As I’ve written here more than once, Mexico is one of my favourite destinations, a great place to leave winter behind for some great weather, great culture and great food. But most of the northerners visiting Mexico end up in the same big-name beach destinations, and while they’re nice, they’re just a fraction of what the country has to offer.
If you’re visiting Mexico this year, it’s worth considering some places other than the well-known spots that dominate the travel ads. In most cases, they’re a short trip from one of the major tourist destinations, so you can fly into a major airport and then head out by car or bus to a place that shows you more of what Mexico is really like.
The rewards can be amazing. Mexico has stunning scenery and a brilliant culture, and by veering off the beaten path a little, you can experience them live and in colour. As well, you may find that hotel and restaurant prices come down as you get away from the major tourist areas — suddenly, you’re paying Mexican prices.
Here are five places that are great picks if you’re up for a trip to the “other” side of Mexico.
Oaxaca Most travellers headed for Mexico’s Pacific coast stop when they get to Acapulco. But farther south is a part of Mexico that’s just as interesting, if not moreso — the state of Oaxaca (pronounced wa-HA-ca).
The popular stop-off is Huatulco, a still-growing beach destination with high-end resorts scattered along the coast (below) and lazy beach life in the pretty village of Santa Cruz. Those in the know head two hours south to Puerto Escondido, an older and more picturesque town with good beaches and nightlife.
And if you want to a real change of scene, there’s the city of Oaxaca itself, high in the mountains, with craft shopping in the nearby indigenous villages and impressive ruins at Monte Alban.
Tulum This is known as one of the most interesting archaeological sites in the Mayan world, a city set on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea. But the region around Tulum, in what’s now called the Mayan Riviera, has become a destination of its own.
A couple of hours from the tourist hot spots of Cozumel and Playa del Carmen, Tulum is a place where you can relax on the beach when you’re not exploring the ruins, scuba diving in the ocean or swimming in the area’s cenotes, or sink holes.
If you like tropical fish, stop on the way there and enjoy a day at Xel-Ha (Shel-HA), a natural lagoon that’s been turned into a water park, with nature trails, boating and snorkelling amid schools of colourful fish.
Puerto Vallarta’s beach towns Puerto Vallarta is one of my favourite places, but it’s not exactly quiet and secluded. However, you can have some laid-back beach life by travelling a few kilometres up or down the coast to small towns that offer the same fine beaches without the crowds.
Just north of the city, the towns of Bucerias and Sayulita offer a slower pace (though they’re certainly not untouristed). They’re close to Punta Mita, a hop-off point for whale-watching tours or trips out to Las Marietas, a group of islands sometimes called the Mexican Galapagos for their bird life. Farther out is the resort town of Rincon de Guayabitos.
There are good beach towns south of the city, as well, stretching along a part of the coast called the Costalegre — Barra de Navidad is a popular spot. And a half-hour boat trip from the PV docks takes you to Yelapa (above and at top), a charming bohemian village where you can hit the beach or just relax and let the world go by.
Morelia Mexico City is world-famous, but not far away is a lesser-known place that shows a whole other side of Mexico. High in the mountains, the capital of Michoacan state is one of the country’s best-preserved colonial cities, and a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Aside from admiring the architecture and visiting the city’s museums, you can take a short trip to the pretty city of Patzcuaro for a boat ride out to Janitzio island in the lovely mountain lake. This is a hot spot for Mexicans on the Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
Another attraction not to be missed — especially if you’re Canadian — is the Santuario Mariposa Monarca, where monarch butterflies return each year after flying all the way from Canada. Here’s the amazing part: the butterflies that arrive at the same spot each fall are not the previous year’s crop but their offspring. How do they find their way?
Merida Thousands of tourists pour into Cancun every year, but just across the Yucatan Peninsula, a couple of hours away, is a place that looks more like Mexico than Miami Beach.
The capital of Yucatan state is a pleasant colonial city that’s a great place to relax and experience some Mexican culture: in fact, it’s internationally known as a cultural centre. It was here many years ago that I saw the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico in a lovely old colonial theatre.
There’s some beach life nearby, and while you may have seen Chichen Itza on the way here, the jungle around Merida is rich with small, lesser-known archaeological sites, including Mayapan and Uxmal, with its amazing cone-shaped pyramid, the House of the Magician.
These are just a few of the many amazing places Mexico has to offer. But all are worth a trip, and each has its own character, its own culture, and in some cases its own cuisine. And everywhere, you’ll meet the same hospitable Mexican people. Some things are the same no matter where you go.