Just when you thought Mexico couldn’t give any more than amazing beaches, great food, friendly people and even beloved all-inclusive resorts. It does.
As if the cloud-white beaches of Quintana Roo and the vibrant streets of CDMX weren’t enough, this ever-popular corner of the Americas starts flaunting long-lost mining towns in the sierras, multicolored lagoons with colonial forts, and even whole regions filled with waterfalls that few travelers have ever set eyes on before.
Here’s my guide to the coolest places in Mexico that you might want to have on the travel radar for your next trip to Mexico.
P.S. Keep in mind there are many more amazing spots in Mexico. After years of living in Mexico full time and part-time I still keep discovering and I think it will take a lifetime to visit all the best places across the country.
Unique Places to Visit in Mexico
Bacalar and its surrounding lagoon is a dream for adventure travelers a little tired with the resort towns of the Quintana Roo.
The town of Bacalar itself is the entry point. It’s one of Mexico’s charming pueblos mágicos and is marked out by the muscular Fuerte de San Felipe – an old pirate-fighting citadel! Around that spreads the so-called Lagoon of Seven Colors, named for the patchwork of emeralds and turquoise blues that abound.
Head out by kayak or boat and you’ll encounter deep cenotes, shallow swimming spots, and secret bars nestled between the mangroves.
2. Grutas de Tolantongo
They call the Grutas de Tolantongo a hidden paradise up in the sierras and I’m inclined to agree. Make the trek and you’ll be greeted by streams of ribbon-like water cascading over the rocks.
Not many tourists know about this lovely box canyon, which carves its way through the hills above Route 27 some 86 miles north of Mexico City, but it’s well known to locals. It can actually be visited over a weekend trip from Mexico City pretty easily.
Cascades emerge from deep cave systems and are fed by underground hot springs. There’s now an on-site spa hotel resort with bathing pools cut straight into the hillsides – naturally!
3. Huasteca Potosina
Huasteca Potosina is the long-lost Shangri-La of the State of San Luis Potosí. Many travelers know of the greater region’s beautiful colonial mining town (the city of San Luis Potosí itself).
However, few choose to venture out to this part of the Mexican wilderness. It’s probably best to keep it that way, as this land is untouched and unmarred by human hands.
Waterfalls of milky blue spill from lush sierras dressed in wild jungles, making it a place to kayak, hike, search for exotic birds, and hop orchid flowers on the trails. Waterfalls of this region beat the infamous Instagrammable Bali waterfalls, especially Tamasopo ones.
Not many know that the infamous alcohol got its name from the name of the town in Mexico. Tequila isn’t usually on anyone’s list of must-visit towns in Mexico, most people just stay in Guadalajara, unless you know about its tequila train tours.
I highly recommend it to non-drinkers as well. The town is surrounded by fields of blue agave, the liquor’s main ingredient and it has a stunner of a colonial center.
You can ride horses, learn how to cultivate agave bushes and even stay the night at a giant tequila barrel in the middle of the field.
5. Las Pozas of Edward James
Las Pozas has to be up there with the strangest landscape gardens in the Americas. Designed on the whims of the eccentric 19th-century English art critic Henry James, it covers 80 acres of the high mountain forest in the tropical region of La Huasteca.
Now overgrown with vines and mosses, it’s a picture of surrealism in the middle of the woods, with twisted sculptures made of concrete, soaring lookout points, floating homes – the oddities go on.
6. Isla de las Munecas
This small island on the waters of the Xochimilco hides in the southern reaches of Mexico City. It’s surrounded by an urban nature park, so there’s less of the skyscrapers and taco stands, more of the grassy banks and woodlands.
The real attraction is the haunting array of toy dolls that are found across the island. They were placed there by the former owner, Don Julian Santana Barrera, who thought they’d chase away the spirit of a girl who drowned on the spot. Pretty spooky stuff!
Beware: The place is incredibly hard to get to because it requires permission from the son of the owner. Lots of trajineras (boats) in Xochimilco will promise you they’ll take you there, but in reality, they take you to the fake replica of the island on the standard route.
7. Calakmul Ruins
Move over Chichen Itza, the ruins of Calakmul reveal what was once the great capital of the so-called Kingdom of the Snake. It’s one of the best off the beaten path Mexico adventures one can take to feel like Indiana Jones.
Back when the Mayan civilization was at its height, this conglomeration of nearly 7,000 ruins reigned supreme over a whopping 50,000 people or more. Dating back to 400AD, it’s an obvious UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains a pyramid that’s thought to be the largest ever built by the Maya.
Unlike at the famous Chichen Itza you can climb every single structure (and there are a LOT) at Calakmul. Keep in mind that it takes an hour to get there from town to inside the jungle.
8. Sima de las Cotorras
When in Chiapas everyone heads to Palenque and San Cristobal de las Casas, but skips Tuxtla and its surrounding natural beauty.
The colossal sinkhole of the Sima de las Cotorras is one of the wonders of the wild El Ocote Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas state. It’s now backed up by the Sima de Cotorras Ecotourism Center, which organizes guided tours of the great underground chasm.
Cotorras means monk parakeets that live in the sinkhole and flew out every morning. It’s a beautiful sight!
Visitors can abseil down into the jungle-filled Sima, or take walk-through routes that reveal ancient cave art. Most will come to encounter the resident population of emerald-hued parakeets, though.
9. Hierve del Agua
Waterfalls made of rock? You bet! These stunning geological formations are the result of thousands of years of calcite deposits on the sierras of Oaxaca state, one of the coolest places in Mexico.
They occupy a jaw-dropping location atop the undulating highlands of San Lorenzo Albarradas. There are two main falls – the larger and the smaller.
Both are pretty dramatic as they roll over the summits in a show of flowing calcium carbonate that looks just like classic H2O. The locals have even added in two artificial pools so you can swim on the top of the “falls” with a view.
There’s no doubt that cenotes are one of the most beautiful places in Mexico. There are about 6000 cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula, so you may spend years discovering it all.
11. Los Prismas Basalticos
Officially called the Basaltic Prisms of Santa María Regla, the Los Prismas Basalticos are sure to make you gasp with wonder the first time you set eyes on them.
It’s essentially a waterfall, but this one drifts through a series of rock stacks that were created by the slow cooling of magma from beneath the surface of the Earth.
The result? It looks as though the stream has carved a great cleft in the planet, which peels away in crags and columns to the left and right. There are awesome lookout platforms and viewpoints to enjoy on-site.
Izamal gets just a fraction of the crowds of other places in the Yucatan. While most people sun themselves on the beaches of Cancun or snorkel the reefs of the Isla Cozumel, this one’s fascinating Mesoamerican site remains largely undiscovered.
You can still see around five extra-large structures that reveal just a glimpse of how vast the old Maya site here was. On top of them is the famous Yellow City, a maze of cobbled lanes and Spanish casitas that are completely daffodil in color. It’s an Instagram dream!
Taxco is the hidden gem of the state of Guerrero. Most people head this way for the sparkling sands of Acapulco, but this is all about escaping to the hazy sierras where silver mines and metal crafters are the norms.
The town itself is wedged into a small valley and rolls down steep hillsides. Around it lies some of the oldest and most prolific precious metal mines in the country.
Stick to the center for sights like the Museo Guillermo Spartling (about silver working, of course) and the never-forget-me Parroquia de Santa Prisca y San Sebastían (what many consider to be the pinnacle achievement of the Baroque building style in the whole of the Americas).
14. Copper Canyon
Cutting through the peaks of the Sierra Madre Occidental in a series of deep chasms and valleys, this mighty gorge is like Mexico’s answer to the Grand Canyon north of the border. It’s named for the coppery greenish-blue that tinges the side of the bluffs in the summer months.
Most will visit on the El Chepe train (the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico) that whizzes through on its way from Chihuahua City to Mexico City.
It’s considered one of the most breathtaking locomotive rides in the world, and not just because you’ll be hitting heights of over 2,400 meters above sea level!
Leave the big, buzzy spring-break scene of Puerto Vallarta in the dust and make for the little village of Yelapa. It’s around the Bahia de Banderas to the south. The best part?
It’s totally cut off from the outside world, and the only ways to arrive are by boat across the sparkling Pacific or on an arduous jungle trail (kudos if you pick that one!).
Of course, the main draw here is the beachfront. It’s a huge scythe of powdery sand that slopes into a bay of emerald ocean water. The town itself has ramshackle seafood taco eateries and rustic palapas where you can stay to detox from civilization.
16. Santiago de Querétaro
Santiago de Querétaro, or just Querétaro for short, is the capital of the state of the same name. It rests up in the hills of central Mexico some 110 miles from Mexico City.
Most overland travelers will breeze through on their way to San Miguel de Allende. Stop and you’ll be treated to one of the loveliest colonial cities in the country, plus enjoy some cheese and way from Ruta de Queso y Vino on the way – if you’re coming from Mexico City.
I especially like the vibrant nightlife alley of Mariano Matamoros 13, where Modelo beers fizz in the evening hours. To the west of that is Plaza de Armas, which rings with mariachi bands throughout the day.
There’s no question in our minds that Guanajuato – or at least the old portion of Guanajuato – is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Unfolding in a valley between mineral-rich mountains in the geographical heart of the nation, it’s ferreted through with long tunnels that now host traffic but were one gushing rivers.
Above ground and the amazements continue with the ochre-hued Basílica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato and the grand buildings of the University of Guanajuato. There’s also a Museum of the Mummies.
Adventurers also won’t be disappointed, because you can hike the soaring bluffs around El Cerro de La Bufa mountain that lurks ominously on the horizon to the south.
18. Bahía de Loreto National Park
Clutching the east coast of the Baja California Peninsula means that the Bahía de Loreto National Park gets only a fraction of the visitors of Cabo San Lucas down on the oceanside portions of this popular part of Mexico.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it protects the rich marine world of the Sea of Cortez. Travelers can hop on a boat in the small town of Loreto and whizz across the water in search of sea lions, humpback whales, sea turtles – there are loads. Don’t forget to charge the camera!
19. Isla Contoy
All eyes are on Cozumel and the Isla Mujeres when it comes to the Caribbean side of Mexico. However, the Isla Contoy is just as stunning as those – if not more!
It’s a mere five miles from tip to toe, dashing through the pearly waters with its mangrove swamps and swaying coconut palms. There are sugar-soft beaches that are worthy of the Bahamas to boot.
Only a few lucky tour companies are currently allowed to run trips to this speck on the Mexican map because the ecosystem is heavily managed. Expect to pay for the privilege to join them!
20. Isla Aguada
If you’re looking for an alternative to the much-photographed beaches of the Yucatan, be sure to put Isla Aguada on the radar. Straddling a spit of land between the Gulf of Mexico and the Laguna de Términos, it’s a ramshackle fishing town that oozes authentic Mexicana coast charm.
The nearby beaches don’t have the same pristine white powder like the ones further east, but they do come with paint-peeling fishing boats, local B&Bs, and wave-lapped yellow sands.
There are oodles more hidden gems in Mexico, from jungle-shrouded beaches to mist-haloed mountain towns. If you can think of any, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.