Think Mexico is only for spring breakers on a beach, coconut drink and pink umbrella in hand? Think again.
Adventurous visitors willing to branch out from well-traveled haunts like Puerto Vallarta or the Riviera Maya will be rewarded with singular experiences, from a freshwater lagoon in Quintana Roo to a treasure-trove of Mayan handicrafts in a stunning colonial town. Leave the crowded coast behind and stumble upon un-excavated pyramids rising from the jungle, warm swimming holes carved from limestone beneath the earth or a tranquil fishing village on the Pacific.
With a bargain exchange rate, picture-perfect spring weather, and easy access from the East Coast, you'll discover some of the country's most dynamic, least-known national delights in a world far from Cancun and the cruise ships.
1. Bacalar, Quintana Roo
If off-the-beaten path, no-one-I-know-has-been-there-before is what you're after, look no further than Bacalar, at the southern tip of Quintana Roo, just 20 miles from the Belize border. The remote town's claim to fame? An enchanting 40-mile freshwater lagoon known as Lago de Seis Colores, the Lake of Seven Colors. Its turquoise hues and breathtakingly clear water bring Tahiti to mind, and its calm surface makes for terrific kayaking, bird-watching, and swimming.
Nearby is the Cenote Azul, a "holy hole" of spring water that's about a half-mile wide and rumored to be 600 feet deep. Wile away an afternoon at its casual eatery with a diving platform on the roof or head into town where kids can climb on real cannons at the 18th-century San Felipe Fort. Backwater Bacalar was instrumental in guarding against pirates coming from the Caribbean to get to mainland Mexico.
For rustic digs with a great view, check into the Rancho Encantado (encantado.com), a collection of bungalows on the lagoon. Its open-air restaurant with a towering palm-thatched roof serves up American-style cuisine three times a day. There's also a heated Jacuzzi, a massage hut on stilts and a long dock with cabana and hammocks. This is the place to be when night falls, watching stars cascade over the dark sky, sipping tequila with other guests.
Just 45 minutes from Bacalar is one of Mexico's most unexplored Mayan ruins, Kohunlich. Indiana Jones himself would enjoy the unexcavated labyrinth of pyramids, altars and ball courts rising from the jungle understory. If you've experienced the crowds at Chichén Itza, the absolute quiet — except for the chatter of monkeys, toucans, and crickets — will astound you. An impressive place to stay just outside the ruins is Explorean Kohunlich with its 40 bungalows and infinity edge pool overlooking the jungle (explorean.com).
2. Troncones, Guerrero
For beach lovers who like their solitude and seek out something wholly different from the crowded shores of the Rivera Maya, there's the undiscovered surf town of Troncones on the Pacific Ocean. Just 40 minutes west of an international airport serving the glitzy high-rises of Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, this sleepy seaside village has somehow flown under the radar of developers and travelers alike.
The action here runs along one red dirt road, which bisects the lush hillside on one side, and the crashing waves of the Pacific on the other. With a handful of restaurants, nearly all seafood-oriented and the dig-your-toes-in-the-sand-with-a-really-cold-beer variety, Troncones is truly a one-horse kind of town.
Besides the empty beaches and the black rocks that rise dramatically from the sea, other treats await the intrepid traveler. Kids can learn to surf with Mike at Tsunami Surf, or ride horses bareback on the beach. The chef in the family can flag down the fish truck that trolls the main road selling mackerel, grouper, sailfish and mahi-mahi pulled from the ocean that morning. Whether you're staying in a vacation home or a guesthouse, you'll be able to cook it that evening with a squeeze of lime and a pinch of sea salt. Roadside vendors sell 10-pound burlap sacks of this gourmet spice for about $2.
Lodging runs the gamut from B&Bs and small inns to private, staffed luxury villas — two favorites are Casa Teresa (casateresatroncones.com) and Casa Dos Peces (www.vrbo.com/305698). The yoga crowd does downward dog at Present Moment Retreat on a mahogany platform next to the surf. Its palapa-styled restaurant serves up some of the best breakfasts in town. (presentmomentretreat.com). Great for the kids is the tranquil Inn at Manzanillo Bay on the beach's calmest stretch of see-through water (manzanillobay.com).
3. San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas
The state of Chiapas, sharing a long coastline with the Pacific Ocean and a southern border with Guatemala, is home to one of Mexico's largest Mayan populations — about a million strong. Despite its quirky independent streak — the Maya still dress in the colors and costume of their individual villages — Chiapas has a worldly element.
Its cultural and commercial heart is the colorful and lively San Cristobal de las Casas, a town full of art galleries, coffee shops, indie bars with live music, and international outdoor cafes lining the its pedestrian-only walkways. Once a stop for international vagabonds on Central America's Mayan-ruin circuit, San Cristobal is revving up and now has a new luxury lodging option, the Hotel Bo (hotelbo.mx).
The town made global news two decades ago during a 12-day Zapatista rebellion. Though there's evidence of the uprising in the political graffiti and kitsch memorabilia, more notable are the brilliant blue skies, colonial architecture, dark-roast coffee, and a stunning textile and handicraft industry. Its weavings are arguably the finest in Mexico and its co-ops allow indigenous women from surrounding villages to bring their best pieces to the tourist trade.
Try not to miss the Sunday market at Tenejapa, a strictly local affair where foreigners are so few that you'll find folks staring at you, especially if you're over 5 feet tall. As you stroll the narrow outdoor aisles lined with Tenejapans selling what Tenejapans need, suss out fabulous finds on hand-woven felts, textiles, pom-pom-adorned wool purses, and white woven sashes (worn by the men only) that double as table runners. The town is a 45-minute, 100-peso cab ride from San Cristobal.
4. Izamal, Yucatan
In the interior of the humid Yucatán, a mere two hours west of the hustle of Cancun, lies the pretty, tranquil town of Izamal, where buildings are all painted egg-yolk yellow in honor of the first papal visit to Mexico 20 years ago.
The town's main appeal is its proximity to a host of family-fun activities, including some of the area's best ruins, like Uxmal and Chichen Itza, and the Yucatan's unique water feature, the cenote.
Formed by limestone surfaces that collapse, exposing subterranean waterways, cenotes are magical underground sinkholes, crystal clear and cool, fed by springs and rainwater. They are rumored to hold remains from Mayan sacrifices.
To visit three in one wild trip, depart from the tiny town of Cuzama on a horse-drawn cart made from fibers of henequen, a tropical plant in the agave family. For 200 pesos (about $16), you'll ride, sometimes jarringly, 7 miles on an old plantation track through the jungle to a series of underground caves. Crawl down and swim in each of them as they become increasingly deep and mysterious. For kids, this will be the highlight of their Yucatan adventure. For basic comfort with a rock-bottom pool and a breakfast room surrounded by macaws, book one of two houses at Macan Che Bed & Breakfast in Izamal (macanche.com).
Ever wonder how rope is made? Then don't miss a tour of Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, a henequen hacienda dating from the 1850s. A fascinating, hands-on demonstration takes the visitor from a cutting of fresh agave cactus through the threshing and drying machines to a hand-cranked spinner that turns it into rope. Old mills show how it was woven into rugs. Sisal, the popular floor covering, got its name from the port near here from where the processed rope was shipped overseas.
At the hacienda, you'll ride a mule-drawn wagon through fields of agave to swim in the hacienda's own cenote. Lunch is served on the shady grounds outside the original manse.
Bird lovers should hire a private boat from Rio Lagartos on the northern Gulf of Mexico to see migrating flamingos. Thousands strong, they stand knee-dip in water to dine on brine shrimp, giving them their brilliant pink color. The captain will drop anchor at a salt flat where you can slather yourself in chalky white mud, then rinse it off on a deserted beach.
Those needing a city fix can head into Merida, the slightly crowded capital of the Yucatan, for a stroll through the Anthropology and History Museum. Housed in a restored palace on the city's main boulevard, Paseo de Montejo, it offers a comprehensive look at life on the Yucatan Peninsula, with its well-ordered exhibits on skulls, pottery, jewelry, stone carvings and more. End your visit with dinner at the superb restaurant Rosas and Xocolate.
Mexico travel warning
On Jan. 9, the U.S. State Department issued an updated travel warning for tourists planning to visit Mexico, with detailed information on drug violence on a state-by-state and city-by-city basis.
Officials note that American travelers "should be aware that the Mexican government has been engaged in an extensive effort to counter [criminal organizations] which engage in narcotics trafficking and other unlawful activities throughout Mexico." It says U.S. citizens visiting Mexico have been affected by gun battles, kidnapping, carjacking and highway robbery, but also notes that "crime and violence are serious problems and can occur anywhere."
It warns Americans to keep a low profile and avoid wearing items that identify them as U.S. citizens. For details, go to travel.state.gov.