Zacatecas

Zacatecas, Zacatecas

Population: 150,000

Time Zone: Central Standard Time

Airport: Zacatecas La Calera (ZCL)

Elevation: 8,000 feet

Although off of the mainstream tourist track, Zacatecas is one of Mexico’s most beautiful cities, filled with colonial-era buildings built from the wealth of the silver mines that began operating by the Spanish conquistadores in 1548. In fact, today it still remains Mexico’s largest silver producer, led by the 200-year-old El Bote mine.

The state capital of the same name, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, is a culturally sophisticated town, boasting many impressive museums, art galleries and a cable car (el teleférico) that traverses the entire city, providing magnificent views. Not to be missed is a tour of the El Edén mine, in continuous operation from for nearly 400 years from1586 until the 1950’s. Another major attraction is the pink-stoned Zacatecas Cathedral, a Baroque style structure of singular beauty, consider by many to be Mexico’s finest church.

Most of the tourist attractions in the historic city are accessible by foot with many comfortable hotels and good restaurants available in all price ranges. Of particular note is the Hotel Quinta Real, built around Mexico’s first bullring, also incorporating the arches from the old aqueduct, El Cubo. Zacatecas is truly one of Mexico’s best-kept secrets.

Puerto Penasco

Puerto Pe asco (Rocky Point), Sonora

Population: 45,000

Time Zone: Mountain Standard Time

Airport: Ignacio L. Pesqueira International Airport in Hermosillo (HMO).

Elevation: Sea level

Perhaps no Mexican town is more of a “boom town” than Puerto Pe asco (many Americans call it Rocky Point). Long a weekend-beach-and-party getaway for Arizona, recent years have seen a building bonanza, partially fueled by the advent of the fidiecomiso, which allows foreigners to, in effect, own property near the beach, financed with American-style mortgages. Located approximately 1 hour by car from the border at Sonoita, in recent years developers have moved in, building homes, condos, resorts and golf courses. As it is just as hot as the Arizona desert, summer is not the best time for a visit, with temperatures routinely exceeding 100 degrees.

Before its recent “discovery”, the then small fishing village survived from the fish-rich Sea of Cortez, with a sizable shrimp boat fleet based there. Tourism was anchored by simple RV parks, campgrounds and cold-beer vendors. Tourism and development will be the future of the area, as the Sea of Cortez, like many of the world’s waters, is becoming a depleted resource due to over-fishing.

Puerto Escondido

Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca

Population: 50,000

Time Zone: Central Standard Time

Airport: Puerto Escondido International ( PXM)

Elevation: Sea Level

Long-known by adventurous surfers attracted by some of the best waves in the world, Puerto Escondido defines the term “laid-back”. The town’s main beach is sheltered from the wild surf, nestled into a cove behind Punta Escondida. It is here that the local fishermen dock their pangas, the palapa restaurants serve the local catch, and the families come to play in the always warm water. As you walk southeast along the water’s edge you will start to see the swells forming, and when you get to Playa Zicatela you’d better be a very strong swimmer, as the waves and the rip current are anything but laid-back.

There are no large resort complexes here, but there are a lot of nice, inexpensive accommodations that attract long-term visitors who are not interested in late-night discos and fancy meals. And although tourism is now a major factor in the local economy, it remains unknown to most Mexico travelers.

Although a seemingly idyllic town in many ways—not over-built with condo-hawkers on every corner—the area has a history and reputation of not being a very safe place. Law enforcement is scarce and thefts and robberies have been a problem from time to time, mostly along the beach at night. Some of these accounts have been over-blown, and we all know crime can happen anywhere, but it is always a good idea to be cautious. Within the town itself, however, crime is rare and the people are friendly and helpful.

Oaxaca

Oaxaca, Oaxaca

Population: 260,000

Time Zone: Central Time Zone

Airport: Oaxaca International (OAX)

Elevation: 5,075 feet

Many Mexico travelers identify Oaxaca as the city that they like the best, and for good reason. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, the large historic town center retains an authentic colonial-era presence, along with a culture that embraces the indigenous people of the area. Although an earthquake destroyed much of the city in 1854, the city was rebuilt and has remained relatively untouched by time.

Most of the city can be explored on foot, with many parks and café’s available to sit, rest and soak up the culture. The food of Oaxaca is world-renowned, utilizing many spices and recipes originating with the early inhabitants of the Oaxaca valley. The city is also a major folk art center, particularly in textiles. Open-air and indoor markets offer a wide variety and the best prices for the shopper, and quite a bit of the art is exported internationally. Much of the work is produced in the small surrounding villages where tourists go on day-trips to buy goods directly from the artisans and to visit Monte Alban, one of Mexico’s most spectacular archaeological sites located just five miles from town.

Lodging in town offers a wide-range of accommodations, but the more popular spots fill up early, especially during the holidays and fiesta times such as the Day of the Dead celebration in early November.

Oaxaca was the scene of a major protest in 2006, initially involving the teacher’s union, eventually joined by other disenfranchised groups who have grievances with the government. Although the problems have not all been resolved, the city is back to normal after a few months of empty streets and few tourists.

Merida

Merida, Yucatan

Population: 900,000

Time Zone: Central Standard Time

Airport: Merida International (MID)

Elevation: 40 feet

Merida, capital of the Yucatan state, ranks as one of Mexico’s best colonial cites, with a rich historical and cultural presence. Sitting at the northern end of the Yucatan peninsula, some twenty miles from the Gulf of Mexico coast, Merida exudes a European influence melding seamlessly with the Mayan and Caribbean cultures that dominate the region. Before the Spaniards arrived in 1542, the large Mayan city Tihó sat on what is now the Plaza Mayor. Stones from the Mayan pyramids at that site were incorporated into the foundation of the Cathedral of San Idelfonso, Mexico’s oldest church, located on one side of the plaza.

As a major Spanish city after the conquest, the streets are lined with colonial-era architecture. Many of the finest mansions were financed by the exportation of oro verde (green gold), the henequen plant—a hardy variety that is favored for the production of rope. This crop provided great wealth to the area in the 19th century, when many of the mansions were built in town and grand haciendas sprang up in the nearby countryside.

Today Merida is known as the “White City” for its many buildings constructed of the white limestone common to the area, and for its clean parks and plazas. The locals take great pride in their intolerance of crime, making it one of Mexico’s safest cities. It is a great gateway city to the nearby Mayan ruins in the state, including Uxmal and Chichén Itzá.

Loreto

Loreto, Baja California Sur

Population: 11,000

Time Zone: Mountain Standard Time

Airport: Loreto International Airport (LTO)

Elevation: Sea Level

It’s hard to believe that this tiny, laid-back town was the first capital of Spanish California, and the site of the first mission established by the Jesuits in 1697. When a hurricane nearly destroyed the town in 1829, the capital was moved to La Paz and Loreto languished in obscurity until the mid-19th century, when immigrants started to arrive from mainland Mexico and abroad. In fact, it’s not uncommon to encounter blond-haired Mexicans with European surnames.

Today’s visitors will find one of Mexico’s best-kept secrets: a town with a rich history surrounded by a perfect mix of desert, mountains, and a protected marine park in the Sea of Cortez. Although it was designated to be major development project by the Mexican government in the 1970’s, it never really took off as did Cancun and Los Cabos. The result is a town little-changed, where the local fishermen still motor out into the sea every day in their pangas, and the tourists that find their way here spend their days strolling the streets, enjoying a siesta, and fishing or kayaking in the sea.

A development project may change the scenery somewhat over the coming years five miles south of town at the Loreto Bay Company. The ambitious 8,000 acre seaside project is designed to eventually contain 6,000 homes with a focus on sustainable development. FONATUR, Mexico’s tourism development agency, is a partner in the project.

Ixtapa-Zihuatenejo

Ixtapa-Zihuatenejo, Guerrero

Poplulation: 75,000

Time Zone: Central Standard Time

Airport: Ixtapa-Zihuatenejo International Airport (ZIH)

Elevation: Sea level

The two separate towns of Ixtapa and Zihuatenejo are the yin and yang of Mexico. Ixtapa, created in 1972 by the Mexican government on what was once a coconut plantation, is modern and planned. Five miles down the coast lies Zihua, once a very sleepy fishing village where few tourists went; now a sleepy fishing village where many tourists go. The contrast has created a destination that has tremendous appeal to a variety of tastes and desires.

Ixtapa has a two-mile-long beach lined with several full-service resorts, a number of restaurants, support services, a boat marina, and two championship golf courses. It is a town of 7,000 people, but doesn’t really have a town. Travelers are attracted by the remote, tropical beauty, the empty beaches, nearly-perfect weather (barring the summer’s rainy season), and great sports-fishing and golf.

Zihuatenejo is the flip-side to an interesting coin, an old town awash in traditional Mexican culture with small inns and chic boutique hotels. Prior to the 1960’s, when the coastal highway was built, virtually no tourists visited. But now, with the road, an airport, and the fact that it’s become a cruise-ship stop, Zihuatenejo is well-known amongst Mexicophiles seeking a beach town with a slower pulse than the more-traveled resorts.