Cancun is a tale of two cities, with the Zona Hotelera offering majestic Caribbean beaches and Maya culture and Cancún Centro providing the local flavor.
Set in a gorgeous highland valley surrounded by pine forest, the colonial city of San Cristóbal (cris-toh-bal) has been a popular travelers’ destination for decades. It’s a pleasure to explore San Cristóbal’s cobbled streets and markets, soaking up the unique ambience and the wonderfully clear highland light. This medium-sized city also boasts a comfortable blend of city and countryside, with restored century-old houses giving way to grazing animals and fields of corn.
As Mexico’s second-largest city, Guadalajara delivers a less frenetic alternative to the nation’s capital. And, while many of the images recognized as Mexican have their roots here – mariachi music, wide-brimmed sombreros, the Mexican hat dance and charreadas (rodeos) – Guadalajara is as much a vanguard of the new Mexico as it is guardian of the old. An embarrassment of museums and theaters drive the cultural life forward, fusion chefs have sharpened the edges of an already legendary culinary scene and foresighted local planners are doing their damnedest to tackle the traffic.
The extraordinary Unesco World Heritage city of Guanajuato was founded in 1559 due to the region’s rich silver and gold deposits. Opulent colonial buildings, stunning tree-filled plazas and brightly colored houses are crammed together on to the steep slopes of a narrow ravine where excellent museums, handsome theaters and a fine marketplace punctuate cobblestone streets. The city’s main roads twist around the hillsides and plunge into long dank subterranean tunnels, formerly rivers.
Acapulco, Mexico’s original party town, has a stunning topography of soaring cliffs curling into a series of wide bays and intimate coves, fringed with sandy beaches and backed by jungle-green hills. It was dubbed the ‘Pearl of the Pacific’ during its heyday as a playground for the rich and famous, including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor.
A cultural colossus fit to rival anywhere in Latin America for history, gastronomy and colorful manifestations of indigenous culture, Oaxaca is a complex but intensely attractive city whose majestic churches and refined plazas have deservedly earned it a Unesco World Heritage badge. Lovers of culture come here to indulge in the Mexico of Zapotec and colonial legend. Flowing through handsome yet tranquil streets, life pulsates with an unadulterated regional flavor. See it in the color palate of historic boutique hotels, a meet-the-producer artisan store or an intentionally grungy mezcalería (plying locally manufactured alcoholic beverages). But what makes Oaxaca especially interesting are its undercurrents. While largely safe and attractive by Mexican standards, snippets of political protest in recent years have lent the city a grittier edge. It bubbles up in satirical street art, bohemian bars and been-around-forever street markets. Trust us: there’s far more to this city than just pretty churches.
Cabo San Lucas’s white beaches, fecund waters and spectacular arching stone cliffs at Land’s End have become the backdrop for Baja’s most raucous tourism. Where else do clubs round up conga lines so that waiters can pour tequila down dancers’ throats? The next morning you can be boating next to dolphins and spouting whales for a hangover cure. The activities are endless: jet-skiing, banana-boating, parasailing, snorkeling, kitesurfing, diving and horsebackriding can all be found just by walking down to the beach. Outside city limits, you’ll be surrounded by majestic cardón cacti, caracara birds and mystical arroyos (streams) that will impress you just as much as that crazy club you partied at the night before.
Tulum’s spectacular coastline – with all its confectioner-sugar sands, cobalt water and balmy breezes – makes it one of the top beaches in Mexico. Where else can you get all that and a dramatically situated Maya ruin? There’s also excellent cave and cavern diving, fun cenotes and a variety of lodgings and restaurants to fit every budget.
Isla Mujeres generally has a quieter and more relaxing vibe than what you’ll find across the bay in Cancún, and there’s just enough here to keep you entertained: scuba diving and snorkeling, visiting a turtle farm or simply swimming and lazing around on the island’s gorgeous north shore.
Playa del Carmen, now one of Quintana Roo’s largest cities, ranks right up there with Tulum as one of the Riviera’s trendiest spots. Sitting coolly on the lee side of Cozumel, the town’s beaches are jammed with super-fit Europeans. The waters aren’t as clear as those of Cancún or Cozumel, and the sand isn’t quite as powder-perfect as they are further north, but still Playa grows and grows.