By: Lisa Coleman
It’s tax time. Fun, fun, fun! Lucky for me I’ll be in Acapulco on that joyous day when the government takes their obligatory piece of my travel pie. Last year, I will happily admit, was the big refund. This year, well, not the same. However, if you’ll be cashing a check, I think you need to throw your money south…. of the border. Since we started this site, we have grown in leaps and bounds so there may be some new readers who might enjoy some old info. And the old readers may want a refresher course in why we love Mexico so much. Below is a previously published article walking you through the this magnificent country. Warning: it’s long – but hey, it’s worth it! So if you’re lucky enough to be taking some money… run to Mexico!
Mexico…. An Endless Journey
Mexico, so close… yet so misunderstood. When people think of Mexico, it’s generally in terms of big name beach resorts and margaritas. But like any treasure, much of its true beauty lies beneath the surface. To step beyond the beach is to discover an extraordinary country filled with mystery and magic. Mexico is an adventure for the senses through its vibrant images, startling diversity, unique experiences and unexpected possibilities. Travelers who are willing to learn about “real Mexico” will embrace the spirit of its enthralling past, touch the unspoiled beauty of its unusual landscapes, and realize the endless variety of choices that lie at the heart of the Mexican experience.
It’s a well known fact that we usually fear things we don’t understand. To even begin to comprehend the sheer magnitude and scope of Mexico is an expansive endeavor. In order to visualize the nuances of the country as whole, it’s imperative to take a walk across the map and learn a little bit region by region. With 31 states plus a federal district, there’s a lot of ground to cover…so let’s start with the basics.
The Basics – Mexico 101
In terms of surface area, Mexico is the 13th largest country in the world with an enormous mixture of peoples and traditions. It has the world’s fourth largest number of World Heritage Sites (20). These sites, considered by the United Nations Educational and Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to be “of outstanding universal value,” range from perfectly preserved colonial cities and Mayan ruins to the whale sanctuaries of the Baja and the 16th Century monasteries on the slopes of the Popocatepetl volcano. And… Mexico is one of the world’s five richest countries in terms of biological diversity. It is a mosaic of ecosystems consisting of deserts in the north, pine forests and snow-capped mountains in the middle, and tropical jungle in the south. With over 6,000 miles of coastline, it is one of the most varied natural landscapes on earth.
There are now over 18 million acres of ecological preserves, including 44 national parks, 24 biosphere reserves, 111 protected areas, and a substantial number of national marine parks. For nature lovers the options are endless. A few of the standouts are the astonishing Monarch Butterfly sanctuary in Michoacán, the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua (a series on interlocking canyons some deeper than the Grand Canyon!), white-water rafting in Veracruz, and mountain climbing near Mexico City. (* Two towering ranges run through eastern and western Mexico. The central plateau between the two is the third highest populated region in the world behind Bolivia and Tibet. A series of volcanoes stand along this plateau and five of them stand taller than any in the continental United States.)
When you get to know the cities, you’ll find them nothing short of astounding as well. After the conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521, Mexico was the richest and most prized possession for the Spanish Empire. For 300 years Spain not only ruled Mexico, but also worked diligently to model in the image of its European homeland. The result: a Latin country dominated by European ideas, architecture, monuments and art. The modern day Mexico has more standing legacies to this Spanish colonial era than any other country in the world. (In fact, Spanish Catholics built 12,000 churches in Mexico during that time!) This incredible heritage can be experienced in literally hundreds of cities, towns and villages throughout the country. Each is magical, charming and fascinating.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding all Mexico has to offer, but to begin with, let’s take a look at the part of Mexico most Americans find fairly familiar.
The Baja Peninsula
The 880-mile long Baja Peninsula is divided into two Mexican states – Baja California Norte (north) and Baja California Sur (south). The landscape varies from fog-moistened valleys in the north (home to Mexico’s finest vineyards. And yes, they do have great wine!) to southern arid deserts complete with exotic cacti and plenty of hot, dry weather patterns. On one side of the Baja is, of course, the Pacific Ocean, and on the other lies the magnificent Sea of Cortez. More than 850 species of marine life make their home in its temperate waters making it a year-round fishing utopia. In fact, this sea is said to be the greatest fish trap in the Western Hemisphere. The Baja is also a world renowned spot for whale watching as its surrounding waters are the winter home and breeding ground of the Gray Whale.
It all begins in Tijuana, just south of San Diego. A crowded and bustling border town, more U.S. tourists visit here than any other foreign country in the world. Heading south, along the very safe Tran peninsular Highway 1, you will find the beach towns of Rosarito and Ensenada, both of which have become popular “hang outs” for Southern California weekenders. On the eastern side of the peninsula is San Felipe, quickly making its mark as the northern Baja’s hottest fishing resort. Loreto, a little-known beach town midway down the peninsula, is a fantastic discovery and notorious for great scuba diving and unspoiled beaches. The capital city of Baja Sur is the picturesque La Paz. This alluring city has maintained its rustic charm and authenticity despite an influx of tourism. Nonetheless, the king of the Baja is the infamous Los Cabos. Los Cabos (the Capes) is the dual destination of San Jose Del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas. Because of a gringo friendly atmosphere, easy air access, perfect year-round weather, golf, nightlife and water sports, “Cabo” has become a major Mexican resort with a distinctly north-of-the-border attitude.
Mexicans call it “El Norte.” It is the vast region that stretches from the rugged Pacific Coast of Baja California to the Gulf of Mexico’s low lands. It is here you will find a couple of the closest neighbors to the United State – the states of Sonora and Chihuahua. The land is made up of rolling plains, mineral rich mountains and deserts. This makes for a unique and fascinating contrast as it melds with the coastal resorts on the Sea of Cortez.
Several locations in the state of Sonora (just over the border from Arizona) offer some easy beach options. Puerto Peñasco (better known as Rocky Point) is located at the northern tip of the Sea of Cortez and is less than five hours from Phoenix by car. Rocky Point’s recent growth serves visitors well and it is destined to hold its own amongst the competition of some southern neighbors like Kino Bay and Guaymas/San Carlos.
Bahía de Kino (Kino Bay) is one of the state’s oldest tourist destinations and could become the resort of the future. Lack of notable resorts has left it virtually undiscovered by visitors, but Kino is a find with lovely white sand beaches and calm blue waters framed by traditional desert landscape. With direct air service, the Guaymas/San Carlos area has become quite popular as well. Guaymas is one of Mexico’s finest natural harbors hemmed in by tall buttes and breathtaking desert. Just north and east, scenic San Carlos is making waves as beautiful desert-by-the-sea destination with spectacular opportunities for water sports, especially scuba diving and snorkeling (water temperatures hover around 80 degrees most of the year).
The northern state of Chihuahua is the largest in Mexico, but sparsely populated with only 3 million people. What it doesn’t have in population, it makes up for in natural wonder. Chihuahua is home to the Barrancas del Cobre, better known as the Copper Canyon. It is actually a series of seven canyons, four of them larger and deeper than our Grand Canyon. This colorful area has always drawn the attention of hard core backpackers and hikers, but these days it’s the “train ride in the sky” that gets the most attention. The Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad carries passengers from sea level to over 7,200 feet through the staggering beauty of the canyons. The railroad line took over 90 years to and $100 million to complete and is considered one of the great engineering feats of the 20th century. Over the course of the journey through Copper Canyon, the train passes through 86 tunnels and glides over 39 bridges and trestles, some of which are a mile above the canyon floor! The best time to plan a trip is between September and December after the rains have allowed the lush landscape to blossom with color. If you wait until spring, the land becomes quite dry and you may be disappointed by the lack of vegetation and greenery.
The North Pacific Coast
As you approach the ocean, the landscape from northern interior changes drastically. Mexico’s northernmost stretch of pristine shoreline is washed clear by the peaceful waters of the Gulf of California – a sheltered body of water that opens to the south into the Pacific Ocean. The states that stretch along the Pacific coast include Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima.
Name association with Mexican states gets tricky for Americans, but city names seem to stick. Mazatlán is the city everyone knows in Sinaloa. Once a quiet haven for fishermen, Mazatlán has evolved into a principal Mexican beach resort and the largest West Coast port facility between Los Angels and the Panama Canal. It is not as commercialized or crowded as other resorts, and that in itself makes it attractive. Though growing, Mazatlán hasn’t sacrificed its Mexican roots in the name tourism. The beaches are best in the northern part of the city, but be sure not to miss the renovated city center in Old Mazatlán.
Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara are in the state of Jalisco. The region pulsates with a tropical rhythm brought about by its native son – the Mariachi. Developed in the state of Jalisco as wedding-party entertainment, Mariachi music is now the enduring symbol of Mexico. (Along with tequila, also Jalisco’s gift to the world!)
Vallarta is unquestionably one of top tourist draws in Mexico. It is situated on Bahía de Banderas (Banderas Bay), the largest natural bay in Mexico with 100 miles of coastline. Framed by mountains and tropical foliage, it is breathtaking. With beaches, ecotoursim, winter whale watching (some 500 humpbacks spend the season in the bay) world-class resorts, fine dining, a fast-past night life, history, culture, art galleries and museums, this “San Francisco of Mexico” comes very close to being all things to all visitors.
Leaving Vallarta going south, you will discover a stretch of untouched beaches and the lesser known resorts. Manzanillo, in the state of Colima, is the next stop down the coast. This is the complete opposite of a chic resort town. Arriving in Manzanillo is like going back in time. Low key and unpretentious, Manzanillo has been called the “sailfish capital of the world.” I would have to say for the simple pleasures of unpopulated beaches, a laid back atmosphere, spectacular seafood and water sports, there is no better value in the entire country.
On the other hand, neighboring Guadalajara is a stately, sophisticated city. Capital of the state of Jalisco, Guadalajara is the second largest city in Mexico but manages to remain serene and beautiful. At 5,200 feet above sea level, the weather is perpetually spring-like and ideal for exploring the charming parks, plazas and tree-lined boulevards. The city’s downtown core hosts colonial architecture and ornate churches, and there is simply no better place in the world to shop! This city embraces the soul of Mexico and is worth adding to any itinerary.
Central Mexico and Mexico City
First, learn not to fear the words Mexico City! It is most likely not at all the things you have heard. Yes, it is a gigantic, populated, sprawling metropolis, but, it is also the Western Hemisphere’s oldest urban center and is packed full of awe-inspiring history and culture. At a mile and half high, the weather is always in your favor. Generally cool and comfortable, this capital city is in the Distrito Federal (federal district). The historic Zócalo (city center) is the second largest plaza in the world, second only to Red Square in Moscow. Filled with museums, restaurants and one of the most gorgeous cathedrals in existence, this is a good starting place to explore the city.
* Mexico City alone houses 100 museums, more than any other city in the world, and it’s the world’s fourth-leading city for theater arts after New York, London and Toronto. Not to mention the city also has 1,500 monuments, 10,000 plus colonial structures, and 10 archeological sites. If that’s not enough, it’s still one of the best travel values in North America!
Follow this with a trip to the pyramids (31 miles northeast of the city) of Teotihuacán or the floating gardens of Xochimilco and you can begin to understand the intrigue and mystery that have surrounded this culture for centuries.
As you venture outside Mexico City to look deeper into the interior of the country, you will find places that you never knew existed in the confines of your perception of Mexico. Cuernavaca, in the state of Morelos, a quick two hours from the City will transport you to an entirely different world. Rolling hills and trees are the backdrop for this notorious retreat. Famous for its relaxed resorts, spas and fine dining, Cuernavaca is known the premier weekend getaway choice from the hustle and bustle of booming Mexico City. From there, be sure not to miss the enchanting city of Taxco in the neighboring state of Guerrero. The drive itself is worth the visit. Roses are grown in this region and literally hundreds of acres of them line the highway. As you make your way into the mountains you will be amazed as the city comes into view. A sea of white washed homes, red tile roofs, and the spires of the stunning Santa Prisca church make for an unforgettable picture. Not to mention that fact that Taxco is the “silver capital of the world” with over 2,000 shops in the city itself! Bring your camera and your cash!
Two of the country’s most fascinating states, Puebla and Tlaxcala also lie within two hours of Mexico City. Both are rural in nature and offer archeological and colonial attractions. The city of Puebla (capital of the state) is one of Mexico’s best preserved colonial cities. The imprint of the Spanish influence can be seen in exquisite colonial-era buildings of gray stone and wrought iron. Sitting at 6,500 feet, the city is outlined by four towering ice-capped volcanoes, the tallest of which is Popocatepetl or “Popo” at 17,845 feet. Cholula, one of Mexico’s most formidable archeological sites, is just 8 kilometers west of the city. Cholula’s Great Pyramid of Tepanapa is the largest pyramid ever constructed.
In contrast, nearby Tlaxcala is Mexico’s smallest state. Its simplistic village charm and classic colonial architecture gives visitors a refreshing look at small town Mexican life. Stunning pre-Hispanic murals, colorful religious festivals and Pamplona-style running of the bulls give this tiny state big character. In addition, Tlaxcala has fabulous archeological sites including Cacaxtla, with fantastic ancient murals, and the recently excavated Xochitecatl.
A myriad of incredible colonial cities are found throughout the states of Central Mexico. Most notable are San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato in the state of Guanajuato, Morelia and Pátzcuaro in the state of Michoacán, and Zacatecas in the state of the same name. San Miguel is a quaint yet cosmopolitan colonial gem. With a provincial attitude, the city is proud of its designation as a national monument. A well known artist community thrives here and visitors will enjoy galleries and museums to accompany the winding, terraced cobblestone streets and flower-filled patios. Guanajuato, built up and down a mountainous ravine and founded in 1557, is said by some to be Mexico’s most beautiful city. The difficult topography lends to interesting exploration, but the steep stairways, brick bridges and narrow streets give the city a distinctive medieval flavor. Neo-classical churches and colonial mansions give the impression that Guanajuato was born to be a European treasure.
Morelia and Pátzcuaro can be found in the state of Michoacán. Personal favorites of mine, I remember having to really think about the fact that I was in Mexico when I visited these fantastic cities. Pristine mountain lakes, wild flowers and pine trees will forever change your preconceived notions of Mexico. Morelia, the capital of the state, is even more lush than neighboring Guanajuato. The city resembles something from a gothic fairytale with its 17th and 18th century architecture and style. Well known for its dedication to music, arts, and higher education, Morelia is the aristocrat of the colonial cities. Not far outside Morelia is the wonderful town of Pátzcuaro. Located on the Southeast shore of Lake Pátzcuaro, this intriguing destination was once the center of the Purépecha Indian Empire. Purepechas still live, farm and sell their wares at the marketplace, and the local fishermen still use butterfly nets to catch their famous whitefish. The arts and crafts here are unlike anything you have ever seen in Mexico. Pátzcuaro is also known for its elaborate and beautiful “Dia de Los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) celebrations.
Zacatecas is called “the city with the pink stone face and silver heart.” At 8,000 feet in elevation this unusual town filled with buildings of pink stone is squeezed into a narrow gully between two hills. Not only is it a prominent silver producer, but specialize in wine as well. It has an elegant and almost regal feel to it and the city isn’t shy about flaunting its wealth. With its intricacies and delicate architecture, Zacatecas is a photographer’s dream. In 1993, the city was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The South Pacific Coast
Some of Mexico’s hottest beach resort can be found along the golden shores of the Pacific. Acapulco, Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo can all be found in the state of Guerrero. Acapulco is, and will always be, the queen of the Mexican beach resorts. It is here where tequila poppers and swim-up bars were born. The jet set Hollywood crowd put it on the map in the 1950’s and though it has unfairly gotten lost in the shuffle in the past decade, Acapulco is as spectacular as ever. It has a personality all its own, and to know this city is to love this city.
About four hours by car up the coast, you’ll find the the dynamic duo resort towns of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo (see-wa-ta-NEH-ho). Though only miles away, they are worlds apart. Ixtapa is one of Mexico’s manufactured resort communities built specifically for tourism. Looking like a plush golf club, it is one of the most immaculate and pristine resorts in the entire country. World-class hotels share a tree-lined boulevard and a stretch of golden sand beach. Two championship golf courses, shops, restaurants and a new Marina complete the list of amenities. For those wanting the ultimate in Mexico, you won’t be disappointed.
Just down the road a bit, is an even more alluring slice of heave on the shores of the Pacific. Zihuatanejo is like a secret you can’t wait to tell. This is the Mexico that movies are made of. It is the epitome of charm. It is everything Mexico should be. With a magnificent half-moon shaped beach on a calm bay, swaying tropical palms, a cozy town square, excellent fishing, and the warm, kind smiles of local people, this is one very special place. Relaxed and easy paced, this lovely seaside village will win your heart too.
The state of Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah) blends natural and cultural beauty with beaches and blue waters. Steeped in tradition, Oaxaca is known to travelers as the place to have that elusive “real Mexico” experience. Oaxaca City sits inland on an arid highland plateau and has a magical and romantic feel. Founded in 1532, it still is true to its traditions. Baroque colonial architecture highlights a splendid church and dozens of museums. Vibrant and colorful, Oaxaca is brings the spirit of old Mexico to life in its markets, festivals and celebrations. Monte Albán is a nearby archeological site that is a must if you visit Oaxaca. Built on a hilltop flattened by the Zapotec Indians over 2,500 years ago, Monte Albán was once a holy city of more than 25,000 inhabitants.
If too much culture and archeology have you itching to hit the beach, the state of Oaxaca has that too. Once an inaccessible and remote piece of Pacific shoreline, the beaches of the state are separated into two resort areas: Puerto Escondido and Huatulco. Puerto Escondido has long been a favorite of the California surf crowd and European backpackers, but things are beginning to change. It’s hardly the glitz and glamour of some of its counterparts, but it is a comfortable, lightly touristed hideaway. Huatulco on the other hand is headed for resort stardom. The Mexican government has joined in the effort and is working diligently to develop the 22-mile beach into its next big hit. New resorts are opening all the time and in several years, it could really be on the map as a hot spot. Until then, it is a good choice for seclusion at the sea.
Chiapas, sitting on the border to Central America, is probably Mexico’s most unknown state in terms of tourism. Unfortunately, some overstated bad press has kept visitors from its shores over the last couple of years, but hopefully travelers will give it a chance. Though it is one of the country’s most impoverished regions, it is extremely rich in other ways. Ethic and cultural diversity and vast wildlife are at their most prolific here. Palenque, arguably the most stunning of all the Mayan ruins is found in this state. Back roads adventure and ecology can be experienced up and down this virtually untouched coastline. Wild rivers and thick rainforest jungles make this Mexico’s final frontier. Six national parks and a patchwork of Indian villages make for fascinating travel. But keep in mind that ground transportation is slow and lodging is not always first class. Nonetheless, it is incredible scenery and worth a try for those who are willing to work a bit for some lasting memories.
The Mundo Maya
The Mundo Maya or Mayan World includes the states on the Yucatan Peninsula: Yucatan and Quintana Roo. This is the land of the Maya Indian and is very different from the rest of Mexico. It is sometimes even thought of as a country within itself. The giant land mass jutting out from between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea is actually a limestone shelf honeycombed with underground rivers, caverns and sinkholes. It is topped with expanses of green jungles, archeological ruins, undisturbed beaches with bleached white sands and aqua waters, and peppered with modern resorts and fishing villages.
Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatan, sits on same land as a Mayan city did 450 years ago. A classic colonial city, it has the unique ability to showcase a rare combination of European style and Mayan tradition. Mérida is the perfect starting place to explore the area’s fantastic archeological sites. Chichén-Itzá is 80 miles east of the city and is the most recognizable of Mexico’s ruins. Said to have been built as early as 600 AD, the six-square-mile site has prominent and well preserved structures including a 272-foot long ball court. Uxmal, with its beautifully carved facades, majestic columns and broad plazas, is only 58 miles south of the city.
Quintana Roo became a state in 1975 and suddenly the Caribbean coast of Mexico was on its way to notoriety. Not only does it boast the red hot resorts of Cancun and Cozumel, but it is also home of between 2,000 and 2,500 Mayan ruins. The state capital, Chetumal is located on the border of Belize and has a strong tourist following in its own right, but it’s the cities to the north that get most of the glory.
It was only 30 years ago that Cancun was simply a sand bar on a gorgeous piece of Caribbean coastline. Today, Cancun hosts over 2 million visitors a year. Cancun’s may be the world’s first totally planned vacation resort, all the way from its basic infrastructure to its superstructures hotels, shopping centers and golf courses. Complete in every sense of the word, and resting solidly on its reputation, Cancun is the number one tourist destination in the country.
Cozumel, an island 30 miles long and 10 miles wide is the original Mexican Caribbean playground. During World War II, the U.S. built an air base on Cozumel for planes hunting U-boats in the mid-Atlantic. The frogmen who trained at the base returned home with stories of crystal water and magnificent underwater vistas. In 1962, oceanographer Jacques Cousteau visited the island and proclaimed it to be one of the finest diving sites in the world. The rest, as they say, is history.
South of these mega resorts is the area now referred to as the Riviera Maya. Here you’ll find plenty of new hotels and countless ecotourism based parks, along with some of the Mayan’s world most fascinating ruins. Tulum is the only walled city the Maya built and the only one on the Caribbean. Cobá, equally impressive yet largely unexcavated, is the largest Mayan city yet discovered containing hundreds of structures and encompassing an area of 10-square miles.
The warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico are home to the states of Campeche, Tabasco and Veracruz. Out of the mainstream of tourism, these are places to consider if you are looking for a sampling of Mexico that is a bit off the beaten path.
Veracruz is the most popular state in the country for Mexican travelers, but it’s still relatively unknown to the American tourist. It is refreshingly and even brazenly different than the Mexico known to most travelers. Six hundred miles of coastline leave room for plenty of beach, but comparatively speaking, they are average. It is the state’s astonishing natural beauty, fascinating history and genuinely hospitable people that make up for just about anything. The City of Veracruz packs more history and ambiance per block than any other city in Mexico. It is also one of the world’s great seaports and has an incomparable tropical atmosphere. In terms of diversity, Veracruz rises from seal level to over 19,000 feet at the summit of Pico de Orizaba. “El Pico” as it is locally known, is the second highest volcano in North America.
Tabasco is a small state wedged between the States of Veracruz and Campeche. Vast deposits of oil have created an air of relative prosperity and affluence. The capital of Villahermosa has grown in recent years and is working diligently to increase tourism. It has a very interesting archeological park and an outdoor museum featuring massive sculptures, particularly the giant Olmec stone heads found in the La Venta jungle. Even though the archeological site of Palenque is located in the state of Chiapas, is more easily accessed from Villahermosa. Its pyramid structures feature intricately carved bas-reliefs depicting historical and mythical events relating to the reign of a Mayan ruler.
Long time known as a Mecca for hunters and fishermen, the state of Campeche is beginning to attract tourists. The capital city of the same name has renovated its downtown area and can be toured by old fashioned street cars. Pastel-colored facades with white trim and delicate wrought iron balconies line cobblestone streets. Famed for seafood and fiestas, I think it has potential!
Mexico, beautiful, glorious Mexico… This is only scratching the surface of one of the most intriguing and incredible countries in the world. Once you let it into your heart and begin to understand its ceaseless magic and excitement, you will never be the same.