The Mexican Connection: Four South-of-the-Border Escapes

Editorial StaffJanuary 15, 2021
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Sunset view of Tetas de Cabra; Photo courtesy stock.adobe.com
Sunset view of Tetas de Cabra; Photo courtesy stock.adobe.com

Pandemic or no, a flurry of new direct flights from Sky Harbor has us envisioning an escape to one of these four south-of-the-border ciudades.

How travel-starved are we after nine months of involuntary Arizona confinement?

Let’s just put it this way: In December, when American Airlines announced the launch of two new direct flights from Sky Harbor International Airport – one to La Paz and the other to Loreto, both whale-watching hot spots on the east coast of Baja California – it actually made us weep a little, and think things like “Mexico still wants us? Holland doesn’t!”

Hey, we get it. You might not be jazzed to travel yet. But you might be soon. And Mexico wants us. She really wants us. Here are four relatively near travel options that we happen to know a little about.

San Carlos

-> Where: So close, a Wildcat can drive there on $20 worth of gas.

-> Why: Nice beaches, great seafood.

Long a favored destination of University of Arizona spring breakers, San Carlos – a beach town located about 300 miles south of the border in the state of Sonora – is anchored visually by the unforgettable Tetakawi rock formation known as Tetas de Cabra that looms over town. It’s 2-mile hike to the top, if you’re feeling peppy.

The windy roads around San Carlos are sure to lead you somewhere delightfully unexpected. A trek north on the 124 highway will drop you into La Manga, a fishing village where you can buy fresh-caught fish and clams. Do yourself a favor and continue beyond the hand-painted traffic signs, beyond the paved road, even, until you reach Doña Rosita, a restaurant where you are sure to savor some of the most deliciously fresh seafood of your life (facebook.com/lamangarestaurante).

Red snapper at Doña Rosita in San Carlos; Photo by Eric Cox
Red snapper at Doña Rosita in San Carlos; Photo by Eric Cox

After the food has settled, mother nature will call at Estero El Soldado, a protected lagoon with more than 70 species of birds and views of sea mammals and other enchanting marine life. You can walk or bike, but for a more up-close-and-personal experience, kayaking is the ideal mode of exploration (facebook.com/esteroelsoldado). For a deeper marine experience, Gary’s Dive Shop will ferry you into the Sea of Cortez, to caves and underwater formations accessible only by boat (garysdiveshop.com). Bay and sunset cruises are also available.

For dinner, head to Charly’s Rock Cocina de Mar (charlysrock.com) where the attentive service, mammoth margaritas and super fresh ceviche will have you reeling as you overlook the crashing waves below.

San Carlos has about a half-dozen hotels splayed along roughly 4 miles of beach highway. Marinaterra Hotel & Spa (marinaterra.com) is one of the highest regarded, boasting a spa and pool bar. Or check out Airbnb for novel accommodation options – including one in a yacht at Marina Real, where you can take in the sunset on a quiet beach accessible only to marina residents and guests.

-> How to Get There: With colorful taco and flauta stands on the road into town, this adventure is highly doable as an eight-hour road trip from Phoenix. Be sure to stop at el banco at the border to pick up pesos for the tolls. From the border at Nogales, take Mexican Highway 15 in the direction of Guaymas, then veer west on the 124 for the last 6 miles to San Carlos. If you’re champing at the bit to hit the beach, fly American Airlines nonstop to Hermosillo (fares start at $312 roundtrip) and rent a car for the final two-hour drive into town.

Puerto Vallarta

->Where: The farthest afield of our picks is perched on the Pacific in the state of Jalisco.

->Why: One of the world’s great beach towns.

Old Hollywood glamour meets tropical paradise in Puerto Vallarta, a beachside destination on Mexico’s Bahía de Banderas (Bay of Flags) in the western state of Jalisco. “Vallarta,” as locals call it (English-speakers shorten it to “P.V.”), was a popular spot to film movies in the 1950s and 1960s. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton famously frolicked there during their first affair. The late filmmaker John Huston loved the area so much he made his home in the secluded haven Las Caletas, where tourists can now take all-inclusive day trips (vallarta-adventures.com).

Private entrance to the beach at Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit resort; Photo by Angelina Aragon
Private entrance to the beach at Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit resort; Photo by Angelina Aragon

There are dozens of luxury accommodations to choose from in Resort-o Vallarta. We recommend the freshly redesigned Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa (marriott.com), which boasts beachfront suites, indigenous-inspired treatments at Ohtli Spa, lobster tacos and tropical drinks at the open-air Las Casitas restaurant and a ceviche and tequila bar with a proprietary tequila created just for the hotel.

As tempting as it is to plant yourself on a beach lounger at your hotel, make an effort to get out and explore the town.The Malecón is a mile-long boardwalk and the hub of all activity in “old town” Puerto Vallarta, whose streets stretch from it. The esplanade is chockablock with shops, restaurants, snack huts, nightclubs and street performers – at least in our pre-pandemic visit. Seek out the gallery of Xaime Ximenez (xaimeximenez.com), a talented artist with a disability who paints with a brush held in his mouth.

Also in the old town area is El Arrayán (elarrayan.com.mx/en), a seriously cool LGBTQ-owned restaurant with a tree growing in its indoor courtyard and explosively colorful design elements. The menu changes often but always focuses on traditional Mexican cuisine with fun twists on meat, seafood, vegan and gluten-free dishes.

->How to Get There: American Airlines and Southwest Airlines offer nonstop service to Puerto Vallarta International Airport from Phoenix. United Airlines has indirect flights.

La Paz

->Where: In southern Baja, almost to Cabo, but not quite.

->Why: Tranquil pursuits like whale watching, and excellent scuba diving in Cabo Pulmo about an hour south.

Nestled on the mouth of its eponymous bay, in one of the narrowest sections of the Baja peninsula, La Paz is well-positioned as a starting point for short excursions to the Pacific and to other towns on the Sea of Cortez. In short, it’s ideal for travelers who don’t want or need a big nightlife and tourism scene, and would rather experience low-key, small-town Mexico.

Balandra Beach, just north of La Paz; Photo by Christianna Silva
Balandra Beach, just north of La Paz; Photo by Christianna Silva

It’s also a bonanza for gray whale watching. Migrating whales transit through the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean from December to April. La Paz is a nationally protected area, and the water temperature is perfect for breeding and birthing. In-season excursions are arranged daily from La Paz to Magdalena Bay by MAAR Experiences (maarexp.com; inquire for pricing), in which you pile onto a boat and spend two hours watching massive gray whales pop out of the water and practically pose for selfies.

Continuing a theme, La Paz is also a hot spot to glimpse the elusive whale shark. Known as the largest fish in the world, reaching up to 40 feet long and weighing more than 20 tons, the docile animals thrive from October to May in the Bay of La Paz, just a 30-minute boat ride from downtown. Book a trip with MAAR Experiences (maarexp.com, $85 per person) to free-swim with the giants.

Hotel options are plentiful in the city of 300,000. The sprawling Costa Baja Resort & Spa (costabajaresort.com) is located on the edge of the water on the Baja California Peninsula in its own marina. The views are outstanding, the spa is tops and the restaurant at the bottom of the resort, Mosaic, delivers a magical four-course meal, each dish perfectly paired with wine, beer, cocktails or tequila. (Speaking of tequila, Costa Baja has an impressive collection of more than 100 varieties.) For a more historical stay in the heart of the colonial city, try Hotel Catedral La Paz (hotelcatedral.mx), a beautiful hotel in the historic district of the city just a short walk to the beach.

->How to Get There: It’s a brutal 22-hour drive to La Paz, or a much more genteel 100-minute nonstop flight on American Airlines’ new direct service to the city from Sky Harbor, which runs three times a week through May 3 before going on summer hiatus. Fares start at $188 roundtrip.

Mazatlán

->Where: Not as far as Puerto Vallarta, but same general area.

->Why: Unrated colonial-era charms… and the beaches, natch.

kayaking to Isla de Venados with All Over Mazatlán; Photo courtesy All Over Mazatlán
kayaking to Isla de Venados with All Over Mazatlán; Photo courtesy All Over Mazatlán

Behemoth cruise ships began sidling up to Mazatlán in the 1960s, unleashing a wave of gringo-fied beach resorts and Señor Frogs on the Pacific fishing port directly east from the tip of Baja California. In recent years, Mazatlán’s colorful downtown has come back to life with renovations of historical buildings and cultural landmarks that showcase the city’s European influences. Meanwhile, the white sand beaches of the touristy Golden Zone to the north remain as welcoming as ever.

Mazatlán means “place of deer” in the indigenous Nahuatl language. Though the deer have long fled since the arrival of the Spanish Army in the early 1500s, waves of German immigrants in the 1800s, and the aforementioned cruise-goers, frequent wildlife sightings are still possible along the coast. Book the Island Adventure with All Over Mazatlán (allovermazatlan.com/en) for a guided kayak-hike-snorkel excursion to Isla de Venados (Deer Island) less than a mile off the coast, where you’ll see manta rays, pelicans, tropical fish and raccoon-like coatis.

For sightseeing of a more cultural stripe, the local historical society and federal government have put a lot of work into revitalizing El Centro Histórico. Radiating out from the central Plaza Machado is block after block of pastel-colored shop fronts and regal courtyards. Just off the Plaza, pop into the grand, sherbet-orange Angela Peralta Theater, named for Mexico’s famous operatic diva, and the nearby well-appointed art and archaeological museums (mazatlan.com.mx).

Continue the best of both worlds theme by staying at The Inn at Centro Histórico (theinnatcentrohistorico.com). For around $70 a night, the renovated boutique hotel downtown offers sparse yet clean rooms and a shuttle service to its beachfront sister property in the Golden Zone, where you can order a frosty paloma from the shade of a palapa.

->How to Get There: American Airlines offers one two-hour, nonstop, round-trip flight per day from Sky Harbor to Mazatlán. Purchase the 30-minute taxi ride to town inside the airport from the designated taxi counter before heading to the curb ($25-$45 USD).

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