Where do Mexico City dwellers go to unwind? Two hours west in the forested hills of the colonial town Valle de Bravo. New Yorker Laura House and her family go see what it's all about.
VALLE DE BRAVO, Mexico — We longed for sunshine. We craved unlimited tacos stuffed near-to-bursting. Nature was a must-have. Beach crowds were to be avoided.
To tick all the boxes on our winter-escape-from-New-York wish list, my husband, our nine-year-old son, and I looked to Mexico. More specifically, to a place where many locals escape to satisfy all of the above: Valle de Bravo.
A two-hour drive (city traffic jams permitting) west of Mexico City in the pine-clad hills and rolling farmland of central Mexico sits Valle de Bravo, a 16th-century walled colonial town overlooking Lake Avándaro. The food, architecture, and art in this pueblo are a swirl of influences, with indigenous Matlatzinca and Aztec sitting alongside the Spanish invaders and Catholic religious orders who arrived around 1530.
Today, it’s the lake, a man-made reservoir developed in the mid-20th century, that attracts water-sport lovers and urbanites alike who frequent Valle (to use local parlance) on weekend and holiday getaways. The scenic town has also become popular for destination weddings. Nearby Avandaro is the tony hamlet where affluent folks have grand second homes tucked behind high hedgerows — much like Mexico’s Malibu.
We were drawn to this point on the map for its late-February, off-season appeal. And the allure of the Hotel Rodavento, a modern treehouse retreat tucked away on 55 wooded acres.
We nearly missed the hotel entrance, in part due to Google Maps’ bungled accent (my high school Spanish teacher would have flunked that robot!) and in part for the understated signage. Still unsure we had made the correct turn, we cautiously rolled through the security gate and continued on the winding path, our rental car kicking up dust clouds, until we spied mod cabins nestled amid the trees.
“Whoa. Welcome to Planet Endor,” my husband said approvingly, because it really did look like the Forest Moon in Star Wars that’s home to fuzzy Ewoks. If, of course, Endor dwellings were 36 suites perched on raised platforms along a terraced walkway that was stacked like a layered forest cake. (Ours had a wood-burning stove and cozy lofted sleeping nook for our son.)
In many ways, we had arrived on another planet — this was a side of Mexico we had never experienced. One that smelled more of sharp pine than the perfume of blooming jacaranda, yet with a climate warm enough for tropical palms and agave to flourish. Here, the air lost the weight of humidity that hung in Mexico City and instead floated with a fresh coolness.
Another item on our where-to-land wishlist was a somewhat full-service stay —pool, restaurant, bar, and a smattering of activities — without an all-inclusive bracelet vibe. This would be a departure from our usual DIY travel style, but we were saving that for the latter half of the trip when we’d be renting an apartment in Mexico City.
Rodavento had us covered on this front, too. At the heart of the compound was a graceful glass, steel, and wood lodge with a restaurant and bar that opened onto an outdoor terrace overlooking the pool, hot tub, and a small pond. Beyond the pond, a wooded thicket concealed the archery and zip-line courses.
One afternoon as we lounged poolside, we watched a corporate group puzzling over team-building challenges. Above the birdsong, we could hear the occasional joyful shriek of helmet-wearing team members zipping from platform to platform through the reaches of the trees.
We got in on the action and signed up for an archery lesson with a very patient instructor. They take their arco seriously here — the course is certified for official tournaments by the International Field Archery Association.
Going with the indulgent mood of this woodland retreat, my husband and I booked massages at the spa. The treatment rooms, hydrotherapy circuit of soaking pools, and a private yurt were well-concealed behind towering trees and curtains of bamboo. A series of wooden walkways connected the sleek, glass-faced outbuildings that would have been right at home on the grounds of a Japanese onsen. But the herbal treatments and floral-inspired therapies had firmly planted local roots.
If folks have heard of Valle, it could be due the buzz around the annual migration of wintering monarch butterflies. From November through March, multitudes of orange-and-black-flecked butterflies flock to the Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, a 30-minute drive from Valle. Now that’s our kind of crowd.
We signed up for a guide, Alejandro, at the hotel to take us to commune with the mariposas. Once at the sanctuary, Alejandro arranged for horses led by guides for an easy, if rollicky at points, ride up the hill where we were met by flitting clouds of butterflies. It wasn’t the swarm I had expected, but it was lovely to remain still and tempt the fluttering butterflies to alight onto us.
All right, what about the tacos? That called for a trip to town, a 15-minute drive drops you down to the lakeside puebla. Rodavento has two chic boutique stays in Valle: La Casa (adults only) and Cinco in the heart of town. As guests of the sister hotel, we could conveniently leave our car at Cinco when in town.
We chatted up the concierge at Cinco for dining tips and, accustomed to their well-heeled guests, they suggested fine dining or Italian spots. We thought our food mission was a bust until another employee, Gregario, helpfully chimed in to recommend La Michoacan, a breeze-kissed rooftop where we dared ourselves to try chapulines — roasted grasshoppers — as well as his favorite taco hotspot. The food adventure was on.
Like any good joint frequented by those in the know, this taco heaven is found by way of landmarks — behind the parish of St. Francis, tucked behind a plaza and down a winding alley. The street which Gregario knew by feel rather than name is Callejón el Arco (a.k.a. Callejón el Hambre). It nearly ended before it began, but every inch of real estate was dedicated to small but mighty open-air kitchen carts churning out tacos.
Pastor...bistec...tripa...barbacoa...heaped upon fresh-made corn disks topped with grilled onions, fresh cilantro, a squeeze of lime, and our choice of pico and salsa in every shade of rojo and verde under the Mexican sol. We ordered a mess of tacos, including the specialty gringas (made with a flour tortilla — because you are what you eat?), and elbowed our way up to the counter alongside families grabbing lunch and friends snagging a snack.
This squat alley fed into a maze of alleyways filled with vendors hawking fresh fruit, ice cream, and paletas, as well as cooking vats of fragrant corn that was then spooned into cups and topped with a dollop of mayo and shake of spices. Whatever else you might need otherwise could be picked up along the way — from salvaged souvenirs to jeans and backpacks, from socks to frying pans.
Valle’s climbing and ascending streets are ideal for wandering with no agenda beyond stumbling upon new-to-you things. Like the Sanctuary of Santa Maria Ahuacatlán, the town’s oldest church, and one popular with devoted pilgrims in search of miracles from the striking wooden Black Christ found therein (fans of Madonna’s Like a Prayer video will rejoice for other reasons).
The Mercado de Artisans, a two-level courtyard building overflowing with handicrafts, is where we scored painted pottery, delicately embroidered linens, and hand-woven baskets and met the artists as they work.
In addition to fresh tacos, religious relics, and bright woven table runners, another thing not to miss in Valle is the simplest of pleasures: catching a sunset over Lake Avándaro. The rooftop pool bar and terrace at Cinco became our sunset lookout, along with our go-to for an afternoon dip and a cool drink.
From this perch, we could survey the church spires punching heavenward and spy laundry on rooftop lines fluttering like flags heralding the main event. As the sun took its final bow for the day behind Valle’s soft hills, even our clinking cocktail glasses seemed to sigh: ¡Bravo, Valle — bravo!