Cancun, Cabo, Puerto Vallarta: they’re all over today’s social media. In fact, they might be the only places on your newsfeeds right now. While parts of the world still stand at a halt—in some cases, entirely closed to foreign visitors—Mexico is still broadly accepting tourists.
While there’s nothing wrong with the beach and the all-inclusive resorts that come with it, there’s more to Mexico than meets the eye. These alternate destinations are fabulous in their own right even though they’re nothing like the Mexican vacation stereotypes you’re used to seeing.
Like with all travel right now, there are risks and responsibilities to consider before leaving home. Mexico’s travel warning as of February 2021 was a level 4 so be sure to check with State Department travel warnings as well as the official Mexican government’s COVID-19 designations before making plans. The easy-to-read map shows Mexican states in terms of risk level similar to a stoplight; expect restrictions in red, orange, and yellow states. Since situations can change at any time, waiting for widespread vaccine distribution may be prudent. Keep in mind that a COVID test will be required before your return to the U.S.
The Mayan ruins in Tulum have gotten all the attention this year, but the temples at Palenque are older and far less visited. Surrounded by jungle with the calls of tropical birds and howler monkeys in the distance, it’s almost as if you’re the first to discover it.
While the Palenque archeological site is the big draw to visitors here, easy day trips also bring you to ruins at Bonampak and Yaxchilán. This part of the Chiapas state is also known for beautiful waterfalls you can swim under, including Agua Azul, Misol-Ha, and Roberto Barrios, so pack your bathing suit.
Oaxaca gets a lot of attention each fall for their Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) traditions but is otherwise overlooked by travelers. Even if you can’t time a visit for the November festivities, this central Mexican city is well worth a visit no matter your interests.
Culinarians come for mole, mezcal and street food like memelas and tlayudas. Art aficionados will appreciate pottery and handwoven textiles in neighboring artisan communities—not to mention galleries of all types right in town. History lovers can tour Zapotec burial grounds at Mitla and the pyramids at the Monte Albán ruins.
Prefer the outdoors? Oaxaca is also a great base to visit the Hierve el Agua petrified waterfalls and natural cliffside pools. If your idea of exercise is pulling out your credit card, don’t worry. Oaxaca is world-renowned for its silver jewelry.
Valle de Guadalupe
Southern Californians may already be onto this one, but the rest of the world hasn’t caught on yet. Valle de Guadalupe is home to more than one hundred wineries, many of them boutique operations offering intimate tastings. At less than two hours from San Diego and only 45 minutes from the cruise port in Ensenada, this compact region is poised to boom any day now.
Before you turn your nose up at Mexican wine, give it a try. The climate here is similar to the Mediterranean and many varietals flourish. There’s also an impressive culinary scene, gorgeous boutique hotels and several spas making it the perfect relaxing getaway.
Although they’re both in the same state, Loreto has little in common with Cabo San Lucas. You won’t find strips of resorts or glitzy nightclubs. That’s not to say you won’t be comfortable. Loreto offers plenty of tourist services, just with a mellow, laid-back vibe.
Here, the Sea of Cortez is the main draw. Scuba diving is spectacular, with great visibility and a wide variety of wildlife. In summer, mobula rays are an enticing draw. Loreto is also a fantastic whale-watching destination, with the possibility of seeing blue, fin, humpback and even gray whales in the winter.
San Miguel de Allende
North of Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende is one of the most picturesque spots in Mexico. Living up to its “pueblo mágico” title, the city features manicured gardens and narrow cobblestone lanes capped off by an awe-inspiring cathedral. Round any corner and another Instagram-worthy scene will be waiting for you.
San Miguel de Allende is well-established on the tourist (and expat) trail, so you won’t find any solitude here. There are souvenir shops and inflated prices and tourist traps. Still, this picture-perfect town is lovely in its own way whether for a day or a week. If you’re looking for an entry into Mexican culture but are leery of going far off the beaten path, San Miguel is right up your alley.
Cholula and Puebla
By volume, the largest pyramid in the world sits in Cholula, Mexico (not in Egypt, as many might expect). Visiting is an easy task, with options to explore the interior tunnels or to climb to the top to get a close look at the yellow church that crowns its point. On a clear day, you can also see Popocatepetl, one of Mexico’s active volcanoes, from the top.
Beyond the pyramid, Cholula doesn’t offer a ton of big-name attractions, though you’ll find plenty in neighboring Puebla about twenty minutes away. Instead, the draw here is for the vibrant university town atmosphere. There’s always a hustle accompanied by plenty of spirit. Dining is a treat here, with great food in garden settings, all capped off by bars and clubs that operate well into the night.
Puebla is also the city in Mexico that celebrates Cinco de Mayo, which is its current form of margaritas and Coronas is a creation of American advertising executives. In Puebla, Cinco de Mayo is a family holiday and the holiday parade alone makes the visit worthwhile.
If you normally head to Mexican resorts for nightlife or a good party, Guadalajara is for you. Mexico’s second-largest city has hot spots of all styles for a fun night out. Even better, you’re spitting distance from the town of Tequila home to—you guessed it—agave farms and distilleries. Go by package tour, bus or the Tequila Express railroad, complete with mariachi musicians.
When you’re not sampling Mexico’s quintessential beverage, you’ll find plenty to do in Guadalajara. The major metropolis has several popular museums, a pedestrian-friendly historic center and several city parks. For more light-hearted fun, check events calendars to see if a soccer game or lucha libre wrestling match is in town during your visit.
Valle de Bravo
Valle de Bravo is one of the smallest towns on this list. Another magic town, Valle sits on a lake surrounded by mountains in central Mexico. It’s been a haven for paragliders for years due to consistently favorable conditions. In winter, it attracts travelers of a different type. Millions of monarch butterflies migrate here and visitors flock to the Piedra Herrada Sanctuary to see them by hiking or horseback.
Even in peak season, Valle de Bravo is decidedly Mexican. Most of the visitors are Mexicans leaving the capital city for a quiet, weekend getaway. You can’t beat the communal atmosphere in the town square and it’ll be easy to find authentic food, from street taco stalls to high-end dining in the Avándaro suburb.
Named a capital of culture, Mérida has a lot to offer. This capital of the Yucatán hosts free concerts, festivals, and cultural events like weekly Pok Ta Pok demonstrations (a Mayan ball game) to share local traditions. Cultural attractions include the more conventional, as well. The city has a handful of well-respected museums, historic churches and restored haciendas.
Of course, the city appeals to travelers for other reasons, too. Walking around will lead you past central squares and colorful facades, each more photogenic than the last. It’s the type of city where you’ll want to sporadically pop into local markets or walk pedestrian zones from end to end. Day trips to Mayan ruins and natural sinkholes known as cenotes are also popular.
While there’s nothing wrong with a great beach vacation, Mexico is also home to big cities, magical towns and natural wonders. Next time you’re planning a trip, consider adding one of these destinations to your itinerary.