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Secret Mexico: 3 Up-and-Coming Destinations to Discover

There’s never been a better time to visit Mexico. For the most part the country is as safe as ever, and because of the economic downturn there are great bargains to be had. But if those well-trodden tourist towns and fancy resorts aren’t beckoning you, maybe it’s because you have a yearning for an earlier version of Mexico: That exotic ‘south of the border’ country that inspired movies and songs with its vast landscape and welcoming cultures.

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That version of Mexico hasn’t gone anywhere; it just isn’t found beside the swim-up bar at an all-inclusive. So if you’re searching for a wintertime escape in a rugged wilderness, a tiny mountain village or a laid back sea-side town-Mexico just might be the place.

Here are three exciting regions in Mexico that are worth exploring.

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1. Baja California

1. Baja California

If you love Cabo San Lucas for its stark ‘desert meets the sea’ beauty, clear water and delicious seafood try a Baja road trip and explore the areas around La Paz, Loreto, Mulege and Santa Rosalia. Baja California offers a combination of national marine parks in the Sea of Cortez, ancient cultures and slow moving village life.

Why Now: Mexico has been investing in parks and infrastructure. Those notorious roads are in great shape and the marine parks and historic sites all have excellent interpretive information, but the region still feels undiscovered.

Don’t Miss: Visiting at least one historic Spanish Mission. Between 1683 and 1834 some 28 Catholic missions were established on the Baja peninsula. Spain’s goal was to gain control of the frontier-but the rugged region won out and most of the missions were abandoned. Missión San Francisco Javier de Viggé-Biaundó was one of the earliest Baja missions to be established-founded in 1699 its isolated location outside of Loreto brings to mind early Baja life.

Be Sure to Try: Snorkelling with whale sharks outside of La Paz.
Having a huge shark (which despite its cheery polka dots, still looks like a shark) swim directly for you is, umm, invigorating. But the only real hazard is being hit by the gentle creature’s massive tail. The sharks only reach a whopping 5 km/hour in speed but their big tail swings through a large powerful arc. The season is December through April and it’s best to go first thing in the morning. Check with the pangas on the beach for prices (typically $20 – $40 per person depending on group size). Look for operators that follow responsible practices for visiting whales and sharks.

Keep an Eye Out for: Black Pearls.
From 1500 to 1800 Mexico was the world’s main source of black pearls. Catherine the Great and Marie Antoinette both sported jewels that came from the Sea of Cortez. But ‘pearl fever’ outstripped the ability of the “Sea of Pearls” to naturally produce. And as supply dwindled, the fabled black pearls of Tahiti (which are not as luminous or colourful as Cortez pearls) took their place in the market. But a new sustainable version of the pearl industry is back in business and the iridescent gems are Baja’s newest keepsake. 

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2. Riviera Nayarit

2. Riviera Nayarit

If Puerto Vallarta, with its charming colonial-Mexico feel, nearby jungles and rich culture, is a favourite, check out some of the town’s less familiar neighbours. From the artsy surf town of Sayulita to the traditional fishing village of La Cruz, the seaside towns to the north of Vallarta each have a unique atmosphere. The mountain villages inland are still reminiscent of colonial times, with life revolving around the church, the town square and the local hacienda.

Why Now: Riveria Nayarit has begun a big tourism campaign. In a few years these unspoiled beaches and hidden towns will be found in every tourism brochure.

Don’t Miss: Visiting San Sebastian del Oeste. The old colonial town about 65 km from Puerto Vallarta only recently got a paved road. This means the little town is stuck firmly in another era: The silver era. Veins of silver were discovered by the conquistadors in 1605. By 1785, with 30 mines and a dozen haciendas, San Sebastian was one of the main silver and gold mining centres in New Spain. Today, San Sebastian has the feeling of faded glory to it. And when you walk down the 250 year old streets, it feels as if you’re the first to discover the secret pathways, stone bridges, soaring archways and ruined haciendas.

Be Sure to Try: Raicilla.
Said to be the oldest alcohol spirit known to man, local agave is fermented to craft a tequila-like drink called raicilla. And while raicilla used to be known as a potent moonshine, it’s being rediscovered as a boutique beverage with subtle sweet and smoky flavours that makes it perfect for sipping. You can sample it in local shops, but even better is making a trip inland and visiting one of the distilleries.

Keep an Eye Out for: Local Lucha Libre or Charreada events.
If you think Mexican culture is all folk dancing and mariachi music, check out how the locals spend their time. Lucha Libre is billed as Mexican wrestling but it’s really comic book heroes come to life. It’s hard to even call the luchadores fighters since many of the hitting moves, as well as the sequences of leaps, spins and flips are all perfectly choreographed. Charreada is traditional Mexican Rodeo-complete with Charros dressed in traditional attire and a brass band to accompany the action. Both sports are held in a variety of small town arenas or fields.

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3. Yucatan Peninsula

3. Yucatan Peninsula

If you enjoy Cancun’s white sand beaches, gorgeous Caribbean snorkelling and intriguing ancient history but want to avoid the huge hard-partying crowd, keep heading south or west on the peninsula. Patronizing the region’s smaller towns with their local inns, tour operations and regional events is a great way to support cultural tourism.

Why Now: This area was battered by Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and Hurricane Dean in 2007 but has since bounced back. When word gets out it’s business as usual, the lovely area will be more popular than ever.

Don’t Miss: The ruined cities of the Mayan, Toltec and Itzan cultures. While Tulum, Chichen Itza and Coba might be the best known of the ruined cities, there is no lack of other sites to explore. Biosfera Sian Ka’an contains Mayan temples (as well as howler monkeys, ocelots and tapirs) while the semi-wild Dzibanche and pretty Kohulnich ruins are large enough to let you explore on your own.

Be Sure to Try: Snorkelling or diving in a cenote.
For a good introduction to the underground cave system stop by Hidden Worlds or Cenote Dos Ojos for a guided snorkelling tour of their well-protected caves. If you want to skip the tour, and have your own gear, and are familiar with cave diving and snorkelling, several other limestone cenotes are found throughout the region-look for signs to places like Gran Cenote or Cristalino Cenote.

Keep an Eye Out for: Regional Festivals.
From national holidays to religious festivals and local fiestas, there’s almost always a party happening somewhere in Mexico. Check the calendar before your visit to see if it matches up with any of the major celebrations: Independence Day (September 16), Day of the Dead (November 2), Carnaval (late February or early March), Semana Santa (Easter), or regional events including the Riviera Maya Jazz Festival (November) and the Festival de Trova (March).