September 9, 2012

Foreign correspondence: Mexico offers everything from pyramids and ecotourism to tequila

What’s it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

What’s it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Gloria Guevara, 44, is Mexico’s Minister of Tourism. The graduate of Northwestern University and Mexico City’s Universidad Anahuac was formerly an executive with Sabre, the travel technology corporation.

Q: What parts of Mexico would you recommend for active vacationers?

A: There are many states for mountain lovers, depending on how much time you have. They include San Luis Potosi or northern Hidalgo.

There are several states that specialize in ecotourism. One of my favorites is Chiapas, which also has options for adventure travelers. The same goes for Veracruz for water activities.

Mexico has many opportunities to interact with nature. Like butterflies? Ones from Canada and the United States arrive in Mexico to the same spot, between Michoacan and the state of Mexico. You can get close to millions of them.

Q: Mexican food is more diverse than many think. Where would you recommend going to try something different?

A: The trick is ingredients and freshness. There are places like Mexico City or Guadalajara where you can taste multiple foods, but not necessarily all the flavors of Mexico.

The scallops in Mazatlan are thick, like a filet mignon, and cooked with lime. They’re impossible to find in Mexico City — you have to go to Mazatlan for them. They’re a year-round delicacy, and there has been a surplus in recent years.

If you like ant roe — the delicacy called escamoles — you’ll find it only in September and October. You can try to find it in Mexico City, but only at that time of year.

I love Michoacan’s great food. There’s a type of tamale you only find there called uchepo — it’s a little sweet.

Other foods I like are chile en nogada, original from Puebla; the best chiles are from there, but you can find some decent ones in Mexico City.

Last year, UNESCO declared Mexican food a World Heritage cuisine and a team spent eight months doing an inventory of more than 1,500 dishes throughout the country before they decided to stop. We were able to launch 18 gastronomical routes.

You may think there’s only one kind of mole sauce, but there are hundreds of types that vary by state, city and town. They range from the typical chocolate to ones that feature pepper, gelatins and greens. That’s why we created a Route of the Mole that takes you from Puebla all the way to Oaxaca.

Q: Tulum and Chichen Itza are well-known destinations for tourists interested in “Indiana Jones”-style vacations. How about naming a cool place we never heard about?

A: Campeche is a UNESCO World Heritage City with an ancient wall. Money has been invested in restoring the old houses downtown.

In the old days, pirates were active in the area, and 20 or more sunken pirate ships have been found. Divers come to see and learn about them.

Even better, Campeche is part of the Mayan world. There’s a site near there that’s not well-known to Americans — Calakmul. It has two pyramids that are taller than what you’ll see in Chichen Itza. What’s different about Calakmul is that you can go inside the pyramids - they’ve been opened this year as part of Mexico’s Mayan activities. Inside are paintings that are 2,000 or 3,000 years old — unique artwork in unbelievably bright colors. Scholars are still trying to understand what the paintings mean.

An added touch is that these pyramids are in the middle of a Biosphere Reserve, where you can listen to the deepest sounds of the jungle.

Q: Mexico has cowboys called caballeros and vaqueros. Are there dude ranches?

A: Durango is where many cowboy movies have been filmed, and the city is pretty nice. I’d also say Sonora and the other northern states — it’s very much a cowboy area.

A little under the radar — geared to discriminating travelers, so far — are upscale shooting trips where you stay in magnificent haciendas that have everything you could think of. These are very specialized trips, somewhat like going on safari in Africa. These big ranchos are in Sonora, Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila.

Two specialized vacations that are getting popular, by the way, are spas and tequila tourism.

Q: Tequila tourism?

A: Tequila is actually a small town in Jalisco. You go there and stay at one of the haciendas where you can see and try different kinds of tequila.

There are more than 1,000 brands on the market, but authentic tequila is only from this particular region.

What’s also nice is that it’s close to Guadalajara — you can take the train from there to Tequila. It’s called the Tequila Express. You look out the window and see a landscape of blue agave cactus, which is quite different.

When you get to Tequila, you have a great meal, check into a hacienda, ride horses and do some tasting. It makes for a nice weekend.

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