Words by Julie Miller
When I try to isolate my conic experience from eight visits to Mexico over a 20-year period, I am conflicted. Is it riding a horse into a cool mountain forest, reverberating with the flutter of Monarch butterfly wings; sipping margaritas at a thatched palapa beach bar overlooking the turquoise waters of the Caribbean; or punting through the floating gardens of Xochimilco on the outskirts of Mexico City, accompanied by the discordant strains of mariachi music?
Mexico is all of these things and more. A riot of colour, music, art and culture wrapped up like a delectable taco in landscapes that are just as diverse as its experiences – from cactus-strewn deserts, to stunning beaches and jungles where the secrets of ancient civilisations unfold.
At the heart of this complex country are its people – effusive, warm and fiercely independent. This is the nation that elevated Frida Kahlo, a mono-browed, bisexual female artist, to national celebrity status. A nation that casually flips the bird to critics north of the border.
There are two main gateways into Mexico – either through its vibrant and often chaotic capital city, or via its beach resorts. Each offers vastly different experiences, with Mexico City as intense, multifaceted and sophisticated as the resorts are laid-back.
In terms of accessibility, it’s hard to look past Mexico’s most glamorous resort spot – Los Cabos. Located at the tip of the Baja Peninsula (just a two-and-a-half-hour flight away from Los Angeles) Los Cabos is a soft landing into the intoxicating Mexican culture, minus some of the challenges of the less tourist-friendly parts.
Blessed by year-round balmy weather and a dramatically seductive landscape, this is where the desert, dotted with the statuesque saguaro cactus, collides with the Pacific Ocean. The place where Hollywood comes to play. There is a plethora of luxurious resorts to choose from, such as The Cape, a Thompson Hotel and One and Only Palmilla, an old-school classic beloved by billionaires and celebrities.
Of course, it’s impossible to ignore Mexico’s reputation as a dangerous place. Indeed, the drug wars of the past few decades have left an indelible scar on its tourist industry. But while a degree of caution is prudent, visitors to Mexico will be mostly unaffected by its internal battles, with heightened security in public places perhaps the only obvious sign of ongoing issues.
Meanwhile on the Caribbean coast, the resort city of Cancun attracts a different clientele, epitomised by American college students on ‘spring break’ who are intent on partying in bland, all-inclusive resorts. Further south, however, the village of Tulum features more of a sophisticated and bohemian crowd, lured by dazzling white beaches, azure clear water and ‘rustic-chic’ accommodation focusing on wellness and alternative culture.
Dominating the cliffs of Tulum is arguably the most beautiful Mayan temple in all of Mexico. Once you’ve had your fill of archaeology, you can head down to the beach below to cool off. You can also snorkel in dozens of nearby cenotes, natural limestone sinkholes with stunningly clear blue water.
Two hours’ drive north of Cancun is a tiny island touted as the ‘new Tulum’ – the charming Isla Holbox. This is island life at its most idyllic – car-free sandy roads, colourful buildings, hammocks slung over crystalline water, fresh ceviche and margaritas. Hire a golf buggy to explore the 30-kilometre-long island, stopping off at the Yum Balam Nature Reserve to spy a flamboyance of flamingos. Or brave a bumpy boat ride to swim with whale sharks, which congregate in nearby waters between June and September.
For a more traditional and authentic taste of Mexican life, head inland to one of the many colonial villages designated ‘pueblo magico’ – magical towns. The silver city of Taxco, for instance, is a perfectly preserved slice of colonial history. Then there is the gorgeous enclave of Valle de Bravo, located just 90 minutes from Mexico City, which offers adventure activities including horse riding through pine forests and paragliding above sparkling Lake Avandaro.
The jewel in Mexico’s crown, however, is its capital – one of the most exciting and intriguing cities in the world, in my opinion. Heaving with humanity and weighted with history, Mexico City is a cultural paragon with great food, fabulous nightlife, lovely parks, world-class art museums and bargain shopping. Prepare to be surprised – this is a big city with heart and soul.