Traditional Mexican towns surround ancient central plazas, otherwise known as zocalo, where locals have always gathered in the shady colonnades or under the trees and kids escape from their mothers. If there is a civic event that’s where it will probably start and consequently that’s where any savvy traveler should stay if affordable or head for the first evening if not.
Sangrita por favor! A sangrita is actually a shot glass of mainly tomato juice but also the way locals in Mexico’s states of Oaxaca and Jalisco order and drink their tequilas. i. e. “Hombre! Sangrita por favor! ”
Sangrita contains tomato juice but also – depending on the barman’s inclination – lime juice, pureed onion, salt, and tabasco or chili sauce. The sangrita and tequila will come in separate shot glasses, perhaps with lime slices and should be sipped alternately, without hurry. First the tequila, then the chilled sangrita.
Day(s) of the Dead
Dress macabre for a wacky festival such as the Days of the Dead from end of October to November 2nd.
Day(s) of the Dead (Dias de los Muertos) is perhaps Mexico’s most illuminating festival, celebrating death and departed relatives with enormous gusto, colour and fearless respect. It runs from October 31 – to November 2, unofficially combining Halloween with All Saints Day (Nov 1) and All Souls Day (Nov 2).
In key towns, such as Oaxaca, Mixquic (south of Mexico City) and Janitzio island, Lake Pátzcuaro in Michoacán (west of Mexico City), death oriented products such as sugar skulls, bread bones, dancing skeletons and all manner of creepy costumes hit the streets days before the event.
During the Day of the Dead festivals – both days and nights – cheerful strolling musicians, spooky costumed kids and sand artists encourage donations while homes and churches display altars artistically loaded with fruit, flowers, candles and favourite foods of the visiting souls. Nightfall sees family groups heading for cemeteries with guitars and picnic hampers for a meet ‘n’ greet ‘n’ party with the dead, a refreshing attitude to an irresistible event that most westerners avoid even contemplating, let alone celebrating.
Palenque, Chiapas state. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.
Explore the more distant, less busy and much more atmospheric Maya site of Palenque still partially embedded in the jungle of Chiapas state, southern Mexico, and near to a couple of other less-visited but increasingly popular sites such as Bonampak and Yaxchilan.
Palenque isn’t huge – much of it is still tangled in green – but houses fine examples of Mayan artistry, architecture and bas-reliefs, as well as a small museum and spectacular waterfalls a short distance away.
Take one of the Tequila Trains from Guadalajara for a day of serious drinking – on the train, while visiting the refinery, while watching various entertainments and on the train home. But the morning after. . . Ayyy!
Copper Canyon in southwest Mexico, Chihuahua state.
Parque Nacional Barranca del Cobre
Barranca del Cobre is a group of six huge canyons displaying a copper/green color in southwest Mexico. Copper Canyon is larger and in places deeper than the USA’s Grand Canyon. The canyons were created by six rivers which merge into Rio Fuerte and then terminate in the Gulf of California.
Different activities are possible in this series of canyons but top of the list are hiking, mountain-biking, horseback riding and white-water rafting, though less energetic tourists enjoy driving around and visiting viewpoints.
Getting there is half the fun on the famously scenic rail trip from Chihuahua (or from Los Mochis on the Gulf of California). The train, Ferrocarril Chihuahua Pacífico (aka El Chepe), runs once a day, in each direction. Get off at Bahuichivo station and take a bus to Cerocahui town.
Copper Canyon has an alpine climate with comfortable temperatures from October to November, March to April.
Monarch Butterfly Reserve
Monarch butterflies looking for sleepover in the Mexican highlands.
The massive Reserva Mariposa Monarca in Michoacán state sees the arrival of millions of monarch butterflies annually from late October to early November, looking for a warm winter spot after flying from as far away as Canada. They form clusters on branches of fir trees, lifting off when the forest gets warm then settling on the forest floor during the heat of the day. Apparently February afternoons are the best time to visit.
Grab some beach time, perhaps with a snorkel or compressed-air tank thrown in. Choose between the Pacific Coast (more established, bigger beaches but down south in what is touted as the Oaxaca Riviera there are some terrific, less spoilt destinations offering a low-rise lifestyle) or the Maya Riviera (better coral, especially off Cozumel island, and access to ancient Maya ruins, but quite overbuilt with mega-resorts).
Apart from large stretches of soft sand and warm waters, Mexican beaches offer laid back lifestyles, good facilities, excellent food and drink at reasonable prices, lively evenings with music and/or dance if you care for it, superb coral in some places and nearby ancient sites in others. Beaches on the Pacific side are equally popular such as Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta’s gay scene, and the less built up coasts of the Oaxaca Riviera where accommodation is low-rise, surf is high and turtles rule the waves.
On the negative side some beaches are overrun by package tourists, souvenirs are clichéd and poor quality, petty theft happens and local service people can be sour and unhelpful if things go wrong or tips are not evident. Still, that’s the rich tapestry of life.
Mazunte turtle nesting area on Mexico’s southern Pacific coast. Photo by Slaudio Giovenzana.
Best weather, November-April
Worst: June-October (wet, hot); the Yucatan Peninsula is especially susceptible to hurricanes during this season but even if the big one doesn’t strike the seas around may be rough and unclear, the skies cloudy and the beaches less pleasant to hang out on, though prices will be down.
March/April sees US College kid overload during the Spring Break (various schools, various dates).
Ayy! Arriba! Vamonos!