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Where to go for food and adventures in Mexico?

My girlfriend and I are going to spend about 10 days in Mexico in late January, and we can't make up our mind about where to go.

Here are the criteria: I want fantastic food, she wants a beautiful natural surrounding with opportunities for amazing hiking and other outdoor adventures. Of course, we're both interested in both of these things, but our priorities are slightly skewed.

So this may be a ridiculously broad question, but if you had 10 days to spend in Mexico and these were the two things you were looking for, is there a particular region that offers the best of both worlds?

Please keep in mind that we're on student budgets, so while we might splurge for a pricier meal or two, we're looking for more rustic, traditional eats. Also, we both speak Spanish quite well.

Two areas we've been considering are Zacatecas and Chiapas (specifically San Cristobal) -- would these meet our criteria?

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  1. Chiapas, sin duda, will meet your criteria. Fantastic mountain terrain, interesting food, indigenous specialties with international restaurants catering to Euro tourists.

    Zacatecas is a cool city, and the food is good, but less distinctive than that of Chiapas.

    1. I just returned to my home in Guadalajara after a 10-day trip to visit a friend in San Cristóbal de las Casas. It's a lovely city with much to offer the tourist: shops, crafts, a gorgeous cathedral, many old, old churches, several museums, restaurants, coffee houses, book stores, and a marvelous indigenous market.

      If you go, be sure to visit Museo Na Bolom, one of San Cristóbal's highlights. If you call for reservations the day before, the staff will prepare dinner for you. It's lovely--the food is adequate, but the ambience is extremely special. Plan to go to Na Bolom in time to tour the museum prior to having dinner. Your meal is taken in common with anyone else who has reservations; it's an interesting way to talk with other tourists in town.

      It seemed to me that the majority of tourists in San Cristóbal is from Europe. As we wandered the streets, scraps of many languages (not including the four indigenous languages spoken in the area) floated through my consciousness. My friend and I spent several evening hours sitting in front of the gelatería (real Italian gelato!) guessing which tourists were from where. Inevitably she (a French woman) guessed which were French before she ever heard them speak.

      I wasn't very impressed with most of the city's restaurant food, although there is a little restaurant called El Mercadito at Diego Dugelay #12 that offers wonderful guisados. The menus change every day; one day I ate costillitas en salsa verde that were fabulous and accompanied by tortitas de papa. Do try Restaurante Teopisca at the salida for San Juan Chamula. The restaurant specializes in food (oooh, the cheese!, and the tostadas de manteca!) from Teopisca, a town partway between San Cristóbal and Comitán.

      My friend and I ate at a tiny Italian restaurant (I think on Real de Guadalupe) called Il Piccolo. My friend ate spaghetti a la carbonara that was delicous; I had spaghetti al burro (deliciously al dente and buttered to a fair-thee-well) and a beef scallopine (adequate). All the pasta is house-made.

      We shopped for produce etc at the indigenous market and cooked several dinners at home. Watch for the red bean flowers; the vendor gave me cooking instructions and the flowers were delicious. Ditto the wild mushrooms.

      Do not miss seeing the various nearby villages: San Juan Chamula, Zinacatán, San Andrés, Magdalena Aldama, Amatenango. If you have an opportunity, go to Comitán; it's a lovely town.

      It is not really advisable to hike alone in the area. You are liable to stumble onto terrain that is unwelcoming in a variety of political senses. If you do hike, go with someone who really knows where you will be welcome.

      Having said all that, I also love Zacatecas and go there whenever possible. Have a look at a friend's blog to review his recent trip there; he echoes what I believe and have experienced, including his trips to eat at the Acrópolis Nevería. The museums, the views, the cathedral--just read what he has to say. It's a fabulous city full of great art.

      Blog: http://www.crispy.com/mt/archives/tra...

      7 Replies
      1. re: cristina

        Thanks for all the great information. I should clarify, though, that we're not only considering Zacatecas and San Cristobal de las Casa -- those were just two suggestions we'd had from friends. Please feel free to suggest other places that would better meet our criteria!

        Also, I forgot to mention -- a one-day cooking class during this trip would be great, so please share any recommendations for that.

        1. re: OakTownHound

          If its a first trip... it should include Mexico City with a 2nd destination of your choice. http://www.bigsoccer.com/forum/showth...

          > The areas around Mexico City are mountainous & have great national parks & hiking locations... particularly in the small state of Morelos http://images.google.com/images?hl=en...

          > The highlands of Michoacan are a foresty beauty & I do believe you can still catch the monarch butterflies. http://images.google.com/images?hl=en...

          > Nayarit & Colima have some of the best, unspoiled jungle areas in the country http://www.surf-mexico.com/states/Nay...

          > The Yucatan Peninsula has some amazing scuba & hiking opportunities plus what is arguably the most beautiful lake anywhere... http://images.google.com/images?hl=en...

          Mexico has some fairly magical experiences to offer... if you can define what you want... mountains, rain forest, coasts... I can help you identify the best of the best, little known finds.

          1. re: Eat_Nopal

            Michoacán is beautiful. The candies you can get in Morelia are almost worth a trip just for them! I was there with a local family in 2000. Got out to Pátzcuaro for a day, got this great Sopa Tarasca. But for food, I think my favorites would be Mérida, Yucatán (for Maya dishes like poc chuc and cochinita pibil) and Puebla City (for the chiles en nogada). The latter, at least, is relatively close to Mexico City, while the former is four hours from Cancún.

        2. re: cristina

          Chiapas poses a fantastic Chowhound challenge. On the one hand... most of its formal restaurants are pretty mediocre - they cater to a mostly French & German crowd that has the oddest tastes in food - as such the regional specialities are dumbed down & dissappointing. You will find decent simple Euro food... pastas, baguettes, pastries etc.,... the local Altura & Shade Grown coffees are not to be missed.

          But on the other hand, Chiapas posesses one of the most distinctive & intriguing regional cuisines in Mexico. Whenver, there are Culinary fairs in Mexico City... the immigrants from Chiapas almost always dazzle with their regional fare...

          > Pork Barbacoas (Cochito)
          > Pipianes (Pumpkin Seed based Moles)
          > Tamales that are heavy on herbs & exotic spices
          > Deer, Rabbit, Armadillo, Iguana, Turkey, Ostrich & Turtle specialties
          > Exotic drinks (Chicha, Black Hominy, Xoconostle Atole,

          A lot of people like Yucatecan cuisine because it is so refreshingly different & light (particularly on the coasts)... but the cuisine of Chiapas is light years more sophisticated, varied & worthwhile than that of the Yucatan... easily rivals Puebla, Oaxaca, Veracruz & Tlaxcala... so its there to be discovered.

          Good Luck!

          1. re: Eat_Nopal

            Saludos desde Guadalajara y gracias, EN, I knew there had to be extraordinary food in Chiapas. My host who lives in San Cristóbal isn't a particularly adventurous eater, so we didn't get as far outside the ho-hum as I'd hoped we would. Next time (and there WILL be a next time, and sooner rather than later) I'll be able to explore more thoroughly.

            Tomorrow another friend and I are heading for three days in Michoacán. Uchepos and corundas with salsa perón y crema, carnitas, atole de grano, churipo, and enchiladas placeras beckon. First stop: Carnitas Aeropuerto for breakfast, on the libre near Zamora: the best carnitas in the world, bar none. Cuando gustes, te invito.

            1. re: cristina

              Cristina, where is a good place to eat churipo? I haven't had it since I first tried it at El Rey Tacamba in Moreli, in the early 90s.

              1. re: Anonimo

                We'll talk about that over atole de grano on Tuesday night! See you then...

        3. I find San Cristobal de las Casas fun for a few hours. The food is not too special. Why not go to Oaxaca?

          1. Oaxaca is currently experiencing a great deal of political unrest at this time.

            1. I would recommend Baja, but not the Cabos. Maybe fly into Cabo and get a rental car and head out. If you are truly trying to stay on a budget, camp on the beaches, and eat lots of great tacos at tiny little roadside stands. Todos Santos gets lots of recommendations, it is beautiful and there is some amazing food- Cafe Santa Fe is amazing, but the town is quite popular with Americans. . .
              Mulege on the east coast of Baja is a really cool tiny town. It is not a tourist town, though there are quite a few american retirees living outside of town. It is a unique part of Baja becuase there is a river, therefore it is much lusher then the rest of the peninsula. The best tacos I have ever eaten were at a taco stand there. I salivate just thinking about it. Sorry I don't remember the name, if it even had one, but ask the locals, there seemed to be two really popular stands, try them both, you can't go wrong.
              And you may get to see mating whales of the coast at that time of year.

              1. If you are going to San Cristobal, consider the following itinerary: Fly to Tuxtla Gutierrez, go straight to Chiapa del Corzo and take a boat tour of the Cañon del Sumidero. Continue to San Cristobal. Visit on a day trip (as suggested above) Chamula & Zinacatan. Go to Palenque (stop in Agua Azul) and visit the ruins. Go in a (long) day trip to Yaxchilan (fantastic ruins in the middle of the jungle with howling monkeys). Fly back from Villahermosa. I'm not sure that the food would be that special, but it would address your girlfriend's interest for outdoor adventures and beautiful surroundings.

                1. Restaurate 'Las Pichanchas' was worth a dinner or supper stop. (At least back in the early 90s). It's in Tuxtla Gutíerrez. Food and drink are very tasty, and there's a free folkloric dance show.

                  1. My two cents:

                    - Oaxaca is superb, but not a feasible destination as of now (due to political unrest).
                    - Puebla is superb too (not far from Mexico City, by the way).
                    - Yucatan is amazing.
                    N.B. The three states above have three most interesting, and distinctive, regional cuisines. Which goes to show the amazing regional variation when it comes to "Mexican" good.
                    - Mexico City itself is gastronomic heaven, if you do your research ahead. I recommend, above all (for traditional Mexican food), Casa Merlos, La Taberna del Leon, and Mi Bella Lula (in that order). Less traditional (i.e. fusion, nouvelle Mexican, etc) options tend to receive wide attention here.
                    - Michoacan is interesting. Ditto for Zacatecas. But surely nowhere as interesting as Oaxaca, Puebla, or Yucatan.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: D Hound

                      I would say every state has its own distinctive cuisine... above & beyond their personalized versions of pan-Mexican classics like Chile Rellenos etc., In addition, the bigger states... like Jalisco & Veracruz have multiple culinary regions within them. There aren't very many places in Mexico where the food isn't good to excellent. Some of the more rural locations in the South & Baja might not have great tourist restaurants... but you can still have some good eats under the right circumstances (good B&B, cooking school vacation, eat market stall foods etc.,).

                      1. re: D Hound

                        I can vouch for the variety in North America's largest city. The last time I was there, which was in 2000, there were a few good things really close to my hotel on Avenida 5 de Mayo, in the Historic District.

                        One that sticks in my mind was across the street from the Hotel Juárez, a really good Chinese restaurant that had a large, filling comida china for maybe MX$40 (about US$5) - no chopsticks that I can remember, though. There was also this great taquería on the corner of 5 de Mayo and either Palma Norte or Isabel la Católica - the Taquería Tlaquepaque, which had this great open-faced shaved pork taco with pineapple and cheese melted on top, all on two or three corn tortillas. They called it the "gringa" and it was one of my most favorite things to eat in Mexico City, and not just because of the price - I don't remember what it was exactly, but I think two plus a Coke came to less than MX$20, or about US$2.50

                        1. re: jd in baltimore

                          Chinese food... I am not surprised you were staying fairly close to the city's Chinatown.

                      2. Just to comment on the conversion of MX$20, would be about US$1.90 currently and not US$2.50.

                        1. Don't worry about the "political unrest" in Oaxaca. Highly over-rated. Go there and eat well.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                            And you know the situtation in Oaxaca is "highly over-rated" because????

                            Perhaps I should have been more clear about what "political unrest" is in Oaxaca. In the last 3 weeks it's included - armed conflict, shots fired, molotov cocoktails, provoked and unprovoked physical attacks on both sides, no airline service, disrupted bus service, spot food shortages, over-turned and burned cars and busses, looting and the shooting death of an American photo journalist covering the "unrest", which is only 1 of many deaths and "disappearances" related to the "unrest" over the last month.

                            Foodie restaurant destination El Naranjo has closed and Iliana and her husband have left town. It is not business as usual for anyone in Oaxaca right now. Unless you've got personal, first-hand knowldege about what's going on there, I think it's irresponsible to blightly urge tourist to go anyway. From the standpoint of personal safety that might not be the most prudent advice.

                          2. I definitely agree with you, DiningDiva. I have been to many parts of Mexico, and have been dating a girl from Mexico City for the past 2.5 years. The country is abslolutely incredible, the food is wonderful, and the people are great. But anyone who underestimates the safety issues is better off taking a trip to Canada.

                            As for the original question about a ten day trip to Mexico, my first choice would be San Miguel de Allende. It has absolutely everything: beautiful ambiance, food to die for, friendly people, and enough of an American presence to make you feel safe (not too much American though).

                            Now dont get me wrong, Mexico City is definitely a trip that everyone should take. But if I, having experienced many different parts of the country, had to pick one place to go with my girlfriend for fun, romance, and a truly memorable experience, San Miguel de Allende would be my decision.