The Best Mexico Vacation Spots You're Missing Out On
Leave the all-inclusive resorts behind.
Mexico's all-inclusive resorts are great—but let's forget about those for just a second. Yes, it's home to some of the world's best beaches, but this incredibly diverse country is more than just sun and sand: think towering mountains, steamy jungles, ancient ruins, rare mezcals, and some of the most delicious food anywhere, ever—all of which you’ll miss out on if you stay cooped up at a spring break-style hotel.
So, where will your next trip to Mexico take you instead? While everyone else zigs to San Miguel de Allende and Mexico City, consider zagging to Zacatecas, San Cristóbal de las Casas, or one of Mexico’s other lesser-hyped cities. Instead of Tulum or Los Cabos for your beach fix, why not kick it up a notch (or down, more accurately) with a visit to Sayulita, Mazatlán, Puerto Escondido, or any number of beach towns you’ve probably never heard of?
It may take more time and effort to reach these hidden gems, but that's exactly what makes them worthwhile. Here are just a few of Mexico’s best—and most underrated—vacation spots.
When people travel to Puerto Vallarta, they hardly leave Los Muertos Beach. Little do they know, better beach-bumming is just down the coast. Hop in a water taxi or private boat for a 45-minute ride to this sliver of crowd-free, retro beach nirvana that hasn’t been touched since the '60s. In Yelapa, there’s only a handful of thatched-roof restaurants, beach bars serving cheap drinks, and a sprawling white sand beach that has a lounge chair with your name on it.
The one must-do thing: The point of Yelapa is to do nothing at all. Crack open a Pacifico at Angelina's and sway in a hammock under leafy palms.
If you’ve been to the ruins of Chichén Itzá, Teotihuacán, or Tulum, believe us when we say you ain’t seen nothing yet. In the southern state of Chiapas, the ancient Mayan city of Palenque (or “Lakamha” as it was known in its heyday) thrived between the years 600 and 750 CE as one of the most powerful political centers of Mayan civilization.
Abandoned around 800 CE, the mighty city was swallowed by the hot, misty jungle until it was rediscovered in the 18th century by European explorers. Today, you can wander the remarkably preserved palaces, temples, terraced fortifications, and internal courtyards. The word "spectacular" doesn't come close to doing it justice.
The one must-do thing: Wear sunscreen and make sure your camera is fully charged. You won’t want to miss a single angle.
Remember when Tulum was nothing but a stretch of beach and one or two eco-hotels? Yeah, us neither. Tulum is, without a doubt, one of Mexico's best-known destinations. So these days, boho beach-goers in search of more low-key, affordable sands head south—waaaay south, about as far down the Yucatán Peninsula as you can get. Xcalak is the last stretch of undeveloped Caribbean coastline. It's a bit of a hike to get to, but you'll be rewarded with nothing but easy, breezy, unspoiled charm.
The one must-do thing: Because it’s so close to Belize, Xcalak shares some of the magnificent Belize Barrier Reef, which is second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia (and some would argue, way better). If you’re not already scuba certified, you’re going to want to get that done (here’s how).
The capital city of Guanajuato doesn’t get the hype like it’s neighbor, San Miguel de Allende, but that won’t last for long. Inevitably there will be spillover, but for now, Guanajuato remains one of Mexico’s best-kept secrets. Located in a lush green valley, this city explodes with a burst of color, anchored at its center by the stately yellow church of *deep breath* Parroquia de Basílica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato.
The one must-do thing: Wander! Guanajuato has everything San Miguel de Allende has, minus the hordes of people. Explore the lively plazas, sidewalk cafes, and cobblestone alleys.
Baja California Sur
While everyone heads south to Los Cabos, you’re going to double back and head up the Sea of Cortez coast to the small town of Loreto. About a quarter the way up the peninsula past La Paz, this jewel of a colonial city on the sea is really something special—and totally under the radar.
Perched at the gateway of the Bahía de Loreto National Park, Loreto has shimmering turquoise waters (teeming with dolphins and whales, depending on time of year), views of mountains, wonderful boutique hotels, a great culinary scene, and a ton of culture and heritage, including one church that dates back to the 17th century.
The one must-do thing: Visit the Bahía de Loreto National Park, especially if you’re interested in wildlife. Here, you’ll have the chance to see whales and dolphins up close, without the throngs of tourists that you may have in other parts of Mexico.
Las Grutas Tolantongo
Las Grutas Tolantongo will take your breath away. There is no question. Translating to Tolantongo Caves, this lush, forested destination about four hours north of Mexico City takes a little legwork to reach but packs in the rewards, especially if you like nature: it’s known for its natural hot springs, millennia-old caves, and series of crystal-blue, tiered pools that line the side of a mountain. Yes—those photos are real.
The one must-do thing: The hot springs, 100%. Bubbling at a steamy 90 degrees, the river water that feeds the turquoise-colored, mountainside pools comes through the rocks via a collection of waterfalls, creating one of the most dramatic views in Mexico. You may find yourself uttering the words, "It’s like a fairytale," and you'd be absolutely correct in doing so.
Real de Catorce
San Luis Potosi
The American West isn’t the only region known for ghost towns and abandoned mines. If you didn't already know, Mexican silver is top-notch—but when the price of silver plummeted around the turn of the century, many of its mining towns descended into oblivion, including Real de Catorce.
You can still roam the mysterious stone ruins of this old boom town, nearly overrun with huge prickly-pear cacti. But further down the hillside, you’ll find this ghost town gets much more lively, with several charming cafes, bars, and boutique hotels situated along its steep, cobblestone streets.
The one must-do thing: You'll want to visit Wirikuta, a sacred area nearby where one of Mexico's indigenous tribes makes a pilgrimage each year. This mystical, healing place has its own web of cobbled streets, beautiful church, and plaza.
The southern half of Quintana Roo is having a moment. Most of us are already familiar with the state’s northern half (Cancún and Playa del Carmen, anyone?). But now the areas south of Tulum are stepping into the limelight, and the star of the show these days is Bacalar.
Perched on the eponymous lake, Bacalar is a sleepy, laid-back town known for its eco-chic bungalows, lakeside restaurants, and easy access to some of the best ruins in Mexico. The town has plenty of swashbuckling history, too: Laguna de Bacalar is connected to the Caribbean Sea via several channels, which pirates used to use to gain access to the mainland.
The one must-do thing: Get out onto the lake. It’s hard to believe that Laguna de Bacalar is freshwater—it looks as clear and calm as the Caribbean Sea. The best backyard for residents of Bacalar, you’ll always find people SUPing, kayaking, sailing, or swimming. Kick back at La Playita Beach Club for an afternoon lazing on the dock, sucking back incredibly fresh ceviche and tostadas.
The cat may already be out of the bag on this one—or, at the very least, it’s halfway out. About an hour south of Puerto Escondido, Zipolite is quickly gaining traction among the trendy set. What used to be a hippie hideaway known for its natural vortex energy, nude beaches, and secret rocky Pacific Ocean coves has slowly been debuting luxe boutique hotels and boho-chic restaurants.
Zipolite is still a far cry from its more well-trodden neighbors to the north and south (Puerto and Huatulco, respectively). Still, this is one spot you’re going to want to visit sooner rather than later.
The one must-do thing: Hit the beach. Peppered with laid-back beach bars, the main beach here, Playa Zipolite, is absolutely massive and always humming with activity. Be warned: If you don’t have your wits about you, you may find the carefree energy will trigger your wild side. You may even find yourself frolicking nude across the sand with 15 of your newest, naked-est best friends.
San Luis Potosi
Las Pozas is English artist Edward James’ vision of the Garden of Eden, and it’s trippy as hell. Found in the small town of Xilitla, this 80-acre sculpture “park” is teeming with waterfalls, pools, and massive concrete structures. The whole thing feels like a surreal movie set—or a long-lost abandoned civilization for fairies, elves, and mythical creatures. It’s a dream setting for peyote-slugging backpackers, and the fact that it’s in the middle of nowhere makes it bonafide Eden.
The one must-do thing: It’s an all-day trip (get it?) so wear comfortable walking shoes.
Baja California Sur
A boon for in-the-know surfers, Todos Santos is about an hour drive from Los Cabos up the Baja Peninsula, beloved for its great waves and artist community. Mexico’s next-generation Frida Kahlos have moved in and opened low-key, creative art galleries, and most of the sprawling beaches here are swimmable (unlike Los Cabos).
The one must-do thing: Break out the board and hit the waves at Cerritos, the most popular surf spot. San Pedrito can hold some big swells too.
The capital of the Yucatán (different, by the way, from the Yucatán Peninsula), this friendly post-colonial metropolis shimmers with colorful architecture and historic sites. The town dates back to the 16th century and is surprisingly short on tourists, despite there being crazy-old cathedrals, buzzy food markets, and museums aplenty. Prowl the peaceful, cafe-lined streets, then take a quick jaunt to sugary sands and archaeological sites like Uxmal.
The one must-do thing: Immerse yourself in the culture. The Plaza de la Independencia hosts free events on the square almost every night of the week, including the Friday “pok ta pok” show that recreates Mayan soccer.
The most important wine region in Mexico (yes, Mexico has wine!) is crawling with road trippers and wine enthusiasts. Just a two-hour drive from the San Diego border, Guadalupe Valley in Baja California has luxury design hotels, top chefs opening trendy restaurants, and, naturally, excellent vineyards. It’s one of the most scenic, rural spots in Mexico with valleys unfurling for miles under a vast blue sky.
The one must-do thing: While wine tasting is obvious, you'll absolutely want to try some of the region’s best restaurants. Fauna, nestled on the grounds of the swanky Bruma winery, is talked about in Baja chef circles in hushed, reverent tones. Chef David Castro Hussong opened this much-lauded eatery, known for its elevated take on Mexican cuisine (duck sopes, anyone?).
Then there's Origen at Encuentro Guadalupe, one of the most visually stunning eco-hotels in the region. Or Las Gueritas, a local roadside stand. You'll know you're there when you see the plumes of fragrant smoke rising off the grill where quail and rabbit are grilling over mesquite.
While the beaches of Sayulita and San Pancho are crawling with kaftans and cafes slinging acai bowls, farther up the coast is the much more elusive Chacala, one of our favorite “secret” beaches in Mexico. With its crescent-shaped, palm-fringed cove backed by jade-colored peaks, it’s kind of shocking that Chacala has stayed under the radar for so long. This sleepy village has a smattering of modest hotels and eco-lodges along its sandy lanes; try the cheerful Villa Celeste Chacala for a beach-front stay, or Majahua, tucked back in lush jungle overlooking the cove.
The one must-do thing: Surfers will love La Caleta, which is accessible by hike or boat and is a top spot for breaks. Otherwise, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, snorkeling, animal-spotting, and devouring cheap fish tacos is the name of the game here.
Mexico has its own Grand Canyon and, to be honest, it may be even more impressive than ours. Known as Copper Canyon for its reddish-hued walls, it’s actually a series of six canyons that extend through northern central Mexico. Here you'll find superb hiking trails, small towns to explore, and many of Mexico's indigenous communities.
The one must-do thing: Ride El Chepe, the railroad that runs the duration of the Canyon, from Chihuahua to Los Mochis. You'll get some of the absolute best views of the canyon from a seat on board. Just be sure to pack on a few days at the end to spend on the beaches in Mazatlán.
Jimmy Im has traveled to 115 countries in 10 years. He writes about it. Sometimes. Instagram: jimmyim, Twitter: dieselmad