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When it comes to natural playgrounds, Americans tend to overlook Mexico. The country is known for quick beach getaways, but when seeking natural beauty and outdoor adventure, U.S. travelers often opt for far-flung and seemingly more exotic destinations. But Mexico has no shortage of stunning natural attractions, archaeological treasures and cultural gems. And not only does it rival all other destinations, it’s also so much closer to home.
Most notably, visitors to Mexico can find opportunities for snorkeling, kayaking, hiking, trekking, mountain biking and mountaineering, as well as climbing the snowcapped volcanoes of Popcatepetl, Iztaccihuatl and Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s highest mountain, at 18,491 feet.
“Mexico possesses some of the most exciting active travel opportunities in the world,” said Zachary Rabinor, CEO of Journey Mexico, a luxury travel company based in Puerto Vallarta.
Rabinor, a longtime resident of Mexico, founded Journey Mexico in 2003 after spending years as a tour leader, guide and ecotourism specialist across the country.
Visitors who only think of Mexico as a sun-and-sand destination will be pleasantly surprised to discover a whole new side of the country, including the following under-the-radar spots.
Copper CanyonOne look at Copper Canyon, and travelers will realize they’re not in Cancun anymore. This impressive group of six connected canyons — longer and deeper than the Grand Canyon — is cut into the heart of the Sierra Tarahumara Mountains in the state of Chihuahua. Their depth reaches as far as 6,135 feet below sea level, and their name was given due to the greenish copper color that reflects off the canyon walls in the sun.
When to Visit: October is the best time to explore, as the canyons are lush and green and the waterfalls are at their peak.
BacalarVisitors who make Tulum their final destination in Quintana Roo will certainly not be disappointed, but heading south just a few more hours will open up a new world of possibilities. Bacalar, one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos (“Magical Towns”) is one of these possibilities — and it’s not to be missed. Known as the Lake of Seven Colors, Bacalar is a translucent lagoon that dazzles with its sheer turquoise color.
When to Visit: The best time to visit is the dry season, which runs from November to May.
Canon del SumideroSurrounded by 53,000 acres of Sumidero Canyon National Park is the staggering Canon del Sumidero. Cut by the Grijalva River, this deep, narrow canyon in the southern state of Chiapas has sheer vertical walls that climb up to 3,200 feet. The surrounding national park is home to small caves, but the one to visit is Cueva de Colores, which is named for the minerals that sparkle with brilliant colors across its walls.
When to Visit: Dry season is the optimal time to visit. Sadly, during the rainy season and for a few months after, the river becomes clogged with trash that washes in from the rural communities in the Chiapas and Guatemalan highlands.
Bacalar Lagoon is one of many hidden natural gems in Mexico that most tourists miss. // © 2016 Mexico Tourism Board
These stone structures can be found in Las Pozas art garden, in Huasteca Potosina, Mexico. // © 2016 Secretaria de Turismo del Estado de Chiapas
Bonampak is best known for its impressive Temple of Murals. // © 2016 Secretaria de Turismo del Estado de Chiapas
Firefly Forest in Tlaxcala // © 2016 iStock
Pico De Orizaba is one of the tallest peaks in North America. // © 2016 iStock
Copper Canyon is bigger than the Grand Canyon. // © 2016 Secretaria de Turismo del Estado de Chiapas
Mineral de Pozos is a former mining town that is now practically deserted. // © 2016 Secretaria de Turismo del Estado de Chiapas
Most visitors miss the impressive Calakmul ruins. // © 2016 Secretaria de Turismo del Estado de Chiapas
Canon del Sumidero National Park offers many adventure activity options. // © 2016 iStock
Copper Canyon // © 2016 iStock
Calakmul // © 2016 iStock
Huasteca Potosina // © 2016 Mexico Tourism Board
Bonampak // © 2016 Secretaria de Turismo del Estado de Chiapas
Bacalar // © 2016 iStock
Mineral de Pozos // © 2016 Mexico Tourism Board
Canon del Sumidero // © 2016 iStock
Firefly Forest in TlaxcalaMagic comes to the forests in the state of Tlaxcala during the summer months. “Otherworldly” doesn’t even begin to describe the mysterious, celestial glow that emanates from the dense forests in the municipalities of Nancamilpa and Espanita. From June to August, the trees come alive with thousands of fireflies that are looking to mate. As dusk falls, the oyamel trees radiate an ethereal glimmer, leaving fairy-lit trails under the stars.
When to Visit: June through August is prime viewing time here.
Pico de OrizabaAs much as Mexico is known for its beaches, three-quarters of the country’s land rises above 3,300 feet, making it much more mountainous than most people think. Surpassed in height only in North America by Denali in Alaska and Mount Logan in Canada’s Yukon, Pico de Orizaba is the tallest peak in Mexico at a soaring 18,491 feet. This imposing behemoth is for serious trekkers and climbers only, and it requires top physical condition, an acclimatization regime and prior experience at altitude.
When to Visit: Climbers will want to plan their trips between November and March, when snow and winds are less frequent. Spectators can enjoy views year-round, depending on weather and visibility.
Mineral de PozosGhost towns aren’t only reserved for the Wild West — Mexico has a few of its own, as well. Most notably, Mineral de Pozos is an abandoned mining town that was one of the largest producers of silver in its heyday.
Located in the state of Guanajuato, this pueblo feels forgotten in time.
“Gone are the days of the grand haciendas. In their wake, you can explore the ruins of the important mining haciendas, churches and other vestiges of its rich history,” Rabinor said.
At its peak, Mineral de Pozos was home to more than 70,000 people, which has been whittled down to about 2,200 today. Local artisans are recently breathing new life into the community, due to the success of nearby city of San Miguel de Allende.
When to Visit: November through March, when the weather is cooler and drier, is best for a visit.
CalakmulAlthough sites such as Chichen Itza, Tulum and Teotihuacan shine in the spotlight of Mexico’s archaeological sites, Calakmul deserves attention, too. One of Mexico’s largest, most extensive and significant archaeological sites, Calakmul played an important historic, strategic, military and cultural role in Mexico’s pre-Columbian world.
Calakmul sits along Mexico’s border with Guatemala (the famous El Mirador Maya site in that country is visible from here on a clear day), and while there are upward of 6,000 buildings already identified, much of Calakmul still requires further excavation. The ruins are also part of a natural protected area that is home to 250 bird species, as well as jaguars, spider monkeys, pumas, ocelots and more.
When to Visit: November through March is the best time of year here; however, Rabinor says that shoulder seasons are great times to visit as well.
Huasteca PotosinaThis beautiful region is growing in popularity as a spot for adventure tourism, which comes as no surprise thanks to its rivers, waterfalls, jungles and caves. The region is also home to a surrealist art garden — Las Pozas, created by Edward James, a British aristocrat — as well as indigenous communities.
Most of the outdoor activities center around the town of Ciudad Valles in the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains. Top options include river rafting, rappelling, hiking, kayaking, mountain biking and camping. Huasteca Potosina is best known as an aquatic playground, featuring gushing rivers and springs, and towering waterfalls.
“One of Huasteca Potosina’s greatest treasures is Sotano de las Golondrinas, the Cave of the Swallows, which is an abyss where you can witness thousands of swallows diving into this chasm and seemingly disappearing,” Rabinor said.
When to Visit: November through March is ideal here, though other times to visit include during festivals such as Xantolo, which takes place from Oct. 29 to Nov. 2, the same time as Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Carnival, at the beginning of April, is also a lively time to be here.
BonampakHidden in the Lacandon Jungle, Bonampak — which means “painted walls” in Mayan — is best known for its impressive Temple of Murals. The temple’s walls are canvased with stunning, vividly colored murals that have been dated to the year 790 A.D. and depict scenes from a coronation ceremony, battles and a victory.
When to Visit: Bonampak is best visited in the afternoon and during the dry season.
Copper CanyonOne of the best ways to explore Copper Canyon is via the Chihuahua al Pacifico railroad, also known as “El Chepe.” The 390-mile rail route runs from Chihuahua, the state capital, to Los Mochis in the neighboring state of Sinaloa. The route crosses 39 bridges and passes through 86 tunnels. Completing the trip in its entirety takes 14 hours, but travelers can make it in segments — stopping at points along the way to hike, explore the canyon and spend the night. It costs approximately $90 to make the entire journey.
TlaxcalaHotels in the area sell out far in advance, so be sure to book early.
CalakmulNear the Calakmul site is the Volcan de los Murcielagos cave (Volcano of the Bats), where thousands of bats enter and exit each morning and evening in a thick, spiraling cloud — often chased by the hawks that hunt them.
Huasteca PotosinaBe sure to try zacahuil, a traditional Huasteca dish. It’s basically a pork tamale weighing as much as 100 pounds or more. A local favorite, it can be found throughout the region and at the entrance of the Municipal Market in the town of Xilitla.
BonampakBonampak and nearby Yaxchilan can be combined into the ultimate archaeological adventure. Rabinor says the journey requires commitment but is absolutely awe-inspiring. First, visitors should travel to the jungles of Chiapas to visit the archaeological site of Palenque. From there, it is a two- to three-hour drive to Frontera Corozal, the jumping-off point for those who are continuing into Guatemala. A one-hour motorized canoe ride takes travelers deep into the jungle site of Yaxchilan, an important commercial and military complex.
“The area is rife with myths and legends of pre-Columbian battles and more modern traffickers, who use the jungle’s natural dense cover to move under the radar,” Rabinor said.Yaxchilan is often compared to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat because of its similar jungle setting. On the return route, visitors can pass through Bonampak to explore its temple murals.
Canon del Sumidero“Most people visit the canyon via a speedy launch trip that starts in the Embarcadero in Chiapa de Corzo,” said Zachary Rabinor, CEO of Journey Mexico. “Avoid the full trip to the area’s dam, saving both time and money, as the most exciting section of the canyon ends after the Christmas Tree waterfall.”
Other ways to visit the canyon are to scout the various overlooks along the rim or visit the nearby adventure park that offers hikes, ziplines and more.
Pico de OrizabaRabinor recommends that less hardcore travelers embark on a nonsummiting trek or an excursion to explore the nearby town of Orizaba. Views of the peak can also be seen from the nearby towns of Cordoba and Fortin de las Flores.
“There is the rarely visited pre-Columbian archaeological site of Cantona,” Rabinor said. “The well-preserved Mesoamerican city has 24 discovered ball courts and is believed to be one of the biggest single urban centers in Mesoamerica.”
Bacalar“Go to the nearby Restaurante Cenote Azul, where the adventurous can jump 15 feet off the eatery’s roof into the translucent waters of the cenote,” Rabinor said.
Mineral de PozosJourney Mexico can organize a privately catered meal inside the ruins of a hacienda.
Mexico Tourism Boardwww.visitmexico.com