5 favorite vacation spots in Mexico

LA Times | Travel

It's understandable why Americans these days are thinking twice about venturing south of the border. A wave of gruesome violence, much of it related to drug trafficking, has swept Mexico in the last two years, leaving thousands dead. Popular tourist venues haven't gone unscathed. Last summer,...

By Reed Johnson // 11.13.08

It's understandable why Americans these days are thinking twice about venturing south of the border. A wave of gruesome violence, much of it related to drug trafficking, has swept Mexico in the last two years, leaving thousands dead.

Popular tourist venues haven't gone unscathed. Last summer, armed assailants shot up a town in northern Mexico that's a gateway to the spectacular Copper Canyon region, killing 13 people. A pile of decapitated bodies turned up 75 miles from the great Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá.

Although the U.S. government hasn't warned Americans to stay away, it has urged caution. On its website, www.travel.state.gov, the State Department says, "While millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year, including thousands who cross the land border every day for study, tourism or business, increased levels of violence make it imperative that travelers understand the risks of travel to Mexico. . . . Common-sense precautions . . . can help ensure that travel to Mexico is safe and enjoyable."

Travelers in Mexico must stay alert, especially along the border and in the northwestern states of Sinaloa and Chihuahua, which are rife with criminal activity. But there remain many safe, or at least relatively safe, destinations to explore.

During my recently concluded 4 1/2 -year stint as the Times' Latin American arts and culture correspondent, I was based in Mexico City and traveled extensively throughout the country. Any list of recommended travel destinations is, of necessity, subjective. But here are five spots that have a claim on my affections. I've visited all of them twice or more.

Any large metropolitan area such as Puebla or Veracruz, let alone Mexico City, will have crime. But having visited these areas and occasionally written about criminal activities in Mexico along with monitoring crime reports across the country, I feel confident advising friends or loved ones to include any or all of these five places on their itineraries.

Mexico City: Yes, the Mexican capital is a noisy, congested, chaotic place where you should steer clear of those green and white VW Beetle taxis (some engage in kidnapping) and watch your back at ATMs. But it's also the hemisphere's biggest, oldest, most historic metropolis, a bottomless trove of superb art museums, genteel parks, excellent restaurants.

First-time visitors usually gorge on the greatest hits: the bustle of the Zócalo (great central plaza); the superb murals in the Bellas Artes performing arts hall by Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco; the National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park. All deserve your time.

But try to spend an afternoon just strolling and sampling the quotidian pleasures of one of the many pleasant neighborhoods, perhaps Coyoacán, with its elegant colonial-era private homes and cobbled streets, or Roma, a once-crumbling relic of the Francophile tastes of the dictator Porfirio Díaz. The neighborhood, hit hard by a 1985 earthquake, is at last reviving and is now home to contemporary art galleries, nightclubs and restaurants.

Puebla: One of Mexico's most beautiful and authentic cities lies a mere three hours' drive from the capital, off a good highway past the twin volcanoes Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl. Puebla's ample historic center is chockablock with well-preserved baroque buildings, many of them open to the public.

The cathedral is a priority stop, as is the Museo de La Revolución (Museum of the Revolution), where the Serdán family of revolutionaries fought a 14-hour gun battle with federal troops and police on Nov. 18, 1910, the symbolic start of Mexico's 10-year civil war.

Bring some pocket money because you'll likely want to take home some brilliantly painted Talavera ceramic pottery for which the region is famous. Also bring a hearty appetite, the better to savor the local mole sauce, which rivals that of neighboring Oaxaca.

Veracruz City: This tropical port, where the conqueror Hernán Cortés first stepped onto the New World mainland, is often overlooked by travelers dashing off to the beaches. That's a shame, because Veracruz is a hospitable city with a raffish charm and an intriguing mixed-ethnicity character.

As the city's downtown center continues a revitalization, its plazas teem with music at night. On nearly any evening you can hear trios, quartets and larger ensembles playing traditional son jarocho, mariachi, marimba and a variety of Afro-Caribbean styles all jostling and overlapping.

The expansive harbor front and the miles-long malecón (sea-front promenade) are terrific places for people-watching or sitting down with a ceviche cocktail and a tequila to observe the evening light receding over the ocean and the nearby Isla de Sacrificios (Island of Sacrifices), where the indigenous natives once sacrificed captives.

Playa del Carmen: Leave behind Cancún's overpriced, over-built chain hotels and venture south toward the calmer environs of the Yucatán peninsula. There are accommodations here to fit practically every budget, from the pricey, exclusive Azul Beach Hotel to small, funky resorts with palapa-style bungalows for a fraction of the price.

Either way, you'll get access to the Platonic ideal of what a beach should be: miles of white sand lapped by calm, warm, turquoise waters. Practice your Portuguese as well as your Spanish, because you're likely to run into hordes of vacationing Brazilians. And whatever you do, don't pass up the chance to visit the late-Mayan ruins at Tulúm.

Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca: This provincial town in southern Oaxaca state is well-known as a hippie-surfer hangout, but it's much more than that. Sleepier and less developed than Oaxaca's other main beach destination, Huatulco, which received huge government development subsidies, Puerto Escondido retains an authentically Mexican atmosphere.

My favorite place to stay is the Hotel Villas Carrizalillo, a small, lovely group of villas with spectacular bayside views and access to public beaches with gentler water than the ferocious rip currents that entice surfers elsewhere along the coast.

Johnson is a Times staff writer.