What sold me forever on Mexico was a 7,500-mile road trip from Minnesota to Guatemala I took a few years ago. I drove from the Sierra Madre Oriental to the seafood capital of Veracruz. Near Mérida, I biked through Maya ruins. In Tulum I slept exclusively in hammocks. Contrary to what my friends at home had predicted, I didn't get sick or robbed. My only hassle was a $200 speeding ticket. The cop took a cut, but I was going 90 in a 55-kph zone.
Sure, with drug-related violence stealing the headlines, I'd steer clear of Juárez nowadays. But in the dead of winter, nothing can keep me away from white sand and sublime fish tacos.
Flying to Mexico's major airports shouldn't cost more than $600, and eight bucks will buy a week's worth of fresh fruit and veggies at the local market. This paradise may have an edge, but it also offers more surfing, biking, and kayaking than anyone deserves.
Trek the Yucatán
Mexico's Caribbean coast, the Riviera Maya, is great. But it doesn't have as much soul as the Yucatán interior, where Spanish plantations meet Maya civilization to form a landscape out of an Octavio Paz poem. Fly to Cancún, rent a car, and start ruin-hopping 75 miles inland, at Cobá, a 1,300-year-old Maya city. Rent a bike for $2.50 at the entrance, pedal through the ruins, and climb Nohoch Mul pyramid. Next, it's off to one of the least visited Maya sites, Oxkintok, 40 miles south of Mérida, home to more pyramids. But the best part of this trip may be the digs: The Starwood hotel group runs a series of renovated 16th-to-18th-century plantations along your driving route. These grand old facades are ideal launching pads for day trips to other ruins, like the iconic Chichén Itzá.
Escape to Isla Holbox
A 26-mile-long spit of sand 40 miles northwest of Cancún, Isla Holbox has evaded the vagaries of mass tourism: There are no roads here, only sand. No cars, only golf carts. And no day-trippers just 1,500 residents and a few smart vacationers. Take a shuttle from Cancún to the mainland gateway of Chiquilá ($180 each way). From there it's a 15-minute ferry to Holbox ($5 each way). Your base is Casa Sandra, a resort with a series of ocean-facing villas (doubles from $263). May through September is whale shark season in the Yum Balam Biosphere, a 600-square-mile protectorate of coastal waters and forests—prime snorkeling grounds. Tip: Bring cash. Holbox has no ATMs, and credit cards are rarely accepted.
—Ted Alan Stedman
Travelers in the mood for rainforests and ruins tend to take aim at Belize and Costa Rica, never considering southern Mexico. The result: Chiapas, though home to spectacular jungled Maya outposts, sees relatively few visitors, most of them of the Aussie-backpacker variety. Which is fine. Take a private five-day tour with the archaeologist guides at New Mexico based MayaSites (from $1,340). The trip starts in Palenque, the pyramid-punctuated Maya city. Later, guests take a canoe ride down the Usumacinta River Crocs! Toucans! to the mossy temples at Yaxchilán. Opt to sleep at the Escudo Jaguar Ecotourist center, an hour upriver from Yaxchilán. From there, Agua Clara a series of waterfalls feeding half a dozen travertine swimming holes is an easy day trip.
Surf in Sayulita
Sayulita is no longer a secret. That's why my editors have allowed me to write about it half the staff of Outside has visited in the past year. A fishing village fronting a crescent-shaped Pacific bay, 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta, it's an easy getaway, but what makes this place stand out is the democratic surf: There's a right longboard break just off the beach and plenty of advanced options accessible by boat. If you want to rent a house, SayulitaLife.com offers plenty of choices. If you don't need that much space, shoot for an ample, affordable room at Villa Amor, on the southern end of the bay (doubles from $210). The resort will hook you up with the best local surf instructors (a lesson should run about $25). Experts, sign up with Tranquilo Surf, which leads daylong offshore surf safaris in search of shoulder-to-head-high point breaks.
If you ask me, Baja's white beaches and craggy Sierra de la Giganta mountains look best from offshore: The Sea of Cortez is a kayaker's paradise. Sign on for an eight-day trip with Oregon-based Tofino Expeditions ($1,270), starting out of the fishing-cum-vacation port of Loreto. You'll explore coastal islands and mangroves; paddle near sea lions in Loreto Bay National Marine Park; and weave through pastel-colored volcanic-rock formations at the Sierra de la Giganta coast, 16 miles south of Loreto. Nights are spent camping on beaches and in one of 48 waterfront rooms at the Desert Inn at Loreto. Around the corner, Mike's Bar serves a mean michelada local beer mixed with clam juice, lemon, and salt. (Tastes like iced tea but better.)
Bike the Sierra Madre
Gear-grinding slickrock climbs. Amazing Pacific vistas. Brake-flicking descents. The Sierra Madre is made for mountain bikes. If you want to ride in Copper Canyon, that vast series of gorges eight hours south of El Paso, Texas, you'll need strong quads and a guide New Mexico based Remolino Adventure Works offers eight-day trips ($1,400; remolino.com). Don't have that kind of time? Explore the foothills south of Puerto Vallarta with Eco Ride Mex ($140; ecoridemex.com). Opt for the Yelapa tour, which starts in El Tuito, 28 miles from Puerto Vallarta, and zips for 34 miles along ridgelines overlooking rainforests and blue Banderas Bay. A steep drop into Yelapa leads to a taxi-boat lift back to Puerto Vallarta, where the waterfront Buenaventura Hotel awaits (doubles, $150; hotelbuenaventura.com.mx).
The Well-Read Traveler
The only Mexico guidebook you’ll ever need was written decades ago. Sure, Carl Franz and Lorena Havens’s 1972 classic, The People’s Guide to Mexico, has been updated over the years, but the book’s quirky soul remains intact: It offers adventurous vignettes and info on how to navigate brothels, bullfights, and bribe-seeking cops. Now that’s service.
Prices updated for 2015