Sep 4 2008

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Beyond Cancun: Mexico’s must-see cities

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Mexicovacation
By Lena Katz

My earliest memories of Mexico were of Mazatlan timeshares, and then, of the giant oceanfront all-inclusives of Puerto Vallarta. In recent times, I’ve been to Cabo San Lucas — or Las Vegas South, as some people like to call it — and of course Cancun, the glossy hub of high-rise tourism.

Seeing these places, I can understand why other visitors could think that Mexico is just one giant resort sprawl. However, having traveled a bit more throughout the country, I know how mistaken they are. Mexico’s real cities — as well as its non-resort towns — have distinct and colorful personalities, histories and aesthetics. It just goes to show you, the same rule applies to places as to plants: Allowed to evolve organically over time, they’ll turn into unique expressions of the lands and the locals who tend them.

Acapulco

Truth: I spent 10 years preparing to hate this city. I wouldn’t travel here, thinking it was too crowded, dirty, touristy. …  And then I went. I stayed in a pink cupcake palace carved snugly into a mountain (Las Brisas — it’s famously nicknamed "the Baby Factory," and indeed, staying here made me want to get … married).

From various high-up hillside vantage points, I surveyed the city as it flirtatiously winked back at me. I couldn’t determine whether the skyline, a skyscraper crescent curved around a wide bay, reminded me more of Miami, Rio or somewhere in Spain. Like any typical tourist, I goggled at the La Quebrada cliff divers — although I stopped short of taking a photo with them in their full Speedo-clad glory. Unlike most typical tourists, I took a motorboat out to the lagoons and completely covered my face in muddy clay scooped from the bottom. (It didn’t do much for my complexion, one way or the other.) And finally, like a typical Spring Breaker (which I am not, but sometimes forget), I went out clubbing and snogged a law student at 4 a.m. before my friends dragged me away.

Verdict: Just as fun as it was in the ’50s, though not a Hollywood hangout at the moment.

San Miguel de Allende

When I visited this famous inland artist community, it was on Dia de los Muertos, and the church bells were ringing as though the Hunchback of Notre Dame had gone berserk in the tower. Really, it was not great for my hungover head. However. Cobblestone streets, a picturesque square, church spires against a blue sky … yes, this town is exactly as scenic as it’s touted to be. After a four-hour luncheon in a local guesthouse, accompanied by several perfect margaritas and sun-steeped flower tea, I completely forgave San Miguel for my sins — and for the alarming acoustic capabilities of its bell tower.

Verdict: As pretty as the paintings. Don’t walk it in high heels.

Guadalajara/Tequila

First, raise your hand if you knew that Guadalajara has the largest annual gay pride parade in Mexico. Now, raise your hand if you knew that Guadalajara is an hour away from the tequila production hub of the world (named Tequila, appropriately). And finally, raise your hand if you knew that Guadalajara’s historic heart boasts some of the best Spanish colonial architecture in the New World.

If you’re 0 for 3, you’re not alone — here in the US, we basically know nada about Guadalajara. It’s the second-largest city in Mexico, and as cosmopolitan as anywhere, but we tend to overlook it. If you’re a fan of artisan handicrafts, ancient ruins, churrigueresque design or contemporary art (film, music, etc.), you’d do well to take a second glance. For sheer spectacle, visit during October’s annual Romeria de la Virgen de Zapopan, when a million devout citizens welcome a beloved religious symbol back to her home in the basilica.

Verdict: Ritual and history meet contemporary culture and commerce. The buzz is palpable.

Costalegre

Geographically, it’s in between Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo. Spiritually, it’s far away, in a happy place of its own. (I’m not making this up — the name translates to "happy coast.") With secluded beaches and eco-resorts, idyllic spa destinations and legendary luxe getaways, this swathe of coastline is diverse indeed. Rough roads and rocky beaches hide highly polished diamonds like El Tamarindo and El Careyes.

Verdict: Paradise is waiting to be found, but you might need a 4×4 to do it.

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Lena Katz lives on the Left Coast and writes about tropical islands, beach clubs and food, but her heart belongs to NYC.

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