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Mexico See And Do

Hotel Photo
Acapulco
Acapulco
Mexico

Acapulco looks its best after dark, when lights twinkle like constellations in the hills framing Bahía de Acapulco. (Under the harsh sunlight, Acapulco tends to look like the overcrowded and rather run-down city it is.) Old Acapulco, at the northwest side of the bay, is the most interesting neighborhood to explore. Here, sidewalk cafés edge the shaded zócalo, and there's a traditional bandstand where musicians occasionally play. The star-shaped Fuerte de San Diego at the edge of Old Acapulco towers above the cruise-ship pier and houses a must-see nautical museum, the Museo Histórico de Acapulco (Calle Hornitos at Calle Morelos; 52-744-482-3828). Behind the fort, the Casa de Máscaras contains a private collection of more than 500 ceremonial masks (Calle Morelos; 52-744-486-5577). It's best to take a tour to see all of Acapulco's far-flung historic buildings and the small archaeological site of Palma Sola, 15 miles to the north of town. For private or group tours, contact Constellation Services (Placa Condesa; 52-744-484-1988).—Maribeth Mellin

Alameda Central
Between Avenida Hidalgo and Avenida Juárez
Centro
Mexico City
Mexico 01000

This swath of green has been the place to promenade in Mexico City since the 16th century, when it was created. For evidence, check out the Museo Mural Diego Rivera at the eastern end of the Alameda, where you can see a 50-foot-long painting of people strolling through this very park. As is often the case in his large-scale works, Rivera includes a portrait of his wife, artist Frida Kahlo. It might be his frankest depiction of their relationship; the painting shows a maternal Frida holding the hand of a ten-year-old Diego (52-55-5512-0754; open Tues.–Sun. 10–6).

Archaeological Sites
Cancún
Mexico

Long before modern pyramids rose beside the sea, the Maya built temples and homes beside the Caribbean, using the region as a stopover for traders and pilgrims traveling between ancient cities and trading posts. In Cancún, restored Mayan temples rise beside golf fairways at El Rey (Blvd. Kukulcán, Km 18). Located smack in the middle of the Zona Hotelera, El Rey serves as a reminder of Cancún's roots as a trading post at the edge of the peninsula. Tour guides await visitors at the entryway and describe the site's various plazas and pyramids, which feel remote and secluded despite the proximity to high-rise hotels and golf fairways. About 20 minutes north of Cancún, perfectly restored Mayan temples and pyramids can be seen at El Meco. The recently opened site, on the road between Puerto Juárez and Punta Sam, faces Mujeres Bay and was the way station for pilgrims sailing to Isla Mujeres. Lizards are more common than humans around the 14 structures, some showing bits of paintings from the post-Classic period. Cancún seems a million miles away. Neither El Meco nor El Rey offer formal tours, so you'll have to show up on your own and hire the guides that gather onsite. Expect to pay about $10.

Beaches
Cozumel
Mexico

Hurricane Wilma hovered over Cozumel in October 2005, blowing sand out to sea and blasting the fragile limestone coastline and coral reefs. The wide white beaches fronting hotels on the northwest coast, including Playa Azul and Playa Santa Pilar, are gradually reappearing, however. WaveRunners, kayaks, and busy bartenders are back at the largest beach clubs—like Paradise (Carretera Costera Sur, Km 14.5, 52-987-871-9010, www.paradisecozumel.com) and Mr. Sancho's (Carretera Costera Sur, Km 15, 52-987-876-1629, www.mrsanchos.com)—and most hotels in the south.

The beaches on Cozumel's wild, easterly coast, such as Playa Bonita and Punta Morena, fared better during Wilma. Swimming off the east coast can be risky because of swift currents and strong surf, but there's no danger in lingering at beachside cafés like Coconuts (near Punta Morena) or Mezcalito's (intersection of East Coast Road with Av. Benito Juarez) for cold cervezas and fried fish—as long as you're with a designated driver.

Beaches
Cancún
Mexico

Celebrations worthy of a World Cup victory rocked the city when Cancún's beaches reopened in April 2006. Shortly after Hurricane Wilma struck, a Belgian company was hired to pump sand and re-create the coastline along the figure-seven-shaped Zona Hotelera. The results were amazing, with beaches far bigger than before. Unfortunately, phase two of the sand reclamation never happened, and the beaches are washing away. Sand is scarce in several areas, especially along the unprotected eastern coastline facing the open sea. Several excellent hotels like the Ritz-Carlton and Le Méridien have lost significant beach space and often have to rely on expanded decks and pool areas to keep guests happy. However, sand levels change with the seasons and the tides, so be sure to check on conditions before you book. The beaches are better on the north side of the zone facing Isla Mujeres and on the southeast coast near Punta Nizúc.

The sand that does exist isn't up to Cancún's previous standards; it's no longer talcum-powder white and cool on bare feet, but rather a pale tan with a few shells and some seaweed. Still, it leads down to what is some of the clearest, bluest water of any major resort area in the Caribbean. The beaches edging the southern leg of the Hotel Zone have the most wave action; Playa Delfines, for example, is a hot spot for local boogie boarders and body surfers. The beaches facing Isla Mujeres are bathtub-calm; of these, Playa Tortugas draws families with kids who zip around in WaveRunners or straddle banana boats (long yellow tubes pulled by a motorboat). Sea grass, which grows thick in summer, can create a somewhat slimy situation at northern beaches near the Embarcadero, such as Playa Langosta and Playa Linda.

Hotel Photo
Beaches in and around Acapulco and Zihuatanejo
Mexico

Zihuatanejo's long Playa la Ropa has all the beach musts: sand, sunbathers, shacks renting everything from lounge chairs and umbrellas to dive gear, plus a cluster of informal seafood restaurants. To get away from it all, take a boat from the municipal pier in downtown to Playa las Gatas, where a breakwater keeps the sea fairly calm and clear. Hiking trails behind the beach lead to stunning views from El Faro (the lighthouse).

Acapulco's beaches are less rewarding. Most tourists stick with parasailing, jet skiing, and sunbathing on Playa Condesa along the Costera, but Playa Puerto Marqués, just south of town, is more fun. Local families gather here en masse on weekends, when the beach takes on a festive air, with vendors hawking silver and sombreros and grandparents playing with the kiddies in small waves. The scene is far more tranquil at Pie de la Cuesta, about six miles northwest of Old Acapulco on the other side of the bay. Set amid banana and mango groves, the small settlement sits between Laguna Coyuca, a large inland lagoon, and a long beach facing the open sea. The waves are rough here, so it's safer just to enjoy the sound of the surf. Evenings are spectacular; take a seat at the small, palapa-shaded café on the beach and watch the sun sink into the sea.—Maribeth Mellin

Hotel Photo
Beaches In and Around Puerto Vallarta
Mexico

Puerto Vallarta and its Pacific Coast neighbors have so many outstanding beaches and bays that beachcombers could spend years exploring all of the paradisiacal coves. The most happening beach in Puerto Vallarta is Playa de los Muertos, on the south side of downtown. Locals gather at seafront cafés and jog the mile-long trail beside the sand, while beach lovers play on everything from WaveRunners to boogie boards. Escapists prefer the small coves around Playa Conchas Chinas south of town and the jungle-backed sands at Yelapa, accessible only by boat. Water taxis depart for Yelapa from Boca de Tomatlán, about three miles south of Puerto Vallarta.

Exclusive resorts claim some of the finest beaches north and south of Puerto Vallarta, while barefoot, bikini-clad types congregate at beach bars on long stretches of beige sand in Bucerias, Sayulita, and San Pancho, all north of Puerto Vallarta in the Riviera Nayarit.—Maribeth Mellin

Hotel Photo
Beaches in the Riviera Maya
Riviera Maya
Mexico

Hotels and theme parks now claim many of the Riviera Maya's finest beaches, but there are still a few spots where sandy roads lead to crystal-clear caletas (coves), and where the fish outnumber humans. Yalkú, just north of the town of Akumal, has a barefoot beach restaurant, a gorgeous cove where snorkelers swim among darting angelfish, and a small nearby campground. There's also a small hotel and RV campground along the half-moon cove at Paamul; walk a few yards down the beach for blissful privacy (Carretera 307, Km 85; 52-984-875-1051; www.paamulcabanas.com). In Playa del Carmen, hip beach clubs where DJs spin beach and Latin house music for sun-worshippers are clustered along the sand north of town. Mamita's started the trend and is still going strong (Calle 28 Norte; 52-984-803-2867).

Tulum has the best beaches of all just south of the Mayan ruins. Spread your towel near Mezzanine and watch the kiteboarders sail above the afternoon waves, or slip into calm coves beside Zamas (location of ¡Que Fresco! restaurant) and the Ana y José hotel. Sea turtles nest in summer and fall in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, where they're safely protected from bright lights and human hordes.

Hotel Photo
Beaches of Baja California
Mexico

Los Cabos is blessed with fine beaches on both sides of its narrow tip, though few places are safe enough for swimming. Playa Médano on the Sea of Cortez in Cabo San Lucas is the resort area's most popular beach, packed with bars, vendors selling straw hats, and stands renting kayaks and WaveRunners. The waters here are normally calm enough for swimming. Glass-bottom boats and water taxis depart for Playa del Amor from beneath the natural rock arch at land's end, El Arco. There are no facilities on this small patch of sand, but swimming and snorkeling with sea lions are both superb when tides are low.

A few resorts along the Corridor on the Sea of Cortez provide man-made coves for swimming. The waters are clear and calm, and colorful fish abound at Bahía Santa Maria and Bahía Chileno on the Corridor, popular destinations for booze cruises from Cabo San Lucas. You can reach the bays by taxi or rental car as well, but be sure to bring plenty of fresh water, snacks, and snorkel gear. Vendors sometimes sell necessities on the beach, but they aren't reliable.

Playa Palmilla just north of the One&Only Palmilla resort is the best playtime beach near San José del Cabo. Surfing is usually excellent here at Zippers, a wildly popular surf break and beach bar of the same name. Paddleboarding is becoming popular here as well; Cabo Surf Shop above the beach rents gear and offers lessons from real pros. Only those with foolhardy death wishes tackle the waters off San José's hotel zone—the constant sound of crashing waves should be a sign to stay away.

Mighty waves pound the sand and cliffs on the Pacific side of Los Cabos, where the waters close to hotels are far too rough for any form of water sports. North of Cabo San Lucas, however, the surf becomes more manageable around the small town of Pescadero on the road to Todos Santos. Locals and tourists gather at Playa Cerritos for informal parties on weekend afternoons at Cerritos Beach Club. Mario's Surf School in Todos Santos offers rentals and lessons at the best breaks in the area. Once again, swimming isn't great in these areas, but you can be a part of the beach-and-surf scene without full immersion. The Sea of Cortez beaches in La Paz, especially Playa Pichilingue and Playa Coyote, are quintessentially Mexican in style and amenities (umbrella and chair rentals, cafés in the sand serving oysters Diablo and whole fried fish). Both here and in Loreto, the beaches on nearby islands are the big attraction for snorkeling with sea lions and watching seabirds.

In Northern Baja, the Transpeninsular Highway travels along a coastline reminiscent of Big Sur, with vistas of waves crashing on craggy cliffs. The shorelines along Rosarito Beach and Ensenada are popular with surfers, who wear wetsuits much of the year, as the water here rarely rises above 65 degrees. Farther south, isolated towns and agricultural communities dot the wild coastline, and there are few hotels or pleasant swimming beaches. Instead, the sea is rough and brisk, leaving behind driftwood, shells, and all matter of flotsam from the open sea.—Maribeth Mellin

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Big-Game Fishing in Baja California

Die-hard anglers from around the globe dock in Los Cabos every fall for some of the world's most famous fishing tournaments. They race to find record-breaking marlin and sailfish, vying for million-dollar payouts for measuring and releasing 50-pound thrashing, glistening billfish. Less ambitious anglers get almost as big a thrill from catching marlin, sailfish, dorado, wahoo, tuna, and other seasonal species on fishing trips that can be booked with dozens of operators. Local fishermen from Fiesta Sportfishing, along with tournament winners Pisces Sportfishing and Picante Bluewater Sportfishing, are among those offering daily sportfishing charters from the San Lucas Marina, a prime departure port with a picturesque view of the Arch at Land's End. The fishing is equally exciting in La Paz, Loreto, and Ensenada.

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Boat Tours In and Around Puerto Vallarta

You haven't really seen Puerto Vallarta until you've sailed along Banderas Bay and captured the view of simple white casitas and multilevel mansions perched in pine green foothills beneath the jagged Sierras. Vallarta Adventures has a bit of a lock on the bay, with several day and night tours to the company's private seaside complex, complete with a spa, restaurant, nightly dance show, water activities, and a gorgeous beach. The complex is worth checking out in the daytime, when you can use the beach hammocks, chairs, and water toys and book massages at the spa. The nighttime show and dinner are large-group affairs worth attending only if you want to partake in the cruise along the bay. Simpler sailings are available at Boca de Tomatlán, where small skiffs ferry day-trippers to Yelapa and other beaches on the bay's southern shores.—Maribeth Mellin

Bullfights
Cancún Bullring
Plaza de Toros
Avenida Bonampak at Avenida Sayil
El Centro
Cancún
Mexico
Tel: 52 998 884 8372

OK, so it's not exactly Madrid or even Mexico City, but Cancún's small bullfighting ring, in the El Centro section of town, holds bullfights on Wednesday afternoons. The fights begin and end with mariachi music and rope-twirling performances by charros, Mexican cowboys decked out in huge sombreros.

Cabo San Lucas
Mexico

Burros would still be wandering the sandy streets of Cabo San Lucas if the government hadn't swooped in to create a master-planned resort region here in the 1970s. San Lucas, Baja's southernmost city, has gone from a small town with a major fishing cannery to a huge city sprawling from the Cabo San Lucas harbor east to the surfing beaches on the Pacific. It's an anything goes kind of place, with bountiful bars for everyone from fishermen to college freshmen. The area's most popular beach, Playa Médano, is lined with laid-back bars with tables in the sand. A few famous restaurants and sushi bars add a touch of class and pull in guests from the posh resorts in the Corridor, the 18-mile-long highway north to San José.

Cañada de la Virgen
Highway to Celaya (30 km from San Miguel)
Mexico

Opened to the public in 2010 after years of excavation, this pre-Hispanic site, believed to have been constructed by the Otomí, peaked between AD 540 and 1050. Seven large structures including a ball court and pyramids have been uncovered, along with 19 burial sites with jade and shell necklaces, obsidian blades, and earthenware. You can visit the site on your own with a rental car, but it's more rewarding with a driver and guide from a local tour company, such as Colonial Mexico tours (52-415-152-5794).—Maribeth Mellin

Open Mondays through Fridays 9:30 am to dusk.

Casa de Cultura Banamex
4 Calle Canal
San Miguel de Allende
Mexico
Tel: 52 415 152 1004

The Casa del Mayorazgo, one of San Miguel's grandest colonial palaces and the former home of the wealthy la Canal family, was completely restored in the 1980s by Banamex, a major supporter of Mexican architecture. Just inside the carved wooden doors are displays of black pottery from Oaxaca, Huichol masks, Guanajuato ceramics, and other collector-quality folk art. The courtyard porticos and fine stone-and-wood carvings are gorgeous examples of colonial-era San Miguel. Photos not allowed.—Maribeth Mellin

Open Mondays through Friday 9 am to 2 pm.

Hotel Photo
Cenotes
Yucatán Peninsula
Mexico

The Yucatán Peninsula is one of the flattest places on Earth—just a limestone shelf with clusters of low, scrubby jungle and a lot of imported greenery. As a result, the region's endless inches of rain collect in a series of sinkholes called cenotes, which feed vast subterranean lakes and rivers. The cenotes make for unusual adventure opportunities (swimming, snorkeling, and cave-diving). Hidden Worlds operates dive and snorkeling trips through deep, dark waters into underground caves filled with eerie formations, along with a zip-line roller coaster, cenote-rappelling, and a SkyCycle (Carretera 307, Km 243; 52-984-877-8535).

Signs for other caves and cenotes pop up all along Highway 307. Most are on ejido land (owned by a local collective) and provide some income for residents. For less than $8 you can enter El Jardín del Edén, between Playa and Tulum, and leap like Tarzan into a huge cenote—or climb down a few slippery steps to dive into cool green water, swim to one of several flat rocks, and snooze in the shade of gnarled trees. Don't be alarmed when all you see by the road is a small stick shack—the attendant inside will gladly collect your money and direct you to a large parking lot with bathrooms, showers, and changing rooms. At Manatí in Tankhah, just north of Tulum, a large, open lagoon is part of a long underwater cave system that ends at the sea. Shy manatees were once present here, but have headed to more secluded areas. Gran Cenote, west of Tulum on the road to Cobá, is a favorite spot for serious divers exploring bottomless, endless caverns with amazing rock formations.—Maribeth Mellin

Hotel Photo
Cliff Divers
Acapulco
Mexico

The daring clavadistas of Acapulco have been diving for audiences since the 1930s. They even have a union and a training regimen that quickly weed out reckless wannabes who have no business diving from 130 feet up. The cliff-diving action takes place at La Quebrada, a gorge in the cliffs above Old Acapulco. The divers first pray, then fly headfirst, arms spread in swan dives that last just a few thrilling seconds before they splash into the water in a narrow channel filled with rocks. The dives must be exactly timed to match the incoming swells of churning water. (No wonder Timex used the divers in a 1962 TV ad.) Afterward, they climb back up the gorge to mingle with their applauding fans.

Taxis and tour buses climb the steep winding road from Old Acapulco's neighborhood zócalo to the top of La Quebrada, where a few small shops sell souvenirs and cold drinks. Platforms with railings edge the gorge for spot-on views of the performance. The divers ask for donations from the audience at the viewing area (about $2 for the show), and additional tips are much appreciated. The most comfortable seats are at the La Perla restaurant in the El Mirador Hotel, which charges a cover of $5 or so (La Quebrada; 52-744-488-1155). Try to come at night, when the divers carry flaming torches on their descent.—Maribeth Mellin

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Cooking Classes at Los Tamarindos Farm
Huerta Los Tamarindos
San José del Cabo
Mexico
Tel: 52 624 105 6031
www.huertalostamarindos.com

Los Tamarindos, a vegetable and herb farm in San José del Cabo, welcomes vacationing foodies who want to learn the ins and outs of organic farming and cooking from the fields. After a glass of homemade juice or lemongrass tea beneath a canopy of mango trees, visitors are outfitted with comically oversize broad-brimmed hats and then set about learning the basics of planting, picking, and preserving produce. Participants join charismatic owner Enrique Silva in preparing a meal with freshly picked ingredients. Queso en hoja santa, a carb-free thin-crust pizza topped with asadero cheese is a typical dish, and if the timing is right, you can try the chivito regional, pepper-seasoned baked goat sourced from a nearby farm. The idyllic atmosphere of the old farmhouse and a meal served family-style on a patio overlooking the fields is well worth the labor and the wait.—Isabel Sterne

By reservation only

Hotel Photo
Coyoacán and San Ángel
Mexico City
Mexico

At the time of the Spanish conquest, Coyoacán was where Hernán Cortés set up shop after defeating the Aztecs in 1521. Today, it's a picturesque neighborhood with a much slower pace than the main city to the north. Although the area is worth visiting just for the shops selling nieves—ices in flavors such as chocolate-tuberose-gardenia or jicama-chile—Coyoacán also has a colorful weekend market that spills into the streets surrounding the main square of Plaza Hidalgo. Look for the handmade metal jewelry worn by residents of this bohemian enclave. About two miles west of Coyoacán is another colonial-era community, San Ángél. It's home to the Bazar Sábado, an art show and craft fair held every Saturday in Plaza de San Jacinto.

Cozumel Island Museum
Avenida Rafael Melgar at Calle 6 Norte
San Miguel , Cozumel
Mexico 77600
Tel: 52 987 872 0914
www.cozumelparks.com.mx/eng/parks-museum.asp

High-ceilinged rooms in one of the island's first waterfront hotels hold displays on coral reefs, Cozumel's topography, and the island's history as a Maya pilgrimage site, a pirate's den, a military base, and a tourist destination. The second-floor café has shaded tables overlooking the street and waterfront; the menu appeals to both local and gringo palates, though everyone's best off ordering traditional dishes like huevos motuleños—eggs topped with ham, peas, cheese, and salsa.

Diving + Snorkeling
Cozumel
Mexico

With easy access to the second-longest barrier reef on the planet (the Maya Reef, which extends south along the Riviera Maya all the way to Honduras) and many of the most popular dive sites in the western hemisphere, Cozumel means serious submersion—of both the snorkel and scuba varieties. Wilma did some damage to the portions of the reef near Cozumel, but most of the best dive sites here were deep enough to escape harm. At some of these sites, such as the famous Santa Rosa Wall, divers can see the same Hawksbill turtles and eagle rays that they always did. Even the shallower spots like Yucab and Palancar have made an almost complete recovery; beginners hovering just 20 feet below sea level will find themselves surrounded by gardens of sponges and swarms of tropical fish.

Several levels of scuba certification are offered by dozens of dive shops, and most hotels offer some form of resort course that allows first-timers to hover around coral formations 15 feet underwater. Top dive shops include Aqua Safari (Cozumel Palace Resort and 429 Av. Rafael Melgar; 52-987-872-0101; www.aquasafari.com), Blue Angel (Caribe Blu Hotel, Carretera Costera Sur, Km 2.2; 52-987-872-1631; www.blueangel-scuba.com), and Scuba Du (Presidente InterContinental Resort, Carretera a Chankanaab, Km 6.5; 52-987-872-9505).

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Diving and Snorkeling In and Around Puerto Vallarta
Mexico

The sea life along Mexico's Pacific Coast is more robust than in much of the Caribbean: Whales, rays, turtles, and gigantic billfish appear here regularly, and closer to shore than you might think. The best places for diving and snorkeling tend to be near islands and rocky points where the water is shallow, calm, and clear.

Some of the best diving around Puerto Vallarta is off the Islas Marietas, about a half-hour boat ride from the coast of Punta de Mita, or an hour's boat ride from downtown Puerto Vallarta. Giant manta rays, dolphins, and wahoo congregate around these islands, which are a protected marine reserve, and orcas and humpback whales can be spotted here from November through March.

Another top dive destination is Los Arcos National Marine Park, whose reefs, rock arches, caves, and tunnels lie just offshore from Mismaloya, eight miles south of Puerto Vallarta. Tours to these and many other underwater adventures are available through Chico's Dive Shop (772 Paseo Díaz Ordáz; 52-322-222-1895) and Pacific Scuba (2486 Blvd. Francisco Medina Ascencio; 52-322-209-0364), which operates as Vallarta Undersea in the Riviera Nayarit (152 Héroes de Nacozarí, Bucerias; 52-329-298-2364).—Maribeth Mellin

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Diving and Snorkeling in the Riviera Maya
Riviera Maya
Mexico

Coral reefs protect the Riviera Maya's beaches from storm surges and are littered with shipwrecks dating back to the 18th century. Nonprofit organizations have been attempting to preserve these reefs and secure government protection for them (for more information, visit the Centro Ecológico Akumal ). Diving and snorkeling are best around Akumal, where Ramon Bravo (the Jacques Cousteau of Mexico) established the headquarters for undersea explorations. The Akumal Dive Center offers dives to the reefs and advanced cave-diving classes along with the standard resort and open-water classes (52-984-875-9025). If Monet had been able to scuba dive, he probably would have loved to paint the Gorgonian Gardens at Tankah, a small settlement a few miles north of Tulum. The artist's watery touch would have perfectly portrayed the array of soft purple sea fans, alabaster brain corals, yellow pillar corals that look like giant hands, and the millions of neon-colored fish swimming above white sand. You can snorkel from shore and see it all, or dive with the aptly named Lucky Fish Dive Center (located at the Tankah Inn; 52-984-129-6774). The reefs offshore from Puerto Morelos, a town about 11 miles south of the Cancún airport, are also popular with divers for their vast schools of tropical fish.

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Diving and Snorkeling in Zihuatanejo
Mexico

The sea life along Mexico's Pacific Coast is more robust than in much of the Caribbean: Whales, rays, turtles, and gigantic billfish appear here regularly, and closer to shore than you might think. The best places for diving and snorkeling tend to be close to islands and rocky points where the water is shallow, calm, and clear.

In Zihuatanejo, the main draw for divers and snorkelers is the abundance of sea turtles, spotted eagle rays, moray eels, puffer fish, and urchins that gather offshore near Playa las Gatas. Gear rentals and boat trips are available at Carlo Scuba (Playa las Gatas; 52-755-554-6003).—Maribeth Mellin

Dolores Hidalgo
Dolores Hidalgo
Mexico

Just 25 miles north of San Miguel is the town of Dolores Hidalgo, where the first Mexican Revolution took place in 1810. These days, your first order of business should be to indulge in a favorite local treat—the ice cream that's sold in the quaint main square, and that comes in unusual flavors like tequila, corn, and shrimp. Then take in a dose of history at Museo Casa de Hidalgo and Museo de la Independencia before heading to one of the numerous Talavera pottery factories. On your way back to San Miguel, stop by La Gruta, a trio of natural pools heated by thermal hot springs.

Eco-Tours
Cancún
Mexico

Motorboats, WaveRunners, and Jet Skis zoom about the lagoons on the Hotel Zone's western shores, defying any definition of an eco-tour. But if you kayak into the mangroves early or late in the day, you'll see graceful egrets swoop to snatch fish from the water, and actually feel like you've escaped the Hotel Zone's cacophony. Aquaworld rents canoes and kayaks, and will guide you toward the quietest areas, where the Río Nizuc flows through the lagoons and into the sea (Blvd. Kukulcán, Km 15.2; 52-998-848-8300).

Eco-Tours in Baja California

Four mountain ranges bisect the Baja California Peninsula north to south, ending with the Sierra de la Giganta towering over Los Cabos. The only way to experience it all is by driving the length of the peninsula, taking at least three days each way. Todd Clement, a winner of the legendary Baja 1000 race, leads off-road tours from Ensenada and Los Cabos and a week-long dusty, thrilling ride from San Diego to Los Cabos with Wide Open Baja. Hiking, mountain biking, and Jeep tours to canyons, waterfalls, and natural springs near Los Cabos are available with Baja Wild.

Numerous prehistoric petroglyphs and murals can be found in caves in the Sierra de San Francisco near the early mission settlement of San Ignacio in central Baja. Access is limited to this UNESCO World Heritage Site with more than 400 murals; the easiest way to tour the site is with local guides from San Ignacio's Ecoturismo Kuyima. Cave painting tours are also available in Loreto and Mulege.

The Sonoran Desert claims more than 60 percent of Baja's landmass on both sides of the mountains. Mexico's largest protected area covers much of central Baja in the Vizcaíno Biosphere Preserve, including 280 miles of coastline, three gray whale sanctuaries, and a collection of petroglyphs in the mountains. Guerrero Negro, on the line between the two states, is the base for hiking, cave painting, and whale watching tours with local guides from Malarrimo Eco-Tours.

At 10,154 feet, Picacho del Diablo in the northern Sierra de San Pedro Mártir is Baja's highest peak. Part of a 170,000-acre national park, the mountains are home to a National Astronomy Observatory and several endangered condors released by scientists from the San Diego Zoo. Visited by only a few hundred hardy explorers each year, the park is reached via a 50-mile-long unpaved road off the Transpeninsular Highway south of Ensenada. Come here if you're ready to rough it. The only lodge in the region has closed, so your only option is camping out. If you'd prefer to do a day trip, Ecobaja Tours in Tijuana runs trips to the park.

Eco Tours in the Riviera Maya

Mayan villages, pristine jungles, and lagoons still exist in the Riviera Maya, despite the rampant development along the coast. One of the first companies to offer nature tours in the region, Alltournative has created mini eco-parks near Mayan communities and archeological sites and offers a combination of adventures including rappelling, zip-lining, and canoeing with lunch and time among the Maya (Carretera Federal Chetumal-Puerto Juarez, Km 287, Playa del Carmen; 52-984-803-9999, 877-437-4990). Combining culture and nature, local guides lead visitors through a series of caverns and cenotes at Río Secreto (Carretera 307, five minutes south of Playa del Carmen; 52-984-877-2377, 877-357-4242). Discovered just a few years ago, this cave system includes rock formations dating back 2.5 million years. It's now part of a community-based nature reserve emphasizing the Mayan beliefs in the underworld during underground tours. At Aktunchen (Carretera 307, Km 107; 52-984-806-4962), a local community has developed a nature park around an enormous cave system. Guides lead tours through underground passages into a cave where sunlight spotlights stalactites and stalagmites framing a deep green cenote. There's also a tree-canopy zip line and cenote-diving, and a troop of hungry monkeys quite adept at spotting snacks.—Maribeth Mellin

El Charco de Ingenio
Calle Paloma
San Miguel de Allende
Mexico
Tel: 52 415 154 4715
www.elcharco.org.mx

Named for a brilliant-green spring-fed pool in a steep, narrow canyon, this 220-acre nature reserve on the city's outskirts contains outstanding species of indigenous succulents and cacti. Resident and migratory birds are drawn to an adjacent reservoir, and butterflies abound. Scenic miradors allow visitors to take in views, from the city to the Guanajuato Mountains. The park hosts community gatherings, concerts, and nature programs for local schools.—Maribeth Mellin

Open daily dawn to sunset.

El Santuario de Atotonilco
Highway to Dolores Hidalgo (14 km from San Miguel)
Atotonilco
Mexico

In the 18th century, Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro founded this sanctuary of six adjoining chapels as a retreat site for faithful pilgrims. Although it looks rather ordinary from the outside, the interior is amazing, with every inch of the stone ceilings and walls painted in pale blue, pink, and beige frescoes depicting biblical scenes by artist Miguel Antonio Martínez de Pocasanger, who worked on the frescoes for more than 30 years under the tutelage of European artists. Sometimes called the Sistine Chapel of the Americas, the sanctuary was painstakingly restored as part of San Miguel's UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated in 2008. On the week before Semana Santa (Holy Week), the town's population grows from about 2,000 to nearly 10,000 as pilgrims arrive to take part in a procession to San Miguel's Parroquia.—Maribeth Mellin

Fall Fiestas
San Miguel de Allende
Mexico

It may seem as if every weekend welcomes another colorful fiesta in San Miguel, but it's in September that the city really goes loco. Mexico's Independence Day is heralded on the 15th and 16th of the month with parades, concerts, and firework displays; the celebration of the city's namesake Mexican revolutionary, Ignacio Allende, is celebrated on the third Saturday of September. The highlight of the latter is Pamplonada, the annual running of the bulls through Jardín Principal—a small-scale version of the spectacle in Pamplona, Spain. During the final weekend of the month is the Festival of San Miguel, held in honor of the city's patron saint. Dance troupes and bands from all over Mexico descend upon San Miguel for parades throughout the weekend. Pilgrims from parish churches around the city carry xuchiles—tall, heavy wooden crosses covered with elaborate patterns using white agave, gold marigolds, and cactus bulbs.—Maribeth Mellin

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Fishing in Acapulco
Acapulco + El Morro
Mexico

Hollywood heroes like John Wayne and Errol Flynn made Acapulco's fishing grounds famous in the 1940s. Back in those days, the hefty sailfish and marlin caught here were usually mounted on walls; nowadays, catch-and-release is just as common. More sedentary pursuits like sunbathing and cocktail-houring have since eclipsed fishing as the major draws here, but plenty of sleek day-trip boats still await anglers in Old Acapulco's marina. Fish-R-Us has several specially equipped yachts and a variety of trips to choose from—many of which stop on their way back to port to watch the cliff divers (Costera Alemán 100; 52-744-482-8282).—Maribeth Mellin

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Fishing In and Around Puerto Vallarta
Mexico

El Morro, an underwater rock pinnacle 25 miles off the coast of Puerto Vallarta, attracts schools of 50-pound tuna, sailfish, and dorado from May through August, and fishing boats come from as far as Southern California to get in on the action. PV Fishing (Marina Vallarta; 52-322-306-0806) has a fleet that runs daily from Marina Vallarta.—Maribeth Mellin

Geological Wonders near Cancún

The Yucatán is one of the flattest places on earth—an area with almost no peaks or hills to accent its tropical terrain. As a result, the region's heavy rain collect in a series of unique underground sink wells called cenotes, which emerge as vast subterranean lakes and rivers. Many cenotes are located close to Cancún and make for unusual underground adventure opportunities (hiking, swimming, and snorkeling). Although there are literally hundreds of cenotes throughout the region, Hidden Worlds is one of the safest, and there are guided tours. It's located about 90 minutes south of Cancún and makes a great day trip if paired with the Tulum ruins (984-877-8535; www.hiddenworlds.com.mx; info@hiddenworlds.com.mx).

Golf
Cozumel
Mexico

Try not to bonk an egret or heron on the head when your ball goes wild at Cozumel Country Club, a Nicklaus Design Group course. The links flow around native trees, dense jungle, and lagoons that are home to so many birds and animals that Audubon International certified the course as a Cooperative Sanctuary. Some hotels on the north shore (including Playa Azul) offer special golf packages. (Carretera Costera Norte, Km 6.5; 52-987-872-9570; www.cozumelcountryclub.com.mx)

Golf
Cancún
Mexico

Cancún has a surprisingly large number of golf courses packed into the narrow strip of the Zona Hotelera. Cancún Golf Club at Pok-ta-Pok was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., in 1976 (Blvd. Kukulcán, Km 7.5; 52-998-883-1230; www.cancungolfclub.com). The Gran Meliá Cancún has a nine-hole course open to the public for a fee (Blvd. Kukulcán, Km 16.5; 52-998-881-1100; www.granmeliacancun.com/activities). The course at the Hilton Cancún Golf & Spa Resort is better than ever after a $6 million renovation that fixed severe damage from Hurricane Wilma (Blvd. Kukulcán, Km 17; 52-998-881-8000; www.hiltoncancun.com/golf). Nearby, the Moon Spa & Golf Club (Carretera Cancún-Chetumal, Km 340; 52-998-881-6000; palaceresorts.com/Golf) also has courses open to the public for a fee, as does the Playa Mujeres Golf Club (Punta Sam; 52-998-887-7322; www.playamujeresgolf.com), designed by Greg Norman in a burgeoning resort area north of Cancún.

Golf in Baja California
Mexico

Ever since Jack Nicklaus designed his first Palmilla course in Los Cabos in 1992, golf has grown to surpass fishing as the number-one sporting challenge in southern Baja. Sprinklers spray reclaimed water on unnatural greens at more than a dozen courses around Los Cabos, many charging Pebble Beach-level green fees. La Paz and Loreto have also become golf destinations, and several courses lure duffers across the border in northern Baja. The 27-hole Palmilla Golf Club (www.oneandonlypalmilla.com) was Jack Nicklaus' first Latin America design and set the standard for Los Cabos courses when it opened in 1993. Cabo del Sol's (www.cabodelsol.com/content/golf.html) two courses designed by Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf rank at the top of Mexico's golf courses.

For info on Baja's many courses checkout www.bajagolf.com.

Guadalupe Valley

Missionaries began growing grapes in the Guadalupe Valley east of Ensenada in the late 1880s; modern wineries began drawing attention in the 1980s, and the valley is now rapidly evolving into a south-of-the-border Napa. More than two-dozen boutique and brand-name wineries are producing vintages worthy of international attention (Casa de Piedra and Monte Xanic show up on menus around the world), and a wine route is gradually evolving. Both a winery and a six-room inn, Adobe Guadalupe has been at the forefront of the valley's emergence since 1998 and a few other small inns have opened. But the valley is still an out-of-the-way place, about an hour's drive from Ensenada or three hours south of San Diego. Baja California Tours runs winery trips from San Diego. But most travelers typically make their way here from Ensenada and explore on their own. There's a good map of the wineries at www.wineriesinbaja.com.

For more info see www.discoverbajacalifornia.com/wine_country.

House and Garden Tour
Biblioteca Pública
San Miguel de Allende
Mexico
Tel: 52 415 152 0293
www.bibliotecasma.com

This fascinating tour starts every Sunday around noon at the Biblioteca Pública in the city center. The tour began some 50 years ago and now has more than 300 houses on the roster, including artist studios, stunning contemporary mansions, and simple adobe homes. Each week's tour itinerary is posted online and in the weekly English-language newspaper Atencíon. One recent addition is Casa de Margah, a new home with architecture reminiscent of Luís Barragan and Frank Lloyd Wright, and an impressive art collection. The two-hour jaunt, which uses public buses for transportation and requires some walking, costs 200 pesos (about $16).—Maribeth Mellin

Instituto Allende
22 Ancha de San Antonio
San Miguel de Allende
Mexico
Tel: 52 415 152 0190

Stirling Dickinson, one of the original incubators of San Miguel's art scene, helped form this art school in the 1940s in a rambling 18th-century summer home. The institute boomed in the 1960s, drawing students from throughout Mexico alongside U.S. veterans studying under the G.I. Bill. Its popularity hasn't waned since. Serious students and amateurs alike study painting, sculpting, photography, jewelry-making, weaving, and other arts in a collection of studios interspersed with landscaped gardens. Visitors can sign up for workshops and art classes—the photo sessions are especially helpful when you tour this photogenic city. The institute is also a leading Spanish-language school and offers classes lasting a week or more at all levels.—Maribeth Mellin

Isla Mujeres
Isla Mujeres
Mexico

Just five miles long and no wider than a city block at each tip, tiny Isla is the antithesis of Cancún. The island's many small hotels weather most storms with little damage and provide the necessary accoutrements (comfy beds, air conditioning, flavorful food) without many frills. Cancún tour companies offer snorkeling, sailing, and dinner cruises to Isla; make sure you have time to wander around the small town to check out the little shops selling Guatemalan textiles and Balinese sarongs. Spend a night (or a week), and you'll have plenty of time to snorkel amid hefty parrot fish at Parque Garrafón, motor the windward coast in a golf cart, and sample ceviche at beach bars on the white sands of Playa Norte. For general info, check out www.isla-mujeres.net.

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Jungle and Mountain Tours Around Puerto Vallarta

Canopy tours are all the rage in the jungle south of Puerto Vallarta, with screaming tourists zip-lining over boulders, treetops, and waterfalls. Canopy Tours de los Veranos has zip lines through the forest, over rushing rivers, and past marmoset monkeys swinging from vines; shuttle transport is provided to its jungle playground from Puerto Vallarta and the Riviera Nayarit.

A more sedate way to explore the foothills around Puerto Vallarta is on horseback. The horses at Rancho Ojo de Agua are said to be descendants of the Mexican cavalry steeds, although they are content these days to canter past the bromeliads and orchids that line the forested paths and climb up to hilltops with views of Puerto Vallarta and Banderas Bay. If you're more of a spectator than a rider, you can catch a polo match at Club de Polo Costa Careyes, about a two-hour drive south of Puerto Vallarta.

Mining villages are tucked away in the Sierra Madre mountains above Puerto Vallarta. San Sebastián is a favorite for day tours with Vallarta Adventures. The small town of about 800 residents feels stuck in the early 1900s: Cowboys linger outside cantinas, children ride horses home from school, and industrious families run small coffee plantations open to visitors. The tours are all guided, and lunch is provided at a local family-run restaurant. Vallarta Adventures also offers private airplane charters to visit remote villages high in the mountains, where Huichol artists create the fabulous beaded masks on display in many Puerto Vallarta galleries.—Maribeth Mellin

Kayaking in Baja California

Kayakers set off on day and weeklong trips into the Sea of Cortez from Loreto and La Paz and are rewarded with year-round abundant whale, sea lion, and frigate sightings around cactus-spiked islands. On the Pacific Coast in Bahías Magdalena and San Ignacio, newborn whales float beside their mothers as kayakers paddle about during the winter. Baja Expeditions and Nichols Expeditions run seasonal trips.

La Paz
Mexico

Baja California Sur's capital city has a mainland Mexico feel, though new golf courses and marina developments are gradually gringo-izing its character. The city's seaside promenade on the Sea of Cortez's largest bay faces spectacular sunsets that bring out young couples, watchful grandmothers, and toddlers playing in the sand. Wandering around the Museo de Antropología, main plaza, and narrow streets lined with taco stands and shoe shops give you a real taste of Mexico. Cactus gardens, dusty pickups, and glimpses of the stark brown mountains are constant reminders of Baja's desert nature. The nearby Todos Santos islands lure kayakers and divers with their diverse wildlife; it's east to see why Jacques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez "a marine aquarium." Cruise ships stop in on their way north to Loreto or south to Los Cabos; small luxury and adventure ships sail to isolated beaches and whale-watching grounds off Baja's shores.

Mayan Ruins
Cozumel
Mexico

Honeymooners take note: Cozumel was once a sanctuary for the Mayan goddess Ixchel, who ruled over fertility and the moon. Women traditionally crossed the sea from mainland Tulum to Cozumel in dugout canoes with offerings for Ixchel when they wanted to get pregnant. Some say the act of homage still works. Small temples are scattered around the island, with the largest concentration at San Gervasio, midway between central Cozumel and its east coast. The modest site includes several small structures, including one marked with manitas—small handprints. (Carretera Transversal, Km 7.5; 52-987-872-0914; www.cozumelparks.com.mx/eng/parks-sanervasio.asp)

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Mayan Ruins in the Riviera Maya
Riviera Maya
Mexico

For early Mayans who guided their ships through this coast's treacherous offshore reefs, the city of Tulum was a lighthouse: Firelight shining through window slits in the temples guided their way home. Today, the ruined city—the only settlement that the Maya ever built overlooking the sea—is still a must-see. As well as El Castillo, a tall ruined temple, Tulum has several small structures spread about a walled compound on cliffs above the water. Arrive early (it opens at 7 am) to beat the crowds, then climb down the hillside just south of El Castillo to the small beach with crystal-clear water. (There are no bathrooms, showers, or changing rooms here—so wear your suit and carry at least a liter of water.)

Cobá, about 30 miles northwest of Tulum, is surrounded by dense, often sweltering jungle—but its structures are much larger and many are beautifully preserved. You can climb Nohoch Mul, the tallest pyramid in the Yucatán region; its peak gives views over the treetops. You can also walk, bike, or hire a triciclo peddled by a modern-day descendent of the Maya to explore the paths that wind through the jungle and in between the site's ruined temples. You'll hear wild parrots swoop and squawk, and if you're lucky, you might even spot spider monkeys.

Museo Estudio Diego Rivera
Corner of Altavista and Rivera
San Ángel
Mexico City
Mexico 01090
Tel: 52 55 5550 1189

If you're looking for Rivera-bilia, the village of San Ángel is where Diego and Frida maintained his-and-her studios (separate-but-equal seemed to work best for the tempestuous couple) that have since been turned into a museum. None of Kahlo's works are on display here, and just a few of Rivera's are; still, there's plenty of memorabilia, including some of Rivera's collection of pre-Columbian art.

Open Tuesdays through Sundays 10 am to 6 pm.

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Museo Frida Kahlo
247 Londres
Coyoacán
Mexico City
Mexico 04000
Tel: 52 55 5554 5999
www.museofridakahlo.org

A few blocks from Coyoacán's tree-shaded Plaza Hidalgo is the cobalt-blue house where Frida Kahlo lived and died, set up as if she still lived there. Her wheelchair, used late in her life as she grew more infirm, sits poignantly in one corner. Several of the paintings on display here reveal her painful existence, including one called El Marxismo Dará la Salud (Marxism Will Heal). Painted just before she died in 1954, it shows her casting away her crutches.

Open Tuesdays through Sundays 10 am to 5:45 pm.

Museo Nacional de Antropología
Calzada Gandhi and Paseo de la Reforma
Polanco
Mexico City
Mexico 11560
Tel: 52 55 5553 6386
www.mna.inah.gob.mx

A must-see collection of artifacts from Mexico's pre-Columbian cultures is housed in this 1964 building. (It was designed by architect Pedro Ramírez Vásquez, whose brilliant designs helped transform the city in the 1960s.) There are more than 20 archaeology and ethnography exhibits, but the star attraction is undoubtedly the Sala Mexica, with its depictions of the Aztecs' bloodthirsty gods, along with their sacrificial altars and vessels for holding human hearts.

Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 9 am to 7 pm.

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Museo Nacional de Historia, Castillo de Chapultapec
Bosque de Chapultepec
Polanco
Mexico City
Mexico 11570
Tel: 52 55 5061 9228

A hilltop castle that presides over Bosque de Chapultepec (the city's largest park), the Castillo is the former home of Emperor Maximilian, whose fatal flaw was not realizing that his subjects weren't in the mood for monarchy. He was executed by antiroyalists, but rooms belonging to him and his wife, Empress Carlota, have been re-created here. One look at her sumptuous marble bath and you'll know why the people revolted. There are great views of the city from the balconies, but only on days when the skies aren't obscured by smog.

Open Tuesdays through Sundays 9 am to 5 pm.

Natural Hot Springs in San Miguel
San Miguel de Allende
Mexico

Steam from natural hot springs rises above the countryside along the road to Dolores Hidalgo in an area dubbed Hot Springs Way (signs along the highway mark the various spots). La Gruta is one of the largest springs, with a man-made cave and waterfall, plus thermal pools, a lounging area, massage services, and a small restaurant. Locals tend to hang around for the day, especially on weekends, but visitors can do the whole circuit in an hour or two. Taboada, another spring, has a large swimming pool for kids; waterslides draw families to Xote.—Maribeth Mellin

Open daily 9 am to dusk.

Nature and Marine Reserves
Cozumel
Mexico

Nearly half of Cozumel's low jungle and wild coast remains undeveloped, and crocodiles, egrets, and pelicans make themselves at home in lagoons and mangrove swamps. Much of the sea is protected as well in the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park, allowing tropical fish to swarm about coral heads in abundance. Adventurers find plenty of natural attractions and activities on land and in the sea, and can rest assured that locals are intent on protecting their piece of Paradise. Here are two of our favorite parks.

Chankanaab National Marine Park
Established in 1980 as one of the first natural sanctuaries in Mexico, Chankanaab National Marine Park has recovered nicely after taking a direct hit during the 2005 hurricane season. The native trees and shrubs in the extraordinary botanical gardens are coming back to life, and snorkeling and dive shops and restaurants are in business again. You'll find playgrounds and plenty of hammocks for leisurely siestas facing the tranquil sea and one of the best snorkeling spots on the island.

Faro Celarain Eco Park
Faro Celarain Eco Park (formerly Punta Sur Park Ecological Reserve) covers more than 2,700 acres of mangrove swamps and long, pristine beaches on the island's southern tip. Visitors check in at the palapa at the park entrance and choose from activities including catamaran rides on the lagoon, where you can spot flamingos, egrets, and perhaps the odd crocodile or two. Private cars aren't allowed on the park's sandy roads; instead, guests ride on bench seats in open trucks to the lighthouse (climb to the top for tip-to-tip island views) and a museum dedicated to navigation. The beaches here are usually nearly deserted, and concessionaires provide lounge chairs, umbrellas, kayaks, and cold drinks and snacks. You can easily spend a full day exploring the park as if you're lost in a Robinson Crusoe fantasy.

Northern Baja
Mexico

Tijuana, Rosarito Beach, Ensenada, and San Felipe are the big draws in northern Baja near the U.S. border. Heavily influenced by California, they're classic border areas with curious tourists, carousing kids, endlessly tacky souvenirs, and restaurants good enough to draw diners across la frontera. The first three towns are easily reached on day trips from San Diego, while San Felipe is on the Sea of Cortez coast south of Mexicali, the capital of Baja California.

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Palacio de Bellas Artes
1 Avenida Juárez
Centro
Mexico City
Mexico 06050
Tel: 52 55 5521 9251
www.bellasartes.gob.mx

At the eastern end of the Alameda Central is the expansive Palacio de Bellas Artes, a building with a somewhat hodgepodge architectural style. Its construction began in 1904 but had to be stopped in 1910 for the Mexican Revolution; by the time it was finished in 1934, a new Art Deco–style facade had been added to what was essentially an Art Nouveau interior. The main attraction is a copy of the mural that Rivera originally painted for New York City's Rockefeller Center in 1933. A visual ode to communism, it depicts, among other scenes, the figure of Vladimir Lenin gazing down at a May Day parade. Such imagery apparently didn't jibe with Rockefeller's capitalistic sensibilities; his family had the mural destroyed before it was ever shown to the public. Come back in the evening to see a performance of traditional dances by the Ballet Folklórico de México (52-55-5529-9320; www.balletamalia.com).

Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel
Corner of Cuna de Allende and Umaran streets
San Miguel de Allende
Mexico

The pink, Gothic-style Parroquia is to the city what Gaudí's Sagrada Família is to Barcelona—an ecclesiastic edifice doubling as its metropolitan soul. Dating to the 17th century and set on the south side of the Jardín Principal, the church clearly evokes similarities to important European Gothic counterparts, although its current incarnation dates to more recent 18th- and 19th-century facelifts. Its elaborate spires are an endearing landmark both for their beauty and their location—you can spot them from almost anywhere in the city and find your way to the center of town.—Maribeth Mellin

Puerto Morelos

The residents of Puerto Morelos, a small town just 11 miles south of the Cancún airport adamantly resist any outside attempts to "modernize" or overdevelop their seaside community. The main plaza is still a simple affair with a few benches near a wooden pier where small fishing and dive boats dock. Casual cafés, money exchanges, and a used bookstore stuffed with popular mysteries and obscure travelogues face the plaza, and a few souvenir shops and small hotels abut family homes on the nearby streets. Local artisans sell embroidered blouses, woven hammocks, and assorted seashell trinkets at a market near the plaza. The hotels near town are a mix of budget holdovers (Posada Amor) and yoga retreats (Villas Shanti), while pricey boutique hotels (Ceiba del Mar) and luxurious resorts (Secrets Excellence) claim the coastline north and south of town. Diehard scuba divers love the area around Puerto Morelos for its proximity to shallow coral reefs harboring huge schools of tropical fish. Small lanchas depart from the town pier throughout the day, carrying divers and snorklers to the reefs in less than 10 minutes. Arrange your trip in advance with Wet Set Diving Adventures (Hotel Ojo de Agua, Avenida Javier Rojo Gomez s/n, Puerto Morelos; 52-998-871-0198). But before you leave, fuel up on fresh fish grilled with garlic at Pelicanos, on the beach on the south side of Puerto Morelos's main plaza (52-998-871-0014).

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Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta's waterfront downtown neighborhood, Viejo Vallarta, is made for wandering. Sculptures line the malecón along the shore of Banderas Bay; La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, a cathedral topped by a filigreed crown, rises across the street. World-class galleries, folk art shops, restaurants, and clubs fill cobblestone streets on both sides of the Río Cuale, which rushes to the sea and divides the city between the historic district and what's known as the Zona Romántica. Calle Basilio Badillo and Calle Morelos are especially good treasure-hunting grounds for painted tiles, chic sportswear, handcrafted jewelry, and paintings, and the Mercado de Artesanías on Calle Francisca Rodríguez displays classic serapes, sombreros, tacky T-shirts, and other souvenirs. Vallarta's forested hillsides are great for horseback riding, hiking, and mountain biking.

Sazón Cooking School
22 Correo
San Miguel de Allende
Mexico
Tel: 52 415 154 7671
www.casadesierranevada.com/web/omig/sazon.jsp

Travelers who'd like to learn Mexican culinary techniques should head for Sazón, an established cooking school affiliated with Casa de Sierra Nevada. Chef Felipe Ramírez teaches students how to make sopes, gorditas, mole, and other regional dishes. Some classes include market tours; all end with food tastings in the school's gorgeous tiled kitchen. Check out the school's schedule while shopping for locally made tableware at the in-house kitchenware boutique.—Maribeth Mellin

Scuba Diving in Baja California

The Sea of Cortez offers divers the chance to swim with whale sharks, manta rays, sea lions, sea turtles, and hammerhead sharks around the seamounts and islands off La Paz. Baja Expeditions runs live-aboard dive trips around the sea from June to November and day dive trips from La Paz. The region's only coral reef system grows close to shore around Cabo Pulmo. Snorkelers and divers spot sea horses and sea bass in 80-degree water during the summer and find small hotels, restaurants, dive shops, and campgrounds in a relatively unpopulated beachfront community. Plans for a large resort development in this area have met with stringent objections from international environmental groups, and the ballyhooed Cabo Riviera is still in the marketing dream stage. In Los Cabos, divers make quick boat trips with Amigos del Mar to El Arco in Los Cabos to watch sand-falls spilling hundreds of feet down an undersea canyon.—Maribeth Mellin

Shopping
Cancún
Mexico

Vegas-style shopping centers have become the most exciting attractions on land in the Zona Hotelera. Though exceedingly splashy and often stuffed with the same goods you can get back home, they're also a lively (and air-conditioned) break from hot days on the beaches. Local residents now treat malls like the main plazas of colonial cities, dressing in their finest to stroll about with their neighbors. Gondolas glide through canals at Plaza La Isla, a sprawling outdoor entertainment center with designer shops, movie theaters, hip restaurants, and the fanciest McDonald's this side of Buenos Aires. The kiddies get a kick out of the sharks at the aquarium there (Blvd. Kukulcán, Km 12.5). Marble and glass gleam at Luxury Avenue, where visitors shop for duty-free goodies from Montblanc, Cartier, and Swarovski and check out the latest Ferragamo and Zegna fashions (Blvd. Kukulcán, Km 13). The Avenue anchors the south end of Kukulcán Plaza (Blvd. Kukulcán, Km 13; www.kukulcanplaza.com), a recently remodeled air-conditioned behemoth with free Wi-Fi; a huge play area for children; multiple restaurants, from Ruth's Chris to Chocolate City; and a stunning stained-glass dome depicting the Mayan culture—there's even a sound and light show at 7:30 every evening.

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Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve
Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila
Sian Ka'an
Mexico
Tel: 52 998 884 3667

Sian Ka'an means "where the sky was born" in Mayan. It's an apt name for the 2,500-square-mile peninsula about 75 miles south of Cancún, where ocelots, monkeys, pumas, and more than 300 bird species patrol the jungles and skies. It's also home to clear-water lagoons and coves teeming with manatees, rays, crocodiles, and sea turtles swimming toward their nesting grounds. The biosphere reserve is a World Heritage Site, with fewer than 1,000 residents and just a few campgrounds and fishing lodges. Set up a tour of the canals dotted with small Mayan ruins through the Sian Ka'an Visitor Center, run by the excellent EcoColors adventure tour company (52-998-884-3667), or check with Tulum hotels for local tours.

Spanish Classes
San Miguel de Allende
Mexico

For decades, artsy San Miguel has been a place where visitors can study the language (and culture) of Mexico while on vacation. Today, the city has certified schools for students at every level. One of the best is the Academia Hispano Americana, for students who want to speak Spanish professionally. It offers a series of ongoing four-week sessions, each providing 35 hours of classroom time per week. Private lessons are also available. Another top school is Instituto Allende, set in a historic 18th-century building. It helped establish the city as a study center back in the 1950s, and today the Institute also works to find students housing with local families. The Biblioteca Pública organizes a Conversation with Friends program, where locals and visitors can practice their English, Spanish, and French together.—Maribeth Mellin

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Surfing Around Puerto Vallarta

Surfers have been riding the Pacific coast's swells since the 1960s. These days, traditional board surfers are joined by enthusiastic paddle surfers who stand upright while riding the waves. All the prime surf spots are north of Puerto Vallarta, but beaches throughout the region have good conditions and cater to beginners and pros alike. The surf action has always centered around Sayulita, a small town of wonderful shops and restaurants that hosts annual surfing competitions. North of Sayulita, surfers spread out on beaches with SoCal names like Stoners and Santa Cruz, while to the south, El Anclote in Punta de Mita is immensely popular for all ocean sports, as is laidback Bucerias. Waves are fairly consistent year-round, with big winter breaks upping the thrills. Surfers gather to rent or buy boards or book surf lessons and boat trips to outlying surf spots at Coral Reef Surf Shop, located between the Puerto Vallarta airport and Punta de Mita. Pacific Paddle Surf in Bucerias offers paddling classes led by patient instructors who hang out in the water with students until everyone catches a wave. California-based Las Olas Surf runs year-round surf safaris for women in Puerto Vallarta. Captain Pablo's Adventures is both a restaurant and a surf shop in Sayulita, complete with rentals and lessons.—Maribeth Mellin

Surfing in Baja California
Mexico

California surfers camp and surf non-stop at puntas (points) around Rosarito Beach and Ensenada. Stars on the international surf circuit race to the Islas de Todos Santos near Ensenada for 10-foot swells during tropical storms and hang out with newbees at Costa Azul in San José del Cabo. Both coasts in the south have remote surf beaches like Punta Pescadero on the Sea of Cortez that are worth the rough four-wheel-drive approaches. Zippers restaurant at Costa Azul (Carretera Transpeninsular, Km. 28.5; 52-624-172-6162) is the unofficial headquarters for the Los Cabos surfing scene. The Mike Doyle Surf School at the Cabo Surf Hotel (52-624-142-2666; cabosurfshop.com/surfschool.htm) runs private and group surf classes and has board rentals.

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Teotihuacán and Tula

There's no need to head to the jungle to see the region's archaeological sites; two of the best are just north of the capital. (Buses leave regularly from the Terminal Central del Norte, just north of downtown, 4907 Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas; 52-55-5133-2444; www.centraldelnorte.com). Teotihuacán, once home to 250,000 people, predates many other Aztec, Toltec, and Maya cities by centuries. Most people huff and puff their way up the massive Pyramid of the Sun, but there's an easier climb (and a far better view) at the slightly smaller Pyramid of the Moon. Make sure to see the wonderfully preserved frescoes in the more recently excavated private homes near the temples. (Ask an attendant to point out a depiction of a dentist working on a patient.) At nearby Tula, a city that rose to power after the fall of Teotihuacán, a platoon of stone soldiers stands guard atop a temple.

Todos Santos
Mexico

Artists from Santa Fe, San Francisco, and Switzerland revel in the diffused light, churning surf, and subdued ambience in this 19th-century town an hour north of Los Cabos. At midday its historic center is often packed with sightseers browsing through nearly two dozen art galleries and a scattering of jewelry, folk art, and decor shops. Locals emerge at dawn and dusk, gossiping over coffee, dropping by the post office, and dining on fresh seafood and homemade pasta. Nights are peaceful in this Pueblo Mágico, a designation the government gives well-preserved communities. Hotels are popping up all over this area as visitors wander from Los Cabos to Baja's more natural side. And it's worth the trip for excellent bird-watching at Posada La Poza, gallery browsing at Guayacura, and complete relaxation at Rancho Pescadero.—Maribeth Mellin

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Vallarta Botanical Gardens
Carretera Barra de Navidad, Km 24
Cabo Corrientes
Mexico
Tel: 52 332 223 6182
www.vallartabotanicalgardensac.org

Hummingbirds nest in tree ferns, and butterflies flit over orchids at this enchanting 20-acre garden of exotic flowers and gigantic trees 12 miles south of Puerto Vallarta. Savannah native Robert Price is the genius behind the floral paradise, where roses, palms, and agave plants flourish in the tropical dry forest above the Río Horcones. Volunteers care for delicate tropical orchids and lead tours for students, photographers, and nature lovers. A short hike leads to a chilly river (swimming allowed). Maps are available at the Hacienda de Oro, which houses a gift shop (blown-glass ornaments, handcrafted jewelry, and local honeys and jams) and a two-story Mexican restaurant/lounge with comfy couches and forest views.—Maribeth Mellin

Open Tuesdays through Sundays 10 am to 6 pm.

Walking Tours
Mexico City
Mexico

There are many walking tours of the Centro Histórico, but none as fascinating as Monica Unikel's Jewish Tours (www.jewishtours.com.mx). Time and time again she takes you through nondescript doorways that lead to surprisingly opulent social halls, crowded apartment blocks, and hidden synagogues. Monica has an ironic sense of humor; she loves to point out, for example, that several Jewish settlements were located on Jesus and Mary Street. Other interesting tours of archaeological sites in and around the city are sponsored by the Mexican government's Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (www.inah.gob.mx).

Whale-Watching in Baja California

More than 20 species of whales frequent Baja's sea through the year. But the big whale show runs from January to March, when thousands of pregnant gray whales migrate to protected lagoons off Baja's southern Pacific shores to give birth. Hundreds of humans eager to come eyeball to eyeball with a baby leviathan quickly follow, setting up camp or staying in small basic hotels near San Ignacio Lagoon and Magdalena Bay on Baja's Pacific coast. Baja Expeditions and Baja Discovery run buses from San Diego and charter flights from Mexico to San Ignacio, and have camps close to whale-watching sites. Aero Calafia offers day trips to Magdalena Bay with flights from Los Cabos. Loreto is a prime whale-watching spot year round, with humpbacks, blue whales, finbacks, and orcas appearing in February and March. Antares GEA, a nonprofit environmental group, runs day-long whale-watching trips in Loreto.—Maribeth Mellin

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Xcaret
Carretera 307, 6 miles south of Playa del Carmen
Mexico
Tel: 52 984 873 2643
www.xcaret.com

If you've never traveled to Mexico before, a visit to Xcaret will give you a decent overview of the country's culture—at Disneyland prices. You can snorkel in subterranean rivers, swim with dolphins (for an extra fee, with reservations), duck at the sound of macaws screeching overhead, wander through a Day of the Dead display, and swing in a hammock beside a turquoise cove. Somehow the 200-acre eco-theme park avoids being hokey and trite—the biologists and naturalists here take their work seriously. Choreographers hired some of the country's finest costume designers and dancers for the nightly folkloric dance show, which is so extraordinary it's been known to give goose bumps to homesick Mexicans vacationing in gringolandia.

Zihuatanejo
Zihuatanejo
Mexico

This overgrown fishing village, where fishermen sell their daily catch on Playa Principal, is a charming place to linger over a michelada (beer with lime and ice in a salt-rimmed glass) along the malecón. Apart from the small Museo Arqueológico de la Costa Grande (Paseo del Pescador; 52-755-554-7552), which displays murals and pre-Hispanic artifacts from the region, the main thing to do here is shop. Vendors sell seashell trinkets and painted plates in stands on the sand and at the Mercado de Artesanía on Calle Cinco de Mayo. Gourd masks cover the walls at Casa Marina (9 Paseo del Pescador; 52-755-554-2373), a cluster of small folk-art shops. The best souvenir is the local coffee, which is sold in the nearby Mercado Municipal (Avenida Benito Juárez). Once they've explored the town, travelers tend to zone out for hours in sea-facing pools or hammocks on the sand, rousing themselves for dinner and a bit of lightweight partying at downtown's small restaurants and clubs.

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Zócalo
16 de Septiembre at 5 de Febrero
Centro
Mexico City
Mexico 06060

The huge town square, the Plaza de la Constitución—also known as the Zócalo—is the center of the city in every respect. It features three not-to-be-missed sights: the remains of the 14th- and 15th-century Templo Mayor, core of the Aztec city Tenochtitlán (though the Aztecs are referred to here by their proper name, the Mexica); the Catedral Metropolitana, built over 300 years in a jumble of architectural styles (it's also listing alarmingly—hence the scaffolding); and the Palacio Nacional, with its Diego Rivera murals.

Information may have changed since the date of publication. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.