Mexico - Off the beaten track
The dramatic 246m (806ft) Cascada de Basaseachi are the highest waterfalls in Mexico, and are especially spectacular in the rainy season. Located 140km (87mi) northwest of Creel, it's worth the bumpy three-hour drive and every footstep of the five-hour hike to reach the falls and back. If that sounds too daunting, the views of the falls from up on the rim aren't so bad. Creel is also a good base for reaching the 30m (98ft) Cascada Cusárare, 22km (14mi) south of the town - the falls are much smaller but still worth the effort.
All those images of romantic Mayan ruins shimmering in the morning mist come true at the lost jungle city of Palenque, in the northeast of Chiapas state. Surrounded by emerald jungle, Palenque's setting is superb and its Mayan architecture and decoration are exquisite. Evidence from pottery fragments indicates that the site was first occupied more than 1500 years ago, flourishing from 600 to 700 AD when many plazas and buildings were constructed, including the elaborate Temple of Inscriptions pyramid crypt, the tallest and most prominent of Palenque's buildings. The best time to visit this sweltering, breezeless complex is in the early morning when a humid haze wraps the ancient temples in a mysterious mist. Only a handful of the almost 500 extant buildings have been excavated, and all were built without the use of metal tools, pack animals or the wheel.
The instantly forgettable new town, where most hotels and restaurants are clustered, is about 7km (4mi) from the archaeological zone, and shuttle buses trundle the route every 15 minutes. Palenque is easily accessible by bus, but keep an eye on your valuables during the trip. There is a bus and ferry connection from Guatemala's Tikal via the border town of La Palma, linking two of Central America's most impressive Mayan sites.
Real de Catorce
This reborn ghost town has a touch of magic. High on the fringes of the Sierra Madre Oriental, and reached by a road tunnel through former mine passages, Real de Catorce was a wealthy silver-mining town of 40,000 people until early in the 20th century, when it inexplicably went into decline. The town lies in a high valley with spectacular views looking westward down to the plain below.
Only a few years ago Real de Catorce was almost deserted, its paved streets lined with crumbling stone buildings, its mint a ruin and a few hundred people eking out an existence from old mine workings. Nowadays Real is attracting increasing numbers of trendier residents - wealthy Mexicans and gringos looking for an unusual retreat. North American and European expats have been restoring the old buildings and setting them up as hotels, shops and restaurants. Artists have settled here, and filmmakers use the town and the surrounding hills as locations.
Real de Catorce has a charmingly timeworn, neoclassical parish church - la Parroquia - whose reputedly miraculous image of St Francis of Assisi attracts pilgrims by the thousands (by the hundreds of thousands between September 25 and October 12 for the festival of San Francisco - don't say we didn't warn you!). The town also has more-pagan remnants in the form of a cock-fighting ring built like a Roman amphitheatre. The Huichol people believe that the deserts around Real are a spiritual homeland, inhabited by their peyote and maize gods. Every May or June, the Huichol make a pilgrimage here for rituals involving peyote. Real de Catorce is a 1.5-hour bus ride from Matehuala, which in turn is seven hours from Mexico City.
Aficionados of industrial archaeology will find Santa Rosalía well worth exploring for the ruins of its massive copper-smeltering operation. The former French company town lies on the Sea of Cortez coast of Baja California Sur, some 50km (31mi) east of San Ignacio. The town also has unusual clapboard residential architecture and a church designed by the famous Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, of Paris' tower fame. The prefabricated church was originally intended for a destination in West Africa but somehow ended up being shipped to Mexico. The French left their legacy in other ways as well: the bakery here sells the best baguettes in Baja.