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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The perfect holiday in Mexico – our expert’s ultimate itinerary

Mexico is a country with remarkable diversity, from its people and landscapes to its food and drink. Consider: 31 states, each with their own cuisines, textiles, cultures and traditions; at least 60 languages spoken, from Spanish to Zapotec; 111 Pueblos Mágicos (Magic Towns); 62 indigenous groups; countless varieties of tequila, mezcal and mole (spicy sauce); and wonderful wildlife, from whale sharks to Howler monkeys.

All that makes for endless surprises, especially for travellers whose perception is limited to the beach resorts of the Riviera Maya and Baja California. I’ve travelled extensively in Mexico over the past decade, from the north’s epic Copper Canyon right down to the Yucatán Peninsula, which I currently call home, and I still make new discoveries all the time.

There are timeless places across the country, home to indigenous cultures and farming communities, where life appears unchanged for centuries, and certainly the ruins of ancient civilisations are a step back in time and a big reason to visit.

But Mexico’s a far more modern country than many give it credit for, with Mexico City, in particular, having been transformed from a largely passed through capital to, rightly, one of the world’s most popular cities, with world-class museums and galleries, colourful markets, and a cutting-edge food and drink scene. It’s also much safer than most people think (though caution’s still sensible).

A vast country, around eight times larger than the UK, Mexico has big distances to cover. Some regions, like the Yucatán, are ripe for road trips, but exploring the country generally requires internal flights.

Trying to fit everything Mexico has to offer into two weeks isn’t possible. For now, Baja California’s whales, Chiapas’ jungles, and the tequila heartland of Jalisco will have to wait for second or third visits.

But for anyone wanting a real flavour of Mexico, this is my ultimate itinerary.




Chichén Itzá


Credit: GETTY

The itinerary

Day 1

Fly out from London Heathrow on British Airways’ daily 12.50pm flight, arriving into Mexico City at 6.45pm. Stay at smart boutique hotel Las Alcobas in Mexico City’s cool, upmarket Polanco district.

A sense of Frida in Mexico City

Day 2

Enjoy a morning stroll around the Zócalo, the heart of the capital, taking in 16th-century Catedral Metropolitana, Latin America’s largest cathedral, and Palacio Nacional, especially for Diego Rivera’s massive mural Mexico a Través de los Sigloes. Stop by Templo Mayor, an Aztec pyramid in the downtown area, then check out more big, bold murals from Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros at Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Make your way in the afternoon across to Museo de Arte Moderno, home toone of Frida Kahlo’s most famous paintings, Las Dos Fridas. Spend a few hours at nearby Museo Nacional de Antropología, with fascinating objects from Mayan, Aztec and other pre-Hispanic cultures. In the evening, get a taste of Bajasea food at Campobaja in Roma, then stroll down to cool Limantour for cocktails.




A Mexico City mural


Credit: getty

Day 3

Set out early to explore the ancient Teotihuacan Pyramids, 25 miles (40km) outside the city. Stroll down the Avenue of the Dead and climb the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. Back in the city, visit Frida Kahlo’s “Blue House”, where Mexico’s national heroine was born, and later died. Numerous artworks are displayed. Look around Coyoacán, one of the capital’s oldest neighbourhoods. At night, take in mariachi bands and tequila bars around Plaza Garibaldi, or lucha libre wrestling at Arena Mexico, both quintessentially Mexican experiences.

Day 4

Catch a flight from Mexico City to Los Mochis with low-cost airline Volaris, and transfer to El Fuerte in the northern state of Sinaloa. Enjoy an afternoon in the small Mexican town and kick back at Hotel Hacienda Santa Cruz.




Teotihuacan


Credit: GETTY

Riding high on El Chepe

Day 5

At El Fuerte train station, board “El Chepe” at 6am for one of the world’s most dramatic, scenic train journeys. The Chihuahua-Pacific Railroad, or “El Chepe”, runs 418 miles (673km) from Los Mochis to Chihuahua, cutting through Mexico’s epic Copper Canyon, a sprawling complex of canyons seven times larger than the Grand Canyon. Spend the day (the full route takes 16 hours, although an Express service takes nine) gawping out of windows as you rumble gently through gorges and pine forests, across vast lakes and rivers.

In the afternoon, get off at Posada Barrancas, take a hike along the canyon rim, and make your way to Divisadero for the Copper Canyon Adventure Park. Take the cable car out into the heart of the canyon to enjoy stillness and silence. At Hotel Divisadero Barrancas, spend the evening drinking margaritas with a view over the canyon’s rugged glory.




Copper Canyon


Credit: GETTY

Day 6

Whizz around the canyon from point to perilous point on Copper Canyon Adventure Park’s zip line tour, which includes seven lengthy ziplines and vertigo-inducing hanging bridges.

Test your mettle on the challenging Via Ferrata (rock face assault course), then catch the 1215pm train to the town of Creel and spend the night at Cusarare River Sierra Lodge (+52 614 334 8139), outside town.

Day 7

Spend the day hiking with a Rarámuri guide, the indigenous locals famous for their stamina in long distance running. Explore quiet countryside, farms, villages and the Cusarare waterfall, and visit Cusarare Mission’s Jesuit church, filled with religious art.

Catch the 1.45pm train from Creel to complete the rail road journey, leaving behind the sunset glow of the Sierra Madre mountains to arrive into Chihuahua after dark. Stay at Fiesta Inn Chihuahua.




Popocatépetl volcano


Credit: getty

Snowy peaks in Puebla

Day 8

Catch the two-hour flight back to Mexico City and drive two hours south east towards Puebla, a colonial city in sight of the snowy peak of 17,802ft (5,426m) Popocatépetl volcano. En route, take an afternoon tour of Cholula to explore the archaeological zone, including the 213ft (65m) Great Pyramid. Stay overnight in Puebla at Hotel Quinta Real Puebla, set in a former convent, and seek out Puebla’s famous Mole Poblano, a dish with a rich choc-chilli sauce.

Day 9

Take a city tour of Puebla, including Franciscan convent San Gabriel, the Zócalo and the colonial centre, packed with baroque churches and mansions. Drive south through the afternoon, detouring to Tehuacán Cuicatlán Reserve and Zapotitlán Salinas for weird and wonderful cacti formations.

Arrive in Oaxaca City, a Unesco World Heritage Site, by the evening and settle in at central Hotel Quinta Real Oaxaca.




Traditional attire in Oaxaca


Credit: GETTY

Mezcal, Mole and Monte Alban in Oaxaca

Day 10

Oaxaca is famous for its complex, flavour-packed cuisine. Take a cooking class at Casa Crespo, shopping for ingredients at Sánchez Pascuas food market, perhaps sampling chapulines (grasshoppers), then preparing a four-course feast of Oaxacan dishes, such as Mole Negro Oaxaqueño (Oaxacan blackmole). Mezcal (a smokier, softer take on tequila) has been one of my favourite discoveries in Mexico. Head to In Situ Mezcalería, Ulises Torrentera’s bar/shop, to sample some of the 180 artisanal mezcals. Later, visit Santo Domingo de Guzmán church and the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, which houses gold treasures from the Monte Albanruins.




Grasshoppers are something of a delicacy


Credit: GETTY

Day 11

Visit the ancient Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban, outside the city, which has pyramids, temples and palaces. Then, get ready to take an afternoon flight across the country to Mérida, capital of the Yucatán, and settle in at the central Hacienda Mérida.

Catch an evening show on the main plaza, including demos of the ancient Maya’s ballgame. For a lively night, head to La Negrita cantina for mezcal, cocktails, bar food, live Cuban music and dancing.




Monte Alban


Credit: GETTY

Mayan Magic in the Yutacan Peninsula

Day 12

Take a stroll around Mérida’s downtown, including striking Cathedral de San Ildefonso, before driving, via the Yellow City of Izamal, to Chichén Itzá, one of its largest and most famous cities from the ancient Mayan civilisation. Explore El Castillo pyramid, the Jaguar Temple and other constructions across the sprawling religious centre. Drive on to Tulum and stay at Casa Malca, former home of Pablo Escobar, now an art-filled boutique hotel. Ask for a beach front room.

Take it easy in Tulum

Day 13

More developed than it used to be, Tulum’s still the Riviera Maya’s cool place to be, the anti-Cancun, with a drifty, laid-back feel. There is plenty to do, whether floating down the canals of Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, swimming with turtles off nearby Akumal beach, or visiting the ruins of Tulum and Cobá, with spider monkeys and colourful bird life in the vicinity.

Multan-Ha, Tamcach-Ha and Casa Cenote arejust a few of the Yucatán’s 8,000 cenotes (natural pools), all good for a cooling dip. But, my advice: try not to do too much. Tulum’s really a place to kickback on the beach and swim in the Caribbean Sea. At night, New York chef Eric Werner’s Hartwood restaurant is the place to eat. 

Day 14

Make the most of your final day with a stroll and a swim, maybe a few tacos and cold beers at Taqueria La Eufemia, before transferring two hours to Cancun airport and catching BA’s 6.35pm flight to Gatwick.

Day 15

Arrive back into London Gatwick (8.45am), your head undoubtedly still spinning with colour, mezcal and memories.

How to book

While it is possible to organise this itinerary on your own, you may find it easier to employ the services of a tour operator. Journey Latin America, Audley, Scott Dunn and Abercrombie & Kent can all arrange tailor-made trips to Mexico. 

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