Americans have long made the trek south of the border to get away from it all. In the ‘50s and ‘60s it was Acapulco. In the ‘90s and 2000s it was Cancún and Los Cabos. And over the last five years, Mexico City has soared to the top of everyone’s list.
Like wolves — or perhaps lemmings — Americans tend to travel in packs, a trend that has only intensified with the advent of Instagram, the viral internet and our collective ability to turn secret places into tourist traps in a matter of months. Ten years ago Tulum was more or less a sleepy hippie beach town; now Dior is hosting pop-up shops there.
Of course, this issue has only been magnified this year, with American tourists flocking back to Mexico in huge numbers amid relaxed COVID-19 travel restrictions. According to the New York Times, ticket sales from the U.S. to Mexico for Q3 are already up more than 30% versus the same period in 2019 — i.e., six months before the pandemic arrived. The vast majority of those tourists will be congregating in the same close quarters: the mega-resorts and high-capacity hotels clustered around the destinations we name-checked at the top of this article.
But here’s the thing about Mexico that many travelers tend to forget: it’s a huge country. The 14th largest in the world, in fact. Diverse in both its ecosystems and its cultural history, there’s much more to do and see than the typical American vacation would have you believe.
With that in mind, we chatted with seven Mexico City locals about the places they love that most Americans have probably never heard of. It doesn’t mean you should give up on the popular destinations entirely — just consider saving them for your next trip, when you can hoefully enjoy them with a little more peace of mind.
A very rustic setting located in a national park on Oaxaca’s Pacific coast comprising dozens of small lagoons as well as a beach. According to Zeltzin, it’s a very untouristic area and you kind of do what you want once you arrive, relaxing on the beach or near the lagoons. Stay in a cabana, which you can find on Airbnb or other booking sites, but don’t expect anything luxurious. It’s also a hotspot for diverse wildlife with tons of bird species and quite a few reptiles and mammals as well. Combine this with a trip to nearby Puerto Escondido for a slightly more luxurious beach vacation.
Valle, as it’s known, is a common weekend getaway for Mexico City’s bourgeoisie. It’s a town nestled in the mountains along Lake Avandaro, and there are plenty of water sports and outdoor activities on offer (paragliding, for example, is a popular way to see the whole valley).It’s a great eating and drinking destination as well: Sam recommends eating at La Trattoria Toscana, a top-notch Italian joint, or one of the barge restaurants on the lake that sling superb seafood. As Sam started one of the most well-regarded hotels in Mexico City, you should trust him when he recommends staying at Hotel Rodavento in the center of town (and its great rooftop, he adds). And if you’re there between November and February, you should 100% visit the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, which is about 30 minutes out of town and serves as the over-wintering ground for Monarch Butterflies from all over North America. It’s quite the spectacle to behold, and a Unesco World Heritage site.
Cuetzalan is a rather small and old town in the hills of Puebla. It has a government designation as a “Pueblo Mágico,” one of many throughout Mexico. Paulina suggests visiting the beautiful Church of San Francisco, the open-air markets they set up on Sundays in the town square, and the Pre-Columbian Archaelogical site of Yohualichan. Also, drink some yolixpa, a local herbal drink.
Bernal itself is a small town in the shadow of one of the largest monoliths in the world, Peña de Bernal. According to Lorenzo, the beauty of staying in Bernal is not necessarily in the town itself, but the access to a wide variety of nearby ecosystems you have at your disposal. Queretaro is probably Mexico’s second most well-known wine region (after Baja) so you’ll be footsteps from countless vineyards. The beautiful Sierra Gorda National Park is also nearby for outdoor adventuring. Lorenzo recommends renting a car and exploring the area over the course of three or four days.
La Antigua is a municipality in the gulf state of Veracruz. It’s name roughly translates to “The Old Place,” which makes sense since it’s considered the home of the first Spanish colonial town in Mexico. There, you can visit Hernan Cortes’s house as well as the oldest church in the Americas. For history buffs, Augosto also recommends visiting the archaeological zone of Zempoala, an important Mesoamerican site. You can stay either in the nearby town of Jose Cardel, or, as Augosto suggests, Playa de Chachalacas, which features a long beach of packed sand and calm waters. Perfect for a beach location with some serious history folded in.
The culture in Juchitan is incredibly unique. It’s home to the indigenous Zapotecas, and their language, Zapotec, is spoken much more frequently than other native languages throughout Mexico. The gastronomy there is also very unique: while it’s technically illegal, you can dine on exotic game like armadillos and iguanas. Finally, their approach to sexuality and gender is incredibly unique: there is a booming third-gender population known as muxes who are celebrated by young and old alike. Weekend festivals known as Velas are common, including a major one in November that serves to honor the muxes.
Meaning “Copper Canyon,” this area in Northwest Mexico is actually made up of six separate canyons featuring copper-colored walls. It’s a prime adventure destination with canyoning, biking, horseback riding and rafting. Cuco says the ChePe, a train that runs through the canyons, is also a must for the beautiful views. Stay at the five-star Hotel Mirador for easy train access and prime canyon views.
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