1.) Mexico City
There really is no more fascinating city in the world than Mexico’s misunderstood capital. With a population of over 21 million (and a crime rate about a third of Washington, DC’s), Mexico City had a serious scrub-up for its bi-centennial, and now some places like mariachi-filled Plaza Garibaldi are considered (like Times Square in New York) safe enough to be a ‘Disney version’ of its former gritty self. Also, many restored colonial buildings show details long obscured by years of pollution build-up. Meanwhile, this ancient city built over a filled-in lake has Aztec canals, pyramids, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s old studio, and hipster dining in chic eateries of the Condesa and Polanco. That and a million other things.
Four hours inland from Cancún,Merida is ‘real Mexico,’ a colonial city of 750,000 lived-in and loved by locals and near several days’ worth of superb daytrips. It’s not only an underrated add-on from a beach vacation, but a destination in its own right. The city’s best on weekends, when the historical core – a scene of 17th-century cathedrals made from Mayan bricks – closes to vehicles and fills with open-air stages, taco stands and much life. By day, the Ruta Puuc is an easy DIY bus loop of Uxmal and four other interesting Mayan sites. To the northwest, you can tour flamingo-filled mangroves at the fishing village of Celestún.
3.) Todos Santos
If you’ve not been – and most haven’t – circle Todos Santos ‘ for the next Baja trip. Sure, some long-timers say it’s not what it used to be, as popularity has swelled (and its ‘gringo: Mexicano’ ratio has evened out), but it still beats the Cabo San Lucas condos for laid-back sense of peace in Baja Sur (incidentally one of Mexico’s safest states). A couple hours from the Cabo or La Paz airports, it’s a mountain-backed artist community near very good surfing beaches. You can easily drive into Sammy Hagar bars and boat trips at Cabo, then return for the quiet at night. Plus the Hotel California here likes to claim it’s the Hotel Califoria (it isn’t, but don’t tell them we said so).
4.) San Miguel de Allende
Yes, it’s obvious, and with reason. A bit of an American-expat go-to of the silver towns of the central highlands north of Mexico City (and two hours from the León airport), San Miguel de Allende is a stunner, with any worry of drug violence a distant rumor. The town itself – as seen in Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico – is the main attraction. A Unesco World Heritage site since 2008, the town of 62,000 is filled with handicraft shops, 17th-century cathedrals, botanic gardens, organic farmer restaurants and lovely (sometimes luxe) guesthouses.
If it’s resorts you want, Huatulco is a rare success story in recent resort development. This former fishing village has become the Oaxacan beach resort of choice lately, benefiting from its gentle development plan that keeps much of the 12 miles of sandy shoreline completely unspoiled and the town under six-stories high. Activities can fill several days. Snorkeling, diving, kayaking, surfing, cycling and rafting trips are easy to find, as are tours to waterfalls and coffee farms. There are flights in from Mexico City and Oaxaca City.
6.) Playa del Carmen
Speaking of forward-thinking resort towns, Playa del Carmen corrects nearly every mistake of Cancún’s Zona Hotelera just up the road of the Yucatán Peninsula. With direct buses to the Cancún airport, the ped-oriented Fifth Ave (‘La Quinta’ – where it’s wise to keep an eye out on your belongings after hours) is lined with bars, nightclubs, take-away tacos and tacky souvenirs. And it’s one block from the water. Yes, it’s touristy (particularly when the cruise ships are in), but you can keep walking north to more remote beaches where the crystal-clear water is home to some of the world’s better snorkeling (even better if you daytrip by boat to nearby Cozumel Island). Also consider renting a car and go cenote-hopping for a surreal dip in rain-filled limestone sinkholes.
A gorgeous hill town of 16th-century cathedrals and brightly colored homes on alleys ways and plazas lined with laurel trees, Guanajuato is best visited during October’s Festival Cervantino – a serious cultural extravaganza with orchestras, ballet folklórico, modern art, mariachis, Moroccan folk, Mexico City punk bands. And most of it’s free. At any time of year it’s a great hub for laid-back colonial life and a look at a mummy museum, plus a visit could easily be combined with nearby San Miguel de Allende. The town’s 30 minutes from León’s Bajío airport, or five hours by bus from Mexico City.
A ‘mini Mexico City’ – with a mere 1.5 million residents – Puebla is a colonial wonder city, packed with cathedrals and a wonderful museum devoted to ancient artifacts, and is far more manageable and laid-back than the size attests. The historic center is the place to stay, with building decked in azuelos (painted tiles) and many spots to sample the local taco árabe (Arabic taco), made of marinated pork served on Middle Eastern-style flat bread. (Try Las Ranas at Av 2 Pte 102). More adventurous should ask for escamoles (rice-like ant larvae sauteed in butter). It’s two hours by bus from Mexico City.