Viva Mexico: The Ultimate South-of-the-Border Travel Guide for Californians
(Courtesy of @rojo_rodrigo_)

Viva Mexico: The Ultimate South-of-the-Border Travel Guide for Californians


The holidays are over and the winter doldrums have set in. Who's ready for a vacation?

Mexico is lovely this time of year—and most times of year, really, so long as you can manage to avoid hurricane season at the country's coastal destinations. Here are 10 itineraries to get you inspired and planning for your next trip.

Isla Holbox: The New Tulum?

The dock at Punto Coco is a popular spot for taking in the sunset—or watching the storm roll in—on Isla Holbox.

(Chloé Hennen)

How many times have you heard it? You have to go to Tulum. The off-grid bohemian enclave on the Mayan Riviera sits about a two-hour drive from the tourist trap that is Cancun, making it a perfect semi-secret escape for fashionable wanderers, yogis, and wellness devotees looking for untouched swaths of beach and hippie-chic jungle stays where they can chill out without the crowd.

But word got out, as word has a way of doing, and tourism has blown up in Tulum in recent years, shrinking the distance between it and Cancun, at least in terms of the vibe. Since when was Tulum's pockmarked beach road—once suited only to flip-flopped daytime strolls and devil-may-care rickety bike rides back to your room after late nights by the grill at Hartwood—lit up by police car lights patrolling the once-quaint ice cream hut that now attracts stiletto-clad night moves with thumping hip-hop and the mezcal-fueled chant of I Scream Bar! (Shudder.) If you got to Tulum way back when—or even just a few years ago—a trip today will likely leave you longing for the quieter times (even if all those green juices and organic cotton maxi dresses did feel a bit contrived). But if you ask around, where's the next Tulum, there's a word being whispered from well-traveled lips: Holbox.

Pronounced ole-bosh, Holbox—actually Isla Holbox—is often likened to an off-grid-ier version of off-grid Tulum. Much quieter. Less hip. More authentic. It's like Tulum was before, they say. But it is it The New Tulum?

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The Spa Life at Los Cabos' Grand Velas Resort

The hydrotherapy experience at Se Spa begins at the heavenly subterranean pool.

(Courtesy of Grand Velas Los Cabos)

As the elevator doors open to the subterranean spa at Grand Velas Los Cabos resort, a quiet wow might slip from the lips of even the most seasoned traveler in search of first-class relaxation.

Like the tomb of some ancient Mayan warrior or demigod gone to the afterlife to partake of the mystical waters, its stone walls rise high, cut by slivers of windows that let in just enough sunshine to keep the soul light; and the serene pool appears so sure of its own healing powers that, for a moment, you might consider drinking from it.

It is here that we begin the spa's signature seven-step hydrotherapy journey—one so transportive and affordable that only a fool wouldn't book it again for the very next day. But pause here, because it's worth the interjection to restate that we are, indeed, in Los Cabos, that infamous Baja Peninsula home to tequila-soaked Cabo Wabo nights. But as many a regular to this part of Mexico already knows, Cabo has made great strides in recent years to distance itself from its Sammy Hagar heyday, now offering more sophisticated adult luxuries. And at Grand Velas, the AAA Five Diamond resort that opened in late 2016, life is a buffet of elevated indulgences.

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Ensenada: Baja California’s Grown-up Destination for Cheap Eats and Outdoor Fun

Local ingredients meet globally inspired flavors at Ensenada restaurant Manzanilla.

(Courtesy of Manzanilla)

Most Californians' first encounter with Mexico comes in college, courtesy of the alcohol-drenched border towns of Baja California—whether it's tequila shots in Tijuana or partying at Papas & Beer in Rosarito.

But continue south to Ensenada, and northern Baja's coast-hugging town surprises with inspired (but supremely affordable) eats, a growing craft beer scene, and outdoor adventure that extends beyond bacchanalian excess on the beach.

Plus, it serves as an excellent launching pad for explorations of nearby Valle de Guadalupe's burgeoning wine country. Follow this guide for what to do in Ensenada—in between all of the eating and drinking, of course—plus where to stay in Baja's seaside city.

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The New Cabo: Craft fare and fashionable stays feel miles from Margaritaville

You'll feel like a fish—a very glamorous fish—in the infinity pool at Hotel El Ganzo.

(Courtesy of Hotel El Ganzo)

Like a magical mix of Joshua Tree and the Hawaiian islands, Los Cabos is where a sunny, cactus- and palm tree-filled paradise meets the turquoise Sea of Cortez.

If the town's party image has given you pause, you'll be pleased to know that the overly tanned spring breakers are fading into the background. Replacing the neon-colored drinks and generic mega resorts are fashionable boutique hotels, inventive craft cocktails, and a modern Baja cuisine that's forcing travelers to sit up and take notice.

Just a three-hour flight from SFO, Los Cabos refers to the two southernmost capes and adjoining towns of the Baja California peninsula, the most recognized being Cabo San Lucas. Yet, much of the recent action—spurred by reconstruction following the devastating Hurricane Odile in 2014—is happening outside the famed party zone.

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Heritage, Crafts + Artisanal Mezcal in Oaxaca

(Courtesy of

Oaxaca is on the tip of every wanderluster's tongue these days. Far from the beaten paths of Cabo and a departure from beloved Tulum, Oaxaca promises something of Mexico many of us haven't quite tasted yet. Authenticity feels like the word.

You don't need to remember the seven regions of Oaxaca or speak one of its 57 indigenous languages; you can easily appreciate its 1,500-year history in the Zapotec pyramids, the agave-studded desert, the otherworldly mineral springs and the gilded cathedrals that provide the backdrop for its vibrant culture. Here you'll find artisan villages packed with maker families going back generations as well as modern art galleries; you'll taste heirloom masa and sample the menus of master chefs. National Geographic has designated the colonial city in southwestern Mexico as one of the top places to travel in 2018 and, as soon as you walk down its cobblestone streets, you'll understand why.

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Valle de Guadalupe: Ridiculously Good Vino, Fresh Eats + Stylish Stays 

Get the best of all worlds—terra firma and the galaxy beyond—by booking a bubble at Campera Hotel Burbuja.

(Courtesy of Campera)

Mexico is known for its flavors—simmering chipotle-tinged meats, Mission-style burritos dipped in six kinds of salsas, shaken agave margaritas and cerveza that tastes like a summer vacation. But in recent years, the country is tempting the palate in a new way, putting it on the map alongside the world's most famous wine regions in Italy, France, Argentina, Napa and Sonoma.

Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California's emerging wine region, has quickly become a buzzy destination getaway for its Instagram-worthy wineries, delicious pours, and blossoming gastronomic scene, all at a price that won't break the bank. Best of all, it's easily accessible—we recommend a quick flight down to San Diego, where you can rent a car and drive just a couple hours the rest of the way.

There's more than one way to taste the valley, whether you're looking for a quick weekend escape or an extended vacation (if time permits, the charming coastal city of Ensenada is less than an hour south). If you're the kind who likes to take advantage of the established relationships with winemakers and comfy transportation that comes with a tried-and-true tour group, Baja-based Club Tengo Hambre, a food tour collective, does it right, offering pick-up in San Diego, with onboard mezcal service en route to the wineries and delicious, authentic meals. If you're more into the roads less traveled, DIY it and take the time to explore the valley's endless hidden treasures and taco stands.

Most wineries and restaurants are open year-round, but spring and autumn sojourns are advised for avoiding summertime crowds (not to mention temps in the mid-90s), and off-season travel also means better rates at the cool hotels and easier reservations at the trendiest eateries.

We'd be remiss not to mention that the U.S. State Department's recent travel advisory warned deeply against travel to five Mexican states, citing those age-old fears of alcohol-related incidents, theft and cartel violence. But low warning levels for both Baja California and Baja California Sur mean you can travel here as you always should no matter where you go—by simply being aware and cautious. With more than a half-million wine-thirsty visitors venturing into the valley each year, and the hotel and restaurant industries booming, the region has an interest in keeping visitors safe.

Pack your sunnies and browse our guide for where to eat, sleep and, of course, drink.

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Tulum: Super Food, Dreamy Beach & Blissfully Boho Vibes

Sweat out all your demons in a traditional Mayan temezcal.

(Courtesy of Yaan Wellness)

Tulum is a not-so-hidden gem on the Yucatan Peninsula—a popular retreat among Bay Area regulars as well as the international gypset.

But the quintessential bohemian beach town—an hour drive from Cancun Airport in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo—retains a low-key vibe thanks to its off-the-grid status (there's no flushing the toilet paper and cell service is scarce), commitments to sustainability and wellness, laid-back locals, and the casually cool philosophy that less is always more. Here you'll find none of the selfie-taking, tequila-swilling spring breakers that make nearby Cancun a destination; Tulum is all about yoga, eating right, and master the art of unplugging.

All of this is to say nothing of the fine white sand and crystal clear turquoise waters of the Caribbean coastline, the awe-inspiring ancient Mayan ruins, obsession-worthy eats, seriously stylish stays, spas, and plenty of water sports. It's the kind of quiet paradise that will draw you back again and again.

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Chef Gabriela Camara's Guide to Mexico City

El Centro, Mexico City.

(Courtesy of

Mexico City has evolved as a bucket list destination—but San Franciscans know this already—it seems everyone is talking about CDMX (formerly known as DF).

If you are among the last of your friends to visit the new North American capital of cool, cut through the tourist hoopla with this itinerary from native celebrity chef Gabriela Camara, who was the culinary darling of CDMX, home to her much beloved restaurant, Contramar, well before Hayes Valley foodies began lining up for stylish, authentic Mexican fare at Cala.

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Chiapas: Where modern amenities meet ancient ruins and splendid nature

Church of San Juan Chamula in Chiapas.

(Guy la Page, via Flickr)

Home to dense jungles, towering waterfalls, 16th century colonial cities with modern amenities, Mayan ruins, and intact native cultures, Chiapas is on the verge of becoming Mexico's hottest travel destination.

Situated just north of Guatemala, Chiapas is Mexico's southernmost state. Its tropical climate, deep culture, and recent improvements to its infrastructure make it a destination to put at the top of your list—especially if you've been-there-done-that in Oaxaca and Tulum.

So if you're tired of friends telling you that you should have seen Sayulita, Puerto Vallarta, San Miguel de Allende, or Cabo before they all got popular, you'll want to head to Chiapas sooner rather than later to avoid the inevitable coming of the hordes of tourists, chain restaurants, and timeshare salespeople.

Whether you're into adventure travel or modern luxury, here's why you should move Chiapas to the top of your bucket list.

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Sayulita: Pilates and Wellness by the Beach

Relax, release, and restore with Kelsey Wiedenhoefer, Bay Area–based Pilates instructor extraordinaire, over four nights at Don Bonito Residencia Tropical in Sayulita. Daily movement, meditation, sound healing, a private fascial stretch session, and more surprises await. // Early bird pricing is available through February 20th. For more information, go to

*Thank you to our partners at Move With Experiences.

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