Mexico is without a doubt one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
Spanning the tranquil, crystalline shores of the Caribbean sea on the east coast to the wild Pacific beaches of Jalisco and Oaxaca in the west, where shaggy haired surfers catch 15 foot waves and prehistoric pelicans circle overhead. Mexico is a country of contrasts, with mountain chains, colonial cities, pyramids, deserts, waterfalls and several thousands varieties of tequila or mezcal, depending on where you are in the country.
You’ve definitely heard of Cancun, everyone and their mother has heard of Tulum, but have you heard of Guadalajara? The colonial, artsy capital of Jalisco? No? Well we’ve put together a guide of some of the lesser-trodden, hidden gems that the Central American country has to offer.
Mexico’s sprawling capital has been in the spotlight since the pandemic, perhaps due to Mexico’s lack of travel restrictions or because, correctly, we are finally giving this jewel of a city the recognition it deserves. Mexico’s capital is a veritable oasis of cafe-lined boulevards, dotted with prehistoric looking trees and overlooked by art deco style mansions, steeped in murals that pay homage to the city’s foremost muralist Diego Riviera.
A couple of days in the capital is not enough time to visit the smorgasbord of mouthwatering restaurants, headed by some of the world’s most prodigious and innovative chefs, or visit the galleries that are the lifeblood of this pulsating, multicoloured city. Basically, don’t scrimp on time in Mexico City, it’s worth exploring.
Where to stay?
Círculo Mexicano, is the latest outpost from design hotel aficionados Grupo Habita, who are also behind one of the city’s original boutique hotel’s Hotel Condesa DF. Circulo is located in the city’s historic centre in what was originally a grand 19th century townhouse next door to the imposing Gothic grandeur of the Metropolitan Cathedral. Come for the paired back minimalist modern rooms and central location but definitely stay for the rooftop pool with views across the whole of the city, this is veritable gold dust in the sprawling metropolis.
Where to eat?
You may think the food scene in London is good but in comparison to Mexico City we may as well be eating spam. There are so many restaurants to mention, three Michelin starred Pujol, delectable French fusion at Máximo Bistrot or to-die-for pasta at Rosetta. But any trip to the city is not complete without visiting seafood institution and lunch spot to the stars, (Eva Longaria is a regular) Contramar — order the famous tuna tostadas followed by the fig tart, you will expire with joy. For truly life-changing street tacos head to a hole in the wall restaurant with absolutely no signage, Expendio de Maíz Sin Nombre (which literally translates to corn vendor with no name). At this secret spot the super talented chefs continue to bring out myriad flavoured tacos until you tell them to stop, so make sure you wear an elasticated waistband.
Oaxaca City reminds me of something from the Lego Movie promotional poster; its labyrinth of squat houses painted in riotous primary colours rarely rise higher than two stories, meaning the sky is unblemished by ugly skyscrapers. Instead the horizon is an expanse of periwinkle blue sky, which comes as a welcome reprieve from the frenetic hustle and bustle on the streets below. The historic centre of Oaxaca is a melting pot of artisanal markets, world-class restaurants, cafes, galleries, botanical gardens and parades of dancers that pirouette nightly in the main squares and boulevards.
Where to stay?
There are many boutique hotels dotted throughout Oaxaca City, but one of the best is undoubtedly the Pug Seal Hotel. This bijou hideaway is perfectly located in the city centre, with just 20 rooms that perfectly meld shabby chic, exposed brick walls with plush sofas and sprawling beds with grand balconies overlooking the cobbled streets below. You will feel inspired and relaxed in equal measure in this arty hotel, despite its modern aesthetic Oaxaca’s ancient Zapotec heritage is artfully woven into the tapestry of the hotel, from the Zapotec motifs on the brass wall inlays to the design of the stairs to represent fertility in Zapotec symbolism.
What to do, eat, see?
For such a small city, Oaxaca’s culinary reputation is the stuff of legend, but this is no coincidence. The rich Oaxacan soil makes it the perfect place to grow amaranth, corn, cacao, chillies, pumpkins and fruits like papaya and prickly pears. Thanks to this surfeit of local produce the restaurants in the city attract some of the best chefs in South and Central America. One of the best gastronomic hotspots is Casa Oaxaca, famous for its slow cooked pork tacos, rich moles and sprawling roof terrace with unparalleled views of Santo Domingo Church. Coffee lovers rejoice, the higgedly-piggedly streets are home to a disproportionate amount of cafes, make sure you stop at Boulenc for flaky pastries and flat whites made with local coffee beans.
This Spanish colonial city is just a hop, skip and a jump (or three-hour drive) from Quintana Roo’s major resorts, but despite their proximity the vibe couldn’t be more different. While the sprawling five star hotels in Tulum and Cancun are undoubtedly luxe, Merida is much richer in culture and historical charm. Yucatan’s capital was rebuilt by Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo y León in 1542 on top of the original ancient Maya city of T’ho, luckily he didn’t destroy everything, to this day lofty cathedrals and colonial mansions stand side by side with Maya ruins and Shamanic cenotes.
Where to stay?
There is no shortage of grand Hacienda style hotels in Merida, for opulent Spanish colonial design look no further than Casa Lecanda, complete with grand four poster beds, mahogany antiques and chandeliers. But for something a little less imposing, the Diplomat Boutique Hotel is the perfect bolt hole for exploring the city, with a chic modern design, palm tree lined infinity pool and the most gracious staff, the hotel feels like a secret oasis in the bustling city.
Fifty minutes away, you’ll find the tranquil Chablé Yucatán hotel. Set deep in the Mayan jungle, with its cutting edge spa dotted around its very own cenote, you can feel the magic in the air. Make the trip here for shamanic ceremonies and stress-busting treatments, or book a car to take you for a special night at Ixi’im restaurant. It’s a spectacular experience and has the world’s largest collection of tequilas — be sure to keep your schedule clear the next morning.
Chablé Yucatan, from £822) per night for a Casita with private pool; chablehotels.com
What to do, eat, see?
Like most Mexican cities the local markets are the real gastronomic jewels in Merida. Mercado Lucas De Galvéz Farmers Market is brimming with exotic fruits and vegetables in every imaginable shade and texture. Just beware you’ll find hundreds of varieties of chillies and all-to enthusiastic market stall owners quick to suggest you to try their spicy produce - some of which will literally erode the roof of your mouth. Apart from playing russian roulette with your tonsils, you cannot come to Merida without visiting some of its museums and churches. The Museum of Anthropology and History is located in a grand mansion on the Paseo Montejo and pays homage to the Yucatan’s colourful history with Maya relics, photographs and traditional dress. Afterwards head to the San Ildefonso Cathedral, one of the oldest churches in Latin America, just off the Pasejo Montejo, a wide avenue lined with palatial Beaux Arts mansions that were inspired by the Champs-Élysées.
Tulum’s baby brother Isla Holbox is a world away from the sprawling resorts and flashy bars on the mainland. The lagoon that separates the Yucatan peninsula from the tiny island of Holbox is home to myriad wildlife, it is not uncommon to pass flocks of preening flamingos and occasionally the silvery outline of a whale shark. A decade ago the tiny island was almost entirely unheard of, despite a turbulent 200-year history of rebellions, invasions and devastating hurricanes the main industry has been fishing and the islanders have been content with sleepy island life. That is until a few years ago when a handful of enterprising fisherman began enticing tourists with marine life tours. But like all secrets, once tourists landed on the unspoilt beaches, rich in natural beauty and charm, it was impossible to keep. There are no cars on Holbox, instead the dirt track roads are rumbling with golf carts and bicycles, zig zagging in and out of pot holes. Despite its size this is not a quiet place, huge graffiti murals adorn the walls of buildings, casting rainbow drenched shadows of fuchsia, burnt orange and lime green onto the street and passers by and the roads are lined with Taco vendors, ramshackle beach bars and hostels.
Where to Stay?
In the last ten years Holbox has gone from having almost no hotels to hundreds. One of the OGs, however, is Ser Casasandra. The hotel is owned by a Chilean artist who originally lived in the bohemian property before opening it up as a hotel, and everything from the art laden walls to the uber-friendly staff continue to give the impression of a home away from home, albeit much nicer and warmer. The hotel has both a private pool lined with chic cushioned deck chairs adorned with jewel bright cushions and a private beach club where you can while away many hours drinking Vittoria beers. The hotel breakfast is second to none, with homemade granola, local eggs and delicious pastries putting paid to any bikini thirst trap ambitions.
What to do, eat, see?
No trip to Holbox is complete without a moonlight trip to see the bioluminescence, a magical naturalphenomenon that makes the water glow with a million little light particles, apparently something to do with certain microorganisms that light up when they hit the waves. For delicious food, LUUMA has been a cocktail and gastronomic institution on the island for several years and attracts a decidedly boujis crowd. For something equally special but slightly less basic head to El Chapulim, where Chef Erik Winckelmann cooks only four dishes each night made from locally sourced, seasonal produce. It’s seriously delicious.
Todos Santos, Baja California
Baja California is visually very different to much of the rest of Mexico. Its cactus studded deserts are a stark contrast to the tropical climes of the south and the freezing Sierra Madre mountain ranges that straddle Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero. Baja is largely populated by vast swathes of golden desert which open dramatically onto wild, barren coastline. Its proximity to America means that you are never far from a Starbucks but as long as you steer clear of tourist-heavy Cabo San Lucas, towns like Todos Santos, La Ventana and the capital La Paz maintain an authentic bohemian vibe and stunning natural beauty.
Where to stay
Just outside Todos Santos, nestled at the end of the beach with nothing, not even a shop around is Hotel San Cristobal. The hotel is framed by the Sierra de la Laguna mountains and during winter and early spring hotel guests will regularly catch sight of dramatic bursts of water erupting from the ocean signalling the presence of a migrating Humpback whale. The hotel’s interiors are no less impressive, paired back and minimalist but with a playful retro feel that makes you feel like you’re moonlighting in Boogie Nights, just with less LSD and more Mezcal.
What to do, eat, see?
Todos Santos is a sleepy surfer town meaning that if you’re looking to catch a few waves you’re in luck. The main beach Punta Lobos attracts families and surfers who bring picnics and come for the water sports and miles of golden, unspoilt sand. You could easily spend your time sunbathing, wandering around the many artisanal shops in Todos Santos, but no trip to this part of Baja is complete without going to Espiritu Santo beach. This UNESCO world heritage sight is a crystalline lagoon and has been voted the most beautiful beach in Mexico and the 12th most beautiful beach in the world. You have to go through La Paz to get to Espiritu Santo, so on the way back head to the vibey Baja Club Hotel for cocktails on their roof terrace.