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Colima: The Overlooked Mexican Region We Almost Don’t Want to Tell You About

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In compact Colima you can drive from cities to volcanoes to surf breaks in under an hour. But this quiet region won’t stay secret for much longer.

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Sandwiched between Jalisco and Michoacán on the Pacific coast, Colima is one of the smallest states in Mexico. The semicircle-shaped region is about the size of Delaware and boasts 100 miles of coastline. Colima’s best-known seaside town, Manzanillo, has grown this past decade alongside its glitzy northern neighbor Puerta Vallarta, albeit at a much slower pace. But inland, the region’s lush, volcanic landscape is, by comparison, virtually unknown—though it probably won’t be that way for long.

Part of Colima’s appeal is that it’s so compact—the city, the mountains, the villages, and the beach are all within an hour’s radius. The state’s capital city, also named Colima, sits in the heart of the countryside. But the city is merely an urban speck on the raw and rugged landscape. Drive just a few miles and you’re among fields punctuated by two massive volcanoes rising above historic villages. Drive 35 miles, and you’re at one of the region’s best surf spots.

Famous local painter Alejandro Rangel Hidalgo found inspiration in Colima, and his estate is now a museum in the town of Comala.
Colima is serviced by an airport that receives, at most, five flights a day (all domestic). A trip to this worth-the-effort place thrusts visitors into a diverse region on the rise that has yet to be discovered by the masses. But the state saw 1 million visitors in 2017, and with cruise ship travel increasing to Manzanillo in the north—it welcomed 34,000 cruise ship passengers in 2017, up from 6,000 in 2014—there’s reason to believe more growth is on the way. Come along as we explore more of what Colima has to offer.   

Do

Sean Farley, World Champion Kitesurfer and owner of the adventure tour company Elevate in Colima, describes his hometown as the “poor man’s Hawaii.” Of course, Colima is not an island—nor could one confuse Mexican and Polynesian cultures—but Farley makes a good point: Like Hawaii, the Mexican state boasts active volcanoes, tropical jungles, a vibrant tradition of art and culture, an internationally known surf break, and an abundant coastline that offers plenty of fishing and whale watching.

The majestic, coned top of the Colima Volcano rises approximately 13,000 feet above a sweeping agricultural region of sugarcane and coffee fields. Just behind it sits the taller Nevado de Colima, named for the snowy top. Spot pumas and jaguars as you hike the forests and volcanic terrain on the trails of El Parque Nacional Nevado de Colima, or admire it from above on a balloon ride with Elevate. The gray-stone ghost town of La Yerbabuena with its overground central square is just a few miles from the crater. Originally located further up the volcano, it was destroyed (but safety evacuated) during the 2005 eruption. The relocated town was evacuated again during an eruption in 2016. Although lava never reached the town, most residents never returned, and it remains fully intact and safe to visit today.

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The fertile farm region below is littered with small villages, the most famous of which is Comala, designated one of Mexico’s “Pueblos Magicos” for its rich history and culture. It’s also known as “The White Village of America,” so named for its abundance of white buildings. Comala was painted white at the suggestion of a world-famous local painter, Alejandro Rangel Hidalgo; in the 1960s, he designed a line of international greeting cards for UNICEF highlighting Christmas customs around the globe. Today, Nogueras Hacienda—his estate, chapel, and museum—occupies an entire block in the Nogueras neighborhood in Comala. The estate showcases his living quarters and gardens, while the museum, run by his niece, exhibits his paintings, the UNICEF cards, his collection of traditional Colima ceramics, and his furniture designs.

Suchitlan, a village near Comala, is known for its traditional ceremonial masks.
Down the road, Colima’s artistic legacy lives on in the small village of Suchitlan, where revered artist Gorgonio Candelario Castro welcomes visitors into his workshop as he produces and paints traditional masks, known throughout Mexico. Check out both of these artistic treasures—and La Yerbabuena “2.0”—on Corazon de Colima’s Art and the Active Volcano tour.

Although small, the city of Colima offers an urban contrast to the countryside. In 2014, it was ranked number one on Mexico’s Quality of Life Index and has been in the top 10 multiple times in recent years. The University of Colima draws a diverse population to the otherwise isolated capital and works to preserve much of Colima’s cultural history. The university runs the Museo Universitario de Artes Populares, which is dedicated to the country’s folk arts and regional handcrafts. It’s also a nice complement to the thorough exploration of Colima’s history and culture at the Museo Regional de Historia and the Museo de las Culturas de Occidente. But for locals, life in Colima revolves around the abundant parks and squares throughout the city. The main square, Jardin Libertad, is the center of nightlife, street vendors, and cafés; Piedra Lisa Park is named for a large stone that, according to legends, was thrown there by the Colima Volcano thousands of years ago.

The sparsely developed southern coast of Colima is only 35 miles from the city of Colima. Surf haven Boca de Pascuales is known internationally for its booming barrels; beginners can take lessons at less aggressive breaks with Surfing Pascuales. An hour north, whale-watching and fishing tours run out of Manzanillo, known as the “sailfish capital of the world” and also home to myriad beaches, including Playa de Oro.

Eat and Drink

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Mexico has a heritage of homemade alcoholic drinks, which include concoctions like Central Mexico’s pulque and Pox from Chiapas. In Colima, it’s ponche. Made in Comala, the drink combines water, sugar, fruit, and a spirit—typically cane alcohol or mezcal. According to ponche-maker Fernando Chavez of Puro Comala, it was originally created to disguise booze being snuck across state lines. Flavors include coffee, pomegranate, and coconut, and there are tasting rooms throughout Comala; Admire Mexico Tours runs a town tour that stops at several.

In Colima, local life revolves around the town square.
Given Colima’s size and isolation, its historic beverages are less surprising than its popular modern ones. For example, those fields of sugarcane are being put to good use by local rum maker Ron Classico. National rum distilleries are rare in Mexico, and this one is just 30 minutes from Colima’s capital. But despite its quiet origins, Ron Classico has received international acclaim: Its No. 1 Premium, No. 2 Blanco, No. 3 Anejo, and No. 5 Spiced Rum all received medals at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirts Competition.

In 2014, a craft brewery, Cerveceria de Colima, also opened in Colima, supporting another modern trend: craft beer in Mexico. Its most popular beer, the Colimita Lager, is available at restaurants and stores around the city, but it’s worth visiting the outdoor tap room for the selection of draft beers, burgers, live music, and local vibes.

Food in Colima also balances the new with the old. Sit-down restaurants in the capital like El Charco de la Higuera and Los Maderos de Don Juan serve traditional dishes such as tatemado, a slow-cooked chile salsa dish with chicken or pork. Local cenadurias, or “dinner places,” such as Julia’s or Meche’s, offer another local favorite: sopitos, small deep-fried tortillas topped with beef, onion, lettuce, and sauces. But there are also modern cafés in Colima. La Buena Vida showcases local ingredients, vegetarian options, and natural products such as kombucha. La tostada y la guayaba puts a trendy spin on tostadas with a full menu of creative combinations.

Sleep

In the city of Colima proper, the Hotel Ceballos is housed in a historic building on the Jardin Libertad, with many rooms overlooking the square and adjacent city cathedral. Both the cathedral and the hotel share a neoclassical architecture and design, and Ceballos features long rows of French balconies on the second floor and a covered pedestrian breezeway at ground level decorated with columns and archways. It was the first hotel in the state to achieve Green Globe certification, and its rooms feature paintings by Alejandro Rangel Hidalgo. Its location, modern comforts, and historic charm make it the place to stay in the city.

While Manzanillo is becoming increasingly popular with cruise lines, Colima has miles of coastline with secluded beaches.
In the countryside, art lovers in search of a quiet respite can rent a room at Hildalgo’s hacienda in Nogueras and soak up the same inspiration Hidalgo himself enjoyed. Just a short ride away, it serves as a good home base for exploring Comala. And at $27 per night, it’s a bargain.

The shining star in the region is the Hacienda San Antonio. Frequented by famous guests including Madonna and Bill Gates, it is the sister property of the heavily decorated Cuixmala in Jalisco. The hacienda sits on a 4,500-acre ranch and has direct views of the Colima Volcano; its pink exterior gives way to 23 rooms, Mexican artifacts, bold colors, and European furniture. Rates start at close to $700 a night, and the property often offers multi-night packages. If a stay isn’t in your future, consider stopping by for lunch. It’s a property worth seeing, even if you don’t spend the night.

>>Next: The Mexican Obsession With Guinness World Records

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