From beaches to mountain towns, these underrated Mexican destinations have plenty to offer.
Mexico has heaps of sunny beaches, dazzling colonial towns, and intriguing historical sites, but it also has tons of tourists who flock to the same-old locales, creating the kinds of crowds and over-tourism issues many of us are trying to avoid. While better-known places like Cabo San Lucas, Tulum, and San Miguel Allende are gorgeous and on the traveler’s radar, there are plenty of places brimming with flavor and culture lacking any spotlight.
Towns where people live, work, study, and play can grow uniquely into themselves in a way many planned tourism destinations can’t. Read on for options that may not be as Instagram-perfect as a walled resort or private development, but have a vibrancy that comes from deep within the location itself.
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A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the region was home to the Indigenous Chichimeca people when the famed Veta Madre (Mother Lode of silver) was discovered nearby. As fantastical churches, exquisite theatres, and posh neoclassical homes rose from the wealth, the battle to become an independent Mexico was ignited in the streets. Now considered the birthplace of Mexican culture, the hilly city is filled with art galleries, museums, and theatres. Walkers can explore hundreds of narrow alleyways that wind past the city’s colorful buildings while most traffic diverts through the innovative tunnels underneath. When your feet tire, choose from one of nineteen plazas where you can kick back and people-watch while sampling the local cuisine.
INSIDER TIPDon’t miss an evening performance with Las Callejoneadas. Borrowing from an old Spanish tradition, student musicians lead you through the alleys, singing and telling jokes and stories as you go.
WHERE: Baja California Sur
Don’t let the unfinished look of this seaside town on the Baja peninsula fool you, La Paz is a carefully managed gem. Set on the edge of one of the world’s most bio-diverse bodies of water (some 900 species of fish and 43 species of marine mammals inhabit this region), the city intends to protect local ecosystems while maintaining its small-town feel. Famed for whale watching, diving, and snorkeling tours (which bring you face to face with whale sharks, sea lions, hammerhead sharks, or humpback whales), be sure to time your visit—your best odds for the whale sharks are in fall and winter, whales in winter, and hammerhead sharks in winter and spring.
INSIDER TIPThe malecon comes alive at night. The seaside walkway runs the length of the town and is lined with shops, restaurants, and bars that draw locals and tourists alike.
Barra de Navidad
Wandering the cobblestone streets in this friendly beach town recalls the kind of old-school seaside resort that’s long made Mexico a favorite winter destination. Located 20 minutes from the Manzanillo Airport, the tiny town feels cheerfully stuck in time. Boasting low-key lodging, seaside dining, and great beaches, it’s the sort of place where you’ll feel like a regular by the time you’ve ordered your second cerveza. While the main stretch of beach might have too much plunging wave action for some, there’s no lack of sandy options. From the protected waters and black sand of nearby Cuastecomates to the secret beaches tucked into the bay’s headlands—you could hit a new beach every day.
INSIDER TIPCrocodile fans won’t want to miss the Cocodrilario in nearby La Manzanilla. The wildlife preserve is located in a mangrove swamp on gorgeous Tenacatita Bay.
Comitan de Dominguez
One of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos, a designation given to exceptionally beautiful or culturally rich small towns, Comitan is a colonial city set in the Chiapas highlands. With a tranquil town plaza, cute cafes, great street food, and a scattering of upscale restaurants—Comitan feels like a well-kept secret. But it’s the town’s proximity to several of Chiapas’ most fascinating attractions that makes it special. Easy day trips to El Chiflon waterfalls, Lagos de Montebello, and the crystal clear waters of Cenote Chukumaltik are just a few of the options. There are also the nearby Mayan ruins of Tenam Puente, a grassy site with ball courts, plazas, and pyramids, and Chinkultic, a vast site with panoramic views.
INSIDER TIPPack water and a picnic when you visit Chinkultic. Like Tenam Puente, this peaceful Mayan ruin doesn’t have onsite vendors or restaurants. Chances are—you’ll have much of it to yourself.
While this Pacific coast resort community is better known than some, it’s never lost its classic beachy vibe. Located just four miles from Ixtapa, the Mexican Tourist Board’s glittering 1970s effort to replicate Cancun on the Pacific, Zihuatanejo has retained the atmosphere, character, and feel of a traditional fishing town. Because, well, it’s still a fishing town. For visitors and locals alike, much of the action happens along the malecon, a waterfront walkway known as Paseo del Pescador (Fisherman’s Path). Lined with restaurants and shops—the malecon is the place to go each evening for lively cultural events.
INSIDER TIPFor the best beach in town, you’ll want to head to Playa La Ropa, a shimmering expanse of white sand lined with palm trees, hotels, and restaurants.
WHERE: Quintana Roo
Hopefully, this little Pueblos Mágicos will remain the same simple, leafy, laid-back town it currently is. But as photos of Lake Bacalar and its rainbow of bright blue hues start showing up on Instagram, it’s hard to say what will happen. Most activities along the 26-mile saltwater lagoon include that famous jewel-toned water—whether you’re relaxing in the pools of Cenote Cocalitos, spending a day at a balnearios (beach club), hiring a kayak, or taking a boat tour. But the area also has fascinating Mayan archeology sites, including tropical Kohunlich and imposing Dzibanche.
INSIDER TIPA day trip to the village of Xcalak takes you to some of the last undeveloped Caribbean coastlines. It’s a bit of a drive, but the appeal is the breezy pristine charm.
Colorful and artsy, this Pacific fishing port looks and feels like a holiday resort. Restaurants line the beach, offering fresh seafood and views of Banderas Bay—and if you’re lucky, you may even spot a humpback or two. While it would be easy to pass a week, or a month, here (however long it takes to sample every flavor of paleta at La Michoacana ice cream shop), it’s Bucerias’ central location on the bay that elevates it from fun to fantastic. Take a boat trip across the bay to isolated Yelapa, head into Puerto Vallarta for some shopping, take a bus to Sayulita for a surf class, or take a taxi to La Cruz for the excellent Sunday Farmer’s Market.
INSIDER TIPMost Mexican towns have their own patron saint and corresponding festival—in Bucerias, Our Lady of Peace is celebrated every January 16-24 with the blessing of the fishing fleet, parades, fireworks, and traditional dance.
Tepoztlán’s location is in a lush valley surrounded by rugged mountains, one of which is topped with an ancient Aztec pyramid. Unsurprisingly, the small city is one of Mexico’s 132 pueblos magicos, and locals have developed a reputation for beating back developers to ensure it stays this way. With easy proximity to Mexico City, weekend visitors come for the art and food market and the pulque—an ancient alcoholic beverage made from fermented maguey (agave) sap. Work off the excellent food by hiking 1,300 feet up to Tepozteco, or just wander the town’s pretty streets, peering into courtyards and churches while befriending the odd chicken. To unwind, participate in a ritual Aztec steam bath known as temazcal, one of the town’s many wellness offerings.
INSIDER TIPDon’t miss the ice cream at Tepoznieves. You’ll find everything from traditional Aztec flavors to a few surprises.
Taxco de Alarcon
An easy drive from Mexico City, this pretty mountain town usually just goes by Taxco. White-walled houses with red-tile roofs and balconies with jumbles of bright flowers give the town a bright Mediterranean look, making it a photographer’s dream. But the rich baroque architecture and profusion of small quirky museums will attract your attention. Templo de Santa Prisca is an extraordinarily beautiful rose-stone church that towers above the town. Inside there are nine floor-to-ceiling golden altarpieces. Museo Guillermo Spratling is a small history and archaeology museum with pre-Hispanic artifacts, while Casa Humboldt offers an intriguing collection of religious art.
INSIDER TIPAdventurers won’t want to miss one of the largest cave systems in the world; Parque Nacional Grutas de Cacahuamilpa is just 30 minutes outside of Taxco.
This crayon-colored, fortified city on the Gulf of Mexico, Campeche’s historic district, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to the careful preservation of its pirate-repelling walls and baroque architecture. While it doesn’t have the beach life you might expect from a seaside town (for that, you’ll want to head to Playa Bonita in nearby Lerma), the art, atmosphere, and architecture, both inside and outside the walls, make for a picturesque and laid back town. After exploring the fortifications, head out of town to discover a few of the underrated Mayan archeology sites in the region, including Tohcok and Edzna. Or head to Reserva de la Biosfera de Calakmul for wildlife viewing and, in the case of the howler monkey, listening.