Mexico is such an easy getaway for those of us living in the Americas, and even from Europe. Flights are cheap. Most major airports offer direct flights to popular large cities like Cancun and Mexico City, from which travelers can begin their explorations. But Mexico is a large country. The country is approximately three times the size of the state of Texas, with a population approximately five times greater than Texas. While many of us are more familiar with places like Cancun or have perhaps stopped in the country while on a cruise, there is so much culture, history, and diversity to Mexico! So how do you even begin to choose the best places to visit in Mexico?
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Are you looking for somewhere along the west coast of the country to enjoy the Pacific Ocean? Or perhaps you’d like to take an inexpensive flight to Cancun but then want to find nearby, less-touristy destinations? Or you really want to immerse yourself in the rich culture and heritage of the Mexican people by visiting one of the towns and cities off-the-beaten-path? Whatever your travel preference, you’re sure to find a favorite amongst this list of best places to visit in Mexico, scroll down for all our recommendations!
BEST PLACES TO VISIT ALONG MEXICO’S WEST COAST
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Loreto is one of Mexico’s Pueblos mágicos and is thought to be the first human settlement in Baja California Sur. The Jesuit mission in Loreto was founded in 1697 and the bell tower is still there giving Loreto’s plaza an Old Spain vibe. In town you should try out the local cuisine, there are several terrific restaurants and the area is famous for its chocolate clams. Venture into the Sierra de San Francisco to check out the paintings and petroglyphs at the UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can visit by 4 wheel drive and hike partway, or take a mule tour to the site. There are also places for horseback riding and ATV tours through the desert.
If you visit in January – March you’ll find out why the area is known as the Whale Nursery. You can charter a panga to take you offshore to see blue whales, grey whales, humpbacks, dolphins, and sea lions. 5 minutes from shore and we were surrounded by blue whales, and we had a terrific view of a humpback breaching over and over. Head over to Coronado Island’s wildlife refuge boasting incredible rock formations on the eastern side which is the sea lions habitat. The diverse marine life makes this a great place for snorkeling and scuba diving, and the calm bays are perfect for swimming, kayaking, and paddle-boarding. We took a kayak out from shore and after just a few minutes of paddling, we had a 20’ whale shark under us.
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Puerto Vallarta is the ultimate resort destination if you are looking to enjoy some relaxation and fun by the beach. This beautiful coastal town with laidback vibes offers a little something for everyone.
Located on Mexico’s Pacific coast, in the state of Jalisco, Puerto Vallarta sits along beautiful beaches, with its iconic cobblestone city centre. Here you will see eye-catching sculptures and modern art scattered alongside historic buildings and a variety of shops and market stalls.
If visiting with kids, you will enjoy the chance to experience the water sports and family-friendly attractions on offer. For adults, there is some fantastic nightlife too, with bars, nightclubs, and restaurants staying open late.
Don’t miss the chance to take a day trip to Las Caletas Beach Hideaway. This private island offers a full day of fun with water sports, ziplining, unique wildlife encounters and plenty of kid-friendly activities too. There are bars scattered all around the island and delicious meals too. Plus the boat ride there and back is the highlight with crew entertaining guests the whole way.
Puerto Vallarta is a beautiful place, away from the hustle and bustle of bigger cities. It appeals to anyone looking for a relaxing beach escape or who wants a little extra adventure too.
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Although Puerto Escondido — which means “Hidden Port” in Spanish — may not be as under-the-radar as it was in the past, its growing popularity hasn’t diminished its many charms.
Located south of Acapulco and north of Huatulco on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, its attractions include a relatively low cost of living, an epic surf break called the Mexican Pipeline that draws professional surfers from around the world and a beautiful natural setting. As well, it’s rich in culture including interesting street art as well as traditional Zapotec and Mixtec dance, art, and music. Another highlight is its fine regional mezcal and Oaxacan cuisine built upon the bounty of local ingredients such as seafood, vegetables, and tropical fruit.
Yet despite all of its attractions, with a population of just 55,000, Puerto Escondido is still relatively small and has retained its traditional fishing village atmosphere. You can shop for fresh produce in the bustling Benito Juarez market, watch local fishermen haul in their catch each morning and walk for hours along beaches where there are few crowds.
For those with a love of eco-adventure, it’s also possible to rent a car and explore the Oaxacan coast witnessing wonders such as sea turtle nestings, bioluminescent lagoons, remote beaches and the waterfalls of the Sierra Madre Sur mountains.
BEST OFF-THE-BEATEN PATH MEXICAN DESTINATIONS
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Guanajuato City is one of Mexico’s most beautiful colonial cities. It’s located in a narrow valley and on multiple hills, that’s why many streets are steep and windy and there is a large underground tunnel that passes through the city center. While Guanajuato has its own airport nearby, it’s also possible to drive to Guanajuato from Mexico City, especially if you’re doing a Central Mexico road trip and trying to visit many “Pueblos Magicos” – beautiful colonial cities.
Guanajuato is often compared to another beautiful city, San Miguel de Allende, however, both cities are very different. Orange prevails in the architecture in San Miguel de Allende, while Guanajuato is more colorful – with plenty of blue, pink and green buildings.
The highlights of Guanajuato City include Callejon del Beso – or “a kissing alley”. Lovers, who pass through this street, must kiss on the third step of the stairs for their love to last forever. Hence, as you can imagine, this alley gets very busy. It’s also a tourist spotlight and all the tourists are brought here by their guides. Another highlight of Guanajuato is the museum of mummies, which is more popular among the locals. Another highlight is the Parroquia de Basilica Collegiata.
However, the best thing to do in Guanajuato is to walk around this lovely and cheerful city, try local food (ask for specialties from Guanajuato state) and have a couple of delicious Mexican paletas (ice creams).
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Guadalajara is one of Mexico’s lesser-known cities, but it’s definitely worth a visit. The history of the area is rich, the food is delicious and the prices are low. Here are a few places to visit in Guadalajara.
Begin in the historic core of the city which includes the Guadalajara Cathedral and four surrounding plazas. The Spanish Renaissance style cathedral located in the heart of the city is absolutely beautiful. In addition to the central altar, there are nine smaller altars each dedicated to a saint.
Surrounding the cathedral are four plazas; de la Constitucion, Guadalajara, Rotonda de los Jalisciences Ilustres, and de la Liberacion. Spend time wandering around this area enjoying the statues, fountains, live entertainment, and street vendors. While there will be tourists in the area, this is also a popular area for locals so it’s a great way to experience local Guadalajaran life.
About a ten-minute walk from the cathedral and plazas is the Instituto Cultural Cabanas. The most famous artwork here are the murals by Orozco. I wouldn’t call these murals beautiful, but they are quite fascinating. Each one has a political message sometimes conveyed with realism and at other times symbolism.
When you get hungry head to the Mercado San Juan de Dios. This impressive indoor market is home to 2,800 stalls. The first floor is mostly merchandise while the second floor is packed with small food counters and restaurants selling a wide variety of delicious food. This is a great place both for souvenir shopping and authentic Mexican food.
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When looking for the best places to visit in Mexico and want to get off the usual tourist trail, try heading to Puebla. Located southeast of Mexico City you can connect yourself with a different pace of life in just a 2-hour journey. Not only will you find museums and an amazing craft market but Puebla is known as a culinary hotspot, famous for Mole Poblano (a thick chocolate-type sauce that contains over 20 ingredients) which you can find in many other parts of Mexico, however here is the original place to try it.
The mix of old and new is attractive here, you’ll find the historic center has something for every traveler to discover and enjoy no matter what your budget is. From Puebla, you can get one step further off the beaten track and learn other interesting facts about Mexico that you may not have expected by heading to Cholula. It is said that Cholula is the oldest city in the Americas without interruption since it’s ancient origins. Also, being home to 365 churches, one for every day of the year, is regarded as a special place.
Cholula is home to a huge grass-like pyramid which you can climb to the top off to get amazing views of the city. Note, that when arriving in Puebla, the heat can be unbearable for many travelers so during the day, ensure you’re prepared for the sun. On the clearest of days, you’ll get views of Popocatepetl volcano in the background which makes the perfect photo opportunity for those who love to share their travels.
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With its stunning mountain backdrop, colorful colonial architecture, and thriving music and arts scene, it’s surprising that Xalapa, Veracruz remains off of Mexico’s main tourist trail.
While it may not be well-known to travelers, Xalapa still has a lot to offer, especially for visitors who are interested in immersive experiences. You won’t encounter the pushy tour salesmen or people hawking time-shares that plague Mexico’s resort towns. Instead, you’ll find a vibrant city with a welcoming, small-town vibe that embodies so many of the things Mexico is known and loved for: friendly people, beautiful scenery, and delicious food.
As a resident for the past two years, I’m here to give you the inside scoop on all the best things to do in Xalapa. Xalapa and the surrounding area is known for its coffee production, so sampling the local brew is a must. For the best coffee (and ambiance) head to Kariva Cafe or Cafe Tal, both located in the city center.
The centro historico of Xalapa is picturesque and compact, making it easy to explore on foot. Spend some time wandering in and out of boutiques, art galleries, and cafes. Don’t be afraid to wander up the side streets to appreciate the colorful buildings and narrow cobblestone streets.
Be sure to stop by Parque Juarez, Xalapa’s zócalo, to appreciate the gorgeous panoramic mountain views. On a clear day the Pico de Orizaba, one of North America’s tallest mountains, looms in the distance.
Another must-visit destination is the Mercado de la Rotunda, a local food market in the center of town. There are many delicious food stalls where you can sample delicious regional food.
Xalapa also has a robust arts scene featuring local performers in addition to well-known acts from throughout Mexico. The cafe-library Flor Catorce is a great place to take in a poetry reading or acoustic performance, while the restaurant Tierra Luna often features larger performances of anything from theatre to dance or full bands.
If you’d like a truly immersive experience, why not take a class? The bulletin board inside Tierra Luna features ads for everything from arts and crafts workshops to music and dance lessons, and beyond. You’re sure to find something intriguing!
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This colonial town in the Yucatan is a fantastic base for exploring one of the many nearby Mayan ruins, such as Chichen Itza or lesser-known Ek Balam. But the town itself is a top place to visit in Mexico among travelers looking for a more cultural experience than can be found in the Riviera Maya.
The colorful streets of Valladolid beg to be explored by foot, starting with the beautiful neighborhood of Candelaria. In this mostly residential area, pastel-colored buildings flow into one another with beautiful arches and doorways highlighted in white. Wander over to Calzada de Los Frailes for more beautiful architecture and boutique shopping.
No visit to Valladolid is complete without seeing the main square where you can sit in the “sillas tu y yo.” These chairs are connected and turned to face each other for easy visiting with your friend or significant other. After some people watching, be sure to visit the main church along the square. At this point, you’ll likely be pretty worn out by the heat and humidity. Amazingly, Cenote Zaci, in the heart of Valladolid is perfect for cooling off after exploring the town.
Finish the day with a historical light show at the San Bernardino Convent. A video mapping event takes place every night in both Spanish and English to give visitors a history of Valladolid. There is not a lot to do at night in Valladolid, but you’ll want to get to bed early anyways so you can get an early start and explore all that the surrounding area has to offer.
BEST MEXICAN PLACES TO VISIT IN AND NEAR CANCUN
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Cancun is a favourite vacation destination for North Americans as well as Europeans with many airlines offering direct flights to make it easy to get there. With temperatures at a steady 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit and an almost constant breeze off the ocean, Cancun is an ideal destination during the cold winter months.
Most of the resorts in Cancun are located in the hotel zone, featuring gorgeous white sand beaches on one side and a beautiful lagoon on the other. Water sports, sunbathing, snorkeling and wind-surfing are all popular activities.
If you’re wondering about what to bring to Cancun, rest assured that the vibe is casual. You won’t need anything more than beach and resort wear and maybe some good sunscreen!
Cancun is a great destination for exploring the ancient Mayan culture. The Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza are a short distance away and the archeological zone of El Rey is right in town as well.
For adventures a little further afield, try a day trip to Cozumel. Easily accessible by ferry from nearby Playa del Carmen, Cozumel is a favourite stop for cruise ships due to its incredible marine biodiversity. Cozumel is one of the best places in Mexico for diving and snorkeling to see a wide variety of marine fauna.
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There is little doubt that visiting Isla Mujeres is one of the coolest things to do in Yucatan. Easily reached from Cancun on a 20 minutes boat ride, many visit the island on day trips. Yet, it is nice to spend a few days there to take in the easy-going atmosphere and all the beautiful beaches.
Playa Norte beach is a 10 minutes walk from the tourist harbor and a good place to relax thanks to the fine white sand and clear water. Another good place to visit is Punta Sur, where you will find the Mayan ruins of Ixchel. It’s also a good place to snorkel, and you can rent snorkel gear in one of the shops on site.
If you decide to spend the night in Isla Mujeres, make sure to head to the Zocalo, where all the action is. It’s also a great place to find excellent street food.
The center is a nice place to explore for shopping and to have a bite or a drink – offering many choices. Make sure to bargain a little when shopping for souvenirs.
Isla Mujeres can be visited by bike, scooter or golf cart. The latter is probably the most fun way to do it (and the easiest, since the island can get very windy and biking can be a bit of a challenge). There are several rental shops right by the harbor, once you get off the ferry.
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One of my favorite places to visit in Mexico is Puerto Morelos. It’s located in Quintana Roo on the Caribbean Sea, just 20 minutes from the Cancun airport. With a great location and far fewer crowds than Cancun or Riviera Maya, Puerto Morelos is the small town in Mexico you need to experience.
The picturesque town square begs to be explored. With brightly colored buildings that lure you in, you might just find a new beach hat, home décor or the perfect margarita. Walk the streets and shop the open markets for artisan crafts, blankets, and other handmade goods. Or stop by the local farmer’s market for the freshest fruits and vegetables.
Puerto Morelos is the perfect spot for water activities, with many tours launching right off the town square. The town is the closest land to the Mesoamerican Reef, the 3rd largest reef system in the world. So grab your snorkeling gear or book a water activity while you’re in the area.
Because of the reef, the beaches have more seaweed than Cancun to the north. However, they’re less crowded and a great spot for a truly relaxing vacation in Mexico.
There’s a few full-service of all-inclusive resorts with luxury accommodations. Or opt for the local vibe and go with a vacation rental in Puerto Morelos.
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Just off the northern coast of the Yucatan peninsula is another peninsula you have to visit. Even though Isla Holbox technically is a peninsula, the only way to get there is by ferry from Chiquilá, which runs every thirty minutes throughout the day. Upon arrival, you immediately get why it’s such a cool place to stay. Even though you’re far from being the only tourist on the island, it still has a relaxing vibe to it. Time to explore!
Holbox center is only a few hundred meters from the harbor, so it’s totally walkable. Like every Mexican village, Holbox also has a town square where it all happens; markets, food stalls, vendors, a theatre, a church. Not surprisingly it’s also the best place to stay if you really want to experience the island vibe. A few hundred meters further is Isla Holbox’s northern coast where all the cool bars are. Eastwards anyway. Walk along the beach to enjoy the view and some nice (and cheap) cocktails. Spruce your Instagram by taking a pic on one of the swings that were set up in the sea. Good times!
West along the northern coast you’ll find a bunch of luxury hotels and some nice beaches. Definitely worth a visit. Exploring the island by bike or by golf buggy is also a great way to see the island’s beauty. Besides good cocktails and nice beaches, the island has awesome nature, great street art, and welcoming locals.
Want to know more about prices and how to get there? Check out what to do on Isla Holbox.
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Tulum is nowadays getting more and more popular and for really good reason. The town has great beaches and even it’s own Mayan ruins. So there is a lot to explore. At the same time, Tulum has a great position for exploring all kinds of other places nearby. There are a lot of cenotes that are just a short drive away.
If you visit Tulum, you should definitely start by exploring local ruins. Unlike other pyramids that you can see in Mexico, these are right on the beach, making them something special. Afterward, it is also a good idea to actually visit the beach, where you can bathe and enjoy both the history and the Caribbean sea. And since we are enjoying the sea, it is possible to snorkel or even dive on the local reef. Depending on the season, you can see here either a bull shark or whale shark. None of them is dangerous but certainly fun to see.
The local beaches are white and just amazing, you can certainly experience here a lot of nightlife or for a change yoga and meditation in the morning is also popular here. The beach isn’t the only place where you can bathe and dive here. There are a lot of cenotes nearby including the famous Grand Cenote or Dos Ojos. Dos Ojos is great for both snorkeling and diving. All of these cenotes are just a short drive away and you can easily get there by taxi or public transport.
MEXICO HAS SO MUCH MORE THAN CRUISE DESTINATIONS!
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This gorgeous gem of an island is located about 40 minutes east of the famous Playa del Carmen in the south-eastern part of Mexico. Cozumel is the third largest island in all of Mexico – but it’s actually the most inhabited Mexican island with over 100.000 people living there.
Cozumel is famous for its tequila tasting, Mayan ruins, gorgeous beaches, and it’s lush nature! It’s no coincidence that so many people love this island. When people aren’t snorkeling the reefs on the south-western part of the island, they’ll either be visiting the chocolate factory in San Miguel de Cozumel, drinking tequila at Tequilera Reyes, eating delicious traditional Mexican food, or soaking up some sun at one of the many beaches on the eastern part of the island. Our favorite beach is San Martin Beach. The water is stunningly blue, the waves are big, and there are usually lifeguards around.
The island of Cozumel is truly a little paradise for anyone who visits – families, couples, or solo travelers. There is no nightlife on the island, which we really liked because that means you can get proper sleep! This doesn’t mean that there’s no way to get alcohol – because there definitely is! We recommend that you go visit the famous “Liquor Box” bar just south of San Martin beach which we mentioned before. The Liquor Box is also known as “Open bar 25 hours”, “Mojito Factory”, “Welcome to Miami”, and “The Coconut Cabana”. It has the best mojitos ever!! But it’s easy to miss so keep an eye out for it (east).
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Progreso, Mexico, is a tiny port town on the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. It is known for having the longest pier in the world at 6.5 km (4 miles) long and is frequented by many major cruise ship routes due to its relatively close proximity to Chichen Itza and other Mayan ruins.
However, there’s a lot more to Progreso than cruise ships and pyramids. The area is full of culture, history, natural wonders, and offers plenty of things to do for adventure lovers.
The beautiful pink lakes of Las Coloradas are located nearby to Progresso and what many people may not know is that they are actually salt flats. Salt mining is an ancient Mayan tradition that is still practiced today by the locals. So, while you are there support the local economy by buying salt sourced from the lake.
Parque Natural Ría Lagartos is a bio reserve with incredible bird watching opportunities. Flamingos are known to hang out in the biosphere reserve and on most days, you can see them in big flocks in and around the lakes.
The nearby cenote system of Cuzama has some of the most impressive cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula. Visitors are required to climb a ladder down into a sinkhole to reach the Cuzama cenotes.
Although often quite touristy, the Mayan ruins in the area around Progresso are definitely worth a visit. Chichen Itza has been voted as one of the seven new wonders of the world and is really impressive to see in person. Nearby Uxmal is not as popular as Chichen Itza but has stunning ruins nonetheless.
Our visit to Progreso Mexico was an awesome experience. We particularly enjoyed our visit to the cenotes and flamingo spotting on the pink lakes and would recommend to anyone visiting the area.
Recommended by Annick from The Common Traveler
If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path destination that offers something for the beach lover, nature lover, and history lover, then Mahahual has it all. Mahahual is best reached by renting a car and driving (there are local bus routes as well but they will take a long time and depending on the time of year, schedules may not be consistent). Those flying into Cancun, Mexico, will drive for approximately four hours, while the drive from Chetumal, Mexico, takes approximately two hours.
Looking for Mayan ruins? Mahahual has several, including three large ones within an hour or so driving distance.
Enjoy nature? The Sian Ka’an Reserve, “Gate of Heaven,” a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to a diverse variety of fauna and flora. Or take a boat ride on Lake Bacalar to enjoy bird watching — don’t miss the sunset as the birds all flock to one particular island.
Nestled on the Caribbean, Mahahual’s beaches provide plenty of opportunity to relax and get your dose of vitamin D. Whether you choose to stay within Mahahual’s town limits or travel further out of town, you can’t beat the beautiful blue water lapping on the shores.
Don’t let the fact that Mahahual is a cruise ship destination scare you away. There are plenty of ways to avoid the crowds if you like to stay away from the tourists. Check out our best reasons to visit Mahahual.
Final Thoughts on the Best Places to Visit in Mexico
With so many options, Mexico makes a great destination for either a quick weekend getaway or a more prolonged slow travel opportunity. Whatever your tastes, we hope you’ve found a new place to try in our best places to visit in Mexico list.
What is your favorite? Do you have a great Mexico gem that we should explore? Tell us in the comments!
Annick, The Common Traveler