Pack Your Bags and Leave for Mexico
By Sejal Parikh

The gruesome murders reported in the media are no reason to skip a visit to the land that hasn’t just blessed us with Aztecs, tacos, sombreros and tequila (Lord, bless them for ‘that’) but also, Salma Hayek!

The land of ancient pyramids, imposing coastlines and tequila, Mexico is an underrated travel destination eclipsed by the stereotypes that can only be defied by an actual visit. One of the greatest civilizations in history, Mexico is a fascinating amalgam of Mesoamerican cultures, Spanish heritage and contemporary artistic endeavors shaped over a period of more than three millennia. From the cactus-strewn stretches of golden sand in the north to the palm-smothered beaches lined by Mayan villages in the south, Mexico is a magnificent country that offers every kind of traveler his ‘fun.’ While the thrill-seeker can boast of braving the searing heat of the deserts, tramping hurricane-battered coats and scaling volcanoes, the food connoisseur can sample a sophisticated cuisine that blends the indigenous Mesoamerican fare with elements brought in by Spanish conquistadors. The curious self-improver can sate himself with visits to the giant pyramids, the resplendent colonial churches and the veritable museums. The escapist can content himself with the sensual overdose emanating from the city landscape. Either which way, Mexico is teeming with constant surprises for anybody who dares to look beyond the non-stop stream of grisly headlines and drops by for individual discovery.

While a first-time visit merits an inevitable trip to the misunderstood capital- an ancient city built over a filled-in lake, replete with Aztec canals, pyramids, chic eateries, restored colonial landmarks and Frida Kahlo’s old studio- it is Mérida that deserves all the attention from a cultural buff. A four-hour drive from Cancún, this small colonial city preserves the Mayan heritage in all its splendor. From 17th century cathedrals that are teeming with life on weekends to luxurious boutique hotels that allow for several days’ worth of exceptional daytrips, Mérida makes for an underrated, yet exceptional add-on to any itinerary that includes the sand, surf and sun!

San Miguel de Allende, the famed Once Upon a Time in Mexico stunner, also remains an obvious choice on the list as it is a UNESCO World Heritage site dotted with delightful handicraft shops, botanic gardens, organic farmer restaurants (that serve up to-die-for Mexican cuisine) and luxe guesthouses alongside of opulent 17th century cathedrals. Guanajuato, a striking hill town nearby de Allende, is a tourist-favorite best visited during Festival Cervantino- an October annual cultural that serves up modern art, punk music, ballet folklórico and mariachis on a cheery platter. The brightly colored alleyways of Guanajuato are perfect for anyone who wants to visit Mexico without missing out on its colonial legacy and cultural coin. Also, the mummy museum in the town attracts major hordes.

Speaking of museums, Mexico City has bagged the title of ‘the city with most museums,’ beating out worthy contenders like New York and Paris. While it is impossible to visit all of them (in a single trip), the hourglass shaped Soumaya Museum (the most visited museum in the world), designed by Mexican architect Fernando Romero, is a must-visit with works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse and Degas gracing its hallways. Museo Subacuatico De Arte, an underwater marvel designed by Jason deCaires Taylor and Jaime Gonzalez Cano in 2009, is also a recommended museum for visitation, built four meters underwater and accessible by snorkel or glass tour.

Twenty miles north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico’s famed hidden beach, Playa Del Amor awaits those who wish to enjoy a dip into the cerulean waters and spot sea turtles, dolphins, tropical fish, manta rays, and the occasional humpback whale, as the golden rays of the sun stream through for stealing a kiss. On the other hand, the cenotes of northern Yucatán– especially  X’keken and Samula – once considered sacred gateways to the Mayan underworld, also remain popular choices for a refreshing dip. The sunlit caverns offer a surreal experience for those willing to take the plunge. The Highway 1 journey, an iconic road trip from the US border to the southern tip of Baja California, is a choice for those unafraid of the-road-not-(so oft)-taken so they can enjoy Mexico’s vast deserts, empty beaches and isolated mountain ranges under star-laden skies.

Apart from these, Guachimontones (the circular pyramid from the Teuchitian period), the City of Books at Biblioteca Vasconcelos (a compilation of 5 mini-libraries that houses over 470000 books) , Puebla (a  mini-Mexican colonial wonder), Isla Cozumel (Mexico’s Caribbean jewel-isle), Baja California’s ancient caves and the Lacandon Jungle (and its dense rainforest)  are just some arresting sites on an endless list of wonders in a land that is so much more than margaritas, piñas coladas and scuba diving.

Shift focus to food- and you should be prepared to kick all your preconceptions about Mexican food to the curb. There is little resemblance to ‘Mexican’ fare served in other parts of the world and whether you are grabbing a bite on-the-go from fast food joints or dining at a restaurant, you shall be spoilt for choice from breakfast to lunch and then, to siesta and dinner. Whether you are doling out some dough for sweet sins- think pan dulce (sweet rolls and pastries in a basket, usually consumed at breakfast)- or simply, gorging on the standards- think frijoles charrostacos de pastor, quesadillas, tamales and esquites, Mexico will leave your taste buds wanting more.

Despite the inescapable influence of the States and an intimate relationship with the Spanish-speaking world, Mexico remains resolutely individualistic, with large trails of its remarkably distinct regional flavor bouncing off its streets.  Whether it is the cowboy culture of the northern sands or the Mesoamerican traditions in the south, Mexico stamps an indelible seal of authenticity on the traveler’s soul with its muddy bullfights at village fiestas, tempting smells from taco carts, a vibrant art and music scene and so much more.   If your travel goals for the new year involve visiting a place that’s fabulously varied and exhausting-ly enjoyable, Mexico overshoots the cut!

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