En español | Going off the beaten tourist track in Mexico is rewarding, even if your command of Spanish is shaky. You’ll find warm smiles and engaging slices of everyday life in destinations unfamiliar to the typical traveler.
Swoop in to see the largest number of flamingos in Mexico and nearly 400 other bird species, according to the Visit Mexico website. The fishing village and nature preserve, a three-hour drive northwest of Cancun, is an “untouched paradise” that “takes you back in time to the charms and simpler life of old Mexico,” raves the Loco Gringo travel website. It has little tourism infrastructure save for a handful of basic lodgings (some cost less than $50 a night), a half-dozen eateries and experienced guides who will take you to view egrets, herons, crocodiles and alligators among the mangrove trees. (“Lagarto” means alligator, by the way.) Float in Dead Sea-like salt ponds that make you super buoyant and take a Mayan mud bath. Rio Lagartos also makes a great day trip for vacationers who’d prefer the comforts of a Cancun resort.
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Designated a Pueblo Mágico (magical town) by the Mexican government, Álamos enchants visitors with its cobblestone streets, graceful arches and nearly 200 Spanish colonial buildings that have been named national monuments. The 17th-century Pantheon is just one. A former copper and silver mining center south of Arizona, in the shadow of the Sierra Madre Mountains, it is “very pretty, very historic … probably the most civilized and architecturally rich city in northwest Mexico,” says Clifton Wilkinson, Mexico destination editor for the Lonely Planet guidebooks and website. Stay in a former mining mogul’s mansion turned hotel, or mellow out with locals while sipping bacanora, the potent Sonoran liquor made from the agave plant. History buffs and fashion followers will appreciate the Museo Costumbrista de Sonora, located on the main plaza, which displays regional clothing, vintage furniture and carriages. Birders should bring binoculars to the highly rated 20-acre El Pedegral Nature Lodge and Retreat Center. It’s a base for excursions. Getting to Álamos, however, is not a walk in the park. Fly to the small airport of Ciudad Obregón and then take a 90-minute drive.
Relax on a hammock strung between palm trees on the golden sand before enjoying a just-caught seafood lunch. Savor a sundowner or two on the patio of your $25-a-night hotel ($50 if your tastes are beyond basic) or under a thatched-roof palapa on the beach before enjoying live music at a cafe on the small main drag. Or enjoy a cut-rate massage. This secluded crescent-shaped beach in southwest Mexico began attracting hippies in the ’60s and ’70s and now hosts the well-traveled from around the world. Two dozen restaurants serve menus ranging from Mexican to Mediterranean. Zipolite still has “a very hippie/bohemian atmosphere” and is not for everyone, Lonely Planet’s Wilkinson says. Nudity is tolerated on the mile-long beach and even at lodgings such as the adults-only Nude Bungalows & Spa (which has earned a TripAdvisor certificate of excellence). But if that’s not your thing, lay your towel down elsewhere. John Noble, another Lonely Planet guidebook writer, likes the neighboring beach towns of San Agustinillo and Mazunte, where the currents are less strong. All three can be easily visited in one trip and “all are very relaxed and great places to hang out,” he says. Fly into Huatulco; Zipolite is about an hour’s drive by car or taxi.
The Day of the Dead (actually celebrated on two days, Nov. 1 and 2) honors deceased loved ones and is marked “in spectacular fashion throughout Mexico, but nowhere more so than on Lago de Pátzcuaro,” according to the Mexico Rough Guide, whose writers are savvy about out-of-the-way locales. The lake, near the town of Pátzcuaro, is the site of yearly rituals. The Purépecha indigenous people spend days gathering items such as marigolds and edible sugar skulls, and then by candlelight on Nov. 1, they paddle fish skiffs to the tiny island of Janitzio. They clean relatives’ graves and leave the favorite foods and drinks of the deceased on them. They may sing or chant and keep an all-night vigil. Take a boat and join the throngs climbing the steps to the cemetery. Pátzcuaro, another Pueblo Mágico in the country’s interior, about 220 miles west of Mexico City, also is worth visiting at less crowded times. It is home to artists and artisans and picturesque adobe buildings with red-tiled roofs. Morelia International Airport is about 40 miles away.