Skip Cabo: Mexico’s Most Underrated Destinations to Visit This Summer
This way to a better vacation.
Mexico is rich with renowned destinations. Places like Cancún, Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende, Puerto Vallarta, and Cabo have all more than earned their reputations, but—let’s face it—also lie firmly along the roads most traveled.
Before the pandemic, Mexico drew millions of tourists per year—and though that number took a considerable dip, visitors have come roaring back, making many of the country’s most popular cities feel decidedly overrun.
If you’re looking to veer away from crowds, you’re in luck: this big, diverse country has much to offer beyond the usual resort fare. If you’re ready and willing to explore some of its less-frequented destinations, try any one of these destinations—all of which will be significantly more memorable than, say, yet another shot at Señor Frogs.
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 is certified to produce tequila, Guanajuato also has a burgeoning wine industry (and yes, it's good).
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 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.
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. It's essentially 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. We'll let you guess what it's famous for.
Your new favorite Mexican art hub
Located in central Mexico, the compact mining city of Zacatecas offers a unique blend of traditional atmosphere and modern, offbeat, creative weirdness.
Its downtown region has a strong cultural presence, with colonial architecture interspersed with bustling shops and markets offering leather goods, regional food and drink, handicrafts, and gems from the local mines (which you can explore on a tour!), much of which you can spot on a Teleférico gondola ride over the city.
Arguably, though, Zacatecas’ most noteworthy characteristic is its lively art scene, which spans everything from ancient indigenous art to contemporary local works and exhibitions from major names like Dalí, Picasso, and Miró. Check out museums like the Museo Rafael Coronel and Museo Pedro Coronel (they were brothers), Museo de Arte Abstracto Manuel Felguérez, and Museo de Francisco Goitia, the sum of which delivers a surprisingly world-class art experience for such a small, out of the way place.
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 to the stunning beaches of soft, sugary sand just outside the city. It’s almost baffling why Mérida isn’t on more people's 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 (and on a little twofer): from Mérida, the charming town of Izamal sits 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: this is a small, sleepy town and you probably won’t need more than a day there. Still, Izamal is a good add-on to Mérida, and ridiculously charming—there are still horse-drawn carriages, for god’s sake.
Go from canyon to jungle to ancient ruins
While most tourists elect to visit nearby San Cristóbal, we’d like to posit that Tuxtla Gutierrez provides a much more authentically Chiapan experience. Located high in the hills of Chiapas, Tuxtla is the perfect base from which to try nearby outdoor experiences like boating down the gorgeous Sumidero Canyon.
The city of Tuxtla itself is a laid-back, industrial place with a tremendously traditional aesthetic that looks and feels like you’re in old Chiapas—not like modern-day Mexico, but rather a place where indigenous culture has remained strong.
Tuxtla Gutierrez is also within reasonable driving distance (5-6 hours) of Palenque, home to stunning jungle vistas and some of Mexico’s best-preserved Mayan ruins. A fairly complete visit to the region would include 2-3 nights in Tuxtla, two nights in San Cristóbal, and two nights in Palenque.
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.
Soak in the colors of this historic coastal town
While many visit Mexico’s great southern nub to hit up Cancún, it’s a region with much more—and much better, in our humble opinion—to offer. Case in point: Campeche, which sits on the western coast of the peninsula.
A colorful, vibrant town that’s somewhat off on its own, Campeche’s entire downtown region has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its historic buildings and surrounding walls, which were originally built to repel pirate attacks and have stood largely unchanged over the past several hundred years. The area’s multicolored facades, gorgeous architecture, abundant street art, and bustling streets also make for a photographer’s dream.
What’s more, Campeche makes for a great jumping-off point from which to explore the stretch of coast between it and Villahermosa—that’s “beautiful town”—a stunning region that is largely unvisited by international tourists. It’s especially worth checking out neighboring Champotón and the Ciudad del Carmen beaches just down the coast to glimpse a special side of Mexico.
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. Bowse 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 indigienous language of the Aztecs.
San Jose del Pacifico
A tiny mountain town known for its magic mushrooms
Drive two hours from the beaches of Oaxaca, up a winding road leading into the fragrant mountains, and you’ll stumble upon San Jose del Pacifico. The biggest commercial industries in this itty bitty mountain village are, apparently, succulents and pumpkins. (Seriously, how can that many street stalls stay in business selling only succulents and pumpkins?) Pack your snuggliest sweater, rent a mountain cabin, and settle in for dreamy, misty mornings.
Most of the “tourists” here are of the dreadlocked variety—folks who have been called to the mountains to unlock the inner workings of their own minds. Some call it shamanism, but those people are likely on magic mushrooms, because, yes, you can (and maybe should?) find magic mushrooms here.
Take a trip to the wild, wild oeste
If you’re looking for some old-Western vibes, head to Durango in northwest Mexico. While it’s true that it’s somewhat of a trek from anyplace else you’re likely to visit—it sits about a four hour drive from better-known spots like Mazatlán and just over three hours from Zacatecas—it’s also true that Durango is worth the effort.
Durango’s bustling downtown centers around a gorgeous colonial-era cathedral surrounded by various markets and shops. It’s a rather small centro region, meaning it’s an easy place to wander around leisurely while picking up mementos and popping in to try various restaurants and bars like Fonda de la Tia Chona, which boasts fun décor and a menu full of delicious regional dishes, or late-night spot Botica Cocina Bar for cocktails with a side of jazz.
Fans of western movies should be sure to walk down the Paseo del Viejo Oeste, which has served as the setting for some 150 films, including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It will truly make you feel as if you’ve arrived in another era.
Nick Hilden is a travel, fitness, arts, and fiction writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Health, the Daily Beast, Vice, Greatist, and more. You can follow his weird adventures via Instagram or Twitter.