Where You Should Go in Mexico for Spring Break
(All are destinations in states clear of the U.S. State Department's travel advisory.)
Near Cancún: Mérida
Sure, see the beach for a few days, but the elusive "real Mexico" is easier found away from the water. Four hours inland by first-class buses, Mérida is a colonial city with 16th-century cathedrals built from demolished Mayan pyramids. On weekends the town shuts down central streets, and a weekend tradition of street food, music and dance takes over.
Beyond its museums and shops, it's a great hub town for nearby trips to see colonial villages and flamingoes. Rent a car to make a broad swipe of Mayan sites in the hills outside town like Uxmal, where geckos outnumber visitors if you time your visit when buses aren't there. Spring is also when the flamingoes come. You can see them at Celestún, a beach town on the Gulf of Mexico two hours east (pictured at top). The beaches can't rival the Caribbean, but boat trips early or late in daylight catch hundreds of flamingoes.
Near Guadalajara: Guanajuato
Set in the hilly country between Guadalajara and Mexico City, Guanajuato could be a household name if it had a beach nearby. It doesn't need it. Webs of tiny lanes run up from the compact center to hills that ring a town floor where colorful 16th-century cathedral tops pop up for a view. Cars run through the center underground, leaving much of the central parks and streets for pedestrians. There are stunning old theaters to see music and a silver mine to tour, but the most famous attraction is the Museo de las Momias, a cemetery site with dozens of mummies propped up that date over a century. Guanajuato's pretty fun.
You can add to the stay by studying Spanish at one of the schools, which arrange homestays with local families. A week's private tuition, plus room and board, runs under $500. A couple schools include Don Quijote, whose named gets passed around a lot during October's three-week arts/music festival Cervantino.
Near Puerto Vallarta: Chacala
Word is starting to get out about Chacala, a fishing village of a gorgeous mile-wide cove 60 miles north of Puerto Vallarta's touristy malecon. A road here helped. Only in recent years did a (bumpy) one connect the main highway, but visitors still find the wide expanse of gold sand mostly untouched but for a volleyball net shared by locals and visitors before dusk. A few dozens homes cluster at one end, as well as a couple high-end hotels (all restrained, no tower resorts) and cheap guesthouses. You can arrange boat tours, see whales or surf nearby, but mostly it's about kicking back.
Until the crowds come.
Near Cabo San Lucas: Todos Santos
You can well leave behind Cabo's condo and Sammy Hagar bar scene by taking an hour ride north, by car or bus. Todos Santos is a mix of a Mexican fishing town and Santa Fe, with an even split of local and New Agers from the north. There are a few things to do and eat in town, but it's mostly about the waves. Surfers hit nearby breaks in the area, and there's a couple surf schools in town if you're starting out.
By the way, Todos Santos' Hotel California likes to consider itself the hotel of the Eagles' song. It's not.
Near Mexico City: Tlaxcala
If you're not up to embrace one of the biggest and most exciting cities of the world, go two hours east. Pretty Tlaxcala, a student town of 90,000, goes slower. Off most visitors' radar, Tlaxcala is big on local pulque (a less powerful relation to tequila), Frida Kahlo (a local museum has an impressive collection) and hilltop views, including the Virgin of Ocotlán church overlooking the center or the nearby Olmec ruins of Cacaxtla that were accidentally discovered in 1975.
With a big more peso in hand, Mexican Home Cooking School offers English-language five-day all-inclusive courses focused on area specialties. Or you go deeper into spirits with the pulque tour at working farms such as the dreamy Hacienda Soltepec. Read more: