These Lesser-known Mexico Destinations Have All of the Beauty With Fewer Crowds

Here's where to go in Mexico's Quintana Roo region beyond the popular hot spots.

Aerial view of palm trees and blue water at Bacalar Lake, Quintana Roo Mexico, Riviera Maya.
Photo: Diego Cardini/Getty Images

For many travelers, a visit to Quintana Roo begins with Cancun and ends with Tulum. That stretch of crystalline coastline is among the most-visited travel destinations not only in Mexico, but in the entire world. For those who have dared to venture further south than Tulum, there's a whole other heartbeat of Mexico that's pulsing just below the surface.

About an hour south of Tulum, traveling along Highway 307, you'll pass a sign that welcomes you to the Zona Maya, or the Mayan Zone. This is the part of Quintana Roo that has managed to evade all-inclusive resorts, pop-up gourmet restaurants, and nightclubs. And it's the part of Mexico where not much has changed at all in the last few decades. But like any good secret, nothing stays hushed for long, and come 2022, the Zona Maya is going to look very different — which is why the time to go is right now.

Related: Why Your Next Trip to Mexico Should Go Beyond the Obvious Hot Spots

Silhouette of palm trees and cars along the water at sunrise in Chetumal, Mexico
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Chetumal

Say it with us: Chetumal. You'll be hearing this name more and more. While many people think Cancun is the capital of Quintana Roo, it's actually the city of Chetumal, which sits just a quick hop north from the border with Belize. As of Dec. 1, American Airlines began offering direct flights from Miami to Chetmual, which is the beginning of some major changes for the destination.

Chetumal is a quiet city — for now. Until recently, travelers who wanted to explore the southern half of Quintana Roo would either make the four-hour drive from Cancun or transfer in Mexico City for a flight into the capital. But the new direct flight from Miami means that vibrations are coming to this city on the bay, which will serve as the newest entry point from which to explore the southern Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo.

The city itself swings more Caribbean in vibe, with multicultural influences that have shaped the landscape. Seeing as Chetumal is the bridge between Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America, you'll find threads of each, as well as touches from Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. It's a cultural melting pot at its core, and being surrounded on three sides by the Chetumal Bay gives it a decidedly laid-back and beachy atmosphere.

From Chetumal, travelers will be able to easily access everything this part of Mexico has to offer. It's no more than an hour away from ancient Mayan ruins, like the archeological site of Kohunlich, as well as the burgeoning, eco-chic lake town of Bacalar and the sleepy, bohemian beachfront destination of Mahahual.

Bacalar

If you've heard of one place in the Zona Maya, chances are it's Bacalar. This small village sits on a massive lake of the same name, and it's one of the most popular getaways for residents from Chetumal and Cancun, as well as the flurry of backpackers who have ventured this way on their budget-friendly travels.

The ethos of Bacalar is about keeping it natural. Residents love their lake, an approximately 26-mile-long body of water that's connected to the Caribbean Sea by a series of channels. The freshwater lake glimmers with shades of turquoise and crystal, just like the warm, shallow waters of the sea. Centuries ago, the channels provided access for explorers to get further inland. You can see the remains of the old San Felipe Fort overlooking the lagoon, which was built to protect Spain's southern stronghold against pirate activity. Laguna de Bacalar is affectionately called the "Lake of Seven Colors," named for the seven shades of blue that swirl across the surface throughout the day.

Today, the vibe is changing. Those backpackers are returning to Bacalar a little older, but with a lot more money to burn, and restaurants and hotels are changing to match. Try Casa Hormiga, an oasis of serenity hidden behind massive, ochre-colored walls. Step through the elaborately carved wooden door and immerse yourself in some serious aesthetics and decor (think Morocco meets the Mexican Caribbean). The centerpiece of the resort is an enormous thatched palapa roof, which covers the main dining area, library, honor bar, and yoga platform, called the Nest. At the heart of the resort is its beautifully designed pool, surrounded by hundreds of rescued plants, towering trees, and slate-colored walls.

Beach coast line with boats and people and cruise ship in the distance in Mahahual, Mexico
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Mahahual

On the other side of Bacalar is the Caribbean coastal village of Mahahual. Put on the map thanks to a small cruise port, Mahahual is about as far south as you can go along the Quintana Roo coast before you start to enter Belize territory.

The scene here is, for the most part, tranquil. Picture powder-soft beaches and swaying palm trees, small rental villas, and boutique hotels. Though it's decidedly small compared to towns like Playa del Carmen and Tulum, Mahahual is the only town this far south on the coast that has somewhat of a variety when it comes to dining and places to stay. Travelers will want to take note, though — when a cruise ship is in town, things can be a little more crowded. Still, compared to cruise ports like Cozumel and Puerto Vallarta, the foot traffic in Mahahual is minimal.

When the cruise ships depart, what you're left with is a Caribbean-style escape with picture-perfect beaches and far fewer crowds than practically anywhere else in Quintana Roo. If you go even further south, toward Xcalak, you'll likely find yourself on a beach that's reserved just for you.

As for where to stay, outside of downtown Mahahual, located in the mangrove forest, is the tiny eco-chic boutique resort of Almaplena. With only eight rooms that open directly onto the beach, this jewel of a hideaway has prime beachfront, a fabulous on-site Mediterranean restaurant, and a section of the world-famous Mesoamerican Reef directly behind the resort.

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