It's home to one of the world's largest mega cities, dusty villages, volcanoes, mountains, beaches, deserts and enough history and culture to keep anthropologists occupied for a lifetime! Along the coasts it's hot and humid and warm enough for swimming year-round whereas the mountainous central area is freezing in winter and nights can still be cold in the summer months. During our stay we got the flavour of a few different regions and as we have a weakness for beaches we also searched out the most beautiful calm beach destinations. We travelled from the Yucatan peninsula and the Caribbean Sea in the east to Baja California and the Pacific Ocean in the west with stops in Mexico City and a couple of colonial towns on the way.
Rustic and colourful Isla Mujeres (Island of Women) is only 20 minutes by ferry from Cancun and a world apart. Over the years it's been a sanctuary for a Mayan Goddess, infamous pirates who sought shelter between raids on the mainland, Jacques Cousteau who was interested in the marine life (his island house is still there) and now tourists looking for a good time, sunshine and cheap margaritas.
We got into the Mexican spirit on the ferry as we sat on the open top deck overlooking the turquoise water and listening to an enthusiastic modern-day mariachi blasting out Santana tunes. Like most visitors we stayed at Playa Norte at the northern end where the white sandy beaches merge with the town, life moves at a lazy pace in spite of the streets being busy with restaurants, bars and souvenir shops open all hours.
The island is only 7 km long and it's easy to explore the rest in a few hours in a rented golf buggy, the main mode of transport. There are a couple of luxury hotels in other parts of the island but we enjoyed being in the middle of the action and a flipflop's throw from everything.
Known for it's quality food and crafts Oaxaca feels like somewhere I could easily live. The town is old with beautiful buildings, there is an arty vibe which expresses itself in funky cafes, colourful art and small boutique hotels. Whether you are after fabrics, chocolate, art or craft chances are you'll find a great selection at fair prices here. The market is definitely a must!
On this occasion we were only there for 2 days and you need longer to properly explore the town and the surrounding areas. Located in a valley in the central highlands the area has been settled since 500BC. The ruins of Monte Alban outside of town make for an interesting day trip and we went to see the Tree of Tule, a large Montezuma Cypress which is recognised as the stoutest tree in the world.
How: 1-2 hours flight from Mexico City, Cancun and other parts of Mexico.
The narrow strip of land which extends south from the US border is one of the remotest parts of Mexico. It averages 100km wide meaning that within a couple of hours you can swim at lagoon-like beaches on the Sea of Cortez, drive through cactus forests in the rugged mountains that run the length of the peninsula and then get blown away on the Pacific coast. One of the highlights for us is that we finally saw big cacti, not just one but all the way to the horizon - a scene we had been looking for since our US car trip. In fact the state, which is mostly desert is home to the world's largest cacti.
We stayed in La Paz, a fairly typical dusty Mexican town on the Sea of Cortez and explored by car. Just south of La Paz there are some beautiful beaches; Balandra which is shallow and very sheltered, Tecolote from where you can join a small snorkelling excursion to Espiritu Santo island 8km offshore and El Muertito, our favourite not just for the name or the crazy car enthusiast we met there but for the beach itself.
We also drove to super charming Todos Santos on the Pacific coast. The town has a laid back arty scene and the 'desert meets ocean' location creates some stunning scenery on the outskirts of town. We went for a day but it would be a great place to relax for a couple more - whether you are into surfing, art or a good meal in beautiful surroundings.
How: fly to La Paz or Cabo San Lucas, the luxury resort mecca at the Southern tip of the peninsula and explore by car.
One of the last places we visited was the tiny island of Holbox located at the Caribbean end of the Gulf of Mexico. During our travels we spoke with many Mexicans who all LOVED Holbox and described it as a beautiful natural retreat. And we have to agree that it's pretty unique.
Low-rise palapa style hotelitos are located along the beach and the little town has a few more places to stay, a good selection of restaurants, a few shops and one ATM located upstairs by the mayor's office. At night people mill around town but during the day it's all about the natural beauty of the turquoise water and white sandy beaches. Even the streets are covered in white sand and barely extend past the town, beyond that you need to explore by boat. We went on a half day group trip which included snorkelling, swimming with turtles and catching our own fish which the captain promptly chopped up into the freshest tastiest ceviche ever! At different times of the year you can swim with whale sharks and see bioluminescent plankton or flamingos on the lagoon. But most importantly the island lets you chill until you find your inner Mexican!
How: 3 hours by bus from Cancun followed by a 20 minute ferry ride or combine it with a drive around the Yucatan Peninsula.