Most North Americans travellers are no strangers to the popular resort towns, all-inclusive hotel resorts and the well-trodden vacation spots of Mexico. With dozens of international flights and even a handful of cruise ships arriving daily at hotspots like Cancun, Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta, it can feel like these places are overrun by tourists and no longer feel authentically “Mexican.”
Combined with the rise in flight deals, even the bustling and sprawling capital, Mexico City (Known colloquially as CDMX) can feel less like an “exotic destination” than it was once was. As any seasoned traveller within Mexico can tell you, it is a beautiful, diverse and safe country that is so much more than its capital or easy-to-get to resort-filled towns!
So where should an intrepid traveller who wants to experience the “real Mexico” go?
Located in the humid southeaster part of the country, it borders Guatemala and boasts seven different ecosystems as a part of its geography. This means dense, lush jungles and mangroves teeming with a diverse and exotic range of plants and animals. From spider monkeys, the coati racoon to the ocelot cat, visitors will be amazed by the unique animals that roam in this part of the world. With gushing waterfalls, picturesque mountain valleys and calm blue lakes, this underexplored state makes it the perfect choice for outdoor lovers to explore and marvel at its nature beauty.
Chiapas also ranks as the second most ethnically diverse state in Mexico. Although the majority are of Mayan decent, each indigenous group boasts its own unique set of customs, cultures and even language. Each of the twelve officially recognized native peoples have their own way of dress, food and traditions. From unique handicrafts to folk arts, it means an interesting history intertwined with Spanish colonial traditions. A visitor will be able to tell right away the diversity of people just from the colorful handcrafted clothes to the wonderfully delightful gastronomy unique to the region.
Speaking of food, it is one of the best reasons to visit this state. Chow down on baked cochitas, the signature dish of the region. This succulent pork meat recipe combines fresh seasoning with oreganos, thymes, tomatoes, onions, garlic and vinegar, all baked in a clay pot until it is tender and ready to be served. Wash it all down with posh, a Mayan spirit drink used during healing rituals made from corn, spring water, sugar and wheat bran. Also known as aguardiente, it is a ceremonial drink consumed during local religious ceremonies and festivals.
Also known as “Barrancas del Cobre,” this group of six canyons is nestled in the Sierra Madre Mountains in the northwestern part of the country. In all my travels within Mexico, I consider this less-known destination to be a must-see gem on par with the Grand Canyon in America. Its impressive vistas are stunning and what travel-brochures and desktop pictures of made of.
The best option to get there is to ride the train known as Ferrocarrill Chihuahua al Pacifico, also affectionately named by locals as “El Chepe.”The train ride itself is also considered one of the most scenic and beautiful in the world, and I don’t disagree.
The train leaves quite early in the morning both ways from coastal city of Los Mochis on the Pacific Ocean to the desert city of Chihuahua close to the New Mexico and Texas border. The train schedules change and when I last visited, it was only running every other day. As such, it’s best to check the website for the most up to date schedule. The 673km journey itself is just as impressive as the destination. With winding tunnels, tranquil lakes and deep mountain valleys, the views are simply spectacular.
Although the journey can be made in one day (about 14 hours in total), my recommendation is to carve out a few days or even just one extra day if you’re short on time in order to explore the off-the-beaten-track towns along the way. From the magnificent views at the Divisadero station overlook, to the charming indigenous village of Creel in the Sierra Madre Occidental, there are opportunities to soak in the beauty of the region. For the more adventurous souls, there are also hiking, zip-lining and horseback riding excursions to do.
Most vacationers to Mexico have heard or been to Cancun, but much fewer have made the boat trek across the Bahia de Mujeres (Bay of Women) in order to explore and appreciate the much more laid-back island on the other side. Formerly a fisherman’s village, it is blessed with beautiful white sand beaches, calm crystal-clear waters and friendly locals.
In contrast with the high-rise condo and big hotel coastline of Cancun, this peaceful island is much less commercialized with far fewer tequila-pounding spring-break partiers. You are more likely to encounter honey-moon couples and golf-cart wheeling locals, which adds to its easygoing charms. For this reason, more expats, artists and musicians are beginning to call this magical island their home. For an idyllic vacation, look no further than the most beautiful island on the Yucatan Peninsula.
Other must-dos on this island include a sea turtle sanctuary filled with exotic marine life and swimming with whale sharks the size of a school bus. It is one of the few places in the world where this super-cool experience is offered. While I’ve heard that these majestic creatures can appear intimidating at first, they are (thankfully) vegetarians and feed on planktons.
Bonus Tip: For those who really, really want to get off the beaten back, check out Isla Holbox, a 40km long island nearly unheard of amongst “mainstream” tourists and travellers. With white sands, warm waters and only 3000-something inhabitants, “doing nothing” is the perfect thing to do in this hidden gem.
Puerto Vallarta is another well-known destination for Americans and Canadian snowbirds, especially due to its close proximity to major west coast cities like LA, San Diego and San Francisco - all offering daily cheap flights to its international airport. With its bustling seawall, dearth of western restaurant chains and gimmicky night clubs, it has arguably lost some of its “authentic” charm.
I spent just over one week here and the time absolutely flew by. From learning to surf for the first time in its beginner-friendly waves to whale watching day-trips, the enjoyable days went by quickly. Between these physical activities, I wandered around the town eating delicious $2 fish tacos and getting flavourful gelatos. A must-do activity is to visit the Marietas Islands – the spectacular Instagram-worthy photo alone is worth the price of admission!
Bonus Tip: Some travellers I’ve met claimed that even Sayulita is becoming “too mainstream,” (I disagree), and that the true Mexican beach town experience left in the state of Nayarit is in the picturesque town of San Pancho. It is a short drive from Sayulita and with only 3000 resident, retains its chilled-out culture. Like many places Mexico, ecotourism is alive and well with many activities such as hiking, snorkelling and kayaking to keep you busy. The food scene here is also supposed to be quite fantastic with a wide selection of fresh, local seafood specialty dishes.
Last but not least is this hidden beach paradise with unspoiled beaches and fishing village charms. It is only 30km south of Puerto Vallarta but might as well be 300km away. There are no chain restaurants, brand name hotels or cruise ship tour groups in sight. Like Sayulita and San Pancho, some say it is Mexico’s last true beach town not overrun but tourists and I can’t disagree.
To get here, you have to take a boat from Los Muertos Beach or charter a private water taxi. Once the boat pulls up to the beach (there are no docks!), bask in the sun as you stroll up and down the blanket of warm golden sands. More importantly, be sure to try the fresh baked homemade pies, coconuts and cheesecakes offered by entrepreneurial locals.
Once you’ve had your share of the local delicacies, grab a lounge chair or fall asleep in one of the many swaying hammocks mounted by the palm trees. Grab a can of Pacifico beer and gently relax to the sound of the waves.
San Miguel de Allende
If there is one city in Mexico that embodies the traditional, colorful colonial town of decades gone by, it’s SMA. It is the home town of Ignacio Allende, a key figure in the Mexican War of Independence. This beautiful city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 and lives up to the hype. With baroque architecture, a lively town plaza, cobble-stone streets and buildings painted every color of the rainbow, it is a can’t-miss destination. It is only a four-hour drive from Mexico City and easy to reach.
For the cultural lovers among us, there is also a thriving art scene filled with musicians, writers and international art students all contributing to the strong and diverse community. There are many cool little art galleries, local crafts stores and boutique clothing shops sprinkled throughout the town. Of course, my favourite part of the city was the food. From delicious and cheap street foods to more traditional Mexican fare like pozole (a traditional meat cabbage soup), there is something for everyone. For those with bigger budgets who want to indulge in a posher dining experience, there are also many trendy and up-scale restaurants and roof-top bars. – Que Rico!
Bonus Tip: Nearby state capital Guanajuato is undoubtable one of the most colorful cities in all of Mexico. Nestled in a mountain valley, the views overlooking the city is stunning and worth a day-trip. I was also a huge fan of the bustling municipal market, which sold delicious fruits, tacos and local dishes at ridiculously cheap prices.
San Louis Potosi
Once a mining town for gold, silver, copper and zinc, it has now transformed into a thriving industrial hub in Central Mexico with a population of over 2.7 million people. It is the capital of the state SLP by the same name. With the automotive industrial playing a big role in its economy, it has attracted a lot of foreign investment and expat workers who now call this place home. Nonetheless, SLP managed to retain its rich history of agriculture with lots of sugar, coffee and tobacco plantations throughout the state.
It’s not the most picturesque place by any stretch and a rarely-visited city in Mexico, but therein lies its appeal. From the traditional historical landmarks like the many cathedrals and plazas in El Centro,to the neat Botanical Garden and Museums of Art and Technology, it is an urban centre that serves as one of the economic hearts of the Mexican economy. It boasts the second largest urban park outside of CDMX called Tangamangaand has a beautiful crater hike merely 40 minutes outside of the city.
For the curious traveller who wants to see what life in the Mexican industrial heartlands is like, SLP offers a wide variety of urban amenities like hotels, bars and countless restaurants with mouth-water regional specialty dishes and international cuisine for food lovers. A can’t-miss dish is the Enchilada Potosinos- A bright orange, spicy enchilada with a topping of cream, served with a side of rice, refried beans and garnished with cilantros, avocados, diced onions and cheese. Yummy!
Bonus: Make a day-trip out to Real de Catorce, an abandoned ghost town with cobble-stoned streets and ruins of colonial buildings. Or check out the Cave of Swallows, the largest cave shaft in the world with a 1,200 ft drop from the opening – mind your step!
For decades, given its physical proximity and convenience, Mexico has always remained an excellent choice for Americans and Canadians looking for a solid vacation and interesting adventure. Its delightful cuisine, diverse geography and mostly-friendly locals make it a worthwhile place to explore. Even for visitors beyond North America, it is also great value destination with its lower cost of living for goods and services outside of the resort towns.
So, there you have it, the best hidden gems of Mexico! Whether you are visiting this beautiful country for two weeks, two months and even longer, I hope you go beyond the well-trodden path and take the time to explore all its other charming spots.
Until next time,