Mexico: 3 Hidden Winter Getaways that Go Beyond the Hot Spots

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If you’re craving an adventure far from the crowds, there is lots of Mexico left for you to discover.

Isla Holbox

Punta Caliza
Each room at the architecturally stunning Punta Caliza connects to the pool.

Isla Holbox is a slender, 42‑kilometre‑long island just off the northern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. Like Tulum, it’s just a two‑hour drive from the bustling resort town of Cancún. But unlike Tulum, this tiny fishing village has yet to be overtaken by the hip crowd. There are no paved roads. No big hotels. No throbbing disco music. Which is exactly the point. Because getting away from it all in Holbox – which in Yucatec Maya means “black hole” – is the reason you come.

Here, days revolve around the position of the sun. Mornings are spent lingering over café con léche in the colourful main plaza, while afternoons are made for lazing on the powdery white‑sand beach. The water is shallow and calm; it stretches out into the distance like an endless, tranquil swimming pool. Take a paddleboard and cruise the sandbar‑dotted shores, or hire a boat to see the whale sharks that migrate off the coast in spring and summer. Just be sure to make it back to the pier to see the sunset, the only thing that anyone on the island rushes for.

January 7, 2022
a local fishing in the waters
A local fishing the warm shallow waters.
turquoise gate
A turquoise gate leads onto Playa Holbox from Aldea Kuká hotel.

Do

Take two wheels
Bicycles are the best way to get around and discover the island. While most hotels offer them for free, they’re also available for daily rental via Holbox Bikes, which provides handy maps for touring the island’s many stunning nature preserves, too. To explore on your own, ride west of town to the quiet protected beach at Punta Cocos, or head to Punta Mosquito at the northernmost tip of the island to see the flocks of pink flamingos that feed along the sandbars.
bikesholbox.com

Stay

Casa Las Tortugas
A few blocks from town, the 24‑room, sustainability‑minded, bohemian‑chic Casa Las Tortugas Petit Beach Hotel includes a large swimming pool, an airy yoga and meditation studio and a Mayan‑inspired spa featuring traditional healers. The overall vibe is beachy yet luxe, with sculptural driftwood art, artisan‑made linens and plenty of hammocks and pompom‑adorned daybeds on a private stretch of sand.
holboxcasalastortugas.com

Hotel Casa Las Tortugas
Lush tropical foliage surrounds the pool at barefoot‑chic hotel Casa Las Tortugas.

Dine

Ser Esencia and Luuma
To experience modern, artfully plated Yucatecan dishes courtesy of chef Roberto Solís, secure a table at Ser Esencia at Ser Casasandra – it’s open from morning to evening and is one of the island’s most romantic spots for a dinner sourced straight from the sea – before heading to the garden oasis Luuma, for a mezcal cocktail nightcap under the stars.
casasandra.com

Ceviche
Ceviche at Mandarina, the beach restaurant at Casa Las Tortugas.

Don’t Miss

Kiteboarding
If you’ve ever wanted to try this acrobatic sport, Holbox is the place to do it. The island has ideal conditions for learning: Warm, shallow waters to stand in, no obstacles on the wide, long beaches and lots of windy days. Advanced riders will also have plenty of fun whipping over the waves and getting air, especially when the north wind is blowing strong. The Holbox Kiteboarding School has fantastic instructors who might tempt you to try the latest watersport craze: wake and windfoiling, where the board rises out of the water on a foil so that it feels like you’re surfing on air.
holboxkiteboarding.com

kitesurfing
A birds eye view of kite‑surfing in Isla Holbox’s warm, shallow waters.

Night kayaking
As soon as you get away from Holbox’s tiny town centre, the skies start to reveal themselves. From a truly Milky Way to shooting stars that make you gasp, it’s worth it for the constellations alone. But down below is where the magic really happens: Fish swim past like torpedos of light, water drips off paddles like glittering jewels and when you trail your hand through the ocean, it glimmers. The paddle tour, run by eco‑conscious VIP Holbox Experience, leads to a sandbank where you can get out and stand in what feels like the middle of the ocean, surrounded by nature in all her brilliance.
vipholbox.com

Related: How to Find Magic in Mexico

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San Cristóbal

Set high up in a verdant mountain chain, San Cristóbal de las Casas, with its pastel blue‑, 
yellow‑ and peach‑painted houses, is a jewel of a town. Unlike the neoclassical city of San Miguel de Allende, which, as charming as it is, can seem like Mexico made for tourists, San Cristóbal is where to go to discover authentic Mexico. Founded in 1528 as Villa Real, it’s considered the cultural capital of Chiapas, and is also the perfect jumping‑off point to some of Mexico’s most impressive Mayan sites. The Mayans are still here: Chiapas has the highest concentration of Indigenous people in Mexico (over 1 million), and the villages around San Cristóbal are self‑ruled municipalities with their own governments, economy and languages. This independent existence was hard won in the Zapatista uprising of the 1990s, which sought control over local resources and land. They succeeded in expanding Indigenous rights in Mexico, and now their peaceful, traditional rural life is what adds extra depth and magic to this beautiful city.

Mexico fabrics
San Cristóbal is renowned for it’s colourful textiles woven by skilled artisans like this Tzotzil woman.
San Juan Chamula Church
Village life centres around the church in the Tzotzil village of San Juan Chamula, inside there is an extraordinary mix of Mayan and Catholic beliefs.

Do

San Juan Chamula
Head for the hills and the Tzotzil and Tzeltal villages that ring San Cristóbal. If you only have time for one, visit San Juan Chamula (about 20 minutes by taxi), where a picturesque white and turquoise church meshes Mayan and Catholic beliefs. There are no pews, candles burn directly on floors and statues of saints are adorned with mirrors to ward off evil. Take in one of the open‑air markets, full of traditional textiles and piles of produce from the surrounding fields, but don’t expect to capture it on camera: The villagers are not keen on having their photos taken.

San Cristóbal architecture
Bright papel picado paper flags are used for national celebrations and fiestas throughout Mexico, in San Cristobal there always seems to be a street fiesta taking place.

Stay

Hotel Bo
Part Danish modern with a vibrant dash of artisanal, Hotel Bo is a stylish contrast to the colonial architecture of San Cristóbal. The hotel centres on a lush garden with huge trees, reflecting pools and tropical flowers; its rooms are ultra‑comfortable, with enveloping beds and locally woven throws. Staff are friendly and attentive: If there’s a nip in the mountain air while you’re dining at the hotel’s buzzy, haute‑Mexican restaurant Lum (which means “Earth” in Tzotzil), they’ll drape you in a beautiful wool rebozo.
hotelbo.mx

San Cristóbal
The baroque Cathedral de San Cristóbal de las Casas, on the city’s main plaza was begun in 1528 but because of earthquakes wasn’t completed until 1815.

Don’t Miss

Palenque
The ancient Mayan site of Palenque rises out of the jungle about 200 kilometres northeast of San Cristóbal. The temples are covered with intricately carved hieroglyphics that tell the history of the Mayan rulers here. This is where the jade death mask of ruler Pakal the Great, once the most powerful man in the Americas, was found, and more recently the Red Queen’s malachite mask and jewels. Almost as brilliant is the wildlife: Watch for scarlet macaws and neon‑billed toucans – and listen for the spine‑tingling roars of the howler monkeys.

Related: The Salt Flats of Las Coloradas, Mexico, from Way, Way Up

festival dancer
A festival dancer outside the cathedral San Cristóbal de las Casas.
bright barbiquejos
Bright barbiquejos make irresistible souvenirs.

Dine

Pedestrian San
 Cristóbal and Tierra y Cielo
This is a walking town, and thimble‑size tiendas and taco stands line the pedestrian streets. Save some room for dinner at Tierra y Cielo which, with a daring blend of local and contemporary flavours, has won the chef Marta Zepeda accolades nationwide. Don’t miss the chicken with mole coleto, a Chiapas specialty: The mole is made from three different chiles, locally grown cocoa and served with a plantain puree and chilli ashes.
tierraycielo.com.mx

Posheria
Wash it all down at this jack‑in‑the‑box‑size bar dedicated to the local corn‑based alcohol pox (pronounced “posh”). Much like pulque, pox is poised to become the latest hipster brew. Distilled from sugar cane, wheat and corn, it has a slightly sweet, soft, smoky flavour. There’s a belief that this Mayan drink, once prized for its medicinal and magical properties, reveals bonds between people – the customary toast is Lak’ech’ (“I’m another you”), to which the reply is Hala ken (“You are another me”).
posheria.mx

Posheria restaurant
Posheria is a tiny but mighty bar dedicated to the local corn‑based spirit, pox originally drunk by the Mayans. The ceiling decoration is an art installation and homage to the drink.

TGZ
Be sure to review local travel guidelines before you go.

Related: A Photographers’ Guide to Mexico City

San Pancho

There’s a little hippie town on Mexico’s Pacific coast with cobblestone streets, constant surf swells and a pristine beach surrounded by tropical forest. Sound familiar? Twenty years ago, that’s how many described Sayulita, a surf town 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta on the Nayarit coastline. Now, that definition belongs to San Francisco (known locally as San Pancho), a tight‑knit village of about 1,500 full‑time residents just 10 minutes up the road from Sayulita. Relaxed vibes rule here, with a wide, sandy playa that has barely any hotels (yet), artisan shops and a healthy food scene for a village so small – from organic bistros to fresh ceviche tostadas on the street. There’s live music pretty much every night, and a string of festivals. Waves off San Pancho are fierce and fast (swimmers, beware!), but don’t let that deter you from enjoying the beach – a favourite pastime.

Do

Lo de Perla Jungle Garden
Pack your Indiana Jones hat (but leave the machete at home) for 
a guided tour at Lo de Perla Jungle Garden, a non‑profit reserve started 12 years ago by Alejandro de Perla, a.k.a. Lord of the Orchids. Guides walk guests through the lush jungle to see fascinating flora and fauna, including 25 mammals, such as armadillos and lynx, 120 types of fruit trees, 120 bird species, 300 butterflies, fungi and orchids in every single colour imaginable.
lodeperla.org

Flower in bloom.
A brilliant bloom in Lo de Perla Jungle Garden.
surfing in Mexico
The Pacific swells are best suited to seasoned surfers.

Stay

Hotel Cielo Rojo
Named for San Pancho’s spectacular red sunsets, this nine‑room boutique hotel opened in 2005 as a labour of love by Mexican‑American owner and designer Gisela Marin. Passionate about sustainability, Marin made it the centre point of Cielo Rojo. Sheets (spritzed with lavender at turndown) are organic cotton; lemongrass soap is handmade by a women’s collective in San Miguel de Allende; and the organic pescatarian restaurant, Bistro Orgánico, is focused on healthy ocean‑to‑table food. A private two‑bedroom house is also available, with a pool all guests can use.
hotelcielorojo.com

Hotel Cielo Rojo
The stylish and sustainable 9‑room hotel, Cielo Rojo, is an eco‑tourist’s dream with a farm to table restaurant, locally produced soaps and organic goods all nestled in a beautiful garden.

Dine

Barracuda Cocina del Mar
This San Pancho favourite first opened in 2011 as a food cart and serves inventive dishes with seafood from the Nayarit coast, like sesame‑encrusted tuna tataki, octopus sopes and cilantro cream risotto with garlic shrimp.
uqr.to/Barracuda

Mariscos Doña Tere and Cervecería Artesanal
For a low‑key evening, grab a tostada or some fresh shrimp ceviche from the bar at Mariscos Doña Tere, then follow the sounds of live music to Cervecería Artesenal for a local craft beer.
cerveceriaartesanalsanpancho.com

Related: A Mole‑ and Mezcal‑Fuelled Tour of Oaxaca

man with surfboard and baby
The sun and sand is enjoyed by everyone.
beach dining
Patrons of new beach bar La Tarraya.

Don’t Miss

Marietas Islands
In the early 1900s, these two uninhabited islands were used as a bomb test site. But that disastrous activity came with a silver lining: It uncovered a secret crater beach that visitors can reach by swimming through a cave. Thanks in part to French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau’s efforts, the islands are conserved and allow only 116 visitors daily – so it’s best to book your visit in advance. During your stay, be on the lookout for blue‑footed boobies, giant manta rays, dolphins, humpback whales and more.

San Pancho beach
Originally a sleepy fishing village, colourful fisherman’s boats are still hauled up on the beaches of San Pancho.

Surfing the Pacific swells
San Pancho’s waves tend to be on the wild side and are best suited to more advanced surfers. If that’s not your speed, nearby Sayulita and Punta de Mita have a more consistent, beginner‑friendly swell where you can perfect your form. The surf schools on the beach or Nativa Surf Shop in town will help get you sorted with lessons or any gear that you might need to spend a day in the surf.
nativasanpancho.wixsite.com/nativa

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Related: Mexico City: Where Our Senior Editor Will Return Once Her Travels Resume