Don’t get me wrong — Cabo is great. Who doesn’t like being treated to epic sunsets and fabulous food in luxury five-star resorts? No one. No one does not like that. Los Cabos is popular for a reason, as are all the other stars in Mexico’s line-up: Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende, Cancún, Playa del Carmen, Puerto Vallarta, we could go on.
According to the US National Travel and Tourism Office, Mexico remains the most popular country for Americans to visit — 3.7 million visited in December 2017 — despite this administration’s efforts to skew our perception of Mexico as a country of “bad hombres,” criminals, and rapists. Visitors will not be deterred.
Don’t be afraid to break away from the pack. You’ll have to go off the beaten path — and outside your resort — to experience what this country is all about. The list of under-the-radar cities in Mexico is a long one, but I promise, a visit to any one of these hidden gems will be infinitely more rewarding than the weekend you spend doing electric-colored shots at Cabo Wabo.
Not San Miguel de Allende, but that OTHER breathtaking colonial city
San Miguel de Allende is fine if you like cities that win outlandish titles like “Best City in the World.” (Turns out, a LOT of people like cities like that.) San Miguel de Allende put the state of Guanajuato on the map, but the real hidden gem is its historic capital city.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Guanajuato City is a fast-growing center for international business, and with that comes investment in tourism infrastructure. It has everything that San Miguel de Allende has, minus the 6,224,528,209,862 tourists (actual statistic): pastel-colored colonial buildings, cobblestone streets, bustling plazas, stately churches, sidewalk cafes, you get the idea. In addition to being one of the five states that are certified to produce tequila, Guanajuato also has a burgeoning wine industry (and yes, it’s good).
Mexico’s version of Hotel California is actually an entire town
One of several unpretentious beach towns dotting Mexico’s ultra laid-back Oaxacan coast, Puerto Escondido is Mexico’s premier surfing destination. Surfers from as far as Oz flock to the expansive beaches here to chase the Mexican Pipeline, one of the largest and best surf breaks in the whole dang world.
The main drag is Playa Zicatela, where 9-foot waves are considered “cute.” Along this stretch of beach are the most well-trodden bars and restaurants; by the end of the week, you’re sure to know everyone’s name, business, and relationship status. Be careful… those who visit “The Vortex,” as many travelers call it, often experience a sort of Hotel California effect; even the most respectable of humans fall under the spell of endless summer, fish tacos, and “flip-flops forever.” If you can break away from Calle el Morro (and that’s a big if), the area surrounding Puerto Escondido boasts hot springs, bioluminescent bays, secret lagoons, and a stunning national park, Lagunas de Chacahua.
Hit Tulum… and keep right on going
Tulum’s beaches are among the best in Mexico, with the added bonus of some truly awe-inspiring Mayan ruins. It’s unfortunate that it’s been overrun with New Yorkers wearing straw fedoras. There’s very little left of Tulum that feels authentically Mexican; expensive craft mezcal cocktails don’t really count.
But two hours south, wellness travelers and kayakers will fall in love with the jewel-colored paradise of Bacalar. This quiet pueblo is located on the banks of the Laguna de Bacalar, Mexico’s second-largest lake and one of its best-kept travel secrets. The main draw of Bacalar is the lagoon itself — its colors shift throughout the day, earning it the nickname “Lake of Seven Colors.” Stay the night in one of the low-key eco-resorts perched right on the lake.
Mexico’s “second city” is a welcome alternative to CDMX
We would never tell you to “skip” Mexico City — it’s one of our favorite spots for a weekend getaway and the food is bonkers-good. But when you’re ready to go beyond the confines of Condesa and Roma Norte, snag a flight to Guadalajara.
Mexico’s “second city” is a dynamic cultural capital in its own right, appealing to the artistic, creative, and tech-savvy (read: millennials). Business is booming — over 15 new hotels are planned for GDL in the coming year, which means we’ll soon have to remove it from this list.
Guadalajara is everything you love about Mexico City — just on a smaller scale. Leave room in your suitcase for traditional handicrafts from Tlaquepaque, or visit the massive Mercado Libertad, one of the largest in Mexico, for souvenirs and local eats. A legit beach getaway is just four hours away in Puerto Vallarta; also nearby, the small town of Tequila. I’ll let you guess what its famous for.
Rincón de Guayabitos
40 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta, but truly another world away
If you’re a fan of small Mexican beach towns, you may already have Sayulita on your radar — it’s basically the Tulum of Pacific Mexico. Knowing what we now know about places like Tulum, well, it’s best to keep driving past Sayulita and head north until you hit Rincón de Guayabitos.
This colorful fishing village offers a taste of what Sayulita was like 10 years ago: Think quaint hotels and bungalows, open-air markets, and beaches peppered with palapas slinging cold beers and ceviche. Backed by rolling mountains, with secret coves aplenty, Rincón de Guayabitos feels like a legit getaway when you’re vacationing on a budget.
Yucátan’s multi-hued capital is also Mexico’s unsung cultural jewel
There are a lot of cliches in travel writing, chief among them being so-called “hidden gems.” Well, welcome to Mérida, the capital of the Yucatán, a shimmering post-colonial metropolis of colorful buildings, art, and archaeological wonder. (Yucatán, by the way, is not the same as the Yucatán peninsula. Three states make up the Yucatán peninsula: Quintana Roo, home to Cancún, Campeche, and Yucatán. Tucked between the other two, Yucatán holds prime real estate between pristine beaches and colonial Mexican culture.)
The city was built on the site of the ancient Mayan city, T’ho, founded by Spaniards in the 16th century. The main thoroughfare of Mérida is its Calle 60, a straight artery that cruises past the major historical sites of the city (Plaza de Independencia, cathedral, Parque de Santa Lucia), as well as some of the best eats and cantinas that spark with live music on the weekends. One minute, you’ll be wandering the streets and marveling at still-standing Spanish colonial architecture, and the next you’ll find yourself in a market like Mercado Lucas De Galvéz or Mercado Santiago snacking on local fruits like spiky-but-cute rambutan or huaya, a lime special to the Yucatán. From Mérida, it’s a quick hop to archaeological sites like Uxmal, which is Chichen Itza minus 30,000 other people or find yourself on a stunning beach of soft, sugary sand just outside the city. It’s almost baffling why Mérida isn’t on more peoples’ radars, but that’s also part of its charm: There’s more for the rest of us.
The Yellow City is exactly what it sounds like
Allow us to let you in on a little secret: the charming town of Izamal, less than an hour away. It was once a center of worship for Mayans to pay tribute to their supreme god, Itzamna, and the sun god Kinich-Kakmó. Today it is primarily known for its aesthetics. You’ve heard of Morocco’s blue city, Chefchaouen, right? Well Izamal is the Yellow City, painted top to bottom in a golden yellow hue. Full disclosure, Izamal is a small, sleepy town and you probably won’t need more than a day there. Still, Izamal is a good add-on to Merida, and ridiculously charming — there are still horse-drawn carriages, for god’s sake.
This beach treasure in Baja is the ultimate Cabo substitute
Instead of dropping some serious coin at one of the many five-star resorts in Cabo San Lucas, get a taste of the real Baja California about two hours north, in La Paz. This lovely beach community of 300,000 is less concerned with resorts and yacht culture, and more about its natural, desert-meets-sea beauty.
Surrounded by stark, rocky desert, this city by the sea is an oasis of restaurants, museums, and colonial-era buildings. La Paz is also the jumping-off point for some of the best diving in Mexico. You can take a day trip to the remote island of Espíritu Santo, a protected biosphere reserve that’s home to manta rays, dolphins, and gray whales. Kayak and scuba dive to your heart’s content, and if you can stomach the word “glamping,” stay overnight in one of the Instagrammable luxury tents at Camp Cecil.
This festival-crazed village bursts with color and the scent of sage
Next time you’re in Mexico City, consider a quick side-trip to Tepoztlán, about an hour and a half south of CDMX in the state of Morelos. Legend has it, this town at the foot of Tepozteco Mountain is the birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec serpent god. Which is neat, but if you prefer something rooted a bit more in the present, it’s also got some pretty stellar architecture, cute hotels, and delicious restaurants.
The city is also known for healing arts and mysticism — translation, there are more than a few hippies here. Browse handmade goods at the crafts market and stroll the cobblestone streets, festooned with magnificently colored flowers. It’s not uncommon to hear folks chatting in Nahuatl, the indigenous language of the Aztecs.