Baltimore Sun Sunday

Underrated destinatio­ns in Mexico to visit

Plan for your next trip for when it’s safe to travel again

- By Kyle Valenta

While we think it’s hard to underrate any destinatio­n in Mexico, many travelers regularly overlook some of the coolest destinatio­ns found across the country.

Yes, we love Tulum and Cancun and Los Cabos — but Mexico has way more to offer than beaches and all-inclusive resorts. From ancient cities to dazzling untouched beaches and amazing foodie destinatio­ns, Mexico is packed with hidden gems. Check out this list of underrated destinatio­ns before you book your next Mexico vacation.

Mexico City: OK, Mexico City isn’t unknown. It’s the largest city in North America, has more museums than any city in the world and is home to some of the best street food on the planet. It’s also one of the most visited cities in Mexico. However, the majority of American travelers give Mexico City a wide berth and head straight to Mexico’s famous beach destinatio­ns. And my oh my — what they are missing.

Where to start? Museums. The space-age Museo Soumaya is just one of the city’s many hubs of culture. You’ll find Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s former house — La Casa Azul (The Blue House, or Museo Frida Kahlo) — in the charming Coyoacan district. There’s also the epic National Museum of Anthropolo­gy and the Palacio de Bellas Artes. That’s to say nothing of the famous murals that are found throughout the city — from street art to formal settings like the National Palace and Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, where Rivera, Orozco and otherts painted.

Food is stellar everywhere in Mexico City — from holes-in-the-wall like Las Buenas Migas to internatio­nally famous spots like Pujol. Of course, street food is very much where it’s at, and you’ll find stands slinging tortas, tacos, tlayudas, tlacoyos and nearly every type of regional cuisine on seemingly every other block across the city.

You’ll also find history here in spades. The entire Centro Historico is one of the largest preserved colonial zones in the Americas, and has block after block of beautiful architectu­re. It also holds the ruins of Templo

Mayor — the main temple of the Mexican people who populated this region before the Spanish invaded.

Puebla: Just a couple hours due east of Mexico City is Puebla. By no means a small town, the capital of Puebla state and its largest city is a bustling, charming place to visit.

You should visit Puebla, if for no other reason than to sample its amazing local cuisine. Mole poblano, tacos al arabe and cemitas are just a few of the options you’ll find in restaurant­s and at street stalls throughout the historic Centro and Zocalo. The city and region is also famous for its eye-catching sweets.

Food aside, Puebla is bursting with culture — both high and low.

Atop the highbrow list is Museo Amparo. Situated in the center of town, this is easily one of the best museums in the Americas. The collection includes cutting-edge contempora­ry exhibition­s alongside an incredible selection of artifacts from the region’s indigenous and ancient cultures. A bit farther outside of town, you’ll find the actual Baroque Museum (Museo Internacio­nal del Barroco).

This straight-from-thefuture building holds a mind-bending collection of equally dazzling and over-the-top Baroque artwork.

After all of that high culture, it’s time to indulge in some guilty pleasures. And there’s no better place to do that in Puebla than at Arena Puebla. Here, you’ll find Mexico’s lucha libre matches in all of their no-frills, dramatic glory. Where Mexico City’s lucha libre arena is all flashing lights and LED screens, Puebla’s wrestling scene is far more down to earth.

Merida: Merida is the cultural capital of western Yucatan and has an artsy vibe that’s starting to attract a lot of attention. The center of town is packed with colonial relics, many of which have been repurposed for leisure pursuits.

The city is more than a blend of Spanish and indigenous cultural roots. The Romanesque cathedral and Casa de Montejo are constructe­d from the ruins of local pyramids, in true Spanish fashion. But there’s also a serious French influence on the town’s layout and style. That’s especially true along beautiful Paseo de Montejo, where huge

Beaux Arts mansions line the leafy road.

More and more these days, Merida attracts immigrants from Europe and the rest of North America, who come here to start small businesses or involve themselves in the local tourist scene.

Art figures largely in Merida, and you’d do well to head to the numerous independen­t galleries in town, including Galeria La Eskalera and Galeria Soho.

You’ll need to sample local Yucatecan food while you’re in town. The many upscale restaurant­s in the city center serve a wide array of cuisines and Mexican-fusion fare. For more traditiona­l options, look for papadzules (tortillas, eggs, and pipian sauce), pavo relleno negro (shredded turkey bathed in a rich charred chili sauce) and cochinita pibil (spiced shredded pork).

La Paz: Mexico’s Baja region — consisting of the states of Baja California and Baja California

Sur — feels a world away from the rest of Mexico. The area is most famous for cities like Tijuana, the border town that’s seeing something of a renaissanc­e, and the Los Cabos region, which draws tens of thousands of resort visitors every year. However, there’s a lot more to Baja than meets the eye. That couldn’t be truer than in La Paz, the capital and largest city in Baja California Sur.

Situated about halfway up the coast of the Sea of Cortez from Los Cabos, La Paz is the more authentic alternativ­e to Cabo

San Lucas. The city itself is packed with authentic eats, cool bars and cafes. A city-sponsored arts program is also dramatical­ly increasing the amount of street art and public murals throughout town. You’ll find these murals everywhere in the town center. Cuisine in the Baja centers on seafood, though you can expect a healthy dose of fusion and internatio­nal fare as well.

La Paz, though, is best for providing a lively (and authentica­lly Mexican) home base to explore the natural wonders of the Baja region. The most famous destinatio­n is actually offshore — Isla Espiritu Santo. This uninhabite­d island has a few beach campsites for those looking to stay overnight, but otherwise its only residents are sea lions and sea birds — and the numerous underwater species that call its shores home. It’s simple to book tours that depart from La Paz.

As the pandemic drags on, children and teenagers endure an unpreceden­ted realignmen­t of daily life.

Isolated in apartments and houses, kids contend with unending pressures — lost contact with friends and normal school life, grown-ups’ ubiquity and unwanted attentions, as well as the fear that their futures may be compromise­d by an invisible, deadly menace.

To help, concerned parents seek child and adolescent psychiatri­sts and psychologi­sts, along with other counselors. But there aren’t enough such profession­als to begin with in America, some experts say. And many of those are being inundated by young patients in need.

“Even before the pandemic, there was significan­t lack of access to child mental health care,” said Alex Strauss, a Marlton, New Jersey, psychiatri­st who treats children, adolescent­s and adults. Lately, Strauss said, he’s received a 20% increase in calls from people asking for his help with “pandemicre­lated difficulti­es.” He added, “With need growing, it can be almost impossible to see someone now. There’s a severe national shortage of therapists.”

Gail Karafin, a Doylestown, Pennsylvan­ia, psychologi­st in independen­t practice, as well as a certified school psychologi­st, agreed. “I shudder when I have to make a psychiatri­c referral for a child, because it could be a long wait,” she said. “It’s a case of supply and demand, made more difficult by the pandemic.”

Beyond that, many psychiatri­sts, who are

medical doctors able to prescribe drugs, don’t take insurance, limiting therapeuti­c access for many families.

The mother of an eighth grade boy said she felt lucky to find a child psychologi­st after a month of looking. Her name, like those of other parents in this article, was withheld so she could speak openly about private family matters.

“I’ve gone through a high-conflict divorce,” the woman said. “And with COVID stress, I was trying to find someone to offer my son support, but it’s been difficult. A lot said they weren’t taking new patients.

“It’s like the help is there at arm’s length, but you can’t have it. When I think about families in more crisis than mine, that’s a frightenin­g thought.”

Throughout America, there are an estimated 15 million children and

adolescent­s in need of therapy from mental health profession­als, according to Jeffrey Geller, president of the American Psychiatri­c Associatio­n.

Yet, he added, there are just 8,000 to 9,000 psychiatri­sts treating children and teenagers in the U.S.

“We need 30,000, not 8,000,” noted Jodi Brown, a child and adolescent psychiatri­st in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvan­ia. “Even kids who haven’t had psychiatri­c conditions are needing help to get through this.”

There are an estimated 38,000 to 40,000 school psychologi­sts across the country, said Katherine Cowan, spokeswoma­n for the National Associatio­n of School Psychologi­sts. Ideally, the child-to-practition­er ratio should be 500 students for every school psychologi­st, Cowan said. But the current configurat­ion is 1,400 to one.

Among psychologi­sts,

just 4,000 out of a total of 102,000 nationwide (around 4%), are clinical child and adolescent practition­ers, according to data provided by the American Psychologi­cal Associatio­n.

“Parents are getting desperate to get their kids the help they need as the pandemic exacerbate­s the situation,” Cowan said. “Everybody is wearing thin.”

Unable to find or afford behavioral-health solutions, many parents are rushing their kids to hospital emergency rooms.

Between March and October 2020, the number of visits to emergency department­s nationwide by children younger than 18 for mental health reasons increased by 44% over the same period in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The number of mental health visits for adolescent­s ages 12 to 17 was 31% higher; for

children ages 5 to 11, it was up 24%, CDC figures show.

The ER trips are indication of parental desperatio­n, say behavioral health profession­als.

“The country is traumatize­d, and the ones being hurt most are children, whose neurologic­al developmen­t is being affected after 10 months and counting of house arrest,” said Lise Van Susteren, a Washington, D.C., psychiatri­st.

The difficulti­es families face are on display in the Philadelph­ia home of the parents of an 11-year-old boy diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactiv­ity disorder (ADHD).

“For him, his problem wasn’t just getting used to going to school at home,” the boy’s father said. “It was putting our house in turmoil.”

It took six weeks to find a suitable psychologi­st covered by the parents’ insurance, he said. But the pandemic loaded the practition­er with many patients, the boy’s mother said. After the boy’s initial virtual appointmen­t, the psychologi­st couldn’t see him again for two months.

Eventually, the boy was able to get more regular sessions, but then he needed the specialize­d help of a New York psychiatri­st once a month. The doctor is an out-of-network provider who charges $425 an hour.

Many psychiatri­sts don’t accept patient insurance plans because the reimbursem­ents aren’t enough, and the paperwork is prodigious, said Russell Holstein, a psychologi­st in Long Branch, Monmouth County, New Jersey. Quite a few psychologi­sts don’t take insurance plans, either, other experts said.

That makes their services financiall­y out of reach for many parents looking for help for their children.

Some patient advocates complain that insurance plans don’t offer enough choices for mental health services to begin with, worsening the problem of therapist availabili­ty.

On top of that, said

Shana Schwartz, a licensed clinical social worker in Ardmore, Pennsylvan­ia, quite a few practition­ers are parents themselves and are precluded from taking on new cases because they need to spend time with their own children who are out of school and unsupervis­ed.

Often, to give parents options, medical profession­als suggest moms and dads speak with their kids’ pediatrici­ans.

“Because of our training to treat children and teens, many of us are comfortabl­e diagnosing and treating anxiety and depression in kids,” said Joannie Yeh, a Media, Pennsylvan­ia pediatrici­an. “It can help. Because, I know: Those psychiatri­st waiting lists are long.”

When the coronaviru­s hit, Jim and Cheryl Drayer, 69 and 72, canceled all their planned travel and hunkered down in their home in Dallas.

But earlier this month, the Drayers both received the second dose of their COVID-19 vaccinatio­ns. And in March, armed with their new antibodies, they are heading to Maui for a long overdue vacation.

Across the United States, older people have been among the first in line to receive their COVID-19 vaccinatio­ns. And among hotels, cruise lines and tour operators, the data is clear: Older travelers are leading a wave in new travel bookings. Americans over 65, who have had priority access to inoculatio­ns, are now newly emboldened to travel. For the silver haired, it’s a silver lining.

“We’ve very willingly been compliant with masking and social distancing, and have basically lived inside of our bubble here in Dallas,” Jim Drayer said. “We haven’t been inside a restaurant in a year. So we’re anxious to get out now and do things a little more safely.”

At the Foundry Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, an 87-room luxury hotel housed in what was once a steel factory for the Biltmore Estate, reservatio­ns made with the hotel’s AARP promotiona­l rate were up 50% last month. Aqua-Aston Hospitalit­y, a Honolulu-based company with resorts, hotels and condos in its portfolio, reports that senior-rate bookings climbed nearly 60% in January.

The Drayers, who have gone gorilla trekking in Africa and done adventure travel in India, Israel and Egypt, admit that their trip to Hawaii, which they booked through the members-only vacation club, Exclusive Resorts, is something of a baby step. (The vacation club reports that more than 50% of their current bookings are vacations for members over 60.)

“We’re testing the waters,” Cheryl Drayer said. “We didn’t want to end up quarantine­d in a foreign country or not allowed back in the United States. This felt like a safe place to go, where we were still in the United States.”

That sense of safety is partly because Hawaii,

with its mandatory quarantine and contact tracing, has managed the pandemic well. The couple feel confident that if they were to face any health issues while on the island, they wouldn’t be stymied by an overburden­ed health system.

“We’re traveling to a destinatio­n that, by all the numbers, is safer than where we live right now,” said Jim Drayer. “It feels like our bubble has cracked open a little a bit.”

Alice Southworth, 75, was also looking for a post-vaccine travel destinatio­n in a place that was still taking COVID-19 precaution­s seriously, and didn’t push her too far out of her comfort zone.

A semiretire­d psychologi­st, she has continued to

see a handful of patients throughout the pandemic, but hasn’t ventured beyond her hometown of McLean, Virginia, in more than a year. She also hasn’t been able to use an indoor gym or attend her beloved water aerobics classes, so as soon as she received the first dose of the vaccine, she booked a visit to Hilton Head Health, a wellness resort in South Carolina, where she’ll have access to a full range of fitness classes and activities. And when she arrives March 28, she’ll be fully vaccinated.

Older people are more eager to travel in 2021 than other age groups and also more likely to link the timing of their travel to when they receive their vaccinatio­ns, according to a

January survey conducted by the travel agency network Virtuoso. In the study, 83% of respondent­s over 77 said they were more ready to travel in 2021 than in 2020, and 95% of the same group said they would wait to travel until they received their vaccine.

For travelers in their

60s, 70s and 80s, said

Conor Goodwin, corporate marketing manager of Charlestow­ne Hotels, the ticking of the clock is another strong motivation to book as soon as an inoculatio­n makes it safe.

“The 65-plus demographi­c is losing out on their golden years and they’re understand­ably eager to get back out there,” he said.

Some older travelers are even opting to finally book those big-ticket dream trips. Fernando Diez, who owns Quasar Expedition­s, a luxury cruise operator in the Galápagos Islands, says that in December, when front-line health care workers were among the very first Americans to receive vaccines, he saw a wave of requests for trip informatio­n from doctors and nurses.

Since Jan. 1, however, 70% of his booking inquiries have come from guests over the age of 65 — in previous years, that number was closer to 40%.

Most inquiries are for travel from June onward.

The tourism industry, battered by the pandemic, is now getting a muchneeded boost from this new surge. Hotels and resorts, which have faced recordlow occupancy throughout the pandemic, are wholeheart­edly embracing the fresh wave of travelers, with many rolling out new programmin­g and features geared toward their oldest demographi­c.

At the Marker Key West Harbor Resort, which sits on two lush acres in the Florida Keys, transactio­ns from guests over the age of 55 were 70% higher last month than in December 2020, translatin­g to a 41% increase in spending.

Allie Singer, the resort’s director of sales and marketing, said the jump is almost certainly coming from newly vaccinated seniors.

The resort responded by bringing back programmin­g that had taken a hiatus during the pandemic but was popular with older visitors in the past, including aqua yoga — which can relieve joint pain and arthritis — and a 5 p.m. “welcome reception” on the resort’s pool deck with appetizers and live music.

“It’s very attractive to the senior crowd at that hour,” she said.

 ?? DREAMSTIME ?? Mexico City is the largest city in North America and has more museums than any city in the world.
DREAMSTIME Mexico City is the largest city in North America and has more museums than any city in the world.
 ??  ?? “It can be almost impossible to see someone now,” psychiatri­st Alex Strauss said. HEATHER KHALIFA/PHILADELPH­IA INQUIRER
“It can be almost impossible to see someone now,” psychiatri­st Alex Strauss said. HEATHER KHALIFA/PHILADELPH­IA INQUIRER
 ?? COOPER NEILL/THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Jim and Cheryl Drayer have received the second dose of their COVID-19 vaccinatio­ns, and in March, they are heading to Maui for a vacation.
COOPER NEILL/THE NEW YORK TIMES Jim and Cheryl Drayer have received the second dose of their COVID-19 vaccinatio­ns, and in March, they are heading to Maui for a vacation.
 ?? MARK HEDDEN/THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Peter Rogers teaches an aqua yoga class, put on hiatus during the coronaviru­s pandemic, Feb. 13 at the Marker Key West Harbor Resort in Key West, Florida.
MARK HEDDEN/THE NEW YORK TIMES Peter Rogers teaches an aqua yoga class, put on hiatus during the coronaviru­s pandemic, Feb. 13 at the Marker Key West Harbor Resort in Key West, Florida.

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