Beyond the sunbathers, cervezas and spring-break debauchery so conspicuously on display in Cancún and Cozumel, Mexico offers a lesser-known...
Beyond the sunbathers, cervezas and spring-break debauchery so conspicuously on display in Cancún and Cozumel, Mexico offers a lesser-known adventure experience — the kind that is found deep in the jungle or near small fishing villages and offshore reefs.
The same country that possesses one of the world’s most polluted capital cities also ranks as one of the richest in species diversity. Twenty-two biosphere reserves and nearly 50 national parks offer hiking and wildlife-watching opportunities; mountain chains and interior canyons are chock-full of biking trails; fertile warm-water upwellings attract pods of whales and glittering fish.
Adventurous tourists, particularly those focused on a specific outdoor sport or activity, have much to discover along the coast and on the country’s ruggedly varied interior terrain.
Almost by definition, some of these unexplored gems are in remote areas, so travelers will need to be vigilant about safety. That’s where knowledgeable outfitters are key — they can take you to little-touristed places where you’ll feel comfortable exploring the backcountry forests and secluded beaches that you might not visit alone. Regions like Chiapas and Oaxaca, while still extricating their reputations from recent political unrest, have become more stable.
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Surfers have been crossing the border to ride waves along Mexico’s Pacific Coast for decades, and this small coastal fishing village 30 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta has lately achieved the perfect mix of lively beachfront bars, surf camps and terra-cotta architectural charm — all, most important, with easy access to numerous breaks ideal for beginners and for intermediates looking to sharpen their technique. Advanced riders might head south to the body-wrecking barrels at Puerto Escondido, but the rest of us mere mortals will be content to spend a week or two skimming the waves there.
An easy right break on Sayulita’s bay, just off a curving white-sand stretch of town beach, is where longboarders spend most of their time; if those waves get too big, beginners can always move down the beach and find smaller ones. A faster left break caters to speedy shortboarders. In 2006, the Access Trips adventure travel company started a small-group surf itinerary to Sayulita and its surrounding breaks, joining the pioneering Las Olas Surf Safaris (www.surflasolas.com or 831-625-5748), which runs surf camps for women, and several others. The special flavor of the village, says Alain Chuard, co-owner of Access Trips, comes from its friendly and eclectic population (local fishermen, hippies, expatriates) and the town’s careful control over development (there are no big hotels or big chain stores here, whereas Wal-Mart has landed in Puerto Vallarta).
Sayulita might not be a secret anymore, but it’s far from being overrun by tourists. Beaches are rarely crowded; a one-bedroom villa at Villa Amor, the luxury hotel in town, starts at $90 a night; and foreign travelers tend to be in their 20s and 30s.
Access Trips’ seven-day surf safaris are led by a local surfer, Javier Chavez, and a team of local instructors. Days are spent surfing the bay and visiting other secluded surf spots north and south of Sayulita that are accessible only by boat. In the winter, humpback whales cruising by the bay are a bonus. Surfers stay in newly built bungalows with ocean views just up the hill from town. Access Trips, www.accesstrips.com or 650-492-4778. Seven-day surf adventures from $1,885.
El Potrero Chico
About an hour northwest of Monterrey, a craggy limestone outcrop named El Potrero Chico has been quietly attracting rock climbers from around the world. What makes the area unusual is the sheer variety of the 600-plus bolted routes — in which permanent artificial anchors are embedded in the rock — all within easy access of a campground and lodge at the base of the rock.
You won’t have to share. The crowd typically tops out at 50 or 60 people, mostly a mix of Americans and Canadians and some Europeans; on many days, you’ll probably encounter just a handful of other climbers.
Since the climbing scene in Mexico has yet to take off, most of the climbs have been developed by Americans in the past decade, and routes are usually christened with quirky Spanish or English names (Estrellita, Treasure of Sierra Madre, Yankee Clipper). The bolting of routes directly into the rock makes the rugged terrain more accessible to a wider spectrum of climbers; an average Joe can easily try a beginner climb next to an awesome Jane working on a longer, more complicated route. Limestone uplift makes for a combination of crags, spires and ridges. The terrain and loose rock conditions are the kind of thing you’d find in the backcountry (think the Wind River Range in Wyoming), but here, it’s all fixed-bolt sport climbing instead of traditional climbing, in which climbers place their own gear to protect against falls.
Long, moderate sport routes make El Potrero Chico, just west of the small town of Hidalgo, a friendly place for climbers to work on their skills. To encourage climbing and environmental efforts in the community, the climbing school runs cleanup days in which local children help with the maintenance of routes by collecting trash.
Posada El Potrero Chico is a family-run campsite and lodge owned by a local resident named Luis Lozano. It serves the sporting crowd with Wi-Fi, new casitas and a small gear shop.
Posada El Potrero Chico, www.elpotrerochico.com.mxor 011-52-1-81-8362-6672. Weeklong guided climbing trips from $1,511 a person. .
Cabo San Lucas
In 1940, John Steinbeck embarked on an expedition to the Sea of Cortez to catalog marine life along Cabo’s rocky, undeveloped coastline, and found it “ferocious with life.” Though the town of Cabo San Lucas is now known as a luxury beach and golf destination, it first earned its reputation through its prized access to waters teeming with fish. With the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Sea of Cortez on the other, Cabo offers exceptional sport fishing at the confluence of both in the harbor’s deep-water canyons.
The area hasn’t been nicknamed the “marlin capital of the world” for nothing. An estimated 50,000 billfish — fast-swimming trophy fish that include marlin, swordfish and sailfish — are caught every year, and angling competitions stir up the resort strip in the fall months. Sustainable tourism calls for catch-and-release practices for billfish — their populations have steeply declined over the past 50 years — though fishing operators will let you keep commonly caught game fish such as yellowfin tuna, roosterfish, Spanish mackerel and dorado.
While the rocky intertidal zone that Steinbeck discovered in Cabo back then has been almost completely overrun by beaches and resort development, a day spent on the water captures some of that wonder. The quintessential Cabo angler experience includes chartering a small panga, or open fishing launch, early in the morning (unless you happen to be a movie star, in which case fully serviced 110-foot boats are more common). Swordfish are most plentiful January through June, as are sailfish, and the best conditions for blue and black marlin are July through November, when big storms put populations on the move. Striped marlin is caught year-round.
“The fishing experience in Cabo can be unforgettable, and the marlin are the biggest challenge — they’re what people come here to catch,” said Juan Beltran, a reservations agent and dockmaster for Pisces Fleet Sportfishing. The company’s fleet ranks No. 2 in the world in the number of released striped marlin, according to the Billfish Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports the conservation of global billfish populations.
Pisces Sportfishing, 619-819-7983 or www.piscessportfishing.com; a 28-foot boat charter is $560 a day, including crew, tackle, bait, lunch and fishing licenses for four.
Almost all visitors to the Barranca del Cobre, or Copper Canyon — one of the deepest and largest canyon systems in the world — show up via train or tour bus, stopping only to take a snapshot or two of the gloriously bizarre rock formations and caves. Actually composed of a series of huge canyons, Copper is traditionally home to the native Tarahumara Indians, a reclusive people who still live in remote canyon villages much as they have for centuries.
An eight-hour drive from El Paso, Texas, the town of Creel in the state of Chihuahua is the gateway to Mexico’s thriving mountain- and road-biking scene; every July, it plays host to a major national cycling festival and race series. From this base, at an elevation of 7,600 feet, you’ll find that Copper’s ins and outs are well-suited to two-wheeled exploration; on a mountain bike, you can actually smell the flowers. Just about every kind of trail and terrain can be accessed: world-class technical single-track, forest roads, Moab-quality slick rock, rocky desert landscape, challenging long climbs and descents on old mining tracks and winding back roads.
Several companies based in Moab, Utah, including Nichols Expeditions (www.nicholsexpeditions.com) and Western Spirit (www.westernspirit.com), offer weeklong mountain bike excursions to Copper Canyon, with guides and support vehicles. Riders looking for a longer itinerary will want to contact KE Adventure Travel, which leads a two-week trip. “There really are epic rides for all tastes,” said David Appleton, a guide who works with KE’s trips in Mexico. “The difficult part is sorting out all of the trails and rides, since nothing is marked and there are just so many. We have been guiding and riding there for 14 years and have only touched the tip of the iceberg.”
KE’s itinerary is a series of rides in terrain from the highland pine forest at canyon rims to the arid conditions at the base. Most days average about 25 miles, and elevation tops out at 8,200 feet (with one dizzying 4,000-foot descent into Batopilas Canyon along a switchback trail), but easier routes are plentiful. Nights are spent in hotels in town and log-cabin lodges along the trail. There’s also no shortage of wildlife (parrots, whitetail deer, jaguars) or scenery (cataract waterfalls, deserted mining claims).
KE Adventure Travel, 800-497-9675 or www.keadventure.com. Thirteen-day Copper Canyon bike trip from $2,390, including lodging and meals.