La Ruta Tropical

A mountain-to-jungle-to-reef meander through Mexico and points south

    Photo: Corel

A vacation south of the border doesn't have to mean a mega-resort crammed with sedentary chaise-loungers. In Mexico, there are Pacific beach towns and mountain hideaways that you probably thought ceased to exist 20 years ago. In Costa Rica, you can hike, bike, dive, and fish in places the eco-crowds haven't found yet; in Belize, there are new jungle lodges and reefside resorts. The least-developed is Honduras, a mountain-and-rainforest refuge for the truly adventurous. Following are our picks of the region's best.

MEXICO

Copper Canyon/Batopilas
For decades copper canyon was one of those magnificent geological monuments that could only be viewed from a distance, usually during the 20-minute pause at the Divisadero train station on the Los Mochis- Chihuahua run of the Pacífico Railway line. A few backpackers would venture down into the gorges with guides, but the harsh terrain and lack of water made it a trip only for the well-prepared.
Now, thanks to fat-tired suspended mountain bikes and a mini-boom in accommodations in Batopilas, the ghost town 7,000 feet down and several climate zones deep, the Canyon is being explored as never before. It's a seven-hour trip by thrice-weekly bus from Creel, the easiest starting point. By bike, it takes more or less time, depending on you.

Stay in Creel the first night (at Margarita's, about $26 per person, $30 for two, including breakfast and dinner; 011-52-145-60245) and get your legs riding around this rustic logging town. The ride out to Cusarare Falls is an easy two-kilometer single-track that winds up at a 100-foot-high cascade.

There are zillions of other single-track trails all around Creel, but nothing equals the descent into Batopilas. The road down is paved now to the halfway point at La Casita, but the next 45 miles are the downhill of your dreams. The dramatic gorges are defined by twisted primeval rock formations, views to infinity, and cliff faces marked by sooty-mouthed caves—the temporary homes of wandering Tarahumara. Once you get to the bottom, you cross the river into town, past the ruins of a nineteenth-century hacienda, and curve into the main square outside the church—in the last century, it was lined with silver ingots whenever the Bishop would visit. There's no silver now, no bishop, and fewer than 1,000 people. But there's a fine hotel, the Riverside Lodge ($250 for two, including meals and guided hikes; 800-776-3942), a colonial-style hacienda surrounded by cliffs and mesas. From the lodge you can hike out to Satevú (about an hour), where a domed seventeenth-century cathedral stands, or to the tiny community of Cerro Colorado (about three hours).

For maps, bike rentals, repairs, tubes, and patch kits, or guided tours of Batopilas, contact Arturo Guti‹rrez at Expediciones Umarike (fax 145-60212).

The Pacific Coast
Like rocks exposed during the shifting of sands after a winter swell, Mexico's central Pacific coast continues to change, revealing new outposts of laid-back rhythms, uncluttered sands, warm water, and food for the soul: fruit just off the tree, fish straight from the net, hand-made tortillas. The five-star tourist warrens of Puerto Vallarta and Careyes continue to dominate the scene, but two peninsula-anchored pueblitos—Sayulita (45 minutes north of P.V.) and La Manzanilla (a half-hour south of Careyes)—are proof that life is good when you're well off the tour-bus radar screen.

Sayulita is Surf City circa 1962, with long- and short-boarders working the waves together in uncrowded camaraderie. Throw in horseback-riding trips into the jungle, great snorkeling off the rocks, kayaking, mountain biking, and superb fishing, and you wonder why anyone would pass this up for over-priced faux-Thai food in Puerto Vallarta. You can get the full athletic treatment at Costa Azul Adventure Resort (doubles, $65-$98; 800-365-7613), a five-acre jungle-beach compound with only 28 rooms in the neighboring village of San Francisco. You can plot your own adventure, or sign on for one of their all-inclusive package deals ($76-$98 per person per night for surfing, kid's adventure camp, honeymoon, or adventure packages).

Or, for the ultimate insider's experience, there's Casa Paradíso (call Margaret Gillham at Lones Travel, 800-458-2878), a spacious, terraced home clinging to a pristine section of coast about 15 minutes south of the village. It's not cheap—packages run $1,500 to $4,500 a week—e higher price includes three separated terraced villas, all food and non-alcoholic drinks, full-time service (maid, houseboy, cook, chauffeur), and a huge open-air palapa living-dining room that feels like a jungle tree house. There's a pool just a dozen steps above the private sandy beach, where there's excellent snorkeling (manta rays, turtles, rockfish) and surfing. In winter the open ocean out front is full of porpoises and migrating orcas, breaching and spouting.

The minuscule village of La Manzanilla sits in the heart of the Costa Alegre, the "happy coast" of Jalisco. Dwarfed by the giant resorts of Careyes (Club Med, Bel-Air, etc.) to the north and the small-but-growing-fast Barra de Navidad to the south, it's the best place to explore the still-virgin coves and reefs of Tenacatita Bay. There are some great waves for surfers, but also a long stretch of soft sand where bodyboarding and bodysurfing are superb. Around the rocks at either end of the bay are dozens of safe, close-in snorkeling and spear-fishing spots. You can stay in a beach-side bungalow in the heart of town (look for the "bungalows/restaurant" sign at the beach in town; $15-$30 a night, no phone) or, if you're lucky, unpack at El Mar, the front villa at Casa Maguey ($50 a night; phone/fax 335-15012), perched like a cormorant's nest on the cliff above the village's main playa. The decor is tasteful, and the views are as close as the hovering pelicans just off the terrace, as distant as the green flash of the sun as it drops behind the curve of the Pacific.

Casa Maguey has kayaks, snorkeling gear, a water-ski boat, and wake-surfing boards for guests, and can put you in contact with locals for horseback rides into the jungle or informal tours of the nearby lagoon to see crocodiles, flamingos, spoonbills, and herons.

Backroads: El BajíoPozos-Cieneguitas
In Mexico's colonial heartland, the El Bajío region of Guanajuato state is pretty much defined by its capital city, Guanajuato, and the much smaller artists' colony of San Miguel de Allende. But for those who can do without espresso and CNN on demand, there are alternatives.

Pozos is a unique window on Mexico's past, a ghost town littered with scores of dramatic fallen-in haciendas, abandoned gold mines, and cobblestone streets empty of cars or people. Which is why the Casa Mexicana ($45 per person, including meals; 468-83030) is such a surprise. It's a tiny boutique hotel with great service, wonderful decor (Picasso lithographs!), and a fantastic blend of nouvelle and traditional Mexican cuisine. People come from San Miguel (an hour by car, the last 20 minutes on a dirt road) simply for lunch. Wiser folk come for long weekends, renting bikes in San Miguel (from Bici Burros, $20 per day; 415-21526) to check out the countryside and the ruins. The ride up to La Iglesia de Santa Cruz, the local patron saint's church situated 1,200 feet above town, is a grinding two-hour climb that pays off with 50-mile views and a screamer of a downhill back. The nearby Cinco Señores, a 100-plus-acre walled compound, has multiple ruins dating from the mid-nineteenth century, including a Presidio where gold miners and merchants would make their last stop before venturing into the unprotected countryside. There's hiking up to a pure-water spring (about four miles), horseback riding to Chichimecan villages within about ten miles of the compound, and mountain-bike trails in every direction.

Close to San Miguel is El Viejo Balneario Cieneguitas, known to locals simply as Lucky's (sleeps four-six; $60 per couple, two-day minimum stay, includes all meals; 415-21687 or 21599; lucky@unisono.ciateq.mx). Built around four natural mineral baths, two outdoors and two enclosed, the half-acre compound is shaded by towering mesquite trees flanked by grassy walkways. Although San Miguel is only 20 minutes away (10 by regular bus service), the mood here is defined by the nearby RŒo Laja and its Audubon-designated nature site. Northern harriers, vermillion flycatchers, white-faced ibis, stilts, and avocets cluster along the banks of the river, only vanishing when the village women come to do their laundry. There's also a sweat lodge, and four good mountain bikes available. Be sure to take advantage of the trails around Cieneguitas; most mountain bikers coming out of San Miguel make it only this far, so starting from here gives you much greater freedom. Just a 40-minute ride away is the baroque church of Atotonilco, recently designated a "World Treasure" by the U.N. and a major pilgrimage site for self-flagellating devotees. Across the river, trails through the fields lead to Cruz del Palmar and the remains of a Chichimecan pyramid. After a day of biking or horseback riding (good horses are available from ZayŒn; 2.5- to 3.5-hour tour, $30; overnight, $75-$100; call 415-23620), the warm waters of Lucky's baths are the perfect complement

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