Want to explore Mexico off the beaten path? Mexico is without doubt an outstanding travel destination, but with so much on offer in such a large country it can prove overwhelming to plan your visit. If you hate the idea of Cancun and feel like exploring some of its lesser-known destinations, this guide is for you! I’ve created a mini-guide of the 10 most rewarding hidden gem destinations you should consider for your Mexico itinerary.

To make it easier, I’ve grouped the destinations into 3 broad regions of the country: Yucatan Peninsula, Southern and Central Mexico. So depending on where you’re focusing your visit, each group can be quite easily combined into one itinerary or joined together in a longer trip.

Hidden Gems of Yucatan Peninsula

Bacalar, Quintana Roo

Bacalar Lagoon - Hidden Gem of Yucatan Mexico

Nestled near the Belize border in the Southeast of Yucatan peninsula, Bacalar feels a world away from the overdeveloped Cancun and Tulum further up the Mayan Riviera. While Bacalar lacks the Caribbean waves and fine sand, the lagoon more than makes up for it in unspoilt beauty. It’s best known as the lagoon of seven colours for the range of hues its crystal clear waters boast (I could only count 4 but that was more than enough). The town of Bacalar is itself designated as a Pueblo Magico (magic town) complete with a fort. But more importantly, plenty of excellent eateries at far more reasonable prices than more touristy resorts. Long may it last!

Bacalar is a place to relax, swim, rent a kayak or paddleboard to explore its coast and enjoy jaw-dropping sunrises and sunsets. And of course, the exquisite fish tacos (El Taco Loco a must – bring mosquito spray, you’re welcome).

Best time to visit is in the dryer season from November to May as heavy rains in the summer can muddy the usually clear waters.

How to get to Bacalar

The lagoon is a little off the way of the main Yucatan track, tucked away near the Belize border. Cars or ADO buses take 4-5 hours from Merida and Cancun, while the nearby Chetumal Airport connects to major cities.

Izamal, Yucatan

Izamal Yucatan

Izamal is best known as a stunningly yellow town (surely the yellowest in the world). The theory I most believe is that its impressive yellow Convento de San Antonio inspired Izamal’s citizens to paint the rest of the town’s buildings yellow hues in honour of the Pope visiting in the 90s. 

Exploring Izamal’s yellow streets is real eye-pleaser and its laidback locals are some of the friendliest I’ve met in Mexico. I particularly recommend visiting in the afternoon to catch the sunset, when the striking colours of Izamal mix with the golden hues of the sky. 

Besides wandering the streets and the convent grounds, Izamal was built around ancient Mayan pyramids whose ruins uniquely stand amidst the town centre to this day. The pyramids Kinich Kakmo and Itzacan can be climbed to enjoy impressive views stretching across the endlessly flat and green Yucatan landscapes. Better still, it’s entirely free – just be sure to check opening times as they tend to close an hour or so before sunset.

How to get to Izamal

The town is an easy day trip from Merida (1 hours’ drive) and Valladolid (1.5 hours). There are plenty of buses from both cities. If making it a day trip you could combine Izamal with some of the majestic cenotes. Talking of which..

Santa Barbara Cenotes, Yucatan

Cenote Santa Barbara - Yucatan's Hidden Gem

If there is one thing unique about Yucatan, it’s the 6,000+ circular swimholes dotted across the peninsula. The harder part is choosing which ones to visit – a balance of something not too touristy but equally nice to actually swim in. We found Cenotes Santa Barbara fit the bill. 

These are 3 Cenotes, each more stunning than the other. The first, Cascabel is a deeper lit cave, the next is a cave cenote with some daylight filtering through. The last cenote, Xoch, is the real gem here: a perfectly round open cenote with azure blue waters and tree roots hanging from the opening above.

What adds to Santa Barbara is the mode of getting to the cenotes from the entrance. A horse-run rail cart is the most original method, while the more animal-conscious will prefer a 10-minute bicycle ride. The cost for everything including a nice lunch is a reasonable $220, including “free” bikes and clean changing facilities. 

How to get to Santa Barbara Cenotes

Driving is best, as you can leave earlier and avoid any tour vans from the Mayan Riviera. It’s easiest to base yourself in Merida as this means just an hours’ drive. Avoid all the people on the road pointing to other Cenotes, just wait for the sign right before reaching the village of Homun.

Hidden Gems of Central Mexico

Guanajuato City, Guanajuato

Guanajuato City - Hidden Gem of Mexico

Guanajuato is a one-of-a-kind city. Colourful, lively, musical and extremely picturesque it still somehow sits in the shadow of the nearby Instagram/expat haunt of San Miguel de Allende. Perfect!

The compact, perfectly walkable city stretches along and between steep hills. Carves through these hills is a fascinating network of road tunnels connecting its neighbourhoods. You can explore most of these tunnels by foot and it’s quite something! Once an affluent mining town, the vividly colourful Guanajuato is brimming with stunning architecture from the golden days and there is an appealing view from every corner.

Once you feel like you’ve explored (read: gotten lost in) every nook and cranny of Guanajuato, there’s plenty more to enjoy. From its “callejoniadas”: student-led nightly musical walks to the silver mines or the mummy museum, showing 19th century “accidental” mummies of local residents. The nearby nature is equally stunning: for hiking or cycling in the local hills, Santa Rosa de Lima is a good base and just a short drive from the centre. 

How to get to Guanajuato

Guanajuato is a 4-hour journey by car or coach from Mexico City, but if you feel like flying, it’s served by the Silao (Bajio) International Airport with flights as far as US.

Morelia, Michoacan

hidden gem travel destinations

The capital of Michoacan is a bit of an enigma and the ultimate hidden gem amongst Mexico’s larger cities. Morelia impresses me as one of the most enjoyable cities to visit, yet it was hard to point out why exactly. Even more surprisingly, while popular with domestic tourists it’s really stayed off the backpacker trail and you’ll rarely stumble across other foreigners exploring the city. All the better!

Morelia boasts a large colonial Centro Historico (old town), dominated by what is surely the most stunning amongst all Mexican cathedrals. Distinct cuisine, lively streetlife, beautiful gardens and even a Roman-esque aqueduct are just some of the things that make Morelia worth a few days’ stay. It also serves as a fantastic base for exploring the underrated Michoacan. (N.B. some parts of Michoacan are not so safe to visit right now, but Morelia very much is and felt as secure as any safe part of Mexico).

How to get to Morelia

Morelia is a 5-hour bus ride away from Mexico City and just 3 hours from Guadalajara. The city boasts its own airport with a number of domestic and US connections.

 

Bernal, Queretaro

Pena de Bernal - Hidden Gem of Mexico

The small “magic town” of Bernal is one of Mexico’s most interesting thanks to its special backdrop – the Peña de Bernal. The monolith rock can be seen as far as an hours’ drive away and is ever the more impressive as you approach Bernal. 

With a great ambience, ample handicrafts, beautiful sunsets and a plethora of great restaurants and local cheeses to try, San Sebastian Bernal is best visited overnight. If you enjoy conquering things, you can hike up the monolith Peña de Bernal in around an hour (be warned, it gets technical at the top but you get a good view from before!)

How to get to Bernal

Bernal can be done in a day from Mexico City (4 hours’ drive), but an overnight stay is better. You could fly into the nearby Queretaro Airport, or base in the classy Queretaro, both 40 mins’ drive.

 

Janitzio, Michoacan

Janitzio Island Michoacan

In the centre of Lake Patzcuaro is a small spiritual island known as the gateway to heaven. One of the original places celebrating Day of the Dead, visiting Janitzio on the sacred November week (if you manage to get on the island!) is a sight to behold. All over the island, candles are lit as a symbol of hope and to guide the dead back to the living world, making it one of the most mystic and special places to witness the festivities.

The rest of the year, Janitzio still warrants a visit. The boat trip from the mainland is a highlight in itself, somewhat contrasted by classic Mexican tunes blasting from the boat speakers. As you approach Janitzio, the distinct statue at its peak gives fictional city vibes, even if it’s only dedicated to a revolutionary leader. As you get near, local fishermen cast their butterfly-shaped nets in search of the local white fish. The countless steps of this traffic-free island invite you up to the statue, past the endless street sellers to catch the panoramic views from the “summit”. It’s a little touristy up top, but that does little to take away from the vibes here.

How to get to Janitzio

The lake island is only an hour from Michoacan’s capital Morelia and works well as a day trip. It’s even easier to base in the pretty Patzcuaro near the lake and take the 25-minute boat across the lake. 

 

Monarch Butterfly Trees, Michoacan

Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Michoacan

One more from the fantastic state of Michoacan. If you ever wanted to bear witness to one of the majestic scenes from an Attenborough-narrated BBC documentary, the Monarch Butterfly Bioshpere Reserve in Michoacan is one of your best bets. 

Every year, millions of the brightly-coloured Monarch butterflies make their way all the way from Canada and US to spend the winter in the relatively warmer climates of Michoacan’s hills. They migrate here over generations and yet, somehow it’s in their DNA to know to go to Mexico, and eventually back. Once they arrive, the monarchs completely cover an area of tall pine trees and when the sun shines, they take off in their full force. It’s absolutely mesmerising.

Photos do the spectacle little justice – this is just something to enjoy in the moment. You should visit from November through to March when the butterflies are actually here for their winter sun. Rush hour tends to be January-February.

How to get to the Monarch Butterfly Reserve

The sanctuary is roughly halfway between Morelia and Mexico City, both of which offer day tours to visit the sanctuary (a hefty 3 hours each way). Private car is certainly doable, but keep in mind the guys near the entrance may charge you what they feel like on the day. So a local driver or a tour may be best here. Either way, there is a fairly steep but relatively short and well-maintained hiking path from the parking to the hill where the butterflies tend to congregate.

 

Hidden Gems of Southern Mexico

Mazunte, Oaxaca

Mazunte Beach, Oaxaca Mexico

While Mexico’s Caribbean coast boasts one of the world’s friendliest and warmest seas, the Pacific Coast of Oaxaca offers a more rugged and unspoilt environment. If you can deal with all the hippies, Mazunte is a real gem of a beach paradise and is good as it gets for pure relaxation. Powerful waves crashing on its picture-perfect sandy shores are the backbeat of this laidback town, and there’s hardly a better place to relax.

There isn’t much to do other than rest, surf, swim (careful with the currents), watch the sunset from Punta Cometa, rest some more and maybe do a tour or two to see the aquatic life. Plenty of gorgeous seafood available, especially pleased with the octopus on offer.

For accommodation, you can’t go wrong with the budget gem that is Posada Ziga, offering ocean-facing views from your terrace hammock.

How to get to Mazunte

From Oaxaca, the most common way is to arrive by bus or “vomit van”. The latter is about 6 hours but so named for its twisty roads through the sierras. Bus takes longer but is also smoother and can be done overnight. The fastest option is a short flight from Oaxaca to Huatulco or Puerto Escondido on a cosy 10-seater plane. Not only does it save you 6+ hours’ but it doubles up as a stunning flight tour over the Sierra Sur. So I’d recommend a flight at least one way. You can fly with AeroTucan or AeroVega, the first has a website but the latter you literally need to call the guy to enquire. 

Otherwise you can fly into Huatulco (what a stunning airport!) or Puerto Escondido from a few other destinations like Mexico City, then take an hour taxi.

 

Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca

Hierve el Agua Pool, Oaxaca

Not far from the culinary mecca of Oaxaca City you can enjoy a unique natural wonder – a petrified waterfall. Over millions of years, the mineral-rich waters gradually sculpted Hierve el Agua into a calcified cliffscape as they dried out. This created an illusion of a “frozen waterfall” rising 50m over the green landscapes below. 

It’s a special sight in its own right, but the natural pools formed in the remaining pockets of water with the backdrop of the picturesque sierra surely make this the ultimate infinity pool. Even if the water is chilly and the swimming can be sharp in places (take care!). You can enjoy a circular 1-hour hike down below the waterfalls to capture them from a different angle.

Hierve el Agua Waterfall Oaxaca - Hidden Gem of Mexico

How to get to Hierve el Agua

It’s is a bumpy 2-hour ride up the hills from Oaxaca City. It can easily be done in a tour, or indeed private car if you’re a confident driver. You can combine the waterfalls with a visit to the nearby Mitla ruins or one of the many mezcal establishments, if you promise not to overdo it with the spirit.


So there’s your best kept Mexican travel secrets list. I hope this hidden gem guide inspired you to include a few of these destinations into your next Mexico trip. Is there any where you’d add to this list of Mexican hidden gem places?

1 Comment

  • Annie
    Posted November 2, 2022

    Wow great info! We want to visit them all but its so hard to decide which parts to miss out on in a 2 week trip.

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