Diverse marine life, glittering canyons, mighty pyramids and colourful festivals and markets - Mexico has always been a hot destination among travellers looking for spice and adventure
From the scorched northern deserts to the humidity of the southern rainforests, Mexico is an invigorating blend of influences as diverse as its landscape. People have been escaping to Mexico for millennia: the first popped over the Bering Strait from Siberia.
More recently, the Olmecs, Teotihuacáns, Toltecs and Mixtecs were the forerunners of the Maya and the terrifying Aztecs. When the Spanish landed, they arrived into a complex mosaic of cultural influences to find that power and domination were the universal language.
For years Mexico was the preserve of backpackers struggling to see the highlights between fleapits and bouts of Montezuma’s Revenge, and tourists hitting the ‘fly’n’flop’ mega resorts of Cancún, Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta.Today Mexico knows how to welcome travellers with style and confidence, without the anonymous opulence of chain hotels and mass-produced food.
In the past few years a travelling Aztec exhibition that toured the world was a sell-out, the release of the movie Frida opened a window on one of Mexico’s most influential artists, and the Mexican Embassy in London supported the Mex Art cultural festival, celebrating food, literature, film and performing arts. People can now look beyond Mexico’s historical heritage.
The options of what to do are many and varied, and you’re going to have to do some work. Mexico is vast, even if quirks of cartography make it look small on the Mercator world map. You can’t do it all in one trip – if you did you’d overstay your 180-day tourist card.
For those who need a little, friendly push in the right direction, here are four travel itineraries exploring some of the best bits of this intoxicating nation.
Mexican desert, grey whales & Copper Canyon (Three weeks)
San Diego (USA) – Tijuana – Vizcaíno Desert – Guerrero Negro – La Paz – Los Mochis – Copper Canyon – Creel
After relaxing in San Diego’s Gaslight District, take the train to visit Tijuana – the border crossing, where two cultures crunch and grind. North Americans head south for cheap drugs, drink and partying; Mexicans head north across the Tortilla Curtain in search of jobs and prospects. It’s kitsch, at times painful on the eye, but certainly invigorating.
After a few days, head south on a bus to Ensenada and nearby 30m La Bufadora tidewater blowhole. From here Mexican Highway 1 travels through communities with scarce water supplies growing tomatoes for northern neighbours, before turning inland to the Vizcaíno Desert of Baja California. Multi-fingered cardones cacti reach up to 20m high, straggly boojum trees taper upwards and boulders litter the dry, beautiful desertscape as temperatures soar to 40ºC and higher.
Crossing the 28th parallel, the road arrives at Guerrero Negro, capital of salt production in Mexico and the stepping-off point for a boat trip to see grey whales mating in nearby Scammon’s Lagoon (December to mid-March).
The desert continues south, skimming the coastal towns and beaches of Santa Rosalía, Mulegé and La Paz on the Sea of Cortez. For a little adventure, take a sea kayak trip out to Espíritu Santo Island.
Leave the peninsula by taking the ferry from La Paz to Topolobampo and on to Los Mochis. The town has nothing to commend it, but fortune has placed the rail station for the Copper Canyon Railway at the southern end of town. It’s a magnificent train journey, screeching and scraping the 655km journey over 36 bridges and 87 tunnels that connect the coastal lowlands to the mountains of the Sierra Madre.
Don’t miss the breathtaking view from Divisadero into the depths of the Canyon, more than 1.6km deep. Hiking, mountain biking and rock-climbing trips can be arranged from nearby Areponápuchi or Creel, further up the track.
Maya life – ancient & modern (Up to two weeks)
Mérida – Uxmal & the Puuc Route – Chichén Itzá – Cancún – Mujeres Island – Tulum – Cobá – cenotes – Mérida
Once the home of the Mexican Maya, the Yucatán is an easy area to travel round and Mérida is a great place to start – explore its cobbled streets, colonial buildings and join in the busy calendar of cultural events, from street salsa to folkloric dancing at weekends.
Between meals of sopa de lima (lime soup) and traditional Yucatecan dishes, gear up for your journey with an outing to the flamingo colony at Celestún.
South of Mérida is the relaxing Puuc Route day trip to a handful of Maya sites. Take a guided tour or the public bus. Labná is the first stop – you’ll probably have the place to yourself. Next stop is Xlapak, then Sayil and finally Kabah. Each has its particular charm, not least their small, manageable size. You’ll understand when you arrive at Uxmal, the largest site in the Puuc region – it’s massive, needing a few hours to explore properly.
Leaving Mérida, take the earliest bus you can to Chichén Itzá – one of the most spectacular Maya monuments – to avoid the crowds, hawkers and searing midday heat. The Castillo pyramid in the centre of the site is impressive, with serpents either side of the 91 steps that climb to views across the surrounding forest canopy.
Swapping ancient culture for contemporary anthropology, a stay in the mega-resort of Cancún is probably best avoided. Instead, use nearby Mujeres Island as a base to explore Cancún’s white-sand beaches – now restored after being swept away by Hurricane Wilma in October 2005.
Tulum is perched on coastal cliffs looking out across the azure sea, about three hours south of Cancún by bus. Here Mayan ruins hug the Caribbean, dominating the palm-fringed beach – make sure you stay in the area and arrive early to avoid the crowds.
The Yucatán is as porous as a sieve, riddled with cenotes, underground caves filled with water. If you’re qualified, try a spot of cave diving; if not you can snorkel or swim in some of the magnificent caverns in the area.
Now you’re a fully-fledged expert on Maya architecture, finish with a visit to Cobá, 50km inland from Tulum, to see an unrestored ruin in its faded glory.
From metropolis to Maya (Three weeks)
Mexico City – Teotihuacán – Oaxaca – Monte Albán – San Cristóbal de las Casas – Palenque – Mérida
Embrace the chaos of Mexico City and join the 21 million people who call the capital home. First stop the Zócalo, where the huge Mexican flag struggles to flutter in even the strongest of winds. Spinning around, you have the National Palace, the cathedral and the Templo Mayor – the last remains of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, destroyed by the conquistadors. You could spend days exploring the city’s historic centre, the National Anthropological Museum and the house of artist Frida Kahlo. Jump on the Turibus (www.turibus.com.mx; in Spanish) for the highlights tour.
North of Mexico City is the stunning site of Teotihuacán. Wandering the 4km Avenue of the Dead you pass the Pyramid of the Sun – the third largest in the world – and the Pyramid of the Moon. Much of the history of the city remains a mystery.
An inter-city bus or short flight takes you south-east to Oaxaca, a Unesco World Heritage site, its leafy central plaza embraced by the cathedral and streetside cafés. The Mercado de Abastos is a must for market traders seeking bargains, as is a visit to the mountaintop Zapotec site of Monte Albán. Oaxaca is a popular destination for food buffs looking to try the famous mole dishes – meat covered in a sauce combining chilli and chocolate. The surrounding area makes for rewarding shopping – look out for colourful textiles and bags in the craft villages at Tlacolula, Santa Ana del Valle, Yagul and Mitla.
From Oaxaca, San Cristóbal de las Casas is a long bus journey (about 12 hours) or a 50-minute flight to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, then a short bus trip. San Cristóbal is a blend of colonial architecture and indigenous culture, packed with lively bars and cafés – a great place to drink locally grown coffee, wander cobbled streets and chill out. Nearby villages give a brief insight into ancestral traditions of the Chiapas Highlands, whose inhabitants are descended from the ancient Maya.
Last stop on this trip is Palenque, an atmospheric Maya ruin set in thick rainforest. This is one of the most memorable Maya sites, best visited early in the morning as wisps of clouds rise from the jungle. While in Palenque visit the 7km stepped rapids of Agua Azul and the 35m-high Misol-Ha waterfall nearby, before heading to Mérida by bus or flying from Villahermosa.
On the path of success (Two weeks)
Querétaro – San Miguel de Allende – Guanajuato –Dolores Hidalgo – San Luis Potosí – Zacatecas
Renting a car is the best way to explore the colonial cities of Mexico’s Bajío heartland. Querétaro’s historic core is packed with ornamental plazas surrounded by temples and convents, the important Museo Regional and impressive 1.3km-long, 18th-century aqueduct. Developed by the Spaniards in 1531, it was here that Father Hidalgo and his conspirators plotted their 1810 uprising.
An hour’s bus ride away, San Miguel de Allende is a colonial gem. Historically a protected area en route to the silver town of Zacatecas, then a bolt-hole for Guanajuato’s silver barons, the architecture and atmosphere of the city has been changed as American cultures have blended into the town, now full of wonderfully restored houses converted into stylish restaurants and hotels.
Drive on to Guanajuato – though steel yourself for the bewildering maze of subterranean roads jammed into a narrow gorge. Stroll round the plazuelas and baroque churches before taking the funicular railway up to the El Pípila monument for magnificent views across the city.
On the road to Dolores Hidalgo, stop at Valenciana, home to a silver mine that opened in 1548 and was for hundreds of years the richest in the world. The wealth paid for nearby Templo Valenciana, built in 1788. Within 20 years the prosperity that funded the Spanish crown was the root of frustrations that caused Father Hidalgo to issue the ‘Cry for Independence’ on 16 September 1810 from the church in Dolores Hidalgo. Today, the small town has a museum in Hidalgo’s house – a must-see for every Mexican schoolchild.
The colonial centre and regional capital, San Luis Potosí was once a revolutionary hotbed; it’s now a culturally active university town.
Zacatecas, one of Mexico’s finest cities, has a spectacular cathedral and museums displaying every aspect of the area’s history and culture. Edén Mine – the source of much of this affluence – welcomes visitors, and the view from La Bufa hilltop, reached by cable car, is a memorable end to a trip through Mexico’s gilded silver cities.