PACK YOUR BAGS
Our neighbor to the south has so much more to offer than guacamole, margaritas, and all-inclusive resorts. Mexico is rich in ancient culture, stunning natural landscapes, world-class gastronomy, and cutting-edge art, and there are lots of deals for Americans traveling south of the border. This roundup of Mexican getaways for less than $100 a day has something for everyone, from the foodie to the artist to the historian to the beach bum.
Recognized as the culinary capital of Mexico, Oaxaca is irresistible to anyone interested in food and drink. It's the birthplace of mezcal, the agave-based ancestor of tequila, and mole, the family of rich sauces found throughout the country. The city is home to many artists, with a thriving gallery scene in the center of town. Strolling through the city's main market is entertainment in itself, offering a dazzling array of colors, scents, and sounds.
Even after dining out and seeing some sights, it's a challenge to spend more than $100 a day in Oaxaca. Accommodations can be found for well under $50 a night for a private room, breakfast included. Tours of nearby attractions, such as the incredible Monte Albán, cost as little as $5 including transportation to and from the city. Meals at one of the many restaurants, such as an extravagant lunch of mole and tortillas, should be around $20 or less. A trip to a mezcaleria or a taste of the traditional spirit starts at $5 a glass and a late-night snack of tlayuda (a Mexican pizza) is another $5.
SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE
This quiet and relaxing town is a nice option for a stress-free getaway. Home to several art schools, the city at times feels like an international art fair, with cognoscenti gathering in the town square each morning and evening for drinks and conversation.
Hotel rooms are reasonable, starting at about $60 for two, including a generous breakfast spread. An average meal with non-alcoholic drinks is less than $20, and much less for delicious street food such as tacos, corn on the cob, and roasted chickpeas. A handful of small bars in town serve cocktails or tequila for a few dollars each, and enjoying the quiet and serene calm of San Miguel de Allende in the evening is free. During the day, visit the many local art galleries and enjoy free entrance to the stunning Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel church, an unusual, pink neo-Gothic structure.
An old silver mining town built on a series on steep hills, Guanajuato is filled with winding staircases and small plazas, creating a beautiful mosaic of colorful buildings that bring to mind an Escher painting. One of the highlights for visitors is a walking tour that leaves nightly from the zocalo, offered in both Spanish and English for around $20. The tour winds through alleys and staircases that bring the history of the town alive and includes a visit to the callejon del beso, or "alley of the kiss," where kissing your true love brings 15 years of good luck. A visit to the Valenciana silver mine provides a lesson in economic history and includes a bonus stop at an elaborately decorated church nearby, all for a few dollars.
Restaurant meals average less than $15 and generally include three courses. Look for cajeta, a delicious Mexican caramel, for dessert. Accommodations are the biggest expense in Guanajuato. A standard hotel with breakfast included starts at about $60 a night.
This popular vacation spot is all about the gorgeous white-sand beaches on the Pacific Ocean. Prices range widely for hotel rooms in the old town within walking distance of the main attractions, but might be found for around $40. The beach is free, as is the sprawling Malecón, the huge boardwalk featuring foods stalls, restaurants, shops, and fascinating sculptures. Meals in town can be found for around $20, including non-alcoholic drinks such as fresh juices and smoothies. Cheap but delicious Mexican beer adds just a few dollars more. With food and lodging so inexpensive, visitors will have money left over to spend at artisanal markets filled with crafts and regional specialties.
The capital of the state of Michoacán is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for its well-preserved colonial buildings and historic city center. Morelia's famous cathedral, built in 1669, features rose-colored stone, baroque paneling, a giant pipe organ, and precious works of silver. Entrance is free, as is the light and music show at the cathedral every Saturday night. The city is also home to the Museo de Casa Morelos, a free museum dedicated to José Morelos, a leader of the Mexican War of Independence for whom the city is named. A basic hotel with simple breakfast starts at $35 a night. Morelia is not particularly known for its street food, so other meals are best enjoyed at restaurants, with average prices around $15 for lunch and up to $35 for a fairly fancy three-course meal.
The name of this small town on the Pacific translates as "hidden port," and it does feel like a secret getaway hidden between the jungle and the sea. With beautiful beaches and world-class surfing, it's an appealing destination for travelers looking for a slower pace.
A clean hotel room near the main drag in walking distance to the beach starts at about $50 a night. The local seafood is fresh and delicious, with numerous cafés offering meals and fresh juice drinks for around $10. Inexpensive surfing lessons are available at the many beachside huts. Even if all you want to do is soak up some tropical sun, Puerto Escondido is hard to beat for rest and recuperation.
Located in the southern state of Chiapas, Palenque is rich in pre-Columbian history and home to incredible Mayan ruins. Hotel rooms in town start at $35 and typically include breakfast. Most hotels provide transportation to the nearby archaeological zone for about $5. Entrance to the museum and the site costs about the same, and tours in English cost as little as $10. It's easy to spend a full day at the ruins and work up an appetite to satisfy at one of the many restaurants that fuse southern Mexican cuisine with ancient Mayan touches. An average meal is less than $20.