At dusk, as we walked along the cobbled streets of San Cristobal de Las Casas, a picturesque Mexican town, we caught a faint magical tune coming from a residential neighbourhood. Following it along the town’s back alleys under a Pied Piper like spell, we half-expected to arrive at a concert hall or art gallery. Imagine our amazement when we found the source of the music to be a decrepit bakery, where a middle-aged man in an apron, presumably the baker, was playing the violin with not a single person in sight. Sitting on a ledge across the street, feeling heady from the effects of the evening’s first mezcal (an agave liquor native to Mexico) and the baker’s virtuoso performance, I wondered what took me so long to get to Mexico!
Almost every day since we walked across the Guatemalan border, past no man’s land, into Mexico, I felt fascinated by the musical bent and creative energy of the locals, by traditional Mexican dishes that bear no resemblance to the beans-and-burrito type of ‘Mexican’ food found elsewhere, and by how underrated the country’s natural beauty is.
Take my list of offbeat places to visit and fun things to do in Mexico, and let the country surprise you too:
Release Olive Ridley sea turtles: Todos Santos
I remember standing under an orange sky on the beach in Todos Santos, with the cutest little thing in a coconut shell on my palm – a two hours old Olive Ridley sea turtle, that had just broken out of its shell. Along with other curious travellers and local volunteers, I placed my turtle on the sand, and saw hundreds of these tiny creatures crawl towards the water and disappear into the waves of the Pacific Ocean!
In order to protect these endangered turtles from poaching by humans, dogs and coyotes, local conservationists look after the eggs from the time the mother lays them (and leaves), until they hatch. The survival rates are pretty low, but the conservationist I spoke to seemed confident that females who survive till adulthood will come back to the same beach to lay their eggs.
Turtle releases usually happen every evening around sunset on the beach at Todos Santos (Baja California Sur), roughly from November to February. Ask a local to check if it’s happening when you visit. We stayed at La Bohemia in the quirky town of Todos Santos. I highly recommend renting a scooter or car to get around.
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Explore the countryside of Chiapas on a bicycle
One of my fondest memories of Mexico is pedaling along the cobbled streets and colorful houses of San Cristobal de Las Casas, past small vegetable farms, into dense pine and mahogany forests on the outskirts of town. We stopped at ancient caves to admire stalactites, found left-over paraphernalia from a recent Shamanic ceremony deep in the wilderness, and ate wild berries with our teacher-turned-entrepreneur bicycle guide. A slow, eco-friendly way to explore life in Chiapas!
We loved our bicycle excursion with Tierra Adventures, located on a quiet street in San Cristobal de Las Casas. You can pick a trail depending on your fitness and time. I also loved staying at Nuik B&B, a refurbished colonial house in a residential neighborhood in San Cristobal, and eating at Delicias Naturales.
Mexico’s best-kept secret: Nevado de Toluca
Imagine my joy when I stumbled upon a random mention online about an extinct volcano with two pristine crater lakes, less than a couple of hours from Mexico City! Nevado de Toluca, the fourth tallest peak in Mexico, seemed too good to be true, and it was – easy to access, stunning hikes around the crater lakes (El Sol and La Luna – the sun and the moon), snow-clad peaks and hardly any tourists. The kind of place that inspires poetry.
We stayed the night at Fiesta Inn in Toluca City (Mexico State), from where it is easy to hire a taxi to drive the rugged 45 kilometers to Nevado de Toluca. It is possible to drive in from Mexico City if you leave super early, although I loved the local character of Toluca and the thin-crust pizza and local craft beers at Bistro Mecha.
Try Nopales (cactus) tacos!
The food in Mexico was nothing like I expected; nothing Tex-Mex (burritos-quesadillas) about it, no beans and plantains like in Central America. The first thing I fell in love with were nopales (cactus) tacos – thornless strips of grilled cactii on a taco, piled on with spicy salsas! I tried some vegan moles (sauces) in Oaxaca, made with ground chiles, cacao and sesame, feasted on street soy and mushroom tacos in San Cristobal de Las Casas, and loved the Mexican version of enchiladas in Todos Santos… but nothing felt as exotic as nopales tacos, especially after hiking and driving through cactii-infused scenery in Baja California.
Slow down in a typical Mexican village: San Agustin Etla
It is one thing to explore night life and street food in Mexico City, quite another to spend a week in a little mountain village on the countryside of Oaxaca. Daily public greetings and announcements – about weddings, festivals and village news – echoed through the valley at 7am, our wake-up call. Old antique cars and collectivos (shared taxis) plied the streets. Little comedors (eateries) served up tacos and chilaquiles. Weekends were filled with street processions, music and organic farmer markets. On the rooftop, I watched the dramatic supermoon rise behind the mountains as a neighbour soulfully played the banjo.
We stayed in ‘The Box’, an Airbnb in San Agustin Etla. Although beautifully furnished, it did feel a bit closed up (like a box!). The experience of staying in San Agustin Etla itself though, was memorable. Sign up on Airbnb to get 15$ off your first stay!
See a frozen waterfall: Hierve el Agua
Out on the countryside of Oaxaca, natural minerals in fresh water springs have deposited on cliffs over thousands of years, creating the appearance of cascading waterfalls! It felt surreal to observe them and realize that the waterfalls are actually frozen, or “petrified” as some say. A manmade infinity pool over one of the cliffs tends to get more attention on Instagram, but ditch the crowds and hike one of the short trails up the mountain, to find a quiet spot and feel the timelessness of the natural wonder that is Hierve el Agua.
We took the shared public collectivo to reach Hierve el Agua from Oaxaca City. For detailed directions, see here.
Take a road-trip along the stark desert scenery: Baja California Sur
During our time in Baja California Sur, we rented a car and drove for miles along the dry cactus-strewn desert scenery that is so synonymous with Mexico, and probably the inspiration for so many Antonio Banderas movies. It was incredible to see small towns blend into the stark wilderness, catch glimpses of the calm blue waters in the Gulf of California, and watch dramatic sunsets over the roaring Pacific Ocean, on white sand beaches flanked by gentle hills.
Then one night, we ditched the car for a scooter and rode through the desert under thousands of stars, singing on a dark desert highway, the cool wind in my hair…
What would you most like to do in Mexico? And any offbeat experiences to add to this list?
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Welcome to my blog, The Shooting Star. I’ve been called a storyteller, writer, photographer, digital nomad, instagrammer, social entrepreneur, solo traveller, vegan, sustainable tourism consultant and environmentalist. But in my heart, I’m just a girl who believes in the transformative power of travel.