Travel insights from Wendy Gillette, contributor to The Compass

Viva Authentic Mexico

If you and your clients are done with the artificial and ready to embrace authentic, there’s no better place than Mexico. The country offers off-the-beaten path destinations and experiences to embrace the country’s unique culture, colors and cuisine. The president of the destination management company Amstar, Eugene Rybicki, describes what you’ll find.

“Mexican people are, by nature, very friendly,” he says. “They have an expression, ‘mi casa es su casa,’ which means my house is your house. And when you go out into destinations, you will feel that welcome from the local people.” Here are a few places you know well, and nearby, lesser-known destinations to call your new home.

The Luxury Transformation: Los Cabos

Outdoor-loving, active clients will love the area’s many new resorts.

Los Cabos is the second most popular area for American tourists in Mexico. But its potential as a high-end playground for the well-off wasn’t fully explored until recent years. Los Cabos is actually two towns, San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, on the tip of the Baja California Peninsula. Los Cabos International Airport is now served by 27 direct flights from the U.S., including two just added from Cleveland and Pittsburgh. They’re filling more than a dozen new hotels that opened the past few years, many of them five stars. There’s the adults-only all-inclusive Le Blanc Spa Resort Los Cabos; the nearly 600-room all-inclusive Hard Rock Hotel Los Cabos; Nobu Hotel Los Cabos, Nobu’s first hotel in Mexico; Zadun, the fourth Ritz-Carlton Reserve; and the Four Seasons Resort Los Cabos, the first Four Seasons marina resort. According to the Managing Director of the Los Cabos Tourism Board Rodrigo Esponda, 2,000 new hotel rooms have opened in three years and another 2,000 are in the pipeline, bringing the total to 20,000 by the end of 2020.

“It has really helped us get out of the stereotypes that the destination had before,” Esponda says. “Even though for many years we’ve had the One&Only and Rosewood Hotels, we still had a little bit of the sense that there was a taste for more luxurious hotels, given the closeness with Hollywood and the closeness with the affluent market in the United States.”

But it’s what the destination offers beyond its many new properties that gives tourists a true taste of Mexico. Cabo was born as a fishing village, and still offers some of its best adventures on the water, perched between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. “Jacques Cousteau spent a lot of time there when he was alive, and he called this one of the great marine life centers of the world,” Rybicki says.

“The world’s aquarium,” was one of Cousteau’s most famous quotes, paying homage to waters where whales, whale sharks and sea lions make their home. Excursions in Los Cabos include deep-sea fishing, kayaking to the famous Arco de San Lucas, world-class scuba diving and whale watching. Back on land, Los Cabos offers 17 golf courses with a new entry from the Four Seasons. Many have breathtaking views of the sea, desert and mountains, where more adventures await. “It could be trekking, a bicycle tour, glamping,” Esponda says. Or combine forces to “blamp,” biking and glamping in the desert at Rancho Cacachilas.

Los Cabos Quick Facts

Future Resort Openings: Aman, 1 Hotel, St. Regis, a second Four Seasons.

Local Experiences: Tour an organic farm in San Jose del Cabo and take a cooking class. Art walk Thursday nights in San Jose del Cabo and dine at locals’ favorite Mi Cocina in Hotel Casa Natalia. Take part in the “Meet the Locals” program, spending time with local artists and culinarians.

Cabo’s Next-Door Neighbor: La Paz

Best for nature-loving clients who crave simplicity.

La Paz means “peace” in Spanish, and you’ll find a lot of it there. It’s about a two-hour drive on a four-lane highway, north of Los Cabos. “La Paz is our little brother,” Esponda says. “La Paz, being so close, really complements the experience of somebody who’s looking for something off-the-beaten path. The Sea of Cortez, in front of La Paz, is exactly where you can snorkel with the whale sharks, half of the year, from October through April, and it is a must-do experience when you come.”

La Paz is a common day trip from Cabo, but it’s also its own destination. There are more than 20 three- and four-star hotels. The largest is Costabaja Resort & Spa, which includes a marina and golf course. There are also luxury villas and condos at Puerta Cortes and the centrally located boutique hotel, Casa Al Mar.

Nature is king in the region. The capital city of Baja California Sur is known for its crystal-blue waters. “The beaches close to La Paz are incredibly beautiful,” Rybicki says. “Some of them are incredibly shallow waters where you can walk out 100-200 meters and not get further than your waistline.”

And by joining up with certified tour operators, you can take a dip with sea lions on the island of Espiritu Santo, except for the months of June, July and August, when they’re mating. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a nesting place for sea lions, the only location in the Americas where their numbers are growing.

In the city, stroll on the boardwalk, called the Malecon, which is filled with sculptures by local artists, and drop by local restaurants.

“La Paz is all about authenticity,” says Fátima Avilés, managing director of the La Paz Tourism Board. “It’s pretty quiet. It’s a place where you don’t feel like an outsider. You feel like a local. And since there’s no separation between locals and tourists, you can walk around easily and mix, which is pretty cool. Every place that tourists visit, locals visit it too. So, it’s a very cool vibe around town.”

La Paz Quick Facts

Future Hotel Openings: The city’s first five-star hotel, Chable, in 2021, boutique hotel Habita in 2020.

Local Experiences: Take a kite or wind surfing lesson, glamping on Espiritu Santo island, cooking classes in Todos Santos.

The Resort Giant of Mexico: Cancun

Party all night or luxuriate all day at more than a dozen new hotels.

Cancun and the Riviera Maya need no introduction to any travel advisor, since the area hosts several million Americans annually. There has been a surge of new developments in Quintana Roo, despite challenges in the region. A few of the properties that recently opened include the 553-room Now Natura Riviera Cancun from AMResorts, just 10 minutes from the airport; the five-star all-inclusive Majestic Elegance Costa Mujeres north of Cancun, the first of the chain in the country; the sustainable luxury property Palmaia - The House of AiA in Playacar, which offers a jungle spa and Rituals of Sound program; and the Renaissance Cancun Resort & Marina, the first Renaissance in Mexico. It features 180 rooms, all with ocean or marina views, design inspired by Mayan mythology, a golf course and a beach club in the gated Puerto Cancun community.

“We are in a great location, at the beginning of the hotel zone, in the best neighborhood of Cancun,” says Iliana Cortes, general manager of Renaissance Cancun Resort & Marina.

Cancun Quick Facts

Future Hotel Openings: 898-suite Planet Hollywood Beach Resort Cancun, The Fives Oceanfront-Puerto Morelos, the Kanai Resort complex between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, with four planned properties including a St. Regis and W Hotel.

The New Tulum near Cancun: Holbox

Clients who prefer bare feet will cherish this bohemian paradise.

Anyone who’s landed at Cancun International Airport knows the drill. You’re accosted by a wave of eager, somewhat pushy company representatives trying to get you to buy rides to the hundreds of hotels and resorts dotting the beaches of Cancun and Riviera Maya as you exit customs. What a relief to pass them all by, head to your pre-booked shuttle and make your way a couple hours to Chiquila for the ferry ride to Isla Holbox (pronounced Hol-bosch). That’s when city life fades away. “Holbox is an authentic experience in itself, just getting there,” says Rybicki.

You arrive on a small, 26-mile-long island where cars are banned and golf carts and bicycles are the only forms of transportation. Bare feet don’t have to mean bare bones when it comes to where you lay your head. Ser Cassandra is the island’s only luxury property, created by artist Sandra Perez.

“Guests can enjoy the bohemian nature of Holbox while also being cosseted in five-star comfort,” she says. “We offer complimentary yoga on the beach, crystal therapies, as well as creative inspirations such as poetry and art. We want our guests to leave restored and inspired.”

The hotel boasts one of the most highly regarded restaurants on the island, Ser Esencia. There are more casual restaurants and more than 70 guest houses and hotels in town. Seafood is the specialty, since the island began and still functions as a fishing center. Lobster pizza is Perez’ go-to treat.

“It doesn’t have a lot of the modern trappings of a resort destination,” Rybicki says. “It’s still very much rustic in ambience, and very close to nature.”

This is not the kind of vacation destination where you have much of an agenda or schedule. Between June and November, you can book a tour to swim with whale sharks. But much of your day may alternate between bird-watching more than 150 different species, sunbathing on perfect white sand beaches, walks and perhaps meditating on why you live anywhere else.

Holbox Quick Facts

Local Experiences: Three-island tour to view wildlife, swim in a cenote (natural swimming hole) and spot flamingos, fish with a local guide.

Head west for the White City: Merida

Travelers who love archeology and architecture will feel at home.

On a nondescript busy street in Merida, behind a tall white wall, you’ll find a haven for romance, the adults-only boutique hotel Casa Lecanda. It was once a house in ruins, abandoned for 25 years. Owner and designer Stefano Marcelletti saw its promise, transforming it into seven separate rooms with locally made tiles and beds, and large communal areas; a lovely courtyard and pool; patios and gardens; and traditional hammocks to while away the midday hours, overwhelmingly hot in Merida in the summer. Marcelletti is also an incredible Italian chef with five restaurants in Merida, one right across the street from the hotel, Oliva Enoteca. Another boutique hotel is around the corner, Roses and Xocolate, dedicated to all things roses and chocolate, including a chocolate spa experience. As more hotels and restaurants emerge, the city is changing.

“Merida is growing and as a tourist destination,” Marcelletti says. “The gastronomic scene is booming. Lot of new chefs, lot of new boutique hotels, the historic center opening up, a lot of restoration projects. The airport is expanding, as well. That should be complete in early 2020, to handle more flights and passengers.”

Merida is about a four hours’ drive from Cancun and first-class, comfortable buses are the easiest way to get there. It's the capital and largest city in the Yucatan peninsula and is rich in history, founded in 1542 with obvious European influences. Tall colonial homes dot many streets, many of them with colorful facades. Horse-drawn carriages line up in the main square outside the soaring Catedral de San Ildefonso, the oldest cathedral in the Americas. At night, the square and surrounding areas come alive. “It has events most of the year,” says Rybicki. “There’s music playing, or local dance.”

The historic buildings and monuments alight, artists sell their wares and teams play games of Mayan fireball. Historians say the game used to end in death for the losers. These days, it's still played with a ball on fire, but the outcome isn't so dire. To see what’s left of the Mayan civilization, the UNESCO World Heritage Site Chichen Itza is only about 90 minutes away, but the Uxmal, Mayapan, Oxkintok and Dzibilchaltun ruins are closer and less crowded.

Merida Quick Facts

Local Experiences: Visit nearby cenotes, take a market tour, explore the henequen industry, the fiber from an agave plant once used to make rope, that made Merida rich, see thousands of flamingos in Celestun.

Serenity by the Sea: Puerto Vallarta

A relaxing escape for all ages in a picturesque city.

Puerto Vallarta’s magic quickly soothes even the most stressed traveler. There’s plenty to do, from whale watching in the Pacific, to baby sea turtle releases to more far-flung adventures.

“What is unique about Puerto Vallarta, is it’s a little town, very charming, with cobblestone streets, white houses,” says Rocio Lancaster-Jones, Jalisco’s undersecretary of tourism. “But in the back, we have the mountains.”

That’s where you’ll find hiking trails and more high-octane activities like ziplining, horseback riding and ATV tours. The city also has become a mecca for gastronomy.

“They were working for, I would say, 30 years, bringing international acclaim back to the area,” Lancaster-Jones says. “So, I really recommend a tour of their restaurants.”

Food tours can be combined with sightseeing of Puerto Vallarta’s Old Town and its mile-long Malecon. Or buy tickets to “Rhythms of the Night,” from a Cirque du Soleil co-creator, about the Aztec creation story, performed in an amphitheater reached by a cruise at sunset.

The city is easily accessible, with strong air connectivity: 18 airlines flying to 38 international destinations, including 19 in the U.S., though more visitors than ever are cruising to Puerto Vallarta. Lancaster-Jones says the number of ships increased 38% last year. And Vidanta is Mexico’s first-ever luxury cruise line, launching this year with stops planned in the city.

Puerto Vallarta Quick Facts

Future Hotel Opening: The adults-only Hotel Amapa will bring Old Hollywood glamour to the historic Zona Romantica this spring.

Local Experiences: Take the “Fiesta in the Mountains” tour to visit rural areas to learn about local customs, take a day trip to the town of San Sebastian del Oeste to see Spanish architecture dating back to the 17th century.

Jalisco City Life and Traditions: Guadalajara

Clients who love traditional art, music and tequila will love exploring.

Guadalajara is a taste of big city life in the state of Jalisco, the second largest metropolis in Mexico. But those who live there are proud of the traditions of their forefathers.

“We always say it has the best of both worlds,” says Lancaster-Jones. “We have the traditional part. We are the cradle and birthplace of mariachi, of tequila. At the same time, we are considered the Latin American Silicon Valley. We have about 200 universities throughout the city. We are a city that offers everything.”

The tourism sector is also exploding.

“We are growing very quickly with 23 hotels opening in 2019 and 2020,” says German Ralis, Jalisco’s secretary of tourism. “They will make the city more attractive.”

They’re bringing 3,000 new rooms to the city, from business to boutique hotels.

Guests can explore a budget-friendly city and its huge range of authentic activities. Browse San Libertad Mercado, the biggest indoor market in Latin America. This year, Mexico’s national sport, charrería, similar to rodeo, takes center stage as the first competitive group, Charros de Jalisco, celebrates 100 years. Watch a Sunday afternoon practice or tour the stables and even ride a horse at Lienzo Charros de Jalisco Arena. Pair your equine encounter with a mariachi performance and a tequila tasting, which of course makes every tradition just a little more fun.

Guadalajara Quick Facts

Future Hotel Opening: Boutique hotel Casa Rebora in a 1934 home with a pink bar, coming in March.

Local Experiences: Visit the town of Tlaquepaque to take a clay artisan class and visit art galleries, sign up for a taco gastronomy tour, drive 45 minutes to the town of Tequila to see its birthplace and learn how it’s produced at a few of the 200 distilleries in the region.

Bonus Destination

The Foodie and Surfer Paradise: Oaxaca

Adventurous eaters and beach bums will rejoice.

Start in Oaxaca City with a very empty stomach, since this is Mexico’s foodie center. UNESCO lists Mexican traditional cuisine as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, on par with French gastronomy. As you tour the city’s plentiful food markets, Mercado Benito Juárez, Mercado 20 de Noviembre, and Mercado de Artesanías, sampling mole, grasshoppers, tamales, tasajo (thinly sliced beef), tlayuda (tortilla pizza) and Oaxacan cheese, the range of the cuisine reveals itself. Then stop by a mezcalería to learn how mezcal, tequila’s smoky cousin, is produced.

There are direct flights to Oaxaca from Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles. Add on another half hour to get to the beach, taking Aerotucan’s daily flight to Puerto Escondido. It’s where surfers will find some of the biggest waves in the world. New Yorker Amy Hardy visited in 2002 and moved there three months later, opening a boutique resort hotel, Villas Carrizalillo, with her husband. Twelve rooms and a restaurant are perched on a cliff overlooking Playa Carrizalillo bay.

“I just fell in love with the town,” she says. “When I would leave New York, it would take me a week just to relax but you get here, and you immediately relax. Something about this place, it’s just very calming. It’s a small town but it still has everything you need. And a lot of transients. It’s off-the-beaten path so the people that you meet are very interesting, different.”

Water sports including fishing, paddle boarding, kayaking, and horseback riding to hot springs or waterfalls, consume most days. There’s a bioluminescent bay to visit at night and a tourist center filled with restaurants and bars.

“In the 17 years we’ve been here, I don’t feel it’s changed very much,” Hardy says. “It’s still very authentic old Mexico. You still go downtown, the Mercado, and it’s all locals.”

Oaxaca Quick Facts

Local Experiences: Take a surf lesson in Puerto Escondido, visit villages near Oaxaca that specialize in crafts such as wooden animals, black pottery and weaving, hike around the Hierve de Aqua and take a swim in the petrified waterfall, located an hour outside Oaxaca.

Originally appeared in the spring 2020 issue of The Compass Magazine

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