Costa Esmeralda

The Emerald Coast's waters - more accurately described as semi-precious - are various shades of azure, though not crystalline, and its waves crash on 20km of grayish-blond beaches. It's a raging summer and holiday spot. The rest of the year, especially midweek, it's tranquilly yours and is a lovely match for the beach-lovers and crowd-haters. You can throw down cash for upscale digs or do it on the cheap. Advertised and unadvertised campgrounds proliferate.

Approaching Casitas from the north, you'll hit Cabo Alto Hotel and Spa, which houses Spa Xochicalli (g 321-02-59; Hwy 180; massages from M$480). Its good facilities have an extensive list of services if you want some beach hiatus TLC. A bit further south, you'll hit Hotel Misión del Mar (g 321-08-00; Hwy 180 Km 87, Costa Esmeralda; [email protected]; campsites/s/d M$100/850/1110; ®g)g)ffi). Just off the beach, its rooms are well equipped and many look onto a courtyard thick with plants. But the palapa-ed campgrounds are the deal here, with access to showers, bathrooms, three pools and cafeteria.

At the north end of Casitas is Hotel Miramar (g 321-03-70; [email protected]; Hwy 180 Km 90 Casitas; s/d M$200/250, plus M$50 w/air), which is good for a budget beach hurrah. The rooms, though unexceptional, are clean and a block from a pleasant beach. Also, the cheap, tasty eats that abound in grubby little Casitas make a better alternative to being stuck at an expensive hotel restaurant away from town.

At the mouth of the R^ Filobobos (known as Río Bobos and famous for its rapids), head southwest of Nautla on Hwy 131 and you'll hit Tlapacoyan where a handful of rafting companies are based and where the waterfall Cascada de Encanto provides a gorgeous swimming spot. Aventura Extrema (g 229-17838-12; www.aventuraextrema.com.mx; rafting packages from M$670) has facilities near Tlapacoyan and offers one- to three-day packages including food, accommodation or camping, and various other adventure activities. A highlight of Bobos rafting is the two riverside archaeological sites, Caujilote and Vega de la Peña, which most companies stop to visit. Hotel Oliver (g 225-31507-04; www.hospedajetlapacoyan.tk.com.mx; Cuauhtémoc 400; s/d M$250/380; ®É) is an adorable place to stay right off the plaza in Tlapacoyan. Buses (M$42) from Nautla go to Tlapacoyan.

Five kilometers south of Nautla is Hotel Istirinchá (g317-42-01;www.hotelistirincha.com; Hwy 180 Km 102; s/d M$800/900; ®[email protected]). For a fair price, you can stay in this new hotel's spacious, freshly decorated rooms with ocean-view decks. It arranges kayaking in its lagoon, interpretive walks and horseback riding. The owner is working to restore this once deforested chunk of land to its natural habitat. An on-hand biologist cares for the grounds and its creatures in captivity, such as crocodiles and toucans. You'll see signs at the entrance on the highway. It's about a 20-minute walk to the hotel from where the bus leaves you.

To get to any coastal location, take a non-direct bus on Hwy 180 and tell the driver where you want to stop.

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