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Mexico is a truly diverse country and one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. It offers everything from picture-postcard beaches and vibrant nightlife to historic treasures and everything in between. If you’d like to experience all of that and more but aren’t sure exactly where to go, consider these best places to visit.
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Los Cabos is considered to be the marlin sportfishing capital of the world, but it’s also one of the country’s top vacation spots. Made up of two towns, San Jose and San Lucas, situated in Baja California Sur, this destination is all about luxury, with all-inclusive resorts and high-end restaurants serving up amazing local cuisine like Chocolate Clams, smoked marlin, chicken tamales fajados and tamales de guemes. Of course, it’s renowned for its hopping party scene with an endless number of clubs and bars like Cabo Wabo, Passion Club, Giggling Marlin, Mango Deck, Nowhere Bar, Jungle Bar and Cabo Blue.
Cabos is the ultimate escape for divers and surfers who arrive for its pleasant climate with sunshine 350 days a year, as well as for couples seeking romance, with Playa del Amor or Lover’s Beach, offering spectacular caves, rock formations, and clear tropical waters. It’s also known for what’s referred to as “Land’s End,” gorgeous rock formations that were shaped by the wind and the sea.
Mérida is the largest city and the capital of the Yucatan Peninsula. Four hours inland from Cancun, this colonial city is a great place to experience some of Mexico’s culture, featuring a wide variety of art galleries, museums, theaters and restaurants in addition to retaining a number of well-preserved colonial buildings. Plan to be here on a weekend and you can enjoy the historical core with its 17th-century cathedrals made from Mayan bricks without the traffic. This is when it closes to motor vehicles and becomes filled with hawker carts offering fantastic street food staples like esquites and marquesitas as well as open-air stages that host music and dancing. Just 60 miles away the flamingo-filled mangroves and beautiful sandy beaches in the picturesque fishing village of Celestun make for an ideal day trip.
Just an hour’s drive from Cabo San Lucas, Todos Santos is one of the most charming towns in Baja. It offers a quirky mix of New Age spiritualists, surfers, artists and fishermen, along with a world-class foodie scene, although it’s somehow managed to escape the rampant tourism of other towns in the region. This unique, artsy desert oasis reminiscent of Taos, New Mexico a couple of decades ago, is nestled among ancient orchards of mango and palm and offers spectacular vistas overlooking powdery white sands and the expanse of the dazzling Pacific. Its rich history with centuries-old tradition and warm hospitality combined with modern conveniences make it an ideal vacation destination.
One of Mexico’s best-kept secrets, Chiapas is a southern state bordering Guatemala that is dotted with sparkling lakes and lovely waterfalls, as well as boasting magnificent ruins in its ancient Mayan city of Palenque. The ruins are tucked within a rain forest along the state’s northern border and were built with incredible artistry. An onsite museum showcases stucco hieroglyphs, intricately carved panels and fantastical clay earns. The remarkable detail of the carvings and frescoes have revealed much of what archaeologists know about Mayan life today. At nearby Agua Azul, situated in the heart of the jungle, you can not only take a dip in crystal clear, azure water in natural pools, but you can watch for exotic wildlife that lives in the surrounding forest, including howler monkeys, toucans and parrots.
“Playa,” as it’s often referred to, is popular with expats, offering an international flavor due to the diverse population with Europeans, Canadians and Americans moving here in droves for the past 25 years. A forward-thinking resort town, it’s filled with great restaurants, lively bars, shops and all-inclusive hotels in addition to having a very walkable downtown as one of the few spots on the Riviera Maya where you can enjoy a vehicle-free vacation. Just north you’ll find unspoiled, remote beaches with pristine waters that offer some of the best snorkeling and diving in the world. The reefs are excellent, and moray eels, rays, sea turtles and a huge variety of corals can be viewed.
Guanajuato is a striking hill town made up of 16th-century cathedrals and brightly colored homes on plazas lined with laurel trees. With plenty to see and do, it is located in the mountains of central Mexico. It was once a silver mining town, and today, in addition to its picturesque setting, it offers a cultural extravaganza hosting modern art, orchestras, ballet, mariachis and punk bands – many of which can be enjoyed for free. Despite its beauty, the colonial city isn’t perfectly restored, nor does it serve strictly as a tourist destination, rather it retains lots of character along with grittiness, as a city where people work, live and play. This walkable city with all of its bright colors, graceful churches, shady plazas and lively atmosphere is easy to fall in love with, just getting lost in the maze of cobblestone lanes that climb steeply from the center.
Located on the Bay of Banderas along the Pacific coast in Jalisco, Puerto Vallarta is one of Mexico’s most popular vacation destinations. Divers and snorkelers love its rainbow of corals, striking rock formations and rich population of sea life, although it’s also the perfect kind of place for sipping margaritas and soaking up the sunshine on the miles of sandy beaches. This pretty resort town also offers great shopping, with Zona Romantica a treasure trove of quirky boutiques that line winding cobblestone streets as well as Marina Vallarta which hosts shopping centers and luxury hotels that are spread around the yacht marina. Wildlife lovers will be thrilled by the giant manta rays and dolphins that pass just offshore – and in the wintertime, humpback whales are a common sight.
Tulum is a jaw-droppingly beautiful seaside community on the Yucatan peninsula that is famous for its turquoise waters and white sugar-like beaches with giant sea turtles that roam the sand. It’s also home to pre-Columbian Mayan ruins. The temples and castillos in the region date as far back as the 13th century, and the Tulum ruins sit atop a tall cliff along the Caribbean coast as the only archaeological site to have been built overlooking the sea. There are also gorgeous nature reserves, the opportunity to dive into caves, enjoy outstanding snorkeling, explore breathtaking cenotes and a whole lot more. While the town of Tulum has been expanding, it still offers a charming, bohemian feel and remains an ideal place for escaping some of Mexico’s more crowded tourist destinations as well as offering a better chance for connecting with locals.
Colonial Zacatecas sits at 8,100 feet above sea level as Mexico’s second-highest city. Its beauty will literally take your breath away, with the magnificent architecture of civil and religious buildings, including its cathedral, which dominates the center of town and is widely regarded as one of the most stunning examples of Churrigueresque architecture in the country. Take the cable car across the city center to admire the beautiful pink stone monuments in the park and tour the legendary El Eden Mine by hopping on the subterranean train passing through historically significant sites like the chapel and Museum of Minerals. Best known as one of the clusters of old silver mining cities, Zacatecas has long been valued for its rich deposits of silver and other minerals. Zacatecas also hosts a Holy Week Cultural Festival which features more than 50 dancers and other performers.
Cancun is a world famous tourist destination on the Caribbean coast that offers the ultimate Mexico vacation, complete with lavish resorts and hotels, amazing beaches, Mayan ruins, modern attractions and a very exuberant nightlife. While the hotel zone is almost entirely built around the tourism industry, Cancun’s downtown area known as El Centro, offers a more authentic Mexican atmosphere in its markets, eateries, clubs and bars. No matter what you’re in the mood to dine on, you can find it here, with everything from traditional cuisine served at hidden beach shacks to freshly caught Gulf seafood, burgers, sushi, oriental spiced soups and curries from the Indian subcontinent.
While the beaches are arguably the biggest attraction, Cancun also offers vast coral reefs and marine habitats with a kaleidoscope of tropical species, including rare and endangered sea turtles as well as lemon sharks.
La Paz sits along the shores of the southern Baja peninsula. This authentic, colorful city with a name that translates to “the peace,” boasts 340 days of sunshine a year and stunning beaches that rival those found on the Caribbean coast. Deemed “the world’s aquarium” by Jacques Cousteau due to the abundance and variety of sea life cushioned within its depths, you can not only enjoy incredible snorkeling and diving but by taking a short boat trip to the protected waters of Isla Epiritu Santo Island, you’ll discover a rocky outcrop hosting a colony of wild sea lions. Jump into the water and you might just enjoy a face-to-face encounter with a sea lion pup.
The boardwalk that hugs the shoreline, known as the malécon, is considered one of the most beautiful in the country, making it a lovely place to stroll and take in glorious sunsets. The unassuming capital also offers a laid-back atmosphere with lively squares and streets tucked between old laurel trees, coconut and date palms, along with fine eateries serving up the ultimate seafood smorgasbord.
This island in the Caribbean sea off the Yucatan peninsula is considered to be one of the top diving destinations in the Western Hemisphere. While Cozumel could have easily become just another cheesy cruise ship destination, it’s too proud for that. Admittedly, passengers will find the docks filled with vendors selling a variety of souvenirs from t-shirts to jewelry, tequila and Cuban cigars, but at the same time, you’ll find an isle with genuine authenticity and tranquility. Diving, and snorkeling, are its main draws, but the town square is a lovely place to wile away the afternoon, and you’ll also have the opportunity to explore less-visited areas of the island by renting a convertible VW Bug or a scooter. Head out on the coastal road and you’ll discover a marine park, small Mayan ruins, and plenty of captivating scenery.
Beautiful Isla Holbox is fast becoming the place to be seen on the Yucatan peninsula. For years, it was a sleepy fishing village, but the discovery of migrating whale sharks that gather just off each coast each year, May through September, to feed on the plankton rich waters have made it the top place on the planet to see or even swim with the ocean’s largest fish. The isle is also a haven for birdwatchers, with over 150 bird species, including flamingos and pelicans calling the island their home, and for those who want to get away from the hustle and bustle of Cancun, the island’s sandy streets, lack of cars and colorful Caribbean houses, make it ideal. This quiet escape offers seven miles of striking white sands and crystal clear cerulean waters that are perfect for relaxation.
Another one of Mexico’s magnificent colonial cities, Morelia is located in the state of Michoacan and is home to the only indigenous people who were never conquered by the Aztecs. Its state capital proudly displays its Indian roots among the majestic, pink quarry stone colonial buildings. The city is surrounded by villages that are devoted to a single crafts industry, including musical instruments, textiles, furniture, copper and pottery, and a number of the world’s most important monarch butterfly wintering sites can be found in Michoacan’s mountains. The annual monarch migration is one of the greatest spectacles that can be seen in all of Mexico – as many as 60 million to one billion orange-colored butterflies journey from eastern Canada to the forests of western central Mexico. With a large population, Morelia also boasts lots of opportunities for high-end art, music and other cultural experiences like museums, theater and exhibits.
Copper Canyon, located in Northern Mexico, is made up of roughly 20 canyons created by a half-dozen or so rivers. This breathtaking canyon is seven times the size of the Grand Canyon in Arizona and offers the opportunity for all sorts of adventures, in addition to the scenic wonders of the canyon itself, including hiking, biking, horseback riding and whitewater rafting. One of the most popular ways to explore it is to take the train that traverses the canyon through 86 tunnels and 39 bridges. Visitors also have the opportunity to take a tour that provides a glimpse at the indigenous people who continue to live a simple, rustic way of life in this rugged terrain. They have made the canyons their home for centuries and living in this remote region, their way of life has largely been preserved.
Initially attracting tourists in the mid-20th century with its beautiful beaches, today Mazatlan is especially popular for snowbirds who head south to escape the cold. Known as the “Pearl of the Pacific,” it boasts 11 miles of golden sands, blue lagoons, the largest boardwalk in Latin America and the opportunity for a wide variety of water sports as well as the chance to experience a more traditional Mexican lifestyle, with its historic section remaining much the same as it did before the hordes of tourists arrive. When you’re ready for a break from the beaches, head to town and enjoy a performance at Teatro Ángela Peralta, explore one of the many museums, and be sure to sample a traditional dish at Plazuel Machado.
Puebla is sometimes referred to as one of the best cities in Mexico that most people have never even heard of. Its city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with its spectacular monuments of Spanish colonial architecture and colorful blend of cultures. Stroll the central streets, and while it seems there is a colonial church on every block, you won’t want to miss the Cathedral of Puebla with its twin towers that are the tallest in the country. You’ll pass many magnificent buildings, facades, and gardens that reflect Puebla’s history, and you may want to stop in one of the shops that sell intricately designed Talavera pottery. Nearby, you can view the world’s largest pyramid at Cholula, topped by a church. After dark, head to the Plazuela de los Sapos to enjoy the sounds of traditional mariachi.
San Miguel de Allende was once an important stop on the silver route between Zacatecas and Mexico City, but today it’s popular with expats and tourists thanks to its starring role in Robert Rodriguez’s “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” Its historic center is filled with well-preserved buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries, and with narrow cobblestone streets, leafy courtyards, magnificent architectural details and lavish interiors, some say San Miguel de Allende is the prettiest town in the country. With no drug violence, it’s also a safe city and a Unesco World Heritage site since 2008. In addition to checking out the beautiful architecture, you can visit multiple handicraft shops, botanic gardens and organic farmer restaurants.