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Mexico 101

Our definitive guide to the beaches and colonial towns of Mexico

By Laurel Delp


September 3rd, 2007

Geographically, Mexico encompasses tropical forests, volcanoes, formidable mountain ranges, and high desert plains, with an almost staggering array of gorgeous coastlines and a size equal to California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas combined. Mystical ruins, robust indigenous cultures, and renowned regional cuisines all contribute to a sense of timeless beauty. And while Mexico may not be as cheap as it once was, it now provides a combination of lavish accommodations and cultural experiences to rival Europe—minus the jet lag and dismaying cost.

Two Weeks It’s possible to pack in a 4-day visit to Mexico City with a 2-day side trip to Cuernavaca, then 4 or 5 nights at a resort area on the Mayan Riviera, ending with a few days in colonial Mérida (or at a nearby hacienda) for a visit to the Yucatán’s Mayan ruins. Another possibility would be 4 days in Mexico City, and 4 in Oaxaca, followed by a stay at a beach resort in huatulco.

One Week Skip Mexico City and start in colonial Guadalajara and end in coastal Puerto Vallarta. Or combine 3 days in Mexico City with 3 nights in Guanajuato, Morelia, or San Miguel de Allende, or alternately, 3 nights in Puerto Vallarta.

Meet a Whale During the winter, gray whales migrate to Baja’s Pacific Coast to breed and calve. Stay for 4 nights in a comfortable tent and reach out from your boat to rub the snout of a 20-foot calf ($2,275/person double occupancy; bajadiscovery.com).

Visit a Huichol village Take a Cessna Caravan from Puerto Vallarta on a day trip to visit one of Mexico’s relatively untouched indigenous cultures, the Huichol, in the Sierra Madre mountains ($210/person; vallartaadventures.com).

A week as a Hacendado Ultra-luxurious Hacienda Petac, 30 minutes from the Yucatán airport, was built in the 17th century on Mayan ruins. Rates include a full staff, meals, laundry, and anthropology lectures, but no alcoholic beverages ($8,400 for up to 5 people; haciendapetac.com).

Explore Palenque and Chiapas Join an 8-day tour accompanied by archaeologists to the Mayan city of Palenque—Mexico’s most magnificent but remote historic site—in Oaxaca state. The trip includes accommodations in one of the area’s best hotels ($2,000/person; mayaexploration.org).

Tequila is a far more sophisticated spirit than most foreigners realize. It comes in five classes: white (also known as silver), which is un-aged and unadulterated; gold, which has been flavored, usually with caramel; reposado, which has been “rested” for a year or more; anejo, which is aged at least one year; and extra anejo, which is aged at least three years. The town of Tequila, near Guadalajara, is surrounded by a seemingly endless sea of blue agave (though close in appearance to cactus, it’s actually a member of the lily family) planted in rows on rolling hills. According to government regulations, tequila can be made only from the heart of blue agave and only in certain sanctioned regions. Visitors to the area can tour the world-famous distilleries of José Cuervo (mundocuervo.com) and Casa Herradura (herradura.com), sample the goods, and stop for lunch. Like all aged liquors, the price goes up with the aging—but many connoisseurs actually prefer white for its purity and still-distinct taste of agave. To go all out for a tasting, order a bandera, or flag: one shot each of white, reposado, and anejo. It comes with sangrita, a spicy chaser made of tomato juice, fresh citrus, and chili sauce.

These days, no self-respecting Mexican resort is without a temazcal, which is most often compared to a Native American sweat lodge but is in the same universal tradition as a hammam or a Finnish sauna, using heat and steam for healing. (hacienda Sepulveda, on page 88, has an especially striking one.) In Mexico, the tradition is believed to date back as far as the Olmecs (1200–400 BC). Participants sit in a (claustrophobes, beware) small, round adobe structure around a pit into which red-hot volcanic rocks are added. In a formal temazcal, a ritual is led by a temazclero, or shaman, who pours herb-infused water on the rocks, creating steam. The experience, which can be extremely moving, is regarded as a return to the womb of Mother Earth, resulting in spiritual and physical renewal. The temazcal always takes place at dusk so participants won’t suffer the shock of emerging into harsh daylight.

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