Go off the beaten track and explore Mexico’s lesser-known alternative destinations.
You might have to put a bit more effort to reach these wonderful attractions, but that’s exactly what makes them so special. Here are our top 10 hidden gems of Mexico.
#10 Lagoon Of Seven Colors In Bacalar
Lake Bacalar, also known as the Lagoon of Seven Colors is the hidden gem of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. Its name comes from the gorgeous hues of the crystal clear water. The underwater cenotes and the dense tropical rainforest surrounding Bacalar make it an amazing destination, with plenty of places to discover all around the area.
The “Maldives of Mexico”, as it was nicknamed because of the many wooden walkways risen atop the lagoon, has magnificent waterfront views. You can admire them while having a walk along the lagoon or by kayaking or paddleboarding. These options are preferable to motorboats, as the water flow is very slow into and out of the lagoon and the marine life would have to suffer from it.
This 37-miles long lagoon also has an interesting history, once offering passage for pirates seeking their treasure. The authorities even built a fort to combat piracy in these waters. Now, the fort hosts a museum about the history of piracy and nighttime light shows.
Our tip: Negotiate with a boat captain for a ride to one of the cenotes or out to the “Pirate’s Canal.” Make sure to keep an eye out for rare birds, like the stunning roseate spoonbill.
You can reach Bacalar by bus from destinations like Chetumal, Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Cancun. All these routes are well-serviced with several daily departures to Bacalar.
By car, it will take you a four hours drive south from Cancun. Make sure to fill up on gas in Tulum before continuing. In case you’ve never driven through Mexico before, here is an extensive updated guide with everything you need to know in order to be comfortable behind the wheel.
The public access points to the lagoon are very cheap, it costs about 20 pesos ($1) for parking. Anyhow, most hotels, hostels, restaurants, and camping spots have their own private access to the lake. If you stay at any of these places, you will have free access to enjoy the lake.
Bacalar has accommodations for every type of traveller. From basic camping to budget hostels to luxury hotels and villas, there are so many different ways to experience the town and lagoon.
#9 Beaches of Isla Contoy
Contoy Island is one of the last virgin islands of the Caribbeans. Filled with paradisiacal beaches, dense vegetation and a rich ecosystem, it is one of the best of Mexico for wildlife enthusiasts. The island has been a protected area since 1961 and a National Park since 1998.
There are plenty of activities you can do on this tiny 5 miles long island. Make the most out of your journey here and sign up for a bird-watching trip or go for scuba diving or a snorkelling session in the reefs. You will be enchanted by surreal colourful marine life, including marine turtles and giant rays. From July through August you can even spot some whale sharks if you’re lucky.
Contoy Island is part of the State of Quintana Roo, being located in the transition zone between the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, only 31 miles north from Cancun. To get there, you can either take a ferry from Cancun or from Isla Mujeres. On average, a trip from whichever of the two will take around one to two hours.
Make your plans ahead of time though, as there is a restriction of 200 visitors max per day on the island and only a few tour operators are allowed to bring people. This way it’s taken care that the natural environment does not suffer because of extensive tourism.
Prices and visit timings will vary as per the tour operator you will be choosing.
Isla Contoy isn’t inhabited, but you can spend your night in one of the plenty accommodation options of Cancun or the nearby Isla Mujeres or Isla Blanca.
#8 Grutas Tolantogo
Located in the remote mountains north of Mexico City, the Grutas Tolantogo are a real gem to the eye and also to the body. The hot pools are filled with naturally mineral-infused water heated by the volcanic mountains surrounding it.
The hot spring resort has plenty to offer, including natural cliffside infinity pools, swimming pools and a thermal tunnel with a temperature between 96 to 100.40 °F to relax in. There are also waterfalls and beautiful turquoise rivers meandering through the lush vegetation, and mysterious grottos and caves to explore. Kids can find their own little corner of paradise there too, enjoying themselves in the waterslide pool. Oh, did we mention there is also a zipline?
The main reason why this natural paradise is still not filled with international tourists, keeping its status as one of the best hidden gems of Mexico, is the long-distance that isolates it from any big city. You will need at least 5 hours from Mexico City to get there, driving North.
You can either get a bus to take you there or rent a car, but make sure it is a reliable one, as the roads through the mountains can get pretty rugged and bumpy.
The entrance cost is definitely a bargain for all that you get in Grutas Tolantongo. With only 150 pesos per person ($6.72 USD) you can enjoy a whole day inside, starting as early as 7am and staying until 8pm.
We recommend spending at least one night there, to truly enjoy all that the park has to offer. Grutas Tolantongo offer hotel and tent camping options for its visitors, which you can arrange upon arrival.
#7 Hierve El Agua In Oaxaca
Hierve El Agua is known for its colorful mineral formations, petrified waterfall, and cliff side infinity pools.
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.
From its pick you will get the wonderful view of the distant mountain range and the valley below it, that will sure take your breath away.
Hierve El Agua is located about an hour and a half drive South-East from Oaxaca. You can get there with a guided tour company, a public bus or of course, by car. If budget is not a problem, you can even hop in a taxi.
Entrance to the unusual “falls” is only 25 pesos for a day visit (around $1 USD). The park’s hours aren’t the most consistent though, so if you are not going with a tour company make sure to call ahead.
There aren’t any hotels in the closest town yet, but car camping or tent camping can be arranged, with the security guards on duty.
#6 Suytun Cenote in Valladolid
It is a superb feeling to step foot inside a secluded cenote, to bathe in turquoise waters that seem like pools crafted for Gods. It’s no wonder that the Mayan culture considered them gateways to the afterlife.
We had to choose at least one cenote to place on our list, but with over 6000 cenotes only in the Yucatan area, it can be a tough mission. Anyhow, the Suytun Cenote impressed us and many other visitors above all.
The cenote became increasingly popular during the past years due to social media, but despite its impressive appearance, it remains a better alternative to other nearby cenotes, like the busy Ik Kil Cenote, that is often paired with the Mayan ruins.
What makes the Suytun cenote truly unique is the walkway leading down the centre. The Suytun cenote is completely underground and the only light that makes it inside is through an opening in the ceiling. Many people say that the radiant light beam looks almost spiritual, or alien.
The Suytun Cenote is located in Valladolid, around 2 hours away from Cancun and Tulum. To get there, many visitors sign up for tours with agencies, but if you want to avoid crowding with lots of people inside, it’s better that you rent a car or a scooter and wait for the agitation to be over before entering. While waiting, you can enjoy a delightful meal or a drink in their restaurant.
The entrance cost to Suytun Cenote is 120 MXN pesos per person ($6.50 USD). if you want to refresh yourself swimming in the cenote, it is mandatory to wear a life jacket, which will cost you another 30 MXN pesos.
The cenote opens for tourists at 9:00am and stays open until 6.00pm
Valladolid, where the cenote is located, has hundreds of accommodations to choose from, from luxuriant hotels to hostels and camping spots. You just need to pick the one suiting you.
#5 Las Pozas Surrealist Garden
The Surrealist Garden Las Pozas is one of the best lesser-known places to visit in Mexico’s jungle. The garden is the creation of the eccentric British poet Edward James. His vision was to create an Eden-like place, filled with surrealistic architecture. Just like in the paintings of Salvador Dalí, at Las Pozas art portrays one thing as another and invents a different reality that replaces the conventional.
The gardens feature more than 30 structures, ranging from elaborate decorative buildings and plant sculptures to doors that open into nowhere and winding staircases that lead into the sky. Everything is surrounded by lush tropical plants and a mystical feeling.
With the construction starting right back in 1962 and lasting a good period of 20 years, we can now fully agree that it was all worth the hard work.
The Edward James Surrealist garden is located in the small town of Xilitla. The closest big city is Mexico City, at an approximately 7-hour drive away. You also have the option to fly to the small city Tampico, which is only 3 hours away. There are daily flights from big cities like Houston, Mexico City or Monterrey.
The entrance fee to Las Pozas Garden costs 70 pesos per person ($3.50 USD).
You won’t need more than 3 hours to explore the garden, but if you can’t get enough of it and want to prolong your visit, there are a bunch of accommodation options right in Xilitla. As we got used to in our favourite Mexican touristic attractions, there is a big variety for all pockets.
#4 The Waterfalls In Tamasopo
One of the most scenic yet lesser visited Mexico destinations is definitely the Tamasopo area. Located in the Huasteca Potosina region, Tamasopo offers a chance to swim in natural pools surrounded by fine waterfalls and wild tropical vegetation. There are countless incredible spots in the area, but Puente de Dios will make you feel like you are in a fantasy fairytale.
If you let yourself go with the flow (of the Gallinas River, to be more specific), the pond from Puente de Dios might get you inside a beautiful small cavern, softly illuminated by sunlight. Here you will meet little fish swimming around your feet, and little bats flying next to your head. Don’t worry, they are very used to people already so they won’t harm you. It’s a truly breathtaking experience.
You will need to travel through some distant mountain areas, so make sure you have a reliable vehicle to get you here. The closest airport to Tamasopo is the San Luis Potosí International Airport, around 3 hours away.
You can expect to pay very low prices here. Not more than a couple of dollars should give you access to waterfalls, camping spots and incredible parks.
Approximate duration: 9 am to 5 pm.
Tamasopo has a wide range of hotels and hostels to choose from, but for the real experience, we recommend spending the night in one of the amazing camping spots in the area. You will not regret it.
#3 Guanajuato City
Guanajuato is a colonial city with colourful houses, beautiful hilly views and just the right amount of chaos. The capital city of Guanajuato doesn’t get yet the same hype like its neighbour, San Miguel de Allende, does but inevitably there will be spillover. For now, however, Guanajuato remains one of Mexico’s best-kept secrets.
Located in a green valley, this mining town explodes with a burst of colour, anchored at its centre by the stately yellow church. The small city is best discovered by foot. Explore the local culture and get lost in the lively plazas and cobblestone alleys. Among the main attractions here are the silver mines, which are still operating, the Mummy Museum, Jardín de la Unión and Mercado Hidalgo.
Guanajuato is located in the North West of Mexico City, at 5 hours distance.
International Airport in Silao is the closest airport serving Guanajuato. From there you can take either a bus or a taxi to get to the city.
On the other hand, bus services in Mexico are quite reliable and comfortable, so you can consider a 5 hours bus ride from Mexico City. It takes more or less the same amount of time if you are renting a car, but you won’t need it too much in the city afterwards. Why? Because Guanajuato’s roads mainly consist of underground tunnels (yes, really!), so you won’t see much of it from the car. Plus, in the city centre, traffic lights and parking spots are a rare encounter. Not to discourage you, but just saying.
Guanjatuopo has very friendly prices when it comes to accommodation so you will find something right for you for sure. If you are a camping enthusiast, there are a few choices outside the city, but if you want to get its real taste and easily travel around, it’s better to stay somewhere central.
#2 Isla Aguada In Campeche
Campeche is one of the most beautiful alternative regions to visit in Mexico. From less travelled beaches to quiet cenotes, here you will find all the right ingredients for your peaceful vacation. Aguada Island is a small fishing port about 5000 inhabitants, located between Sabancuy and Ciudad del Carmen and surrounded by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Terminos Lagoon. Isla Aguada offers visitors miles of unspoiled beaches, sand and sun, as well as a solid chance to spot dolphins swimming in the blue waters.
The closest airport to Isla Aguada is the Ciudad del Carmen International Airport, around an hour drive away from the port city. As you might imagine, the best way to get around this region is with a rental car.
Isla Aguada is free to enjoy for visitors but to enter the island by car you will need to pay a toll fee of around 180 pesos ($9 USD).
It’s up to you if you prefer a hotel, airbnb, camping with a RV or with a tent (no hostels here), but what we recommend is booking your personal cute little cabin on the seashore. Your mornings will be simply magical.
#1 The Museum of Underwater Art in Cancun
You might have already seen pictures from this literally breathtaking museum travelling your news feed, making you wonder if they were photoshopped. Well, ladies and gets, it is as real as it gets. The museum boasts about 500 life-sized sculptures, depicting scenes and people from modern life. And not only do they look fantastic… but they are helping the reef system and marine life in the area!
Located off the coast of Mexico, in the waters surrounding Cancun and Isla Mujeres, MUSA is offering divers and snorkelers a unique perspective upon marine life already since 2009, when its underwater gates opened for the first time. The entire project was designed to promote marine life and increase biodiversity in the waters.
As the statues were made with something called pH-neutral cement, marine life such as coral, seaweed, and algae are able to grow and develop on them. Stable structures are known to be ideal surfaces for artificial reefs to grow on. This means that oral reefs will increase, and so will other marine life.
After only a short time under the water, the statues already began to be transformed by nature, and they will keep on changing until their figures will be barely visible. Take your flippers and see for yourself how this incredible underwater world looks like. And make sure you come a second time, to observe how nature slowly and beautifully takes over.
Your best bet to get there would be a ferry. If you have teamed up with a tour provider they will take you to the ferry port, otherwise, you can also get there by car. There are four spots where you can board the ferry. These are Puerto Juarez, Punta Sam, Cancun Hotel Zone, and Gran Puerto Cancun. Usually, the departure is every half an hour, the last one being a bit before 9 pm.
You will first have to pay a $12 dock fee to get on your boat towards the museum. From there, you have various option to explore it:
- A trip in a glass-bottom boat, from which you can see all the sculptures right from above starts from $47.
- If you want to get closer, a snorkelling tour will cost you between $47 or $70, depending which length you choose.
- A diving tour ranges between $90 and $99 if you own a diving a certificate and between $115 and $145 if you don’t.
You cannot make up your mind and you want to try going by boat the first day, snorkelling on the second day and maybe diving on the third? Nothing can stop you. You have a wide range of possible accommodations both in Cancun as well as on Isla Mujeres.
There are many amazing gems hidden all around Mexico. Not even a lifetime would be enough to explore them all.
Anyhow, no matter where your Mexico trip will get you, and whatever plans you make, always keep an open mind and embrace the unexpected. Leave some room for an unpredicted trip and try to get to know a bit of the culture. Talk with locals, ask for their advice and trust their preferences.
Sometimes the real gems will show up among the way 🙂