Mexico’s Three Most Unique Places
By Jordyn Jacobson
Welcome to the land of taco-stall-lined streets, crowded marketplaces, ancient Mayan ruins, colonial cities, indigenous languages, drunk spring breakers, expensive cacao ceremonies, and a culture as rich as chocolatey, Oaxacan mole. Whatever experience you’re hoping to find, you’re sure to find it in Mexico.
From the touristy Caribbean coast where party-seeking American college students swarm the row of Vegas-like clubs, to deep inside the jungle of Chiapas where howler monkeys swing from the trees, this massive country has something for everyone.
With a whopping 45 million tourists in just 2019, very little of Mexico has not yet been discovered. Nevertheless, four months of backpacking from coast to coast allowed me to stumble upon some lesser-known gems. Here are just a few of my favorites:
“We lay by the beach all day and party all night”, a native of this self-proclaimed hippie town once told me.
If you’re looking for somewhere to drop out of life for a little while and to do a lot of… well… nothing… Sayulita is your place. With its impressive waves, tranquil beaches, numerous hostels, and laid-back inhabitants, this Nayarit coastal town is every barefooted, backpacking surfer’s dream.
My days usually began at Hotelito Los Suenos, a hotel offering yoga every day of the week. You can get a package of five classes for only $35! Their wide open-air studio is the perfect place to pass your morning, and you can even indulge in a healthy breakfast at the hotel afterward.
Bustling Beach Scene
Days can be spent lounging at the town’s bustling beach, nursing your hangover and admiring the local surfers. If you get hungry, you’re in luck- Sayulita has amazing food.
Check out Caféson for the best coffee, El Itacate for a wide variety of tacos, Yah Yah Cafe for vegan-friendly food, and ChocoBanana for the town’s specialty: a frozen banana doused in chocolate.
For a nice day trip, head to the nearby town of San Pancho. You can catch a bus from the local bus station and it only takes about 5 minutes.
You will be dropped right outside of the town and can walk the rest of the way.
I think of San Pancho as Sayulita’s smaller, calmer little brother. But with a way prettier sunset, which is reason enough to make the trip.
Once the sun goes down, travelers and locals alike can be found crowding into the main square and overflowing the bars in the center of town.
Nighttime is when the city comes to life, and you can feel the heart of this small fishing village pulsating through the loudspeakers at Bar Don Pato.
Sayulita’s Hostel at the Center of the Party
If you need a place to stay, look no further: La ReDonda hostel is the center of the party.
From the minute you walk through the door, their young volunteer team will welcome you right into the family.
There were very few nights that I didn’t end up here, playing ping pong and dancing with friends in their dimly lit common room.
Sayulita is a place where people come and never leave- and it’s no wonder. After a few days, you’re bound to wave to familiar faces as you take a stroll through the town.
The barista at the local coffee shop will probably know your order. You’ll undoubtedly be able to navigate the narrow streets like the back of your hand. In short, you’ll feel right at home.
Insider tip: If you’re up for a bit of a journey, make your way to “Playa Carricitos”, an isolated beach outside of the city center.
The hour walk will take you through the city, past a colorful cemetery, and onto a dirt road, rewarding you with some peace, quiet, and breathtaking views (you may even have the beach to yourself!)
San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas
So this city isn’t exactly hidden, but it is definitely a gem. San Cristóbal de Las Casas is easily my favorite place in all of Mexico.
I came to this city in the southern region of Chiapas after three weeks of dodging tourist traps in Quintana Roo. As soon as I exited the taxi that brought me and my friend to the door of our hostel, I remarked, “I think we’re finally in Mexico.”
While San Cristóbal has indeed become a popular backpacking destination, it has fought hard to hold onto its identity. Locals will be happy to share the interesting history of the region and the still-thriving indigenous culture.
Views of the Mountains
Its cobblestone roads, small colorful buildings, and view of mountains in the distance separate the city from almost anywhere else in Mexico.
You can spend hours getting lost in the fairytale-like streets, exciting markets, and quaint cafes.
If you’re looking for more of an adventure, there are endless things to do in and outside of the city.
Head to Parque Rancho Nuevo or El Arcotete to spend an afternoon exploring caves, zip-lining, or enjoying a picnic with friends.
Cañon del Sumidero
Hop on a boat and tour Cañon del Sumidero, a national park boasting incredible natural beauty. You will most likely be able to spot crocodiles chilling out by the water as you make your way through the paths created by the canyon.
For a unique cultural experience, get on horseback and ride to the indigenous village of San Juan Chamula, a place that is seemingly untouched by the modern world. The people here practice a combination of both the region’s ancient religion and Catholicism, and I was lucky enough to be here during their celebration of Fat Tuesday.
Even on a normal day, San Juan Chamula is an interesting place to explore.
The church in the center of town is open to visitors, and I can assure you that a walk through this 16th century Iglesia is unlike anything you will ever experience: pine tree leaves cover the floors, pictures of saints hang on the walls, countless candles light up the room, and locals sit praying next to large bottles of Coca Cola. Be sure not to take any pictures as it is strictly forbidden.
“Puerta Vieja” is definitely the best hostel I stayed in during my trip to Mexico. At $8 a night, you are given a bed, two meals a day, Spanish classes, salsa lessons, free cocktail hours, daily tours (with an extra price), and a cinema room. I a home here and couldn’t bring myself to leave for over two weeks.
Small but bursting with character, modern but loyal to its roots, San Cristóbal is an underrated destination that should be on every travelers bucket list.
Insider tip: La Viña de Bacco is a cozy wine bar that brings free tapas with each (incredibly cheap) glass of wine. I went here so often that the waiters knew my name and my order.
San José Del Pacifico
The Beatles once came here to do magic mushrooms. Need I say more?
This small village was put on the map in the 1950s when Lifetime magazine published an article about the vice president of J.P Morgan joining Mexican healer Maria Sabina in a traditional mushroom ritual.
Psilocybin had been used for religious ceremonies in the region for centuries, but this marked the introduction of the natural drug to the western world.
Because of its history, San José has earned itself the title of “Mexico’s Mushroom Capital”, and its residents are not afraid to show it.
Mushroom artwork decorates the streets where local vendors sell mushroom key chains, t-shirts, jewelry, etc… My bed even had a mushroom engraving on the headboard!
If you are not keen on embarking on a psychedelic journey, don’t worry- there are plenty of other ways to relax in San José.
A certain stillness permeates the air of this mystical mountain town and it has a way of whisking you into a deep state of tranquility.
Take a Temazcal
Take part in a Temazcal, an ancient ceremony that originated in Mesoamerica as a way to purify the body. It is likely to be offered by the place you are staying in, but there are also many ceremonies happening in town.
The Temazcal takes place in an igloo-like structure, with participants sitting around a pile of hot rocks. As the ceremony goes on, more and more rocks are added to the center, and the temperature of the hut becomes increasingly hot. Prepare to sweat A LOT!
The ceremony that I attended was completely in Spanish and I didn’t understand much of what was being said. Even so, I felt a powerful connection to everyone around me, and it was an honor to be welcomed into a culture and tradition so different from my own. One participant added, “We are all from different places, but we are one family.”
One of my favorite activities while in San José was just sitting and marveling at the beauty of the motionless mountains.
For an amazing view, head to the “Mirador”, which literally means “lookout” in Spanish. There are signs all over town pointing you towards the entrance but you can also ask people for directions as you go.
After hiking up many, many steps, you will find the word “Mirador” printed in big white letters like the Hollywood sign. From the top of the lookout, you can see the entirety of the town and mountains stretching for miles behind it.
Dormitories and Cabins
I stayed at Cabañas La Cumbre, which is located right outside of the central part of the village. This rustic hostel is made up of a series of dormitories and private cabins, a big outdoor common area, and a restaurant serving traditional Mexican dishes and the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted!
At night, the guests of the hostel gathered around the communal fire pit, telling ghost stories and discussing travels with warm drinks in hand. It was here that I had some of my best moments, sharing tidbits of life with interesting strangers.
Being hidden away in the hills of Oaxaca, in a town of only 500 people, reminded me of how simple life can really be. I often long for the wonderfully quiet and peaceful days that I passed here.
Insider tip: Bring your warmest clothes! It gets painfully cold at night and you’d be hard-pressed to find heating in any of the accommodation here.
While I would undoubtedly recommend visiting Sayulita, San Cristóbal de Las Casas, and San José del Pacifico, I would also urge you to discover some gems for yourself.
I didn’t even know that these places existed before I was already in the country. Half of the fun of traveling is not knowing where you are going to end up and just letting the wind take you where it may.
The next time you’re on the road, ask for a recommendation from a local; say yes to the opportunity that unexpectedly pops up; be open to veering off of the well-trodden path. You never know what magic you may find.
Jordyn Jacobson is a student studying international relations at the University of Edinburgh. At a young age, she has already traveled extensively, mostly throughout countries in Latin America. She is an aspiring journalist and hopes to continue sharing her unique travel experiences through her writing.
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