Mexico is a very large country with diverse landscapes so it only stands to reason that there are a multitude of unique places to visit, some well-known and others less discovered. Mystical cenotes, shimmering turquoise beaches, steamy jungles, ancient ruins, authentic pueblo magicos (magic towns), cliff-hanging hot springs, and petrified waterfalls are just a few of the hidden Mexico gems that make it such a beloved destination.
It might take a bit more effort to reach some of these incredible places, so put down your margarita and grab your camera as you seek out these ten hidden Mexico gems for unforgettable adventures!
Not far from Mexico City is the tiny pueblo magico town of Cholula. The off-the-beaten-path town is best known for containing Pyramide Tepanapa. The pyramid was built in the second century B.C. and is the world’s largest pyramid in the world by volume – a third larger than the Great Pyramid at Giza.
Take a deep breath and climb the seemingly endless stairs to get to the top where you will be rewarded for your efforts with a panoramic view of the well-preserved colonial town below and landscape beyond. The pyramid is in the Cholula Archaeological Zone, along with Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios church, one of the most beautiful churches in Mexico. The town claims to have 365 churches, one for each day of the year.
Located less than three hours away from Mexico City, Cholula is a great day trip and can be combined with a visit to nearby Puebla, another pretty town.
9 Zipolite Beach
Playa Zipolite, or Zipolite Beach, is a rustic seaside town located on the southern coast of Mexico’s Oaxaca state, between the more popular coastal towns of Huatulco and Puerto Escondido. Zipolite’s claim to fame is that it’s one of Mexico’s very few “swimsuit optional” beaches and for its distinct hippie vibe which began in the 1960s. The town is lacking in building codes and banks, but abundant in charm and chill.
Some say Zipolite means “bumpy place,” named for the craggy outcroppings that line the beach. Others claim the name is Zapotec for “beach of the dead” due to the dangerous underwater currents just offshore. Either description is accurate for this beautiful, but sometimes dangerous, stretch of coast.
The pristine, gold-sand beach is popular with foreign tourists looking for an off-the-beaten-path tropical destination and will delight those looking for sun and fun as well as great surfing.
Visitors can take a boat tour to see whales, dolphins, turtles, and other animals.
Zipolite boasts natural vortex energy and is peppered with laid-back beach bars. It’s a fun place to visit with old – or new – friends!
Read about the best things to do in Zipolite Beach.
8 La Paz
On the shores of Mexico’s southern Baja peninsula is La Paz, an authentic and colorful Mexican city whose name translates as “the Peace.” Boasting 340 days of sunshine a year, beaches as beautiful as the Caribbean, and a desert climate that keeps the days warm and dry and the nights cool, you are spoiled for choice of things to do in La Paz.
Mexico is well known for its beautiful pristine beaches, especially on the Caribbean Coast, but one of the best is the stunning Balandra beach in La Paz. Balandra may be one of the less-visited beaches in Mexico but that’s not due to a lack of beauty.
One of the best ways to explore the sparkling turquoise waters of Balandra is by taking a kayak out into the calm water. The water in the bay is so clear that it casts a shadow underneath the kayak making it seem as if the vessel is magically floating above the water.
Read more things to do in La Paz:
UNESCO World Heritage Site Calakmul (pronounced cah-lack-mool) was an important Mayan city during the Classic Period. The city sits in the heart of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Together with Palenque to the west and Tikal just south in Guatemala, the three ancient cities ruled the highlands and maintained an intense rivalry.
Known as the Kingdom of the Snake, the walled city of Calakmul contains almost 7,000 structures and had a population of 50,000 during its height. The largest Mayan ancient structure ever built is the great pyramid (148′ high) on which I’m sitting above.
Located in Campeche State, one of the three states that make up the Yucatan Peninsula, the remote jungle location is the reason many travelers don’t know about this hidden gem. From the closest major city, Campeche City, it’s about a five-hour drive and another four hours to get to the smaller east coast city of Chetumal.
The Mayan site of Calakmul has some of the largest pyramids in Mexico, and unlike many other Mayan pyramids such as Chichen Itza, you can still climb to the top of the main pyramid (and all other structures) for spectacular 360-degree views of the dense surrounding jungle landscape as well as the central plaza.
Because it’s not close to any major tourist cities combined with the long, bumpy ride to get to the site, there are not many tourists around.
6 Cenote Calvera
There’s no doubt that the 6000 cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula are some of the most fun and unique experiences in Mexico. Whether they are open-air or located within a cave, it’s no wonder that the Mayan culture considered these incredible natural structures to be gateways to the afterlife.
I’ve swum in a dozen or so cenotes in Mexico. I love them all, but Cenote Calavera might be the most entertaining!
Calvara means “skull” in Spanish and is named because of the shape of this cenote, which has two small holes in the ground that represent eyes and one large hole that represents the mouth. The deepest part is 54 feet deep.
The unique things about this cenote are the holes you can jump in and the swing (Yay! Photo op!) True to character, Kary did the jumping and I posed for the photo op.
Cenote Calavera is a “Cántaro” or jug type of cenote which has an opening in the roof which is smaller than the water-filled cave cenote below. Most people jump into the largest “mouth” hole; the eye holes are smaller but you can jump one person at a time doing a “pencil” jump (although people have gotten injured).
I would recommend that you arrive early. We got there about 10 minutes before it opened in the morning and there was hardly anyone there. I assume it gets more crowded as the day goes on…
Cenote Calvera is very close to Tulum.
5 Grutas de Tolantogo
About a five-hour drive north of Mexico City, Grutas de Tolantongo in the state of Hidalgo is one of the most incredible hidden Mexico gems.
A natural water park. Tolantongo comes from the Aztec word tonaltonko, which means “where it feels warm.” Turquoise infinity thermal pools fed by underground mineral-infused hot springs cascading over the rocks are layered along the Sierra mountainside, cantilevered over a canyon, and tucked away between lush trees and mysterious millennia-old caves,
Due to the long distance from any major cities, Grutas Tolantongo is rarely visited by international tourists which only serves to increase its allure as one of the best secret places in Mexico. That said, the hot springs can get pretty crowded with locals, so it is advisable to get there first thing in the morning if you’re looking for that perfect Instagram moment.
Bacalar Lagoon is often called “the Maldives of Mexico.” Having now been to both, I’d concur that’s an accurate decision. Located in the Quintana Roo state on the Yucatan Peninsula, here’s how to get to Bacalar, Mexico.
The local Mayans call Bacalar “the Lagoon of Seven Colors” because they say you can see seven shades of blue in the water. We counted them, and you can…from the lightest, almost transparent aqua that shimmers in the sunlight to deep indigo blue on the horizon. Seriously, this freshwater lake is arguably prettier than any Caribbean Beach.
37 miles long, the lagoon has a rich and interesting history, once offering passage for pirates.
One of the best places to spend a day is at Cocalitos, a stunning, swimmable lagoon with fossilized stromatolites, a cenote, and hammocks. There’s a festive restaurant on site that overlooks the water, playing fun contemporary Latin pop music, and serving the best, crispy French Fries in Mexico (Mexicans suck at making fries – soggy, limp, and tasteless — yuck).
Talk about WOW Factor! The second must-do experience in Bacalar is Los Rápidos. Aka “The Narrows,” Los Rápidos is the narrow channel that connects the lagoon of Bacalar with the lagoon of Xul-Ha, creating a strong current down the channel where you can float. Because of the limestone bottom, the crazy turquoise color of the channel is surreal!
The channel is lined on both sides with stromatolites (sedimentary formations created by colonies of microorganisms.) These fossils are the oldest forms of life, allegedly appearing between 2.5 and 1 billion years ago, and are found in very few places on earth. They are fragile and you should not walk on them.
I also recommend renting a kayak to see more of the stunning channel and the lagoon.
Bacalar is about 30 minutes from the Belize-Mexico border. Once a secret gem, the stunning turquoise lake, and its charming laidback town are becoming more and more discovered.
To get to Lake Bacalar the best option is to get a rental car or by bus from major cities like Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Cancun, and Chetumal.
I’ve been exploring ancient Mayan cities since I was 24, but I must admit, I’d never even heard of Edzna. We kind of stumbled on it on our road trip from Merida to Campeche. It makes sense since the western region of the Yucatan isn’t a popular tourist destination. I did some quick research on my phone, and it looked pretty good and was just 45 minutes from Campeche so we decided to stop.
Founded between 600 and 300 B.C., the city was mysteriously abandoned in 1450 AD. In the late classic period, Edzna was a part of the Calakmul government.
Edzna translates in Mayan to “house of the Itzas”, which has led some archaeologists to believe that Edzna was once the home of the Itza family before they moved on to found the more famous site of Chichen Itza.
We were so glad we decided to stop at Edzna. It’s such a neat little Mayan city and we literally had the whole place to ourselves!
2 Hierve el Agua
The stunning natural phenomenon Hierve el Agua should not be missed when you are in Oaxaca. Hierve El Agua is known for its colorful mineral formations, petrified waterfall, and cliff-top infinity pools, making it one of the most dramatic places in Mexico for stunning photos.
Located more than 5,000 feet above sea level, the Hierve El Agua area has two different infinity pools with a breathtaking Sierra Madre de Oaxaca mountain range in the background. One of the pools has an eerie bare tree that adds a magical element to photography.
The stunning geological petrified “waterfalls” are the result of thousands of years of calcite deposits falling from a jaw-dropping location atop the undulating highlands of San Lorenzo Albarradas. The petrified waterfall is unique in that it’s one of only two in the world, formed thousands of years from by mineral-rich water flowing down the cliff face. At a distance, the enormous rock structure looks exactly like a frozen waterfall. If you come closer to the formation, however, you realize your eyes have played a trick on you. The rocks are, in fact, mineral deposits on top of a limestone mountain.
While the pools are the main attraction, you’ll want to explore more of the site. You can hike down for better views of the petrified waterfall but take note that while the hike down is not too difficult, the hike back up is steep and in the scorching sun, pretty difficult. Make sure you have enough water.
Hierve El Agua is located an hour and a half drive from Oaxaca. I combined my visit to Hierve el Agua with a stop to explore the nearby ancient ruins of Mitra.
Read more about Hierve el Agua.
For years, Isla Holbox was one of the best-kept secrets in the Yucatan. Located at the top of the Yucatan peninsula, Isla Holbox, or Holbox Island (pronounced hole-bosh), is the best Mexican beach destination, hands-down!
Think of a dreamy paradise without the crowds and chaos of Tulum or Playa del Carman, with sugar sand translucent turquoise beaches lined with swaying coconut palms. Add to that a colorful boho vibe, no paved roads, unique food choices, and the opportunity to swim with whale sharks, and you have the perfect tropical vacation spot. And the best part is that it’s just 2.5 hours from Cancun to Holbox!
Part of the Yum Balam Nature Reserve, you can swim with whale sharks, see bioluminescent plankton at night, kayak in the mangroves, snorkel, or just swing in a sea hammock while drinking a fresh coconut, the choice is yours.
Barely more than a decade ago, Holbox was just a tiny fishing village but this little piece of paradise is becoming more and more popular as the world is discovering its pristine beaches.
Not only is Holbox blissful, but it is known as one of the safest places to visit in Mexico.
Another advantage of Isla Holbox is the charm of the colorful city center and that there aren’t large resorts built on this island.
Holbox Island is only accessible via the Isla Holbox ferry dock in Chiquila. Cars aren’t permitted on the island, but there are paid lots right next to the dock where you can leave your rental car.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and the southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials” and she was named one of the “Top 35 Travel Blogs” in the world.
She is also the star of the upcoming TV series “Destination Takeover” which is scheduled to premiere in the new few months.
Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled extensively through six continents looking for fabulous destinations, exotic beaches, and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer tribe.