Our affordable, accessible neighbor to the south has something for all
Published: Nov/Dec 2002
By Susan Kaye
Mexico has never looked better. It’s so easy to reach, with more flights having been added this year. Throughout Mexico, the vivacity of the people creates an instant Mi casa es su casa atmosphere. Add in the sensational beaches and the kaleidoscopic beauty of its coastline and you’ve got a winner of a vacation.
“Mexico is a destination that has virtually everything,” said AAA’s Sue Wells, director of travel.
“If it’s pampering you’re after, many resorts offer spa packages. On the Pacific coast, there still are secluded spots for relaxation, as well as action-packed resorts. Many members seek out Mexico’s rich cultural heritage in the interior colonial cities where, as a bonus, handicrafts are found in abundance.”
The only dilemma is choosing which resort. Here’s a look at four of the most popular.
This Pacific resort is a charmer where you literally can’t escape the views across the 26-mile Bay of Banderas. The city itself is just as eye-catching, with cobbled streets climbing steeply from the beach, bordered by white-stucco homes with red-tiled roofs.
Tradition continues in many forms in this former fishing community. Mouth-watering barbecued fish-on-a-stick is sold for only a handful of pesos on Playa de los Muertos, bordering downtown to the south.
Then there’s the free Sunday evening concerts in the shady main plaza with its ornate bandstand. This outing invariably calls for a double scoop of coconut ice cream or an elote from vendors who grill corn on the cob before sprinkling it with chile powder.
Puerto Vallarta has become a mecca for fine art, with many art galleries selling both local and American artists. You’ll also find a wide variety of handicraft stores, representing the best from across the country: masks from Guerrero, weavings from Chiapas, pottery from Tlaquepaque and elaborately painted Talavera plates from Puebla.Don’t miss the souvenir shopping at the large indoor mercado, followed by lunch at the glamorous River Café.
Two top gourmet spots include Trio and Café des Aristes. For Mexican food with a view, Las Palomas overlooks the popular bronze sculptures of surreal figures on the beachfront malecon walkway.
Los Cabos, Baja
This is truly land’s end at the southern tip of the long Baja Peninsula that adjoins southern California.
Not even 40 years ago, this was also the end-of-the-world, seen by few except adventurous fishermen who flew private planes to cactus-bordered landing strips. Now, Los Cabos is Mexico’s snazziest resort destination with an ever-increasing array of hotels and condos in every price range.
Without a doubt, the 20-mile Los Cabos corridor between the towns of San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas is the golf capital of Mexico. But golf is just part of Baja’s sizzle.
The waters still are world-class and fishermen are practically guaranteed to hook a marlin. The waters off Baja are famous for gray whales as well. They spend their winter in Baja’s waters, flashing their flukes as if waving to people on the beach.The beaches and golf courses span the distance between the two towns.
Cabo San Lucas is an action-packed town, with a large marina and more restaurants and nightspots than anyone could visit, no matter how long the vacation. San José del Cabo centers around a colonial settlement and is quieter. At both, English is spoken virtually everywhere.
In fact, of all of Mexico’s coastal resorts, Baja is the most user-friendly, being in many ways more America than Mexico.
Known to the Mayans 600 years ago as “Cuzamil,” island of the swallows, this island cavorts in the Mexican Caribbean off shore from Playa del Carmen, south of Cancun. It pulsates with vacationers who return to its convivial shores for world-class diving at its 30-plus sites. Because Cozumel hugs the northern edge of the Mayan Coral Reef, second longest in the world, one-third of those who visited Cozumel last year came to scuba and snorkel.
If you take the plunge, you’ll choose from waters riddled with limestone caves, tunnels and rare black coral trees. The flawless aquamarine waters provide up to 200 feet of visibility, while the average temps hover near 80 degrees.
But landlubbers love Cozumel, too. At San Gervasio, Mayan temples and priests’ sanctums poke through parrot-green foliage. The museum in the town of San Miguel is excellent; it’d be easy to lose a couple of hours there. And then there’s the year-old Jack Nicklaus course at the Cozumel Country Club, with fairways built around mangroves and wetlands. Also new is the Punta Sur Ecological Park, featuring a lagoon filled with wildlife, mangrove jungles ripe with the tropic’s sweet smells, and snorkeling.
Don’t miss renting a car or motor scooter for a frolic around the island. The highlight is the untamed eastern shore, where rambunctious waves melt onto gorgeous–and empty–beaches and a string of sun-drenched restaurants beckon you to a long, lingering lunch under a thatched umbrella.
The beaches are talcum-powder soft and the waters reflect all the turquoise hues of the Caribbean. Resorts stretch the length of 13-mile island of Cancún, interspersed with dozens of fun-loving restaurants and nightclubs.
You’ll play on golf courses that edge ancient pyramids once ruled by shadowy gods and snorkel above schools of crayon-colored fish circling coral reefs.There’s no rush to jump out of the crystal-clear water as shops stay open until 10 p.m.
Test your bargaining skills in the open-air markets of El Centro (downtown Cancún), picking up a pair of huaraches (sandals), embroidered Mayan dresses called huipiles, and men’s pleated guayabera shirts.
Cancún has evolved into an upscale shopping mecca. Both Plaza Caracol and Kukulcan Plaza have more than 200 shops each, including many internationally famous boutiques.
When you’ve done the rounds, grab a ferry for a day trip to Isla Mujeres. Here on the 10-mile-long Island of Women, you’ll motor around by moped or golf cart and shop for everything from giant polished nautilus shells to hand-made pottery.
The best anecdote to a full day of shopping is sitting down to an unforgettable meal. That’s easy in this part of the world, where Yucatecan cuisine offers up sublime flavors. Try puc chuc (grilled pork with sour orange sauce) and chicken baked in banana leaves. And then there’s fish: giant local lobsters and shrimp prepared in a dozen ways.
Not far from the glamorous resorts are ancient Mayan sites in clearings hard-won from the forest’s tentacles. Chichén Itzá is the largest site within a day’s trip from Cancún, a one-time Mayan metropolis that’s as fascinating as it is impressive.
Tips for safety
By and large, Mexican resorts are extremely safe for Americans, but it’s always good for travelers in any part of the world to be on guard. Carry one credit card you may use for the day and just enough cash to get through the day. It’s good to establish the cab fare before setting out. Should you visit Mexico City, you need to be especially careful and take only cabs that have been called by your hotel or restaurant, avoiding the small green-and-white cabs that cruise the streets by the thousands.Although the above-mentioned resorts are filled with tourists and cruise ship passengers wearing armloads of jewelry, it’s best to keep accessories to a minimum. I usually leave my wedding ring and anything else that sparkles at home and travel instead with inexpensive silver pieces (always a good buy throughout Mexico).