5. A Gold Mine in the Silver City
San SebastiÃ¡n, Mexico
At a gallery opening in Puerto Vallarta, an older gentleman named Bud Acord overheard me whining about the sunburned tourists taking over the city.
Â“Listen,Â” he said, Â“I have a little hotel up in the mountains. Hell, that village hasnÂ’t changed in a hundred years.Â”
The two-and-a-half-hour drive up to San SebastiÃ¡n del Oeste from Puerto Vallarta is on a road so rutted that my seat belt was the only thing stopping me from being propelled through the roof. As we crested the 5,500-foot ridge in the Sierra Madre above town, the whitewashed, red-tile-roofed buildings, central square, and Spanish church resembled a mythical city. Founded in 1605, San SebastiÃ¡n was once so prosperous from silver mining that, by the mid-19th century, the region had swelled to nearly 20,000 people. (The town now has about 600 residents.)
Most of the palatial haciendas built during the townÂ’s zenith have fallen into ruin, but Bud Acord saved one. An artist from California, Acord was among the first wave of gringos to Â“discoverÂ” San SebastiÃ¡n in the early sixties. He bought the seven-room Hacienda Jalisco, which dates from 1854, and restored the place to its original stateÂ—which means thereÂ’s no electricity but plenty of grandeur.
The next day I hiked to an abandoned mine with a guide. He let me in on the local lore: In the past, mine owners buried their silver to hide it from bandidos, saying, Â“When it is safe, we will return.Â” They never did. So the silver remainsÂ—along with much else worth seeking out.
DETAILS: A room at Hacienda Jalisco costs $75 per person per night, with breakfast and dinner. Book through Pamela Thompson (011-52-322-223-1695, e-mail [email protected]).
6. No Amenities Required
Alta Mira, Mexico
I knew IÂ’d found an escape the second the taxi exited the two-lane coastal road from Puerto Escondido and drove my girlfriend and me into the village of Mazunte, on MexicoÂ’s Oaxacan coast. After dodging two dogs snoozing in the road and kids playing stickball, the taxi turned onto an eroded dirt track, navigated a steep hill, and pulled up at our hotel, the Alta Mira. It was unassumingÂ—our jaws didnÂ’t drop until we stepped out on the restaurant terrace, where we glimpsed the sun setting over the Pacific and ten bungalows tumbling down the hillside, lost in the trees.
This would be Vacation Central for the next five days: an airy room with a palm-thatch roof, hand-hewn wooden furniture, and a wide porch with a cotton hammock and more ocean vistas. It lacked hot water, a telephone, and electricity, which was fine. We soon discovered that the only amenities we needed were candles and the mosquito netting draped over our four-poster bed. A set of stairs took us down to the beachÂ—a spotless curve of sand and surf pounding at a steady tempo yet hardly any other people. Down the beach toward the village, we found a cluster of palapa-style restaurants for snacking on fish tacos and squeezing lime wedges into Pacificos. As the days went by, we visited the Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga, in Mazunte, to see the sea turtles that the research institute is devoted to, made the 30-minute hike to the dramatic breaker-slapped cliffs of nearby Punta Cometa, and went crocodile-spotting on a mangrove swamp tour up the coast, in VentanillaÂ—all great. After each excursion, though, we couldnÂ’t wait to get back to our terrace perch, where the clock seemed to stand still.
DETAILS: Bungalows at Alta Mira start at $40 per night and can be booked through its sister hotel, La Buena Vista (011-52-958- 584-3104, www.labuenavista.com/alta_mira), in Puerto Angel.
7. The One-Phone Wonder
ThereÂ’s only one phone in the mountain village of Cuajimoloyas. It was ringing like an ambulance siren when we drove into town, so I listened for the loudspeaker announcement: Â“Margarita Suarez,Â” it echoed through the dusty roads, Â“tienes una llamada... Â”
A fitting introduction to CuajimoloyasÂ’s other surprisesÂ—and this peaceful outpost northeast of Oaxaca has plenty of them. Like walking into a dilapidated building to find a small fleet of dual-suspension mountain bikes. Or finding out that Â“ecotourism guideÂ” is an official town-government post. Or realizing that the lucky man who occupies that job, JoÃ©l Contreres, moonlights as a researcher for a French scientist studying the regionÂ’s enormous mushrooms. (This I learned when we were blazing down a trail and, without warning, JoÃ©l threw down his bike, dove into the trees, and popped out of the woods with a porcini bigger than my head.)
Over 10,000 feet high, with towering pines and peaks as far as you can see, Cuajimoloyas is a community of small farmers and woodworkers whose Zapotec heritage and pine-and-plaster structures bear few signs of Spanish influence. Cuajimoloyas and seven nearby villages constitute the Pueblos Mancomunados, a 28-year-old organization of mountain dwellers dedicated to protecting their forests and preserving their traditions. Tourism could be the regionÂ’s best defense, with hope hinging on the more than 60 miles of hiking and biking trails built on former logging roads and ancient paths that connect the villages. All eight now have basic lodges for bikers, birders, and backpackers.
On my visit, I saw no one on the trails. JoÃ©l fried up his prized mushroom for our lunch; I promised IÂ’d be back and that next time IÂ’d bring dessert.
DETAILS: Tierra Dentro (011-52-951-514-9284, www.tierradentro.com) leads two-day, all-inclusive hiking or biking tours ($85-$95).
8. TodayÂ’s Special: The Beach-Ruins Combo
We were naked all rightÂ—as jaybirds. And we frolicked in the Caribbean with the august ruins of Tulum, a long-abandoned Maya port, looming behind us. Carla and I were honeymooning about 40 miles up the YucatÃ¡n coast, in Playa del Carmen, but we couldnÂ’t miss Â“one of the most beautiful beaches in the world,Â” as a friend had described the cliffside fantasy of silky sand and warm waves.
So there we were, at the base of TulumÂ’s 40-foot-high limestone bluff, on a gorgeous expanse of sandy seclusion. I counted just three other couples, and some fat iguanas, sharing our beach. All those not in the knowÂ—or not brave enough to swim around a rock outcropping, as we hadÂ—were lounging less provocatively on a beach to the north.
Though conspicuously short on imposing pyramids, this pre-Columbian city once sprawled along the coast for almost four miles and, appropriately, is thought to have been built for sun worship. Crowning the natural wall at our backs was the siteÂ’s tallest temple, the 25-foot-high Castillo, perfectly situated to greet the Mexican dawnÂ—and thronged with turistas clutching their kitschy sombreros in the powerful ocean breezes.
A Spanish expedition that sailed past Tulum in 1518 was duly impressed by the sprawling trade center and military base, one of the few Maya cities known to have been inhabited at the time of the arrival of the conquistadores. The ruins attest to the spirit of the Maya, and are worth exploring, but afterward make sure you get wet.
DETAILS: The entry fee for the ruins and beach is $4. Four miles south, CabaÃ±as Ana y Jose (doubles, $85-$145; 011-52-998-887-5470, www.anayjose.com) is a great place to hang your towel and eat your fill of red snapper.
5. A Gold Mine in the Silver City