A family packs into a sedan and drives from Mexico's San Miguel Allende to Patzcuaro to Zihuatanejo to Morelia, stopping along the way for rustic meals, fun beaches, and rests under the mangrove trees. You can do it too.
SAN MIGUEL, Mexico – Another brutal winter in New England. While I fantasized about being just about anywhere warm, I didn't just want to veg out at an all-inclusive resort. I wanted to get out, have an adventure, and discover the parallel life I could be living (despite the needy one-year-old baby attached to my hip).
When I began planning a road trip with my mom, the idea was to start in San Miguel de Allende, the colonial town I'd fallen in love with on my previous visit to Mexico, then spend a week at the beach, discovering little towns along the way. I didn't want to drive more than four hours a day, because my baby, fifteen-months-old at the time, barely slept in the car seat any more, favoring, instead, being constantly entertained (by me).
Having recruited my brother as calm, responsible driver (and doting baby uncle) and my mom as navigator and cultural spearhead, I relegated myself to the backseat as baby entertainer for a 10-day trip.
We decided on the route San Miguel Allende-Patzcuaro-Zihuatanejo-Morelia-San Miguel Allende. Since SMA is located pretty much in the middle of the country, the nearest beach is eight hours away. We broke up the scenic drive toward the Pacific with an overnight stay in the hidden colonial gem of Patzcuaro.
Patzcuaro is a medieval town founded in the 1320s with a beautifully preserved and historic colonial indigenous charm. Named one of the UN's 100 Historic World Treasure Cities, it is also one of Mexico's Pueblo Magico's, where the Day of the Dead is celebrated with an abundance of color, candles, flowers, and folklore.
Luckily, I was prepared for a dramatic drop in temperature from SMA to Patzcuaro, which is nestled in the mountains. It was drizzling and cold and felt more like England than Mexico. I wore a cashmere sweater, sneakers, scarf, and was still chilly. Luckily, the gorgeously appointed B&B we stayed at, called Villa Victoria, had fireplaces in each room, and heating pads for the mattresses. I cannot explain how wonderful it is to crawl into a heated bed from a cold stone floor, something you get to do repeatedly when your baby is having a sleep regression and wants to nurse as frequently as a newborn.
Villa Victoria is exquisite in its rustic details and charming, old-fashioned rooms. Some lead out to the lush hidden courtyard, and there is also a spectacular secret garden by the owner's house. Breakfast is served by the open kitchen with a cozy fire going. It's like being in a timeless tropical chalet.
From Villa Victoria it's a short walk to Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, the large central plaza filled with bakeries and artisan shops selling beautiful handmade lace, fabric, and baskets. If you want to stay right in the main square, Hotel Mansion Iturbe is a lovely option with a historic, rustic feel.
Dine at La Surtidora, a cafe and restaurant situated on the corner of the main square in a baroque 17th-century building selling candles and gourmet goodies. In the dining room, try the local speciality, a divine vegetarian bean soup called Sopa de Tarasca, named after the indigenous Tarascans, back from when Patzcuaro was the capital of the Tarascan kingdom.
Our exploration of the rest of town was hampered by torrential downpours, so we had to resign ourselves to preparing for an early departure and a long drive to the coast.
Driving in Michoacan
While SMA is located in the state of Guanajuato, most of our trip was in the state of Michoacan, where the US State Department does have a travel advisory in effect. Nonetheless, I felt very safe throughout Mexico. Drug-related violence is not targeted at tourists. Unless you're involved in politics, or driving a Bentley, you should simply exercise common sense. The key to safe travel is to drive a non-flashy car only during daylight, and stay on the main highway, which is modern and fast. Make sure you fill up with gas before you leave town, and if you need a pit stop, only stop on the highway Telmex stations, especially on the road from Patzcuaro to Zihuatanejo.
Made famous as the fantasy beach destination in Shawshank Redemption, Zihuatanejo has grown from a sleepy fishing village to a fashionable and gorgeous boutique resort town with incredible views and a scenic bay with a perfect beach. It's the quiet boutique sister resort to mega all inclusive hotel resort Ixtapa.
Playa La Ropa is the main beach in Zihuatanejo. It's a gorgeous, palm-lined crescent moon of a beach, with numerous restaurants and boutique hotels bordering it. This is where my husband suddenly appeared out of nowhere in a sarong walking down the beach, having flown in to surprise me and our daughter for the weekend… I thought i was hallucinating!
Park in the back of La Perla, the ideal home base for the day. La Perla is a simple restaurant where you can sit under a huge palapa or right on the sand and enjoy everything from breakfast to tiriditas, the local ceviche specialty. There's fabulous beach access with rentable beach loungers and umbrellas. Don't forget to order fresh coconut water after slathering on ocean-friendly sunscreen.
For lunch, be lazy and stay put, or venture down the beach a few minutes, cross a bridge into the shady tropical mangrove paradise of El Manglar, a favorite with the locals, who sit by the swamp while eating incredible seafood pasta (quite possibly the best you'll experience outside of Italy). Accompanying your lunch are wild birds, alligators, and giant dragons. Don't put your baby on the ground and don't let the kids feed the dragons -- they have rather sharp teeth.
Spend the afternoon swimming and order a coco loco while taking in the sunset. For dinner, make a reservation at the exclusive adults-only boutique hotel and restaurant Amuleto, nestled high up on the side of the cliff overlooking the bay. The Mexico-meets-Bali design, gourmet food, and intimate atmosphere made me wish my husband hadn't left yet and we were on a date night. Instead, I corralled my cherub away from the cliff's edge while my mother and brother enjoyed tamarind margaritas.
Kau Kan is an under-the-radar restaurant located on the main road that leads from town along La Ropa, up above the beach. It serves divine seafood in a romantic setting with a really great rooftop view.
Tucked under white sails on the city beach Playa Madera is the fabulous Bistro del Mar for breakfast and brunch under crisp white sails.
And of course, there is the actual town of Zihuatanejo, which is filled with shops, bars, and restaurants. A couple of highlights include La Sirena Gorda, a casual seafood spot right by the boat basin, and Coconuts, a more pricey option for a fine meal within a romantically lit courtyard.
If you fancy a change, you can always drive over to Ixtapa's marina for dinner by the boat basin. At El Galeon, you dine on a quay built like an old world ship.
Shop for artisanal gifts and $3 straw fedoras right in town. My favorite shop, El Nopal en Ave. Cinco de Mayo, has a quaint selection of boho finds. Or stay put on the beach and let the vendors come to you. I bought a bespoke sign made from used Mexican license plates, which you can find in the Mercado de Artesanias on the Ave. Cinco de Mayo.
For a change of scenery, drive over to Playa Blanca by Barra de Potosi, an undeveloped beach stunning in its raw beauty, and only a short drive from Zihua and the airport. Simple bungalows and a handful of boutique hotels are sprinkled on an otherwise wild stretch of nature. At the Southern end of the beach you will find La Condesa, a fantastic thatch-roof restaurant with beach chairs, hammocks, and loungers and grilled fish (pescado a la talla) smoked on open wood fires.
Leaving the tropical paradise of Zihua is hard, but after driving through beautiful landscapes, discovering Morelia was like a scene from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. It felt like a magical city rose out of nowhere! The capital of Michoacan state, Morelia's historical center is a beautifully preserved and lively colonial delight with a layout barely changed from its founding in 1541. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and rightfully so.
The enormous central square — Plaza de Armas — surrounds the cathedral, still the heart of the city's life. Covered in blooming purple jacarandas in the early spring, in the evenings it is thronged with locals and students enjoying their time off. (The oldest university in the Americas is located in Morelia.) Open air movies, concerts, vendors, it feels like a fiesta on a regular Friday night. There are lovely hotels, restaurants, and cafes lining the plaza, with indoor and outdoor seating. The culinary highlight of my trip was the restaurant Lu, serving incredible contemporary takes on classic Mexican cuisine with a focus on farm-to-table cooking, fair trade practices, and fresh ingredients.
If you can afford to stay right on the main square, I'd go for the old-fashioned Hotel Virrey de Mendoza. The rest should have a peek inside the indoor courtyard and intricate stained glass ceiling. You can also feel fabulous at the chic Casa Grande Boutique Hotel.
We stayed at Casona Rosa, a quaint B&B with a narrow courtyard, nicely appointed rooms with high ceilings with medieval beams, and a fascinating bohemian expat owner, Rose, who is warm and welcoming. Rose collects work from local artisans — clothing, pottery, art — and sells some of these lovely selections in her lobby. She can arrange historical tours and visits to local artist studios. By the way, her breakfast is delicious.
Exploring Morelia on foot is a delight. The narrow indoor market Mercado de Dulces y Artesanias is worth a stroll for souvenirs, local candy, handmade golden baby sandals (score), and other handicrafts. And you don't want to miss the library, the churches, museums, architectural buildings with murals and art exhibits such as Palacio Clavijero, and streets like Jardin de Las Rosas, a quaint plaza with al fresco cafe seating, gnarly trees, and street art exhibits. Had I not had reached my luggage max (diaper bag, travel crib, stroller, baby), I would have hauled back several pieces of art.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
There are several ways to get to SMA. I prefer to fly in to Leon-Guanajuato Airport (BJX), which is just over an hour's drive from SMA. You can also fly into Queretaro (QRO), which has less frequent flights and is also an hour away. You can rent from one of the major car rental companies at the airports, take a taxi, book a shuttle, or arrange for a private driver.
Or fly directly to Mexico City, and take a luxury bus to SMA, which takes about three hours.