Mexico is one of the most visited countries in the world and is especially popular with visitors from the United States and Canada – Cancun is actually the most popular international destination for American travelers. The ancient country of Mexico has it all: cultural festivals, beach resorts, sleepy colonial towns, Meso-American ruins, a touch of the Spanish here and a touch of the Meso-American there, all basking in decadent sunlight, clear waters and perfect climate. But how much do tourists know this huge country? Beyond the beach towns, the luxury golf courses and the famous ruins of Chichen Itza, there’s a whole two million square kilometers to explore and a history spanning back to 1500 BC to wade around in. For a much more enlightening stay, a traipse into real history and scenery entirely unique to Mexico, check out these five hidden gems in Mexico.
Guanajuato, Mexico City and Central Mexico – photo by Robin Mullen
Between the sun, the mountains and the beach are the narrow cobblestone alleyways of the colonial-era city of Guanajuato. Located in North-Central Mexico, this charming and perfectly preserved inland town is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. From afar, it looks like a compact assortment of colorful preserved buildings with a slight European flair, but a closer inspection will reveal indispensable examples of neoclassical and baroque-style architecture and historical monuments all lodged a rich history that is essential to the history of Mexico. The town was founded half a century ago in 1559 and blossomed as a silver mining city. Aside from learning its historical significance in the various museums around town, visitors can check out the annual Cervantino festival, a performing arts festival honoring the author of Don Quixote, and kiss in the famous Callejón del Beso, an alleyway so narrow that two partners can share a kiss between opposing balconies.
There are the kind of tourists who go to Mexico to lie on a beach at an all-inclusive resort sipping on cocktails, who take a day to check out the ruins before going back to work on their tan. And then there are the kinds of tourists who go to Copper Canyon in the northeastern corner of Chihuahua. Four times the size of the Grand Canyon, the Copper Canyon’s network of six arresting deeps are most certainly worth a trip on the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railway between the cities of Mochis and Chihuahua. On this 14-hour journey, passengers get truly breathtaking views of forests, lakes, colorful mountain faces and traverse 86 tunnels and 39 bridges. Travelers are welcome to hop off and hike through the woods, camp, spot birds and visit the indigenous communities.
Located 85 kilometers from Mexico City, Cuernavaca, known as the "City of the Eternal Spring," is scented by local wildflowers like bugambilias, jacarandas, lilies, jasmines and more, and is home to a rich and colorful historic center that is full of plazas and colonial buildings. Outside of central Cuernavaca, gorgeous natural color abounds in its mountains, volcanos, meadows and rivers, including Teopanzolco, an archaeological site upon which pyramidal rectangular structures sit. Inside the town are luxury spas, restaurants, cafés and the unmissable Cuernavaca Cathedral.
Riviera Nayarit, Mexico – photo by Best Puerto Vallarta Tours
Just ten minutes from the Puerto Vallarta airport, the Riviera Nayarit is a terribly underrated beach escape. The city itself is essentially 192 miles of town-spotted coastline between the historic port of San Blas to Banderas Bay in Nuevo Vallarta. With one foot on the illustrious Western Sierra Madre and one foot dipped into the Pacific Ocean, Riviera Nayarit has the perfect weather for any kind of beachgoer – the areas of Sayulita and Matanchen Bay are a surfer’s dream while San Blas is a quiet and friendly little town that still harkens back to its early Spanish colonial days.
Valladolid, Yucatan – photo by Alan Kok
Further inland from the heavier populated and larger tourism hubs of the coastal Playa del Carmen and Cancun, Valladolid has never been considered a must-see stop – at most, it’s a day trip or a stop on the way to Chichen Itza. However, those who can drag themselves from the beach resorts truly have something special to explore – Valladido is a small town full of historical charms, sweeping mountainous landscapes and the ruins of Ek’ Balam, a pyramid taller than the biggest in Chichen Itza and much less of a tourist magnet. The famous Cenote Dzitnup, located about seven kilometers southeast of Valladolid, is a mysterious underwater sinkhole that drips and sputters clear turquoise waters illuminated by a skylight.