacio Nacional, experience the Aztec Templo Mayor or just sit with a drink and imagine the city 700 years ago when it was an island nation and this was its center.
- Bosque de Chapultepec: Often overlooked by tourists, a walk or tour through the Chapultepec park is a refreshing respite in this heavily-urban and traffic-dense city. From the park you can easily access the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Anthropology, the Chapultepec Castle and the Tamayo museum.
- Jamaica Market: The city’s main flower market has been around since vendors paddled in their flowers by canoe from Xochimilco along the city’s ancient canals. These days, it’s a warehouse of every kind of flower imaginable as well as a place for some delicious food and other fun extras (like an awesome Day of the Dead market at the end of October).
Where to Eat in Mexico City
- El Cardenal: A breakfast tradition in Mexico City, they serve sweet bread (conchas) and clotted cream (nata) that will make you cry. Also good is the ant egg omelet and the hand-whipped hot chocolate.
- Yuban: A chic-casual restaurant in Colonia Roma, Yuban offers traditional Oaxacan dishes including moles, salpicón and roasted crickets, along with Mexican wine, local craft beer and mezcal.
- Nico’s: Mexican cuisine made for over 50 years in the Lugo kitchen, this restaurant has the rare distinction of having extremely traditional dishes in a formal (yet not too stuffy) setting. It’s a bit outside of Mexico City’s center, but worth the trip.
MEXICO CITY ROAD TRIP TO MALINALCO
Our first stop was Malinalco, just over 2 hours outside of Mexico City. Tucked into a green, cozy valley, we approached Malinalco on the scenic route, Estado de Mexico Route 6, traversing farms and the countryside campgrounds than line the highway. The town has a growing reputation as a weekend getaway for wealthy Mexico City residents, but is still very low-key and traditional with an enchanting main plaza, lots of beautiful churches and hilly cobblestone streets. Weekdays are quiet with many shops and restaurants closed, weekends buzz with more activity.
Lodging Recommendations for Malinalco
- Canto de Aves: We stayed at eco-luxury boutique hotel Canto de Aves, just outside of town and it was absolutely lovely. The property has 7 small cabins, 4 suites made of adobe and 4 standard rooms made out of wood, scattered throughout the property. The grounds are brimming with fountains, greenery and the random old trunk or antique door decorating the garden. There is a small swimming pool, an outdoor dining room, a tiny bar and a massage area. Prices range from $120 to $140USD.
- Casa Limon: Also recommendable is the Casa Limon, an upscale boutique hotel more centrally located downtown. On one side of the street is the hotel’s main section with two swimming pools and their French-Mexican restaurant, on the other is the owner’s former home, more intimate and with its own swimming pool and kitchen. Rooms range from 140 to 200usd.
- Hotel Santa Monica: For a cheap choice, Hotel Santa Monica is steps from the main plaza and archeological zone and costs about 30usd a night. The rooms are no-frills but clean and comfortable and the old family home that was converted into the hotel provides a lot of charm.
Things to do in Malinalco
The town is small and quaint and doesn’t overflow with activities, but there are a handful of things you should do while there:
- Visit the Malinalco archeological site: One of Mexico’s most interesting archeological site for its rock-cut architecture (some of the only other examples found Petra, Jordan, and Ellora, India), walking up the site’s 427 steps will also serve as your daily workout. The site was used by the area’s first settlers as a look-out point (there are 360-degree views of the valley) and then by the Mexica (Aztec) Indians as a training ground for their Eagle warriors, an elite fighting force in the Aztec empire.
- Try local street food: Wednesdays are the big market days in Malinalco when you will find the most food stands set up in the main plaza, but any day of the week on the southeast end of the plaza try cecina (salted beef) or tacos de obispo, and some of the local ice cream called nieves. Also head down Hidalgo street, Doña Olivia in front of the St.Martin taxi station sells delicious gordas.
- Local Hiking: For hiking sans guide take the recorrido de los diablitos for some great valley views and a popular spot for kite flying. The Cerro de las Tres Cruces and Palmar de Guadalupe also having walking trails.
Places to eat in Malinalco
- Placeres – One of Malinalco’s most popular restaurants with traditional Mexican dishes like cochinita, huazontles, sopes and panuchos, in a modern, airy atmosphere. They serve a nice weekend brunch.
- Tzolkin Café – Great coffeeshop on one end of the plaza, with vegetarian breakfasts, chapata sandwiches and salads, as well as coffee form Veracruz and local craft beer.
- Casa de Valentina – a friendly family place with an assortment of burgers, sandwiches and pasta dishes.
- Casa Limon – An upscale hacienda-style dining room with a daily chef’s menu that leans towards French with Mexican flair.
- Puente de Mali – another local favorite with various preparations of local fish, cheese fondue and ceviches. There is a small bookstore and gift shop in front of the restaurant where you can buy a local paper.
Short Trips from Malinalco or Valle de Bravo
Cascadas del Obraje: About an hour and half southeast of Malinalco, the Obraje waterfalls are the main (and only) attraction of the Xinda Ndu eco-park. They are stunning 20 and 25-meter drops that form small pools below deep enough for wading or a shallow swim. The local tour company Maliemociones takes groups out to rappel down them.
Camping in La Grieta: Another trip organized by Maliemociones, this is a 30-minute night hike up to a crevice in the mountain where you spend the night tucked up in your sleeping bag (and secured with climbing gear) and wake up to incredible views of the valley below, not recommended for claustrophobics.
Grutas de Cacahuamilpa: An other-worldly experience, the grutas are mile-high underground caves with stalagmites and stalactites the size of small mountains, glittering with the minerals of thousands of years of falling water. The tour is about 3usd and the guides are pretty terrible, but the experience is so breath-taking I recommend it regardless. The walk into the deepest depths of the cave is about an hour along a lighted, wooden walkway. It takes about 45 minutes to return to the entrance.
Butterfly Sanctuary: The most famous Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is in Mexico’s Michoacán state, but the Piedra Herrada sanctuary is only about 20 minutes outside of Valle de Bravo and is just as beautiful. The Monarchs come every year around November and stay until the end of March, so January and February are a great time to come and see them mate and recover from their long journey. Make sure you come in the middle of the day, as too early or too late and the butterflies will mostly be huddled together for warmth up in the trees and not flitting about. You can hike or take a horse up the forest trial to see the butterflies. If you go in a large, general group the guide is free, if you want an individual guide (totally worth it, there are guides that speak English) it’s about 10usd.
Ixtapan de la Sal: A tiny colonial town in-between Malinalco and Valle de Bravo, Ixtapan is a nice stopover for lunch or a walk around the historic center of the town. They have a lovely local market.
VALLE DE BRAVO
Valle de Bravo is a sunny colonial town wrapped around the glittering Avandaro Lake. For a long time is was the secret getaway of the Mexico City moneyed class, but a rash of new boutique shops, luxury hotels and gourmet restaurants are making it popular with all kinds of tourists these days. It’s a lovely break from the city, especially during the week when there are fewer tourists and lots of room to wander and enjoy the views.
Lodging Recommendations for Valle de Bravo
- Casa Rodavento: An intimate 7-room boutique hotel, Casa Rodavento is tucked out of site in a tiny alleyway just steps from the central plaza and the main shopping and eating areas. Rooms range from 200 to 500usd and include a mix of modern décor with other warm and cozy features. There is small swimming pool, a rooftop terrace and Casa’s sister hotel, Hotel Rodavento outside of town that has a long list of activities and spa treatments that they offer guests of any of their three hotels (the last being the newly opened Cinco Rodavento).
- Meson de la Leyendas B&B: A small B&B located downtown Malinalco near the Artesian market, Leyendas is dressed in classic Mexican pinks and blues and its décor has a focus on local crafts. They offer on-site spa services as well as a traditional Maya sweatlodge (temezcal) and a hot tub. Rooms start at around 115usd.
- For a cheaper option than these two there are tons of small hotels in the Centro Historico that run from 30-50usd a night, they offer basic rooms and services.
Things to do in Valle de Bravo
- Boat Rides on the lake: Local boat pilots will take you out on a very nice spin around the lake, depending the on the time you want to be out, and the speed you want to travel the rides cost from 25 to 50usd per boat.
- Velo de Novia: A local waterfall that is also a prime picnic spot for locals, Velo de Novia will cost you about a 1usd for parking and then you walk 15 minutes into the park to see the waterfall. You can continue on the trails for some extra hiking.
- Visit Monte de Alto: A nearby state park, Monte de Alto has hiking, trail riding and running trails.
- Shopping: Trendy boutique stores have been popping up all over in Valle de Bravo, along Pagaza Street and Rincon de S. Vicente you will find lots of boho-chic fashion, home interiors, Mexican kitsch, local crafts and gourmet coffee shops and restaurants.
- Local Market and Street Food: The local market is great place to explore for food stalls, produce and culinary specialties (like cecina). There are also two main alleyways just off of the main plaza, one with a line of taco stands and the other with roasted corn stands – Villagrán and El Arco streets.
- Kayaking and Sailing: several local companies and private owners rent kayaks and sailboats to take out onto the lake. Almost always sunny, it makes for a great Valle de Bravo afternoon.
Places to eat in Valle de Bravo
- Dipao – One of Valle’s most high-end and most lauded Italian places, 13 years running, Dipao has a selection of pizzas, pastas, indulgent cheese plates and lots of fresh seafood.
- Casa Rodavento – Modern Mexican cuisine from a young, enthusiastic chef. Think international cuisine with local ingredients and a Mexican touch, as well as local mezcal and craft beer.
- Herencia – A traditional place for local Mexican food, Herencia has good breakfast (chilaquiles, eggs, fresh juices) as well as hearty main plates. Sit in the front for the best people watching.
I hope this Mexico City road trip guide is helpful. If you have any questions at all, please leave a comment below. If you’ve ever road tripped this area, share your favorite stops by leaving a comment as well.