Note: The travel described here took place before the COVID-19 pandemic. Mexico is open to visitors as of 16 December, but it's still important to take precautions. Learn about travel restrictions in Mexico due to COVID-19.
Mexico is much more than its resort towns of Cancún, Puerto Vallarta, and Los Cabos – and even than it’s chaotic but cool capital city. Here are six ways to get off the tourist trail and explore some lesser-known areas of Mexico.
Give Sayulita a miss and head to San Pancho instead. This beach town, just north of its more famous neighbor, is officially named San Francisco – it’s a socially-conscious town with robust environmental and social programs. The EntreAmigos Community Center offers educational opportunities to the local community and makes impressive efforts to recycle – I even bought some high-quality souvenirs made from repurposed materials during my visit. The town has a children's circus that was founded as a joint effort between EntreAmigos and the Cirque du Soleil, which donated costumes and equipment in 2011 and has remained involved ever since. A massive polo field is one more thing that sets San Pancho apart, and its laidback vibe is reminiscent of Sayulita in the late 1960s when that town was first discovered by international surfers.
Most visitors to Celestún are daytrippers arriving from the famous colonial city of Mérida, but spending at least a night or two at this quiet fishing village will allow you time here once the crowds have gone. Celestún’s main draw is its flamingo population. Scores of birds descend to the shallow waters of the Celestún Biosphere Reserve to feed twice a day – early morning and before sundown – so try to arrive the day before and get up early to see this spectacle. I stayed at a beachfront property overlooking turquoise waters, where the owners arranged a boat tour for me to marvel at the sight of thousands of flamingoes forming a straight horizontal line as they flew. (Confession: I didn’t realize they could fly!). Traversing mangroves on the boat tour is great fun, and you can round off the day enjoying fresh seafood on the cheap at the many casual restaurants right on the beach.
Blue agave fields will greet you long before you arrive in Tequila, an exciting and picturesque town in Jalisco that’s part of the Magical Towns (Pueblos Magicos) program (towns recognized by the Mexican Government for their beauty, history, or legends). Tequila’s famous namesake beverage needs no introduction, and you’ll want to allow some time for touring José Cuervo, Casa Herradura, and La Cofradía to taste different versions of the spirit. However, there’s a lot more to Tequila than tequila. Its colonial architecture is so well-maintained that it looks like it belongs in a movie set. (When I was there, I saw lots of brides and grooms doing photoshoots, taking advantage of the ubiquitous beautiful backdrops.) This gem of a town also has a stately cultural center that opened in 2018 – the Centro Cultural Juan Beckmann Gallardo.
Known for its huge monolith, allegedly the third-largest in the world, Bernal is another one of Mexico’s 132 Magical Towns. Besides hiking and climbing, this scenic town is great as a base to explore the wine and cheese route in the state of Querétaro. While there are many wineries in the area, De Cote was my favorite, as you can walk for what felt like miles between the rows of vines and picnic tables offer a rural-chic dining experience. At Bocanegra Cava de Quesos, order a cheese platter and a bottle of wine to enjoy on the deck and buy a couple of blocks of cheese to take with you.
An adventure lover’s dream, La Huasteca region comprises northern Veracruz, southern Tamaulipas, and parts of San Luis Potosí, Puebla, and Hidalgo. I traveled around Huasteca Potosina, an area found in San Luis Potosí that offers great outdoor exploring. The Tamul Waterfall is an otherworldly vision of turquoise waters perfect for canoeing, while at the Micos Waterfalls you can bike on a zip line over the falls.
Though I had seen fireflies before, as a kid, the Firefly Sanctuary in Tlaxcala was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I was a bit nervous about venturing into the woods at night in total darkness – you can’t have so much as a cell-phone light on, to avoid scaring away the fireflies – but once there, my eyes quickly adapted and the trees on both sides of the path began lighting up. If any moonlight starts filtering through the clouds, the fireflies are quick to disappear, so an overcast and slightly rainy night is best. The season runs from June to the beginning of August and the woods do get crowded, but the experience is organized in small groups that venture into different parts of the woods with a guide, and visitors are so mesmerized by the fireflies that they mostly keep silent. I found it absolutely magical.
Discover Mexico’s most amazing surf breaks, from hidden spots in northern Baja to the famous “Mexican Pipeline” in Oaxaca.
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