Chapter OneThe Best of Mexico
I love Mexico. I am totally besotted, head-over-heels, foolishly in love with the entire country. Because of this, I'm quick to recognize that this is not a country that can be easily categorized-the land is too big and beautiful and the culture is simply too superlative. For some, a best could be a night spent in a graveyard in Mexico City on the Day of the Dead, drinking hot chocolate and quietly talking to families cleaning graves; for others it's the crispy crunch of a ceviche tostada from a street stand in Ensenada, or grabbing a rail before vanishing into the curl at the Mexican pipeline, or dropping down a tricky single track in the shadow of a pyramid in the Yucatan, or the first touch of a masseuse's hands on shoulders burning from a week of kayaking in the Sea of Cortez, or crawling home at dawn after an all-night dancing session almost anywhere in the country.
Mexico can be all things to all people if you open yourself to it. It excels at many things, and delights all five senses-it's very much a sensualist's delight, warm, tropical, and spicy when you want it, or soothing when you don't. While its beach resorts are what seduce initially, you should head inland, even just a few miles, to get a full sense of Mi tierra, which means so much more than the simplistic English translation "my earth." Mi tierra encompasses everything from a landscape defined by the sun and storm, to childhood memories, to the prick and smell of nopales. It means love, refuge, honor, and home. And it symbolizes the very essence, if you will, of the country itself.
Calling Mexico mi tierra is no hyperbole. This land has a soul and a depth that demands a relationship from those who walk, work, or play upon it. As a tourist, you'll get but a hint of its richness. You can surf its waves, rescue its turtles, fly through its trees, or cycle up its dirt roads into the Sierra Madre, and at the end of it say you've tasted some of the flavor of Mexico. But you'll want to come back again and again to get a true feeling for mi tierra, and to be able to call it that yourself.
While I encourage you to seek out your own favorite things in Mexico, what follows is an abbreviated list of this amazing country's best activities, places, tastes, and moments to get you started.
Best Only-in-Mexico Experiences
* All the world may be a stage, but some parts have richer backdrops than others. Mexico's town plazas are the perfect settings for watching everyday life unfold. Alive with people, these open spaces are no modern product of urban planners, but are rooted in the traditional Mexican view of society. Several plazas are standouts.
One look tells you how important Oaxaca's zocalo (see chapter 14) is to the local citizenry; the plaza is remarkably beautiful, grand, and intimate all at once. Mexico City's Alameda (see chapter 3) has a dark, dramatic history-heretics were burned at the stake here during the colonial period-but today it's a people's park where lovers sit, cotton-candy vendors spin their treats, and the sound of organ grinders drifts over the changing crowd.
San Miguel de Allende's Jardin (see chapter 4) is the focal point for meeting, sitting, painting, and sketching. During festivals, it fills with dancers, parades, and elaborate fireworks. And El Centro in Merida (see chapter 6) on a Sunday simply can't be beat.
* Mexicans have such a passion for fireworks and such a cavalier attitude toward them that it's a good thing most buildings here are stone and cement, or the whole country would have burned down long ago. Practically every festival includes a display. The most lavish are the large constructions known as castillos, and the wildest are the toros that men carry over their shoulders while running through the streets, causing festival-goers to dive for cover. Some of the best displays go off in San Miguel de Allende (see chapter 4).
* Wherever there's a seafront road, you'll find a malecon bordering it. This is generally a wide sidewalk for strolling, complete with vendors selling things like pinwheels and cotton candy. In some places, it has supplanted the plaza as a centerpiece of town life. The best examples are in Puerto Vallarta (see chapter 9), Mazatlan (see chapter 10), and La Paz (see chapter 8).
* Nothing reveals the soul of a people like music, and Mexico boasts many kinds in many different settings. You can find brassy, belt-it-out mariachi music in the famous Plaza de Garibaldi in Mexico City (see chapter 3). For something far punkier, you can pay a visit to MultiKulti in Tijuana (p. 328). This collective operates out of a burnt-out movie theater off Revolucion, in a roofless amphitheater that books punk bands as well as DJs and speakers like Chiapas rebel Subcommandante Marcos.
Best Beach Vacations
* Puerto Vallarta is the only place in Mexico where authentic colonial ambience truly mixes with resort amenities. The spectacularly wide Banderas Bay here offers 42km (26 miles) of beaches. Some, like Playa Los Muertos-the popular public beach in town-abound with palapa restaurants, beach volleyball, and parasailing. See chapter 9.
* The best overall beach value in Mexico, Puerto Escondido, is principally known for its world-class surfing beach, Playa Zicatela. The surrounding beaches all have their own appeal; colorful fishing pangas dot the central town beach, parked under the shade of palms leaning so far over they almost touch the ground. Puerto Escondido offers unique accommodations at excellent prices, with exceptional budget dining and nightlife. See chapter 13.
* The side-by-side resorts Ixtapa/ Zihuatanejo offer beach-goers the best of both worlds: Serene simplicity and resort comforts. For those in search of a back-to-basics beach, the best and most beautiful is Playa La Ropa, close to Zihuatanejo. The wide beach at Playa Las Gatas, with its restaurants and snorkeling sites, is also a great place to play. The luxury hotels in Ixtapa, on the next bay over from Zihuatanejo, front Playa Palmar, a fine, wide swath of beach. See chapter 12.
* Despite extensive damage from October 2005's Hurricane Wilma, Cancun's legendary beaches are back to their own splendid selves, thanks in large part to a US$19-million, government-sponsored beach renewal program. In terms of sheer beauty, Cancun and the coastline of the Yucatan state of Quintana Roo have always boasted Mexico's best beaches. The powdery, white-sand beaches boast water the color of a Technicolor dream; it's so clear you can see through to the coral reefs below. Cancun also offers the widest assortment of luxury beachfront hotels, and more restaurants, nightlife, and activities than any other resort destination in the country. See chapter 5.
* Fronting some of the best beaches on Mexico's Caribbean coast, Tulum's small palapa hotels offer guests a little slice of paradise far from crowds and megaresorts. The bustling town lies inland; at the coast, things are quiet and will remain so because all these hotels are small and must generate their own electricity. If you can pull yourself away from the beach, nearby are ruins to explore and a vast nature preserve. See chapter 6.
* There's only one main beach at Isla Mujeres-Playa Norte-but it's superb. From this island, you can dive El Garrafon reef, snorkel offshore, and take a boat excursion to the Isla Contoy national wildlife reserve, which features great birding and a fabulous, uninhabited beach. See "Isla Mujeres" in chapter 6.
* Playa del Carmen is Mexico's hip beach destination with a dash of thirdworld chic. Above all, it's easy and low key. You walk to the beach, you walk back to the hotel, you walk to one of the many good restaurants. Next day, you repeat. The beaches are white sand; the water is clear blue and perfect for swimming. If you feel the urge to be active, not far away are ancient Maya ruins, Cozumel, and the megaresort of Cancun, offering all the variety that you might want in a beach vacation. See chapter 6.
* The state capital La Paz borders a lovely beach, dotted with colorful playgrounds and lively open-air restaurants. Take a cue from the local residents, though, and pass on swimming here in favor of the exquisite beaches just minutes from downtown. La Paz's beaches and the islets just offshore have transformed this tranquil town into a center for diving, sea kayaking, and other adventure pursuits. See chapter 8.
* Dramatic rock formations and crashing waves mix with wide stretches of soft sand and a rolling break at Los Cabos. Though some beaches here are more appropriate for contemplation than for swimming, that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Start at Playa Palmilla by San Jose del Cabo, and work your way down the Corridor to the famed Playa Amor in Cabo San Lucas. See chapter 8.
* While Mexico doesn't have the quantity of backpacker hostels that Europe does, there are still outposts of civilized group communalism happening in places, like the Oasis (p. 450) in Puerto Vallarta where $130 will get you a safe cozy bunk, or the Paulina Youth Hostel (p. 625) in a modernized colonial-era building, newly remodeled and upgraded, in the heart of Oaxaca city.
* In Puerto Escondido, check out the Hotel Mayflower (p. 600). Like the best hostels anywhere, you probably won't get any sleep and the accommodations are less than, ahem, resortlike, but the ambience is totally casual, and it's affordable if not dirt cheap. Most important, it's popular with travelers from all over the world who come to share travel tips, stories, and food.
Best Hotels That Don't Feel Like Hotels
Mexico is filled to the brim with wonderful small hotels. Some are B&Bs with just a half dozen rooms, while others are slightly larger and boast world-class restaurants and spas. In both cases, the experience of staying at a small hotel is the polar opposite of staying at one of the country's massive resorts. The boutique hotels sometimes cost a little more but are well worth it; they bring home the essence of the place where you're staying, melding both historical ambience with creature comforts.
* Casa Natalia (p. 371), in Baja's San Jose, is a perfect example, since it manages to be both high-end and minimalist, and soothing and seductive.
* Over in La Paz, Angel Azul (p. 421), is inexpensive and down-home friendly, but with great amenities, as are Casa Bentley (p. 435), in Todos Santos; La Casona (p. 96), in Mexico City; Casa Catrina (p. 628), in Oaxaca; the Melville (p. 496) and Casa de las Leyendas (p. 495) in Mazatlan; and Posada Corazon (p. 162) and Villa Scorpio (p. 161), in San Miguel de Allende. There are more, of course. Delve into the "Sleeping" sections of each chapter for info.
* One of the dangers of visiting the Pacific Coast in late summer is the chance that your trip will involve a hurricane. If you're lucky, you'll be trapped at Majahuitas (p. 454), an impossibly perfect all-inclusive miniresort snuggled into a tiny protected cove on the cusp of Puerto Vallarta's Cabo Corrientes. It's totally off the grid, every grid-electrical, mental, and cosmological. This rustic yet high-end spot is so remote, the only mechanical sound you'll hear is the occasional put-put of a water taxi passing off shore. That's a very good thing.
* In Cancun, El Rey del Caribe (p. 192) is another grid-free possibility, a hacienda-style hotel in the jungle, smothered in orchids, with a vegetarian-friendly menu, solar-powered electricity, and a full-service spa. It perfectly straddles the line between old and new Mexico. You want tai chi classes with your cable channels? No problemo.
* La Casa Que Canta (p. 564) is one of the world's best resorts, in my opinion. On the bay of Zihuatanejo, nestled amid banana trees and palms framing the sea, it's a romantic never-never land, complete with infinity pools and blue-flash sunsets.
* One&Only Palmilla (p. 385) is currently the most popular Mexican resort with the Hollywood crowd; the completely renovated Palmilla has regained its spot as the most deluxe hotel in this seaside playground known for sumptuous accommodations and great golf. The exceptional spa, fitness center, and yoga garden, as well as a restaurant under the direction of renowned chef Charlie Trotter, are added bonuses.
Don't worry. Eating from street stands is an essential part of visiting Mexico and it's safe if you take precautions (see "Health & Safety," in "Basics")-plus you'll never find a cheaper, better sidewalk meal this side of Bangkok.
* Ensenada's Mariscos La Guerrerense (p. 346) makes ceviche like nowhere else-13 types from shrimp to octopus, clam, and sea urchin, all on small crunchy tortillas and served with a whole zoo of startling homemade sauces. They keep the fish on ice and have been on the same street corner for nearly 50 years, for a good reason.
* Hangman's in San Jose del Cabo (p. 373) is an example of what happens when a street stand grows up and puts on a tarp roof. Off the beaten path yet populated with locals and visiting surfers in the know, it feels more like a circus setting than a place to eat. Amazing turkey tacos, charro beans, and flor de calabaza sauces are all on the menu. It doesn't get more real or savory than this.
* In the Yucatan on Isla Mujeres, the Playa Lancheros Restaurant (p. 226) is the sort of place where everyone digs in with their fingers, plucking apart spiced fish prepared in the Tikin Xic style (like whole red snappers rubbed with bitter orange and chiles and baked in wood-fired ovens).
* In Oaxaca, everyone stops by Tlayudas del Libres (p. 636) after a night of drinking for amazing tlayudas, huge handmade tortillas crisped on live coals, plastered with black beans (seasoned with avocado leaf) and salsa, and topped with tasajo (half-dried salted beef).
* El Tacon de Marlin, next to the airport in Puerto Vallarta (p. 457), has amazing smoked marlin, stuffed into a grilled burrito with sweet-sour mayo dressing and a side of jicama. After tasting one, you might want to book another flight just to know you'll be coming back for more soon.
Best Reasons to Stay Up 'til Dawn
* Mexico has countless amazing bars and clubs, but let's start with Mexico City's Pervert Lounge (p. 109). Doesn't the name just say it all? Here you can dance to electronica, acid-jazz, and trip-hop until dawn with models and geeks, students, and bohos. It's a tiny place, totally decked out in Barbie dolls, trash containers, stuffed animals, and assorted pack rat craziness.
* In Cancun, the party scene has been taken to a whole new level at places like Coco Bongo (p. 201). Foam, lasers, neon confetti, and trapeze artists are all mixed up with a deafening soundtrack and thousands of sweating strangers pressed up against you.
* Acapulco's Palladium (p. 531) is another madhouse that's open way-late-this one comes with a dress-to-impress look and view of the bay that is the perfect backdrop to grooving and grinding.
* Mazatlan is where Senor Frog's (p. 502) insanity began: Super-tall drinks, conga lines, table dancing, thong contests, they've got it all. There are Senor Frog's all over Mexico these days, and they differ in quality-this is the country's best.
* In Cabo San Lucas, Squid Roe (p. 403) or the Giggling Marlin (p. 403) are the places to stop by for a fast tray of vodka-Jello before you get hung by your ankles in the harness for some gravity-defying tequila shots. (It's the marlin's revenge, get it?) Both are definitely places to party 'til you, well ... you know.
* The Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City (p. 117) is like the Louvre-except the art and culture here are way older. This is where you should come if you really want to touch the soul of Mexico. Its staggering 53,000-plus item collection shouldn't be missed.