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Off the beaten path

Explore beyond Mexico’s resort towns to discover a bewitching mix of cultural vigour and sun-drenched beauty

Only in midair, when I was freefalling into the middle of the algae-green tidal pool, did it occur to me: How will I get out of this thing? About the size of an eight-man hot tub, the pool’s water level was at least five feet below its rocky rim. Looking down, the jagged black sides seemed more treacherous than helpful. I wasn’t interested in becoming fodder for a water-logged sequel to 127 Hours.

Alejandro, the local guy who had brought me over boulders and steep slopes to this secluded spot on the Oaxaca coast, seemed to know what he was doing when he suggested jumping in to cool off. I’d have to leave myself in his hands. After splashing around for a while, I finally asked in my mangled Spanish: “How exit?” Laughing, Alejandro demonstrated his technique. You wait for a big crashing wave to raise the water level, then grab onto a particular protrusion while stepping on a particular indentation. ¡Ya quedó! Refreshed from the swim, now it was just a matter of gathering our flip flops — call them chanclas if you want to be fancy — and scrambling again across the rocks back to civilization. That is, back to where we could get some cold beer.

I met Alejandro on Playa del Amor in Zipolite, on the coast of Oaxaca in the south of Mexico. The sparkling beachside village, a hippie magnet going back to the 1960s, is one of Mexico’s magnificent gay-friendly gems. And it’s not the only one.

Though they may lack the “scene” of Puerto Vallarta — where the faces congregating around the Blue Chairs might be familiar from Woody’s back in Toronto the other 50 weeks of the year — the easy access of Cancun and the shopping malls of Acapulco, unheralded destinations like Zipolite, Mérida, San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato offer something else: real Mexican culture. All in “safe” states that have not been besieged by drug cartels, they have historic sites, authentic Mexican dining (wouldn’t you rather be overcharged for a fancy meal that fashionable Mexicans rave about, instead of half-assed spaghetti at a tourist trap?) and increasingly visible LGBT communities. Outside the resort bubbles, prices drop, the foreigners-versus-locals barrier dissolves and there’s much more to do than drink and tan. Though there is, indeed, lots of that to do.

In Zipolite, it’s more about the beach than history. Paintings on the side of local cabs depict Playa del Amor’s mascots as topless mermaids; Playa del Amor’s fans know better. “The beach of love” might be the most gay-friendly hangout in southern Mexico.

While the entire two kilometres of Zipolite’s beach have a frisky vibe — it’s the only beach in Mexico where nudity is tolerated and a good chunk of visitors stroll au naturale — Playa del Amor is a particularly queer swath of sand. The steep cliffs surrounding it provide some degree of privacy. From the early afternoon till sundown, American faerie nudists commingle with locals like Alejandro, who had just moved back from Texas, party seekers from the region and savvy professionals from Mexico City, who take advantage of the cheap airfares between the capital and nearby Hutulco airport. Just walking along the beach at sunset, I managed to meet a massage therapist, a museum curator, a financial advisor and a well-known expert and author on a traditional Mexican drink called pulque — all from the capital and all in love with Zipolite’s ridiculously casual vibe.

Despite the arrival of upscale eateries like El Alquimista, where you can dine by torchlight right on the beach, Zipolite has managed to hold onto its funky soul. At night, cars are banned from the ramshackle main drag, where barefoot modern-day hippies sell jewelry and play with devil sticks.

The child-unfriendly currents, which can be quite treacherous, seem to have scared away serious development; there are only a handful of buildings more than a storey high. Its counterculture reputation also seems to have been a buffer against hotel and restaurant chains. Before I went there, I was on a tour of pre-Columbian sites in the interior of Oaxaca (totally worth the trip). In front of the rest of the group, the chatty guide asked me where I was going next. “Zipolite,” I said. He directed his icy response to two American seniors: “That’s where men go to do drugs and have sex.” One man’s poison is another man’s paradise.

Three and a half hours by car from Cancun, Mérida plays the role of nerdy culture vulture to Cancun’s flashy floozy. With almost a million residents, Mérida is a real city with a real history — it was the site of the Mayan city of T’hó before Francisco de Montejo y León established it as a Spanish colony in 1542. It’s also a quirky, easygoing place with its own take on the arts and Mexican cuisine. The crispy-soft fried deliciousness of panuchos will provide you with much delight before your arteries clog up. Free nightly performances in the main square, anything from campy folkloric dancing to classical music, only hint at the performative tendencies of Yucatecos.

It does take a little poking around, though, to uncover the local penchant for sequins and G-strings. Years ago, a puritanical municipal crackdown on drinking drove many of the major nightclubs to the suburbs. While the airy resto-bars of the city centre can make for magical evenings — and the rundown cruiseyness of downtown gay haunt Jorges Cantina can transport you back to what it might have been like to be gay in the 1950s — you need to hop in a cab to see the flashier side of gay Mérida.

I got the scoop from my hosts at Casa Santiago (posadasantiagomx.com), who were kind enough to escort me beyond the ring road. Hotspots like Pride, Milk and Angeluz are called discos, but they function more like cabarets. Mixed groups of friends sit at tables, sharing bottle service while oohing and ahhing over a packed program of elaborately choreographed drag and stripper acts. Only after the show is over, maybe after 1:30am, do patrons start dancing. The large number of straight people at the gay clubs is telling. It’s a thin boundary between queer and mainstream in Mérida, something we realized when we saw several drag queens having drinks in the main square before they went to a gig. Strollers and fellow patrons smiled and waved at them; the ladies were just another shade of local colour.

Sprawling across an arid hill, San Miguel de Allende is what you might imagine if you were to imagine a perfect Mexican town, rustic and chic at the same time. Oh, and the town knows it, too. The new big box location of the posh department store Liverpool is well out of view of the quaint centre. A well-known expat artist colony — it’s true that the light here is fantastic — San Miguel’s queerness shows in the stylish flourishes of its local commerce; businesses may not explicitly cater to a gay clientele, but there’s a lot of “gay-owned” here.

After a couple of days of browsing church interiors and endless showrooms of remarkable tchotchkes, my companion and I decided to check out one of the local hot springs. Three of them are clustered along a dusty road just on the outskirts of town. The one we picked, La Gruta, turned out to be a mini resort: several pools at various temperatures, lush gardens and, best of all, pool-side drink service. A swim through a long stone tunnel led to a large interior chamber with a domed ceiling allowing in only a single shaft of light. When the horny Argentine teenagers finally got bored and swam away, the chamber was transcendently quiet, both spiritual and romantic.

Not far away from San Miguel is Guanajuato, the compact state capital whose ostentatious theatres, churches and monumental buildings rattle around the bottom of a valley like gems in a cup. The city’s walkable, labyrinthine streets, some of them underground in old silver mine shafts, give the place an intense, medieval feeling I’ve never experienced anywhere else in the world. A hike up to El Pípila, a monument to a hero from the Mexican War of Independence, brings relief from the intensity: It’s breathtaking to see how the valley is covered with a hodgepodge of brightly coloured homes soaking up the Mexican sun.

Guanajuato is famous for its raucous Festival Internacional Cervantino each fall, celebrating (for reasons that are unclear to me — maybe it’s the medieval thing) Cervantes, the Spanish author of Don Quixote. So the city has become known as a party town. During the day, sleepy squares provide ample opportunities for people-watching, while, at night, the city centre floods with gussied-up young people looking for a good time. Where the gay ones go changes with the fashion, though Whoo Pees (more upmarket than the name suggests) has been a favourite for a few years now.

Guanajuato offers just the right balance of sophistication and brio, a place where you’re more likely to be drinking aged tequila than sipping a watered-down margarita. Now that’s a holiday you can’t find in a package.