Mexico is an amazing country to visit. The people are friendly and welcoming. The food is unbelievably good. There are thriving modern cities and beautiful smaller colonial towns. The ever-changing landscape includes pristine beaches, ancient Mayan sites set in steaming jungles, mountains and valleys, waterfalls and lakes, deserts and forests.
Despite having more than 20 million tourist visits each year, many of these are centred around a few key areas including Quintana Roo (Cancun, Tulum, Playa del Carmen), Baja California Sur (Cabo San Lucas, La Paz), Mexico City and Guadalajara. Unbelievably, some people fly directly to a resort town and spend virtually their whole trip in an anonymous all-inclusive hotel.
If you want to open your horizons and explore some of the lesser-known gems Mexico has to offer, here are our recommendations.
San Cristobal de las Casas
Located in a beautiful valley in the Central Highlands region of Chiapas, San Cristobal de las Casas boasts a charming Spanish colonial layout with cobblestone pedestrianised streets, period architecture, thriving markets, cafes showcasing outstanding local brews, and a wide variety of high quality restaurants and bars.
There is an excellent free walking tour of the city which leaves from the Zocalo at 10 am each morning. You will probably be accompanied by a beautiful local dog, who arrives at the designated spot each day to make some new human friends.
San Cristobal de las Casas boasts a large indigenous population, comprising mainly Tzotzil and Tzeltal people, many of whom sell produce, textiles and other handicrafts in markets and at stalls dotted around the city.
Local operators offer excellent day trips to some of the nearby indigenous villages. Make sure you visit the village of San Juan Chamula, around 10 kms outside of San Cristobal de las Casas. The church, with its mixture of Catholic, Pentecostal and evangelical rituals, has to be seen to be believed!
Another great day trip takes in the spectacular Sumidero Canyon, a 13 km stretch of river surrounded by vertical canyon walls of up to 1,000 metres high. As well as the spectacular scenery, you’ll probably see monkeys, crocodiles and a large variety of water birds. Plus there are guys on kayaks selling ice cold beers at the half way point.
Na Bolom is a fantastic museum and is well worth a visit. Make sure you check out our guide to visiting Na Bolom.
Guanajuato is a vibrant university town, located around 360 km north west of Mexico City. The town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is set in a valley and is surrounded on all sides by houses painted in a kaleidoscope of colours. The city centre boasts some wonderful colonial architecture, including the neoclassical Juarez Theatre, the Collegiate Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato and the Temple of the Society of Jesus.
In October each year, the town hosts the International Cervantino Festival, one of Latin America’s most popular cultural festivals.
Make sure you visit the tacky but fascinating Museum of the Mummies, which houses over 100 naturally mummified bodies which were unearthed following an exhumation of tombs in the nearby cemetery.
Looking over the town is the Monument to El Pipila, a hero of the Mexican independence movement. You can access the monument via a short but spectacular funicular ride which departs from behind the Juarez Theatre, or you can follow in Lisa’s footsteps and take on the challenge of walking up the 750 steps from the town centre to the lookout.
Don’t miss the delicious Tortas Carnitas (roast pork rolls) at the Hidalgo Market.
One of Mexico’s most spectacular hidden secrets, the Copper Canyon is comprised of six canyons covering an area four times larger than the Grand Canyon. Located in north-western Mexico in the state of Chihuahua, some of the canyons are significantly deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Most visitors access the canyon via the iconic El Chepe train trip, which meanders its way across 39 bridges and through 86 tunnels along a 650 km journey between Los Mochis and Chihuahua. The train can be taken in either direction.
Travellers can break up their trip by staying at up to three towns along the route at no extra cost.
We travelled west to east starting at El Fuerte and stopping off for two nights at each of Posada Barrancas and Creel before disembarking at Chihuahua.
The canyon itself is incredible, particularly in the areas around Posada Barrancas and Divisadero stations. There are spectacular views around every corner and for those with a thrill seeking spirit there is an adventure park with a jaw dropping zip line course, including one run of over 2km.
There are many day trips available from each of the main station stops, including visits to the bottom of the canyon, visit to local Tarahumara indigenous villages and adventure activities such as horse hiding and mountain biking.
Morelia is a beautiful colonial city in central Mexico. Some governments have negative travel advisories in place for the entire state of Morelia due to cartel activity. We did extensive research prior to visiting and were comfortable that the city itself would be safe. This proved to be an excellent decision as the three weeks we spent there were some of the best times we had on our 2019 travels.
We were pretty much the only tourists in town which gave us an excellent insight into typical Mexican life untouched by the influence of tourism.
Our Airbnb host, Nacho, was amazing and took us on a series of day trips to neighbouring towns and sights including Patzcuaro and Cuitzeo.
We loved the Jardin de las Rosas area of town where there are a series of outdoor bars and restaurants jam packed with locals enjoying the friendly vibes and talented street musicians.
Also in central Mexico, Macheros is the gateway to Cerro Pelon, one of the two main locations for the colonies of monarch butterflies which migrate to the area between December and March each year.
The migration is simply stunning – it is estimated that around one billion butterflies make the annual trip down from the Great Lakes region of the USA and Canada. A trip to the colony includes up-close encounters with thousands of flying butterflies as well as massive trees full of sleeping butterflies which suddenly spring to life when warmed by the sun.
The nesting areas are accessible via horseback (extra fit travellers may want to do it on foot but not recommended by local authorities).
We stayed at JM Butterfly B&B where the hosts are attempting to create a local tourist economy to help encourage local villagers to preserve the forests and protect them from illicit logging.