Where to go wildlife spotting in Mexico

author photo
Siobhan Warwicker
3/4/2019

Mexico is one of the world’s most biologically diverse countries. Whether you have your sights set on the grey whale migration of Baja, swinging spider monkeys of the rainforests, or adorable coatis on Cozumel island, there's a whole host of interesting animals in Mexico. Though you might not want to get too close to Mexico's national animal – the jaguar!

The country's Central American position provides a plethora of climates and habitats, thus the world's second highest number of mammal species for its size (around 500) and more than 1,000 species of birds. You can see exotic fauna all over Mexico, but here are a few of the top spots for an unforgettable animal encounter.

Where to see native animals in Mexico

Wildlife-rich rainforests

Don your trekking gear and join an excursion into Mexico's southern rainforests. Spider and howler monkeys are easy to spot in their lively groups, and often the animals that children want to see. Trickier is the cacomistle, a racoon-like creature which dwells in the south-eastern jungles. If you love guinea pigs then you'll adore the Mexican agouti, an oversized rodent which hangs out in hollow trees.

Of course, not all rainforest critters are so cute and cuddly. Crocodiles lurk around the lower rivers that flow through the southern forests, including the Lacandón on the Guatemala border. Jaguars, puma and lynx, coyote and kitfoxes also prowl these parts, though you'll rarely spot one of these slinky predators.

The elusive jaguar, one of the most hard to spot animals in Mexico © manny5d/Shutterstock

Thinking of visiting Mexico? We can help! Our tailor-made travel service will pair you with a local expert to plan a fully personalised trip

Mexican desert animals

Arid and rocky, northern Mexico marks the southernmost territory of some typically North American mammals – such as black bears. It's rare to encounter these endangered beasts, but you can have fun tracking them in the Cumbres de Monterrey National Park. The last Mexican grizzly was sadly shot a century ago.

You're more likely to come across a peccary, a medium-sized pig-like hoofed mammal which lives in the desert scrub. The occasional prairie dog may also pop up and show his face. Preying on these are bobcats, ocelots and the occasional jaguar – more commonly associated with the country’s jungle regions.

If you hear a rattle, stay clear: several species of rattlesnakes are common in the Mexican deserts.

Wild black bear in the Cumbres de Monterrey National Park © Martha Marks/Shutterstock

Baja’s marine-life bounty

Despite its name, the peninsular of Baja California slices through the Pacific from Mexico’s east coast. Basking in these warm waters is an incredible array of marine mammals - nearly 40% of the world’s species.

The mammal-spotting show-stopper is the annual grey whale migration. These majestic mammals arrive from the Artic and hang around Baja from December to April. The lagoons where the greys gather also attract blue, humpback, fin, minke, sperm and orca (killer whales), as well as dolphins and the rare vaquita porpoise.

Further out, Isla Guadeloupe is one of the few remaining breeding sites of the endangered elephant seal. If you want to get into the water, swimming with whale sharks is best in either Baja or the Yucatan. The time of year will determine which you choose.

A whale fluke breaks the surface in Baja California © HTurner/Shutterstock

Central Mexico's "walking fish"

Axolotl, the "Mexican walking fish", is surely of the most bizarre creatures on the planet. A seemingly smiling salamander with pink "probes" on its head, these strange amphibians have the ability to regrow their digits and limbs.

Once eaten as a delicacy in Mexico City, they are now a protected species. You can currently only see them in Lake Xochimilco and Lake Chalco, adjacent to Mexico City, where they are part of a conservation programme.

Central Mexico is also bursting with tree-dwellers: spider and howler monkeys, opossums, tropical squirrels, coatis and kinkajous. In the grass below you might spot a snuffling tapir.

The otherworldly Axolotl, or "walking fish" © Henner Damke/Shutterstock

A butterfly show-stopper in Michoacan

Witness one of the the insect world's greatest shows in eastern Michoacan. Each winter thousands of Monarch butterflies hatch, creating a blaze of colour across branches and forest floors. Visit one of the reserves, such as the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, from November to February to see the butterflies at their best. It's an easy wildlife win; you can do this as a day-trip from Mexico City.

Monarch butterflies at the Monarch Biosphere Reserve © Glass and Nature/Shutterstock

Go wild on the Yucatan Peninsular

Nature's booming in this eastern region, with a whole host of Mexican animals to see.

In the skies you could see a squirrel cuckoo, Aztec parakeet, and all three species of the Mexican toucan. There's plenty of life in the waters too. Colonies of manatee (sea cow), a docile creature which feeds on sea grass, live in the reefs of Quintana Roo. The village of Coba borders a lake that’s home to turtles and large numbers of Morelet’s crocodiles.

Predators, such as the coyote – and from the cat family, the margay, lurk in the forests of northern Yucatan. You might also encounter an anteater, opossum or armadillo.

If you fancy a guaranteed animal encounter in Mexico, head to the The Jungle Place spider monkey sanctuary in Quintana Roo. They take care of rescued spider monkeys who were victims of the illegal pet trade, poaching, and habitat destruction. The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, which features possibly the widest range of flora and fauna in Mexico is also well worth a visit (and you can stay here too). Jaguars are being monitored here, as well as at ten other nationwide destinations including Oaxaca and Jalisco.

If you're lucky you might spot a squirrel cuckoo in the Yucatan © Linnette Engler/Shutterstock

Animal life on the Caribbean coast in Mexico

Off the Yuctan’s Caribbean coast, the island of Cozumel is central to some of Mexico’s finest coral reefs, ideal for snorkelling and diving. Alternatively you can join a trip out to the deep sea for snorkelling with bright silver sailfish or friendly turtles. Back on dry land, Cozumel also the best place to see the Mexican coati, which looks looks part-anteater, part lemur with its flexible snout and banded tail.

Touristy Cancun isn't the first place you might choose for a wildlife experience. However, the Isla Contoy bird sanctuary is a popular day-trip from the party resort, and Isla Holbox, off the north coast, is the closest point to an annual gathering of more than 100 whale sharks.

There are many places in Mexico where you can participate in baby turtle release programs, including Riviera Maya on the Caribbean coast.

Diving with turtles is an experience to remember © Brian Lasenby/Shutterstock

Travel advice for Mexico

Planning on your own? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

Find even more inspiration for Mexico here

Ready to travel and discover Mexico?
Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels