Mexico


Mexico destinations

about Palm-fringed beaches, chili-spiced cuisine, steamy jungles, teeming cities, fiesta fireworks, Frida’s angst: Mexico conjures up diverse, vivid dreams. And the reality lives up to them.

An Outdoor Life

With steaming jungles, snowcapped volcanoes, cactus-strewn deserts and 10,000km of coast strung with sandy beaches and wildlife-rich lagoons, Mexico is an endless adventure for the senses and a place where life is lived largely in the open air. Harness the pounding waves of the Pacific on a surfboard, strap on a snorkel to explore the beauty beneath the surface of the Caribbean Sea and ride the whitewater of Mexico's rivers. Or stay on dry land and hike Oaxaca's mountain cloud forests, scale the peaks of dormant volcanoes or marvel at millions of migrating Monarch butterflies.

Art & Soul of a Nation

Mexico's pre-Hispanic civilizations built some of the world’s great archaeological monuments, including Teotihuacán’s towering pyramids and the exquisite Maya temples of Palenque. The Spanish colonial era left beautiful towns full of tree-shaded plazas and richly sculpted stone churches and mansions, while modern Mexico has seen a surge of great art from the likes of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Top-class museums and galleries document the country's fascinating history and its endless creative verve. Popular culture is just as vibrant, from the underground dance clubs and street art of Mexico City to the wonderful handicrafts of the indigenous population.

A Varied Palate

Mexico's gastronomic repertoire is as diverse as the country's people and topography. Dining out is an endless adventure, whether you're sampling regional dishes, such as Yucatán's cochinita pibil (slow-cooked pork) or a vast array of moles (complex sauces, their recipes jealously guarded) in Oaxaca and Puebla, or trying the complex, artsy concoctions of world-class chefs in Mexico City. Some of Mexico's best eating is had at simple seafront palapa (thatched-roof shack) restaurants, serving achingly fresh fish and seafood, and the humble taquerías, ubiquitous all over Mexico, where tortillas are stuffed with a variety of fillings and slathered with homemade salsas.

Los Mexicanos

At the heart of your Mexican experience will be the Mexican people. A super-diverse crew, from Mexico City hipsters to the shy indigenous villagers of Chiapas, they’re renowned for their love of color and frequent fiestas, but they're also philosophical folk, to whom timetables are less important than simpatía (empathy). You'll rarely find Mexicans less than courteous. They’re more often positively charming, and know how to please guests. They might despair of ever being well governed, but they're fiercely proud of Mexico, their one-of-a-kind homeland with all its variety, tight-knit family networks, beautiful-ugly cities, deep-rooted traditions and agave-based liquors.

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Mexico City is, and has always been, the sun in the Mexican solar system. Though much-maligned in the past, these days the city is cleaning up its act. Revamped public spaces are springing back to life, the culinary scene is exploding and a cultural renaissance is flourishing. On top of all that, by largely managing to distance itself from the drug war, the nation’s capital remains a safe haven of sorts. Far from shaking off visitors, the earthquakes of 2017 revealed a young society who attracted admiration through their solidarity.

A stroll through the buzzing downtown area reveals the capital’s storied history, from pre-Hispanic and colonial-era splendor to its contemporary edge. This high-octane megalopolis contains plenty of escape valves in the way of old-school cantinas, intriguing museums, inspired dining and boating excursions along ancient canals. With so much going on, you might consider scrapping those beach plans.

Sights

Centro Histórico

Packed with magnificent buildings and absorbing museums, the 668-block area defined as the centro histórico is the obvious place to start your explorations. More than 1500 of its buildings are classified as historic or artistic monuments and it is on the Unesco World Heritage list. It also vibrates with modern-day street life and nightlife, and is a convenient area to stay.

Since 2000, money has been poured into upgrading the image and infrastructure of the centro. Streets have been repaved, buildings refurbished, lighting and traffic flow improved and security bolstered. New museums, restaurants and clubs have moved into the renovated structures, and festivals and cultural events are staged in the plazas, spurring a continued downtown revival.

At the center of it all lies the massive Zócalo, downtown's main square, where pre-Hispanic ruins, imposing colonial-era buildings and large-scale murals convey Mexico City's storied past.

In true forward-looking, chilango (Mexico city inhabitants) style, the Zócalo, Plaza Tolsá and Gran Hotel opened themselves to international audiences when heavily featured in the James Bond Spectre film.

Metro station Zócalo is conveniently in the heart of the centro, but the area can also be approached from the west from metro Allende, or even metro Bellas Artes if you wish to experience the crowds of Calle Madero. In the far southern edge of the centro, metro Isabel La Católica allows you to cross the hip bars on and around Calle Regina.

Alameda Central & Around

Emblematic of the downtown renaissance, the rectangular park immediately northwest of the centro histórico holds a vital place in Mexico City’s cultural life. Surrounded by historically significant buildings, the Alameda Central has been the focus of ambitious redevelopment over the past decade. In particular, the high-rise towers on the Plaza Juárez and adjacent new restaurants have transformed the zone south of the park, much of which was destroyed in the 1985 earthquake. Metro stations Bellas Artes and Hidalgo are located on the Alameda’s east and west sides, respectively. The north–south Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas passes just east of the park.

Paseo de la Reforma

Mexico City’s grandest thoroughfare, known simply as 'Reforma,' traces a bold southwestern path from Tlatelolco to Bosque de Chapultepec, skirting the Alameda Central and Zona Rosa. Emperor Maximilian of Hapsburg laid out the boulevard to connect his castle on Chapultepec Hill with the old city center. After his execution, it was given its current name to commemorate the reform laws instituted by President Benito Juárez. Under the López Obrador administration, the avenue was smartly refurbished and its broad, statue-studded medians became a stage for book fairs and art exhibits. It is currently undergoing aggressive development, with office towers and new hotels springing up along its length.

Paseo de la Reforma links a series of monumental glorietas (traffic circles). A couple of blocks west of the Alameda Central is El Caballito, a faded-yellow representation of a horse’s head by the sculptor Sebastián. It commemorates another equestrian sculpture that stood here for 127 years and today fronts the Museo Nacional de Arte. A few blocks southwest is the Monumento a Cristóbal Colón, an 1877 statue of Columbus gesturing toward the horizon.

Reforma’s busy intersection with Avenida Insurgentes is marked by the Monumento a Cuauhtémoc, memorializing the last Aztec emperor. Two blocks northwest is the Jardín del Arte, site of a Sunday art market.

The Centro Bursátil, an angular tower and mirror-ball ensemble housing the nation’s Bolsa (stock exchange), marks the southern edge of the Colonia Cuauhtémoc. Continuing west past the US embassy, you reach the symbol of Mexico City, the Monumento a la Independencia. Known as ‘El Ángel,’ this gilded Winged Victory on a 45m-high pillar was sculpted for the independence centennial of 1910. Inside the monument are the remains of Miguel Hidalgo, José María Morelos, Ignacio Allende and nine other notables. Thousands of people descend on the monument for occasional free concerts and victory celebrations following important Mexican fútbol matches.

At Reforma’s intersection with Sevilla is the monument commonly known as La Diana Cazadora, a 1942 bronze sculpture actually meant to represent the Archer of the North Star. The League of Decency under the Ávila Camacho administration had the sculptor add a loincloth to the buxom figure, and it wasn’t removed until 1966.

A 2003 addition to the Mexico City skyline, the Torre Mayor stands like a sentinel before the gate to Bosque de Chapultepec. The earthquake-resistant structure, which soars 225m above the capital, is anchored below by 98 seismic-shock absorbers. Unfortunately the building’s observation deck is permanently closed.

Across from the Torre Mayor is the Torre BBVA Bancomer, a bank's 50-story skyscraper that became Mexico's tallest building upon its completion in 2015, with sky gardens every nine floors. It was outdone in 2016 by wedge-shaped Torre Reforma across the road, now the city's tallest edifice. Nearby, the 104m-high Estela de Luz was built to commemorate Mexico's bicentennial anniversary in 2010, though due to delays in construction and rampant overspending, the quartz-paneled light tower wasn't inaugurated until 2012. After eight former government officials were arrested in 2013 for misuse of public funds, it became known as the 'tower of corruption.' In the tower's basement you'll find the Centro de Cultura Digital, a hit-and-miss cultural center with expositions focusing on digital technology.

Metro Hidalgo accesses Paseo de la Reforma at the Alameda end, while the Insurgentes and Sevilla stations provide the best approach from the Zona Rosa. On the Insurgentes metrobús route, the ‘Reforma’ and ‘Hamburgo’ stops lie north and south of the avenue respectively. Along Reforma itself, any westbound ‘Auditorio’ bus goes through the Bosque de Chapultepec, while ‘Chapultepec’ buses terminate at the east end of the park at the Chapultepec Bus Terminal. In the opposite direction, ‘I Verdes’ and ‘La Villa’ buses head up Reforma to the Alameda Central and beyond. 'Zocalo' buses also run along Reforma.

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Sleeping

Mexico City overflows with lodging options. The most reasonably priced places are in the centro histórico. Midrange lodgings abound in the Alameda and Plaza de la República areas, though often trade character for neutral modern comfort. In trendy Roma and Condesa offerings are mostly chic boutique hotels, with a few budget hostels. Cultural Coyoacán is a tranquil escape. Luxurious accommodations, including international chains, are concentrated in Polanco, the Zona Rosa and Reforma.

Entertainment

There’s so much going on in Mexico City on any given evening, it’s hard to keep track.

Tiempo Libre (www.tiempolibre.com.mx) The city’s comprehensive what’s-on magazine covering live music, theater, movies, dance, art and nightlife. Sold at newsstands everywhere.

La Ciudad de Frente (www.frente.com.mx) Reviews of literature, music and art events in the CDMX.

Donde Ir (www.dondeir.com) What's on, what to eat and where to travel to next from Mexico City.

Chilango (www.chilango.com) Up-to-date news on music, events, eating and nightlife in the city.

Time Out Mexico (www.timeoutmexico.mx) A great source for dining, cultural and entertainment listings. Look for free copies in hotels, cafes, bars and nightclubs.

Cinema

Mexico City is a banquet for movie-goers, with everything from open-air screenings, film festivals and art-house cinema to blockbusters, many from the strong Mexican film-production industry. Ticket prices are around M$60 in commercial cinemas, with many places offering discounts on Wednesday. Most movies are available in original languages with Spanish subtitles, except for children's fare. El Universal and La Jornada have daily listings.

Dance, Classical Music & Theater

Orchestral music, opera, ballet, contemporary dance and theater are all abundantly represented in the capital’s numerous theaters. Museums, too, serve as performance venues (often for free), including the Museo de la Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público and the Museo de la Ciudad de México. The national arts council (www.mexicoescultura.com) provides a rundown of events on its website.

If your Spanish is up to it, you might like to sample Mexico City’s lively theater scene. Mejor Teatro (www.mejorteatro.com) covers the major venues.

Live Music

Mexico City’s eclectic music offerings rock. On any given night, you can hear traditional Mexican, Cuban, jazz, electronica, garage punk and so on. Music sounds off everywhere: in concert halls, bars, museums – even on public transportation. Free gigs often take place at the Zócalo and Monumento a la Revolución, while the thriving mariachi music scene at Plaza Garibaldi gets going by about 8pm and stays busy until 3am. The ‘conciertos’ sections of Tiempo Libre (www.tiempolibre.com.mx) and Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com.mx) include show listings.

The street market Tianguis Cultural del Chopo has a stage at its north end every Saturday afternoon for young and hungry metal and punk bands.

Sports

The capital stages fútbol (soccer) matches in the national Primera División almost every weekend of the year. Mexico City has three teams: América, nicknamed Las Águilas (the Eagles); Las Pumas of UNAM; and Cruz Azul. There are two seasons: January to June and July to December, each ending in eight-team play-offs and a two-leg final to decide the champion. The biggest match of all is El Clásico, between América and Guadalajara, which fills the Estadio Azteca with 100,000 flag-waving fans. Get tickets in advance for this one.

Tickets to fútbol matches (M$90 to M$650 for regular-season games) are usually available at the gate, or from Ticketmaster. There are several stadiums that host games, including Estadio Azul for Cruz Azul matches and Estadio Olímpico to see UNAM's Pumas play.

Mexico City has one béisbol (baseball) team in the Liga Mexicana de Béisbol, the Diablos Rojos. During the regular season (April to July) it plays every other week at Foro Sol. From the metro, it's a five-minute walk to the ballpark. See the Diablos (www.diablos.com.mx) website for game times.

Most of the daily newspapers have a generous sports section where you can find out who is playing with which ball where. True enthusiasts should look for La Afición (www.laaficion.com), a daily devoted to sports.

Lucha Libre (Mexican Wrestling)

Mexico City’s two wrestling venues, the 17,000-seat Arena México and the smaller Arena Coliseo, are taken over by a circus atmosphere each week, with flamboyant luchadores (wrestlers) such as Místico and Sam Adonis going at each other in tag teams or one-on-one. There are three or four bouts, building up to the headline match.

Eating

In recent years Mexico City has emerged as a major destination for culinary travelers, as Mexican chefs win the sort of praise formerly reserved for their counterparts in New York and Paris. Even street food has been taken off the streets and dressed up for a growing trend of boutique food trucks, gourmet markets and converted buildings.

Drinking & Nightlife

Cafes, bars and cantinas are all key social venues on the capital’s landscape. The traditional watering holes are, of course, cantinas – no-nonsense places with simple tables, long polished bars and old-school waiters. A humbler kind of drinking establishment is the pulquería, which serve pulque, while mezcal, the rustic mother of tequila, is being taken back by Mexican youth.

Shopping

Shopping can be a real joy in Mexico City, with artesanías (handicrafts) vendors, quirky shops and street markets all competing for your disposable income.

Where to Shop

The streets around the Zócalo in the centro histórico are lined with stores that specialize in everyday goods. To the west, used books show up on Donceles. Jewelry and gold outlets, as well as numismatics shops, are found along Palma, while opticians are east of the square on Avenida Madero. To the south, shoes are available on Avenida 20 de Noviembre, while along Bolívar, dozens of stores sell musical instruments. To the north, you’ll find costume jewelry on República de Colombia and República de Venezuela.

Condesa presents an enticing array of trendy boutiques, quirky shops and gourmet food stores. In Roma much of the retail activity is along Álvaro Obregón and Colima. Polanco’s Avenida Presidente Masaryk, aka the Rodeo Drive of Mexico, is lined with designer stores and other high-end establishments.

Malls & Department Stores

Chilangos increasingly shop in modern malls with designer-clothing stores and Starbucks franchises, and more of these shrines to consumerism are popping up all the time. Among the more pleasant are Plaza Loreto in San Ángel; the open-air Antara in Polanco; and Reforma 222 at the east end of the Zona Rosa.

Mexico City’s smartest department-store chains, El Palacio de Hierro and Liverpool, both maintain their original 1930s stores downtown.

Markets

Mexico City’s markets are worth visiting, not just for their varied contents but also for a glimpse of the frenetic business conducted within. In most neighborhoods you’ll find a tianguis (street market) at least once a week, selling everything from fresh produce to clothing and antiques. Tianguis generally set up by 10am and break down around 5pm. Weekend markets with designer gifts, clothing and even food are growing in number in the Roma and Condesa and Juárez areas, and make for a pleasant excuse to explore as much as shop.

Bargaining is common in markets without labelled prices (except for food), and sometimes even then. It is best to always be polite and ask for a slightly lower price than you are willing to pay, with a smile, wait for a response, then meet in the middle. Insisting is usually not appreciated.

Travel with Children

As with elsewhere in Mexico, kids take center stage in the capital.

Museums frequently organize hands-on activities for kids. The Museo de la Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público often stages puppet shows on Sunday. For something that both adults and kids can love, the colorful Museo de Arte Popular tends to win over most children. Another great option is the Museo del Juguete Antiguo México, a fascinating toy museum with more than 60,000 collectibles on display.

Mexico City’s numerous parks and plazas are usually buzzing with kids’ voices. Bosque de Chapultepec is the obvious destination, as it contains the Papalote Museo del Niño, La Feria and several lakes such as the large Lago de Chapultepec with rowboat rentals. In neighboring Polanco is the world-class aquarium Acuario Inbursa. Also consider Condesa’s Parque México, where kids can rent bikes and where Sunday is family-activity day. Plaza Hidalgo in Coyoacán is another fun-filled spot with balloons, street mimes and cotton candy.

Many theaters, including the Centro Cultural del Bosque, Centro Cultural Helénico and the Foro Shakespeare, stage children’s plays and puppet shows on weekends and during school holidays. Animated movies are a staple at cinemas around town, though keep in mind that children’s films are usually dubbed in Spanish.

In Xochimilco kids will find riding the gondolas through the canals as magical as any theme park. Also in this part of town is the Museo Dolores Olmedo, where peacocks and pre-Hispanic dogs occupy the gardens. Children’s shows are performed in the patio on Saturday and Sunday at 1pm, and the museum offers workshops for children.

In late October look out for the parade and display of giant alebrijes (painted wooden carvings), and the Día de Muertos parade, both along Reforma.

For more on activities for children, see the 'Infantiles' section at the Conaculta (www.mexicoescultura.com) website; or the 'Family' events on the CDMX Travel (www.cdmxtravel.com) site in English.

Most metro stations and trains are too cramped and hot for prams and lack elevators. Baby-change facilities are available at most museums, but only in the larger restaurants. Even without children, walking through crowds in the centro histórico can be a tiring experience, while the leafy, compact centers at the heart of the neighborhoods of Roma, Condesa and Coyoacán allow for a little more freedom of movement without having to constantly hand hold.

LGBT Travellers

Quito has a small but active gay scene, with most of the bars and clubs located in Mariscal Sucre. A gay pride parade takes place in June; check the Orgullo LGBTI Ecuador Facebook page (www.facebook.com/orgulloEcuador) for details of the parade and other events.

Bring your passport for entry to clubs.

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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.

Beaches

One look at Cancún's aquamarine Caribbean waters and it makes perfect sense why planners back in the 1970s were so eager to develop the area as Mexico's next big resort destination. With about 19km of powdery white-sand beaches in the Zona Hotelera and a quieter 15km stretch of coast north of downtown, Cancún is a beach bum's haven. You'll find some of the most swimmable waters on the Zona Hotelera's north side, between Km 4 and Km 9, while north of Cancún Centro, Isla Blanca beckons with its long stretch of relatively undeveloped coastline.

Maya Culture

When most people think of Cancún, wild party town comes to mind. But rest assured that you can also soak up some Maya culture in between the fiestas. The Museo Maya de Cancún, a world-class museum with some 400 Maya artifacts on display, is a must-see and it's adjoining San Miguelito archaeological site is well worth checking out as well. For a day of ruins-hopping, head about 2km south to El Rey, known for its small temple and several ceremonial platforms. Cancún's Maya sites may not have the wow factor of say, a Chichén Itzá, but they provide intriguing historical context when paired with the museum visit.

Food

From Yucatecan comfort food and atmospheric downtown taco joints to Michellin-starred haute cuisine in the Zona Hotelera, Cancún's diverse culinary scene keeps your tummy thoroughly content. Classic Yucatecan menu items such as cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork with achiote and orange juice) and panuchos (bean-filled fried tortilla snacks) rank among Mexico's most iconic dishes, while thatch-roofed restaurants serving high-quality fresh fish and seafood add yet another facet to the varied dining experience. A growing number of establishments specializing in contemporary Mexican cuisine draw on Caribbean and indigenous Maya recipes to create innovative regional dishes.

Outdoor Activities

Outdoorsy types and children will truly appreciate the activities on offer in Cancún. Great diving and snorkeling sites are nearby, including a famous underwater sculpture museum, and in addition to ocean dives, you can hook up tours to explore nearby cenotes (limestone sinkholes) and their fascinating underwater cave systems. Nature enthusiasts will enjoy a day trip from Cancún to Isla Contoy, an uninhabited island that provides great hiking, bird-watching and snorkeling opportunities. And, of course, there's the beach, where water activities range from swimming and kayaking to kiteboarding.

Sights

Starting from Cancún Centro in the northwest, all of Isla Cancún’s beaches are on the left-hand side of the road. (The lagoon is on your right; don't swim in the lagoon because of crocodiles!) The first beaches are Playas Las Perlas, Juventud, Linda, Langosta, Tortugas and Caracol. With the exception of Playa Caracol, these are Cancún's most swimmable beaches. When you round Punta Cancún the water gets rougher (though it's still swimmable) and the beaches become more scenic as white sands meet the turquoise-blue Caribbean, from Playa Gaviota Azul all the way down south to Punta Nizuc at Km 24. Playa Delfines, at Km 18, is about the only beach with a public parking lot big enough to be useful; unfortunately, its sand is coarser and darker than the exquisite, fine sand of the more northerly beaches.

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Activities

Most of Cancun's activities involve water-related fun in the great outdoors. Among the many things to do are snorkeling at a unique underwater sculpture museum; swimming with enormous whales sharks off the coast of Isla Contoy; ocean and cenote diving; birdwatching and hiking on an uninhabited island; and boat tours through mangroves.

Sleeping

The city has a variety of accommodations ranging from budget to mind- and budget-blowing. Almost all hotels offer discounts during ‘low’ season, but many have up to five different rate periods: Christmas and New Year are always at a premium, with high rates sometimes running from December through US spring break in March, and again in July and August (when locals have their summer vacation period). Many places have great online promotions.

Eating

Where you go to eat often is based on where you are staying: the hotel zone or the city center. Each place has a range of options, though meals are (not surprisingly) pricier in the hotel zone.

Drinking & Nightlife

Many clubs and restaurants are open for drinks for much of the day. Cancún doesn't offer much in the way of a gay and lesbian scene but downtown has a few nightspots.

Cancún Centro

Cancún Centro's clubs and bars are generally mellower than those in the rowdy Zona Hotelera. Stroll along Avenida Yaxchilán or Avenida Náder and you are sure to run into something (or somebody) you like.

Built into the Plaza de Toros are several bars, some with music, that draw a largely local crowd.

Zona Hotelera

The club scene in the Zona Hotelera is young, loud and booze-oriented – the kind that often has an MC urging women to display body parts to hooting and hollering crowds. The big dance clubs charge around US$55 to US$75 admission, which includes open-bar privileges (ie drink all you want). Most don’t get hopping much before midnight.

A number of clubs are clustered along the northwest-bound side of Blvd Kukulcán, all within easy stumbling distance of each other. Be careful crossing the street.

Entertainment

Cancún Centro has an abundant offering of bars and clubs staging live music, while in the Zona Hotelera it's more along the lines of movie theaters and pirate ships.

Shopping

Shopaholics will enjoy downtown's colorful markets and the Zona Hotelera's modern open-air malls. Locals head to either Mercado 28 or Mercado 23 for clothes, shoes, inexpensive food stalls and so on. Of the two, Mercado 23 is the less frequented by tourists. If you’re looking for a place without corny T-shirts, this is the place to go.

Travel with Children

Shopaholics will enjoy downtown's colorful markets and the Zona Hotelera's modern open-air malls. Locals head to either Mercado 28 or Mercado 23 for clothes, shoes, inexpensive food stalls and so on. Of the two, Mercado 23 is the less frequented by tourists. If you’re looking for a place without corny T-shirts, this is the place to go.

LGBT Travellers

Same-sex marriage is legal in Quintana Roo and Cancún is considered to be one of the state's most progressive cities. Gay Cities website (http://cancun.gaycities.com) lists bars and gay-friendly hotels in Cancún and www.gaymexicomap.com has some good recommendations as well. Most locals have open-minded views about sexuality and gays and lesbians rarely attract open discrimination and violence.

11:11 This nightclub makes a good starting point to tap into the LGBT scene.

What to do in Cancun

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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.

The town is ideally located: close to Cancún’s international airport, but far enough south to allow easy access to Cozumel, Tulum, Cobá and other worthy destinations. The reefs here are excellent and offer diving and snorkeling close by. Look for rays, moray eels, sea turtles and a huge variety of corals. The lavender sea fans make for very picturesque vistas.

With cruise ship passengers visiting from Cozumel, Playa can feel crowded along the first several blocks of the tourist center.

Sights

Beaches

Avid beachgoers won't be disappointed here. Playa’s lovely white-sand beaches are much more accessible than Cancún's: just head down to the ocean, stretch out and enjoy. Numerous restaurants front the beach in the tourist zone and many hotels in the area offer an array of water-sport activities.

If crowds aren’t your thing, go north of Calle 38, where a few scrawny palms serve for shade. Here the beach extends for uncrowded kilometers, making for good camping, but you need to be extra careful with your belongings, as thefts are a possibility.

Some women go topless in Playa (though it’s not common in most of Mexico, and is generally frowned upon by locals – except the young, of course). Mamita’s Beach, north of Calle 28, is considered the best place to let loose and it's LGBT-friendly to boot.

About 3km south of the ferry terminal, past a group of all-inclusives, you'll find a refreshingly quiet stretch of beach that sees relatively few visitors.

Those Mysterious Aluxes

Aluxes (a-loosh-es) are Yucatecan forest sprites, and many of the Maya still believe they can bring good or bad luck, even death, to those around them. Therefore, when forests are cleared, whether to make a field or build a house, offerings of food, alcohol and even cigarettes are made to placate them. Judging from the pace of development, though, the little sprites must be pretty hopping mad.

Cenotes

Playa del Carmen makes a good base to explore the Riviera Maya's many cenotes, most of which are set in gorgeous jungles. Water activities at cenotes include swimming, snorkeling and diving in caves or caverns. Cave diving, which can be very dangerous, is for certified divers only and must be arranged through a dive shop.

Activities

Ocean and cenote dives get top billing in Playa. Diving & Snorkeling In addition to great ocean diving, many outfits offer cenote dives. Prices are similar at most shops: two-tank dives (US$100), cenote dives (US$160), snorkeling (US$30), whale-shark tour (US$190) and open-water certification (US$450).

Bicycling

A bike outing is a great way to discover outlying neighborhoods or visit a nearby cenote.

Fishing

Playa used to be a fishing village, and you can still go out on small skiffs in search of kingfish, tarpon, barracuda and maybe even a sailfish. April to July is the best time.

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Sleeping

Affordable budget and mid range hotels can be found within several blocks of the beach, and a number offer dorm-style lodging. High season runs from January to April, while 'super-high season' is around Christmas (when prices spike by as much as M$1000). Many rates are set in US dollars, and hotels should state the current exchange rate (tipo de cambio).

Eating

For cheap eats, head away from the tourist center, or hit the markets for some homestyle regional cooking.

Drinking & Nightlife

You’ll find everything from mellow, tranced-out lounge bars to thumping beachfront discos here. The party generally starts on Quinta Avenida then heads down toward the beach on Calle 12.

Shopping

Avid shoppers will find plenty of options here, from large open-air malls to handicraft stalls along Quinta Avenida. Maya artisans sell crafts every third Saturday of the month at Parque la Ceiba.

Travel with Children

Between all the boating outings, water-related theme parks, swimmable cenotes and snorkeling on shallow beaches kids stay thoroughly entertained in Quintana Roo. What's more, you'll rarely have problems finding accommodations and dining options for the whole family, especially when staying in the larger tourist centers.

LGBT Travellers

Same-sex marriage is legal in Quintana Roo and most residents hold open-minded views about sexuality, even more so in big cities like Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, where you'll find the highest concentration of gay bars and LGBT-friendly accommodations.

Gays and lesbians here rarely attract open discrimination and violence. 11:11 in downtown Cancún and Playa 69 in Playa del Carmen both stage fun drag shows, while Posada Pachamama in Mahahual and Playa Palms in Playa del Carmen always welcome LGBT guests.

Gay Cities website (http://cancun.gaycities.com) lists bars and gay-friendly hotels in Cancún and www.gaymexicomap.com has some good Yucatán-specific recommendations. Playa del Carmen celebrates pride week each year (www.playapride.com.mx), as does Cancún.

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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.

Some may be put off by the fact that the town center, where the really cheap eats and sleeps are found, sits right on the highway, making the main drag feel more like a truck stop than a tropical paradise. But rest assured that if Tulum Pueblo isn't to your liking, you can always head to the coast and find that tranquil, beachside bungalow, though it's gonna cost you.

Exploring Tulum's surrounding areas pays big rewards: there's the massive Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an, secluded fishing village Punta Allen and the ruins of Cobá.

Activities

Diving or swimming in a cenote is a Tulum highlight.

Diving & Snorkeling

You'll find many shops offering their services for reef dives, as well as cavern and cave dives (a big draw in Tulum's surrounding areas). Keep in mind that cave diving can be extremely dangerous and should only be attempted with proper certification. Even with certification, always dive with professionals who are familiar with the cave systems.

The spectacular Cenote Angelita is most notable to divers for the unique, curious, even eerie layer of hydrogen sulfide that ‘fogs’ the water about halfway through the descent. Look up and see the sunlight filtering down through ancient submerged tree branches that are wonderfully creepy – like outstretched witches’ arms. The dive is deep and should only be done by experienced divers; make arrangements through a dive center.

Snorkeling or swimming from the beach is possible and fun, but be extra careful of boat traffic (a dive flag is a good idea), as the strip between the beach and reef offshore is traveled by dive boats and fishers. If there’s a heavy wind onshore, strong currents can develop on the lee side of the reef. Inexperienced swimmers should stay close to shore.

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Sleeping

The biggest decision, aside from budget, is whether to stay in the town center or out along the beach. Both have their advantages: most of the daytime action happens at the beach or ruins, while at night people tend to hang at restaurants and bars in town.

You'll find better deals in town, where hostels and midrange options abound.

Tulum Pueblo

Unless you're up for a long walk, if you stay in the town center you'll have to take a taxi, bike or colectivo to the beach. If you crave sand and surf, consider staying along the Zona Hotelera. Many hotels and hostels have a morning beach drop-off shuttle, but getting back you'll probably have to grab a cab or colectivo.

Zona Hotelera

Gone are the days when you could bring a hammock and string it up in a hut for less than M$80. You can still find rustic, but it comes with a non-rustic price tag. Quality and price are so varied here that it’s best to look before you decide.

Bedbugs, sand fleas and mosquitoes are all a possibility. Bring repellent or consider burning a mosquito coil near your door. Nights can be very cold if there’s a breeze blowing.

Eating

Tulum has everything from cheap tourist food to high-end cuisine. Be aware that many of the restaurants in the Zona Hotelera cannot accept credit cards because they're off the grid. Most hotel restaurants welcome non guests.

Drinking & Nightlife

Tulum is a happening spot with a nightlife and bar scene that lasts to the early morning hours. Much of the action unfolds on Calle Centauro, but you can find several bars on Avenida Tulum and in the Zona Hotelera too.

Shopping

Avenida Tulum is lined with shops offering many items, including hammocks, blankets and handicrafts.

Orientation

Tulum lies 131km south of Cancún and is spread out over quite a large area. Approaching from the north on Hwy 307, the first thing you reach is Crucero Ruinas, where the old access road heads in a straight line about 800m to the ruins’ ticket booth. About 400m further south on Hwy 307 (past the gas station) is the new entrance for vehicles going to the ruins; it leads to a parking lot. Another 1.5km south on the highway brings you to the Cobá junction; turning right (west) takes you to Cobá, and turning east leads about 3km to the north–south road (or T-junction) servicing the Zona Hotelera, the string of waterfront lodgings extending for more than 10km south from the ruins. This road eventually enters the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, continuing some 50km past Boca Paila to Punta Allen.

The town center, referred to as Tulum Pueblo, straddles the highway (Avenida Tulum through town) south of the Cobá junction.

A new road and development is underway for the area behind the Zona Hotelera's south side, so expect big changes to come soon.

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The Riviera Maya, a tourist corridor of white-sand beaches, scenic ruins and fun-filled cenotes, was made for road-tripping. Yes, it's growing fast, too fast some will say, but despite all the development, you can still find that small fishing town or head inland to catch a glimpse of the Mexico that tourism forgot.

If it's partying you want, you'll find plenty of that in boomtown Playa del Carmen. Playa still trumps fast-growing Tulum as the Riviera's wildest city, but it's got nothing on Tulum's spectacular Maya ruins perched high above the beach.

Whether traveling by car or bus, getting from one town to the next is a breeze – after all, the Riviera is basically 135km of coastline that stretches south from Puerto Morelos to Tulum. Everything's so close that you can go diving in Puerto Morelos by day and still have time for a candlelit dinner in Tulum.

Sights

Worth a Trip: Laguna Bacalar

To visit the region's most beautiful spot that's not on the coast, head south for some quiet time at Laguna Bacalar. Known as the 'lagoon of seven colors,' the peninsula's largest lagoon is truly a color palette of blues and greens unlike anything you've ever seen. With a lovely cenote nearby, some great kayaking and birdwatching opportunities and an 18th-century fortresses that houses a history museum, you'll have just enough things to do here to keep you busy for several days.

For lodging, Bacalar has got many attractive accommodations, such as the cute and affordable Hotel Maria Maria in town and the pricier yet more secluded Rancho Encantado, on the lagoon's precious north shore.

From Tulum frequent buses (M$252, 3 hours) head to Bacalar's small bus station along Hwy 307, where you can walk or take a cab ride into town.

Activities

Riviera Theme Parks Always a big hit with children, there are several theme parks between Cancún and Tulum, many of which have fantastic scenery – truly some of the most beautiful lagoons, cenotes and natural areas on the coast. Sure, some will find these places too cheesy, but the kids couldn't care less. Some parks are pricey but their websites often offer pre-sale online discounts.

It's worth mentioning that some parks offer an optional swim with dolphins activity, and though it may seem like a lovely idea, animal welfare groups suggest interaction with dolphins and other sea mammals held in captivity creates stress for these creatures.

Here are some of the most popular parks.

Aktun Chen Forty kilometers south of Playa del Carmen, this small park features a 585m-long cave, a 12m-deep cenote, 10 zip-lines and a small zoo.

Xplor This large park 6km south of Playa del Carmen operates circuits that take you zip-lining, rafting, driving amphibious jeeps, swimming in an underground river and hiking through caverns. Xplor has nighttime activities as well.

Xel-Há Billing itself as a natural outdoor aquarium, it's built around an inlet 13km north of Tulum. There are lots of water-based activities on offer, including a river tour and snorkeling.

Xcaret One of the originals in the area, with loads of nature-based activities and stuff for grown-ups like a Mexican wine cellar and day spa. It’s 6km south of Playa del Carmen. Hosts a pretty Day of the Dead festival in November.

Selvática Inland from Puerto Morelos, this adventure outfit only runs prearranged tours. Come for adrenaline-pumping zip-lining, swimming in a cenote and more. Check the website for age restrictions for each tour.

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Sleeping

While it's easy to think the Riviera Maya is entirely top-end type lodging, there are plenty of hostels and lower cost places too, making it entirely doable for those on a tight budget.

Eating

You will find the prices here are higher than the more rural regions, but the quality is higher too. For those craving the comfort of Western chains this may be your last chance before entering the 'wilds' south- and westward.

Travel with Children

Between all the boating outings, water-related theme parks, swimmable cenotes and snorkeling on shallow beaches kids stay thoroughly entertained in Quintana Roo. What's more, you'll rarely have problems finding accommodations and dining options for the whole family, especially when staying in the larger tourist centers.

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Once a bastion of conservatism, Catholicism and tradition, Puebla has come out of its colonial-era shell. The city retains a fantastically well-preserved center, a stunning cathedral and a wealth of beautiful churches, while younger poblanos (people from Puebla) are embracing the city’s increasingly thriving art and nightlife scenes.

The city is well worth a visit, with 70 churches in the historic center alone, more than 1000 colonial-era buildings adorned with the Talavera (painted ceramic tiles) for which the city is famous, and a long culinary history that can be explored at any restaurant or food stall. For a city of its size, Puebla is far more relaxed and less gridlocked than you might expect.

Sights

Modern Puebla still revolves around the city’s old town, with the large, leafy zócalo and Mexico’s tallest cathedral at its heart. The centro histórico is home to most of the attractions, hotels and restaurants of interest to international travelers. Most are within a few blocks of the main plaza.

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Sleeping

Puebla’s hotel scene is competitive, with a huge range at all budgets and high standards in many boutique three- and four-star hotels. The Municipal Tourist Office on the zócalo provides flyers for budget hotels with prices. It’s worth searching online for last-minute rates.

Many hotels can be spotted by illuminated ‘H’ signs over their entrance. Most colonial-era buildings have two types of room – interior (lacking windows) and exterior (exposed to a noisy street).

Eating

Puebla’s culinary heritage, of which poblanos are rightly proud, can be explored in a range of eateries throughout the city, from humble street-side food stalls to elegant colonial-style restaurants. However, given the city’s renown as a culinary center, it’s surprising how few truly excellent high-end restaurants there are.

Puebla’s Seasonal Treats

Justly famous for its incredible cuisine, Puebla also offers an array of seasonal, local delicacies that adventurous eaters should not miss.

Escamoles (March to June) Ant larvae; looks like rice and is usually sautéed in butter.

Gusanos de maguey (April to May) Worms that inhabit the maguey plant, typically fried in a drunken chili and pulque (a low-alcohol brew made from the maguey plant) sauce.

Huitlacoche (June to October) Inky-black corn fungus with an enchanting, earthy flavor. Sometimes spelt cuitlacoche.

Chiles en nogada (July to September) Green chilies stuffed with picadillo (a mix of ground meat and dried fruit), covered with a creamy walnut sauce and sprinkled with red pomegranate seeds.

Chapulines (October to November) Grasshoppers purged of digestive matter then dried, smoked or fried in lime and chili powder.

Drinking & Nightlife

During the day students pack the sidewalk tables along the pedestrian-only block of Avenida 3 Oriente, near the university. At night, mariachis lurk around Callejón de los Sapos – Calle 6 Sur between Avenidas 3 and 7 Oriente – but they’re being crowded out by the bars on nearby Plazuela de los Sapos. These rowdy watering holes are packed on weekend nights, when many of them become live-music venues.

Shopping

The Zona Esmeralda, 2km west of the zócalo, is a stretch of Avenida Juárez with chichi boutiques, upscale restaurants and trendy nightclubs.

Antiques For quirky antique stores, head to Callejón de los Sapos, around the corner of Avenida 5 Oriente and Calle 6 Sur. Most shops open from 10am to 7pm. On Saturday and Sunday, there is a lively outdoor antiques market here and at the Plazuela de los Sapos from 11am to 5pm.

Sweets

A number of shops along Avenida 6 Oriente, to the east of Avenida 5 de Mayo, sell traditional handmade Puebla sweets such as camotes (candied sweet-potato sticks) and jamoncillos (bars of pumpkin-seed paste).

Talavera

Puebla has plenty of shops selling the colorful, hand-painted ceramics known as Talavera. There are several good stores on Plazuela de los Sapos and the streets around it. Designs reveal Asian, Spanish-Arabic and Mexican indigenous influences. Bigger pieces are expensive, delicate and difficult to transport.

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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.

Activities

Oaxaca is a famously attractive city, but its beauty is made infinity more palatable by the lack of city center traffic. The dearth of cars is thanks, in part, to the efforts of local businesses such as Mundo Ceiba, a bike-rental shop responsible for organizing regular communal bike rides designed to cut pollution and push alternative means of transportation. The so-called Paseos Nocturnos en Bicicleta began in 2008 as a once a week jaunt around Oaxaca’s cobbled core, but they quickly became so popular with both locals and tourists that they now run four times a week on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Cyclists meet at 9pm on Calle Alaclá outside the Templo de Santo Domingo. The ride, which is leisurely and highly sociable, runs for 11/2 hours and covers 8km. A customized tricycle pedals at the front playing galvanizing music and looking out for errant drivers. On special days and festivals, riders have been known to don fancy dress. There isn’t a better way to see after-dark Oaxaca while communing with the locals.

Bikes for the ride can be rented beforehand at Mundo Ceiba, a couple of blocks from the starting point.

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Sleeping

Oaxaca is a dreamland of beautiful non-franchise accommodations loaded with authentic local charm. There’s a good stash of cheap but well-kept hostels in interesting old houses, some brilliant B&Bs, an extravagant array of boutique hotels and plenty of evocative historic nooks. ‘Spoiled for choice’ would be a huge understatement.

Some places raise rates around four main festivals: Semana Santa, Guelaguetza, Día de Muertos and Christmas to New Year’s Eve.

Eating

Surely one of the world’s great food cities, Oaxaca is a gastronomic powerhouse full of fabulous creative restaurants, big-name chefs, cooking schools and curious local dishes (grasshoppers anyone?). You can eat grandly or cheaply any night of the week without complaint. The selection is dizzying.

Drinking & Nightlife

Mezcal is the (sometimes slurred) word on most people's lips when ordering a drink in Oaxaca. This once poor man's alternative to tequila is now officially trendy, as exemplified by the city's large and growing cache of divey-hip mezcalerías. Craft beer is also making inroads.

Alcalá, García Vigil and nearby streets are the main party zone on Friday and Saturday nights.

Shopping

The state of Oaxaca has the richest, most inventive folk-art scene in Mexico, and the city is its chief marketplace. You’ll find the highest-quality crafts mostly in smart stores, but prices are lower in the markets. Some artisans have grouped together to market their products directly in their own stores.

Oaxaca’s crowded commercial area stretches over several blocks southwest of the Zócalo. Oaxacans flock here, and to the big Central de Abastos market, for all their everyday needs.

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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.

Guadalajara can’t match the architectural homogeneity of smaller colonial cities, though its historic core, anchored by the wonderful cathedral and Instituto Cultural de Cabañas, is handsome. The hipster Chapultepec neighborhood is sprinkled with fashionable restaurants, coffeehouses and nightclubs. The mellow suburbs of upscale Tlaquepaque and grassroots Tonalá are folk-art shoppers’ dream destinations, while Zapopan has some interesting colonial architecture.

Sights

West of Plaza de Armas

West of the city center, where Avenidas Juárez and Federalismo meet, is the green comma of Parque Revolución, a haven for skaters and the focal point of Sunday's Vía Recreativa.

The fashionable, middle-class suburb of Zapopan is just under 10km northwest of the city center. There are a few interesting sights around the main square (Plaza de las Americas), which is a fun place to hang out, with pilgrims and the faithful coming and going and all sorts of religious items for sale. After dark the locals get the place back to themselves and the numerous bars and restaurants turn the music up and the beer flows.

To get here from the center of Guadalajara, take any bus marked ‘Zapopan’ (eg bus 275 or 706 TUR) heading north on Avenida 16 de Septiembre and its continuation Avenida Alcalde and get off on Avenida Hidalgo just north of the Basílica de Zapopan. The trip takes about 40 minutes. A taxi from the city center will cost around M$120.

Tlaquepaque

Though just under 8km southeast of central Guadalajara, Tlaquepaque (officially San Pedro Tlaquepaque) feels almost like a village: squint and you could well be in some small colonial town miles from anywhere. But Tlaquepaque's attractiveness is not its sole draw: artisans live behind the pastel-colored walls of the old mansions that line Tlaquepaque’s narrow cobblestone streets, and their goods – such as wood carvings, sculpture, furniture, jewelry, leather items and especially ceramics – are sold on and around pedestrianized Calle Independencia. The fancy boutiques here contrast sharply with the more rough-and-ready shops and stalls of Tonalá.

The main square, Jardín Hidalgo, is leafy and lush with blossoms, and the benches around the fountain are always packed. The eating is very good and the strolling is even better, especially at sunset when the sky behind the gorgeous, white-domed basilica burns orange and families take to the streets, enjoying the last ticks of daylight. Voladores ('flying men' from Papantla) give spectacular performances from a special 30m-high pole in the plaza most afternoons between about 3pm and 4pm.

There's a handy and helpful tourist information booth close to the junction of Juárez and Progresso (opposite El Parián) that gives out pictorial neighborhood maps.

To get to Tlaquepaque from central Guadalajara, take bus 275B, 330 or 647 (M$7). The turquoise 706 TUR bus marked ‘Tonalá’ has air-con and is more comfortable (M$12). All these buses leave central Guadalajara from Avenida 16 de Septiembre between López Cotilla and Madero; the trip takes about 20 minutes. As you near Tlaquepaque, watch for the brick arch and then a traffic circle, after which you should get off at the next stop. Up the street on the left is Independencia, which will take you to the center of Tlaquepaque.

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Sleeping

During holidays (Christmas and Holy Week/Easter) and festivals such as Día de los Muertos you must reserve ahead. Ask about discounts if you arrive in the low season or will be staying more than a few days.

Eating

Guadalajara is a foodie destination and many visitors find that meals here count among the highlights of their stay. A few local specialties to look out for include birria (a spicy goat or lamb stew), carne en su jugo (‘meat in its juice,’ a type of beef soup) and, above all, the ubiquitous torta ahogada (literally ‘drowned sandwich’), a chili-sauce-soaked pork roll said to cure everything (but especially hangovers).

Drinking & Nightlife

The Centro Histórico gets fairly quiet at night, though there are several bright spots (if you know where to look) and a well-established gay scene; most gay clubs also welcome straight people. Chapultepec, however, is always hopping, with both local antros (literally 'dens,' but meaning dives) and international-style bars and clubs. In general, tapatíos (Guadalajarans) tend to dress up to go out, so when in Rome…

Shopping

For most visitors, Guadalajara's most appealing shopping are the excellent handicrafts from Jalisco, Michoacán and other Mexican states available in its many markets. Tlaquepaque and Tonalá, suburbs 8km and 17km respectively from the center, are both major producers of handicrafts and furniture – anyone with an interior-decorating habit should plan to spend some time in each. You’ll find the best wholesale prices in Tonalá. There's also a craft market in Chapultepec.

Entertainment

Guadalajara is a musical city, and live performers can be heard most nights of the week at any of the city’s many venues (which include some restaurants). Discos and bars are plentiful, but ask around for the newest hot spots – tapatíos (Guadalajarans) love to show off their town.

Travel with Children

The sights, sounds and colors of Mexico excite kids, and Mexicans love children, who are part and parcel of most aspects of life here. There are many child-friendly attractions and activities for kids of all ages, and with very few exceptions, children are welcomed at all accommodations and at almost any cafe or restaurant.

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Stretching around the sparkling blue Bahía de Banderas and backed by lush palm-covered mountains, Puerto Vallarta (or just 'Vallarta' to many) is one of Mexico's most enticing coastal destinations. Each year millions come to laze on the dazzling sandy beaches, browse in the quirky shops, nosh in the stylish restaurants and wander the picturesque central streets and enticing malecón (boardwalk). There are activities aplenty, including boat trips, horseback rides, diving trips and day trips to the interior. After sunset, Vallarta takes on a new identity with pumping nightlife along the cobblestone streets and numerous LGBT-friendly options in what is the gay beach capital of Mexico.

Sights

Don't Miss: The Southern Beaches A string of beautiful coves and beaches graces the bay south of central Vallarta, easily accessed by bus. Further around the southern side of the bay are three more isolated beaches – from east to west, Las Ánimas, Quimixto and Yelapa – all accessible by boat but not by road, though you can walk a trail to the first two from Boca de Tomatlán.

Buses marked ‘Boca’ stop at both Mismaloya and Boca de Tomatlán (M$8); the ‘Mismaloya’ bus only goes as far as Mismaloya. Any of these buses work for Playa Conchas Chinas and Playa Palmares.

Worth a Trip: San Sebastián del Oeste For a dramatic change of scenery, head for the cool climes of San Sebastián del Oeste, a former mining town (17th-century) with stunning views of the surrounding Sierra Madre mountains and beyond. A two-lane highway to the village winds past old farm houses, coconut stands, roadside birria (lamb) eateries and small distilleries producing raicilla (a mezcal-like agave drink).

With a population of about 700, San Sebastián sits pretty in a cloud forest about 1400m (4600ft) above sea level. From the highest vantage point, lookout Cerro de la Bufa affords a spectacular vista extending all the way to the Vallarta coast when weather permits. The easiest way to reach the lookout is by renting an ATV in town or by hooking up a three-hour tour at Malibrí Turismo, just a block north of the main square. It's best to go on a weekday when the town sees fewer visitors.

There's not a whole lot happening along the cobblestone streets of San Sebastián, but you can pleasantly while away your time over a cup of locally produced coffee, sit down to a homestyle meal on the plaza or set out for a hike in the fresh mountain air. There are several appealing hotels in town that make for a comfortable and relaxing stay, most notably the colonial-style Mansion Real.

San Sebastián del Oeste lies about 70km east of Puerto Vallarta and it's best reached by car. To get there, head north along the Vallarta–Tepic Hwy 200 and veer right (about 3km past the airport) to take Hwy 544. Follow Hwy 544 about 53km east to the town of La Estancia, where you'll find the San Sebastián del Oeste turnoff.

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Sleeping

You’re spoiled for choice here. Vallarta’s cheapest lodgings lie inland, on both sides of the Río Cuale. Closer to the ocean, in the Zona Romántica, you’ll find several appealing midrange options. Prices listed here are for the December to April high season; low-season rates can be 20% to 50% lower. Negotiate for discounts if you plan on staying multiple nights; monthly rates can cut your rent by half.

Eating

There's a thriving culinary scene in Puerto Vallarta, with choices ranging from ubiquitous street eats to gourmet restaurants.

Drinking & Nightlife

It’s ridiculously easy to become inebriated in a town where two-for-one happy hours are as reliable as the sunset, margarita glasses look like oversized snifters and day drinking is almost an obligation. Admission charges are normally waived early in the week; on Friday and Saturday nights they often include one or two drinks.

LGBT Nightlife in Mexico's Gay Beach Capital Most dance clubs open from 10pm until at least 4am, and some stay open well past sunrise. For an entertaining introduction to Vallarta’s gay nightlife scene, check out the Gay Vallarta Bar-Hopping tour. The Zona Romántica, the heart of PV's thriving gay scene, is teeming with atmospheric cocktail bars and discos.

Shopping

Vallarta is a delight for shoppers, with many shops and boutiques selling fashionable clothing, beachwear and crafts from all over Mexico. Tequila and Cuban cigars are also big business.

What to do in Puerto Vallarta

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Since the Spanish conquest, Mérida has been the cultural capital of the entire Yucatán Peninsula. A delightful blend of provincial and cosmopolitan, it is a town steeped in colonial history. It's a great place to explore, with narrow streets, broad central plazas and the region’s best museums. It’s also a perfect place from which to kick off your adventure into the rest of Yucatán state. It has excellent cuisine and accommodations, thriving markets, and events happening just about every night.

Long popular with European travelers looking to go beyond the hubbub of Quintana Roo’s resort towns, Mérida is a tourist town, but a tourist town too big to feel like a tourist trap. And as the capital of Yucatán state, Mérida is also the cultural crossroads of the region. There’s something just a smidge elitist about Mérida: locals have a beautiful town, and they know it.

Sights

Mérida makes a great base for day trips to all kinds of interesting destinations in the countryside, from quiet coastal towns and fun swimming holes to Maya ruins and excellent birding locations. Here are some worthwhile trips.

Cuzamá & Homun Amazing cenotes (limestone sinkholes) can be accessed by horse-drawn cart in Cuzamá and at Santa Barbara in Homún.

Ruta Puuc Ruin yourself by visiting all five sites (including megadraw Uxmal) in one day. Extend your trip by visiting Mayapán and the Grutas de Loltún (Loltún Caverns).

Celestún Head out early to catch a mangrove-birding boat tour. With a bit more time, you can visit the ruined haciendas along the way.

Dzibilchaltún & Progreso Visit the ruins and cenote or extend your trip for an afternoon of beach time in Progreso.

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Sleeping

Budget rooms generally have fans; spending the extra money for air-con is well worth it in the hotter months. Many places market themselves as boutique hotels, but in reality are very smart B&Bs with several luxurious rooms. Unimpressive cheapie hotels are within steps of the bus stations, but you'll find better options elsewhere.

Eating

This is a food city, with all kinds of cuisines and all kinds of budgets. You can dine on cheap, tasty street eats or on fine china. Don't miss 'Mérida en Domingo,' an all-day food and crafts market on the main plaza every Sunday. It's a great place to try a wide variety of regional dishes, and it's cheap, too!

Drinking & Nightlife

You need not look far to find a friendly neighborhood bar. These range from traditional cantinas to more cutting-edge wine and cocktail bars.

Shopping

Yucatecan hammocks are normally woven from strong nylon or cotton string and dyed in various colors. There are also natural, undyed cotton versions. Some sellers will try to pass these off as henequén (agave plant fibers) or jute, telling you it’s much more durable (and valuable) than cotton, and even that it repels mosquitoes. Don’t be taken in; real henequén hammocks are very rough and not something you’d want near your skin. Silk hammocks are no longer made, but a silk-rayon blend has a similar feel.

Hammocks come in several widths, and though much is made of the quantity of pairs of end strings they possess, a better gauge of a hammock’s size and quality is its weight. The heavier the better. A sencilla (for one person) should be about 500g and cost around M$400 to M$450. The queen, at 1100g, runs from around M$600. De croché (very tightly woven) hammocks can take several weeks to produce and cost double or triple the prices given here. Nylon hammocks are usually cheaper.

Mérida and its surrounding towns have some good spots for buying a hammock.

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Swathed in morning jungle mists and echoing to a dawn chorus of howler monkeys and parrots, the mighty Maya temples of Palenque are deservedly one of the top destinations of Chiapas and one of the best examples of Maya architecture in all of Mexico. By contrast, modern Palenque town, a few kilometers to the east, is a sweaty, humdrum place without much appeal except as a jumping-off point for the ruins and a place to find internet access. Many prefer to base themselves at one of the forest hideouts along the road between the town and the ruins, including the funky travelers’ hangout of El Panchán.

Sights

Palenque Ruins

Ancient Palenque stands at the precise point where the first hills rise out of the Gulf coast plain, and the dense jungle covering these hills forms an evocative backdrop to Palenque’s exquisite Maya architecture. Hundreds of ruined buildings are spread over 15 sq km, but only a fairly compact central area has been excavated. Everything you see here was built without metal tools, pack animals or the wheel.

As you explore the ruins, try to picture the gray stone edifices as they would have been at the peak of Palenque’s power: painted blood red with elaborate blue and yellow stucco details. The forest around these temples is still home to howler monkeys, toucans and ocelots. The ruins and surrounding forests form a national park, the Parque Nacional Palenque, for which you must pay a separate admission fee at Km 4.5 on the road to the ruins.

Palenque sees more than 1000 visitors on an average day, and visitation spikes in the summer holiday season. Opening time is a good time to visit, when it’s cooler and not too crowded, and morning mist may still be wrapping the temples in a picturesque haze. Refreshments, hats and souvenirs are available outside the main entrance. Vendors line many of the paths through the ruins.

Official site guides are available by the entrance and ticket office. Two Maya guide associations offer informative two-hour tours for up to seven people, which cost M$880 in Spanish or M$1050 in English, French, German or Italian. French, German and Italian speakers may have to wait a bit longer as there are fewer guides available.

Most visitors take a combi or taxi to the ruins’ main (upper) entrance, see the major structures and then walk downhill to the museum, visiting minor ruins along the way.

Combis to the ruins (M$24 each way) run about every 10 minutes during daylight hours. In town, look for 'Ruinas' combis anywhere on Juárez west of Allende. They will also pick you up or drop you off anywhere along the town–ruins road.

Be aware that the mushrooms sold by locals along the road to the ruins from about May to November are the hallucinogenic variety.

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Sleeping

Prices given here are for the high season, which is mid-July to mid-August, mid-December to early January, and Semana Santa. Rates drop by up to 35% at other times.

Feature: Staying Inside or Outside Town

The first choice to make is whether you want to stay in or out of Palenque town. While Palenque town hosts traffic and commerce, the surrounding area, especially between the town and the ruins, offers some magical spots where howler monkeys romp in the tree canopy and unseen animals chirp after dark. The compound of El Panchán is a traveler favorite, with low-key budget cabañas nestled in the stream-crossed jungle. Frequent daytime combis between town and the ruins will drop you off and pick you up anywhere along this road.

Except for the leafy La Cañada area in the west, Palenque town is not particularly attractive, but if you stay here you’ll have plenty of restaurants and services nearby.

Eating

Palenque is definitely not the gastronomic capital of Mexico. There’s a decent variety of restaurants, though some are laughably overpriced. A number of inexpensive stands and sit-down spots can be found near the AEXA bus terminal and on the eastside of El Parque in front of the church.

Drinking & Nightlife

Palenque doesn’t have much of a nightlife scene. In the evenings you’ll often spot more travelers waiting for a night bus than out on the town. Along the ruins road you can listen to live music in a few places, and in town there are one or two other options. Bars in the center tend toward the unsavory.

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With its gorgeous colonial architecture, enchanting cobblestone streets and striking light, San Miguel de Allende is rightly one of Mexico's biggest draws and has been popular with aesthetes and romantics for much of the past century. This includes a large population of Americans who either live full time in the town or maintain winter homes here, bringing with them a cosmopolitan atmosphere you'll find in few other Mexican towns.

With superb restaurants and high-class accommodations, numerous galleries stocked with quality Mexican artesanías (handicrafts), a fantastic spring-like climate and a surfeit of cultural activities including regular festivals, fireworks and parades, San Miguel is an unmissable highlight for anyone visiting the northern central highlands. The entire ensemble was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2008, and despite receiving huge numbers of visitors, San Miguel absorbs them well and locals mix warmly with their foreign guests and residents.

Sights

The surrounds of San Miguel are blessed with several mineral springs. Some of these have been transformed into commercial balnearios (swimming pools) in pretty, landscaped gardens and picnic grounds. The waters are up to 100°F (38°C). Most places are crowded with local families on weekends but very peaceful during the week.

The balnearios are accessed via the highway north of San Miguel and all are clearly signposted. The most convenient transportation is taxis (around M$150 each way; you can ask the driver to return for you at an appointed time). Alternatively, take a Dolores Hidalgo bus from the San Miguel bus station, or a local bus marked 'Santuario' (hourly) from Calzada de la Luz. These buses will stop out front, or at the turnoffs to some of the balnearios from where you'll need to walk. To return to town, it's best to call for a taxi pick-up, or try your luck hailing a bus heading along the highway.

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Accommodations are often full during festivals and high season, so make reservations well in advance. Thanks to a couple of recent hostel additions, the city now boasts accommodations for all budgets. In the higher budget ranges, San Miguel has some of Mexico's best luxury B&Bs, boutique hotels and guesthouses.

Eating

San Miguel has a superb eating scene showcasing a startling variety of quality Mexican and international cuisine, and has repeatedly proven its reputation as one of Mexico's leading culinary capitals. A thriving cafe society prevails and gorgeous bakeries proliferate. For budget bites, several reliable food stands are on the corner of Ancha de San Antonio and tree-shaded Calle Nemesio Diez.

Drinking & Nightlife

In San Miguel, drinking and entertainment are often synonymous. Many bars (and restaurants) host live music. Most of the action is on Thursday to Saturday nights, but some places have live music nightly. Calle Umarán has plenty of bars.

Entertainment

It's one big cultural party in San Miguel; check out what's on in Atención San Miguel. The Escuela de Bellas Artes and the Biblioteca (in the Sala Quetzal) host a variety of cultural events, many in English; check their noticeboards for schedules.

Shopping

San Miguel has a mind-boggling number of craft shops, selling folk art and handicrafts from all over the country. Anyone serious about buying should book an appointment at the excellent Galeria Atotonilco. Local crafts include tinware, wrought iron, silver, brass, leather, glassware, pottery and textiles. Many shops are along Canal, San Francisco, Zacateros and Pila Seca. Price and quality varies widely.

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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.

Surrounded by dozens of traditional Tzotzil and Tzeltal villages, San Cristóbal is at the heart of one of the most deeply rooted indigenous areas in Mexico. A great base for local and regional exploration, it’s a place where ancient customs coexist with modern luxuries.

The city shook violently during the September 2017 Chiapas earthquake; though some buildings were damaged or collapsed, in general the town escaped serious damage.

Sights

Want to take in the best views in town? Well, you’ll have to work for them, because at this altitude the stairs up these hills can be punishing. The Cerro de San Cristóbal and Cerro de Guadalupe lord over the town from the west and east, respectively, and churches crown both lookouts. A church crowns the Cerro de Guadalupe. The Iglesia de Guadalupe becomes a hot spot for religious devotees around the Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe. These areas are not considered safe at night.

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San Cristóbal has a wealth of budget accommodations, but also a number of appealing and atmospheric mid range hotels, often set in colonial or 19th-century mansions, along with a smattering of top-end luxury. The high seasons here are during Semana Santa and the following week, and the months of July and August, plus the Día de Muertos and Christmas–New Year holidays. Most prices dip at least 20% outside high season.

Eating

The foodie jackpot of Chiapas, San Cristóbal has more tantalizing food options than any other place in the state. If you can verbalize a culinary craving, the chances are some restaurant exists here to fulfill it. Vegetarians are almost embarrassingly spoiled for choice. ¡Provecho!

Drinking & Nightlife

The aroma of roasted highland-grown coffee beans wafts through the streets of San Cristóbal, and a strong dose is never far away.

Shopping

Real de Guadalupe and the Andador Turístico have some upscale craft shops, but the busy daily crafts market around the Santo Domingo and La Caridad churches is also a good place to check out. In addition to textiles, another Chiapas specialty is amber, sold in numerous jewelry shops. When buying amber, beware of plastic imitations: the real thing is never cold and never heavy, and when rubbed should produce static electricity and a resiny smell.

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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 horseback riding 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.

Unfortunately the desert is disappearing fast. The ‘Corridor,’ the once-spectacular coastline between San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, is being built up with cookie-cutter resorts, American chain stores, aquifer-depleting golf courses and all-inclusive hotels.

Sights

For sunbathing and calm waters Playa Médano, on the Bahía de Cabo San Lucas, is ideal. Playa Solmar, on the Pacific, is pretty but has a reputation for dangerous breakers and riptides. Nearly unspoiled Playa del Amor shouldn’t be missed; near Land’s End, it is accessible by boat or you can paddle out on a SUP or kayak. Appropriately, Playa del Divorcio (Divorce Beach) is nearby, across the point on the Pacific side. Playa Santa María, at Km 13 toward San José del Cabo, is one of the best for swimming.

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Sleeping

Cabo has plenty of accommodations but prices are some of the most expensive in Baja.

Activities

The best diving areas are Roca Pelícano, the sea-lion colony off Land’s End, and the reef off Playa Chileno, at Bahía Chileno east of town. Tio Sports at Playa Médano is one of the largest water-sports outfitters, but there are numerous alternatives.

Surprisingly good snorkeling can be done right from Playa del Amor, swimming left, toward the marina. A mask, a snorkel and fins should run about M$200 per day. Panga rides cost about M$200 for a round-trip if you bargain directly with a captain. Tipping is expected.

Eating

Cabo’s culinary scene ranges from humble taco stands to gourmet restaurants.

Drinking & Nightlife

Cabo is a proud party town, and alcoholic revelry is encouraged all day long. You have been warned.

Travel with Children

The sights, sounds and colors of Mexico excite kids, and Mexicans love children, who are part and parcel of most aspects of life here. There are many child-friendly attractions and activities for kids of all ages, and with very few exceptions, children are welcomed at all accommodations and at almost any cafe or restaurant.

Best Regions for Kids

Yucatán Peninsula

Cancún, the Riviera Maya and nearby islands are geared to giving vacationers fun. The area is full of great beaches offering every imaginable aquatic activity, hotels designed to make life easy and attractions from jungle zip-lines to swimming in cenotes (sinkholes). Other parts of the peninsula are great if your kids will enjoy exploring Maya ruins.

Central Pacific Coast

The Pacific coast offers all conceivable types of fun in, on and under the ocean and lagoons. There's a vast range of places to base yourself, from sophisticated Puerto Vallarta to easygoing Zihuatanejo and countless smaller spots.

Mexico City

The capital keeps kids happy with a world-class aquarium, a hands-on children’s museum, a first-rate zoo, dedicated kids entertainment and activities, and parks and plazas full of space and fun.

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At first glance La Paz is a sprawling, slightly dingy city, but after an hour or so you'll discover there's a lot more to it. Laid-back, old-world beauty can be found on a stroll along the waterfront malecón or in the older architecture around the Plaza Constitución; chichi restaurants, cafes and bars cunningly hide in between the cracks. It’s a surprisingly international town – you’re as likely to hear French, Portuguese or Italian here as English or Spanish, and yet paradoxically it’s the most ‘Mexican’ city in all of Baja. Its quirky history includes American occupation and even being temporarily declared its own republic.

All in all, it's a great place to meander, and you can shop uninterrupted by touts’ invitations as you blend in to the urban vibe. The city makes a good base for day trips to Espíritu Santo, Cabo Pulmo and Todos Santos.

Sights

On Península Pichilingue, the beaches nearest to La Paz are Playa Palmira (with a hotel and a marina), Playa Coromuel and Playa Caimancito, both with bar-restaurants, toilets and palapas (open-sided huts). Playa Tesoro, the next beach north, has a restaurant. Some 100m north of the ferry terminal is Playa Pichilingue, with camping, restaurants, a bar, toilets and shade. Playa Balandra is a beautiful enclosed cove with shallow azure water, great for paddling toddlers. Playa Tecolote has plenty of spots where those with cars could camp, and launches leave from here for Espíritu Santo.

Activities

La Paz is an ocean lover's dream. You can snorkel with whale sharks and sea lions, see migrating humpbacks, pods of several types of dolphin, sea turtles and maybe even get lucky to view a blue whale or orcas. Much of this action is around Espíritu Santo island which requires a boat but you can also rent stand-up paddleboards (SUPs), sea kayaks and bicycles in La Paz to cruise around the city and its waters.

Espíritu Santo Trips

There are several ways to get to Espíritu Santo. For day trips, the cheapest is via the pangas that hang out in front of Burger King on the malecón. These boats take up to 12 people and charge around M$800 per person but don't expect much beyond getting brought to the main sites and possibly given lunch. For a more professional, guided experience in English, go with eco-oriented Baja Expeditions, reliable Mar Y Aventuras or fun Espíritu & Baja. A typical trip takes you to bird nesting grounds, snorkeling with the sea lion colony, a beach stop for lunch and time looking for other critters like dolphins, sea turtles or whale sharks. For single to multi-day sea kayaking trips, sign up with Baja Outdoor Activities.

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Sleeping

Accommodations in La Paz run the gamut from budget digs to swanky hotels.

Eating

La Paz’ restaurant scene has become increasingly sophisticated – you'll find most of the top culinary choices on Calles Domínguez and Madero, north of Calle 5 de Mayo.

Drinking & Nightlife

The highest concentration of bars is between Calles 16 de Septiembre and Agustín Arreola, across from the malecón .

Shopping

Local stores that cater to tourists have plenty of junk but a smattering of good stuff.

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