Tell your friends you're going on vacation to Mexico and you're probably going to be met someone asking, "Oh! Cancún? Cozumel? Mexico City?" Though those destinations are wonderful and definitely bucket list-worthy, there is more to our southern neighbor than just the Spring Break haven and the capital. If you venture west, you'll be met with deserts, mountains, and a region overflowing with artistic adventure. If you go more inland, you'll be in a tequila drinker's fantasy world. And just outside of Mexico's most popular east coast city is a region on the brink of becoming a tourist superpower. Whatever your vibe is, there's a part of Mexico that vibes right along with you. Ahead, discover three of them. Vámonos de aventura!
For the comfort-loving soul looking to unplug and unwind, try... Riviera Maya
Yes, Riviera Maya may share the same airport with Cancun, yet this charming beachside haven tucked on the northeastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula couldn't be further from Spring Break central. With plenty of all-inclusive resorts spotting the Caribbean coastline, you'll have no trouble finding a place to disconnect from the real world and indulge in some self-care, be it swimming in the picture-perfect azure lagoons or Instagram-worthy infinity pools, practicing yoga on the white sand beaches, meditating surrounded by picturesque greenery, or simply reading poolside with a tropical drink in hand. And in case you recover quicker than you thought, there are plenty or activities and excursions one can take to make their trip an active or even historic one.
Where to stay: Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya
While there is an abundance of all-inclusive hotels in the Riviera Maya area, you need not look further than this property. Divided by the adult-only Heaven and family friendly Hacienda sides, the resort features a private beach, nine restaurants, eight bars and lounges, a nightclub, six pools, and a fitness center with everything included in the price, from the 24-hour room service and the endless drinks brought to your over-the-water cabana, to snorkeling and kayaking and access to daily shows and events (and even impromptu concerts by some of music's best). Music aficionados will get a kick out of the collection of prized memorabilia displayed throughout the hotel's lobbies and the Music Lab programs that range from DJ lessons to making of a band or music video.
Word of advice: Spend a little extra and stay in a Deluxe Platinum Sky Terrace boasting access to a private rooftop terrace with lounge chairs and a hydro spa tub in addition to the balcony equipped with a hammock overlooking the pristine grounds. Grab a bottle of wine from your fully stocked bar (also included in the price per night) and watch as the sun sets down from the privacy of your own hot tub.
What to do: Rock Spa
Start your vacation right by booking yourself a spa appointment on the very first day of your stay, and every day following that. While HRH's Rock Spa boasts a wide selection of services, ranging from hot stone and deep tissue massages to antioxidant facials and body wraps, that you can use your resort credit on, opt for something you wouldn't try back home, like the Rhythm and Motion Synchronicity massage. Taking place on a vibrating bed, the experience employs music that the masseuse then uses to sync pressure points and patterns to rhythm and beats in an attempt reduce stress and ease muscle tension. While, at first, it may seem jarring, by the end of the 50-minute session, you will be near, in not fully, asleep. For other music-centric treatments, you can also try the Face the Music facial, Smooth Operator treatment, or the Wrap Remix.
Whatever you settle on, arrive at the spa 30 to 45 minutes early to take advantage of the steam rooms and three hydrotherapy pools to achieve a maximum state of Zen.
What To Do: Stay Active
One of the perks of an all-inclusive hotel are the free fitness classes that you can partake in should you be looking to release some stress, kick-start your fitness routine, or combat the copious amount of food and drink that you will inevitably consume. After recently partnering with Les Mills, the fitness pros responsible for the world-renowned BodyPump and BodyCombat class craze, HRH's Body Rock now offers three daily classes from 14 programs taught by a visiting Les Mills instructor, in addition to their regularly scheduled programming. Combining popular music with strength, high-intensity intervals, and cardio exercises, these fitness classes strike the perfect balance between being challenging and fun.
Plus, with a view like this, how can you not be motivated to work out every day?
If you are looking for something less intense, check out the scenic "Born to Run" beachside running trail and on-site Yoga Temple that offers pilates, yoga, and Les Mills' BodyFlow.
What To Do: Temazcal
An ancient Mayan ritual, temazcal is a ceremony that aims to purify the body and spirit. Overseen by a local shaman, who prepares you for the sweat lodge-like experience and cleanses your energy beforehand, you will enter a mortar-and-stone igloo-shaped structure that's symbolic of Mother Nature's womb. Once inside, the igloo becomes sealed in complete darkness as hot lava rocks are placed in the center and sprayed with water infused with aromatic herbs. As steam starts to build up in the structure and your body begins to sweat out all the toxins, as well as spiritual impurities, you are invited to meditate and reflect on your past, free yourself of the toxic memories and experiences, reconnect with yourself again, and set intentions for your future through the shaman-led singing and chanting. When all is said and sweated out, you will come out more relaxed and rejuvenated than you can last remember being and take a dip in a cold pool of water, signifying the cleansing of your mind and body.
It's really a must for anyone looking to reconnect with their inner being and reset mentally.
What to eat:
While the food options are endless when it comes to all-inclusive resorts, and HRH really does offer everything from international buffets (Toro, Market) to traditional Mexican fare (Frida), exquisite French cuisine (Le Petit Cochon), Brazilian rodizio (Ipanema), and Asian Teppanyaki (Zen), you might want to stray beyond where the wristband allows you to enter. If you don't want to leave property, talk to your concierge and see if they can arrange a private dinner on the beach or a poolside picnic.
During one of the nights, we got to taste a "Fresh Fix" menu—featuring a variety of healthy small bites, such as beet tartare, strawberry gazpacho, and mushroom bourguignon, developed by famously health-conscious chef Karla Hernandez—paired with speciality cocktails made in partnership with Miami-based Bar Lab during a private dinner on Starlight Beach. It was a nice way to detox from all the overindulging that took place prior, not to mention the stunning backdrop of the ocean and stars.
If you're tired of every dining option on the property, venture out to eat. And don't just settle on a restaurant in one of the cute nearby towns, like Puerto Aventuras (even though there's nothing wrong with that if you do); rather, rent out a boat for a sunset sailing cruise. While you can opt for an open bar and sit-down dinner, with plenty of providers offering that option, you can also go the more interactive route and bring a professional sommelier aboard with you to teach you about local wines and host a cheese and wine tasting.
If you are venturing out beyond your hotel property, may we also suggest checking out Cancun’s Underwater Museum while you're at it? With almost 500 sculptures housed underwater, you'll have plenty to see while snorkeling or diving your way through the man-made reefs. Have we also mentioned the ancient Mayan ruins in the nearby gem of Tulum? There are ruins, and they are a must-see, as is Tulum.
Where to stay (soon): UNICO 20°87° Hotel Riviera Maya
Set to open in March, this adults-only resort is made for the cosmopolitan crowd looking to get a taste of the local and native culture. Featuring an unabashedly modern, yet authentically Mexican, design, this gorgeous property (we saw it firsthand in the last construction phase) will boast five dining experiences, six bars, three pools, beachfront classes, a spa, and stunning rooms featuring local art, balcony spa tubs, swim-up pools, and individual "hosts" that will help guests get the most out of their stay in Mexico.
While the property still has a few more months before opening, take advantage of the pre-opening special sale, offering rates starting at $186 per person per night (bookable now through December 31, 2016, for travel March 1 through December 22, 2017), right now so you can tell everyone that you heard about it first before it became a hot destination on everybody's list.
For the barfly looking to discover history, try... Guadalajara, Jalisco
Nearly everyone is familiar with Napa Valley, the California region that's a feast for the senses (and that gives one an excuse to over-imbibe on wine under the guise of tasting). Far less is known about Mexico's Tequila Trail in Jalisco, a region with hundreds of distilleries and agave farms set against a picturesque backdrop of rust-red dirt and volcanos. Tequila is one of the fastest growing spirits in the United States, but many of us barely know it beyond the clink of a shot glass. Yet more than 700 brands exist within the Jalisco region alone, making this the perfect trip for those who want to get in touch with their inner tippler and soak in centuries-old traditions.
What to do: Jose Cuervo & Fields Experience
Just like Champagne must be made within the French region in order to carry the namesake, tequila can only be called tequila if it is produced in the state of Jalisco or other limited regions. Looking to do some liquor tourism? Bring some friends and dance around the Tequila Trail: bake poolside in the dry Mexican heat, soak in the bright pastels of colonial towns, and wander tequila factories, sampling wares along the way.
If you pick one tour to do in Tequila, make it Jose Cuervo, and don't be fooled by what you (probably) associate with the name. As our guide said, “This is not like how you think of tequila back home,” while mimicking throwing back a shot. Yeah, I suppose we Americans have as much of a reputation as Cuervo does. One step on their land, though, and all predispositions vanish. Everything has a hand's touch to it, due to the brand still operating as a family-owned business after over 200 years. Both the Cuervo agave fields and their La Rojeña distillery are located in the area, and the immersive tour explores both.
On the tour, a jimador (agave farmer) will guide you through Cuervo’s dusty blue agave fields at the base of a volcano and walk you through harvesting the plant, from slashing the leaves away to using a long-handled tool called a coa to whittle the core down to a giant, pinecone-looking egg. It's worth noting this might be the only tour I've ever been on that allowed me to use a machete. From there, it’s off to the distillery. The layered, syrupy smell of roasted agave immediately punches through and plays backdrop to the entire factory where the plant roasts, is ground, smashed, and then placed into fermentation tanks. It's raucous and intense but ends with a tasting straight out of the barrel in the family's personal cellar. Ooh la la.
Where to stay: Solar de las Animas
Located just steps away from Cuervo’s distillery, Solar de las Animas’ design is based on a Creole colonial house and blends influences from the 17th and 18th centuries. There’s a spa (natch), rooms with towering, wood-carved headboards, and a restaurant that offers fresh takes on Mexican favorites. The courtyard pool is an Instagram dream, with cobalt blue tiles in contrast to a vibrant orange backdrop. Of course, I took a pic.
The more modern rooftop bar is a must-see, not only offering a view of nearby church Santiago Apostol but the Sierra Madre mountains and volcano as well. I lounged away an evening with a tequila cocktail while gazing at the volcano that created the agave fields below. Talk about full circle.
What to eat:
Who needs a plan? Not us! Wander the town of Tequila and grab tacos at any one of the street vendors roosting in pop-up markets down winding alleyways. For the adventurous, there are options like lengua (tongue) or callos (tripe), but you can also never go wrong with chorizo. I nabbed two for under a dollar, then dressed them up with the stand’s offerings (usually diced onion, cilantro, salsa, and a wedge of lime). Simple, bright, clean flavors backed by the slick fat of chorizo. Heaven.
Nibbling your way through is the way to go, with pockets of restaurants around every bend. We saddled up to one bar for a chicharron taco, then moments later plopped down at another for caldo de pollo (chicken soup), which arrived in almost medieval fashion with a bowl housing fist-sized carrots, potatoes, and an entire chicken wing. Your stomach will give up before your wallet, so make sure you’re wearing elastic and practice your breathing.
What to drink: Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia
Part of the Jose Cuervo experience already includes a tasting, so post-tour, you'll be one step closer to tequilier status (think of it as the tequila version of a sommelier), but there is so, so much to sample while in town. Near all the stores offer local brands that are vastly cheaper than back home (most bottles I saw were in the range of $6 to $9) and come in all manner of variety, from silver (unaged) to añejo (aged for at least one year). The liquid’s housing is just as diverse, from beautifully hand-blown spheres of glass to cartoonishly-large plastic bottles (think: Costco-sized water jug—not an exaggeration). There are over 140 distilleries in the Jalisco area, so your options only stop when your liver does.
Before you leave the Cuervo distillery, make sure to not only taste, but buy a bottle of their Reserva de la Familia. An extra-añejo tequila using only the inner core of hand-selected agave plants that are a decade old, this particular tequila is considered the crown jewel of Cuervo's collection, and with good reason. Almost Cognac-like in nature, there's a toastiness to it that has undertones of vanilla and even maple syrup. And, for the collector in you, each year Cuervo commissions a Mexican artist to hand design the wooden box each bottle comes in. Never thought you could out-bougie your friends on tequila, did you? Mull this over while giving your Reserva a nice spin in a snifter glass to show off its legs.
For the creative soul, try... Los Cabos
Situated at the farthest tip of Baja California peninsula, where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific is a tiny municipality known as Los Cabos. Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo are the two towns connected by the burgeoning Resort Corridor. It's where those who seek art and culture come to play. This is no sit back and let the days go by type of place. The art that's right outside your hotel's door is breathtaking, the desert climate sublime. It's a region that prides itself on its artists and creators. This year, the Los Cabos International Film Festival screened Jackie and hosted director Oliver Stone. The festival is a testament to Los Cabos' commitment to the arts, which, if you look hard enough (and you don't have to look very hard), is all around you over there. Pack good walking shoes and seaside gallery attire, because Los Cabos is where creativity reigns.
Where to stay: Hotel El Ganzo
Hotel El Ganzo is unlike any other hotel in Los Cabos. It's a design lover's dream and artist's blank canvas—literally. The hotel invites artists to come and create murals for the hotel's walls and rooms. Stay here once, and it'll look different the next time you visit. Its music residency program also ensures you'll never not be surrounded by good tunes. You may even be able to catch a special concert by one of the hotel's artists in resident. (There's a recording studio in its basement.) Plus, with a quick boat ride across a marina to a little peninsula, you'll be at one of the most serene dining and lounge establishments ever. Make sure your phone is fully charged because every inch of this hotel and its surroundings is Instagram-worthy.
Where to eat: ACRE
You want farm-to-table cuisine? ACRE has it. You want a restaurant that would make Architectural Digest swoon? ACRE has it and then some. Trust us; it's luxury without the pretention.
What to experience: the water
Due to Mother Nature and her pesky ways, most of the beaches in Los Cabos aren't swimmable. The currents generated when the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific make it unsafe for even the most advanced of swimmers. There are areas to swim, but your best bet of experiencing the water is hopping on a day cruise from Marina Cabo San Lucas. You'll be able to get up close and personal with Los Cabos' iconic El Arco de Cabo San Lucas and maybe even catch a few sea lions sunbathing on the rocks. And if you're in for a big adventure, head on over to Hydro FlyBoard in Marina Puerto Los Cabos and learn how to get your water wings. The instructors there are incredible and make you feel like a rockstar even if you're falling on your face. But hey, if you're not falling, you're not learning.
What to sightsee: San José del Cabo's Gallery District
Behind San José's main square is a pocket of artists and galleries just waiting to be explored. The richly colored exteriors are Instagram-ready and the gallery owners behind are the most welcoming. Between November and June, the district comes alive every Thursday night for the Art Walk. Galleries with special medallions outside open their doors to locals and tourists for a night of culture, wine, small bites, and good music. If you're lucky, you may even get a tour of artist's residencies. (Frank Arnold's gallery is breathtaking.) You'll leave the district wanting to pack up everything to open a gallery yourself.
Where to drink: Sunset Mona Lisa
The name of the restaurant says it all. Arrive at Sunset Mona Lisa early evening, get a good seat, order some appetizers made by Michelin Star chefs, some wine, and watch the day turn to night as the sun dips behind El Arco de Cabo San Lucas. It's unlike anything you've experienced before; it's the perfect cap to a vacation filled with art and adventure.