In the age of social media, you probably have an idea of what a trip to Mexico looks like. You know the beaches are beautiful and the food looks fantastic. But if you’ve never been to Mexico, what you’ve seen your friends or family (or influencers) post only tells a fraction of the country’s story.
“There’s a real misconception — or partial understanding — of Mexico that it’s only a place to go to escape the cold,” says Zachary Rabinor, president and chief executive of the travel planning company Journey Mexico. “A lot of the stereotypes on the positive side are about the sun and the sand.”
While it’s true Mexico can be a warm getaway that boasts an incredible food culture, there is more to the massive country than its most famous places. After all, “the diversity of Mexico is enormous,” says Marisol Herrera, a local Mexico specialist for the travel planning company Kimkim.
To help you plan the right Mexico trip for you, we asked local travel experts to share their recommendations. Here are six options, whether you are looking to eat your way through a vacation, find epic outdoor adventures or just relax by the water.
For sun and surf: Oaxaca state
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Mexico is blessed with thousands of miles of coastline stretching along the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of California, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Anais Martinez, a food blogger and culinary tour guide from Mexico City, narrows her recommendation down to Oaxaca state.
“There’s a different beach for every type of experience that you want,” she says. At the top of her Oaxaca beach-town list are Mazunte — one of Mexico’s designated “pueblos mágicos” (or magical towns) because of its architecture, culture and dedication to the conservation of sea turtles — and Chacahua, where you will find the 35,000-acre Lagunas de Chacahua national park.
But to disconnect entirely from the world at a resort, Martinez points to Riviera Maya on the country’s Caribbean coast and Nayarit on the west. When “you just want your room, your pool and a little bit of beach time,” Martinez says, “both of them are amazing.”
For surfers, “I’d point you towards the Pacific coast because you don’t really get surf-able waves on the Caribbean coast,” says Rabinor, a lifelong surfer. He recommends the Nayarit beach town of Sayulita as a family-friendly beginner spot and Puerto Escondido, in Oaxaca, for the expert set. For something in the middle, “between Huatulco and Salina Cruz [both Oaxaca] has some amazing intermediate waves,” he says.
For nightlife: Mexico City
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Mexico City hits the mark for a variety of trips — for the bon vivant, the bachelorette party, the family reunion — but it’s an obvious choice for travelers seeking nightlife.
There are the award-winning cocktail bars (Licorería Limantour, Handshake, Fifty Mils), and “then you can also go to really old-school places like Salón Los Angeles for a completely different experience,” Martinez says. “Nothing fancy, very real. Old people dancing salsa and dressing up with oversize suits and big hats with feathers … you can have a little bit of both in one night.”
Herrera’s alternative pick is Playa del Carmen, in Quintana Roo. “It’s a small town with lots of bars and lots of places to go dancing,” she says.
Rabinor also recommends Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco, for its great bar scene, museums, art, historic center and proximity to tequila country.
For wine aficionados: Baja California
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Dig deeper into the best of Mexico’s wine and spirits by tasting them at the source. Your drink of choice will take you to different parts of the country, like tequila hub Guadalajara or Oaxaca for mezcal. For wine, Martinez recommends traveling to the Valle de Guadalupe and Ensenada on the Baja California peninsula.
“It’s definitely like a Mexican version of Napa,” Martinez says. “You have amazing wine, the seafood is great … and you get lots of influence from the craft scene in California, so you have really good beer.”
You can explore the region’s great restaurants and wineries on your own, or you can enlist the help of a company such as Club Tengo Hambre to show you the best of the best and provide more context to what you’re eating and drinking. While you’re down there, don’t forget to appreciate the abundance of Baja wildlife that captivated Jacques Cousteau. “There’s a lot of interest in glamping in the whale lagoons of Baja and the islands in the sea of Cortez,” Rabinor says.
For travelers interested in drinking pulque, the naturally effervescent fermented juice of the maguey cactus, Tlaxcala City is Herrera’s top pick and conveniently located 30 minutes from the city of Puebla.
“People will be amazed by this small destination because the historical center is so charming,” she says. “It’s very, very small and you can drink very good pulque.” While you’re there, Tlaxcala’s main art museum also houses early Frida Kahlo paintings.
For the food-obsessed: Puebla
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With its world-class culinary culture, “you can’t talk [about travel in Mexico] for more than a minute without mentioning the food,” Rabinor says.
Outside of the obvious eating capitals, Mexico City and Oaxaca, travel experts point to Puebla for a food-focused trip. Located about a 2½-hour drive from the capital, “Puebla is amazing for its cuisine,” Rabinor says.
Puebla is said to be the birthplace of some of the country’s most beloved moles. It is known for its dried poblano chile peppers (or ancho chiles) and, now, its ancho chile liqueur, too. Herrera says it’s also telling that Puebla is home of the dish chiles en nogada, which was recognized by UNESCO as one of the most representative dishes of Mexico. As visitors digest their way through Puebla, Rabinor says, they will also enjoy the city’s Talavera pottery, its architecture and its history.
For friend trips: Yucatán Peninsula
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If you’re traveling with a group, “a road trip with friends in the Yucatán Peninsula is a great idea,” Herrera says. That’s because you can plan stops to satisfy every kind of traveler in the group, such as swimming in cenotes (cave pools), admiring architecture in Valladolid, dancing in Mérida, touring ruins near Tulum and exploring Yucatecan cuisine.
Rabinor says groups should focus as much on the accommodation as the destination, and he recommends finding an hacienda — an estate where workers also lived — as a home base for the trip.
Whether you’re in San Miguel de Allende (Guanajuato) for the art or Morelia (Michoacán) for the butterfly reserves, the layout and history of an hacienda “gives a great sense of place,” Rabinor says. “It gives great common areas to get together and chat and meet up with different members of the group and also areas for everyone to eat and drink together.”
For a far-flung nature adventure: Barrancas del Cobre
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When you have checked off Mexico’s essential destinations, turn your attention to natural wonders such as the Barrancas del Cobre, which translates to “Copper Canyons.” Southwest of the city of Chihuahua, the Copper Canyons are a series of canyons in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range. There you’ll find the tallest waterfall in Mexico.
“It’s four times the volume of the Grand Canyon,” Rabinor says of the Barrancas del Cobre. “It’s jaw-dropping landscapes, incredible nature and some of the most traditional cultures in all of Mexico.”
Or you could go farther south to the Lacandon Jungle, which stretches from Chiapas to Guatemala, to see “nature in its splendor,” Herrera says. The rainforest is far away from mass tourism and is home to wildlife such as howler monkeys, toucans and tapirs. It’s not easy to get there, Herrera says, so it’s necessary to hire a local driver to navigate the infrastructure. “But that really makes it an adventure,” she says.