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Millions of Americans visit Mexico each year, but many head to its shores to sunbathe and party, missing out on the country’s rich culture. For those who want more than just a tan, new TPG Contributor Diego Szteinhendler shares three hip and historic cities that will introduce you to Mexico’s fascinating and beautiful interior.
San Miguel de Allende
Just a three-hour drive from Mexico City and best known for its beautiful Spanish Colonial streets and domes, San Miguel de Allende is also home to the largest US expat community in Mexico, many of whom are artists and writers. What does this mean for you? Most people understand English or can at least comprehend your high school-equivalent Spanish with a smile.
San Miguel, as it’s colloquially known, has a city center comprised of only 24 blocks, but hosts world-class restaurants such as Hotel Matilda’s Moxy, helmed by chef Enrique Olvera of Pujol in Mexico City and the New York hit Cosme. Be sure to visit the pink Parroquia church that is set over the town’s heart, as well as the Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramirez (or Bellas Artes), a former convent that’s now a renovated community center and art gallery.
While exploring the city, make a few stops at unique shops like Mixta, for fashion and furniture; Juana Carta Textile Art for rebozos (shawls); and Recreo for traditional updated zarapes. Like Oaxaca, San Miguel has several roof top bar options, such as Luna at the Rosewood Hotel, where you can enjoy soft breezes and stunning sunsets year-round.
How to Get to San Miguel de Allende
Del Bajío International Airport (BJX) is about an hour and 15 minutes from San Miguel de Allende, and is by far the most popular option for travel to the area. American flies to BJX from Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), with round-trips starting at 25,000 AAdvantage miles in economy or 30,000 in business/first. Delta flies from Los Angeles (LAX) or Atlanta (ATL), with round-trips starting at 30,000 SkyMiles in economy and 60,000 in business/first. Or, you could take United, which regularly has flights from Houston (IAH) or seasonally from Los Angeles (LAX), with round-trips starting at 35,000 MileagePlus miles in economy or 60,000 in business/first.
Note that you can often find cheaper fares by flying to Mexico City (MEX) on these carriers and a handful of others, but you’ll have to rent a car, hop on a bus or hire a driver for the three-hour trip to San Miguel.
Where to stay
Save your points for the next destination. In San Miguel de Allende, you’ll want to stay at a romantic boutique property like the Hotel Belmond Sierra Nevada, which was carved from historic former residences. The hotel offers spa services like a Temazcal (the sauna of Mesoamerica) and has its own culinary school. Rates start at $254 per night, but because it’s a Visa Signature Hotel, holders of Visa Signature cards (e.g., Chase Sapphire Preferred, Hyatt Card, Marriott Rewards Premier Card, Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines Card, Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card, etc.) will receive perks like a $25 food or beverage credit, complimentary continental breakfast and, when available, an automatic room upgrade.
San Cristobal de las Casas
In the south of the country, the state of Chiapas is home to one of Mexico’s best-preserved Spanish Colonial cities, San Cristobal de las Casas. Known in the 1990s as the territory of “El Comandante Marcos” and his Zapatista army, it’s now a completely safe place to visit and mingle with locals.
A good way to start your visit to San Cristobal is with a stroll along the Real de Guadalupe, a pedestrian-only street that’s full of restaurants, hotels and travel agencies where you can book any tour or side trip you might desire (see below). After a great Mexican meal at the high-end Tierra y Cielo, head over to Calle Madero (parallel to Real de Guadalupe) and walk toward Plaza 31 de Marzo, the main square of San Cristobal. Here you’ll find the Municipal Palace, the Cathedral and the San Nicolás church.
Other can’t-miss churches include the Templo de la Caridad and Templo de Santo Domingo, the latter of which is arguably the most gorgeous example of Baroque art in Chiapas. Near these churches you’ll find the Mercado de Artesanías (art and crafts market) where you can get hand-woven textiles from Chiapas and neighboring Guatemala, as well as typical souvenirs.
While in the area, consider side trips to the national park at Sumidero Canyon, the second most-visited attraction in Chiapas (one-hour drive west); the Agua Azul Wateralls, known for their exquisite blue waters (three-hour drive north); and the impressive ruins of Palenque, one of Mexico’s finest examples of Mayan architecture and design (four-hour drive north).
How to Get to San Cristobal de las Casas
San Cristobal de las Casas doesn’t have its own airport, but you can connect from Mexico City (MEX) to nearby Tuxtla Gutierrez Airport (TGZ) on Aeromexico starting at 30,000 SkyMiles in economy and 60,000 in business/first. (A few days a week, there are also flights into TGZ from Cancún (CUN) on Volaris.) From TGZ, take a one-hour and 15-minute ADO shuttle to San Cristobal de las Casas ($10 per person) or a taxi for around $40.
Where to Stay
With an exterior like an old hacienda or convent, but with a modern and comfortable interior, the Holiday Inn San Cristobal is a solid option with a great location near the main pedestrian-only streets. Rates start at $64 or 10,000 IHG Rewards points per night.
The capital of the Oaxaca state, the city of Oaxaca (pronounced wha-ha-kah) is a stylish and romantic destination that is full of 16th-century architecture, cozy flower vine-draped hotels and happening bars – and isn’t far from ruins built by the Zapotecas, a group of ancient people native to Mexico (and not to be confused with Mayans or Aztecs). Oaxaca’s main attraction is the fabulous Santo Domingo cathedral, which is set in the Zócalo main square and is surrounded by restaurants, Mexican treat vendors and some excellent people-watching opportunities everywhere you turn.
In the Juarez market, you can taste typical Oaxacan food specialities like chicken stewed in a rich mole negro sauce — or if you’re brave, munch on some fried grasshoppers. Keep an eye out for alebrijes, traditional and brightly painted folk art sculptures of fantastical animals that make great souvenirs. Stroll the cobblestone streets of the historic downtown and in just a few hours, you’re guaranteed to fall in love with this UNESCO World Heritage city.
Cool bars are beginning to pop up on rooftops all over town like you’ll see in San Miguel, so after a long day of sightseeing, don’t forget to head up and sit down in front of a killer view with a hearty Oaxaca-cheese quesadilla and a glass of strong mezcal. If you’re a fan of this trending liquor that’s made from smoked agave, expect to visit plenty of mezcalerias — Oaxaca is this spirit’s birthplace.
Leave time to take side trips to the Central Valley of the Oaxaca state (approximately 20-30 miles from downtown Oaxaca) to see the most important Zapotec archeological sites: Monte Álban, the former Zapotec political capital, and Mitla, the ornate religious center known as the “City of the Dead.”
How to Get to Oaxaca
Fly United Express direct to Oaxaca’s Xoxocotlán International Airport (OAX) from Houston (IAH), with round-trips starting at 35,000 MileagePlus miles in economy or 60,000 in business/first. You could also take Aeromexico via Mexico City (MEX), with round-trips starting at 30,000 SkyMiles in economy and 60,000 in business/first. OAX is set 15 minutes from downtown, and can easily be reached by a Terrestre shuttle or taxi (about $8.50).
Where to Stay
A former convent, Quinta Real Oaxaca is built around a quiet courtyard and is surrounded by flower gardens. Part of a luxury Mexican hotel chain and a member of Historic Hotels Worldwide, rates here start at $190 per night. At the reasonably priced and well-situated Holiday Inn Express Oaxaca Centro-Histórico in the historic center, rates start at $73 or 15,000 IHG Rewards points per night.
Credit cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express. and the Citi ThankYou Premier don’t charge foreign transaction fees, making them ideal to use on vacation in Mexico. To see more cards without these fees, check out our post, Top Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees. Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.
Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.