VALLE DE BRAVO, Mexico -- The locals point to the neat, whitewashed buildings, to the bustling square, to the faded pink churches, and they tell you, "This is a typical Mexican town."
And it is.
The buildings remain true to the town's 16th century colonial roots. By law, building facades cannot be altered. Commercial signs must be made of wood. New structures must conform to existing styles. And in typical Mexican fashion, the zocalo -- the main square -- is the pulsing, vibrant heart of town.
Then again, Valle de Bravo is not at all typical.
For one thing, its setting on the edge of a vast, man-made lake surrounded by pine forests appears more like Colorado than what most tourists expect from Mexico.
And the town is much more affluent than the average Mexican village. From the French and Italian restaurants that line the narrow, cobbled streets, to the discos (still popular among Mexico's smart set), to its chic little boutiques that open on weekends only, this is a town that clearly caters to well-heeled vacationers.
For years, Valle de Bravo, located 90 miles southwest of Mexico City, has been the retreat of Mexico City's elite, who maintain weekend homes here. Though it has a number of hotels, the area traditionally hasn't attracted many American vacationers.
That may be because getting here is a bit more complicated than grabbing a cab at the airport. From Mexico City, you must either rent a car (something many Americans balk at, given Mexico's steep rental rates and erratic road conditions), arrange transportation in advance through a hotel or take a non-direct bus.
2& But once you arrive, the appeal is
obvious. The town sits at a 6,000-foot elevation with a view of the lake. Wild orchids grow in the hills. The air is clear and cool -- average temperatures range from 72 to 80 degrees in the winter and spring. At night, they drop into the 40s.
From November to March, a marvelous phenomenon occurs when swarms of orange-and-black monarch butterflies migrate from the United States and Canada to spend the winter in the hillside fir forests about 30 minutes east of town. Even greater numbers flock to forests in the neighboring state of Michoacan, where the El Rosario reserve, near the town of Angangueo, about two hours north of here, has public facilities. Curiously (and refreshingly), the residents of Valle de Bravo haven't commercially exploited the butterflies, though this could change. For now, however, you won't see butterfly T-shirts for sale, and shops and restaurants have yet to play on a butterfly theme.
Instead, Valle de Bravo remains a quiet haven for the wealthy escaping the grime and crowds of Mexico City.
The lake attracts boaters and fishermen who angle for trout and black bass. Fishing boats can be rented at the embarcadero. Papalotzin, a shop just off the main square in town, rents mountain bikes, kayaks and windsurfing equipment.
The area has a number of hotels, some with resort amenities. The Loto Azul Hotel consists of 40 rooms in individual, russet-colored huts on lovely grounds overlooking the town. The 10-year-old hotel, originally built as a meditation retreat, has a Japanese-style hot tub and an Indian-style steam bath.
Restaurants in Valle de Bravo are numerous and varied -- there's even a vegetarian restaurant and a sushi bar, evidence of the progressiveness of this place. Locals go to D'Ciro for Italian food. La Michoacana, one of the few restaurants
open weekdays, serves good Mexican food. Los Pericos is also a popular eatery. Los Valeros, in a lovely old stone building, serves a regional delicacy called gusanos de maguey --
PTC maguey worms. At $12 a plate, they're the most expensive item on the French-inspired menu. The worms, which inhabit the maguey plant, from which mescal is made, fortunately are available only during the rainy season.
The relative affluence of this town only heightens the stark contrast between rich and poor. In a town where the rural poor still haul their goods on donkeys, there's a shop devoted exclusively to outfitting the triathlete. Boutiques selling expensive resortwear are across from the zocalo, where old women eke out a living selling esquites, a dish of corn and spices, from battered, pastel-colored pans heated on metal grills.
But as in any typical Mexican town, rich or poor, the zocalo is the center of this world. Here, carefully manicured rose gardens surround an old-fashioned band shell. Kids on bikes circle round and round. Young men wait endlessly for nothing. Old
men pass time on the green metal benches gazing at everything. It's always noisy, whether that means dance music pounding from someone's boom box, or the non-stop shrieks of the black birds perched in the trees around the square.
On this day, Andres Ortyz joins the passing parade. He moved to town recently to open a one-day photo-processing shop, and to escape the excesses of Mexico City.
"It takes money to move here," he says. "Valle is the place for the richest people in Mexico."
It is the home of ex-presidents and retired executives. Property values are high, which prompts some full-time residents to rent out part of their houses and live off the rent, Mr. Ortyz says.
"That is why this is a happy town for people who live here," he explains.
"All these big politicians mean clean streets and little crime."
If you go . . .
Getting there: Valle de Bravo is 90 miles southwest of Mexico City. Some hotels will arrange transportation from Mexico City, but if you plan to get around the area once you're there, it's best to have a car.
Accommodations: Rates at the Loto Azul hotel are about $104 plus tax, single or double, which includes breakfast and lunch or dinner. The hotel has no U.S. reservations number. For reservations, call the hotel directly at (726) 207 96. In Mexico City, call 554-0169. Transportation from Mexico City for two or more can be arranged through the hotel. The hotel also offers tours to the butterfly sites.