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Holbox remains under the radar for now
Holbox remains under the radar for now | © Hernan Irastorza / Flickr
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7 Genuine Alternatives to Mexico’s Tourist Traps

Picture of Lauren Cocking
Mexico Writer
Updated: 26 April 2018
Mexico makes for a wonderful vacation destination, but as a result it is full of tourist traps that could rival the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building and Leaning Tower of Pisa. Take the Seventh Wonder of the World, Chichén Itzá, or the tourist-fest that is the Riviera Maya, for example. So, where can you go instead, to avoid the crowds and get a glimpse at a different side of Mexico? Here are seven genuine alternatives to the tourist traps.

Palenque

Chichén Itzá is arguably Mexico’s biggest archaeological tourist trap. Once you’ve battled the queues to get in, the walkways are lined with vendors selling dubious traveller tat and blowing on whistles which replicate monkey calls. Oh, and good luck getting any photos with no interlopers spoiling the shot! No, instead you should go to Palenque, Chiapas. As it’s a far more verdant archaeological ruin, and one that’s popular but not too popular, so you’ll have a much more immersive experience.

Palenque is a far better ruin than Chichén Itzá
Palenque is a far better ruin than Chichén Itzá | © descubriendoelmundo / Flickr

Guadalajara

Skip Mexico City and head to Guadalajara to get that big city experience without all the chaos. A sprawling region surrounded by plenty of day-trip worthy spots, Guadalajara has small-town Mexican charm with all the amenities you could possibly need. From nightlife, to top-class dining options and impressive regional dishes, you’ll wonder why people so often skip over Mexico’s second city after you’ve spent some time there.

Guadalajara Cathedral looks just as good in full colour too
Guadalajara Cathedral looks just as good in full colour too | © Cexlf / Flickr

Holbox

Many sites tout Tulum or even Isla Mujeres as the ‘off the grid’ alternatives to touristy Cancún and Playa del Carmen, but honestly, they’re just as bad. (Although, they do have a rather more hipster vibe, that’s for sure.) Even so, for an actual alternative to those popular destinations, you should make your way to Isla Holbox, which remains (so far) a blissfully out of the way, laidback Caribbean island somewhat untouched by mass tourism.

Holbox remains under the radar for now
Holbox remains under the radar for now | © Hernan Irastorza / Flickr

Zacatecas

Instead of San Miguel de Allende, arguably the favoured Mexican destination of North American retirees and a popular daytrip hotspot, go further north to Zacatecas. As a destination sandwiched between the true north and the Central Highlands, it’s infrequently added to the itinerary of travellers in Mexico, is home to the country’s best-preserved example of decadently ornate Baroque architecture, and is way less populated with tourists than it’s Guanajuato state alternative.

Zacatecas is an alternative to other more popular colonial cities
Zacatecas is an alternative to other more popular colonial cities | © JonathanVitela / Flickr

Las Pozas Sculpture Park

Tucked into the state of San Luis Potosí, Las Pozas Sculpture Park is one of Mexico’s most breathtaking destinations. Created by a British eccentric, it’s a surrealist masterpiece deep in the jungle and yet, amongst out of towners, it’s often overlooked. So, skip the ‘obvious’ spots and go hunt down what is essentially Mexico’s coolest, open air art installation.

Las Pozas is surreal
Las Pozas is surreal | © Ron Waddington / Flickr

Yelapa

Sayulita is the favoured spot for aging hippies and wannabe ravers down the Central Pacific Coast of Mexico, yet instead of going north from Puerto Vallarta, you should instead go south to Yelapa. A laidback beach community, it certainly has a rep for luxury, eco-friendly resorts and yoga retreats, but it’s also far less commercial. This is the place to go if you’re craving that relaxing beach retreat without the surfers and stoners of Sayulita.

Yelapa is far more serene than Sayulita
Yelapa is far more serene than Sayulita | © Dan Nevill / Flickr

El Chepe

There are basically no commercial passenger trains in Mexico. No, this is a country you have to traverse by bus or by plane. However, there are a few cool tourist trains open to the paying public. While many opt for the very tourist oriented Tequila Express, that will whisk you right to the heart of Jalisco’s tequila-producing towns, fewer venture north to ride through the Copper Canyon on El Chepe. However, given the beautiful views and multiple adventure activities on offer in towns along the route, more people really should consider it.

Ride El Chepe through the Chihuahua countryside
Ride El Chepe through the Chihuahua countryside | © Mónica Morales / Flickr