1: Ride ‘El Chepe’ into Copper Canyon
El Chepe rumbling into the Copper Canyon (Graeme Green)
One of the world’s great rail journeys, the Chihuahua al Pacifico (or ‘El Chepe’) runs 405 miles between Chihuahua and Los Mochis in northwest Mexico. It’s a step back in time, an engineering marvel that took 90 years to build.
The train rumbles through the foothills of the Sierra Madre, climbing into forests of pine trees and 30ft cacti, crossing rivers on high bridges and disappearing through long tunnels. At points along the way, deep gorges drop away on either side of the rails to rushing rivers below.
That’s the journey, but the destination – and the real reason for coming this way – is the mighty Copper Canyon. At over 6,500ft, the Barrancas del Cobre is deeper than the Grand Canyon and at least four times larger, a network of 11 canyons sprawling across 60,000 square miles of rugged red rock landscapes.
The remote mountains, rivers and valleys are ideal for outdoor activities, from hiking and climbing to biking and horse-riding, as well as being home to the Raramuri Indians, famous for their stamina in long distance running.
The area around Divisadero Barrancas is a giant adventure playground, with a cable car crossing into the heart of the canyon, a challenging via ferrata and a zipline adventure tour that zooms tourists from point to point.
It’s also worth making a beeline for Batopilas, deep in the remote canyons, to explore the old silver mines and enjoy local life in the small town.
One key tip for El Chepe: be sure to ride from Chihuahua into the Copper Canyon and then on to Los Mochis, rather than starting from Los Mochis doing it the other way. If not, journey timings mean you might pass through some of the most scenic stretches in darkness.
2: Get arty in Mexico City
The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo (Graeme Green)
Mexico City has to be one of the world’s most underrated or ignored capitals, though any savvy travellers who make it here usually returns singing the city’s praises. A lively, thriving city, it’s one of the world’s giants, with 18 million people in Mexico City, 23 million if you include the surrounding valley.
The city is the cultural heart of Mexico, with an incredible number of impressive museums and galleries, not least the unmissable Museo Nacional de Antopologia, which is filled with fascinating sculptures, artworks and everyday objects from Mayan, Aztec and other pre-Hispanic cultures.
Similarly unmissable for art lovers is the ‘Blue House’ in Colonia del Carmen, the house where Mexican heroine Frida Kahlo was born, worked and spent her last days, as well as spending time with fellow artist Diego Rivera.
Some of Kahlo’s works are close by in Museo Dolores Olmedo, which is, awkwardly, the former home of Rivera’s mistress, alongside some of Rivera’s paintings.
You’ll also want to head to the Museo De Arte Moderno, home to one of Frida Kahlo’s most famous works, Las Dos Fridas, and to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, whose walls are covered by the giant, colourful and bold political murals of Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros.
Across town, you can take in centuries of Mexican history, from original, indigenous cultures through the Conquest and Inquisition and on to Independence and Revolution, simply by standing before Rivera’s mural Mexico a Traves de los Sigloes, which surrounds the main staircase of the Palacio Nacional.
But you’ll find art almost anywhere, from the large-scale modern sculptures by the sides of city streets to the boutiques and galleries of Polanco.
There’s plenty more to take in in Mexico City, including Templo Mayor, an Aztec pyramid right in the heart of downtown, the mariachis and tequila bars on Plaza Garibaldi, the colourful canalways of Xochimilico or the full-on Mexican experience of Lucha Libra (Mexican wrestling) complete with colourful masks and costumes.
3: Rev up for a road trip
Streets of Izamal, the 'Yellow City' (Graeme Green)
A country as massive as Mexico has vast possibilities for exploring off-the-beaten-track hidden corners, far from tourist hotspots like Cancun or Baja California. It’s not a country that crosses many travellers’ minds for a road trip. But there are plenty of solid, fast, well-paved roads in much of the country to explore areas many other tourists miss.
With a road trip in the Yucatan, for example, it’s possible to leave behind the likes of over-run Cancun and Chichén Itzá to head instead for the bohemian and quieter beaches of Tulum, up to the state capital of Merida, 2017’s American Capital of Culture, the ‘yellow city’ of Izamal, and to archeological sites like Uxmal, which have much of the mystery and power of other better known sites, just with a fraction of the visitors.
In a car, you can set out with a map in a car in almost any direction and it won’t be long before you see a sign pointing to Mayan ruins, a crumbly old hacienda or a cenote (water-filled sinkholes) to check out. If time allows, you could venture deeper, into the little-known states of Chiapas and Oaxaca.
Alternatively, consider a road trip from Mexico City to the Pacific coast, first heading for the pyramids of Teotihuacan, then into the hills and valleys of the Baijo, with Spanish colonial towns and churches and the artists’ haven San Miguel de Allende, before getting some beach time at Zihuatanejo.
Wherever you go, there’ll be no schedule and no climbing in and out of a tour van, just the freedom to spontaneously explore on your own clock.
4: Feel warm and fuzzy-headed in Tequila
Tequila tasting room (Graeme Green)
In an alternate universe somewhere, party animals are getting drunk by knocking back fiery shots of a spirit called Amatitan. In fact, some of the residents of the Mexican town of Amatitan would rather that was the case in this universe, arguing that the drink known around the world as ‘tequila’, Mexico’s national drink, originated in Amatitan. They claim the fiery spirit only took on the name 'tequila' because the trains that used to export bottles of the spirit from the region out to Mexico and beyond headed out from the nearby town of Tequila.
Whatever the truth, it’s worth knowing that tequila is far tastier, more varied and nowhere near as rough as the cheap stuff often to get drink at British parties. In fact, serious tequila makers are a bit miffed that people use salt and lime to mask the taste of something they’ve worked hard on.
Like good whisky, proper tequila, made from 100 per cent agave (not bolstered by sugar), has complexity and a flavour worth savouring.
As with Champagne, tequila is geographically specific. To bear the name, tequila has to have been made in one of five Mexican regions, the main one being Jalisco. The heart of Jalisco is the town of Tequila itself in the reddish hills of the Sierra Madre, where jimadores (farmers) work the surrounding fields to grow and harvest massive agave plants, the drink's main ingredient.
The town itself is undeniably touristy, with shops and stalls selling tequila of varying qualities in novelty bottles shaped like barrels or guns. But it’s worth taking a walk around, dropping in on producers to try their goods and strolling the warm streets with a fuzzy head, and to stay overnight, when the tourist buses leave behind a pleasantly quiet little town.
5: Witness the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
Dancers at the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca (Dreamstime)
The Day of the Dead (Nov 2) is celebrated across Mexico in different ways, from contemplative events at home with food laid out for relatives who’ve passed away to, thanks to the latest Bond film, a Spectre-inspired parade with floats and giant skeletons in Mexico City.
But the fascinating state of Oaxaca is the spiritual home of El Dia de los Muertos. A combination of Catholicism (All Saints Day and All Souls Day) and pre-Hispanic cultures, the Day of the Dead shouldn’t be confused with Halloween, which it predates.
Festivities start up to a week early in and around Oaxaca City. The event has its sombre religious and spiritual moments, as people remember lost loved ones, including children. But the Day of the Dead is also intended as a celebration of life, with music and dance inside Oaxaca City’s main cemetery Panteon General, colourful marketplaces in the city and surrounding villages, and locals and travellers cramming into local cemeteries to witness vigils and rituals.
There are also lively nighttime parties and carnival-esque processions that pass through the streets, many of those taking part wearing traditional dress or spooky ghost/skeleton face paint.
Oaxaca’s also famous for it’s cuisine, including varieties of chillies, herbs and mole (chocolate chill sauce), as well as mezcal, Tequila’s smokier, smoother and, many say, tastier cousin.
6: Try not to wake the Sleeping Lady
Iztaccihuatl, the 'Sleeping Lady' (Dreamstime)
Unlike Nepal or Peru, Mexico doesn’t instantly spring to mind for great hiking, but an increasingly popular day trip is a hike up dormant Iztaccihuatl volcano, the third highest peak in Mexico. The volcano’s known as the ‘Sleeping Woman’ or ‘White Woman’, from the Aztec language; viewed from the right angle, the four snowy peaks resemble the shape of a woman lying on her back.
The day hike usually starts with an early pick-up from Mexico City and a van ride out to begin the hike from up at around 3500-4000 metres. From the day hike’s highest point, as well as catching your breath and taking photos, you’ll have views of the Mexico Valley and the still-active Popocatepetl volcano (or ‘Popo’ for short), which means ‘smoking mountain,’ before descending and returning to Mexico. High altitudes aren’t for everyone, so be cautious.
The day hikes don’t go all the way to the summit, but there is a longer, more adventurous three-day trip, which involves making it to the summit via the La Arista del Sol (The Ridge of the Sun), which climbs past the sleeping woman’s feet, up the knees, across the stomach and, rather impolitely, onto the breasts.
Still not satisfied? You could consider taking on the ‘Three Peaks’, a trio of Mexico’s highest peaks, including Iztaccíhuatl (5230 metres), Ajusco (3,930 metres) and Nevado de Toluca (4680 metres), though it’s quite a hardcore mission and not for everyone.
7: Feel the Mayan magic in the Yucatan
El Castillo pyramid at Chichén Itzá (Graeme Green)
Between AD250 to AD900, the Mayan civilization spread right across Mexico and parts of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. What’s now the famous archeological site of Chichén Itzá was previously one of the empire’s largest cities, an important religious centre for rituals and ceremonies.
The Yucatán’s most famous Mayan site, Chichén Itzá gets around 2.2 million visit each year, who come for guided tours of the towering El Castillo pyramid, the Temple of Kukulcan, the Jaguar Temple and the Great Ball Court, an arena for ancient ballgames, possibly using severed heads.
There are still elaborate carvings of warriors, skulls and the Mayan feathered snake god Kukulkan, whose meanings often remaining a mystery. Consider staying nearby overnight and watching the light show. Although the narration is in Spanish, the high tech light show hitting the main pyramids is surprisingly impressive.
It’s worth also visiting the temple complex of Cobá, an older site than Chichén Itzá, not least to climb the steep steps up Nohoch Mul, the highest Mayan pyramid in the Yucatán, which has views over the jungle stretching green to the horizon, as well as the stelae (big carvings and inscriptions).
Tulum, too, near the bohemian beach hangout town, might lack the scale of Chichén Itzá, but has a fine view of the Caribbean sea.
These are the better known sites, but if you’re feeling really adventurous, it’s easy to strike out from the mainstream tours and find Mayan ruins across the region, often enjoying them all by yourself.
8: Make big new friends in the “World’s Aquarium”
Gray whale calf in Baja California (Dreamstime)
Jacques Cousteau called the waters of Baja California, off the northwest coast of Mexico, “the world’s aquarium”, because there’s so much life here. Boat trips here bring chances to see blue whales, humpacks, fin whales, sperm whales, dolphins and possibly orcas.
But for an up-close encounter, adventurous souls should paddle out on a kayaking trip. Most tours leave from the colonial city of Loreto and for the blue waters of the Sea of Cortez where who-knows-what might pop up above the surface next to your kayak. To maximize your chances of making new friends, though, sign up for a kayak tour of Magdalena Bay, a calving lagoon for gray whales. You’re likely to see more whales, as well as dolphins and sea lions, as you cross the Baja Peninsula.
Still not close enough? Find a good diving company and you can head out to the islands to scuba dive around the sea lion colonies, where friendly curious pups allow you to stroke them like dogs, or go out on a whale shark tour, jumping into the water to swim alongside these magnificent bus-sized marine mammoths.
Lovers of marine lovers might also want to head down to the Riviera Maya, in the south of the country, which also has whale sharks, creatures large and small, and some of the country’s top diving, especially around the diving island of Cozumel.
9: Get the binoculars out in Chiapas
Scarlet Macaws (Dreamstime)
Chiapas is Mexico’s southernmost state, bordering Guatemala. It’s also one of the least visited. Those that make it here often come to explore the dense green rainforests, rushing rivers (great for rafting) and mountainous Highlands, and to visit the colourful Spanish colonial towns and Mayan archeological sites scattered around the remote region, including magnificent Palenque, Bonampak and Yaxchilan.
Increasingly, though it’s Chiapas’ reputation as a birding destination that’s luring people here. This is a chance for enthusiasts to spot endangered Scarlet Macaws, the Chiapas countryside the only remaining area of Mexico where the bright red birds can be seen in the wild.
Keen-eyed Twitchers should also watch out for toucans, parrots, parakeets, King Vultures and White Hawks, woodcreepers and more in the Lacandon jungle, with colourful species like the Red-faced Warbler and Blue-throated Motmot in the Highlands.
It’s worth making time to relax too in the colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a peaceful place with colourful streets that makes a pleasant stop for a day or two.
10: Take a balloon ride to remember
Pyramids at Teotihuacán (Graeme Green)
Just a half hour’s drive from Mexico City, Teotihuacán is a pre-Hispanic holy city, the name meaning “the place where the gods were created.” It’s one of the country’s most visited sites, travellers coming here to climb the steep steps of the Pyramid of the Sun and the adjacent Pyramid of the Moon, and to stroll down the connecting Street of the Dead. Despite its popularity, the site is large enough not to feel too crowded.
To really get away from the tourists though and to get a memorable perspective on the vast archaeological site, float skywards in a hot air balloon and drift over the ruins. You’ll get a completely different feel for the magnitude of the palaces, pyramids and ball courts from the sky and an added appreciation of the work that went into building them.
At its peak, the city stretched across 36 square kilometres. The main ceremonial centre represents just 10 per cent of the total area.
Back on Earth, make time to take a look around the site on foot. To walk in this ancient city and climb the pyramids is to take an atmospheric trip through history.
The author travelled in Mexico with Journey Latin America, Latin America specialists who arrange tailor-made tour across different areas of Mexico, including Mexico City, Baja California, Copper Canyon and the Yucatan, as well as Brazil, Ecuador, Chile, Peru and more. For details, see www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk or call 0203 553 1502, or check out Wanderlust’s Tripfinder (www.wanderlust.co.uk/journey-latin-america) for inspiring holiday ideas across Latin America.
Graeme Green is a travel writer and photographer. For more, see www.graeme-green.com. Follow him on Instagram at www.instagram.com/graeme.green/.
Main image: Local man and former silver miner walking through Copper Canyon (Graeme Green)