An unrivaled food scene, acclaimed architecture, hidden beaches, and the fabled history of mezcal—the things that make Mexico a singular destination are as diverse as the country itself.
Whether it’s a secluded ocean-view stay or a charming bed and breakfast in the bustling capital, Mexico’s best hotels blend distinctly individual design with impeccable hospitality.
The Secret Beaches of Cancun
If you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss the turnoff to Soliman Bay. Right after kilometer 241 on Highway 307 between Tulum and Akumal, look for the mile-long gravel road marked with iguana crossing signs. You’ll have to dodge a handful of potholes, but your reward is a glittering cove with timid waves and sugarwhite sand. Between snorkel trips to the ocean (there are patches of coral where tropical fish come to feed), you can dine at the toes-in-the-sand Chamico’s restaurant. Wash down guacamole and whole fried fish with spicy micheladas, beers mixed with lime juice and hot sauce, and then retreat to the siestaenticing hammocks.
Adventurers will want to sign up for guided boating trips through Sian Ka'an, a 1.3 million-acre ecological reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site, with UnikGo. Along with spotting manatees and Mayan ruins, you’ll jet to a beach where river waters meet the Caribbean. As you walk along the pristine sands, keep an eye out for pelicans diving for fish.
If you’re looking for white-glove service on the water, head south of Playa del Carmen to Xpu-Ha Beach, anchored by the plush Hotel Esencia. A day pass to the empty shoreline (there isn’t another hotel in sight) is $100, which can be put toward food and drinks like avocado fries, ceviche, and margaritas made with Casa Dragones tequila.
A Culinary Tour of Mexico City
Renowned chef and Mexico City native Barbara Sibley dreams up her perfect day in one of the world’s best food scenes.
1. El Cardenal For a traditional breakfast, I start my day at this sit-down spot in the historic district. Pair natas (clotted cream) with freshly baked bread.
2. Mercado de San Juan Chefs arrive early to stock up on delicacies. Beeline to the cheese stalls for stringy quesillo and queso de bola, a round cheese that hails from Ocosingo, Chiapas.
3. Tacos Hola Lots of places in the U.S. try to replicate tacos al pastor, but none can compete with this spit-fired pork.
4. Museo Nacional de Antropología If I forgo a siesta, it’s for this awe-inspiring collection. The Aztec calendar is iconic, but I love the detailed model of early markets that depicts ancient diets.
5. Mercado Roma Refuel with strong coffee and chef Jose Ramon Castillo’s Que Bo! chocolates, flavored with chamoy, tamarind, and passion fruit.
6. Galería OMR Supporting local artists is huge here. Visit one of my favorite galleries for vibrant works and the occasional tequila reception.
7. Fonda Fina In Mexico, late dinners are the norm. Around 9 p.m., I order quesadillas with green pumpkin seed sauce.
8. Dietrich End the day on an elegant note at this Roma speakeasy. Still hungry? The tapas hit the spot.
The History of Mexico as Told Through Mole Sauce
Contained in the beloved stew is a nuanced portrait of the country’s past.
The story goes that a gust of wind tossed a slew of spices into a bowl. Or maybe someone spilled chocolate in a pot, or a nun prepared a last-second dinner for a special guest by combining every ingredient at her disposal. So complex are the recipes for moles—these icons of Mexican gastronomy contain more than 30 ingredients and can take three days to make—they’ve acquired their own folklore. Though its exact origins are shrouded, mole’s evolution speaks to Mexico’s dynamic history: It is truly mestizo, a blend of Spanish and indigenous influences.
The word mole comes from mulli in the Aztec language Nahuatl. Indigenous groups had long used the mano y metate (below right) to grind sauces, but the Columbian Exchange—which brought Spanish explorers and a host of new ingredients to Mexico’s shores in the 15th century—marked a major juncture for the dish.
The Spaniards carried onion and garlic along with Moorish spices like cinnamon, cumin, and cloves. These imports were mixed with native chilies and combined with proteins such as turkey and iguana. The spices and herbs were toasted separately, ground and cooked together in a broth, and then thickened with bread or tortillas.
Eventually, the entire world’s cuisine was influenced by this exchange. Dishes like Thai curry and Italian marinara were only possible after Spanish ships sailed Mexican produce back across the Atlantic.
Dozens of mole varieties developed over the centuries, reflecting Mexico’s diverse microclimates. Almost every pueblo in Central and Southern Mexico has its own version of the dish that utilizes local produce. (The yellow moles of mountainous Oaxaca, for example, use the neon-orange chilhuacle chili.) And recipes continue to evolve. The famed mole poblano de guajolote features chocolate, but that recipe didn’t appear in a Mexican cookbook until around the early 19th century.
Today, plenty of restaurants offer excellent mole. Try Pujol and Nicos in Mexico City; Guelaguetza in Los Angeles; Red Iguana in Salt Lake City; and Barrio Chino in New York.
Don’t Sleep on Tijuana’s Reawakening
This West Coast border hub is on the move. Thanks to the freshly unveiled Bus Rapid Transit system and the ongoing $740 million update of the San Ysidro border crossing—which includes a just-opened pedestrian bridge—a quick southward jaunt from San Diego is easier than ever. That’s great news for foodies, since Tijuana is undergoing an epicurean makeover fueled by the abundant Baja California produce, Valle de Guadalupe vino, and fresh-off-the-line seafood from both the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez.
“Tijuana has always been a drool-inducing buffet of regional Mexican cuisines,” says Derrik Chinn, a Tijuana-based American journalist who launched a tour company called Turista Libre in 2009. His themed day trips begin and end in San Diego and take visitors off the beaten path to an eclectic mix of destinations, ranging from historic cantinas to flea markets, wineries, and luchador wrestling matches. “Now with some 90 independent brewers, half of which are in Tijuana, Baja California has become the craft beer mecca of Mexico,” Derrik says.
Sip local cervezas at the open-air Plaza Fiesta mall and sample regional Mexican specialties at the Foodgarden.
Pulque: An Ode to Agave’s Original Elixir
A new wave of taverns is helping bring back the working-class drink, born from Aztec traditions.
Oh, agave: You lusty, beautiful plant, you. Over the years, we’ve genuflected happily in front of the many-splendored, boozy gifts your hulking piña-heart has offered. We’ve sampled the bright, earthy bite of true tequila and the smoky burn of Oaxacan mezcal. Still living in relative obscurity, though, is your best kept secret.
Behold, pulque: the frothy, sticky drink that’s worthy of a pilgrimage.
But first, a word of warning. Pulque has a wacky texture, and there’s no denying that its tang can hit the tongue with the same sharp blitz as curdled milk. (If you’re squeamish, get a curado, the version flavored with the likes of tamarind or hibiscus.) But pulque is a beverage for which one quickly acquires a taste and, in many cases, a thirst mighty enough to inspire a trip to its motherland in the dusty reaches of rural Hidalgo.
Due to its live cultures—pulque is fermented rather than distilled—it must be consumed fairly quickly, so it’s literally incapable of export. Try to take it too far from its natural habitat and it will spoil before arrival.
Pulque has been an integral part of Mexican culture since the Aztecs used it in ritual practice and believed it to be the favorite libation of the god Ometochtli. Long known as a drink of the working class, pulque was scorned by the government in the early 20th century in favor of a pro-beer agenda. Today, though, pulque—and its designated bars, pulquerías—have seen a populist resurgence, driven in part by a punk scene in Mexico City eager to reclaim its heritage and, well, stick it to the man.
If you want to get in on the new-wave scene, head to Pulquería Los Insurgentes in the Roma neighborhood and sample unique flavors like pistachio and celery. But if you’re seeking a taste of the low-key pulque life, an afternoon spent sidled up to the bar at the 100-plus-year-old Las Duelistas will surely quench your thirst.
The Maestro of Mezcal
Asis Cortez, a 30-year-old, sixth-generation mezcal maker—or mezcalero—has played a major role in the resurgent popularity of the spirit, an earthier, smokier ancestor of tequila. A decade ago, Asis and his family joined with neighboring mezcaleros throughout Oaxaca to form Casa Cortés, a burgeoning collective that now produces some of Mexico’s finest mezcal brands.
Why did you start the collective?
“We were losing the tradition, and we wanted to keep this beautiful part of Oaxaca’s soul and history alive. In my village, Santiago Matalan, there were 450 distilleries 35 years ago. Ten years ago, there were only 25 left. When I was 15, my own family closed their distillery. But since we’ve started educating locals and helping them appreciate the culture, there are now more than 100.”
How has the collective helped the families involved?
“Take Ignacio Parada. When we approached him, no one was selling mezcal in his village. It was either really cheap or neighbors expected it for free. To him, it was an impossible dream to make it a business. Then, he was scared when we first started bringing people to his distillery. He’d say, ‘My distillery isn’t beautiful. It’s old. No one wants to see this.’ Now he’s proud to show it off to visitors and knows the value of his product. His son, who had left for the States for a better life, has come back to work in the family business.”
The way you make El Jolgorio, one of your mezcal brands, is pretty unique. Can you explain?
“Most mezcal is not aged, but we age El Jolgorio in glass jars, which gives it a smooth, mellow taste. This tradition started a long time ago, out of necessity. In the 50s, the government started taxing mezcal. The mezcaleros didn’t have a culture of paying taxes and didn’t understand it, so they started hiding some of their jars underground.”
What’s Mezcalogia, your bar in Oaxaca City, like?
“You can taste over 80 kinds of mezcal, many of which aren’t sold to the public because they’re so small. And you never know, there might be a 70-something distiller from one of the villages sitting next to you.”