One of the world’s great civilizations, Mexico is a mélange of Mesoamerican cultures, modern indigenous tribes, Spanish traditions and a vibrant modern economy – the biggest in Latin America after Brazil.
Mexico’s landscapes are just as diverse, from the shimmering blue coastline of Baja California and the iconic cactus-strewn deserts of the north, to the Mayan villages and gorgeous palm-smothered beaches of the south. You can climb volcanoes, watch whales, swim underground and tour tequila farms. And sprinkled throughout, find richly adorned colonial churches, giant ancient pyramids and a sophisticated cuisine that has little in common with the world of nachos and burritos.
Venture beyond beaches and ruins to mysterious rain forests, cenotes, and ancient canals. This living quilt of lowland rain forest, grassy savannas, and coastal barrier reefs blankets the massive Quitana Roo on the eastern Yucantan Peninsula. While technically part of Riviera Maya – Mexico's tourist playground, Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve is light-years removed from the region's all-inclusive megaresorts.
Set against the ivory shores of the Caribbean, the UNESCO World Heritage site offers visitors a glimpse of a peninsula untouched. Elusive jaguars, ocelots, Morelet's crocodiles, and howler monkeys still roam freely. Rare trees like mahogany and red and white cedar grow here. More than 300 species of birds, including the keel-billed toucan and the flamboyantly iridescent trogon, flit through the trees. Among other endemic species is the resplendent quetzal, sacred to the Aztec and the Maya.
Explore the reserve on a low-impact tour along the inland, freshwater canal built by Mayan traders more than 1,200 years ago. Centro Ecologico Sian Ka'an (CESiaK), which oversees the visitor's center and uses its revenue to fund regional conservation efforts, leads guided treks to the partially excavated Muyil (Chunyaxche) archaeological site. For a treetop view of the surrounding ruins and jungle, climb the 15m-high El Castillo pyramid, Muyil's tallest and best preserved structure.
Embrace the city's contradictions in one of its most stylish neighborhoods.
Mexico City, often disparaged as dirty and chaotic, is a complex, vibrant, and fascinating megalopolis made up of dozens of villages merged together over the past hundred years. Today, it encompasses more than 350 neighborhoods, each a beguiling convergence of historic (the Zocalo, site of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, settled 678 years ago; Alameda Park, the city's oldest green space, created the 16th century on the site of an Aztec market) and modern (high design boutique hotels, vintage furniture emporia). Here sheer urban energy thrives alongside languor – lunches are a scared ritual of relaxation and conversation.
To take in the contradictions at their most seductive, head to Condesa, among the city's most fashionable neighborhoods. At its heart is the oval-shaped Parque Mexico, where locals and visitors take yo-yo lessons and flamenco classes, and take their dachshunds for promenades under the shade of flowering jacarandas.
Wend your way through side streets lined with pastel-painted Spanish colonial apartment buildings and 1920s neoclassical mansions to discover art galleries, cevicherias (seafood restaurants), mezcalerias (places for drinking mescal), and stylish dining rooms where celebrity chefs specialize in new-wave Mexican food.
Paddle in the company of whales, dolphins, and sea lions – with a desert backdrop.
The desert and the sea – they rarely exist together on one place, but in Baja California – one of México's 31 states – this unlikely duo provides a magnificent playground for kayakers. However, at times, the playground's waters – whether the Sea of Cortes or the Gulf of California – can be, put mildly, rough.
For those with experience kayaking and camping, sign on with an outfitter on a trip along the 145km route from Loreto to La Paz, which hugs a coastline inaccessible to almost any other kind of travel. You would not even see power-boats most of the time. There are few roads and even fewer people. Sea meets desert, heat battles cold, and you may find yourself soaked by massive swells that dump on kayakers who dare put in.
But the rewards are great – views of rugged desert mountains and empty beaches for camping or picnic breaks. Visiting the home of bottlenose dolphins and barking sea lions, nine species of whales, and a rainbow's worth of reef fish that dart in and out of the coral, all easily visible in the brilliantly clear waters, you may curse the waves each time they soak you, but you will be longing for a return trip as soon as you get home.
Step back in time to a thousand-year-old way of life.
Taos Pueblo does not try too hard to impress. Located just a few miles north of the bustle of Taos plaza, the pueblo offers simple buildings made from clay, straw, and the mica-flecked dirt beneath your feet. Red Willow Creek, fed by hidden mountain lake sacred to the Pueblo people, runs through the village and still provides its drinking water.
Several US Native American sites enjoy World Heritage site status, but only Taos Pueblo is a living community. The Tiwa still live here, their rituals unchanged for centuries, blue smoke from their cooking fires still mingles with the scents of pinon pine, juniper, and sage. Learn about life in this sovereign nation on a free, guided walking tour of the half hour from San Geronimo Chapel. As you wind through the maze of adobe dwellings built in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, savor the comforting fragrance of baking bread rising from clay ovens shaped into smooth domes.