Five Hidden Gems to Visit in Mexico
Extraordinary places that will make memories to last a lifetime
By Janet Blaser
Mexico has more than 100 designated “Pueblo Magicos”—"Magical Towns”—scattered throughout the country. All have been awarded this designation because of their striking natural beauty, historical importance or enchanting folkloric traditions.
Some are popular, well-known tourist destinations (like Tulum and Tequila); others are relatively small and unknown. While all are worth visiting, here’s a handful of truly spectacular natural wonders.
Laguna de Bacalar
With its crystalline waters that shift between different shades of turquoise, royal blue and indigo, the Laguna de Bacalar, or “Lagoon of Seven Colors,” is truly an extraordinary gift of nature.
The vibrant kaleidoscopic colors of the water are the result of seven deep cenotes or sinkholes scattered along more than 25 miles of the Bacalar Lagoon’s shoreline. The largest is the Cenote Azul (Blue Cenote), 656 feet in diameter and almost 300 feet deep, where visitors can swim, snorkel or dive, accompanied by a myriad of colorful fish.
The lagoon itself is round, and kayaks, small boats and paddleboards can be used to explore the cenotes, some of which have underground caves as well. The sunlight illuminates the crystal-clear waters reflecting off the white sandy bottom and depths of the underground caves, creating a mesmerizing optical illusion of the aquatic labyrinths.
You’ll find hotels and camping in the quaint town around the lagoon, as well as guided excursions to the cenotes and caves.
Monarch Butterfly Reserve
The sensation of being surrounded by millions of brilliant orange and black Monarch butterflies is mind-boggling, and only a handful of places in the world can offer this experience. Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Reserve is home to up to a billion migrating butterflies who overwinter in the forests of the area.
This breathtaking yearly phenomenon occurs between mid-November and March as the butterflies leave Canada and arrive in Michoacán. The wooded reserves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are open to the public and visitors can hike, bike or horseback ride to see the butterflies in their natural habitat.
Tree branches covered in the colorful Monarchs bend under their weight, and when they take off and fill the blue sky, it’s a magical sight. As the air warms in the afternoons and the butterflies take flight, the sound of millions of their fluttering wings is like a gentle rainfall.
Las Grutas Tolantongo (Tolantongo Caves)
Mezquital Valley, Hidalgo
Built into the side of towering cliffs, this series of hot-spring pools is legendary for its unique beauty and spectacular location. The waters are naturally mineral-infused and heated by the surrounding volcanic mountains; visitors can swim, soak, hike or use a zipline; there’s also a kid-friendly pool with a waterslide.
For the more adventurous, a hot-spring river (suitable for swimming) flows out of a tunnel in the cliffs, and explorable caves dot the picturesque canyon. The river cascades down the mountain in sections divided by gentle waterfalls.
Water temperatures are warm but comfortable, ranging from 75-95°F (24-35°C), depending on whether you’re in the pools, rivers or tunnels. A shuttle transports visitors up the steep rocky hillside to the pools at the very top.
If you’re brave enough, walk across a suspension bridge to take amazing photos of the river and canyon below. The best time to visit Tolantongo is on weekdays, in the morning as soon as they open, before the crowds arrive.
Palenque National Park
Rising out of the mist-shrouded jungle like a mirage, Palenque is one of Mexico’s most notable archaeological sites because of its size and significance. Multiple temples, sports fields, aqueducts, tombs and other intact structures—about 800 so far—show the sophistication of the Mayan civilization in A.D. 600-900. Experts say not even 2% of the ancient city has been uncovered, and that there are at least 1,000 more structures still buried by the tropical jungle.
Many of the remarkably well-preserved walls and buildings of the pyramids, palaces and tombs are covered in hieroglyphics, and you may want to allow yourself more than a day to explore. The entire 1-square mile site is open to the public.
After climbing a myriad of steep steps, the views from the top of the pyramids are especially amazing. Looking over the top of the surrounding jungle, one sees colorful birds, howler monkeys and maybe even a jaguar.
Visitors can take guided tours of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, birdwatch, follow walking trails or hike on their own.
Huasteca Potosina & Jardín Surrealista
Xilitla, San Luis Potosí
This Pueblo Magico is a labyrinth of breathtaking waterfalls spread through the mountainous forests of the area, connected by crystal clear rivers and hiking trails. Guided excursions take visitors in colorful canoe-like boats or along steep walkways and laddering staircases to play, and swim in the river pools and cascading waterfalls.
There are seven major waterfalls, and early morning is the best time to go. The nearby town has many small hotels, cabins and campgrounds, and a few days is needed to experience everything.
Cascadas de Tamasopo is one of the most beautiful, with three 60-foot waterfalls cascading into deep pools, surrounded by dense forest. There are rope swings and platforms for jumping into the chilly mountain water to swim.
Cascadas Pago Pago Micos offers a milder experience with its many mid-size waterfalls offering easier jumps into sparkling pools. Tucked at the base of a steep, narrow canyon, La Cascada Tamul will take your breath away with its natural beauty, flowing waterfall and deep pools below.
Besides the spectacular waterfall adventures, you’ll want to see the incredible Cave of Swallows, a deep, dark hole in the ground where thousands of swallows return just before sunset each day. Also worth visiting is the Jardín Surrealista, an unconventional sculpture garden created by the eccentric English artist Edward James.
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