Hire yourself a set of wheels to explore this huge, varied but eminently driveable country, and discover some of its best-kept secrets.
Formed by the confluence of six rivers, Barranca
del Cobre (Copper Canyon) is so vast it could swallow the Grand Canyon
whole. Unlike its better-known cousin in the United States, Copper Canyon is
verdant with pine, fir, oak and fig trees. The best way to see it is via a 600km,
12-hour train journey, the Ferrocarril
Chihuahua al Pacifoco. Most visitors content themselves with the 20-minute
stop in the town of Divisadero to take vertigo-inducing photos. More intrepid travellers
can venture deeper into the canyon floor to meet the indigenous Tarahumara people who,
due to the terrain, have become excellent endurance runners.
Espíritu Santo, Mexico
This Unesco-listed nature reserve situated off the coast of Baja California is
a must-see for its breathtaking sheer red cliffs, windswept sand dunes and
flawless turquoise bays. The wildlife that inhabits this otherworldly landscape
is similarly extraordinary. Day-trippers can view grey whales, swim with manta
rays and sea lions, and then sleep at the island’s only lodging, the seasonal Baja Camp (operational from June to September), which
offers sybaritic delights like good wine, gourmet meals and all the stargazing
you can handle.
The second-largest historic centre outside of Mexico City, Merida’s streets are
lined with grand mansions from the town’s boom years as the centre of the sisal
trade in the early 20th Century. Some are little more than crumbling
ruins, others have been renovated into stately homes and hotels. Take a walking
tour of some of the grandest interiors every Wednesday, departing from the Merida English Library. The Cathedral
of San Ildefonso, built in 1599 over an ancient Maya temple, is also a
must-see with its rare pipe organ.
Chiapas is a land of lakes and waterfalls, an image not normally associated
with Mexico. The Reserva
de la Biosfera el Triunfo is home to remarkable birdlife like the
Respendent Quetzal. The cultural heart of the state is the ancient Maya city of
Palenque. While not as large as some Aztec and Toltec ruins, the remarkable
detail of the carvings and frescoes have taught archaeologists much of what
they know about Mayan life. Take a dip in the nearby Cataratas de Agua Azul waterfalls, where the high mineral content makes this water run a preposterous blue and,
over many years, has encased fallen logs in a white crust of stone.
Many visitors pass over Unesco World Heritage city Guanajuato in favour of
nearby expat haven San Miguele de Allende, but in truth, Guanajuato is far more
charming and lively. The city was founded in 1559 due to the region’s rich
silver and gold deposits, and today you will find opulent colonial buildings,
stunning tree-filled plazas and brightly-coloured houses crammed onto the steep
slopes of a ravine. Beneath the city, a catacomb of mining tunnels act as roads
and byways to avoid the cobblestone streets above.
Lesser-known than its flashy coastal counterparts Acapulco, Cancun and Cabo, Mazatlán
offers more subtle charms for the intrepid traveller. This central Pacific coast
port city – located in the state of Sinaloa parallel to the southern tip of the
Baja California peninsula – is finally shaking off its slightly tacky
reputation thanks to a large-scale restoration of the historic centre to its
original Spanish Colonial glory. Stroll the Centro Historico, watch cliff
divers launch themselves off the craggy headland containing the lighthouse El
Faro, or take a boat trip to one of the city’s three islands, the most popular
of which is Isla de Venados (Deer Island).
Formerly a shark-fishing town, the tiny barrier island of Isla Holbox is on the
northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. It is home to the largest migration of whale
sharks on the planet, with more than 2,000 passing by every summer (May to
August). Small runabouts ferry snorkellers to the feeding grounds to swim with
the placid filter feeders. It is worth paying the extra propina (tip)
to swim with the manta rays, which are often spotted on the return journey.
Their loop-the-loop feeding is enchanting.
A 1.3 million acre conservation area on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, close to the
town of Tulum, Sian Ka’an was established in 1986 as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve
and happily, more land keeps being added under this protection all the time.
The Mayan name translates to “where the sky was born”, and the place lives up
to its lofty title thanks to seemingly endless lagoons, mangroves, jungle and cenotes (underground rivers unique to
the Yucatan Peninsula). The reserve is renowned for its biodiversity and many
of the plants, animals and birds cannot be found anywhere else. The site also
contains well-preserved 2,000-year-old Mayan archaeological ruins, and several
tour companies, like the Mayan-run Community
Tours Sian Ka’an, offer day trips into the reserve for swimming, kayaking,
bird watching and hiking.
This low-key fishing village and port in the state of Oaxaca, on Mexico’s
mid-Pacific coast, has remained fairly under-the-radar with travellers apart
from one crucial demographic: surfers. That is largely because of a little
beach break called Zicatela – also known as the Mexican Pipeline, after the
legendary Hawaiian break – which put Mexican surfing on the map. In season, from
May to July, waves can reach 30ft or more. The experience here is all about the
beach, whether you are surfing yourself or just watching the pros. Do not let
the legendary waves intimidate you though: several Puerto Escondido beaches,
like Playa Carrizalillo, offer ideal conditions for beginners.
This small bohemian seaside village north of Puerto Vallarta in the Pacific
state of Nayarit used to be the province of a small group of in-the-know surf
buffs who gathered for the dependably good north swell from December through
April. But that is beginning to change as travellers from all the over the
world discover the town’s charms. Visit while Sayulita is still low-key, all
unspoiled beaches, charmingly rustic seafood restaurants on the sand and quirky
cafes and boutiques.
The article 'On the trail of Mexico’s best-kept secrets' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.