Mexico is an internationally recognized travel destination, popular not only among international tourists but also locals who will flock from each corner of the country to virtually any place that offers an escape from ordinary, mundane life.
Now that I live here, I am exploring all these Mexico hidden gems little by little, something I would have never thought about doing when I was living overseas. Friends and coworkers are opening my eyes to many wonderful Mexican destinations, away from the typical Riviera Maya locations that international tourists are usually drawn to. I have learnt that Mexicans love to vacay in their own country, but most of them prefer destinations that are less crowded and commercialised. (Although nobody can resist the convenience of Playa del Carmen when trying to do a weekend getaway.) As a result, off the beaten path destinations in Mexico are often hidden gems in the eyes of international travellers, waiting to be discovered by those seeking a deeper connection with the country’s soul.
The purpose of this post about Mexican off the beaten track destinations is to offer a responsible travel alternative beyond the confines of sprawling resorts and international chains, which have an environmental impact on the delicate ecosystems in which they have settled.
It is also a great opportunity for those seeking a more immersive experience, venturing into the less-frequented corners of Mexico reveals captivating local traditions, unspoiled natural beauty, and genuine hospitality.
This guide delves into three distinct categories of off-the-radar destinations: beachy havens, mountains, and colonial cities. Each category unveils a unique facet of Mexico’s diverse landscape and rich cultural heritage ad has been carefully curated and created by other travel bloggers who have visited each of these places, including myself.
Read on, and enjoy!
Mexico Hidden gems by the beach
Contribution by Patricia of Spanish Nomad
Nestled amidst the lush jungles of Quintana Roo, rests the captivating town of Bacalar, a hidden gem that has remained largely untouched by the mass tourism that has swept across other parts of the famous state. Unfortunately, that may change with the construction of the Maya Train, which I fear might bring hordes of tourists to this tranquil area.
The appeal of Bacalar lies mainly in its laid back atmosphere and its mesmerising lagoon, a combo very difficult to resist. It is an ideal destination for travellers seeking authenticity, tranquillity, and a connection with nature.
The one thing to do in Bacalar is enjoy its pristine lagoon in any form you fancy. You can book tours by boat or paddle board or you can rent a kayak. You can find several businesses on the streets around the main square and also along the lagoon, although you can also book online on platforms such as Aviator. Alternatively, you can enjoy the lagoon by going to a beach club or a town pontoon. The beach clubs are free as long as you spend your money there and then you can stay for as long as you want on their premises.
I stayed in Bacalar for 5 days after a whole week of activities in Mexico City and I thought it was plenty of time to slow down and reconnect. When I was not enjoying the turquoise water lagoon, I walked around town, visited the fort and admired -and even bought- some of the crafts that are sold at the small markets and galleries.
Some sustainable practices you can carry out while in Bacalar is to carry a trash bag with you if you decide to go to the “balnearios” or a beach area and choose to visit the lagoon with a non motorised vehicle.
Isla Holbox, Quintana Roo
Contribution by Hannah & Adam Lukaszewicz of Getting Stamped
Isla Holbox is a vibrant island paradise situated off the northeastern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. Renowned for its stunning natural beauty and diverse wildlife, Isla Holbox offers an enchanting escape for those who love the Caribbean but not so much the crowds.
During our stay, Isla Holbox allowed us to feel very safe due to the lack of tourists compared to the bustling Riviera Maya. With its peaceful and laid-back ambience, the island is perfect for exploring; it truly felt like we had found a hidden gem. There are no cars allowed (except work vehicles), so we enjoyed exploring by foot compared to other regions in the Yucatan Peninsula.
During the day, there is a variety of boat tours to choose from that offer incredible opportunities to witness wildlife, such as whale sharks. You can also swim in clear turquoise waters below the surface of Yalahau Cenote.
A must-do is to go for a walk along the seemingly never-ending sandbar beach at Las Nubes. Stretching far into the distance, the sandbank goes for miles and miles on the way from the beach hotels all the way to Mosquito Point. Head out in the morning at low tide to truly enjoy the stunning scenery and views and plan your time on the sandbar around the tides.
In the evening, we enjoyed exploring the downtown area which was filled with vibrant murals, street art, and monuments that contribute to the relaxing vibe of Isla Holbox. Delight your taste buds with authentic Mexican cuisine at the beach bars and restaurants that offer amazing sunset views of the Gulf of Mexico, or head to the Pueblo in the centre of town to enjoy street foods and socialize with the locals.
I recommend Holbox to travellers who enjoy adventure travel in authentic destinations where you can get to know the locals. Isla Holbox is a cute small Mexican town that is growing in popularity with tourists but is fairly raw and underdeveloped.
Getting to the island isn’t necessarily hard or long, but it does take time and several modes of transport. You either have to take the 15-minute ferry from Chilaquila or take a private flight. We typically rent a car in Cancun and then park right by the ferry for 100 pesos a day. Another option is taking the ADO bus or taking a shuttle, either shared or private.
Islas Marías, Nayarit
Contribution by Jessica from Uprooted Traveler
Islas Marias is an incredibly unique destination in the state of Nayarit, along the Pacific coastline. This island, 60 miles offshore, was actually used as a Mexican federal prison from 1905 until it was closed in 2019. In addition to serving as a penal colony, the island also enjoys unique wildlife because of its remoteness, including over 15 species found nowhere else on the planet, and was named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2010.
Since the prison’s closure, the Mexican government has turned the island into an ecotourism destination, offering a quirky mix of rugged natural beauty, unique wildlife, and prison history. For example, you can hike up to watch the sunrise at the feet of the Christ the Redeemer statue that was built by the prisoners on one of the tallest hills on the island, with stunning panoramic views of the surrounding forests and the Pacific Ocean. My favourite experience on the island was time on Chapingo Beach, a pristine beach with incredibly warm and crystal clear water, that was a welcome reprieve from the steamy sun. Just make sure to wear reef safe sunscreen while you’re in the water—scientists are still cataloguing the unique species found here!
All visitors are assigned a tour guide (who is actually a naval officer), who escorts you around on a predetermined itinerary. Accordingly, this is the perfect destination for travellers who want to leave planning up to somebody else. Alternatively, given the unique aspects of the island, it’s also awesome for history buffs, bird watchers, or anyone who loves offbeat travel experiences.
Contribution by Andrew of Flights and Footsteps
Sayulita is a relaxed little village about 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta. It’s a destination that’s growing in population amongst travellers who aren’t looking for the typical tourist destinations and activities.
While the plane to Puerto Vallarta might be filled with families and couples travelling to the popular tourist destination, the slow travellers and solo travellers are likely headed to Sayulita. I met three other solo travellers on the flight and at the airport. All three of them were heading to Sayulita with me!
The secret is out that Sayulita is the new hotspot and one of the most unique places to visit near Puerto Vallarta. The next Tulum? Could be!
If you’re looking for a bit of adventure, you’ll be excited to find out that Sayulita is a great spot for surfing! It’s north of Banderas Bay, so the action on the waves is much more than in Puerto Vallarta.
The village is much quieter than its big neighbour to the south, so it’s a great place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the bigger city.
You’ll also get a bigger taste of immersion in Sayulita, as far fewer people speak English. The dining choices will be more authentic in Sayulita too, with some great options for fresh seafood! The ceviches and aguachiles are some of the most popular dishes in the area.
Lagunas de Chacahua National Park, Oaxaca
By Zoe of Zoe Goes Places
Spending a week in Chacahua was one of the highlights of my almost 5-month trip in Mexico. The long golden sand beach, the relaxing vibe and the complete disconnect from the rest of the world (since phone signal is really bad) all add to the allure of this little-known gem on the Oaxaca coast.
Although the bioluminescence boat trips out into the lagoons are understandably popular, especially at new moon. My highlight of the trip was climbing to the top of the lighthouse for incredible views over the vast and mostly untouched beaches and fierce Pacific coast waves.
Chacahua is perfect for backpackers and vacationing visitors who don’t mind forgoing a couple of luxuries for a few days. Hot water and air conditioning might be lacking but you’ll get sunshine, laidback vibes and total relaxation.
That said, Chacahua is remote. Everything arrives (and leaves) by boat and it’s very rustic. Because of this supporting local businesses is important but as is preserving the magic of this place, don’t leave trash and treat the people with respect. Eat out, drink out, take trips with locals and book a few surfing lessons.
With no ATM on the island, make sure you bring enough cash to cover your planned trip and some extra in case of emergencies or changes in your plans. The exceptionally limited internet and coverage means you should also let people know you’ll be off-grid for a few days. Other than that, pack sunscreen and have the best time!
Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca
Contribution by Ashlea J. Russell of She Roams About
Tucked away on the Pacific coast of Mexico is the gorgeous, hidden beach town of Puerto Escondido. Although Puerto Escondido usually draws a relaxed surfer crowd, it’s the perfect place to escape for anyone seeking adventure.
Because Puerto Escondido is still under the travel radar, I was happy to find that it maintains much of the authentic Mexican charm I love so much.
Whether you’re looking for a thrill like catching waves in the Mexican pipeline or prefer something more relaxed like seeing bioluminescence by moonlight, there is so much to do and see in Puerto Escondido.
Puerto Escondido’s focus on eco tourism makes it a great place to travel responsibly. I’ll never forget the feeling of releasing baby turtles from the local sanctuary or the peace that comes from floating through a mangrove to the sound of birdsong, not to mention the local ritual of watching the most beautiful sunsets on the beach every night.
This town is perfect for anyone looking to relax and explore in stunning natural beauty but it’s not all horseback riding and hot springs. Puerto Escondido also has a vibrant food and drink scene. I still think about the incredible meal I had at Almoraduz, a modern Oaxaca restaurant with a focus on local ingredients and traditional flavours. And visiting an ancestral mezcal distillery was one of the most fun days I’ve ever had in Mexico.
I highly recommend you make your way to Puerto Escondido while it’s still a hidden gem before everyone else beats you to it.
Yucatan State Coast
Contributed by Patricia of Spanish Nomad
The coastline of the Yucatan state expands for 370 kilometres on the Gulf of Mexico. It is not considered the Caribbean offers a tranquil escape from the bustling Riviera Maya. Unlike its glamorous neighbour, the Yucatan Coast embraces a laid-back atmosphere, characterized by unspoiled beaches, charming fishing villages, and a slower pace of life.
I stayed in Puerto Telchac for a week and I loved the tranquillity of the seaside. The Airbnb was fully serviced and we opted for a cook, a local girl who went to the market each day and cooked for us local dishes. Not only did she cook delicious food, it was very interesting and pleasant to engage in conversation with her. It was an amazing experience to be isolated from it all and be so close to nature and therefore I spent most of my days relaxing and gathering conch shells from the sea.
Other things that made some of my days more adventurous were finding hidden gems around the area like Laguna Rosada, the flamingo colonies at Las Coloradas or a boat tour in Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve where you can spot different animals like crocodiles and a wide variety of bird species. The Archaeological area of Xcambó is also close by, although I did not visit it (was too busy being lazy).
If you don´t mind driving for 1 or 2 hours you can also drive inland and visit some little villages and cenotes.
Wherever you go, don’t forget to bring trash bags with you, the places you visit will probably not have rubbish bins.
Off the beaten path Mexico destinations for nature lovers
Contribution by Isabella from Let’s Travel to Mexico
Hidalgo state is one of the most underrated regions of Mexico and yet full of incredible natural wonders and ancient historical sites. I have been on a road trip in this region of Mexico by myself and I had a blast walking around colourful Pueblos Magicos, the Mexican so-called magic town, full of charm and character.
I learned about their history and the Precolombian civilization that inhabited this area, but also about the mining tradition, the local arts and crafts, and their delicious food.
The state of Hidalgo has something to offer for every kind of traveller especially those who love nature and photography.
The region is also famous for its breathtaking natural wonders, from the spectacular Grutas de Tolantongo, the most popular Hotsrping in Mexico, to the mystical archaeological site of Tula, where ancient ruins stand testament to the region’s pre-Hispanic heritage. Other amazing places to visit are Mineral del Chico or the majestic Basaltic Prism of Huasca de Ocampo.
I have fond memories of the local guides who took me around and I met most of them by talking to the people on the street, or in the local tourist offices.
The best experience was a young guide who approached me while I was photographing the church in the town of Real del Monte and offered me a tour of a unique place. He sounded very genuine and I accepted. We drove in my car to a place that I would have never found on my own where natural rock formations formed a sort of labyrinth.
One of the most sustainable ways to travel, besides respecting the natural environment is supporting the local people and their small business, like this young man who was trying to make himself a reputation as a guide.
Contribution by Julien of Cultures Traveled
When my father and I took off for a road trip through La Huasteca Potosina, I knew we were about to discover an under the radar destination in Mexico. From swimming through La Puente de Dios to watching thousands of birds fly out of Sotano de las Golondrinas, this road trip adventure has something for everyone.
Primarily located in the state of San Luis Potosi, La Huasteca Potosina is a paradise for nature loving travellers. Its tropical climate features gorgeous blue waterfalls and rivers, bird watching, and adventurous activities.
My favourite adventure in Huasteca Potosina was swimming through the piercing blue waters of The Bridge of God into a swimming hole surrounded by lush plants. Other highlights of our adventure through the area included Tamul Waterfall, Minas Viejas, Salto del Agua, and the Cave of Swallows. We also enjoyed stepping into the fantastical mind of Edward James while touring his surrealist garden near Xilitla.
Huasteca Potosina is the type of place you should take your time to explore whether you have one week or one month to spend in the area. I highly recommend renting a car to fully discover the region since you will otherwise need to book a tour to get to most of the attractions located in Huasteca Potosina. This is easily one of the top hidden gems in Mexico.
Santiago Apoala, Oaxaca
Contribution by Annie of Your Friend the Nomad
Nestled in a vibrant valley in the Oaxacan countryside, the small village of Santiago Apoala is home to some of the best hiking and most stunning waterfalls in the region.
While living in Oaxaca City, I had the privilege of spending an unforgettable day hiking and swimming in and around this charming town. The town itself is home to about 200 people, mostly of indigenous Mixteca descent. It is a favourite camping and hiking spot for Oaxacans from neighbouring towns and villages, but largely undiscovered by international travellers.
On a hot day, the best thing to do in Santiago Apoala is to swim in the turquoise blue pools beneath the waterfalls. Hike alongside the river through the town and farmland, stopping at waterfalls along the way. Don’t miss Cola de Serpiente, the most iconic Santiago Apoala waterfall, which is about a half mile outside of town. If you’re willing to hike longer, you’ll discover smaller, more private waterfalls and swimming holes.
No matter what you plan to do in Santiago Apoala, make sure your first stop is the town’s ecotourism office. You’re required to register and pay a small visitor fee before exploring the town and surrounding nature. You’ll also have the option to hire a local guide, which is highly recommended.
Most of Santiago Apoala’s hikes are moderately difficult. They are short (1-3 miles), but the trails can be rugged and sometimes ascend quickly. With this in mind, I recommend Santiago Apoala to active travellers who don’t mind breaking a sweat for a breathtaking view or a rewarding swim beneath a waterfall.
Contributed by Andy from Explore with Finesse
Tuxtla Gutiérrez, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, is a great place to experience Mexican culture. This off-the-beaten-path destination is a great place for foodies and photographers who enjoy capturing historic architecture and natural views. There are plenty of attractions in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, including taking a trip to Cañón del Sumidero. This is a large canyon carved by the Grijalva River that offers stunning views of tall cliffs, waterfalls, and unique wildlife. Within the city, you can also visit Parque de la Marimba, where the local Marimba bands come to play, for an authentic cultural experience. Check out the nearby colonial town of Chiapa de la Corza to learn more about its cultural heritage and historical significance.
I really enjoyed this city because it felt very authentic. My favourite part of coming to visit was trying the different foods. The funniest memory I had was going to a taco shop and ordering tacos de ubre. I didn’t know what kind of meat this was, so I wanted to try something new. The meat was very chewy, and I later found out that I ordered cow udder tacos. It wasn’t my favourite dish, but it was worth experiencing!
When you visit, you will find street vendors on every corner. If you are interested in buying something, it is good to negotiate the price, but also be generous. While you could save a few extra dollars, that person relies on that money to live.
Mexican colonial cities and charming towns
Contributed by Noel of Visit Spain and Mediterranean
Most visitors to Mexico wouldn’t even know where Aguascalientes is on the tourist map and it typically isn’t. But with direct flights coming in from Los Angeles, it makes it a viable city to explore most of the northern parts of Mexico. Surprisingly, the old town of Aguascalientes is really attractive and historic to experience. With a grand plaza with the main cathedral overlooking the plaza, there are many beautiful buildings and Spanish colonial buildings surrounding the square and many other promenades, historic districts and markets and places of interest.
I was pleasantly surprised when I visited on a short stay opting for a quick trip back to Los Angeles and was surprised to find so much culture, a historic district filled with amazing architectural treasures and many different walking areas with museums, walking promenades, shops and markets along with a myriad of cafes, bars and coffee shops to hang out and just people watch.
Aguascalientes really is an undiscovered gem and worth the effort if you are travelling through the northern part of Mexico or just in transit from the USA. It really feels like a Spanish colonial city without all the tourist attractions, very well preserved, extremely clean and safe to explore on your own.
Contributed by Daria from the Discovery Nut
Morelia is the capital of Michoacán and one of Mexico’s hidden gems where you can get off the beaten track and explore one of the best up-and-coming destinations in the country.
Morelia is a perfect place to Celebrate the Day of the Dead, immerse yourself in Mexico’s culture and save on your trip because, apart from offering tons of culture and history, Morelia is also a great budget destination.
Whether you want to admire Morelia’s ornate cathedral, visit one of the free museums in the city or grab some candy in the market, you will have a lot of fun in this city.
Morelia’s historic centre is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, with stunning baroque and neoclassical architecture, but it’s nowhere near as busy as some of the most popular destinations in the country. Spend some time exploring the streets of Morelia and admiring its beautiful style.
In addition, you can catch a bus to Patzcuaro, Janitzeo and Santa Clara Del Cobre, beautiful Pueblos Magicos where you can learn fascinating history, enjoy a slow-paced life and get some artisan souvenirs.
You can catch a bus from Mexico City to Morelia that departs several times per day or catch a flight to Morelia Airport that has connections from Mexico and the United States.
Mexico, with its breathtaking landscapes, rich cultural heritage, and warm hospitality, beckons travellers seeking a respite from the ordinary. Beyond the bustling resorts and well-trodden tourist routes, a realm of hidden gems awaits – tranquil beaches, charming colonial towns, and awe-inspiring natural wonders. By venturing into these lesser-known corners of Mexico, travellers can embark on a journey of discovery, immersing themselves in the country’s authentic essence and forging genuine connections with the local people. As you explore these Mexico hidden gems, let the tranquillity of the surroundings wash over you, and allow yourself to truly connect with the heart of Mexico.