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Five Hidden Travel Gems in Mexico

Get off the beaten path to explore these five hidden gems in Mexico.

Mexico is one of the most visited countries in the world and is especially popular with visitors from the United States and Canada – Cancun is the most popular international destination for American travelers. 

The ancient country of Mexico has it all: cultural festivals, beach resorts, sleepy colonial towns, Meso-American ruins, a touch of the Spanish here and a touch of the Meso-American there, all basking in decadent sunlight, clear waters and perfect climate. But how much do tourists know this huge country? Beyond the beach towns, the luxury golf courses and the famous ruins of Chichen Itza, there’s a whole two million square kilometers to explore and a history spanning back to 1500 BC to wade around in. For a much more enlightening stay, a traipse into real history and scenery entirely unique to Mexico, check out these five hidden gems in Mexico.

The colonial city of Guanajuato

Between the sun, the mountains and the beach are the narrow cobblestone alleyways of the colonial-era city of Guanajuato. Located in North-Central Mexico, this charming and perfectly preserved inland town is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. From afar, it looks like a compact assortment of colorful preserved buildings with a slight European flair, but a closer inspection will reveal indispensable examples of neoclassical and baroque-style architecture and historical monuments all lodged a rich history that is essential to the history of Mexico. The town was founded half a century ago in 1559 and blossomed as a silver mining city. Aside from learning its historical significance in the various museums around town, visitors can check out the annual Cervantino festival, a performing arts festival honoring the author of Don Quixote, and kiss in the famous Callejón del Beso, an alleyway so narrow that two partners can share a kiss between opposing balconies.

Copper Canyon makes the Grand Canyon look like an etch in flimsy stone

There are the kind of tourists who go to Mexico to lie on a beach at an all-inclusive resort sipping on cocktails, who take a day to check out the ruins before going back to work on their tan. And then there are the kinds of tourists who go to Copper Canyon in the northeastern corner of Chihuahua. Four times the size of the Grand Canyon, the Copper Canyon’s network of six arresting deeps are most certainly worth a trip on the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railway between the cities of Mochis and Chihuahua. 

On this 14-hour journey, passengers get truly breathtaking views of forests, lakes, colorful mountain faces and traverse 86 tunnels and 39 bridges. Travelers are welcome to hop off and hike through the woods, camp, spot birds and visit the indigenous communities.

History, luxury, and natural beauty blend in Cuernavaca

Located 85 kilometers from Mexico City, Cuernavaca, known as the "City of the Eternal Spring," is scented by local wildflowers like bugambilias, jacarandas, lilies, jasmines and more, and is home to a rich and colorful historic center that is full of plazas and colonial buildings. Outside of central Cuernavaca, gorgeous natural color abounds in its mountains, volcanos, meadows and rivers, including Teopanzolco, an archaeological site upon which pyramidal rectangular structures sit. Inside the town are luxury spas, restaurants, cafés and the unmissable Cuernavaca Cathedral.

Riviera Nayarit, a beachgoers paradise

Just ten minutes from the Puerto Vallarta airport, the Riviera Nayarit is a terribly underrated beach escape. The city itself is essentially 192 miles of town-spotted coastline between the historic port of San Blas to Banderas Bay in Nuevo Vallarta. With one foot on the illustrious Western Sierra Madre and one foot dipped into the Pacific Ocean, Riviera Nayarit has the perfect weather for any kind of beachgoer – the areas of Sayulita and Matanchen Bay are a surfer’s dream while San Blas is a quiet and friendly little town that still harkens back to its early Spanish colonial days.

Valladolid should be one of the natural wonders of the world

Further inland from the heavier populated and larger tourism hubs of the coastal Playa del Carmen and Cancun, Valladolid has never been considered a must-see stop – at most, it’s a day trip or a stop on the way to Chichen Itza. However, those who can drag themselves from the beach resorts truly have something special to explore – Valladido is a small town full of historical charms, sweeping mountainous landscapes and the ruins of Ek’ Balam, a pyramid taller than the biggest in Chichen Itza and much less of a tourist magnet. The famous Cenote Dzitnup, located about seven kilometers southeast of Valladolid, is a mysterious underwater sinkhole that drips and sputters clear turquoise waters illuminated by a skylight.

Costa Rica, the Pura Vida

Costa Rica is one of the hottest destinations to visit in 2016 as British Airways launches the first direct flights from the UK to capital San Jose in May. But is this small Central American country worth the 11-hour flight?

If you love abundant wildlife (lovable sloths, fascinating sea turtles and colourful hummingbirds are just the beginning), amazing adventures in the land of rainforests, volcanoes, waterfalls and beaches, there are many reasons why you will fall in love with Costa Rica...

1. There is a Caribbean and Pacific Coast. Choose from the laidback Caribbean side famed for its idyllic black sand beaches or the spectacular sunsets and upscale hotels of the Pacific beaches.

2. It's one of the happiest countries in the world. Costa Rica consistently ranks high in the happiness index based on life satisfaction, average life expectancy, sense of purpose, social relationships, financial situations and community involvement.

3. Thomson and British Airways are bringing Costa Rica closer to UK tourists. Thomson launched the first direct flights from London Gatwick to Liberia in November 2015, while BA's direct flights to San Jose commence from May 2016.

4. There is no army. Costa Rica's military was abolished in 1948 and today, the budget previously assigned to its army, navy, air force and heavy weapons is dedicated to security, education and culture.

5. It's the hummingbird capital of the world. There are more than 50 species of the vibrantly-coloured and energetic birds famous for their rapid-beating wings. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Los Quetzales National Park are some of the country's hummingbird hotspots.

6. 25 per cent of the country is protected land. There are 26 National Parks, 58 wildlife refuges, 32 protected zones and eight biological reserves. Costa Rica's environmental protection and sustainable ecotourism has been hailed a model for other countries.

7. 'Pura vida' is the law of the land. It means 'pure life' and is used as a greeting or as a way of saying thanks.

8. Gallo pinto (rice and beans) is the national dish. It makes for a delicious breakfast dish served with fried or scrambled eggs.

9. There are more than 121 volcanic formations and seven of them are active. Arenal is one of the best-known volcanoes, while Poás, Irazú and Rincón de la Vieja are also worth exploring.

10. The colon is Costa Rica's currency but US dollars are widely accepted. For those who like to use the local currency, £1 will currently buy you 787 colones.

11. It's the 13th largest coffee exporter in the world and most of the coffee production takes place in San José, Alajuela, Puntarenas, Heredia and Cartago. Touring a plantation is a must if you are a coffee lover!

12. Sea turtles love it. Costa Rica's coast is home to dozens of important nesting beaches for leatherback, green, hawksbill and olive ridley turtles.

13. One of the world's most beautiful birds, the Resplendent Quetzal, is found in the cloud forests of Monteverde. Famed for its vibrant shades of greens and reds, the striking bird is easier to spot in Costa Rica than other parts of Central America thanks to the protected forests.

14. UNESCO recently declared the mysterious Diquis Stones a World Heritage Site. The stone spheres crafted by the pre-Columbian Diquis people are found in the Osa Peninsula.

15. The Parque Nacional Isla del Coco featured in the opening sequence of Jurassic Park. Cocos Island is home to some of the most untouched landscapes in the world and the best diving in Costa Rica.

16. Sodas are family-run restaurants that serve home-cooking for just a few dollars. The small eateries serve up the likes of casado, gallo pinto and stews.

17. The golden toad was once a national symbol of the country. The vivid orange or golden-coloured toad was only found in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve up until its last sighting in 1989.

18. Costa Rica's national flower is the orchid and there are more than 1,400 species. Blooming season is from January to April and the flower is found in tropical forests, on shorelines and on top of mountains.

19. The sun rises and sets at around the same time every day of the year. Sunrise is at approximately 5:30am and sunset is at 5:30pm.

20. Basilisk lizards are not your average lizard and can be seen running on the surface of water. Jesus Christ lizards, as they are also known, have large, long bodies and are found in the rainforests of Costa Rica.

21. Dia del Boyero is a celebration of beautifully decorated oxcarts which takes place every second Sunday of March in Escazu. The festival's highlight is a parade featuring over 100 oxcarts and many more oxen pulling the carts.

10 of the best alternative city breaks in Europe

If you’re after a fresh city break look beyond the usual big names for more cool culture and great sights. Here’s our list for 2016:

Valletta - Malta
The island of Malta itself is a sight to behold but within the walled city of its capital, Valletta, built by the Knights of St John in the 16th century, there is plenty more. Malta’s oldest fort, Fort St Angelo, and the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum – an incredible burial complex cut into rock – are some of the unmissable sights, but the city isn’t without contemporary touches, such as Renzo Piano’s city gate, completed two years ago; and in 2018 Valletta will celebrate the title of City of Culture. Along the narrow, bustling, Strait Street you’ll find bars and live music, elsewhere restaurants, including the unpretentious Da’ Pippo Trattoria (+356 2124 8029), serve delicious Italian cooking, while chic bistro Guze – in a 16th-century building – specialises in local cooking, with rabbit and pork dishes, alongside staples such as pasta and risotto.

Wrocław - Poland
It may seem tricky to pronounce but don’t let that stop you discovering this passionate Polish city with a radical history: this spans from venues such as the Song of the Goat Theatre to post-punk commune Centrum Reanimacji Kultury. This year Wrocław is Europe’s capital of culture, with a programme ranging from specially curated Film Operas to a major summer concert with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. While the contemporary side of the city – such as art and party space Neon Side Gallery – are a worthy distraction, don’t let that stop you exploring the city’s past; the old town, full of bridges and parks, is a beautiful place to explore, as is the village-like Cathedral Island, dotted with gothic architecture.

Marseille - France
Since Eurostar launched direct trains from London last May, this chic city in southern France is just 6.5 hours away. In the oldest area, Quartier du Panier, you’ll find independent cafes and shops – such as classic soap shop La Grande Savonnerie – and contemporary galleries along rue Sainte and rue Grignan. As well as beautiful historical sights, such as the huge neo-Byzantine church Nôtre-Dame de la Garde, you’ll find a younger, edgier Marseille by exploring places like art and social space Friche La Belle de Mai, which has a rooftop bar and open-air cinema throughout the summer. 

Dubrovnik - Croatia
A picturesque city – and the main shooting location for King’s Landing in HBO’s Game Of Thrones – Dubrovnik’s terracotta rooftops tumble down to the blue Adriatic. Among them there’s lots to enjoy, from drinking fresh pilsner in the bars of the old town to a visit to an ancient (still working) apothecary at the Dubrovnik monastery. For history, it’s also worth visiting the Homeland War Museum, which you can combine with a cable car ride to the top of Mount Srdj Also, the Museum of Modern Art is excellent. Culinary indulgences can be found at acclaimed restaurants such as 360°, while beach-side bar and club Banje is among the swankiest of the city’s cocktail hangouts.

Sarajevo - Bosnia
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton peace agreement, which ended four years of war and the devastating siege of Sarajevo. Though its history – including as the flashpoint for the first world war – remains an important part of its present, the Bosnian city, which often draws comparisons with Istanbul, is a beautiful and diverse place to visit, with cobbled streets to explore and excellent cafes serving traditional, slow-brewed coffee and delicious burek (stuffed pastries). To get a grasp on the city under siege, visitors should investigate the Tunnel of Hope – a museum on the site of the city’s wartime supply line – and also visit memorial museum Galerija 11/07/95, which attempts to explain the Srebrenica tragedy. For the city’s creative side, start at the ambitious Ars Aevi Museum of Contemporary Art, before checking out some of its smaller galleries, such as Duplex100m2, which focuses on the country’s emerging artists. The Pivnica HS brewery, which also has a restaurant, is a good place to sample local award-winning beer.

Girona - Spain
An hour’s drive from the beautiful coastline of Costa Brava, should you wish to combine a trip with some beach time, Girona offers visitors a serving of Catalan culture without the swarms of tourists that descend on Barcelona during peak season. Pro-cyclists have long used the city as a training base, Dan Craven recently recommended cycle cafe La Fabrica as a place to get tips on where to ride. Things to take in, when you’re not checking out the modernist architecture, include the ancient cathedral and the museum dedicated to the city’s Jewish history. Michelin-star restaurant El Celler de Can Roca is an obvious indulgence, while the long-running Sunset Jazz Club is among the places to get dancing.

Bologna - Italy
If ever there was a place to binge on Italian food, then it’s here, in a beautiful university town brimming with classic trattorias – from smarter Ristorante Biagi to cheap local haunts such as Trattoria Anna Maria; both places have staff who have been there for decades. Although dining, along with its aperitivo culture and abundance of religious architecture, is the main draw for most visitors, Bologna also has a younger, radical side: the Libreria modo infoshop is a good starting point to find out more about the scene as is social centre XM24, which has regular events, such as a weekly organic market every Thursday. If you visit in November, make sure your trip coincides with one of Bologna’s leading cultural events, the Bilbolbul international comic festival, which takes place in venues from museums to homes.

Brno - Czech Republic
Tourism to the Czech Republic often feels concentrated on Prague, so a visit to Brno, the country’s second city, allows you to take full advantage of this – expect a city break free of stag dos! The most important attraction is the baroque Cathedral of St Peter and Paul, while other sights include the spectacular Moravian Karst and caves – a network of more than a thousand underground caves and gorges. Among the city’s many museums and galleries is the Moravian Gallery, where there are collections of visual art and graphic design. Still, as in Prague, the affordable food and drink is a major draw; so knock ‘em back at one of the city’s pubs, such as Výčep Na stojáka, and feast on delicious local cooking at restaurants such as Soul Bistro or Simplé. New bars such as cocktail joint Super Panda Circus and gastropub Lucky Bastard Beerhouse are part of a growing collection of modern urban hangouts.

Tallinn - Estonia
A medieval city on the Baltic, Tallinn is a quaint destination and, while airlines continue to offer flights there from as little as £90 return, it’s a great choice for a budget weekend break. Pulling together Baltic, Russian and Scandi culture, the old town is a Unesco heritage site where you’ll find the magnificent, onion-domed St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The city is also home to a large art museum, the Kunstimuuseum, so there’s plenty more to Tallinn than cheap beer – and whole areas to explore beyond the more obvious, boozy, tourist trail. The city’s most interesting district is Kalamaja, a creative neighbourhood where abandoned spaces are being repurposed. A highlight is Telliskivi Creative City, a factory complex now occupied by exhibitions, shops, cafes and performance spaces, such as restaurant and venue F-Hoone.

Graz - Austria
With a strong cultural heritage, Austria’s second city is a beautiful red-roofed university town in the southern state of Styria. It is home to impressive museums, from the unique Museum of Perception – where you’ll find eye-boggling art pieces – to the striking Kunsthaus Graz, a museum with a space age facade that resembles a giant illuminated alien blob. Another piece of impressive design to check out is the Island in the Mur created by the artist artist Vito Acconci, which has a cafe and performance space. The student population means there is a good nightlife scene from cafe/bar Blendend to bar and venue die Scherbe.