No matter how much one thrives on the excitement, culture, and energy of the megalopolis, occasionally the mind, body, and soul need some relaxation. Happily, there are several such diversions just a few hours from Mexico City, all accessible by car or comfortable bus. Residents of the city find these delightful and beautiful locales a welcome respite from their busy daily routine. Here are five breaths of fresh air…in more ways than one.
IXTAPAN DE LA SAL
No one tires of this lovely town, less than a two-hour drive or bus ride from Mexico City. The main attraction is the hot baths, both public and private. An easy road from Mexico City leads you to this quaint, tucked-away town. Bathe in the glory of not only the healing waters but also the sun, blue skies, and trees.
This is a favorite of my small band of friends. We periodically take a few days away from the noise of the city to play bridge around the pool at the Marriott Hotel, our personal favorite. This is a newer property, but there’s an ample selection of others. The original hotel, Hotel Ixtapan, though not as new and spiffy, has lovely gardens and pools and is very appropriate for families. All hotels here have pools, tennis courts, spa services, and those delicious hot water baths. Don’t miss it!
Just south of the bustling metropolis is the famous hideaway paradise of many national and international figures. Malcolm Lowry’s lauded novel, Under the Volcano, is set here. Many residents of Mexico City have weekend retreats in Cuernavaca, not only because of the location (just an hour south on a good highway), but because it’s known as the city of eternal spring, though for many of us it feels like eternal summer because the temperatures are a bit higher than Mexico City due to Cuernavaca’s lower altitude. This brings with it the advantage of easier breathing, and of course there is less smog. Trees and plants bloom year-round, giving the illusion that you’re much farther away from the city’s cement than you actually are. For many, Cuernavaca is known as the place with the best year-round climate in the world.
The city’s historic center is architecturally nothing of great note, and certainly not when compared to the colonial gems of San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato. It’s the surrounding area and hotels with pools and tennis courts that attract visitors, along with the climate. There are some tourist attractions, such as Cortes’ Palace, the Cathedral, and the Robert Brady house, which has been turned into museum that’s an artisan’s dream come true. Brady collected items from all over Mexico…and all over the world. There are many terrific photos of him with numerous famous visitors. Located just a block from the city bus station, it’s a must-see.
Cuernavaca is also a perfect location for studying Spanish. There are several immersion schools, but my friends and acquaintances have had very satisfying experiences at Encuentros, which offers the option of staying with a Mexican family or at a hotel, along with programs to suit varying levels of language experience. The staff is highly qualified and friendly. Many students return each year. You can also study online with them.
The award-winning resort-type hotel, Las Mañanitas Hotel Garden Restaurant and Spa, is located at Ricardo Linares 107, Centro Cuernavaca. Just a warning: during school holidays, there are many families here, which means the pool is filled with children. This, of course, will be true of any resort or hotel with a pool in Mexico.
VALLE DE BRAVO
Here’s a well-established retreat located in the Toluca area. The air is fresher and in the winter months it’s downright chilly. Many wealthy Mexicans celebrate weddings and other special occasions in this picturesque spot. The main attraction here, besides the ambiance, is the lake and quaint town.
SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE
San Miguel has become the playground of the “rich kids” of Mexico City, young professionals who need to escape the week’s social and work pressures. They drive up to San Miguel in their big SUVs to party, dance, shop, swim, drink, and eat. Their children’s strollers don’t fit well on the narrow cobblestone streets of SMA, so you need to be as careful of those as of the traffic. My friends know which drivers come from Mexico City because they don’t pause for pedestrians, whereas the San Miguel residents reliably do. But don’t let that put you off. San Miguel is one of the most beautiful small cities you will ever see, exactingly renovated. It receives a lot of government money and has strict building codes to keep it in pristine colonial-style condition. SMA has been named the best city in the world by Conde Nast and many other travel publications.
You’ll find the highest quality artisans in San Miguel (bring an extra suitcase), as well as many fine restaurants. Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere except the small markets and tiendas. Just outside the city are hot spring pools for the ultimate relaxation experience. They are located a short taxi or bus ride from town, with La Gruta being a favorite destination.
Be sure to seek out a delicious Mexican treat just a block off the Jardin Principal (the main meeting area in front of the spectacular Parroquia). Churros y Chocolate serves just that!
Restaurant recommendation: Nómada cocina de interpretación, located in the back of the new Mercado Centro, on the Ancha de San Antonio. On Wednesdays, the chefs offer a degustation, or tasting, of six dishes. On a recent visit, our group was pampered by knowledgeable waiters who served us seviche, salad, beets and eggplant, short ribs, and a tortilla topped with huitlacoche and flor de calabaza, topped off by a scrumptious dessert. The specialty of the house is mushroom risotto, and I have never tasted better.
Hotel recommendation: Acuarela Bed and Breakfast, located in Guadiana (Prolongación Aldama 91, Colonia Caracol), a bit outside centro, is quieter than the hotels right off the Jardin. Another huge advantage is that it offers parking. Each room is color coded. Look online to see which color room fits your needs. Continental breakfast is included, with a full breakfast for just 60 pesos additional. The staff is friendly and helpful.
There are many other hotels closer to centro, but they’re also more expensive. Top of the line is the Rosewood, its terrace at sunset a tourist’s delight. Expect to pay for it, though. The prices aren’t quite as delightful as the view!
San Miguel is three and a half hours from Mexico City, an easy drive or deluxe bus ride on Primera Plus or ETN companies.
If you’re staying in Cuernavaca, take a day trip over to Tepoztlán or spend an entire weekend there. This is another location, like Cuernavaca, for Chilangos’ weekend visits. The most popular attraction for the physically active tourist is a climb up the surrounding hills to a pyramid.
Little shops and restaurants sprinkle the small city, making an easy walking day another option. The town is filled with artists and off-beat proprietors.
Be sure to give yourself plenty of time when planning any Mexico trip. I’ve never heard a tourist complain that they had too much time anywhere in Mexico. Au contraire!