Ancient and Modern Mexico
San Miguel de Allende and the Riviera Maya combine the old and the new in a fresh way that reveals the magic of modern Mexico.
Mexico’s sights are legendary and ancient, but there’s more to today’s Mexico than temples and history. Mexico is taking its place among the world’s most exciting vacation spots, thanks to newly cosmopolitan offerings that range from cutting-edge art to trend-setting fashion to raved-about cuisine.
Begin your trip in central Mexico, 270 kilometres north of Mexico City. San Miguel de Allende (often shortened to “San Miguel”), a UNESCO Heritage World Site nearly half a millennium old, is a draw for its exquisite colonial buildings and views of the distant Guanajuato Mountains, but it’s also building a name for home-grown design and adventurous, chef-driven restaurants. Begin an exploration of San Miguel with a strong coffee, artisan toast and eggs scrambled peasant-style at Cumpanio, a chic European-style bakery and lounge with plate glass windows that look out onto the cobbled streets of the city. Then, stroll two minutes westward to the city’s most famous landmark, La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel. This elaborate pink church appears to change colour throughout the day, depending on the angle of the sun, and it’s a stunning example of neo-Gothic architecture. If it’s open, dip into the crypt where several war heroes are buried. Just a couple of streets away is Bellas Artes, a 250-year-old cultural centre that was once a convent and still boasts superb colonnades, courtyards and high ceilings. There are five gallery spaces with temporary exhibitions, plus permanent murals by Mexican artist David Siqueiros. If you’re looking to dive deeper into the local arts scene, you can take classes in ceramics, drawing and mixed media here.
Mexico’s exploring the ways of organic fare, and lunch at Via Organica, a café that operates as a not-for-profit and sources sustainable food from local farmers, is a showcase for how to do it right. Stop here for Mexican-style meatballs in chipotle and tomato sauce and add a glass of the green juice of the day (made from the produce in the adjoining shop) for extra vitamins. Fortified, wander over to Mixta, a shop selling all kinds of elegant items sourced from San Miguel and abroad, including eye-catching jewelery, custom furniture and clothes by local designers, all housed in an 18th century building. From here, walk a kilometer north through the city’s winding streets to Rachel Horn Home. Raised in San Miguel, the eponymous Horn designs “21st century Mexico” interiors for some of the city’s most prominent businesses, and her shop (in the Fabrica La Aurora art and design centre, where you’ll find more than 40 galleries, shops and studios) is the place to pick up unusual housewares that make perfect souvenirs.
Horn worked on the design of Rosewood San Miguel de Allende, a sophisticated colonial-style boutique hotel whose enticing Luna Rooftop Tapas Bar offers some of the most spectacular views in town. Stop here just before sunset for an (excellent) margarita or two, and prepare for a sky that’s massed with colours as the sun descends. Round off the day with dinner at La Mezcaleria. This hip eatery is run by a Swedish-Mexican couple who have their own mezcal label and make each drink to order from fresh produce and herbs. The small plates of house-cured salmon, shrimp with grilled cherry tomatoes, and grasshoppers (an Oaxacan delicacy) are addictive.
HEAD EAST TO THE RIVIERA MAYA
For the second half of your trip, head east to the beach. On the gorgeous Riviera Maya, ancient sites abound. From a base on the Playa del Carmeno, you can take in incredible ruins on a day trip, interspersing history with visits to the area’s up and coming shops and trendy restaurants. Begin with an excursion to Chichen Itza, a Mayan-Toltec city that predates Spanish colonisation and which still boasts massive stone temples and pyramids that leave visitors awestruck.
On the way back to the coast, stop in Valladolid, a colonial city that’s worth visiting for its stunning spires and pastel stucco walls, but which is also home to a few ground-breaking new shops that sell gorgeous handcrafted leather bags and woven accessories: Dutzi Design and Hacienda Montaecristo. Both epitomize modern Mexican design – items inspired by Mexico’s traditions,
made locally, and with enough fashion cred to inspire envy in Europe.
Back in Playa del Carmen, relax with a cocktail at the Agave Azul Sushi & Tequila Bar at Rosewood Mayakoba. The deck of this open-air bar stretches out over a lagoon, with beautiful views of the mangroves, but it’s the 100 different labels of tequila (call ahead for a private tasting session) that you’re really here for. Sip your perfectly crafted libation of reposado or anejo, and watch the sun go down before heading to dinner at Yaxche. The food here is “modern Mayan,” and the menu of traditional dishes like xcatic pepper soup, ceviche and turkey marinated in mole, created by chef Ramón Lizaola, is one of the most exciting renditions of Mexican food you’ll find.
Cumpanio: Correo 29, San Miguel de Allende; +52 415-152-2327
La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel: El Jardin, San Miguel de Allende; +52 415-152-0544
Bellas Artes: Dr. Hernández Macías 75, San Miguel de Allende; +52 415-152-0289
Via Organica: Margarito Ledesma #2, San Miguel De Allende; +52 415-121-0540
Mixta: Pila Seca 3, San Miguel de Allende; +52 415-152-7343
Rachel Horn Home: Calzada La Aurora s/n, Fabrica Aurora Design Centre, San Miguel de Allende; +52 415-152-5969
Luna Rooftop Tapas Bar: Nemesio Diez 11, Colonia Centro, San Miguel de Allende; +52 415-152-9700
La Mezcaleria: Correo #47-A, Colonia Centro, San Miguel de Allende; +52 415-121-5354
Dutzi Design: St. 41-A #209 x 48 & 50 Sisal, Calzada de los Frailes, Valladolid; +52 985-856-1950
Hacienda Montaecristo: Calle 41/A N° 224 Colonia Sisal, Valladolid; + 52 985-856-0665
Agave Azul: Rosewood Mayakoba, Ctra. Federal Cancún-Playa del Carmen KM 298 Solidaridad, Quintana Roo; +52 984-875-8000
Yaxche: Avenida 5ta x Calle 22, Playa del Carmen; +52 984-873-3011