Huerta Los Tamarindos in Cabo gives guests an appreciation of traditional cuisine, including tamales // © 2015 Thinkstock
Feature image (above): Tulum provides authentic Maya experiences not far from Cancun. // © 2015 Huerta Los Tamarindos
Sure, everyone knows about the shimmering sands and warm waters that grace Mexico’s top tourism destinations. Most people know about the fabulous hotels that line the beaches, too. But not everyone is aware that it’s possible to have authentic encounters with the “real Mexico” while visiting these vacation hot spots.
Given the rise of experiential travel, it’s no surprise that travelers are increasingly looking for ways to connect with off-the-beaten-track experiences in Mexico and beyond. And while it’s gotten easier than ever to immerse oneself in local culture and get away from throngs of tourists, a little research and insider information can go a long way. Here are a few ways to add an authentic angle to that next trip.
Acapulco and the Sun Triangle
Acapulco, Mexico’s first true jet-set vacation destination, is now marketed together with Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo and Taxco as the Sun Triangle, which opens up new ways for travel agents to incorporate unique experiences into sun-filled escapes.
“Acapulco is a legendary resort town that hasn’t lost its authentic Mexican charm,” said Sergio Salmeron, tourism minister for the state of Guerrero. “Although the destination has long been recognized as a tropical getaway, with posh hotels, international cuisine and a pulsating nightlife, its diversity is what truly captivates travelers.”
Connecting clients with regional cuisine is one way to add authentic flavor to a vacation. In Acapulco and elsewhere in the state of Guerrero, one beloved dish is pozole, a hearty, hominy-based specialty. This meal is so treasured that it even has its own day: Jueves pozolero (pozole Thursday). That’s when hungry locals and savvy visitors head to restaurants such as El Jaguar, where seven different types of pozole and other regional specialties are on the menu.
Travelers can find a new opportunity to explore the region’s rich mining history in Taxco, a picturesque city made wealthy centuries ago from silver mining. Last year, workers at Hotel Posada de la Mision discovered a long-hidden mine, constructed nearly 500 years ago, while remodeling the hotel bar. Today, it’s billed as the only mine in Taxco that visitors can actually enter.
Communities Near Cancun
Large-scale hotels, beautiful beaches and world-class dining and nightlife (not to mention tons of airline service) helped make Cancun the biggest vacation destination in Mexico. But this much-visited paradise is also an ideal base for interacting with communities that date back thousands of years, long before the term “mass market” was coined.
“One of the greatest things about Cancun is that even though it’s a widely known destination that is visited time and time again, you can always find something new,” said Jesus Almaguer, CEO of Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Aside from the beaches and the beautiful hotels, Cancun offers plenty of Maya culture and immersive experiences for the whole family — you just have to get out of your hotel to see it.”
Almaguer is among the travel industry insiders noticing greater demand for authentic cultural immersion.
“We understand that tourists are looking to have more experiences than ever before,” he said. “So the tourism product in Cancun keeps growing with them in mind, offering experiential travel with real Maya villages or other activities, such as learning to cook traditional Mexican/Yucatecan meals and sampling the different music and traditional dances of Mexico.”
Unlike many other ancient indigenous groups in the Americas, Maya civilization still exists, and visitors can learn firsthand about its people, language and cuisine. The easiest way to access Maya culture is through tour operators such as Alltournative, which combines visits to archaeological sites at Coba and Tulum with stops at Maya villages like Tres Reyes, where visitors sit down for a Maya meal of chicken prepared with traditional ingredients. Visitors also partake in a blessing ceremony led by a Maya shaman.
Cuisine and “Magic” in Los Cabos
Food is a tasty way to connect with Mexican culture in Los Cabos, where Huerta Los Tamarindos, an organic farm and restaurant in San Jose del Cabo, provides hands-on appreciation of traditional cuisine. Farm tours and cooking classes allow participants to learn about both Mexican fare and organic practices as they prepare their own lunch or dinner.
Visitors to Los Cabos can also experience a bit of “magic.” Todos Santos, which is designated one of Mexico’s more than 80 Pueblos Magicos (Magical Towns) because of its historical significance, is just an hour’s drive from Cabo San Lucas.
The town, which was founded in 1724, offers a fascinating glimpse of its earlier roles as a Spanish mission town and large-scale sugar-cane producer. Many of the area’s historical buildings are open to the public, especially during the Todos Santos Historic House Tour, which takes place at least once per year and benefits the nonprofit Palapa Society.
“Los Cabos is great for selling one-of-a-kind experiences due to its diversity, distinct desert climate and close proximity to many unique offerings,” said Luis Palacios, commercial director for Los Cabos Tourism Board. “From certified organic farms and the best fishing conditions in all of Mexico to a spectacular national marine park, Cabo Pulmo, and the ‘magic town’ of Todos Santos, Los Cabos is able to provide travelers with authentic and unforgettable experiences.”
Real Mexico in Mazatlan
Mazatlan, known as the “Pearl of the Pacific,” offers a variety of ways to experience authentic Mexico, according to Carlos Berdegue, CEO of El Cid Resorts and vice president of the Mazatlan Hotel Association.
“Since Mazatlan was established in the 1500s and the city was built in the early 1800s, there are a lot of stories to tell and many sites to visit,” Berdegue said. “Another important side of this is culture and traditions. Mazatlecos love culture. Two large festivals take place every year: Mazatlan Cultural Festival and Spring Cultural Festival. Another event based on traditions is Mazatlan International Carnival, the largest family carnival in the world.”
In addition to special events, Mazatlan hosts music and theatrical performances year-round at the beautifully restored Angela Peralta Theater, which attracts well-heeled locals and vacationers alike.
For a very different local experience, head to the informal, open-air fish market at Playa Norte (North Beach), located at the Malecon waterfront promenade near downtown. Nearly every day between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., locals — including families and restaurateurs — congregate on this stretch of sand to buy fresh fish directly from the fishermen’s small panga boats. The gathering provides great photo opportunities.
Unique Puerto Vallarta
The many beaches, sophisticated dining and fine-art scene in the state of Jalisco are enough to fill any vacation itinerary. But travelers who head outside the city of Puerto Vallarta will find a range of opportunities for authentic activities that take participants back in time.
Boutique Hotels Keep It Real
Seeking out hotels that offer unique and authentic Mexican experiences and features can add a lot to any vacation. Mexico Boutique Hotels has a number of noteworthy properties that are a far cry from “big box” hotels.
Hacienda San Angel, for example, is set in a series of traditional former homes in Puerto Vallarta (including Richard Burton’s former vacation getaway). It’s graced with antiques and winding paths and gardens that make it easy for guests to feel they are living in a private paradise.
At Matlali, set in the hills of Riviera Nayarit, Huichol decor adds local flavor, while the nearby artisan market in La Cruz offers unique shopping opportunities every Sunday. And on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, Blue Sky hotel incorporates pre-Hispanic design elements in each room — an especially appropriate effect, considering the property’s location just 15 minutes from the archaeological ruins of Tulum.
Some boutique hotels host events that connect guests with local culture. Capella Ixtapa, for example, is a host hotel for Sabor + Vino, a food and wine festival that takes place every May. Cooking demonstrations and tasting dinners are among the activities the event offers.