Cancun, the Riviera Maya, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas might be some of the most popular and recognizable destinations in Mexico, but there are plenty of lesser-known options located close to these locales that are just far enough off the beaten path to show visitors what the real Mexico is all about.
In fact, these parts of Mexico are home to some of the world’s most impressive ancient Mayan ruins, traditional villages and other “secrets” that are just waiting to be discovered. Here, we’ve broken down the need-to-know info from Travel Weekly’s latest rundown of Mexico’s best culturally rich, historical and diverse places to explore.
The local villages of San Pancho and Sayulita are both located just north of Puerto Vallarta, making an excellent choice for a fun, easy day trip that allows visitors to experience authentic Mexican heritage at its finest.
San Pancho (also known as San Francisco!) is a best described as a quaint village that is nestled between the Sierra Madre Mountains and the lush jungle near Mexico’s pristine Pacific Coast. Technically the town is part of a region known as the Riviera Nayarit, but it lies only two hours north of Puerto Vallarta and most of the trip is via a modern, four-lane highway.
Sayulita is even closer to Puerto Vallarta, at only around 40 minutes via a modern two-lane highway, and offers fresh seafood, world class surfing, a variety of open-air eateries and jungle tours, to name only a few of the many activities available here. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean’s Bay of Banderas, the town is also an excellent place for whale watching from Nov. through January, and also offers world-class sport fishing. But perhaps the most unique thing about Sayulita is the opportunity to purchase handcrafted wares from the local indigenous culture, including some of the best Huichol art available in all of Mexico.
Cancun & Riviera Maya
Just south of Cancun and Playa del Carmen in the heart of Mexico’s Riviera Maya, visitors can experience one of the world’s most breathtaking Mayan archaeological sites. Here, a substantial pyramid and ancient fortress stands sentry on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, while the still smallish (yet quickly growing) nearby town of Tulum offers a unique eco-chic vibe that is quickly becoming popular among international jetsetters.
“Cancun not only is a wonderful destination, but also can be a hub of distribution to spread international tourists throughout the region,” shared Rodolfo Lopez Negrete, CEO of the Mexican Tourism Board. “It’s an area that has cultural attributes comparable to China, Egypt and Greece.”
Puerto Morelos is another hidden gem located just south of Cancun in the Riviera Maya. Here, visitors will enjoy perusing the Mexican handicrafts found at the local market, while just north of Cancun, Isla Holbox (which translates to mean ‘Black Hole’) and Isla Mujeres (Isle of Women), offer ideal choices for travelers who are craving a more laid-back getaway.
Cabo San Lucas
The town of Todos los Santos lies just under one hour from the bustling resort town of Cabo San Lucas, and a few miles from the Pacific Coast on the Baja Peninsula. The town is known for its internationally recognized fine art scene, excellent surfing and fine colonial architecture. Todos Los Santos is also one of Mexico’s coveted “Pueblo Magicos” or “Magic Towns,” which are selected in part for their commitment to retaining historic and artistic integrity.
Los Barilles is another quiet little town, situated just 45 minutes north of the international airport in Cabo. Its close proximity makes this an excellent choice for a day trip and will offer visitors the chance to experience a slower pace of life along Cabo’s East Cape. Here, the region’s landscape will show travelers amazing diversity, including the rocky Pacific Coast, deserts, flat sandy beaches, ancient mango groves and a wide (sometimes wild!) variety of other exotic plants and animals.
Have you ever ventured off the beaten path in Mexico? If so, share your experiences in the comments section below!