Let me ask you, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of traveling to Mexico?
Trekking through misty cloud forests, soaking up the sun (and solitude) on a remote beach somewhere? Or maybe it’s the typical boozy spring break with Chichén Itzá thrown in.
For my mother, it was just sheer terror and dread – most likely fueled by a masters in Crimonology and a binge weekend of Ozark.
So when I casually mentioned that I was planning to move there, her worst nightmare was one step closer to reality: a kidnapping ordered by El Chapo himself, forced into a life of Mariachi (somehow with the cartel to blame) with nothing but faded memories of my former home.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned after calling Mexico home for a year, it’s that there’s so much more to this incredible country than what most people assume, especially if you veer away from the touristy spots.
Yes, it’s good to have your wits about you when traveling, but it’s just as important to have an open mind. In my experience, I’ve felt safer in some spots here than in my hometown of Ireland, even while traveling in lesser-known places.
If you’re anything like me and want an off-the-beaten-path holiday in Mexico, I’ve listed my favorite places to check out – including advice on where to stay and what not to miss.
This is by no means a definitive list, I’m hoping to check out more places soon. If you know of any places to recommend, just email me, and I’ll be sure to add them to check them out.
San Jose del Pacifico, Oaxaca
It pays to keep your ears (and your plans) open when looking for lesser-known places in Mexico.
Thousands of miles away in Guatemala, I overheard two backpackers whispering about their most memorable travel experiences.
They spoke of a distant, magical place high in the mountains of Oaxaca, and I made sure to scribble the name down in case I ever made it there – San Jose del Pacifico.
“Man they weren’t lying about the views” I muttered to myself minutes after climbing off the bus. Below me, cascading clouds drifted into a distant purple horizon, and it took a minute to register that I was literally higher than the clouds.
It turns out that the magical quality wasn’t all down to the views. Hongos Magicos (magic mushrooms) are the currency here and have deep roots in the indigenous culture.
Deep within the forest, you’ll be able to pick your own mushrooms (under the guidance of a shaman), before embarking on a mystical journey.
Temazcal (sweat lodge) ceremonies, zip-lining, coffee tours and hiking trails are also easy to find for those who’d rather skip the trip. San Jose del Pacifico is also a convenient stop between Oaxaca City and up-and-coming coastal surfer towns like Mazunte.
Where to stay: I stayed in a cabin called El Sueño Atrapado and for 5 bucks a night. It’s basic, but you’ll have the most sublime sunset views (pictured below)
Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca
Hugging the cliffs of the Oaxacan mountains sits Hierve el Agua – a sacred site to the Zapotec, an ancient civilization dating back 2,000 years.
A trick of nature, it first appears to be a frozen waterfall. But, look a bit closer, and you’ll see it's actually a build-up of calcified rock.
On top of this petrified waterfall lies no better view – a freshwater infinity pool at the edge of the world with the deepest colors of turquoise and green.
With plenty of trails through the valley, it’s a hiker’s dream. I’ve even heard of hidden caves around here that you can swim in (if you can find them!).
Where to stay: Nothing beats having the sunrise all to yourself after spending a night in one of the cabins here. You can’t pre-book, just show up and ask for the “Cabañas, por favor”- they should only cost around $10 or so. If you do decide to stay the night, make sure to bring your own food, as there are no shops or restaurants for miles.
How to get here: As with all the best places, this one's a little tough to get to but totally worth it.
If you choose to go the way I did, you can do it for less than $5, with a bus from Oaxaca to Mitla and a heavy reliance on the kindness of strangers to show you the way – just don't be surprised if my directions lead you to the back of a pickup truck with six other people and a donkey!
If you’d rather not leave it up to fate, there are plenty of tour companies in Oaxaca that will take you to Hierve el Agua with a stop in Mitla, a town that’s home to ancient Zapotec ruins.
Guanajuato City, Guanajuato
I might catch some heat about this one, but I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would even want to set foot in over-hyped and overpriced San Miguel de Allende, when Guanajuato is so close!
Winding alleyways, cobblestone streets, and colorful buildings, my heartstrings were no match for Guanajuato. It only took a weekend trip (and a shot of tequila) before I decided to call it home for the next 6 months.
The birthplace of Diego Riviera, the Mexican Revolution, and at one time, the most important mining town on earth, it’s no wonder this vibrant city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One of the best things to do here is to wander the callejónes (alleyways) and see where you end up. Perhaps you’ll even make it to the top of El Pipila - a rebellious reminder of the city’s past. Mercado Hidalgo is worth a visit for hundreds of stalls selling anything from handmade leather goods to fresh dragon fruit.
At night the city really comes alive, Mariachi bands serenade the plazas under the glimmering streetlights, street carts beckon with the smell of fresh tacos. If you’re a Spanish speaker, you shouldn’t miss a callejonada. Through the tunnels and alleyways, you’ll follow a band of university students dressed in medieval costumes, catch a history lesson and sing Mexican classics until your lungs hurt.
For brunch, head to Street Garden – I’ve tried almost everything on the menu and I can confidently say that the owner, Alejandro, seriously puts his heart and soul into your lunch.
The Mummy Museum and Diego Rivera’s house shouldn’t be missed, but if you’re in need of a nature fix, a hike to La Bufa is relatively easy and has gorgeous views.
Where to stay: A roof leak (and a scam) led to my husband, myself, and our cats making a tent inside our bedroom for the first 2 weeks. Learn from my experience and book your accommodation from a trustworthy site. There are a plethora of lovely places on Airbnb for a decent price.
How to get here: The closest airport (Bajío International Airport) sits 35 mins outside the city, with taxis costing roughly $20. You can also hop on a super comfy luxury bus from Mexico City for about $25.
Tip: Tunnel parties, handmade sand carpets, and week-long celebrations are in full swing come November for Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) - I honestly can’t recommend a better place to celebrate.
Once a sleepy fishing village on the Nayarit coast, Sayulita has become a hotspot of Instagram influencers, surfers, and Bohemian wanderers. Not to say they should be skipped, but if you’re looking for authentic Mexican beach towns, your best bet is to head north, beyond San Pancho.
Here, you’ll find crystal clear waters, unspoiled jungle, and the strum of Huichol.
Some of my favorite lesser-known beach spots along this stretch of coast (known as the Riveria Nayarit) are Lo de Marcos, Los Ayala, Punta Raza, La Peñita de Jaltemba, and Chacala.
Tons of islands dot the coastline of Nayarit, but for something a little different, Mecaltitan should be on your list. It’s a man-made island known as the Mexican Venice and claims to be the origin of the Aztec people.
Another place that might pique your curiosity is Islas Marias, it’s an archipelago home to tons of wildlife and remains relatively untouched by humans, besides the prison…
Mexico’s version of Alcatraz sits on the largest of the four islands and was a notorious penal colony from 1905 to 2019. Nowadays, it’s transformed into an ecotourism hub, hoping to attract scuba divers and nature enthusiasts.
Where to stay: There are a few options for accommodation all along the coast, mostly family-run hotels and B&Bs. If you’d rather book something online, you can’t go wrong with this hidden cabin in Chacala or a beachfront casita in Los Ayala.
How to get here: I definitely recommend renting a car in Puerto Vallarta and driving up. All the beaches are super close to one another, making it an easy day trip up the coast.
La Huasteca Potosina, Hidalgo
Roaring waterfalls, boundless jungle, and a glimpse into the ancient roots of the Huastec await the curious traveler looking to explore this far-flung area of Mexico.
La Huasteca takes its name from the Huastec people, an indigenous community dating back to the 10th century BCE. Although small, no words could possibly describe the magic of this tiny region. I seriously can’t believe that it's still a blank spot on most travelers' maps.
A glorious display of the true power of nature, The Tamul Waterfalls reign above the Santa Marta river, standing 340 ft/103 meters tall.
Since it’s a 2-hour paddle up the river, most travelers tend to hit the tour companies for this one. But you can also trek to the falls at your own pace (it’s about a 30-min hike) and still get there before the tours do.
Although Tamul is clearly the poster child for tourism here, there are plenty of more waterfalls that deserve to be mentioned.
Minas Viejas makes it easy to channel your inner Indiana Jones by rappelling down a rock face next to the falls. I’m not sure what’s cooler, that or riding a bicycle zip line across the falls of Micos.
Puente de Dios is a sunken oasis with dazzling blue waters that offers a more relaxing atmosphere compared to some other waterfalls in the region.
For those unfamiliar with the area, it can be a little confusing to plan out a trip. But follow this map I’ve created (with a few more thrown in) and you’ll be chasing waterfalls faster in no time!
A visit to Edward James’ garden, La Pozas, is like something out of a fantasy novel, with a labyrinth of dreamlike sculptures peeking through the jungle.
There are also some pretty cool caves to check out too, like the Cave of the Huahuas and the Cave of Swallows – at dawn local tourists flock to see thousands of birds fly skyward.
Most travelers base themselves in Ciudad Valle or the town of Aquismón. Both are close to the main spots I’ve mentioned, and the Archeological ruins of Tamtoc. You’ve also got the Sierra del Abra Tanchipa Biosphere Reserve where you might get lucky and spot a jaguar, puma, or even a Chupacabra!
Where to stay: To truly immerse yourself in all the region’s beauty and customs, a stay in a typical Huastecan hut surrounded by jungle is an experience second to none. The community project of Aldea Huasteca has built a haven using natural materials and the wisdom of their ancestors, and is conveniently located near many of the highlights.
How to get here: The easiest way is to fly into the capital of the region, San Luis Potosí, a lovely town that deserves a few days of its own, and then take the 4-5 hours bus to Ciudad Valles.
If you're coming from Mexico City, you can fly to the beachside city of Tampico for around $40 one way and then take a 2hr bus to Ciudad Valle. You can also take an overnight bus which leaves twice per day from the Terminal Norte station.
For lovers of all things mystical, I give you…Catemaco.
In the shadowy streets, whispers can be heard of wisdom and word.
“Don't go into the woods during a New Moon.” warns a local. Advice that I took to heart, despite any lingering superstitions and doubts.
Here, religion and magic intertwine, and the lines between fact and folklore are cryptic at best. This is the lakeside town that holds potions and poppets in high regard.
Actually, it’s no secret that local (and not so local) high profile politicians and celebrities, seek the help of Catemaco’s brujas, and maybe a little black magic, to gain advantage. Veracruz's governor, Fidel Herrera Beltran, actually pushed for a national school for sorcery – and remains a regular attendee at the National Congress of Sorcerers – yes, that’s really a thing!
The roots of this town’s curious obsession are the result of the arrival of Cubans and Haitians during the Conquest, forming a peculiar combo of catholic faith, voodoo, Santeria, and indigenous culture.
Witching is big business here. Tourists that come take part in many offerings, including spiritual, cleanses, mediumship, and spell work.
If a full-on voodoo ceremony seems like a step too far, Catemaco still has lots to offer thanks to its proximity to the Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve. Visitors can swim in its natural waterfalls, hike through the thick jungle, and, with a guide, learn about the natural healing properties of native plants.
Monkey Island also shouldn’t be missed, just hop on a boat across the lake and enjoy the day bird watching with some long-distant cousins.
A traditional mud bath makes it easy to sit back, relax and drink in the vibe of this weird and wonderful corner of Mexico.
How to get here: There are a few options to get here depending on where you are, Catemaco is 3.5hrs south of Veracruz City, and a bus will cost you around $12.
If you don’t mind the journey though, you can take a bus from Mexico City, which takes around 8.5hrs and costs $30. You could also fly directly to Veracruz for around the same price and then take the bus to Catemaco.
Costa Maya, Quintana Roo
While most travelers make a bee-line to bask on the beaches of Tulum and Playa del Carmen, if you keep driving south, you’ll find a piece of Quintana Roo all to yourself. It’s a coastal route called Costa Maya, stretching from Tulum all the way to Chetumal.
Bordering Belize, this area of Quintana Roo still flies under most tourists’ radar and is filled to the brim with lesser-known archaeological gems and secluded beaches.
The city of Chetumal is the gateway to this stunning region and is a melting pot of traditions blending customs of Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese, and African communities. Its bay is a manatee sanctuary and extends all the way to Laguna Guerrero.
Starting in the lush green mangroves of Sian Ka’an, 300 species of birds, pumas, jaguars, and dolphins all call this UNESCO World Heritage Site home. The most popular way to visit is by boat tour that can be organized in Tulum, Playa del Carmen, or Chetumal.
Deep within the jungle canopy, you'll find the ruins of Dzibanché, Kinichná, and Kohunlich. Elaborate etchings hint at a world long thought forgotten, ruled by ancient rituals and a bewildering number of gods.
A 30-min drive from Chetumal brings you to Laguna Bacalar (pictured below), known for its 7 shades of milky blue waters and Bohemian aesthetic. And, although many backpackers are familiar with Bacalar, it’s still less traveled compared to other touristy spots in Mexico. Popular activities include sunset kayaking, ATV tours, and cenote swimming. For a similar backdrop minus the crowds, head to Laguna Milagros.
The beaches along this coast from Xpu Ha to Xcalak still radiate authentic Caribbean charm. And if I could share just a few of my favorite secret spots they'd be Isla Owen, Punta Herrero, and Placer.
Divers fall in love with Mahahual for its coral reef, the second largest in the world. Sunken ships from centuries past are now home to marine life like rays, eels, turtles, and sharks.
Where to stay: Seeing as this is a pretty big stretch of coastline, you’ve got a lot of options. From a beachside suite tucked away on El Placer, to eco-cabins on a private beach in Mahahual, it’s easy to find something to suit. And if you’ve got the extra cash to spare, you can live out a fairytale fantasy in Laguna Bacalar.
How to get here: A popular option is to fly into Playa del Carmen, renting a car, and making your way down the coast, ending in Xcalak.
Valle de Bravo, Estado de México
For those in the know, Valle de Bravo is a welcome relief from the madness of Mexico City. Only a two-hour drive and you’re smack in the middle of a pine-clad valley, overlooking Lago Avandaro. Seamlessly woven into the town’s architecture and art, you’ll find a curious fusion of both Aztec and colonial influences.
The lake traditionally allures affluent chilangos (residents of Mexico City) looking for a weekend escape. Luckily, you don’t have to be a Telenovela star to enjoy everything on offer here; it’s still relatively inexpensive compared to some spots in Mexico.
Nature is king in this woodland refuge and some popular activities include kayaking, sailing, and water-skiing.
Hiking trails are endless with plenty of waterfalls and beautiful views, and if you’ve ever wanted to try paragliding, there’s no better place. In January, paragliders from all over the world flock to compete in the Monarca Open.
In winter, hike or horseback ride to Piedra Herradura Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. You’ll be witness to thousands of monarch butterflies making their annual migration from Canada to Mexico - it’s truly magical.
How to get here: The closest airport is Mexico City. From there, you can either rent a car and drive 2 hours or take a 3hr bus ride from Terminal Poniente in Mexico City.