Three Perfect Days in Mexico City
Hemispheres

Three Perfect Days: Mexico City

By The Hub team , January 05, 2017

Story by Nicholas DeRenzo | Photography by Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock | Hemispheres January 2017

Mexico City is a place defined by its muchness. With its 21.2 million people, the Ciudad de Mexico—or CDMX, as it's been known since early last year, after an official rebranding retired the familiar DF moniker—is part of the Western Hemisphere's largest metropolitan area. It's older than you might expect (founded in 1325 as Tenochtitlán), and higher (a lung-busting altitude of 7,382 feet), and more cultured (150 museums and counting, one of the highest totals in the world). It's also richer, posher, busier, tastier. Yet, despite its many superlatives, Mexico City has had to contend with a host of unflattering misconceptions. To put it bluntly, CDMX comes with a lot of baggage. But, in a weird way, that reputation—the good, the bad, the ugly—works in its favor. Once you leave your preconceptions at the door, you're confronted with a city that ranks among the world's greats—and one that has still somehow managed to stay under the radar.

Day 1 graphic In which Nicholas considers the weight of gold, marvels at a churrero at work, and goes on a spirited tour of Mexican booze

I wake up in Mexico City feeling like royalty, and with good reason: My hotel, the Downtown Mexico, occupies the 17th-century Palacio de los Condes de Miravalle, in the thrumming colonial Centro Histórico. Its minimalist decor (angular blond wood furnishings, leather sling chairs) does wonders for the cavernous, bare-stone rooms, which once housed counts and countesses.

The capital is such a delightfully confusing jumble—of old and new, of rich and poor, of highbrow and lowbrow—that I need someone to help me put it all in context. Who better to work through these complexities than a poet? I'm scheduled to meet writer Tatiana Lipkes, who runs the indie publishing house Mangos de Hacha, for breakfast at Restaurante El Cardenal, which has been going strong two cobblestone blocks away since 1969.

“It's a traditional thing to come here for breakfast," Lipkes says. “It has always been the same." She darts through the sidewalk-clogging crowd to put our name in at the hostess stand.

With a half hour to kill, we wander through the nearby Zócalo, the city's historic central square and the former main plaza of the Mexica (or, as the Europeans called them, Aztec) metropolis of Tenochtitlán—at its peak, the biggest city in the pre-Columbian Americas. The plaza's northeastern corner is dominated by the archaeological site surrounding the Aztecs' main pyramid, the Templo Mayor—a thrilling bit of history, sure, but also a somber reminder of all that was lost during the conquest.

Tatiana Lipkes, poet and publisher, Mangos de HachaTatiana Lipkes, poet and publisher, Mangos de Hacha

We pass the city's Baroque and Neoclassical Catedral Metropolitana, the largest in the Americas, which began construction in 1573, nearly 50 years before the Mayflower set sail. The building is sinking and tilting, due in part to soft soil, but I can't help wondering if the truckloads of gold and carved wood and marble inside aren't also doing their part to weigh it down.

I ask Lipkes, who's of French-Ukrainian heritage, what she finds most inspiring about her hometown. “I love the contrast that you see," she says. “He's Mexican"—she gestures to an indigenous man with a darker complexion—“I'm Mexican. You could be Mexican. It makes everything richer and richer."

Back at El Cardenal, we order chocolate con leche and chilaquiles con pollo, a skillet of deliciously soupy chicken, tortilla chips, and salsa verde. There are so many tables of multigenerational Mexican families that I feel as if I've wandered into a quinceañera.

After breakfast, Lipkes and I stroll east through the old town and then along Avenida Juárez, past the Palacio de Bellas Artes. The Art Deco–meets–Art Nouveau “cathedral of art" is topped with an orange and yellow cupola that calls to mind the sunrise, and its interiors contain fine modernist murals from masters including Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

“I've been living here my whole life, and I always get lost. Mexico City is so big that I discover new places every day—in my own neighborhood, even." — Tatiana Lipkes

As we skirt the Alameda Central park, we pass a couple holding hands and staring into each other's eyes. I give Lipkes a what's-this-all-about look, and she says, matter-of-factly, that it's probably just a man seeking help from his witch—something of a spiritual tune-up.

I raise an eyebrow, and Lipkes laughingly explains: “There's a huge pre-Hispanic culture of witchcraft here. Everybody has a witch. Everybody knows someone that can read your hands or cards. Every Mexican has gone to make a limpia [a spiritual cleansing ritual], with eggs and chants and herbs. It's something from your grandmother that you pass along. Of course you do it. It's a cultural code."

We continue along Avenida Juárez to the copper-domed Monumento a la Revolución, the world's tallest triumphal arch at 220 feet and the final resting place of revolutionaries including Pancho Villa. “I just went up the first time in my life the other day," Lipkes says as we stare up at the glass elevator shaft that rises from the middle of the arch like a straw.

The atrium of the Condesa DF hotelThe atrium of the Condesa DF hotel

“I'm afraid of heights," I admit.

“Me too," she says, grimacing.

We huddle looking at the elevator floor as we ascend, but we gain some kind of adrenaline-fueled confidence as we look out over the colonial eaves and glass-and-steel highrises. “When you come from Mexico City, nothing is really strange to you," Lipkes says, pointing out where different neighborhoods (or colonias) are located. “Downtown here is like Kolkata. Roma is like Europe. Santa Fe is like suburban Houston. You live with this schizophrenia. That's what I love about this city."

Back on solid ground, we soothe our nerves with a quick beer on the plaza at the hip Crisanta, Cervecería Garage. My Reliquia de Cortés Noche Triste Ale de Maíz Azúl, brewed right here in Mexico City with blue corn, tastes faintly like a tortilla.

I say goodbye to Lipkes and retrace Avenida Juárez, then follow the scent of frying dough down Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas to Churrería El Moro, a churro spot founded in 1935 by Spaniard Francisco Iriarte. In the window, a churrero squeezes long spirals of dough into a fryer with monastic concentration before snipping them into manageable commas. I flag down one of the waitresses, who wear matching white aprons and bonnets, and order churros with chocolate español—they're sweet, thick, and gloriously unhealthy.

From here, I hop in a cab and head to an institution of a different sort: the Museo Nacional de Antropología. We pass El Ángel—the 22-foot-tall, gleaming gold angel atop El Monumento a la Independencia—and continue down the grand Paseo de la Reforma, a Champs-Élysées-inspired boulevard commissioned in the 1860s by Emperor Maximilian I to connect the historic center with his royal palace in the forested park Chapultepec.

The Monumento a la RevoluciónThe Monumento a la Revolución

Named for the Nahuatl word for “grasshopper's hill," Chapultepec, the so-called “lungs" of Mexico City, is the Western Hemisphere's largest urban green space, roughly double the size of New York's Central Park. Its centerpiece, the anthropology museum, is the country's most visited museum, popular with visitors and locals alike. As I enter, two mariachi guitarists in full regalia drop off their instruments at the coat check.

The space is as overwhelming as the Met or the Louvre, with an open courtyard centered on the famous “umbrella"—a 2,000-ton slab of concrete supported by a single pillar. The halls brim with pre-Columbian treasures, such as 25-ton Olmec carved stone heads and Mayan temple artifacts, but like the Louvre, with its Mona Lisa, there's one must-visit artifact. All paths here lead to the back gallery, dedicated to the Aztecs and, in pride of place, the Piedra del Sol (the Stone of the Sun), a nearly 12-foot-tall disc-shaped basalt tablet that was discovered under the Zócalo in 1790. For years, it was thought to be a solar calendar, but archaeologists now believe it was a sacrificial altar. The stone conjures feelings of unease, but also appreciation: We're standing atop the Ancient Rome of the Americas.

I head back to Centro for dinner at the candlelit sister restaurant of the renowned Bósforo mezcal bar. “We don't have a name," says my waiter as he delivers a basket of blue corn tostadas, cooked on the comal (griddle) out front. “They usually just call us 'el restaurante al lado del Bósforo.'" The restaurant next to Bósforo.

I use the charred crisps to scoop up guacamole with chapulines, or grasshoppers, which are as nutty and inoffensive as sesame seeds on a bagel, and follow them up with a complex yet homey rabbit in peanut mole. To pair with the meal, I go on a tour of regional Mexican spirits: mezcal, tequila's smokier cousin; sotol, a grassy liquor distilled from the desert spoon plant; and pulque, a viscous kombucha-like drink made from agave sap. I don't know if Mexicans have their own rhymes about mixing drinks (sotol before mezcal, you'll be OK, pal...), but I'm glad that my bed at the Downtown Mexico is only a few blocks away.

Day 2 graphic In which Nicholas breakfasts with a rock star, drops in at Frida's house, and snacks on ant eggs

After the colonial scrum of the Centro Histórico, the nearby district of Polanco feels like a different city entirely—as posh and polished as Vienna or Milan. This morning, I'm moving my bags over to the design-forward Habita Hotel, which opened in 2000 and helped establish Mexico City as an international art and design capital. Clad in a seaglass-green sheath, the Habita fits in seamlessly with the walled-off celebrity compounds and luxury boutiques on swanky Avenida Presidente Masaryk—Mexico City's Fifth Avenue, named for Czechoslovakia's progressive first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (coincidentally, the subject of my undergraduate thesis).

While it may be easy to see Polanco merely as a playground for the rich and famous, some of that outsize wealth is actually being put to good use. To the north, in an area now dubbed Nuevo Polanco, cultural institutions sprout like weeds. Museo Soumaya, opened in 2011, is billionaire Carlos Slim's vanity project, a blobby cartoon anvil of a building covered in aluminum hexagons that catch the light, while its younger neighbor, the sawtooth-roofed Museo Júmex, houses the contemporary art collection of a Mexican juice and nectar mogul.

After passing by the museums, I head across town to a little Italian spot called Trattoria della Casa Nuova in the charming colonial district of San Ángel. I'm set to meet rocker Diego Solórzano, the frontman of indie band Rey Pila (Spanish for “King Battery," a phrase from a Basquiat painting), who have opened for Maroon 5 and the Strokes. (They're currently recording an album with Julian Casablancas.)

The facade of the Condesa DF hotelThe facade of the Condesa DF hotel

“This is the last rock 'n' roll town—or so I've heard," Solórzano says as he orders us two cazuelas petit cluny, molten casseroles of melty cheese, ham, and tomato sauce, which we sop up with hunks of baguette. “When we tour, we see it in every town: They package style and feed it to you very easily. But this town, with its ups and downs, it's really unique. It really has something special going on."

We finish up and drive 10 minutes south, to the campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007 for its profusion of modern architectural icons. Just past the looming Modernist slab of the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo—which Solórzano assures me is more “progressive, chill, and forward-thinking" than Slim's attention-grabbing Soumaya—we head out into university land that, dotted with massive sculptural installations such as Mathias Goeritz's 66-foot-tall Corona del Pedregal, is almost postapocalyptic in its wildness.

“This is the volcanic rock area, a natural reserve," says Solórzano. “It's got a different vibe from the rest of town." We reach the grandest of the sculptures, the monumental Espacio Escultórico, a ring of 64 concrete wedges jutting out of a field of tezontle volcanic rock, cacti, and wildflowers. “A lot of smart, cool people come here," Solórzano says, gesturing to hipsters snapping selfies and clambering up the tilted monoliths as if this were some Brutalist playground. “It could be Berlin."

We continue on to the main campus, where academic buildings call to mind ancient temples, and walls are decorated with the works of master muralists such as Rivera and Siqueiros. “The architecture is very intense, right?" Solórzano says. “It feels like a pyramid. It's a history that we are a part of. I don't mean to sound patriotic, but that's just how it is! You feel a special moment when you see it."

The “umbrella" at the Museo Nacional de AntropologíaThe "umbrella" at the Museo Nacional de Antropología

The campus's dramatic centerpiece is the Biblioteca Central, a giant building covered in colored stone mosaics by Juan O'Gorman; it bears an uncanny resemblance to a boombox. (Note: It opened in 1956, roughly two decades before the boombox's invention.)

I've worked up an appetite, so I say goodbye to Solórzano and taxi over to Super Tacos Chupacabras, a no-frills spot under a highway overpass (look for the sign with the snarling face of the mythical “goat-sucker") that's known for its namesake taco—a mix of beef, pork, and chorizo said to contain 127 ingredients. From here, it's a quick amble through the villagelike streets of the Coyoacán district to the Museo Frida Kahlo, which occupies La Casa Azul, the vivid blue bungalow where Kahlo was born, lived with Diego Rivera, and died in 1954.

“When you come from Mexico City, nothing is really strange to you. You live with this schizophrenia."

Viewing Kahlo's paintings, it's easy to see why people fall so hard for her. She's a bit like a pop star (though she'd hate the comparison): high on big emotions, brash, accessibly poetic, with the fiercest eyebrows in the game. While the paintings on view are great, the museum's true heart lies in the almost too intimate personal effects: her red-boot-clad prosthetic leg, a body cast decorated with a hammer and sickle, colorful dresses inspired by the matriarchal Tehuana people, the toad-shaped urn holding her ashes. (She called Rivera her “toad-frog.")

After stopping for a selfie with a cat posing on a backyard pyramid Kahlo and Rivera built to display pre-Hispanic art, I venture farther into Coyoacán and grab an icy paleta from the 66-year-old Gloria Helados y Paletas ice cream shop. I choose mamey, a tropical fruit that tastes quite a bit like sweet potato pie, then wander through Plaza Hidalgo, from which conquistador Hernán Cortés brutally ruled his empire in the 1520s, and the Jardín del Centenario, which features a fountain with two bronze coyotes. Apart from the “free wifi" signs affixed to the lampposts, it's easy to imagine Kahlo walking these streets.

The lobby of the Condesa DFThe lobby of the Condesa DF

For dinner, I'm heading back to Polanco, where I've managed to score a seat at one of North America's most in-demand spots, Quintonil, which was recently ranked No. 12 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. Chef Jorge Vallejo, who got his start at the neighborhood's other game-changing restaurant, Pujol, has a light, fresh touch, as evidenced by a tasting menu that includes cactus ceviche with beet and seaweed, squash blossoms with sweet shrimp, sea bass with pineapple and chipotle, turkey in cacao-husk-scented recado negro (a Mayan precursor to mole), and charred avocado tartare with escamoles—the cottage-cheesy larvae of ants harvested from agave roots. It's better than it sounds.

From the world's 12th-best restaurant, I stroll a few blocks to Licoreria Limantour, a cocktail den that in October was ranked a measly No. 13 on Drinks International's 2016 World's 50 Best Bars list. I'm slumming it a bit, but I can't help but relish my nightcap, the Villa de Santa Maria, made with Hennessy VS, Pedro Ximénez sherry, Campari, cherry, and cola—served, as Mayan hipsters have done it for centuries (?)—in a hollowed-out cacao pod.

Day 3 graphic

In which Nicholas sips natural wines, daydreams about his future apartment, and sees the future of Mexican cuisine

I start my morning with an ego boost: At Lalo!, an airy bistro in the hip Roma Norte district, my seat is directly underneath a cartoon octopus by Belgian street artist Dave de Rop, with a speech bubble calling me guapa, or “pretty girl." Hey, I'll take it. I have a guava-pistachio croissant and a catcher's-mitt-size torta de lechón, a pork sandwich that's even more pleasing than the compliment.

Bright, youthful Lalo! fits in perfectly with the new spirit of Mexico City, which is epitomized by increasingly fashionable neighborhoods like Roma Norte and neighboring La Condesa, where I'm staying for the night. The Condesa DF hotel occupies a flatiron-shaped building with a chic triangular atrium and courtyard on a genteel tree-lined street. In these transitioning districts, crumbling old estates are being converted into concept stores and artisanal food halls, and hot interior designers are opening trendy coffee shops and boutiques.

On Plaza Río de Janeiro, which is centered on a bronze replica of Michelangelo's David, I stop into Arróniz Arte Contemporáneo to meet Gustavo Arróniz, who opened his gallery here a decade ago. Like much of the neighborhood, the street calls to mind the more bohemian stretches of Paris or Madrid.

Gustavo Arróniz, gallerist and owner, Arróniz Arte ContemporáneoGustavo Arróniz, gallerist and owner, Arróniz Arte Contemporáneo

“We focus on my generation of Latin American artists, artists between 30 and 40," Arróniz says of his gallery. The current show is made up of installations by Colombian artist Icaro Zorbar, whose nostalgic musings include two record players reaching their arms out across the void to play each other's vinyls and a cassette-tape ribbon sounding eerie melodies as it blows through an electric fan. The show strikes me as poignant and poetic.

Outside, as we pass a succession of Porfirian buildings (a late 19th-century, Paris-inspired architectural style that combined Art Nouveau and Neoclassical motifs, named for the president at the time, Porfirio Díaz), Arróniz comments on Roma Norte's changing face. “This area in the '70s was super, super hard and dangerous," he says. “With gentrification, you have good things and bad things. We're losing the old spaces more and more, but you can still find the mix. These spaces," he gestures at a new condominium squeezed between aging facades, “are just eating them up."

We stop into the stylish Tierra Garat café for a chiltepín fría, a spicy iced chocolate drink made with allspice, achiote, and pequín chilies. Arróniz points across the street at a facade with an exposed patch of bricks, uncovered perhaps during the devastating 1985 earthquake, or simply in the inevitable settling of foundations (this whole city, after all, was built atop a lake).

“Contrast is everywhere—it's a word that defines Mexico City. In this area, you never lose inspiration." —Gustavo Arróniz

“What I love about Mexico City is that, of course, I find art everywhere," Arróniz says. “Unintentional details, like those bricks, look great. This idea of living the passage of time is very in vogue now. It comes from the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi, the beauty of objects in the passing of time."

For lunch, Arróniz drives us five minutes to the neighboring colonia of Juárez, which is fast becoming the capital's next great neighborhood thanks to forward-thinking spots like wine bar Amaya. We order an assortment of Tijuana-raised chef Jair Téllez's light contemporary Baja Californian snacks, such as scallop ceviche and beef tartare with sardines, caper mayo, and crunchy potatoes, as our waitress schools us in the basics of natural wines, which are produced without chemicals and with minimal intervention. We sip Bichi, which is produced at Téllez's family vineyard, about an hour outside of Tijuana, and boasts a yeasty, sour-beer-like funk. “It's almost better not to think of this as wine," she says. “You're expressing a lot more of the terroir, the soil, the water, the altitude, capturing natural yeast out in the environment. It's kind of spiritual in a way."

Inspired by the city's artsier side, I take a 20-minute car ride south, to the edge of Chapultepec, where I join an intimate tour of the house and studio of the late Mexican architect Luís Barragán, who won the second-ever Pritzker Prize in 1980. (You might also recognize his name from a recent New Yorker article about a contemporary conceptual artist who had Barragán's ashes compressed into a diamond, which she then tried to exchange for access to an architectural historian's private archives. Yikes.)

The aluminum facade of the Museo SoumayaThe aluminum facade of the Museo Soumaya

Appointments are a must here, and rightfully so: No room in Barragán's garden-facing urban retreat, finished in 1948, can hold more than a small huddle of guests at a time. The Modernist masterpiece's interiors—an ascetic blend of Mediterranean, pre-Hispanic, and North African influences—contain some of his most recognizable motifs: Catholic icons, horse statues, mirrored balls, cantilevered stairways to nowhere (they make good bookshelves), and peaceful Moroccan water features. But perhaps his favorite tool in the design box is the simplest: light. Sunlight streams through yellow glass, gilding an entire room. It bounces off a single bright pink wall and paints the space. It drapes corners in moody chiaroscuro shadows. This brush with Mexican architecture makes me daydream about south-of-the-border real estate. How do you say pied-à-terre en español?

Back in Roma Norte, I'm set to have dinner at Nudo Negro, a new restaurant from chefs Daniel Ovadía and Salvador Orozco. I begin with a walk up the staircase to the mezzanine open kitchen. The entire staff shouts “¡Buenas noches!" in unison and then makes me an amuse bouche of a duck skin gordita with fresh cheese, Sriracha, ancho and guajillo chilies, and cinnamon—quite a production for a single bite of food.

“We want people to remember their history, because in this city, it's easy to forget."

I head back downstairs for an onslaught of dishes that remix Mexican flavors using international preparations inspired by Ovadía's world travels: creamy pig's-head pozole appears in a xiaolongbao soup dumpling; wasabi mayo and Indonesian sambal liven up a chargrilled oyster topped with crispy beef shoulder and bone marrow; Michoacán-style mole tops a grilled octopus yaki onigiri.

“With Nudo Negro, we wanted to break everything," says Ovadía over a tabletop grill with Mexican Wagyu beef searing on a bed of smoldering avocado leaves, like some nouveau take on a fajita. “At the beginning, everybody thought I was betraying Mexico by combining, say, mole with something Chinese or Vietnamese. We used to cook for the critics—now we're cooking for ourselves and the customers." It's not lost on me that Queen's “I Want to Break Free" is playing over the stereo.

A waitress at Churrería El MoroA waitress at Churrería El Moro

After dinner, I work off the dozen or so forms of carbs—which also included Buffalo-style pig ears, oxtail bao buns, and duck, almond milk, and oyster mushroom dumplings—with a 15-minute walk north to Juárez. The unmarked subterranean Xaman Bar, recently ranked the best-designed bar in the Americas, is an ode to ancient shamanic culture. Upon entering, I face a sleek cabinet of curiosities—bonsais, terrariums, mummified baby crocodiles. The air is thick with the smoke of thyme, cinnamon, and rosemary, as bartenders shake and stir cocktails made with chilacayote squash, copal tree resin, oregano-like epazote, and sal de gusano (Oaxacan agave worm salt), served in hand-carved onyx cups or hollow gourds. Over my El Curandero—mezcal, dry curaçao, Aperol, lemon juice, fresh cilantro, agave syrup, tonic, and Tajín chili salt—I strike up a conversation with Indian-French bartender Abyshan Karuna.

“We want people to remember their history," he says, “because in this city, it's easy to forget." This old-meets-new vibe seems to seep into every facet of contemporary Mexican culture, and this bar perfectly captures that ethos: looking backward at its rich pre-Hispanic history, looking outward at global trends, looking inward at what makes Mexico City and its people tick. I'm a bit moved by it all. Or maybe that's just the mezcal talking.

Hemispheres executive editor Nicholas DeRenzo is still catching his breath from walking around in the super-high Mexico City altitude.


The day off: Washington D.C.

By The Hub team

Story by Ellen Carpenter | Hemispheres, December 2018

Politics, finance, tech, no matter: Deals happen in D.C. at every hour. But if you find yourself on a business trip with a rare free day, consider yourself lucky: The city has never been cooler.

9 a.m.

Wake up in your spacious room at the InterContinental Washington D.C. – The Wharf, with floor-to-ceiling views of sailboats gliding down the Washington Channel, and forget for a moment that the craziness of Capitol Hill is just five miles away. Snap a photo of the waterfall chandelier in the lobby before popping next door for a delicious egg and bacon biscuit sandwich at Dolcezza, the first outpost of the D.C. mini-chain to offer a full breakfast menu.

Photo by Mark DeLong

10 a.m.

Hop a cab to the National Portrait Gallery, where you can take a selfie with Barack Obama (well, Kehinde Wiley's depiction of the 44th president) before viewing an entire exhibit on the art of the selfie, Eye to I: Self-Portraits from 1900 to Today, which features works by James Amos Porter, Elaine de Kooning, and more. Afterward, muse on the concept of identity under the undulating glass ceiling in the gallery's stunning Kogod Courtyard.

Photo provided by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/gift of Dorothy Porter Wesley

1 p.m.

Take the Metro's Green Line up to U Street for a taste of Little Havana at Colada Shop. The small counter spot dispenses flaky empanadas, decadent Cubanos, and the café's namesake—four shots of espresso commingling with sweet Cuban crema. You know you want one.

3 p.m.

Time to hit the National Mall and work off that caffeine injection. Every winter, the fountain at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden becomes an ice rink, where you can take in Alexander Calder's Cheval Rouge and Louise Bourgeois's Spider while practicing your triple lutz.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

5 p.m.

Cab over to the Kennedy Center for the free 6 p.m. show at Millennium Stage, offered every single night as part of the cultural hub's Performing Arts for Everyone initiative. Whether it's modern dance, West African blues, or experimental theater, it'll broaden your horizons.

Photo by Teresa Wood

7:30 p.m.

Give in to your carb cravings at the Michelin-starred Tail Up Goat, a relaxed yet polished restaurant in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. Toss back the complimentary shrub (tart!) and then dive into the red fife brioche (topped with chicken liver mousse, blueberry marmalade, and wood sorrel) and goat lasagna with tomato, anchovy, and salsa verde.

9:30 p.m.

Catch a ride to Blagden Alley—a historic area that used to house the stables and workshops behind stately row houses—for a cocktail at Columbia Room, a lounge that has topped every best-of list imaginable. Score a seat in the leather- and mahogany-lined Spirits Library and order a Maryland, made with rye, applejack, and chartreuse. Then get another.

Photo by Karlin Villondo Photography

3 under the radar places to visit in December

By Betsy Mikel

With the end of the year approaching, it's time to utilize those unused vacation days. If you're not traveling for the holidays, take an excursion to one of these under-the-radar destinations. Treat your family to fun in the sun in Florida, kick back on an island in Mexico that takes relaxation seriously, or take advantage of the slow season at a popular Arizona national park.

Isla Holbox, Mexico

For a leisurely vacation to relax on uncrowded beaches

Seeking a destination where you can unplug and sink your toes into the sand while surrounded by natural beauty? Isla Holbox is the spot. This laid-back island sits on the northwest tip of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. It boasts spectacular beaches with endless turquoise ocean views.

What to do

Pack your flip-flops and beach reads for a seriously laid-back trip to Isla Holbox. Come here to sit on the beach (or in a hammock) while you kick back and relax as you've never relaxed before. Enjoy spectacular beaches without crowds.

Isla Holbox is small — just 26 miles long and one mile wide, with only 2,000 full-time residents. Bright colors and painted murals throughout the area evoke a bohemian vibe. Instead of cars, most people get around by golf cart or bike. (In fact, its taxi cabs are actually golf carts.) Isla Holbox won't give you the lively nightlife of popular tourist destinations like nearby Cancun, but there are plenty of beachside bars serving cocktails, food vendors and restaurants serving fresh Mexican fare.

Go on a wildlife excursion to spot whale sharks, crocodiles or flamingos. Head to the Yum-Balam Nature Reserve to see other exotic animals.

Getting there

The closest airport is Cancun (CUN). From Cancun, head to Chiquila, where you can take the ferry to Isla Holbox.

St. Petersburg, Florida

A family-friendly beach destination for fun in the sun

With award-winning beaches offering 35 miles of sand along Tampa Bay, calm waters and plenty of sun, St. Petersburg is quickly gaining momentum as a warm-weather destination for families. Downtown is home to many shops, restaurants, bars and unique attractions, such as an impressive Salvador Dali museum.

What to do

St. Pete beaches are known for their calm, warm and shallow waters. Add 360 days of sunshine per year and an average temperature of 73 degrees, and it's surprising that this sunny beach city still flies under the radar. Keep it laid back by relaxing on the shore, or bump up the action by parasailing, windsurfing or kiteboarding.

After a day of R&R, head downtown to enjoy the lively St. Petersburg culture and nightlife. There are 35 local craft breweries to choose from and many seafood restaurants ranging from casual fare to upscale. The most extensive collection of Salvador Dali's artwork outside of Europe resides in The Dalí Museum. You can even meet a local celebrity at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium — Winter the dolphin starred in the Dolphin Tale movies and is famous for her prosthetic tail.

Getting there

United offers direct service to Tampa / St. Petersburg (TPA) from many U.S. cities.

Grand Canyon, Arizona

To have one of the most magnificent national parks (almost) to yourself

Though the weather is crisp and the temperature a few degrees chillier, the sun shines all month long at Grand Canyon National Park. Traveling here during the low season means fewer visitors will crowd your panoramic views of one of the world's largest canyons and most magnificent natural wonders.

What to do

From scenic drives to backcountry hiking, visiting in the winter makes for a more tranquil and peaceful adventure. The South Rim remains open all year round. The national park offers many trails to view the Colorado River snaking through snow-dusted temples and buttes. Try to catch at least one sunset or sunrise, and be sure to arrive with enough time to stake out a good vantage point. The visitors center and park website have recommendations for the best spots.

Ride the Grand Canyon Railway and travel back in time. A 64-mile stretch of railroad has been transporting passengers from the South Rim to the small town of Williams, Arizona, since 1901. The historic train has an observation dome car to catch the spectacular scenery and even has Wild West-themed entertainment aboard. Every evening in December, the Grand Canyon Railway transforms into the Polar Express and makes a stop at the North Pole where Santa boards the train to greet everyone.

Getting there

Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport is the closest major international airport to the South Rim. United offers service to Phoenix (PHX) from multiple U.S. cities.

For details and to book your trip, visit united.com or use the United app. Don't forget to share your story on social media with the #MyUnitedJourney hashtag once you arrive.

Evolving our brand design

By The Hub team , December 05, 2018

The United brand is heading in a new direction as we evolve the colors and patterns we use. Where did these new colors come from, exactly? Check out the video below to learn about the research, logic and thoughtfulness that went into this evolution as we took inspiration from the spaces around us, the environments we work in, our heritage, the United globe and much more.

Hemispheres

Three Perfect Days: Riviera Maya

By The Hub team

Story by Jordan Heller | Photography by Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock | Hemispheres, December 2018

There is some dispute as to how Playa del Carmen, the metropolitan heart of the Riviera Maya just 40 miles south of Cancún, got its name. Some say it's after Our Lady of Carmel, the title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary in her role as patroness of the Carmelites. But the more compelling story is the one told by locals.

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As legend has it, in the 1970s and '80s, when the area first became a destination, tourists traveling by boat from neighboring Cozumel would disembark in Playa—then known as Xaman-Ha—on their way to the ruins of Tulum. A local Maya woman named Carmen would happily invite these travelers into her modest home for a traditional meal of fresh-caught seafood. She may not have had any experience with immaculate conception, but when it comes to Playa, this Carmen is definitely a matron saint. Today, her spirit can be felt throughout the Riviera Maya, which also includes the village of Tulum, the ruins of Cobá, and a number of small Maya communities on the Caribbean side of the Yucatán Peninsula where, if you're lucky, a woman not unlike Carmen will happily invite you into her home for a meal.

Day 1

Exploring a Maya temple, befriending a butler and feasting on cochinita pibil

I eat grasshoppers for breakfast. No, this is not my way of saying I know how to handle a subordinate. I'm literally eating toasted grasshoppers sprinkled onto a dish of huevos rancheros with green tomatillo salsa, hoja santa, and goat cheese. I've just woken up at Playa del Carmen's Rosewood Mayakoba, which is perhaps the most luxurious resort I've ever stayed in (and I'm a travel writer). There's a private heated plunge pool outside my back door looking over a secluded lagoon, a spa Forbes rated one of the best in the world, and Tavo, my personal butler, who is at my beck and call through a Rosewood messaging app.

The sikil-p'aak tomato salad at La Ceiba Garden & Kitchen

A bottle of tequila and some toothpaste?

Certainly, Mr. Heller.

Despite all this luxury, I'm eating bugs—albeit with a Bloody Mary at a beachside restaurant overlooking the Caribbean. The toasted grasshoppers are crunchy (like perfectly burnt popcorn), incredibly delicious, and an appropriately indigenous start to a morning in which I'll be exploring the ruins of an ancient civilization.

After traveling inland to the village of Cobá, I trade my rental car for a “Maya taxi." It's the Yucatán version of a rickshaw—a padded bench fashioned atop the front wheel of a bicycle with a beach umbrella protecting me from the rain. My driver, Gustino, is transporting me through a mile of jungle and more than a millennium back in time, to the Late Classic (AD 550–830) Maya ruin of the Nohoch Mul Pyramid. The dirt path bustles with all manner of tourists riding Maya taxis, pedaling rented beach cruisers, or walking, excitedly talking about the sites of this ancient city in English, Spanish, German, Russian, and who knows what else.

As Gustino struggles to pedal through a particularly rough patch of mud, I ask him what nationality of tourist is the hardest to transport.

The Ixmoja pyramid at Cobá

“The Germans," he says. “It's not that they're overweight. They're just a very sturdy people. Americans are preferred: very easygoing and friendly people. Everybody wants an American fare."

When we arrive at Nohoch Mul, the panoply of tourists is suddenly speaking the same language: speechless. At 138 feet tall, the sheer scale of this temple is rivaled only by the gleaming hotels going up on the coast. But out here in the Cobá jungle, after I break the canopy and reach Nohoch Mul's summit, it's nothing but green as far as the eye can see, under which is apparently some 30 square miles of ancient city, most of it still obscured by the jungle. I'm told that just 5 percent of Cobá has been excavated since the project started in the 1970s.

"Today, if you come early in the morning, you find corn and beans here left by the local Maya, who continue to offer sacrifices to the gods."

“And what did they do with this little platform?" I ask Diego Viadero, my knowledgeable Tours by Locals guide, who's been schooling me on all manner of Maya history.

“Ah, yes," he says. “That's where the rulers would offer sacrifices to the gods, in hopes that they could avoid a collapse of the city."

“You mean like in the movie Apocalypto, where they chopped off the heads?" I ask.

“Just like in Apocalypto," says Viadero, doing his best to hold back an eye-roll. “Today, if you come early in the morning, you'll find corn and beans here left by the local Maya, who continue to offer sacrifices to the gods."

“Do you think it's enough?" I ask, making the comparison to the more (ahem) substantial offerings of yore. Let the eye-rolling commence.

The Rosewood Mayakoba's Sense Spa

Next, Viadero takes me to Nojoch Keej, which is Mayan for El Venado Grande, which is Spanish for “The Big Deer." It's a sanctuary for endangered animals run by a Maya man named Manuel Poot Dzib out of his back yard in the village of Nuevo Durango. Poot Dzib started the sanctuary in 2005, after Hurricane Wilma destroyed the habitats of many local animals. He now looks after bees (which produce honey that's said to have healing qualities), white-tail deer, paca, curassow, and ocellated turkeys, which he aims to repopulate in areas that are protected from hunters. From the looks of these turkeys, I think ocellated must be Mayan for peacock. They're vibrant, multicolored, and beautiful to look at.

"Tavo leaves me to my plunge pool, where I enjoy my cocktail to the sound of a rainbow-billed toucan flapping around the lagoon."

Poot Dzib asks us to stay for lunch, which is great, because I'm starving. “We're having cochinita pibiles muy delicioso," he adds, giving off some of that Carmen spirit.

I breathe a sigh of relief when I learn that cochinita pibil is not Spanish for ocellated turkey. It's achiote-marinated pork that's been cooking with banana leaf in a hole in the ground in Poot Dzib's front yard since 8 this morning.

“They normally only do this for the Day of the Dead or other special occasions," Viadero says as we watch Poot Dzib remove the dirt and corrugated metal covering his subterranean oven.

A home-cooked meal, Maya-style

“We used to cover it with banana leaf instead of metal, but that's a much harder and longer process," says Poot Dzib. “This is more modern."

Modern? I'm not so sure, but I grant Poot Dzib that it's certainly an update. In any event, when put on a handmade tortilla with pickled onions and habanero, this cochinita pibil is definitely mouthwatering.

I say “Taakulak k'iin" (“See ya later" in Mayan) to Poot Dzib and his ocellated turkeys and head back to the Rosewood, where Tavo the butler awaits with that bottle of tequila, plus some fresh lime juice and agave nectar for mixers.

Gracias, Tavo!

Certainly, Mr. Heller.

Tavo leaves me to my plunge pool, where I enjoy my drink to the sound of a rainbow-billed toucan flapping around the lagoon. Just one cocktail, however, as I'm hopping onto my complimentary beach cruiser (every guest gets one) to take a spin around the property, where geckos, iguanas, and even a tarantula skitter into the mangroves as I come rolling down the jungle path.

Appetite sufficiently worked up, I'm off to the Rosewood's La Ceiba Garden & Kitchen, where executive chef Juan Pablo Loza serves a communal dinner of Maya-inspired dishes with a contemporary touch. Seated at a long wooden table with 17 other guests, I ask the chef what he's learned from the local Maya villages, which he visits often to pick up cooking techniques.

“My top lesson from the Maya is less about food than it is about perspective," he says, before recounting a delicious meal he had with one family. “The woman who cooked for me had referred to her neighbor as poor. I found it an odd comment, because the assumption in a Maya village is that nobody is exactly rich. 'Why do you say your neighbor is poor?' I asked. She said because she has no family and no garden. If you don't have a garden, you can't get food from it, and if you don't have a family you have nobody to share it with. For them, having a family and a connection to nature is what it means to be rich."

“And now you have this beautiful garden," I say, pointing to his planters of lemongrass.

“And a family, too," he replies. “Including a daughter named Maya."

And then we feast. There's grilled octopus with black recado and burnt lime vinaigrette, zarandeado-style lobster, roasted plantains, and a k'úum salad of squash, arugula, orange, oregano, and ocosingo cheese, finished off with fresh fruits in guava honey and lemongrass.

Tavo, I'm stuffed! Turn out the light and have a pot of coffee waiting for me in the morning, please.

Certainly, Mr. Heller.

Day 2

Scaling ruins, swimming in cenotes, and taking a turn on the karaoke mic

Gran Cenote

In the small village square outside Tulum National Park, the Voladores de Papantla are performing their ancient fertility ritual, or rain ceremony—named an “intangible cultural heritage" by UNESCO. Five men in traditional bright red pants and flowing white blouses with multicolored adornments sit atop a 90-foot pole. The man in the center taps an adagio beat on a simple drum and blows a gentle bird-like tune on a wooden flute while the other four men tie ropes around their waists. When the musician ups the tempo to allegretto, the other two men fall backward, like scuba divers dropping into water, and slowly descend upside down in a merry-go-round fashion, the spinning top ceding rope like a reel feeding line to a fish. It's absolutely beautiful.

On a path cutting through the mangroves and almond trees on the way to the park entrance, a guide shares a mnemonic device that will be helpful should I run into any venomous coral snakes: “red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, friend of Jack." I assume I'm a Jack.

"The water is high and crisp as we float past stalagmites growing ever so slowly out of the cave floor."

Thankfully, there are no snakes to be seen in the ancient Maya city of Tulum, an open patch of manicured lawns and stone ruins protected by walls to the north, west, and south, and an ocean reef to the east. Or so it was protected until around 1500, when the Spanish came ashore. This beachside community, established circa 1200, was populated by a few hundred of Tulum's elite (and the sea turtles that still come ashore to lay their eggs), with thousands of people living outside the walls. It wasn't until the 20th century, when archaeologists began studying the region's various Maya sites, that we began to understand how advanced their civilization was—especially in the area of astronomy. As I walk the city's white gravel paths, I can imagine a well-heeled society covered in jade and obsidian jewelry enjoying the same ocean breeze and studying the same night sky. One glance at the view, and it's clear the Maya knew something about real estate. This plot right here, with a lighthouse perched on the cliff, would go for a boatload of jade and obsidian.

Maya ruins at Tulum

After fortifying my stomach with a few al pastor tacos (don't forget the guacamole) at Tropi Tacos in Tulum Pueblo, I meet back up with Diego Viadero for a drive out to Sistema Sac Actun (White Cave System), one of the world's largest underground cave systems, a 164-mile maze of freshwater flowing through subterranean limestone. This afternoon, we're exploring just one mile of the system. The rain-conjuring Voladores de Papantla must be in top form lately; the water is high and crisp as we float past stalagmites growing ever so slowly (less than 10 centimeters every 1,000 years) out of the cave floor and reaching up toward stalactites hanging like icicles from the cave ceiling. It's like the setting of a science fiction movie, so otherworldly I try to prolong my stay by floating as slowly as the calcium deposits are forming in front of me.

“Be careful," says Viadero, as I get a little too close to a stalagmite that's been a million years in the making. “You wouldn't want to break it."

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“I certainly wouldn't want that on my conscience," I agree.

After emerging from a cenote (a natural sinkhole where groundwater is exposed to the sky), I offer an adiós to Viadero and make my way to Tulum's Route 15—the narrow street that cuts through the jungle, parallel to the shore, and is lined with trendy restaurants, bars, and “eco-chic" (their word, not mine) hotels. Twenty years ago, this strip wasn't much, but now there's not a speck of beachfront that isn't occupied by an Instagram-ready boutique property. (The number of rope swings is astounding.) In recent years, Route 15 has played host to Demi Moore, Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Gina Rodriguez, Reese Witherspoon, and, after today, me. I'm staying at Sanará, a stylish wellness hotel that attracts young and hip sunworshippers from around the world who like partying and yoga in equal measure.

A shop on Tulum's Route 15

I check into my beachside room (furnished with my very own yoga mat and dream catcher), flop down on the bed, and open up the “Wellness Menu." On offer are a Pudzyah Mayan Healing that “transforms pain to love at the cellular level … It harmonizes your DNA by applying fractal geometry energy"; a Multivibrational Massage and Chakra Balancing; and a Solar Plexus Healer. I opt for the complimentary “Sound Bath" of light yoga and didgeridoo before balancing out my chakras with a burger, a beer, and some fresh ceviche at Clan Destino.

This laid-back spot is all about the ambience: a wooden deck with chandeliers hanging from the jungle canopy and a cenote smack dab in the middle of the club, should you need refreshing after one too many cervezas. The bar offers a free shot of mezcal for those who take a turn on the karaoke mic (“Suspicious Minds" for me, thank you very much); after accepting my applause and draining my shot, I turn the glass over on the bar and take the plunge.

Day 3

Floating down a canal, swimming in the Caribbean, and eating gelato on the beach

A cabana at Mía

At The Real Coconut, Sanará's beachside restaurant, I dig into a light breakfast of coffee and avocado toast (piled high like Nohoch Mul with a squirt of lime and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes). It's a deliciously healthy start to a morning that's going to include traipsing through the Sian Ka'an biosphere reserve and swimming in Laguna Chunyaxché.

At Sian Ka'an—a protected area of tropical forest, marshes, and lagoons about a 40-minute drive from my hotel—I follow my guide, Joaquin Balam of Community Tours, down the narrow boardwalk of Sendero Muyil, which cuts through a forest of zapote and ficus trees. I'm told there are jaguars, pumas, and howler monkeys about, as well as some 330 species of birds.

“Are those the howler monkeys?" I ask of a muted rumbling in the distance.

"We're floating in the current like a couple of astronauts in space, limbs slowly twirling."

“Oh no," says Balam. “When you hear them, you'll know it."

The closest we get to this array of wildlife, however, is some jaguar claw marks on a ficus tree. By the looks of the marks, I'm happy that we're strolling alone.

Baby back ribs at Mía Restaurant & Beach Club

At the end of the path, we reach the sandy shoreline of Laguna Chunyaxché, a bright body of water that reflects both the green wetlands and the blue sky above. We cross the lagoon by boat, to a shoreline of mangroves and seagrass, and step onto a dock at the entrance to a canal.

“Take your life vest off and wear it like this," Balam says, putting his legs through the arm holes of the vest, as if it were a diaper.

“If you say so."

Balam jumps into the canal and I follow, and I immediately understand the Baby Huey getup. We're floating in the current like a couple of astronauts in space, limbs slowly twirling as our seemingly weightless bodies travel down the canal. Cue the opening horns of the score to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Back on Route 15, I stop in at Mía Restaurant & Beach Club for baby back ribs rubbed with chili and tamarind, washed down with a glass of Château Gloria St Julien Bordeaux from the restaurant's wine cave—the biggest collection of fine wines in Tulum. It's as decadent as the beachgoers lazing in the sun not far from my table.

Head still swimming in that lovely Château Gloria, I decide to take the rest of my body for a little dip. The Caribbean is bathwater warm and crystal clear—in other words, perfect. I walk out for what seems like half a mile, and the water still only comes up to my waist.

Gelato at Origami

Refreshed and sun-dried, I'm ready to trade in the historical and ecological sights of the last few days for the fashion runway of Route 15. The women wear bikinis and sarongs, the men wear linen shorts and loafers, and everybody wears designer shades, brimmed hats made of straw, and suntans of golden bronze. Origami, a beautifully designed gelato shop, is the perfect place to have a seat and watch the catwalk. I have a Ferrero Rocher and crunch on the hazelnuts drenched in icy chocolate and cream while the fashion models play street chicken with Vespas and the delivery trucks distributing tanks of fresh water to the five-star eateries

If Route 15 is for the well-heeled, then Calle Centauro Sur is for the flip-flop set. It's a strip in the center of town, about two miles inland from the beach, where the more casual tourists and locals congregate. Call it the Brooklyn to Route 15's Manhattan. At Batey—a hip, open-air bar and music venue decorated with paintings of Miles Davis and the Beatles—I take a sidewalk seat and listen to a Mexican Elvis impersonator singing Simple Minds' “Don't You (Forget About Me)." As I sip on a Don Julio Reposado, a patchouli-scented parade of 5 o'clock shadows and hot pink hair dye ambles by.

“Are you going dancing tonight?" a young man in a tank top, cut-off jean shorts, and tattered Chuck Taylors asks a friend sitting at the table next to me.

The bar at Mur Mur, in Tulum

“Are you?"

“I'm dressed and ready to go."

Back on Route 15, the revelers are stepping out as if their outfits are going to be scrutinized by bouncers holding clipboards and manning red velvet ropes. Thankfully, no such velvet ropes exist as I enter Rosa Negra for an indulgent meal of burrata, besugo sashimi with black salt and citrus, soft-shell crab tacos, and Pescadores—a fine craft beer made right here in Riviera Maya.

The food is as comely as the patrons, who are bopping their well-coiffed heads to a drum-and-bass DJ. But before I have a chance to pass judgment on an ambience that may appear a touch too buttoned-up, a live conga player steps in front of the DJ.

A rat-a-tat tat, bop ba-da ba-bop, dup du-duh dup du-dup!

The congas add a touch of that Carmen spirit—their organic vibrations reminding me that despite all the Manolo Blahniks and slinky black dresses, my T-shirt and flip-flops are welcome at the party. I shimmy my shoulders, take a swig of my Pescadores, and nod to the beat as I dig into my tacos.

A rat-a-tat tat, ba dop ba-da ba-dop, dup du-buh dup bu-dup!

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For Oscar, United's turnaround is a journey

By The Hub team , November 30, 2018

Our CEO, Oscar Munoz, sat down with Texas Inc. to discuss our turnaround strategy, stating it's a journey. Read the full interview here featured on the Houston Chronicle.

Ankit Gupta honored with Crain's 40 under 40 recognition

By Matt Adams , November 29, 2018

Network Planning and Scheduling VP Ankit Gupta can talk airline business for hours without losing steam. Just don't ask him to talk about himself; that's when he clams up. You'd think after being named to this year's prestigious Crain's Chicago Business "40 Under 40" list he'd be a little more inclined to wax poetic about his life and career, but no such luck.

Read more about why editors selected Ankit by visiting the Crain's website here. The full list of this year's honorees can be found here. The 40 Under 40 issue hits newsstands on December 3.

Security and technology in the air

By United Airlines

Podcast produced in partnership with CSIS

This week on the Smart Women, Smart Power Podcast, Beverly Kirk is joined by Linda Jojo, Executive Vice President for Technology and Chief Digital Officer at United Airlines for a conversation on the transformation of technology in the airline industry and more on security in the digital age.

The best National Parks to visit all year round

By Bob Cooper

National parks can be a refuge from the noise and hectic pace of everyday urban and suburban life — America's special places in nature. But during the summer peak season, they can be as busy as cities. Smart travelers visit between November and March when most parks are less crowded and accommodation choices are discounted. These national parks are especially worthwhile to visit and they're all close enough to major airports to make a three-day weekend getaway possible.

Yosemite, California

Fall and winter visitors to Yosemite National Park are treated to autumn leaves in the fall, snow-capped granite landmarks in the winter and replenished waterfalls in the spring. Tent camping can be cold, but hotel rooms in and around Yosemite Valley are widely available and Yosemite's historic lodge, The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly Ahwahnee), hosts two big events in November and December: the Grand Grape Celebration and the Bracebridge Dinner (a recreation of Christmas in Olde England). Airport: Fresno Yosemite International Airport.

Everglades, Florida

Many summer vacationers are among the one million annual visitors to Everglades National Park, but the best time to come is in late-autumn or winter. Southern Florida's temperatures are milder, it's far less humid, hurricane season is over and summer flooding of the prairies has receded — letting you see more fish and reptiles. You can also see more birds in the winter via airboat tours through the Everglades, America's largest tropical wilderness. Not to mention this “river of grass" is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve and a wetland of International Importance. Airport: Miami International Airport.

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

Another world lives beneath Kentucky in the world's largest network of caves known as Mammoth Cave National Park. You will walk beneath massive crystallized formations inside the caverns and may spot one of the eight species of bats that thrive in this environment. The caves are about 54 degrees inside year-round, as if regulated by a thermostat, so they are protected from the hot humid summers and freezing winter nights above them, making them a perfect place to visit any time of the year. Visitors to this southern Kentucky park will also benefit from this climatic predictability while taking any of eight cave tours. While cave tours should be at the top of your list of things to do here, this park also offers hiking, camping, horseback riding, kayaking and more. Airport: Louisville International Airport.

Haleakala, Hawaii

Your visit to Haleakala National Park may include a number of experiences, but witnessing the sunrise or sunsets are a must. Many visitors wake up early to drive to the Summit Visitor Center to view one of the best sunrises. But make sure to plan accordingly because the National Park Service now requires a reservation for vehicles to view the sunrise from the Summit District. Other activities on the 10,023-foot mountain include hiking one of the nine trails, guided horseback rides and bike rentals post-hike to coast most of the way down. An added bonus: Humpback whale watching season stretches from December to March in Maui. Airport: Kahului Airport.

Saguaro, Arizona

Saguaro, a type of giant cacti, serve many functions for desert wildlife — but they don't cast much shade. That's why winter is the best time to hike among them where they populate hillsides by the thousands in Saguaro National Park. The park is split in two, straddling the western and eastern boundaries of Tucson, with 165 miles of hiking trails. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a museum, zoo and botanical garden, is a must-see attraction on the edge of Saguaro NP West. Airport: Tucson International Airport.

Joshua Tree, California

The namesake of Joshua Tree National Park is an odd-looking tree that fits in well with the weirdly wonderful rock formations adored by photographers in this high desert park. Located between Palm Springs and the L.A. area, the park encompasses two major deserts and a mountain range, offering a profoundly contrasting appearance due to the two varying ecosystems. This park can be explored by car or by foot on one of the 27 hiking trails. A bonus to visiting in the winter is the desert wildflower blooms between February and April. Airport: Palm Springs International Airport.

Biscayne, Florida

Famous lighthouse at Key Biscayne, Miami

Most of Biscayne National Park is on water, not land, so the best way to see its coral reefs (among the world's largest) and the abundance of marine life (highlighted by manatees and sea turtles) is by renting a boat or taking a boat tour. Several marinas are found at the park's edges where you can do just that, as well as rent snorkeling or diving equipment for a closer look underwater, where you'll discover diverse and colorful aquatic life and multiple shipwrecks. Kayaking and fishing in Miami-Dade County are also popular. Airport: Miami International Airport.

If you go

United Airlines flies to airports within a two-hour drive of all of these national parks. MileagePlus® Rewards can help pay for your accommodations. Go to united.com or use the United app to plan your national park getaway.

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