Baja California Sur, where the Sonoran Desert meets the Sea of Cortez
Baja California Sur, where the Sonoran Desert meets the Sea of Cortez
Baja California Sur, where the Sonoran Desert meets the Sea of Cortez (Photo: Camphoto/Getty)

This is the Mexico for Adventurers


When travel resumed in early 2021, Americans in droves headed south of the border, with most opting for popular tourist meccas. But why follow the masses when you can explore wild corners of the country few others visit? We rounded up 18 ways to do just that—and to support local economies while you’re at it.


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As vaccination rates rose and air travel returned in full force, the first trip abroad for more than two million Americans was to Mexico. Of those who traveled south in early 2021, close to 1.8 million flew into just four airports—Cancún, Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, and Los Cabos—and the vast majority of them stayed in or near these tourism centers.

On your trip to Mexico this year, go beyond the typical stomping grounds and unlock a part of the country that few know about. From paddling an aqua blue lagoon in the shadow of a dormant volcano to riding a horse bareback through the sea to a small island, here’s to skipping packed beach scenes for local-helmed experiences and new discoveries.


Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park
Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park (Photo: Rodrigo Friscione/Getty)

The Dive: Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park

In the 1990s, Cabo Pulmo, a three-by-nine-mile reef off Baja California’s East Cape, was so ­damaged by overfishing that the local community petitioned the federal government to protect it. In 1995, Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park was established, relying on a patrol of dedicated locals to enforce the strict no-take fishing policy. This partnership marked the beginning of the most successful reef regeneration project in the world. By 1999, the fish biomass on the reef had increased by 463 percent, and every formerly endangered species, like the gulf grouper, had rebounded. Today the reef is a stunning spectacle of hard corals and sea fans. The park’s public-use program requires anyone working there to pass a test and follow best practices. The result is a unified goal of maintaining the health of the marine reserve while still allowing guests to visit sea lion rooker­ies, swim with whale sharks, mobula rays, and humpback whales, and snorkel among giant damselfish, groupers, turtles, and schools of African pompano. Luxury homes and hotels like the new Amanvari, slated for completion in 2024, are popping up along the region’s shores. But travelers to the area don’t need a champagne budget to enjoy the park. In the village of Cabo Pulmo, the Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort offers a two-night, two-person Eat, Sleep, Dive package starting at $549. The resort’s bungalows are a three-minute walk from the beach. —Stephanie Pearson


Cañon de la Zorra, in Sierra de la Laguna
Cañon de la Zorra, in Sierra de la Laguna (Photo: Prisma by Dukas/Getty)

The Hike: Sierra de la Laguna

While the Baja peninsula is primarily desert, the southernmost tip is a subtropical dry forest that contains most of the region’s endemic species, from the Xantus’s hummingbird to the cape pygmy owl. There’s no better way to experience the density of wildlife and variety of landscape than via Cañon San Dionísio, a 14-mile trek through the Sierra de la Laguna Biosphere Reserve. From the town of Santiago, drive 14 miles along a sandy road to Rancho San Dionísio, where you’ll start your hike, passing between deep canyon walls and over giant boulders before hitting waterfalls and freshwater pools. After gaining 6,600 feet in elevation, you’ll reach your end point, which overlooks the confluence of the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California. While it’s possible to venture out on your own, do yourself a favor and sign up with guide Edgardo Cortes Nares of Baja Sierra Adventures for an all-day trip (from $60) or a five-day camping excursion (from $460), meals included. —Kristen Gill


Local Expert: Kayaker Sofia Reinoso on the Best River to Run

 

The small city of Tlapacoyan, in the Veracruz region on the Gulf of Mexico, is one of the greatest places on earth to paddle. Nearly 40 miles of the Alseseca River, winding down 8,530 feet, are lined with aquamarine waterfalls of all sizes. Some stretches are very technical, and others are more relaxed. That’s why it’s such a good place to progress. I grew up paddling the beginner-friendly Filobobos section of the river. When I’m not traveling, I still work as an instructor at Aventurec, the main hub where all the kayakers hang. They have rentals, guides, cabins, a pool, good food, and shuttles that drop you at different sections of the river (from $30 a night). These days, Big Banana is my favorite section of the Alseseca to run. It packs more waterfalls per mile than any river in the area. After a day on the water, I like to head to town for fresh seafood and tacos from Asadero los Compadres. For something more off the beaten path, go to Rio Micos, north of San Luis Potosí in central Mexico. Instead of jungle, you’re surrounded by travertine rock and warm, crystal blue waters. There are a few challenging sections, but it’s mostly Class III and IV water. Local eco-operator Huaxteca runs rafting and paddleboard trips from Hotel Salto del Meco (from $193), which has rustic cabanas along the banks of El Salto River. The kitchen is very good—try the region’s unique style of enchiladas, which are folded, not rolled. —As told to Jen Murphy


Jardín de Cerveza Hércules
Jardín de Cerveza Hércules (Courtesy of Compañía Cervecera Hércules)
Mountains surrounding the city
Mountains surrounding the city (Marcos Ferro/Cavan)
The Sector V climbing center
The Sector V climbing center (Courtesy Sector V)

48 Hours in an Emerging Adventure Town: Querétaro

You won’t find many expats or big resorts in Querétaro. What you will discover is that this central-­highlands hub of a million residents is one of the safest, most sophisticated cities in the country, and it’s surrounded by a hilly playground for hikers, mountain bikers, and rock climbers. Querétaro, after all, is derived from the Tarascan word queréndaro, or “place of the crags.”

Start your adventure in the heart of the city, a geometric grid built by the Spanish in the 16th century where members of the Otomí, Tarasco, and Chichimeca once lived. Here you will find 1,400 Unesco World Heritage monuments within 203 blocks. History buffs are fasci­nated by Querétaro because it’s the birthplace of Mexican Independence, which concluded with the early-19th-century rebellion against Spain.

Check in at the boutique Hotel Criol (from $90), located a block from the central Plaza de Armas, with a pool, walls decorated with modern Mexican art, and a top-floor patio that overlooks the old city. Stroll the streets to Jardín de Cerveza Hércules, a brewery in a fun riverside neighborhood that serves a generous brunch (think chilaquiles, sopes, huaraches, tetelas, pig beans, and house sausage) on weekends; pair your meal with a fresh, citrusy lager. Walk everything off with a visit to Museo del Calendario, the world’s first museum devoted solely to calendars, from ancient Aztec to 1950s-era pinups. Back at the hotel, take a swim, then head out to Tikua Sur-Este, a restaurant that serves a fusion of Maya, Olmec, Zapotec, and Mixtec plates.

In the morning, stop at the Sector V climbing center, which offers guides, courses, and beta on nearby crags like Peña del Bernal, the world’s third-largest monolith, located 40 miles northeast, with multi-pitch climbs and shorter routes on its porphyritic rock faces. El Doctor, two and a half hours north of the city, is a newly developed limestone sport-climbing crag divided into three main areas, with 150 different routes ranging from 5.9 to 14a.

Hikers and mountain bikers head to Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, a protected area the size of Rhode Island that’s 65 miles northeast of Querétaro, with exquisite canyons, waterfalls, and archaeological sites, along with the occasional jaguar sighting. Mirador de Cuatro Pelos, a 1.4-mile out-and-back trail, is a modest investment for invigorating 360-degree views of big canyons. Guide Rodrigo Gonzalez Reyes can transport visitors to lesser known hiking trails. For mountain bikers, La Gotera, a seven-mile out-and-back single track thrill ride, ascends and descends through stunning, precipitous cliffs. Mountain-bike rentals are scarce in the city, so BYOB. Casa de los Cuatro Vientos (from $109), a modern, beautifully rustic cabin in the Sierra Gorda, offers incredible views of the misty mountains. —S.P.


Tres Virgenes in Baja
Tres Virgenes in Baja (Dea/S. Gutierrez/Getty)
Sierra de San Francisco’s cave paintings
Sierra de San Francisco’s cave paintings (Nature Picture Library/Alamy )

The Guided Tour: Rock Paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco

One of the most impressive and least visited collections of prehistoric art on the planet is the array of rock paintings in the Sierra de San Francisco of Baja California Sur. The giant murals, which date back to the Holocene epoch, depict human figures and wildlife and were painted using natural mineral pigments in red, yellow, ocher, and black. Due to the area’s arid climate, inaccessibility, and restrictions, the region’s 400 sites are incredibly well-preserved. Visitors to the site must be registered and accompanied by a certified guide. Book with local outfitter Kuyima, which employs ranchers intimately familiar with the area’s history. You’ll start in San Ignacio, a four-hour drive from Loreto, and spend a few days making the 10- to 14-mile round-trip trek, carrying on the centuries-old tradition of packing and riding mules through the rugged mountains and canyons. During the day, you’ll stop at major discoveries within Santa Teresa Canyon, including La Pintada, a 650-foot-long cave painted with 300 figures, many of them life-size. In the evenings, set up camp and enjoy dinner cooked over a fire. From $1,136 for two people —K.G.


La Pursíma, backed by El Pilón
La Pursíma, backed by El Pilón (Photo: Tamara Elliott)

The Paddle: La Purísima

In central Baja California Sur, three drastically different landscapes converge. Lurking in the shadow of a 4,741-foot dormant volcano and surrounded by desert is the community of La Purísima, an oasis marked by freshwater pools and streams, lush vegetation, and palm groves. Book a kayak or paddleboard tour—or just rent the gear (from $12)—with local guide Cristian Arce of Eco Turismo La Purísima and spend a morning exploring endemic flora and fauna. After your paddle, hike four miles along La Purísima Interpretive Trail to the lookout for a dramatic view of the flourishing valleys and the conical peak of El Pilón volcano. End the day with a meal of seafood and wine at Las Cabanas, a family-run eco-hotel on the edge of town. —K.G.


Local Expert: Surfer Mario Becerril on the Best Break

I run a surf school just outside Cabo in the state of Baja California Sur. There are endless waves here. But when I want to go on a surf vacation, I head south to the state of Oaxaca. The south has a totally different feel, and because it’s closer to the equator, the water is warm enough to surf without a wetsuit. On my last trip, I spent a few days in Oaxaca City, which has one of the world’s best culinary scenes. I like to walk around Mercado Benito Juárez. It has every food you could imagine and old ladies selling local specialties like chapulines, toasted grasshoppers. After a few days in the city I head for the coast, home to a string of legendary point breaks. My favorite is Barra de la Cruz, or Barra. The area feels like you’ve gone back in time 200 years. You can really feel the Zapotecan cultural influence. There are few amenities—and no hotels—but you stay in humble family bungalows, like Posada Blanca (from $49). Two hours north is the town of Puerto Escondido and its namesake beach break, considered one of the best waves in Mexico, if not the world. It’s the opposite vibe of Barra. You have a choice of boutique accommodations, like Hotel Escondido (from $500). This wave isn’t for beginners; you need to be in shape. When it’s big, it’s a show just to sit on the beach and watch. —As told to J.M.


Casa Silencio’s communal table
Casa Silencio’s communal table (Onnis Luque)
Guest room
Guest room (Onnis Luque)
The outdoor pool
The outdoor pool (Onnis Luque)
Muchas mezcal
Muchas mezcal (Beatriz Posadas)

The Splurge: Casa Silencio

Vicente Cisneros and Fausto Zapata, the founders of Mezcal El Silencio, have taken the concept of terroir from bottle to boutique hotel. Their six-room sustainable stay is built around a working distillery in the village of Xaaga, 45 miles outside Oaxaca City. Reclaimed wood, terra-cotta, and rammed-earth walls made from the property’s soil all went into the structure, which is situated amid the agave fields. Do yourself a favor and pop in for a tour, a tasting, and a five-course Zapotec-inspired meal paired with rare El Silencio vintages ($250 prix fixe). But you’ll regret it if you don’t spend the night. Guests can roll up their sleeves and help mezcaleros harvest agave, roast piñas (the inner hearts of the spiky plants), and toss them in the one-ton, solar-powered tahona (a stone grinding wheel) to be smashed before fermentation. Charred-steak tacos and unlimited pours of the house liquor make it easy to succumb to a lazy day sunning by the pool, but try to get out and explore the area. The archaeological site of Mitlán, along with one of the deepest cave systems in the world, Sótano de San Agustín, are both easy day trips from the hotel. From $1,000 per night, including meals and unlimited mezcal —J.M.


Local Expert: Mountain Biker Joel Ramirez on the Best Trail Network

I grew up riding the trails around San José del Cabo. Most people know it as a party destination or for surfing. More recently, San José and some towns on this end of Baja—Todos Santos, El Triunfo, La Ventana, Los Barriles—have started to become destinations for singletrack. Many of the trails were laid by volunteers, most of them gringo surfers who wanted something to do when the waves were flat. This is desert, so you’re riding dry, hard-baked, rocky terrain, and dodging sharp cardons. It’s a lot like Arizona, except here you get Sea of Cortez views. I’m a regular at Bike Park SanJo MTB. It has nearly 40 miles of trails, geared for riders of all levels. Since I was a kid, it’s been a ritual to follow up a session by ordering four of the tostadas sold by a woman in front of the town’s main church. If it’s early, I go to El Wine Shop. Don’t be fooled by the name—it serves really good coffee and avocado toast. Thunders Bikes in Cabo and Over the Edge Sports in Todos Santos both carry the latest models for rentals. OTE also does guided tours. Rancho Cacachilas, just outside La Paz, is like a Disneyland for mountain bikers, with nearly 25 miles of perfect singletrack trails, plus a bike shop and pump track. Its main hub, Chivato, has camping and basic rooms, and after riding all day you can dive into the pool that overlooks the ocean and enjoy healthy food grown right in the property’s garden. —As told to J.M.


Loreto Bay
Loreto Bay (Photo: Leon Werdinger)

The Expedition: Loreto Bay National Marine Park

You don’t visit Loreto for hip hotels, name-chef restaurants, or throngs of beachgoers. You go for the very fact that they haven’t arrived yet. At this sleepy Pueblo Mágico town in northern Baja California Sur, a calming contrast to the peninsula’s popular southern destinations, you’ll find empty stretches of sand on the Sea of Cortez, the Sierra de la Giganta looming to the west, and a vibe reminiscent of the Cabo San Lucas that captivated Hemingway in the 1930s. There is one all-inclusive resort with amenities, Villa del Palmar (from $236), but otherwise plan on staying at affordable campsites, like Rivera, and relying on low-frills beach shacks selling lobster in mezcal sauce and meaty chocolate clams, both local delicacies. The town also serves as the gateway to Loreto Bay National Marine Park, just as dazzling as the biodiverse waters off the coast of La Paz. The park’s nickname, the Galápagos of Mexico, is a nod to its 800-plus aquatic species, including blue whales, Humboldt squid, and sea lions. Rent a boat from Sea Kayak Baja Mexico—or, better yet, book one of the outfit’s guided over­night expeditions and camp under the stars on virgin playas, snorkel pristine reefs, and paddle past blue-footed booby rookeries (three-night trips from $1,192). Another local resource, Blue Nation, runs diving and freediving trips as well as snorkeling tours to the dramatic lava cliffs and sea lion colony of Isla Coronado and the remote Isla Monserrate, known for its schools of mobula rays (from $75). With direct flights from Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Dallas, Loreto is easier than ever to get to. Go now, before the secret gets out. —J.M.


Remnants of Temple VII in Bonampak
Remnants of Temple VII in Bonampak (Jon G. Fuller/vwpics/Redux )
Frescos in Bonampak’s Temple of the Murals
Frescos in Bonampak’s Temple of the Murals (Jon G. Fuller/vwpics/Redux )

The Jungle Base Camp: Lacandón Rainforest

When the conquistadors arrived in the 1500s, the Lacandón people escaped into the deep jungle near what is now the Guatemala border and stayed there, isolated, for centuries. A paved road from the city of Palenque changed that in 1998, and shortly thereafter the federal government poured money into the region to support ecotourism projects. Starting in 2010, Lacandón families built more than 20 guesthouses that now host adventurers looking to explore the area’s biodiversity and history, accompanied by white-robed, long-haired guides who know all its secrets (from $15). Expect basic rooms in thatch houses and trails that lead to amazing lagoons, waterfalls, and archaeological sites like Bonampak, a late-classic Maya ruin famous for its vivid murals. —Tim Leffel


Local Expert: Kiteboarder Anthar Racca on the Best Riding

 

Less than 20 miles from Cancún, on the peninsula of Isla Blanca, you’ll find Chacmuchuch, a shallow saltwater lagoon perfect for learning or improving your riding at any level. My parents own a kite center there called Ikarus that offers rentals, an eco-hotel, camping, and private lessons (from $195). There is also a small restaurant that serves really good quesadillas. The kiteboarding season typically starts in November, when it can be a bit cold, and ends in April or May, which in my opinion are the best months because the sun is always shining and the water is flat. The wind tends to be on three days, off three days. On a down day, go to Flamingos, a beachfront seafood restaurant with its own fish market, 15 minutes away in Punta Sam. I live in Cancún, but three times a year I travel to Mérida to kite in nearby Progreso, a port city blessed with consistent thermal winds nearly every afternoon from April through August. Head to Yuckite, a kite school that also has rooms and glamping (from $60 for a private lesson). It’s located on El Playón, a wide beach with shallow water and onshore winds. Mérida has a lot more options for dining, but if I stay in Progreso, I’m a regular at Crabster Seafood and Grill. They do everything well, from shrimp frittatas for breakfast to surf and turf for dinner. —As told to J.M.


The Santo Domingo temple
The Santo Domingo temple (Holgs/Getty)
Andador del Carmen
Andador del Carmen (Jeoffrey Guillemard/Haytham-Rea/Redux)
Agua Azul
Agua Azul (THP Creative/Alamy)
A macaw in Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve
A macaw in Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve (Anne Lewis/Alamy)
Kayaking in Agua Azul
Kayaking in Agua Azul (Marcos Ferro/Cavan)

48 Hours in an Emerging Adventure Town: San Cristóbal de las Casas

In 2013, Mexico City native and chef Victor Zenteno returned from living abroad and wanted to settle in Mexico. On a road trip to the Yucatán Peninsula, he stopped in San Cristóbal de las Casas. “I was so in love with the city that I never left,” he says. Zenteno now owns Espiral Biocafetería, a restaurant focused on Indigenous and Spanish foods and flavors, as well as El Cochito Enchilado, a taqueria that specializes in pork loin marinated in his seven-chile adobo sauce.

Mouthwatering flavors are not the only reason to go; its beauty and history also appeal to travelers. Ringed by the peaks of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, the 16th-century city sits in a valley at 7,200 feet. Zapatista rebels overtook San Cristóbal in 1994, declaring war on the government for signing NAFTA, a deal they believed would further impoverish Indigenous communities. While Zapatista ideology is still alive, the armed conflict has for the most part been over for years, freeing up the city’s rugged surrounds for exploration.

Settle in at Hotel Bo (from $180), a calming oasis with a reflecting pool five minutes from the baroque facade of the 17-century Santo Domingo temple. Wander the cobblestone streets to museums like the Textile Center of the Maya World, which contains thousands of beautifully woven pieces. If you’re lucky, you’ll score a table at Kokonó. Order the mushroom tostadas in mole sauce and other Chiapan plates. Chef-owner Claudia Sántiz hails from the nearby community of San Juan Chamula, where the local Tzotzil people continue to speak their own language.

While you’re this far south, don’t miss seeing Palenque, Bonampak, and Yaxchilán, three distinct Maya ruins. En route to Palenque, about 120 miles northeast of the city, stop at Agua Azul, a series of massive waterfalls on the Xanil River that the best kayakers once launched themselves over during the now defunct Rey del Rio Waterfall World Championships. Take a swim in the pooling water below, or climb the path along the banks.

From there, go full Indiana Jones and drive 90 miles southeast into the Lacandón Jungle, first to Bon­ampak for its well-preserved Maya murals, then to Frontera Corozal, a river settlement where you’ll catch a panga with local operator Nuevo Alianza for the ride up the Usumacinta to what was once the powerful Maya city of Yaxchilán. Seventy miles southwest is Las Guacamayas, a center devoted to protecting scarlet macaws (from $47 for entry). Hike with Native guides through the 1,277-square-mile Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, one of the largest tropical forests in Mexico. Spend the night in its clean, thatch-roofed jungle rooms (from $23). The next morning, make your way 187 miles back to San Cristóbal de las Casas. —S.P.


A cenote outside Yalcobá
A cenote outside Yalcobá (Courtesy Ta Náayta)
Toh birds
Toh birds (Courtesy Ta Náayta)

The Eco-Warrior: Ta Náayta

A hundred miles southwest of Cancún, deep in the interior of the Yucatán Peninsula, is the Maya village of Yalcóba, a community of about 3,000 largely Indigenous inhabitants, many of whom have returned to their families after going to work and live at all-inclusive resorts along the coastline. To slow the outflow, the French nonprofit Ta Náayta is educating the youth of Yalcóba on forms of sustainable tourism. To that end, it has built a beautifully rustic eco-lodge with open-air rooms in the community’s forest, complete with private cenote. A two-night stay at the lodge (from $230) includes touring a traditional Maya farm, or milpa, where residents grow staples like beans and squash; visiting beehives that have been cultivated the same way for centuries; and exploring secret cenotes and caves. The goal of the project is to provide economic diversification for locals, so they no longer have to leave their homes to support themselves and their families, and to offer an authentic Yucatecan Maya experience for travelers, giving a glimpse of the rich culture that has thrived here for 3,000 years. —S.P.


A guide at Copper Canyon
A guide at Copper Canyon (Photo: Pablo León)

The Climb: Chihuahua’s Copper Canyons

When climber Abraham Martinez moved to the town of Divisadero in the vast Copper Canyons region, 135 miles south of Chihuahua City, he got a job with a view: working as a guide on the via ferrata at Copper Canyons National Park. As a certified rope-access technician, he saw a ton of potential in the massive cliffs that form some of the deepest gorges in the Americas, particularly those at 6,136-foot-deep Urique, one of six canyons in the system. Martinez started ex­ploring on his own and connected with the region’s Indigenous communities, teaching kids how to climb. That led to a project, in partnership with Mexico City’s Fundación Mexico Vertical, a nonprofit rock-climbing development and conservation organization, that aims to grow the sport locally, with permission from those communities. The rock-climbing scene is still in its infancy, but it’s full of possibility. “We have one route that’s almost 6,600 feet high,” Martinez says. The two established climbing areas are near the village of Mogótabo and range in grade from 5.8 to 5.13. In a region that spans more than 25,000 square miles, there are numerous virgin walls to explore—it’s getting to them that’s the challenge. But the partners are working on infrastructure. For now, stay at locally owned Cabañas Darely (from $39) or Cabañas Margarito (from $42) near Divisadero, a three-hour drive southwest of Mogótabo. —T.L.


Baja desert transport
Baja desert transport (Photo: Jules Slutsky/Cavan)

The Vaquero Ride: Marcelo Osuña

There’s no shortage of ways to immerse yourself in the vaquero tradition of cattle herders and horsemen who have inhabited these lands for centuries. But for a singular experience, call Marcelo Osuña, owner of Paseos a Caballo de Mulegé. The third-generation vaquero, based in the town of Heroica Mulegé, is the sole operator on the Baja peninsula who offers a three-hour trip that starts in the mountains, follows the banks of the Rosalía River, traverses sand dunes, and then crosses the sea to a tiny island and back. Just think: one moment you’re dodging rows of grand cacti, and the next you’re floating bareback atop a horse that’s paddling through gentle waves ($60). After your excursion, return to town and overnight at the eight-room Histórico Las Casitas (from $40). —K.G.

The jungles of Huasteca Potosina
The jungles of Huasteca Potosina (Maddy Minnis)
The patron saint of Las Pozas
The patron saint of Las Pozas (xpacifica/Redux)
The site’s Bamboo Palace
The site’s Bamboo Palace (Ann Summa)
A stairway in Las Pozas
A stairway in Las Pozas (Amanda Holmes/Courtesy El Jardín Escultórico de Edward James)
Ascending from the Cave of Swallows
Ascending from the Cave of Swallows (Joshua Hydeman)

48 Hours in an Emerging Adventure Town: Huasteca Potosina

Where can you go whitewater rafting, rappel into a refreshing swimming hole, and cliff-dive off small waterfalls, all in the same day? In the Huasteca region of San Luis Potosí state, where the stunning blue rivers and lakes feel like a natural version of a water park.

Nearly every activity is an hour or less away from Ciudad Valles, which makes this city of 180,000 a great base. Book everything with operator Huaxteca, whose guides speak English. And plan a visit during the dry season (November through May), when the waters are clearest. From the 100-room Hotel Valles (from $90), a property surrounded by lush gardens in the city center, it’s an hour’s drive to the town of Tanchachín for a morning of rafting. The beginner-friendly, Class III Tampaon River cuts through a narrow canyon filled with parrots and blue morpho butterflies.

Next, head back to the city for a unique swimming experience that’s a favorite among locals: don a life vest and helmet to float along a 6.2-mile stretch of the Class II Micos River. It has a series of seven shallow waterfalls that get progressively bigger, the largest of which is 40 feet. Finish your adventure with a dip in a clear blue swimming hole.

The following day, visit one of the most bizarre spots in Mexico: Las Pozas. English surrealist Edward James moved to the area in the late 1940s and spent the next 39 years building fanciful concrete structures in the jungle near the town of Xilitla, 55 miles south of Ciudad Valles. A friend of Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, James transformed 20 acres into a collection of 36 massive stairways, portals, and columns that add whimsy to the surrounding flora. The result is a haunting sculpture garden.

On the way back to Ciudad Valles, detour to the Cave of Swallows, a 1,679-foot abyss that’s a favorite of BASE jumpers and rappellers. Or farther along the route, hike a half-mile trail to the less crowded Cave of the Parakeet. Around sunset you’ll often see swifts and tropical birds returning home for the night, diving into the giant cave by the thousands. —T.L.


Local Expert: Mountaineer Viridiana Álvarez on the Best Summit

 

Travelers come to Mexico City for the culture. But two hours southwest by car, you’ll find incredible hiking, nature, and archaeological sites in Nevado de Toluca National Park. This ancient, dormant volcano has several trails that reach the 14,977-foot summit. My favorite is the northern route, the three-mile Cañada del Oso. From this side of the crater, there’s an amazing view of the surrounding valley. You can hike there year-round, but the best season is winter, because you’ll often see snow in the crater. Or you can head to two emerald-hued lakes in the park, Laguna del Sol and Laguna de la Luna, accessed via the 6.5-mile Circuito Lagos hiking loop or a bumpy drive. If you want a guide to help you summit, I suggest going through the operator Outside Mexico (no connection to this magazine). Some people camp in the park, especially if they’re going to rise early to set off. There’s also a modest first-come, first-served hut at the crater gate that some like to stay in to acclimatize. I prefer to stay in Mexico City. You can easily day-trip to the park. As you get close to the city of Toluca, keep an eye out for locals along the roadside selling handmade tortillas and the region’s signature mushroom soup. —As told to J.M.


From January/February 2022 Lead Photo: Camphoto/Getty