Salina Cruz, Oaxaca
SURF IN PEACE
This gritty port city of 71,000 features a behemoth oil refinery, a massive industrial harbor, and almost zero tourist infrastructure. It also offers access to the best uncrowded surf in Mexico. There are 15 breaks within two hours of town, most of them right-hand points with sandy bottoms. And the swell is a consistent four to six feet from April to October, occasionally peaking at 12 feet in June and July. (One of the longest tube rides in the world is 90 minutes north of town, at a break called Barra de la Cruz.) Navigate these waters on a six-day trip with Baja Surf Adventures. Your instructors are local surf experts; your base is the Wi-Fi-and-pool-equipped Posada del Mar, a four-room hotel 15 minutes by car from the nearest break. Don't expect a five-star resort vacation. Do expect good waves, safe travels, and local surfers who aren't yet jaded by tourists—a rarity in Mexico. Six days, $900 per person with a shared room; bajasurfadventures.com
Copper Canyon, Chihuahua
TREK THE LABYRINTH
The Copper Canyon Railway
The Copper Canyon Railway
When exploring land as rugged, remote, and, yes, lawless as Copper Canyon, which is deeper and about seven times larger than the Grand Canyon, you need a good guide. That's where Santiago Barnaby comes in. The Bozeman, Montana–based adventurer has been navigating the canyon and befriending its inhabitants, the Tarahumara, for more than 30 years. He knows which areas to avoid—such as Batopilas, often occupied by narcotraffickers—and offers one of the best trekking trips in Mexico, a 10-to-14 day, burro-assisted hike to Nararachi, a remote Tarahumara village. The journey starts with a train ride on the famous Copper Canyon Express to the town of Creel, where guests begin their trek, winding down through psychedelic, volcanic-ash-formed columns to the banks of the Rio Conchos. From there, the route follows the shoreline to Nararachi, a one-church outpost dating back to the 19th-century days of Apache-Tarahumara feuding. The trip covers six to eight miles per day, but guests still gorge on fresh huevos for breakfast, thanks to three porters. $2,200; coppercanyonguide.com
Casa Bichu, Oaxaca
TAKE A SIESTA
Because lying on a white-sand beach and sipping cold beer isn't that bad after all. Especially when you can avoid crowds. This year-old, nine-villa resort, cantilevered above a secluded beach on the Pacific bay of Estacahuite, is as mellow as Mexico can be. Other than a few crocodiles, kingfishers, and herons in the neighboring mangrove swamp, there are no distractions. Spend your days snorkeling the coral reef directly off the beach, spa it up, or lounge at the infinity pool, powering through novels. When palapa fever sets in, the resort will arrange a jungle horseback ride, a tour of a nearby coffee farm, a bird-and-crocodile-watching expedition, or deep-sea fishing for tuna or swordfish. Doubles, $390; casabichu.com
Isla Espiritu Santo, Baja California Sur
Isla Espiritu Santo
Candalera Bay, Isla Espiritu Santo
Candalera Bay, Isla Espiritu Santo
The Sea of Cortez is a 62,000-square-mile expanse of aqua water, craggy desert islands, and the kind of wildlife rarely seen outside the Discovery Channel. The best way to explore it? Get off the tourist-clogged mainland around the town of Loreto and set up base camp on Isla Espíritu Santo, an uninhabited archipelago 20 miles offshore. Fly into the sleepy coastal town of La Paz (Horizon Air flies direct from LAX for about $500). From here, local outfitter Baja Expeditions ferries guests out to their luxe tent camp on Espíritu Santo, a pink-and-ocher chunk of desert wilderness. Once there, a private guide lets you choose your own adventure: Kayak the tranquil lagoon; hike the cactus-studded canyons; or snorkel with playful sea lions. The island's a protected nature reserve, so your only company will be a grumpy-looking chuckwalla lizard or two. $260 per night; bajaex.com
Isla Holbox, Quintana Roo
SWIM WITH SHARKS
Every year, between May and September, as many as 500 Mack-truck-size whale sharks show up in the Caribbean Sea. Weighing up to 15 tons, these filter feeders lazily slurp up plankton from surface waters. On Natural Habitat Adventures' new six-day whale shark adventure, based off tiny, seven-mile-long Isla Holbox, guests drop into the water at 8 A.M. with a mask, fins, and guide and spend a few hours weaving in and out of the monsters. (Watch out for the tails.) Afterwards, retreat to laid-back Holbox, accessible via ferry from Chiquila. Siesta in a hammock on the beach at the Hotel CasaSandra, snorkel the Mesoamerican Reef (the second-largest barrier reef in the world), or play Cousteau in a sacred Maya cenote. $3,395 per person; nathab.com
Tabasco & Chiapas
FIRE IT UP
Mole in Puebla. Fish tacos in Baja. Smoky margaritas everywhere. Mexico has some of the best food in the world. And learning how to make it right is an adventure unto itself. Sign on with Susana Trilling, a Oaxaca-based celebrity chef; her ten-day Ruta de Cacao culinary epic revolves around the town of Comalcalco's Cacao Fiesta de San Isidro Labrador, an annual all-night bash to celebrate cacao, which has been the primary source of income in this agricultural region for hundreds of years. Following the May 14 festival, guests make for the surprisingly intact colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas. There, days are spent chewing the fat with resident chefs on grand old fincas, or estates, using local goodies to whip up small miracles like carne de chinameca, a classic spicy pork dish. Post-cooking, guests explore the jungly Maya ruins of Palenque, four hours northeast. May 12–21; $2,500; seasonsofmyheart.com
Some smart advice on how to stay safe and go to some of the wildest parties in the Western Hemisphere.
Spanglish Spoken Here
Throw a rock in almost any city in Mexico and you'll hit a language school. But if you want to become fluent fast, we recommend Cuauhnáhuac, the oldest school in Cuernavaca, less than two hours south of Mexico City. Spend two weeks in their Normal Intensive Language Program. It's heavy on the grammar but also fun, including lots of extracurricular activities. (Salsa and samba lessons, anyone?) Soon you'll be ordering those tricky-sounding mescal drinks for the entire bar. Two weeks of instruction, $530, plus $35 per night for room and board; cuauhnahuac.edu.mx
Part Catholic and part indigenous, the ancient, nationwide, two-day (November 1–2) Day of the Dead festival is the only time of the year when mortals get to communicate with the souls of the departed. It's also the wildest party in Mexico. Where to celebrate? Make for the 700-year-old city of Patzcuaro and the dozen or so surrounding villages in the state of Michoacan, where thousands of people from all over the world descend to help tantalize the dead by dancing in the streets, parading life-size statuettes, holding all-night vigils at the cemeteries, and decking out altars with sugar skulls, tequila, and pan de muerto ("bread of the dead"). To catch the two-day celebration at the height of its magical realism, visit the old Purhepecha Indian fishing village on Isla de Janitzio, in the middle of Patzcuaro Lake. Take a ferry from the Patzcuaro dock and float to the island among the torch-carrying fishermen. Don't expect a ride home until after sunrise.
Yes, there are danger zones in Mexico. But it's an enormous country—nearly three times the size of Texas—and staying safe is mostly a matter of avoiding certain areas and following a few key guidelines.
1. Avoid the big border cities—Tijuana and Juárez, obviously, but also Monterrey, in the northeast, where carjackings are rampant. Be extra vigilant in Mazatlán and Acapulco, which are seeing rising cartel activity.
2. Don't drive or rent an SUV or full-size pickup truck. These are magnets for carjackers and cartels. In remote areas, such as Copper Canyon or Baja, don't drive at night, and if you're pulled over by a cop, don't stop on a lonely stretch of highway—wait until you reach a gas station. Then be polite. Never offer an unsolicited bribe—doing so is a crime. But if a cop asks for a handout, pay—it may save you legal hassles.
3. When booking a local guide, do so in advance. Always get a referral from experienced friends or reputable outfitters.
4. Register with the U.S. State Department before heading south. The U.S. consulates in Mexico can't provide legal protection, but they can refer you to lawyers and doctors.
5. Credit card fraud is a sophisticated, multi-million-dollar business in Mexico. Don't let your Visa linger with waiters or checkout clerks, who have been known to scan cards with their own handheld readers.