To experience Mexico is to leap into a sprawling cultural and natural landscape that inspires awe, wonder, confusion and bewilderment. This magic rests in the multi-layered complexity of this land, a characteristic that finds its purpose in the cultural clash that sparked during the Spanish conquest half a millennium ago.
Nowadays, many different ethnic groups coexist and 62 indigenous languages are spoken throughout the territory. The current social challenges and flaking political panorama shouldn’t discourage potential visitors from discovering the sandy beaches, deserts, volcanoes, jungles, canyons and more. The culture is equally eclectic, as is the cuisine, and no less memorable is the charm and hospitality of the Mexicans.
In order to delve into authentic Mexico, one needs to ditch the resort towns and head to less traveled places. Where to start? Here are eight destinations, thresholds for a first approach into the psyche of this nation. Select a couple and soon you’ll be in the midst of Mexico’s magic.
San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
Backpackers and avid globetrotters interested in leftist politics and indigenous activism come to San Cristóbal (Jovel, in its native Tzotzil name) to breathe in the revolutionary air left by the uprising of the Zapatista movement back in 1994. Today, it feels more like a small multicultural city that harmoniously blends foreigners and ethnic populations – the sort of place where you can find a Japanese shoe shop next to an open-air market that sells locally woven textiles, where vendors exchange words in their native tongues.
Red tile roofs, flowered iron balconies, and cobblestone streets constitute its architectural allure. Wander the busy pedestrian street Real de Guadalupe, window-shop at the many galleries, drink a locally produced high-end cup of coffee, and reach the church on top of the hill for a panoramic view of the city. If you feel like diving a tad deeper into the indigenous culture, visit the nearby towns of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán. There, numerous travel agencies organize day trips to the waterfalls, the canyon, and even the mighty Mayan ruins of Palenque.
Elderly ladies preparing handmade tortillas (corn flatbread) in skillets, a lively city center, colorful textiles and long cobbled streets – Oaxaca is one of the most ethnically diverse locations of the country and it shows. Get the full array of Oaxaca’s palette during the annual festivity known as La Guelaguetza, a celebration of local song and dance and offerings of gifts to passers-by held every July.
Visit the Benito Juarez market and try some of the exotic local delicacies such as mole (dark chilli sauce), tlayudas (crispy tortilla with toppings) and, if you dare, the crispy crickets. Take a pleasant stroll towards the Santo Domingo temple, to visit their museum and the ethnobotanical garden. Oaxaca is famous for its locally grown coffee, so don’t forget to sip a cup in one of the several coffee shops. Still thirsty? Visit a mezcalería for a tasting and a professional pitch about mezcal, an ancestral agave-based spirit endemic to this region.
A day trip to Monte Albán, an extensive pre-Columbian archaeological site located in the outskirts of the city is an itinerary towards pre-conquest civilizations.
This location is a secret that constantly unveils itself to more and more visitors. Have you ever fantasized about the fusion of a freshwater lagoon and a Caribbean landscape? Well, Bacalar Lagoon epitomizes this dream. The stunning body of water is locally dubbed the seven-colored lagoon after the different tonalities it displays. The transparency of the water makes it perfect for snorkeling. Rent a kayak and visit one of the three cenotes (natural underground pools) that feed the lagoon, or take one of the water tours that will take you to the Pirate Canal, where you can smear yourself with sulphur rich sand for a DIY rejuvenation treatment.
After sundown, take a stroll into town, check the fort which was built to protect the town from pirates, then head to the lively city square, where kids play and artisans sell bohemian jewelery. There are plenty of charming little places that will offer you something to nibble on. Afterwards pamper your sweet tooth with a freshly pressed marquesita, a sort of crispy flat waffle, typical of this region.
Sink into the appeal of this city as you promenade through the alleys, tunnels, nooks, and plazas, snapping pictures of the grand university building and the elegant Juarez Theatre. Guanajuato, this UNESCO heritage city, keeps secrets behind every turn. Once an influential economic center due to the richness extracted nearby mines, these days it feels like a student town with bohemian charisma.
Explore the Old Town by foot and get lost only to find another beautiful viewpoint, the hilly city center provides startling sights of the colorful houses – the best views are from the funicular. If hilly promenades are not your cup of tea, explore the tunnels and ditches that crisscross under the surface of the city. Or snack on esquite (corn in a cup dressed with cheese, chili and lime) from a street vendor before checking out the mummy museum.
When the night falls, join an estudiantina, a group of young musicians that take you through the Old Town telling musical stories about their town, with a special detour to kiss your loved one at the Callejón del beso (the kiss alley).
The Pacific waters refresh sandy beaches throughout the state of Oaxaca. Trade the resort city of Huatulco for lower-key destinations like Mazunte and Zipolite.
Both of these beach towns purvey long clean beaches, blue waters, and a collection of beach worshippers, backpackers and yogis. These two spots have amassed a reputation that accentuates their pleasant hangouts and relaxed accommodation options.
While in Mazunte, book a yoga lesson, spend the day by the ocean and catch a scenic sunset at Punta Cometa, a rocky hill which can be reached by foot. In a 15-minute collective cab ride, you’ll be in Zipolite, where nude is the dress code. Enjoy its more upbeat atmosphere as you kill the afternoon with a beer in hand. Come for a weekend, stay for a week.
The second largest city of the country, in case Mexico City does not figure in your itinerary, Guadalajara allows you to experience a vast Mexican metropolis. One of the cultural hubs of the nation, home of the typical orchestras known as mariachis, the local delicacy tortas ahogadas (sandwiches drowned in spicy tomato sauce), and a rising creative class.
Head to the city center for its colonial architecture and buzzing streets. Do not forget to swing by the surreal market of San Juan de Dios, the sort of place where everything can be found, from scorpion belt buckles, love potions, to car stereos. Afterwards, head to the district locally known as Chapultepec to witness this city’s version of cool.
If the hustle and bustle gets to you, head to San Pedro Tlaquepaque, previously an independent town which ended up swallowed by the expansion of Guadalajara’s urban sprawl. Its center still preserves an olden spirit: marvel at the crafts and picturesque furniture shops on the pedestrian streets. Grab lunch at one of the restaurants built in old traditional houses and afterwards head to El Parián, a sort of colonial patio brimming with bars and pubs. Soon you’ll be sipping tequila as the mariachi tunes bid farewell to the sun.
Forget about Cancún and its perpetual spring break atmosphere. Three hours away, plus a thirty-minute ferry ride, and you could be in a sandy laid back island, just off the coast of Yucatán. Tourism here is relatively new, the residents argue that their town has only received attention about six years ago.
Today the island gracefully balances itself between two poles – an internationally visited seaside vacation spot and the still living spirit of a “deserted” island. Many of the shops and restaurants don’t have a schedule, they open at will since the locals still move at island pace.
Take an ocean excursion towards Punta Coco, with a bit of luck you’ll spot a flock of pink flamingos soaking in the almost still water of this quiet beach. On your way back pick some seashells to enlarge your collection, they abound here. Head to the pier, and join other sea devotees that gather for a scenic view of the sunset. The small town square and its adjacent streets offer plenty of options for dining, serving one of the island’s gastronomical staples – lobster pizza.
Connecting the states of Sinaloa and Chihuahua through a 403-mile route, this machine known as El Chepe swirls among a terrain of scenic panoramas. Lay your eyes on the mountain range, the ancestral home of the Tarahumara ethnic group (one of the most ancient of the country), as you ride through the gateway to the northern culture and geography. The train covers the route twice daily and it makes nine stops.
If you hop off at Creel you will find yourself in one of the main villages of the Tarahumaran range. The presence of this group is not seldom here, you will find Raramuris (another term for this group) in their typical attire going about their business. Divisadero is another unmissable spot, a viewpoint of the sublime Copper Canyon, which is larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon. Breathe in the strength of the sierra and let your mind float freely through the ridges.