Road Trip: Mexico City

4.19.2009

By Adam H. Graham

Americans take to the open road pretty much everywhere -- except Mexico. Fears of corrupt police, violent kidnappings, and dusty cacti-lined roads rattle even the most intrepid road-trippers. But if you're armed with good maps or a GPS from your car rental agency, the country's off-the-path charms can be yours.

Escape the clamor and smog of Mexico City and take in the more relaxed states of Michoac'n and Guanajuato. There you'll be greeted by winding mountain roads, UNESCO sites, fragrant forests, and hidden colonial villages. San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato offers a spate of gay-owned hotels, restaurants, and caf's. Michoac'n is equally welcoming and more remote -- lush valleys yield to mountainous altitudes where clandestine monasteries, wildlife sanctuaries, and obscure ruins punctuate the landscape.

Day One: Mexico City to P'tzcuaro

MORNING:Hit the road toward Michoac'n's volcanic fir forests in the central highlands, about two hours away. You'll want to arrive at the butterfly sanctuary by noon, when the insects' activity peaks. Take Mex-15D west to exit the city and head to Toluca, where you'll pick up Mex-15 and continue west through the subtropical Toluca Valley toward the arid highlands. One hundred million monarchs migrate annually to the three butterfly sanctuaries in this area, about 40 miles east of Morelia. The Santuario de Mariposas el Rosario is the best, and the fir forests there are ablaze with orange flutters, creating a truly breathtaking experience unique to Mexico. The trail to the mountaintop groves is a rugged, high-altitude trek exceeding 10,000 feet, so take it easy and drink lots of water.

AFTERNOON:Afternoon: Refuel on home-style cooking like atole (a hot corn drink), a volcanic-rock molcajete full of guacamole, and pork- and chicken-stuffed tamales at cozy Los Arcos (Plaza de la Constituci'n 5A) in the tiny town of Angangueo at the base of the sanctuary. Then continue two hours on the corkscrew toll roads to P'tzcuaro (Mex-15D to Mex-43D). Just outside P'tzcuaro are the Pur'pecha ruins of Tzintzuntzan ('the place of hummingbirds'), which sit on a windswept plateau overlooking Lake P'tzcuaro and the villages surrounding it. Priscilla's (Ibarra 15, +52-434-342-5708) is considered the finest restaurant in town and is remarkably affordable for what you get, and the shrimp 'burgers' from the vendor on the corner of Iturbe and La Paz are favorites with locals.

SLEEP: Run by the same family since 1790, the elegant Mansi'n Iturbe (Portal Morelos 59, +52-434-342-0368) is a colonial slice of relaxation in the heart of bustling P'tzcuaro. Margarita Arriaga is an exuberant hostess and happy to discuss her family's 200-year ownership of the property in the sun-dappled courtyard over a few drinks.

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