Sumidero Canyon, Chiapas
First up on the list is the Cañon del Sumidero, a canyon that lies on the Grijalva River. It has been a hidden gem for many years, as it was shrouded in legends born from lost explorers and uncontrollable waters. Some time ago, the government built a dam that calmed the waters, making it navigable and attractive to visitors. While very few foreigners tend to visit, it is on every Mexican’s to-do list. To visit the canyon, most people board a boat on the banks of Chiapa de Corzo, a colonial town on the edge of the Grijalva River. You can get there by taking a bus from Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state’s capital, or on a tour from San Cristobal de las Casas, another awe-inspiring colonial city. The tours through the canyon usually last two hours, so make sure you keep your eyes peeled for wildlife: crocodiles, howling monkeys, and anteaters abound. Waterfalls sprout from the canyon 1,000 m walls creating intricate formations, like the famous Christmas Tree waterfall.
Copper Canyon, Chihuahua
Barrancas del Cobre, or Copper Canyon, is a collection of six canyons that run through the Sierra Madre Occidental. The most popular way to explore this natural beauty is on the Copper Canyon Train, which departs from Los Mochis in Sinaloa and ends in Chihuahua City, travelling a distance of 650km. The train passes through a series of 20 canyons, 86 different tunnels, 37 bridges over water, covering 60,000 km2. It is 7 times larger than the Grand Canyon! For those that want a more active immersion in the canyon, there are dozens of hiking routes, mountain biking, rafting, horseback riding, and camping. It is home to the deepest canyon in Mexico, Urique, and spectacular waterfalls, like Basaseachi and Piedra Volada.
When visiting the canyon, it is important to keep in mind that it is the traditional home of the Tarahumara people. The Rarámuris, as they refer to themselves, can tell you the legends that surround the mountains and waterfalls. They are some of the most important artisans in the country, but they are also some of the most vulnerable groups in Mexico too. The canyon is their sacred home, so remember to treat it as such. The Tarahumara people are unbelievable athletes who excel at long-distance running and live very customary lives.
As you can probably work out from the name, Tequila is home to the production of the traditional Mexican drink. The town’s landscape is made up of fields of blue agave, the plant used to make tequila and mezcal. The town is only one hour away from Guadalajara, one of Mexico’s most important cities. Walking around the town, you will find every kind (and flavour!) of tequila imaginable. Inside the Municipal Palace, you can take in a mural depicting the legend of how tequila came to be, and in the National Tequila Museum you can learn all about the history of production and consumption. The most popular part of visiting Tequila is, without a doubt, visiting one of the tequileras. Casa Sauza and Mundo Cuervo are the most in-demand distilleries to visit, so plan ahead if you want the best! You can book a spot on the Jose Cuervo Express, which will take you from Guadalajara to Tequila and is considered part of UNESCO’s World Heritage.
Exploring the fields and distilleries is not the only reason to visit Tequila, though. It is where one of the oldest civilizations in Mexico lived around 1500 BC. Two important archaeological sites, Huitzilapa and Amatitan tell of the ancient shaft tomb culture that inhabited the region until almost 300 AC.
Chetumal, Quintana Roo
Chetumal is a city off the coast of Yucatan, almost bordering Belize. Historically, it has always been an important Mayan city. The city offers many things to do, but one of the most interesting of them has to be the Mayan Culture Museum. This museum breaks with the idea of a traditional museum and instead creates a space that mimics key ideas and concepts that made up the Mayan way of life: how they viewed the world, the astronomical and mathematical knowledge they gained, and their everyday lives.
To further explore the ancient Mayan culture, you can head to Dzibanche or Kohunlich, both spectacular archaeological sites. Both of these archeological sites are a car ride away from Chetumal, so renting a car is usually the best way to get around at your own pace. Another unmissable place to visit around Chetumal is Bacalar. Bacalar is home to the Laguna de Siete Colores, or the Lagoon of Seven Colours in English. It is one of the most striking natural lagoons that stays true to its name. You can swim, sail, kayak, visit the Pirates’ Channel, and float down the rapids.
Sayulita is the ideal place for surfers, nomads, and backpackers. While Mexico has almost 6,000 miles of coastline, Sayulita is undisputedly one of the best places to surf in the country for all levels. It is a charming, colourful town close to bigger cities like Puerto Vallarta, or more exclusive resorts like Punta de Mita. Sayulita has a deservedly hippie reputation, as it’s full of quaint hostels, restaurants, and beachside raves. For the more adventurous traveller, Sayulita is a must-visit. The ocean caters to both beginner surfers and pros, Playa Sayulita being the best choice for the latter, and Playa Carricitos the best for the former. From Sayulita, you can also visit the Marieta Islands, where you can find the famous “hidden beach.”
Sayulita is home to Huichol indigenous people who sell their intricate and beautiful traditional crafts everywhere. Take advantage of their craftsmanship, as it is hard to find anywhere else. And don't haggle with indigenous artisans.
Campeche City, Campeche
Campeche City is a colonial city full of colourful houses. It is the only walled city in Mexico, since it was one of the most important ports during the colonial era and therefore a constant target for pirates. It has perfectly conserved its heritage, which is why it was named one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. You can find colonial haciendas all around the city, many of which you can visit. Walking through Calle 59, you can take in the colourful houses and local shops. In that same street, you will find the Church of San Francisquito. You can go on excursions close by to Edzná and Uxmal, both important archeological sites. If you’re tired of exploring, you can go to Punta Xen, a beautiful beach to lounge around all day and swim at your leisure.
Campeche is also home to Calakmul, one of Mexico’s hidden gems. While getting to this archaeological site can be complicated given its remoteness, it is worthwhile. It offers something most other popular sites around do not - it allows you to be alone in nature. The ruins cover a large amount of terrain, so you can walk around all day and you might not see many people. The top of the tallest pyramid offers views of the Biosphere Reserve, green as far as the eye can see. If you sit quietly, you can hear monkeys and jaguars, becoming completely immersed in the moment.
Xilitla, San Luis Potosi
Xilitla is a place that has to be seen to be believed. Especially the surrealist sculpture garden made my Edward James that sits in the middle of the jungle with what seems like no sense or purpose. In Las Pozas (“the Pools”), Edward James aimed to create a Garden of Eden. His ideas were represented metaphorically in most of his seemingly purposeless sculptures. You can stay in James’ old house, called The Castle, that has been converted into a hotel.
If you’re particularly adventurous, visiting Aquismón is a must. You can kayak through some of the bluest water to reach Tamul Waterfall, or hike up to the Cave of Swallows. The Cave of Swallows is one of the deepest abysses in the world. Here, you can witness thousands of birds taking flight - if you go at the right time.
El Tajín, Veracruz
El Tajin is an archeological site near Papantla, Veracruz. It is one of the largest and most important archeological sites in Mexico. It was home to the Totonaca Empire and much of the city has been preserved. In Tajin, you can observe ballcourts, called juego de pelota, the most prominent sport played during pre-Columbian times. It is of particular interest because the architecture used in the city cannot be found anywhere else in Mesoamerica, especially that of the Piramide de los Nichos. Since it was discovered in 1785, archaeologists have continued to uncover new parts of the city - some as recent as 2013! “El Tajin” has two disputed meanings; one is “of thunder or lightning,” and the other being “the place of the invisible beings.” Considering that legend dictates that the city is inhabited by twelve thunderstorm deities, it is more likely that the first is accurate. The area surrounding El Tajin has signs of having been inhabited since 5600 BCE, but was long uninhabited by the time the Spanish came to the Americas.
Oaxaca City, Oaxaca
Oaxaca City is one of the most wonderful cities in Mexico. The cultural richness, the people, and the views are just some reasons that Oaxaca has become a must on every traveller’s wishlist. It is a gastronomical hotspot with dozens of world-class restaurants to choose from. Some of the most noteworthy things to do in the city are visiting the Church of Santo Domingo, the ethnobotanical garden, the Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude, the Benito Juarez Market, and the Textile Museum. When in the Benito Juarez Market, look out for stalls selling every type of mezcal. Choose a couple of flavours and enjoy (responsibly)!
Monte Alban is the former capital of the Zapotec Empire where you can observe temples, palaces, ballcourts and tombs. From there you can visit Mitla, meaning “place of the dead,” which used to be a ceremonial center. Mitla has the only grecas decorations in Mesoamerica. There is an abundance of things to do around Oaxaca City, so it’s important to prioritize. That being said, you cannot visit Oaxaca without going to Hierve el Agua, home to fossilized waterfalls measuring around 40m that fall from natural springs. An indispensable stop to learn about the Mexican tradition of alebrijes is San Martín Tilcajete, where Jacobo and María Ángeles have a workshop that will show you the entire creation process. You might even spot a Xoloitzciuntle, the 7,000 year old legendary Mexican hairless dog favored by pre-Hispanic civilizations.
Morelia is one of Mexico’s most well-preserved colonial cities. It was built in the 1700’s and over 200 historic buildings are found in its historic center. Morelia is also the capital of the state of Michoacan, and one of the most important cities in Mexico. Morelia is mostly visited by Mexicans, as very few foreigners are aware of all it offers as a World Heritage Site. In the city’s historic center sits the tallest Baroque cathedral in the American continent, with the second-largest organ in Latin America! If you have a sweet tooth, visit the Mercado de Dulces (Candy Market), where you will find every type of regional candies. You can then walk along the Roman-style aqueduct while you savor and enjoy your purchases. If you’re more of a history nut, you can visit the home and birthplace of José María Morelos y Pavón, one of the revolutionary leaders who led the Mexican War of Independence and therefore one of the most important figures in the country’s history. The city was originally called Valladolid by the Spanish, but was subsequently renamed Morelia in honour of José María Morelos y Pavón. The Justice Palace, the Rose Conservatory, and the Temple of San Francisco are just some sites you can visit while walking around the historic center.
If you’re up for a day trip, Patzcuaro is only an hour away. It has been home to the Púrepecha people since 1300. Patzcuaro is home to the world’s youngest volcano. Its creation is also the only time in history when someone has seen the birth of a volcano, a phenomenon witnessed by an indigenous farmer called Dionisio Pulido. In 1943, the Paricutín volcano exploded and ravaged the surrounding town, and the only thing that survived was the town’s church tower. The Iglesia de San Juan de Parangarcutiro is a sight to behold. You can walk through the petrified lava all the way to the church. The altar is still intact, as it most of the outer structure.
There is an endless list of things to do in Mexico. The abundance of historical landmarks and archeological sites can be overwhelming when choosing what to do and where to go. Colonial cities like Merida, Guanajuato, and San Cristobal de las Casas are perfect examples of the mixing of Spanish and indigenous culture. Teotihuacan and Monte Alban are testament to the glory of Mesoamerican cultures that survive to this day, and Holbox and Guadalupe Island are home to some of the most magnificent animals the country has to offer.