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Cancun, Cabo, Puerto Vallarta: they are everywhere on today’s social networks. In fact, they might be the only places on your feeds right now. While the rest of the world is at a standstill – in some cases entirely closed to foreign visitors – Mexico still largely accepts tourists.
While there’s nothing wrong with the beach and the all-inclusive resorts that come with it, there’s more to Mexico than it looks. These alternate destinations are fabulous on their own, even if they bear no resemblance to the Mexican vacation stereotypes you’re used to seeing.
As with all travel these days, there are risks and responsibilities to consider before you leave home. Check with State Department Travel Advisories as good as Mexican government official COVID-19 designations before making plans. The easy-to-read map shows the Mexican states in terms of risk level similar to a red light; expect restrictions in the red, orange, and yellow states. Since situations can change at any time, it may be prudent to wait for widespread vaccine distribution. Keep in mind that a A COVID test will be required before your return to the United States.
The Mayan ruins of Tulum have garnered all the attention this year, but the temples of Palenque are older and much less visited. Surrounded by jungle with the calls of tropical birds and howler monkeys in the distance, it’s almost like you’re the first to find out.
While the archaeological site of Palenque draws visitors here, easy day trips also take you to the ruins of Bonampak and Yaxchilán. This part of Chiapas state is also known for its beautiful waterfalls you can swim under, including Agua Azul, Misol-Ha, and Roberto Barrios, so pack your swimsuits.
Oaxaca attracts a lot of attention each fall for its Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) traditions, but is otherwise overlooked by travelers. Even if you can’t plan a visit for the November festivities, this central Mexican city is well worth a visit, whatever your interests.
Cooks come for mole, mezcal, and street food like memelas and tlayudas. Art lovers will appreciate the pottery and hand-woven textiles in nearby craft communities, not to mention the galleries of all types in town. History buffs can visit the Zapotec cemeteries of Mitla and the pyramids of the ruins of Monte Albán.
Do you prefer the outdoors? Oaxaca is also an ideal base for visiting the petrified waterfalls of Hierve el Agua and the natural cliff-side swimming pools. If your idea of exercise is to withdraw your credit card, don’t worry. Oaxaca is world famous for its silver jewelry.
Southern Californians might already be on this one, but the rest of the world hasn’t figured it out yet. Valle de Guadalupe is home to over a hundred wineries, many of which are boutiques offering intimate tastings. Less than two hours from San Diego and just 45 minutes from Ensenada cruise port, this compact region is poised to explode any day.
Before you get into Mexican wine, give it a try. The climate here is similar to that of the Mediterranean and many grape varieties flourish here. There’s also an awe-inspiring dining scene, gorgeous boutique hotels, and several spas, making this the perfect relaxing getaway.
Despite being both in the same state, Loreto has little in common with Cabo San Lucas. You won’t find stripes of beach resorts or glitzy nightclubs. That doesn’t mean you won’t be comfortable. Loreto offers many tourist services, just with a soft and relaxed atmosphere.
The main draw here is the Sea of Cortez. The scuba diving is spectacular, with great visibility and a wide variety of wildlife. In summer, mobula rays are an attractive draw. Loreto is also a fantastic whale watching destination, with the chance to spot blue, fin, humpback and even gray whales in winter.
San Miguel de Allende
North of Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende is one of the most picturesque places in Mexico. True to its title of “pueblo mágico”, the city features well-tended gardens and narrow cobbled streets topped with an impressive cathedral. Around any corner, another Instagram-worthy scene will await 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. Yet this perfect city is charming in its own way, whether for a day or a week. If you are looking for an entry into Mexican culture but are worried about going off the beaten track, San Miguel is for you.
Cholula and Puebla
By volume, the largest pyramid in the world is in Cholula, Mexico (not Egypt, as many might expect). The tour 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 tip. 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 reputable attractions, although you’ll find plenty in the nearby town of Puebla about twenty minutes away. Instead, the draw here is for the vibrant atmosphere of the University City. There is always a commotion accompanied by a lot of spirit. Eating out is a treat here, with great food set in gardens, all topped off with bars and clubs that operate until late at 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 advertisers. In Puebla, Cinco de Mayo is a family celebration and the holiday parade alone is worth the visit.
If you usually head to Mexican beach 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. Best of all, you’re a short walk from the town of Tequila which is home to, you guessed it, agave farms and distilleries. Go on an organized trip, bus or Tequila Express train, accompanied by mariachi musicians.
When you’re not tasting Mexico’s quintessential drink, you’ll find plenty to do in Guadalajara. The large metropolis has several popular museums, a pedestrian-friendly historic center and several city parks. For more fun, check the event calendars to see if a soccer game or lucha libre game is in town when you visit.
Valle de Bravo is one of the smaller towns on this list. Another magical town, Valle sits on a lake surrounded by mountains in central Mexico. It has been a paradise for paragliders for years due to still favorable conditions. In winter, it attracts travelers of a different kind. Millions of monarch butterflies migrate here and visitors flock to the Piedra Herrada Sanctuary to see them on foot or on horseback.
Even in high season, Valle de Bravo is decidedly Mexican. Most visitors are Mexicans leaving the capital for a quiet weekend. You can’t beat the communal atmosphere in the town square, and it will be easy to find authentic food, from street-side taco stalls to upscale restaurants in the suburb of Avándaro.
Named the capital of culture, Mérida has a lot to offer. This capital of Yucatán hosts free concerts, festivals and cultural events like weekly demonstrations of Pok Ta Pok (a Mayan ball game) to share local traditions. Cultural attractions also include the more conventional. The city has a handful of highly respected museums, historic churches, and restored haciendas.
Of course, the city attracts travelers for other reasons as well. As you walk, you will pass central squares and colorful facades, each more photogenic than the next. This is the type of town where you’ll want to pop into the local markets sporadically or browse the pedestrian areas from end to end. Day trips to Mayan ruins and natural sinkholes known as cenotes are also popular.
While there’s nothing wrong with having a great beach vacation, Mexico is also home to great cities, magical towns, and natural wonders. The next time you’re planning a trip, consider adding one of these destinations to your itinerary.