Mexico has been grabbing headlines for the past few years – and sadly not for the right reasons. From the now-infamous wall and terrible conditions in migrant camps across the US border to cartel killings in cities like Juarez, it might seem sometimes like there's no good news from the country. And while Mexico is facing some challenges, most of the country remains safe for visitors (despite the headlines). Away from the major sights in Mexico City and the resorts of Cabo, Puerto Vallarta and Cancun lies a land crammed with tantalizing but lesser-visited destinations – here's our guide to the best places to visit in Mexico.
Mexico is blessed with an abundance of gorgeous beaches, but there’s something special about the otherworldly scenery of Bahía Concepción. A pristine bay off the Sea of Cortez, halfway down the Baja California peninsula, spell-binding white-sand beaches line its shores for over 30 km (20 miles), hemmed in by forests of cacti and desert-fringed mountains. As far as kayaking goes, few places in the world can match it.
Mexico’s most extraordinary “ghost town”, Real de Catorce is tucked away in a remote corner of the Bajío, a region once littered with booming silver mines. Since the mid-1990s, an influx of artists, artesanía vendors, wealthy Mexicans and a few foreigners have re-built the virtually abandoned colonial centre, with its narrow cobbled streets and elegantly faded mansions. Huichol pilgrims visit the city on their way to harvest fresh peyote in the nearby desert.
Most famous for its Day of the Dead celebrations (Nov 1–2), this enchanting lake is a worthy destination year-round. There’s the gorgeous waterside town of Pátzcuaro itself, plus the tranquil island of Janitzio and its indigenous fishermen, throwing their traditional butterfly nets from tiny dug-out canoes. Each of the small villages that surround the lake specializes in different arts and crafts.
Known for its gravity-defying mountain railway, the isolated, beautiful region dubbed the Copper Canyon is best experienced on foot. The village of Creel high in the Sierra Tarahumara acts as a base for expeditions to remote valleys, waterfalls and Rarámuri villages, while the four-hour drive from Cerocahui to the bottom of the Barranca de Urique is mesmerizing. Here the town of Urique marks the start (or end) of the popular two-night, three-day trek to Batopilas, a sleepy village home to a ruined Jesuit mission.
English eccentric Edward James discovered the picturesque small town of Xilitla in the 1940s and was inspired to create his own version of the Garden of Eden in the rainforest outside the town. He spent much of the 1960s and 1970s creating the jungle fantasy garden of Las Pozas, full of outlandish statues and structures. James was a patron of the Surrealist movement (he was pals with Dalí and Magritte), and the movement's influence is obvious here, with spiral staircases that curl up into the air, giant stone hands, a mosaic snake and “The House Destined To Be a Cinema”.
Oaxaca City remains one of Mexico’s most popular destinations, for good reason: it’s rich in folklore and culinary traditions and features numerous fiestas, indigenous markets, fine local chocolate and a magnificent colonial centre. Oaxaca is also widely regarded as the artistic centre of Mexico, with several state-run and private galleries, craft and jewellery master classes and regular exhibitions.
With fresh seafood, gorgeous sandy beaches, the chance to swim with dolphins, a population of sea turtles and vibrant coral reefs (check out the sculptures in the Cancun Underwater Museum), the Isla Mujeres is the most enticing slice of Mexico’s Riveria Maya. It's close to Cancun, yet compared to the bigger resorts the island offers a refreshing dose of Caribbean languor, with its narrow streets lined with colourful wooden houses.
Few of Mexico’s great Mayan sites are as atmospheric as Yaxchilán. This ancient city can only be approached by boat and is shrouded by jungle in an incredibly evocative setting along the river, where the eerie moans of howler monkeys echo around the ruins.
Fantasy Mexico – San Cristobal is a place where whitewashed red-tiled houses huddle together on the plain, giving the city an unrivalled provincial colonial charm. Though often bursting with foreign travellers, the appeal of San Cristóbal is undiminished, a mix of colonial churches, little museums and markets. It’s also a great base for visiting the nearby Tzotzil Maya village of San Juan Chamula; the two-hundred-year-old church, with its floor smothered in pine needles, is one of the most captivating sights in Mexico.
This gorgeous colonial city presents an astonishing sight: upon emerging from the surrounding hills you come upon the centre quite suddenly, a riot of colonial architecture, tumbling down hills so steep that at times it seems the roof of one building is suspended from the floor of the last. There’s an old-fashioned, backwater feel to the place, reinforced by the local students’ habit of going serenading (and boozing) in black capes, on their famed musical walks known as callejóneadas.
Carlos Slim – one of the world’s wealthiest men – funded the phenomenal Museo Soumaya in 1994. Designed by the Mexican architect Fernando Romero, it’s not just the revolutionary architecture that appeals. The six-storey building is smothered by 16,000 hexagonal aluminium tiles and the museum also contains over 66,000 works from Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica to twentieth-century Mexican art and beyond, including pieces from Rodin, Dalí, Murillo and Tintoretto.
Though it might appear to be just another alluring colonial city that’s littered with Spanish language schools, opulent Cuernavaca has attracted rebels since Aztec times. In the 20th century, converts included singer María Félix, Rita Hayworth and Malcolm Lowry, who set Under the Volcano (1947) here, and hippie guru Timothy Leary came to take magic mushrooms here in the 1960s. Many current residents are artists, intellectuals and writers – stay a few days and let the city's infectious charm work its magic on you, too.