By: Laurel Delp
Geographically, Mexico encompasses tropical forests, volcanoes, formidable mountain ranges, and high desert plains, with an almost staggering array of gorgeous coastlines and a size equal to California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas combined. Mystical ruins, robust indigenous cultures, and renowned regional cuisines all contribute to a sense of timeless beauty. And while Mexico may not be as cheap as it once was, it now provides a combination of lavish accommodations and cultural experiences to rival Europe—minus the jet lag and dismaying cost.
Two Weeks It’s possible to pack in a 4-day visit to Mexico City with a 2-day side trip to Cuernavaca, then 4 or 5 nights at a resort area on the Mayan Riviera, ending with a few days in colonial Mérida (or at a nearby hacienda) for a visit to the Yucatán’s Mayan ruins. Another possibility would be 4 days in Mexico City, and 4 in Oaxaca, followed by a stay at a beach resort in huatulco.
One Week Skip Mexico City and start in colonial Guadalajara and end in coastal Puerto Vallarta. Or combine 3 days in Mexico City with 3 nights in Guanajuato, Morelia, or San Miguel de Allende, or alternately, 3 nights in Puerto Vallarta.
4 SMART SPLURGES
Meet a Whale During the winter, gray whales migrate to Baja’s Pacific Coast to breed and calve. Stay for 4 nights in a comfortable tent and reach out from your boat to rub the snout of a 20-foot calf ($2,275/person double occupancy; bajadiscovery.com).
Visit a Huichol village Take a Cessna Caravan from Puerto Vallarta on a day trip to visit one of Mexico’s relatively untouched indigenous cultures, the Huichol, in the Sierra Madre mountains ($210/person; vallartaadventures.com).
A week as a Hacendado Ultra-luxurious Hacienda Petac, 30 minutes from the Yucatán airport, was built in the 17th century on Mayan ruins. Rates include a full staff, meals, laundry, and anthropology lectures, but no alcoholic beverages ($8,400 for up to 5 people; haciendapetac.com).
Explore Palenque and Chiapas Join an 8-day tour accompanied by archaeologists to the Mayan city of Palenque—Mexico’s most magnificent but remote historic site—in Oaxaca state. The trip includes accommodations in one of the area’s best hotels ($2,000/person; mayaexploration.org).
Tequila is a far more sophisticated spirit than most foreigners realize. It comes in five classes: white (also known as silver), which is un-aged and unadulterated; gold, which has been flavored, usually with caramel; reposado, which has been “rested” for a year or more; anejo, which is aged at least one year; and extra anejo, which is aged at least three years. The town of Tequila, near Guadalajara, is surrounded by a seemingly endless sea of blue agave (though close in appearance to cactus, it’s actually a member of the lily family) planted in rows on rolling hills. According to government regulations, tequila can be made only from the heart of blue agave and only in certain sanctioned regions. Visitors to the area can tour the world-famous distilleries of José Cuervo (mundocuervo.com) and Casa Herradura (herradura.com), sample the goods, and stop for lunch. Like all aged liquors, the price goes up with the aging—but many connoisseurs actually prefer white for its purity and still-distinct taste of agave. To go all out for a tasting, order a bandera, or flag: one shot each of white, reposado, and anejo. It comes with sangrita, a spicy chaser made of tomato juice, fresh citrus, and chili sauce.
TEMAZCAL: HEALING HEAT
These days, no self-respecting Mexican resort is without a temazcal, which is most often compared to a Native American sweat lodge but is in the same universal tradition as a hammam or a Finnish sauna, using heat and steam for healing. (hacienda Sepulveda, on page 88, has an especially striking one.) In Mexico, the tradition is believed to date back as far as the Olmecs (1200–400 BC). Participants sit in a (claustrophobes, beware) small, round adobe structure around a pit into which red-hot volcanic rocks are added. In a formal temazcal, a ritual is led by a temazclero, or shaman, who pours herb-infused water on the rocks, creating steam. The experience, which can be extremely moving, is regarded as a return to the womb of Mother Earth, resulting in spiritual and physical renewal. The temazcal always takes place at dusk so participants won’t suffer the shock of emerging into harsh daylight.
For decades North Americans have thought of Mexico as the place for cheapie beach vacations. But in the last five years, Mexico has seen an explosion in luxury hotels and resorts, with properties in Los Cabos, the Mayan Riviera, and the Costa Alegre rivaling the best in the world. Mexico City is in the middle of a major renaissance as an art and design center, and at last visitors are venturing away from the beaches to the magnificent colonial cities to savor their historic charms and stay at stylish new boutique hotels.
Once known more for its crime, smog, and daunting size, Mexico’s capital is in the middle of a cultural revolution fueled by a rising economy. Artists, designers, and architects are creating uniquely modern, uniquely Mexican work. Across the city, cutting-edge boutique hotels, shops, and art galleries, along with nueva cocina Mexicana restaurants, are opening at breakneck speed. Crime has been considerably cut down by a police presence in the major tourist areas, and in the historic downtown, streets have been repaired, cobblestones replaced, and faded colonial facades restored. Now pedestrians stroll at night through once prohibitively dangerous streets. Even the smog seems to have let up: on clear days, the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl are once again visible on the horizon.
Explore Mexico City is divided into 16 districts, but the areas visitors are most likely to explore are contiguous and loosely connected by the wide street of Paseo de la Reforma. Polanco is Mexico City’s version of Beverly Hills, with the same designer boutiques and name-brand hotels. Chapultepec, which surrounds the park Bosque de Chapultepec (at 1,600 acres, it’s the city’s largest green area), boasts the absolutely not-to-be-missed National Museum of Anthropology (mna.inah.gob.mx), which also has a shop selling top-quality arts and crafts. In the 10 years since Mexico’s young artists, musicians, and filmmakers began flocking to the cafes and Art Deco buildings of Condesa, sky-rocketing real estate values have begun to push them east into more commercial Roma, which has become the rising center for art galleries, including OMR (galeriaomr.com), known for breaking emerging Latin American talent. The Zona Rosa is Mexico City’s original high-end neighborhood (now surpassed by Polanco), and many upscale hotels like the Four Seasons are here. The heart of the colonial city is the Centro Histórico, with a massive zocalo, or central square, the National Palace, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the ruins of the Templo Mayor.
Where to Stay In the last 5 years, high-design boutique hotels have eclipsed the larger chains, as their restaurants and bars have become the epicenter of social life for those in the know. Everyone loves the sushi restaurant/roof lounge at CondesaDF, but lucky guests at the 40-room hotel enjoy interiors with chic cowhide-upholstered chairs, iPods loaded with music, and a guide to Mexico City (from $175; condesadf.com). At Casa Vieja, an antiques-filled hotel in Polanco, guests can indulge in a luxe fantasy of colonial life in 10 suites named for prominent Mexican artists. The rooftop lounge and restaurant are equally fantastic (from $255; casavieja.com).
Where to Eat An institution that’s been open for half a century, Fonda El Refugio offers classic dishes from all of Mexico’s regions, including moles that require nearly three dozen ingredients (52/55-5525-8128). In Polanco, Izote owner Patricia Quintana, one of Mexico’s celebrity chefs, presents traditional foods with a modern twist (52/55-5280-1671). Also in Polanco, try Aguila y Sol, with its haute nuevo Mexicano menu (52/55-5281-8354).
Cuernavaca & Tepoztlan
Two storied escapes a short drive from the capital
Approximately an hour and a half’s drive south of Mexico City, Cuernavaca is where the chilangos (upper-crust Mexico City residents) go to unwind. The temperate climate and lush environs have drawn everyone from the Aztec conqueror Cortés to Malcolm Lowry, who wrote Under the Volcano about Cuernavaca. The traffic-clogged city is not the little resort it once was, but it still retains an intimate feel. We enjoy the nuevo Mexicano cooking at Gaia (in the former home of Mexico’s greatest comedian, Cantinflas), which has a lovely view of a mosaic by Diego Rivera (52/777-312-3656). A must-see is the Museo Casa Robert Brady, the former home of an American expat who collected Mexico’s best artists (geocities.com/bradymuseum). For a retreat in the center of town, Las Mananitas Hotel, Garden & Restaurant has elegant, colonial-style rooms, many with terraces and fireplaces (from $215; lasmananitas.com.mx). Closer to Mexico City is the charming mountainside market city of Tepoztlan. It’s Mexico’s New Age center, full of healers and yogis, along with their students and groupies. We love the sweeping valley views from the Posada del Tepozteco, run by a Mexico City architect in his family’s old summer residence (from $180; posadadeltepozteco.com).
Imposing ruins near Mexico City
The pyramids and palaces of mysterious Teotihuacán are considered among the most significant in not just Mexico but the world. home of central Mexico’s richest and most powerful empire, the city reached its peak between AD 250 and 700. The ruins occupy nearly 31 square kilometers, including the monumental area called the Citadel with its Feathered Serpent pyramid. The massive Pyramid del Sol, the third largest in the world, provides an amazing view from atop its 248 steps. Don’t miss the museum, with its interactive exhibits and bookstore.
Resort Destinations, Fishing Villages & Miles of Coast
Caribbean Sands and Ancient Treasures
The white-sand beaches of the Mayan Riviera, stretching south from Cancún and including resort towns like Playa del Carmen and Tulum, are quickly being developed. The area’s resorts offer total indolence—and a chance to visit the nearby Mayan ruins and Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Cancún itself is a line of high-rise hotels on a long finger of sand, best for people who like things jumping late into the night. Near Cancún is Isla Mujeres, an island respite with a selection of stylish boutique hotels.
About 30 minutes south of the Cancún airport is Maroma, one of the area’s oldest resorts and still the best, now with a fantastic Kinan Spa and spa suites, some with terraces overlooking the tropical forest on one side and the Caribbean on the other. Built by a Mexican architect on a former coconut plantation, the resort is an ultra-romantic smart splurge (from $480; maromahotel.com). A much less expensive alternative is the rustic-chic yoga resort Amansala, near Tulum, known for its “Bikini Bootcamp” (from $120; amansala.com).
Chichen Itza & Coba
The Mayan Riviera’s jaw-dropping sites
The Yucatán peninsula was just one part of the vast Mayan empire, which reached its apex between AD 250 and 900. The most heavily visited Mayan ruins are at Chichén Itzá, easily reached on a day trip from Cancún or Maroma. Its popularity doesn’t diminish its impressiveness, with a circular observatory and Temple of the Warriors among the many highlights. From the southern end of the Mayan Riviera, it’s a 45-minute drive inland to Cobá, once one of the largest cities in the Yucatán, now a still-barely-explored lakeside archaeological zone with sacbeobs (elevated limestone roads) extending as far as 100 kilometers. From the top of the Nohoch Mul pyramid, you can see for miles across the immense flat sea of tropical scrub forest, out of which rise distant Mayan pyramids.
An Off-the-Grid Island near Cancun
West of Cancun, at the point where the Caribbean meets the Gulf of Mexico is a still untouched and magical island light years from Mexico’s booming beach developments. Isla Holbox (pronounced OhL-bosh) is only a 3-hour drive and a short boat ride from the international airport at Cancun, but the small white-sand island with only a tiny village, trying its fantastic seafood, you can commune with flocks of vivid flamingos (up to 40,000 appear during the summer), kayak along mangrove-lined estuaries harboring birds and crocodiles, and, for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, swim with the massive whale sharks that cruise along the ocean’s surface from June through September. Stay at the 12-room CasaSandra, where the Cuban owner has decorated rooms with work by her artist friends, and mojitos are the house cocktail (from $175; casasandra.com).
Spa Indulgence on the Pacific
The world is just catching on to the spec- tacular beaches and turquoise waters of Baja California, on Mexico’s Pacific side. At the southern tip, the two towns known as Los Cabos have gone from sleepy fishing villages to world-class resorts. Two near-perfect resorts make a splurge well worth it. Las Ventanas al Paraiso has rooms that include spacious terraces with banquettes, fireplaces, and soaking tubs. The service here is impeccable, and the desert-themed spa has an endless list of treatments (from $500; lasventanas.com). Many of the rooms at Esperanza have views of Los Arcos, the landmark rocks that signal where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific. Its restaurant, which descends in terraces down to the cliff’s edge, is ultra-romantic, and its spa features a waterfall and cave-like steam room (from $475; esperanzaresort.com). For a change of pace head to tiny Todos Santos, a bohemian expat enclave about 45 minutes north of Cabo San Lucas. At the beachfront Posada la Poza (from $160; lapoza.com) rooms are simple yet elegant and the restaurant serves excellent local fish.
This stunning stretch of the Pacific’s “happy coast,” running from Puerto Vallarta south to Manzanillo, is full of jet-set hideaways that are complete destinations in their own rights. Though Puerto Vallarta is experiencing dizzying development on the northern end of its Bay of Banderas, the town itself remains the same cobblestoned fishing village that rocketed to fame after The Night of the Iguana. There’s a wealth of good restaurants, including Mediterranean-inspired Trio (52/322-222- 2196) and nuevo Mexicano cooking at Los Xitomates (52/322-222-1695). Shops sell everything from folk art (we love Querubines; 52/322-223-1727) to jewelry (don’t miss Viva; vivacollection.com). Vallarta is also one of Mexico’s better spots (after Mexico City) for buying art. Check out Galeria Pacifico and Galeria Arte Latinoamericano. Skip the unappetizing brown beaches of the town’s “hotel zone” and stay at the Hacienda San Angel, an antiques-filled boutique hotel with three pools and views of the landmark cathedral tower with the bay beyond (from $235; haciendasanangel.com). A 45-minute drive from town is the Four Seasons in Punta Mita, at the northern tip of the bay. The beaches are inviting, the Apuane spa and temazcal offer indigenous treatments, and there’s a Jack Nicklaus golf course (from $375; fourseasons.com/puntamita).
Sixteenth-Century Spanish Charm Meets Modern Luxury
In the 16th century, the first colonial settlers came from Seville, Spain, by sea. Once in Mexico, they built in the Mudejar style of Andalucia—central courtyards, wrought-iron detailing, and colorful tiles. This evocative beauty is still on display in Mexico’s exquisite colonial cities, nine of which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Centro Histórico in Mexico City, Queretaro, Morelia, Oaxaca, Puebla, Zacatecas, Campeche, Guanajuato, and Guadalajara.
San Miguel de Allende
Arty Expat Haven
Although it’s not yet on the UNESCO list, this city has been attracting artistically inclined expats (it’s where Jack Kerouac’s muse, Neal Cassady, died) since the ’30s. Set on a hillside on the high desert, San Miguel is an hour and a half’s drive from the airport in Leon, or a three and a half hour drive from Mexico City. Because of the huge expat community, it’s rare to find someone in town who doesn’t speak English, and with shops of all kinds, art galleries, and wonderful restaurants, the city is geared toward North Americans. The best collection of folk art by nationally recognized artists is at Zócalo (zocalotx.com). Down a few doors is a wonderful antiques shop, La Diligencia, with everything from ex votos (paintings on tin) to santos (statues of saints) (52/415-152- 1626). For a luxurious retreat, stay at Casa de Sierra Nevada, with 33 unique rooms in five 16th-century courtyard mansions, many with fireplaces (from $255; casadesierrane vada.com). A great value, and equally charming, is Casa de la Cuesta, a B&B run by an American couple besotted with folk art—the rose-colored courtyard is decorated with high-quality objects, and the adjacent gallery offers art you can actually bring home (from $145; casadelacuesta.com).
Off the tourist track, but a gem waiting to be found, Zacatecas was the first of the fabulously wealthy silver-mining cities, and inside the town’s churches, altars are encrusted in gold leaf. Zacatecas has no less than 10 museums, many housed in former convents or monasteries. The hyper-romantic 49-suite Quinta Real Zacatecas is built around the ruins of Mexico’s first bull-fighting ring. Don’t miss the arched stone bar in the former bull pens (from $160; quintareal.com). For authentic Zacatecan cuisine, try the wonderfully eccentric Los Dorados de Villa, a family-run ode to Pancho Villa with parrots flying overhead in the rest rooms—and a sign advising not to let them out (52/55-922-5722). Outside Zacatecas atop a hill in the Malpaso Valley lie the mysterious, charred ruins of the pre-Colombian city, La Quemada.
Mexico’s second-largest city, Guadalajara, lies on the western edge of the central highlands. Founded in the 16th century and named for a town in Spain, the city’s monumental architecture runs from neoclassical to baroque. Guadalajara is the birthplace of the charro (cowboy), the charreada (rodeo), mariachi music (not to mention the Mexican hat dance), and tequila. Today, the city is a mecca for international decorators looking for Mexican antiques, furnishings, and arts and crafts at its shopping neighborhoods, Tlaquepaque and Tonalá. Most of the big hotels are outside of town, but happily, there are a couple of wonderful boutique hotels just outside the historic downtown. Set on a tree-lined boulevard, Clarum 101 has nine rooms decorated in chic, minimalist style, with iPods and flat-screen TVs (from $220; clarum101. com). The more traditional Villa Ganz, in a former mansion, offers 10 tile-floored rooms decorated with antiques, some with French doors opening onto the garden. (from $180; villaganz.com).
A city and state with artful spirit and grace
The state of Oaxaca, although one of Mexico’s poorest, is rich in art and history and fiercely proud of its Zapotec heritage. A visit here offers one of Mexico’s most beautiful colonial cities, awe-inspiring ruins, and a stretch of the country’s untouched coastline. The city of Oaxaca, founded in 1529, supports a thriving modern-art scene, celebrated festivals, and boutique inns and restaurants, making it a perfect base.
Explore Many people had their first brush with the beauty of Oaxaca’s coast in the movie Y Tu Mama También. The main tourist area, Huatulco (a 30-minute flight from Oaxaca), has won awards for its eco-sensitive development. Quinta Real Huatulco is a striking resort terraced down a hill over Tangolunda Bay (from $285; quintareal.com). Up the coast to the north, Puerto Escondido has been the well-kept secret of generations of surfers. Just outside the city, the mountaintop ruins of Monte Albán, founded in 500 BC, were once the capital of the Zapotec civilization. Temazcal is actively practiced, and this is one of the most authentic places to try one.
Where to Stay and Eat Check into stylish, six-room Casa Catrina, which mixes contemporary art with colonial decor (from $174; casacatrina.com.mx). A good bet for local food and atmosphere is modern Restaurante Los Danzantes (52/951-501-1184).
What to Buy Oaxacan crafts are some of Mexico’s best, like the alebrije, those whimsically painted wooden animals. But Oaxacans also produce exquisite rugs, as well as a distinctive style of ribbed cotton bedspreads and tablecloths.
OFF-THE-PATH: HACIENDA STAYS
Unusual hotels with atmospheric grounds and lush interiors
More and more of Mexico’s once-prosperous haciendas—sisal plantations that were bankrupted in the 1950s—have been rescued from ruin and converted into luxury hotels with beautiful grounds. Most of them were like self-sufficient villages, with manor houses, chapels, workers’ quarters, and mills, and they still retain the traditional colonial style. Many of them are concentrated in the Yucatán, near the Mayan ruins and the capital city of Mérida. Eighteen-room Hacienda Xcanatun, located at the edge of the Dzibilchaltun ruins (1500 BC–AD 540), has an excellent spa that uses traditional Mayan plants and herbs for treatments (from $235; xcanatun.com). Starwood runs five beautiful haciendas in both the Yucatán and neighboring Campeche, including 28-room Temozon with a pool and spa near the ruins of Uxmal, and the Hacidenda San Jose near Chichén Itzá, with a pool set in lush gardens (from $250; luxurycollection.com).
North of Mexico City and near the small colonial town of Lagos de Moreno, Hacienda Sepulveda (from $184; haciendasepulveda.com.mx), has been owned for four generations by the Serrano family (their chef, Mariquita, turns out fantastic meals and preserves) and was until recently their summer home. The former stone granary is now a striking spa with temazcal, and the pool has views into the stables. Some 2 hours south of Mexico City and a half-hour from Cuernavaca, a former sugar hacienda is now a hotel so stunning, it’s often entirely booked for weddings: Hacienda San Gabriel Las Palmas has stables, a meandering lagoon-style pool, waterfalls that once powered the refinery, and two sections—the old house, with its elegantly austere decor, and the decadent Mexican-modern rooms in the refinery (from $225; hacienda-sangabriel.com.mx).