7 family-friendly destinations in Mexico (that aren't the Riviera Maya)
Thanks to numerous all-inclusive resorts and near-guaranteed winter sunshine (outside of hurricane season, at least), Mexican vacation hot spots like Cancun, Playa del Carmen and the rest of the Riviera Maya are top choices for families.
But these spots can also be crowded, expensive and devoid of authentic Mexican culture or charm.
If you want to enjoy a more affordable family vacation, infused with local culture, here are some alternative Mexican destinations, ranging from well-known family destinations to under-the-radar towns and resorts. (Don't worry, you'll still find those quintessential vacation perks like beautiful hotels and winter sun.)
Visitors to the popular tourist town of San Miguel de Allende should also hop over to Guanajuato, also a silver mining town and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kids, teens and adults will all enjoy exploring the colorful town on foot, especially the famous Callejón del Beso, which is so tiny that young neighbors in love could stretch across their balconies to kiss. When everyone needs a walking break, take the city's funicular up to the Pípila Monument, which offers expansive views of the city down below.
Kids will also love a visit to the mummy museum or a stroll around the Presa de la Olla, a reservoir where families can rent boats and paddle around. Once the sun sets, consider a Callejoneadas tour, where traditional town musicians lead visitors around the city to rhythms of music and dance.
Visitors wanting a mixture of beach, culture and Zapotec and Mazatec ruins to explore should head to the state of Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico. With crystal-clear Pacific waters and gorgeous beaches, but without the crowds, it offers families a more peaceful sun and sand alternative to the Riviera Maya.
Some of the best beaches are located within striking distance of the unpolished resort town of Puerto Escondido. Although some spots have high waves, better suited to surfers than young children, families can still enjoy activities such as releasing baby turtles on the beach at sunset.
Developed in the 1980s with an ecological bent, Huatulco offers more than 35 secluded, forested beaches as well as the Parque Eco-Arqueológico Copalita, where families can visit pre-Hispanic ruins, pyramids and even a cemetery.
If you'd prefer a more urban experience, explore one of the country's gastronomic capitals, the city of Oaxaca, which is known for its delicious chocolate and famed mole sauce.
Los Cabos is the main call on the Baja California peninsula, but there's so much more to see — and residents of the southwestern U.S. can even visit by car. About an hour north of Los Cabos is Todos Santos, which attracts visitors looking for rugged, coastal scenery but who want a more bohemian vibe, similar to what Tulum once was to Cancun. Some beaches in Todos Santos have family-friendly surf classes, and many restaurants offer a laid-back, outdoor dining experience where kids can run around while adults enjoy cuisine and cocktails.
Also don't discount Mexico's most famous wine region, Valle de Guadalupe. It's clearly popular with adults, but also surprisingly child friendly. Many wineries are located on farms or estates where kids can pet baby goats or picnic outdoors while parents enjoy wine tasting.
Santiago de Querétaro's pedestrian-friendly streets are perfect for families keen to stroll the city's parks, squares, churches, fountains and large aqueduct. There are even pyramids in El Cerrito, an often overlooked Chupícuaro archaeological site just outside the city center. The Cerro de Las Campanas National Park is located on the city's outskirts, featuring landscaped gardens, landmarks and museums, including mysterious stones that, as legend has it, make bell-like sounds when touched.
Families can really immerse themselves in nature with a bike tour of the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, which comprises mountains, valleys, waterfalls and the Estorax River. Or, you might want to consider a family trip to the iconic Peña de Bernal, a massive monolith that is one of Mexico's 13 famous natural wonders.
Lacandon Jungle, Chiapas
In the state of Chicapas, the Lacandon Jungle is one of Mexico's largest rainforests. Extending across the border of Mexico and Guatemala, it's protected as part of the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. Perfect for adventurous families, the area offers plenty of hiking and camping opportunities, and kids will love spotting monkeys and other wildlife on the trails. A highlight is Las Golondrinas waterfall.
For families that want to delve into some history and culture, there are ancient Mayan ruins to explore off the beaten path like Bonampak, which is known for its intricate, painted murals. Farther north, mysterious, jungle-clad Palenque is one of Mexico's most awe-inspiring archeological sites. Whichever ruins you choose, you will always get the most out of your visit by hiring a guide.
If you're looking for a Cancun-style beach vacation but with fewer tourists and at a more affordable price, Mazatlán is a viable alternative. Although the Pacific waters aren't quite as Caribbean crystal clear as that of Cancun, the beaches are less crowded and populated with local families in addition to tourists.
An accessible, family-friendly activity is to take a boat over to Stone Island, where kids can play on deserted beaches that extend for miles. Parents can enjoy an ice-cold beer at a casual village beachfront bar or restaurant. There's also a large, child-friendly aquarium in the city if you need to escape the sun for a while.
Mérida, Yucatan and Campeche
Those who want to enjoy the ease of the Yucatan Peninsula (flying into Cancun from the U.S. is relatively simple, after all) can rent a car at Cancun International Airport (CUN) and head west towards the city of Mérida instead of taking the traditional route south along the Riviera Maya.
With an array of free museums and walking tours, it's easy to learn about Mérida's colonial highlights even if you're on a budget. They include the 16th-century Casa de Montejo estate, filled with period furnishings, as well as the striking cathedral — the oldest in Mexico — built partially from Mayan stone.
The city-state of Campeche unfurls along the southeastern coast. Although it doesn't have beaches, the city is famous for its boardwalk where families can stroll for several miles. Between Mérida and Campeche, visitors can really get out into the wild. There's snorkeling in cenotes (limestone sinkholes), boat tours through swampy mangroves and flamingo colonies in the Petenes-Ría Celestún Natural Park.