In 2020 and again in 2021, when most countries closed their borders in an effort to manage local coronavirus outbreaks, Mexico went it pretty much alone. Even at the peak of the first wave, the country didn’t demand visitors present a negative PCR test. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador insisted, throughout the period, that the economy had to be protected from Covid-19. Thus, in 2020, Mexico was the third most visited country in the world. Last year, according to travel data consultancy Forward Keys, Cancun was the second most popular destination on the planet (it wasn’t even in the top 20 in 2019). With so many European hotspots closed, it’s no wonder Europeans were drawn to the silky sands of the Caribbean, Baja California and Puerto Vallarta.
My own thinking on this is: What took them so long? Why did it take a plague to show the world that Mexico is worth a punt? Perhaps because it is the most misunderstood country in the Americas, arguably the world. The nasty “bandido”, the slimy “narco”, “nachos with cheese” and “tequila with a worm” are just some of the clichés beloved of gringo-centric films, TV and books. Border troubles, gun crime and drug chaos exist, and how the global news media love to report carnage. But Mexico is the fourth biggest economy in its region. Mexico City is the largest Spanish-speaking country on earth and, in the Americas, has the second highest GDP of any city south of Houston. Hardly a place for moustachioed malos in big hats.
More importantly, Mexico is one of the most dreamlike, enchanting countries to travel around. It’s huge and subtropical, and also very mountainous, making for extraordinary topographical variety and beguiling biodiversity. It has alluring beaches on its Pacific and Caribbean seaboards and some really splendid ones tucked into the inland Sea of Cortez. It has great highways and good back roads, and they cut through beautiful landscapes, lively towns with colonial-era churches, and sleepy, sun-splashed rural hamlets; trust me, if Kerouac was writing On the Road now, he’d swerve south. (Neal Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty in the classic novel, died in San Miguel de Allende).
Travellers are an eclectic bunch, and only a handful of countries – Mexico among them – can delight all-comers. Mexico has the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef on its east coast, a marine wonder that is as exciting for hardened scuba-trained shark-seekers as it is for goggle-wearing snorkelites keen to see their first turtle. On the west coast, it has some of the best whale-watching anywhere; with the added bonus that here you can see grey and humpback whales under calm, sunny skies and wearing a T-shirt rather than the technical kit needed in, say, Patagonia or the Azores.
Mexico has a superb rail journey along the Copper Canyon. It has luxury hotels in Baja California, on and off the Yucatán coast and along the Riviera Nayarit where staff have perfected the art of pleasing those demanding yanquis; service, rooms and restaurants are all genuine five-star (rather than the regional variety). It has the tastiest and most interesting cuisine in the Western World, and yes, I am including France, Spain and Italy there. It has a deep-rooted and living musical culture. It is a literary and artistic powerhouse. It has a history with complex ties to Europe and the Habsburgs, to the Philippines, to the Caribbean and to Latin America – for whose exiles and creatives it has often been safe harbour, political dynamo and cultural inspiration.
If you’re thinking of booking a winter sun escape right now, then look no further than Mexico: the country that has everything – except Covid restrictions.
Best for budding archaeologists
Mayan ruins of Yucatán
The Mayan civilisation, which endured for three millennia, stretched from Guatemala to El Salvador. The Yucatán peninsula is a great place to get an introduction to the phenomenal architecture, strange deities and sophisticated calendars, taking in the popular sites of Chichen Itza (where it pays to start early before the crowds arrive) and Tulum as well as the less visited Uxmal and Kabah ruins.
Book it: Audley’s (01993 683709, audleytravel.com) 11-day “Exploring Mexico’s Yucatán” tour takes in the four sites above as well as the city of Mérida; the trip includes four nights on the beaches of the Mayan Riviera. From £3,180 per person, including accommodation, transfers, international flights and excursions.
Best for fly-drive beatniks
The long, slender peninsula of Baja California has one main road running north to south, passing through deserts, mountain sierras and seaside towns; you’re never far from the beach, either on the roiling Pacific or the bath-calm Sea of Cortez. Spend time in La Paz, enjoying excursions to the Unesco-listed island of Espiritu Santo and to snorkel with whale sharks, before flying north to Loreto to pick up a hire car; any itinerary should include Los Cabos and the Sierra de la Laguna national park. Depending on the season, you can do whale watching trips to see blue, grey and humpback whales (Feb to mid-March is optimum).
Book it: Last Frontiers (01296 653000, lastfrontiers.com) can organise a 13-day self-drive trip around Baja California, with a one-night stay in Mexico City en route and a private guided walk in the Sierra de la Laguna national park. From £3,985 per person, including private tours and transfers, accommodation and flights.
Best for foodies
Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende and Punta Mita
Wherever you travel in Mexico, you’ll encounter regional cuisines, amazing chefs, colourful markets and simple-looking shacks and cantinas that serve top-notch grub (and, sometimes, grubs). The legendary street food of Mexico City is a fine place to start, with fresh filled-tortillas and enchiladas perfect for fuelling a walk around the Zocalo and historic centre; taxi over to the leafy burbs of Roma and Condesa, where you can sample haute fare, from multi-coloured native corn to long-life moles (sauces), fed for months and even years like sourdough bread starters. San Miguel, the most gentrified of the colonial-era Silver Cities, is the ideal place for romantic antojitos (starters) and fine Mexican wines in ochre and sky blue-walled restaurants. Wrap up your trip on the beach at Punta Mita, where the seafood is sublime.
Book it: Abercrombie & Kent (01242 547760, abercrombiekent.co.uk) has an 11-night food-themed tour of Mexico to the above destinations. From £7,220 per person, including wine tasting, market tour and four-hour cooking class, B&B accommodation and flights.
For more travel inspiration, read Telegraph Travel's guide to the best hotels in Mexico City.
Best for railfans
Mexico’s most epic rail trip is through the dramatic Barrancos del Cobre (Copper Canyon) in the mountains of the Sierra Madre – a spectacular fault in the earth even larger in scale than the Grand Canyon. The climb to nearly 8,000 feet passes through a range of climatic and ecological zones.
Book it: PTG (01235 227288, ptg.co.uk) has a 16-day rail-themed itinerary that includes a ride to the town of Tequila, rail museums and heritage, and a trip up the Copper Canyon, plus sightseeing and a hacienda visit in Yucatán. From £3650 per person, including accommodation, train tickets and flights. Trip starts: 3/6 October, 2022.
Best for culture vultures
San Cristóbal and Palenque
There’s something special about San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas. The misty mountain setting has a certain allure, as does the back-story of recent times. Remember Comandante Marcos? Well this was his power base and the people of Chiapas are still fiercely independent. A trip to the San Juan Chamula church provides a fascinating peek into syncretistic religious traditions and indigenous folklore. A visit is easy to combine with a walking tour of Palenque, a stunning array of Mayan temples and other buildings surrounded by dense jungle.
Book it: Llama Travel’s (020 7263 3000, llamatravel.com) 13-day “A Passage Through Mexico” tour, starts in Mexico City and visits San Cristóbal, Palenque, Yucatan, and the Caribbean coast. From £2,199 per person, including accommodation, transfers, flights and guided visits.
Best for cruisers
Baja California and the Sea of Cortez
The best way to see the myriad marina fauna of the Sea of Cortez is on a small “expedition” cruise vessel that’s able to approach the smaller islands and enter remote bays. Highlights here include the Isla Espiritu Santo biosphere reserve and sea lion colonies at Los Islotes; from November to mid-January and again in March, cruise ships usually visit Bahía de la Paz, where whale sharks are can be seen.
Book it: Journey Latin America (020 3131 5349, journeylatinamerica.co.uk) has a 12-day trip, with a stay in Mexico City followed by a 10-night cruise around the Sea of Cortez. From £6,410 per person, including B&B in Mexico City, full board on the cruise, excursions and flights from London.
Best for walkers
Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte
The Pueblos Mancomunados are mountain villages in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca state, known for their authentic Zapotec culture. They are linked by hiking trails that visit canyons, caves, waterfalls, and spectacular viewpoints along the way; overnighting in rustic cabins, you also get to see the archaeological site of Mitla and a mescal distillery.
Book it: Select Latin America (020 7407 1478, selectlatinameric.co.uk) has an 11-nights walking-focused tour of the villages, with stays in Nevería, Latuvi and Amatlán. From £3,618 per person, including guide, transfers and accommodation. The itinerary includes a stop in Mexico City and ends with an all-inclusive luxury hotel on the beach at Huatulco. Flights extra; budget approx £500.
Best for mid-life adventurers
The Mayan and Aztec world
We hear a lot about Mexico’s northern neighbour, but for a holiday it’s wisest to look south. The Mayan and Aztec and lesser-known Zapotec sites are fascinating in their own right, and also make for great stepping stones on an exploratory tour of the colonial heritage, landscapes, markets, pueblos and cuisines of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.
Book it: Jules Verne (020 3131 5187, vjv.com) has a 19-night “Mysteries of the Maya and Aztecs” escorted group tour (6-22 people) from Mexico City to Honduras. From £3,195, including B&B accommodation, two lunches, excursions, a Shaman ceremony, and flights. Departs 7 November 2022 and 16 January, 13 February, 6 March and 6 November 2023.
Best for beach bums
Want to keep it simple? Then fly direct into Cancún and stay put. That way you can either lie back and think of gloomy England, or sultry Mexico, while doing nothing more energetic than wandering over to the infinity pool or down to the beach for a chilled margarita. Playa Mujeres is half an hour from the airport and from Cancún’s buzzing “Centro”, and is known for being a bit more high-end than other stretches of the white-sand strand. You can arrange whale shark swimming trips, visits to Mayan sites, boat trips to nearby Isla Mujeres and golfing outings (Greg Norman designed the local 18-hole course) at reception, and either eat in or take off on short recces to sample the fare elsewhere.
Book it: Virgin Holidays (0344 472 9646, virginholidays.co.uk) has 10-night all-inclusive stays at Dreams Playa Mujeres, from £1,701 per person. Flights from Manchester included.
For more inspiration, read Telegraph Travel's guide to the best hotels in Cancun.
Best for wildlife lovers
Butterflies and baleens
Every winter, millions of monarch butterflies arrive in the Central Highlands from as far away as Canada. Like you, they’re desperate to get away from the cold. The boughs of oyamel trees sometimes snap under the weight of resting monarchs. Combine the micro and the macro on your photographic wildlife tour. From December to April, Guerrero Negro in Baja California becomes the prime site for seeing whales migrating to shallow lagoons. Banderas Bay near Puerto Vallarta is famous for its humpbacks.
Book it: Wildlife Worldwide (01962 302086, wildlifeworldwide.com) arranges 10-day group tours (maximum 16 people) to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, followed by whale-watching in Banderas Bay. From £5,695 per person, including accommodation, flights, most meals, guides and transfers.