Mexico is falling down with ruins, literally, but Palenque’s still feel weirdly full of life. Only partly unearthed, surrounded by luscious jungle with monkeys darting around, and trees full of toucans and parrots, you can hike over mysterious mounds with supposed temples or palaces underfoot. Less pristine and museum like than Chichén Itzá, and way fewer people. You can swim at nearby Mishol-Ha waterfall if water levels permit.
Most Mexico vacations follow the cultural circuit, but there is so much wildlife to be seen here too. And no better places than the 67 national parks. Which Mexico doesn’t really shout about. Archipiélago Espíritu Santo NP is famous for whales, Mexico City’s stunning Desierto de los Leones NP famous for not really being a desert, but rich, ancient oak forest, and Iztaccihuatl-Popocatepetl Zoquiapan NP is volcanic, snow peaked perfection.
Just because there are glorious elegant ruins to visit, doesn’t mean that Mayan culture is a thing of the past. Far from it. Over 15 percent of Mexico’s population has indigenous or Mexican Indian roots. In fact, unknown to most, there are over 60 indigenous groups and just as many languages, meaning that Mexico defines itself, in its constitution, as a “pluricultural” nation. The most prolific groups are Nahuatl, Yucatec (Maya), Zapotec and Mixtec.
For an insightful juxtaposition of colonial, colourful architecture alongside traditional Mayan, mountain life, this town is a must see. There are day trips to the markets here, but take time to spend time in this exquisite, elevated and eclectic area of Mexico. It is, literally, a breath of fresh air.
You can savour the whales off Mexico’s Baja Peninsula between February and April. One of the longest peninsulas in the world, it proffers 3,000km of coastal homes to dolphins, blue, sperm whales and orcas. Most magically, almost every grey whale in existence gathers around four particular mangrove lagoons here to breed and birth. Go out and see them on small boats, or camp on lagoon islands and wake up to whale song.
Mexico is part of a 2,400km trail around the great pyramids, palaces and ancient principalities from Mayan civilisation, which dominated Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, but also further south into Central America. Many are UNESCO sites, such as Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, but they are all impressive sites and, although you can’t fit them all in, many tours visit Mexico, Belize and Guatemala’s finest, as that works geographically.
The antithesis of culturally stripped Cancún, Oaxaca is what many of us hope Mexico to be. Culture vultures swoop and swoon here, as do foodies, as Oaxaca’s traditional cuisine has been listed by UNESCO as an ‘intangible cultural heritage’. Throw in the archaeological delights of Monte Alban, Mitla and Yagul, and the historic hub of Zócalo, the old city centre, where markets and backstreets are buzzing and beautiful.
It really is as good as you might hope. And Mexicans have realised how much we love it too, with food trails and gastro getaways very de rigeur these days. Go for a taco trail in Mexico City, check out the superb market in Oaxaca, a town that has UNESCO heritage status for food alone, and the Yucatán Peninsula is superb for seafood. Not forgetting tequila, mescal, margaritas, heritage and contemporary beers to raise a glass.
The city that has given the Yucatán Peninsula its yucky reputation, this hub of the Mayan Riviera has done for Mexico’s reputation what Magaluf has for Spain - cheap all inclusive vacations in concrete resorts that not only keep money out of the local economy, but nature and local people out of tourism. There is so much more to Yucatán though. You just have to fly in and keep going, cycling, hiking or swimming.
Mexico is rightly proud to be the birthplace of ecotourism, a movement that was led by Mexican environmentalist, Héctor Ceballos-Lascurain in 1983. However, beware of bandwagon bounders, calling themselves ‘eco’ just because they are rural, remote or just a tad rustic – with no connection with community or culture. Or eco parks that include swimming with enclosed dolphins as part of their sustainable sensations. Not.
Golf is often the undiscussed area of irresponsible tourism. And it is mega in Mexico. They have gone from 50 courses to over 150 in ten years. They may seem like heavenly holes, but golf raises issues of herbicides, pesticides and contaminated water seeping into the natural environment. As well as excess water and indeed land usage. Unless they are carefully managed, it is still rare to see a golf course that does things the fair way.
It is not hard to measure the economic and cultural impacts of the cruise ship ‘sleep thousands’ giants. Just visit a port like Puerto Vallarta and watch it in action. This ‘roll on, roll off’ tourism has few good impacts, the economic one always cited as the positive influencer, but actually, most of the money stays on board. In contrast, most of their polluting elements don’t.