When you ask someone how their trip to Mexico went, no one ever says, “Eh, it was OK.” No. It was either a glorious weekend on a beautiful beach with free-flowing tequila. Or it was a terrifying experience involving Federales and free-flowing tequila. Rarely, if ever, are there any in-betweens.
That’s because Mexico is a special place. A place where you can make next-level bad decisions, think about them in mesmerizing scenery, and experience a foreign culture without flying more than a few hours. And while there are all kinds of crazy things to know about Mexico, it’s sometimes hard to find a corner of the country that’s not filled with other Americans.
Our neighbor to the south, however, offers some spectacular off-the-beaten-path destinations if you just know where to look. Here are seven spots to visit before they’re overrun with tourists.
The problem with charming Mexican surf towns is they occasionally lack modern luxuries like paved roads and potable water. Enter Riviera Nayarit, the coastal stretch north of Puerto Vallarta, where towns like San Pancho, Sayulita, Bucerias, and Lo de Marcos offer some of the best waves, funky city streets, and organic bistros and boutique hotels in all of Mexico. And for luxury travelers, Punta Mita has a Four Seasons and St. Regis. But no matter where you stay, the star of Riviera Nayarit is the hidden beach at the Marietas Islands. You’ll have to swim through a cave under the island to get there, but it’s one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
Oaxaca (pronounced THIS WAY) was founded in the 16th century and is perhaps the cleanest large city in Mexico. The home of Oaxacan chocolate, the most important ingredient in its signature mole sauce, and mezcal (which must come from here to be authentic, FYI), the city’s obvious attractions are food and drink, but the local handcrafts are also worth your attention. The central square, or zocalo, is surrounded by historic buildings filled with restaurants, art galleries, and museums; when you’re down strolling around, head about 10 miles west to the Monte Alban archeological site — it was the Zapotec capital from 500 BC to 800 AD.
Bacalar sits along a freshwater lagoon in Quintana Roo and boasts turquoise water reminiscent of the nearby Caribbean. That water is also incredibly calm, which helps make the area one of the best spots in Mexico for waterskiing, paddleboarding, and other relaxing water activities. It’s also a bastion of ecological conservation where mega-developments have been shunned in favor of preserving the surrounding jungle. Case in point: the town was the subject of a 2011 movie about environmental preservation called Bacalar.
Pirates of the Caribbean are cool on a movie screen, but in real life? Notsomuch. So when the Spanish colonial port city of Campeche was being overrun by pirates in the late 17th century, they fortified the entire city with epic stone buildings, forts, and cannons. Over 1,000 of those buildings still stand today and in 1999 the city was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its classic preservation of the baroque-style architecture. This city on the Yucatan peninsula offers white sand beaches, gulf breezes, and a fraction of the crowds in nearby Cancun and Cozumel.
At the far end of the inhospitable Baja desert sits the capital city of Baja Sur, a shimmering blue oceanside haven with the same beaches and vistas as its neighbor Cabo San Lucas, but without being, well, Cabo. So if you’re going to Baja to drink tequila and make bad decisions, don’t come here. But if you’re into diving, whale watching, or sitting on a beach without 800 of your closest friends from Palo Alto, then La Paz is a choice destination.
Situated on the Sea of Cortez, a place Jacques Cousteau dubbed “the aquarium of the world,” the area is home to thousands of marine species you won’t see elsewhere. And from November-April, it’s also part of the whale migration (blue, humpback, sperm, and gray) through the Pacific.
While the words “Mexican countryside” might immediately lead you to think, “have some ransom money ready,” the vast majority of Mexico’s open, agricultural spaces are warm, beautiful, and most importantly… completely safe. Take Tlaxcala, just south of Mexico City. In addition to being the smallest state in the country, it also boasts the lowest crime rate. A trip here ventures through sprawling farms where grand colonial haciendas stand over vibrant fields. The city itself is full of colorful adobe structures adorned with paintings of ancient warriors, and small rustic restaurants plate local cuisine (which is influenced more by pre-Hispanic flavors) that you won’t find in more-touristy areas.
THE weekend beach escape for Yucatan’s capital-city dwellers, Progreso’s a perfect mix of culture and sand. Plus, you can boat through the mangroves, freshwater pools, and tropical swamps of the El Corchito ecological preserve or take a short day trip to the Dzibilchaltun Mayan ruins — both are reasons why this town is also one of the world’s most underrated cruise destinations.
By MATT MELTZER