Tulum, MexicoMexcaltitan Island, Huasteca Potosina, Los Ayala, La Penita, Janitzio, Punta Pescadero and Sierra de Organos.

Need a clue as to where these places are?

How about tamales, tacos and tequila plus sun, sand and salsa?

It's all Mexico, mi amigo.

And there is lots more. Add Mayan ruins; world-class museums; 10 Unesco World Heritage sites; infinity pools at over-the-top, all-inclusive resorts; hip boutiques, trendy bars and world-class dining in Mexico City; cliff-diving in the Pacific; snorkeling in the Gulf; haciendas, huevos rancheros (best breakfast meal ever) and velvety helado (ice cream).

Hopefully, many of the 5.9 million U.S. visitors who crossed the border into Mexico in 2012 have tucked some of these experiences into their memory banks.

But there's so much more out there for the traveler who wants to experience Mexico without seeing gringos at every bend in the road. (Click here or on the images for a slideshow of some of Mexico's hidden gems.) 

It is possible to do that, to discover the pulse of old, authentic Mexico in the country's hidden gems lying in wait in villages, pueblos and family-run lodgings. In the lore spun by local guides. In the secret trails tucked among the canyons. In the crystalline pools of underground cenotes. In cobblestoned streets and behind kitchen counters where senoras hand-press tortillas.

Mexico, three times the size of Texas, runs 2,000 miles from its northern border with the U.S. to its southern border with Belize, Guatemala and the Caribbean Sea.

That's a lot of country to explore. And if the Mexico Tourism Board has its way, the destination's new tourism slogan, "Live It to Believe It," will start that journey of discovery for many of its visitors.  

The tourist board targets a fair amount of its marketing and promotional efforts toward showcasing a country that is culturally rich, historical, diverse and ripe for exploration beyond its hugely successful coastal resorts.

In an interview last year with Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann, Claudia Ruiz Massieu, secretary of tourism, explained one of the strategies of Mexico's overall tourism plan.

"We have traditionally leaned heavily on sun-and-beach destinations, which of course are very competitive," Ruiz Massieu said. "But we want to make the most of other competitive advantages, such as cultural heritage, natural heritage, touristic know-how and human resources."

Unexplored Mexico mapThat's where Mexico's underrated, undiscovered, off-the-beaten-path tourist gems come into play. (Click here or on the map for a larger view of some of Mexico's hidden gems.) 

Some of these jewels are close enough to popular tourist destinations that day trips are possible. For example, south of Cancun lies Tulum's Mayan archaeological marvels overlooking the sea.

The fishing villages of San Pancho, whose slogan is "Enjoy in a timeless paradise," Todos los Santos and Sayulita are north of Puerto Vallarta in the state of Nayarit, easily day-trip accessible and fun.

The rugged East Cape's cave paintings are an easy trek for those tethered to Cabo San Lucas in Baja California Sur.

The popular coastal resorts are eager to expose their guests to the myriad close-in offerings of each region, figuring that the more their guests know about the area, the more they'll be enticed to return to explore more of these sites by day while happily ensconced at the resort's cushy offerings by night.

Eduardo Segura, managing director of the Los Cabos Tourism Board, suggested Los Barriles, "tucked away along the shores of the Sea of Cortes," as a perfect day trip for adventurous travelers.

"The area also offers exceptional windsurfing and kite-boarding conditions, which not many people know about," Segura said.

He added: "Most people think of Los Cabos or 'Cabo' or only recognize the town of Cabo San Lucas, but there is so much more to explore in this region of Mexico [the southern tip of Baja California], especially for travelers looking to connect with nature, to explore the desert landscape or just to relax on a secluded beach. There is something for everyone here."

Nayarit, washed by the Pacific on the west and bordered by the Sierra Madre range on the east and the state of Jalisco on the south, has numerous hidden gems ripe for exploration.

Suggestions include the small towns of Los Ayala, Rincon de Guayabitos, La Penita and Chacala, a beach town, population 300, that lies 60 miles north of Puerto Vallarta.

Hiker in Todos Santos in Baja California.San Blas, also in Nayarit, is the second most popular bird-watching area in Central America and the Caribbean. Binoculars are a big seller there, according to a tourist office spokesman.

A sparsely populated area called Sierra del Nayarit is home to indigenous communities of Huichol and Cora Indians. Access from the coast is via a long, winding road, but visitors are allowed into the area.

Across Mexico on the Gulf coast is Cancun. Mexico's crown jewel of sun-and-beach offerings, it played host to more than 3.5 million visitors in 2013.
There's much to see in the area, and tourism officials encourage visitors to get out and about on land and on the water.

Rodolfo Lopez Negrete, CEO of the Mexico Tourism Board, said, "Cancun not only is a wonderful destination but also can be a hub of distribution to spread international tourists throughout the region. It's an area that has cultural attributes comparable to China, Egypt and Greece."

Jesus Almaguer, CEO of the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau, agreed.

"Visitors can escape the hustle and bustle," he said. "Just a few miles away, they'll find towns that truly showcase traditional Mexican culture and small-town lifestyle."

He suggested the fishing village of Puerto Morelos with its popular market loaded with Mexican handicrafts, secluded Isla Holbox (Black Hole) and picturesque Isla Mujeres (Island of Women), an island five miles long and a half-mile wide that hosts an annual Whale Shark Festival in July, as being perfect for travelers who desire a slower-paced vacation while enjoying boutique hotels and true Mexican hospitality.

"These off-the-beaten-path retreats are ideal for an unpredictable but invigorating component to any vacation," he said.

Isla Holbox, in particular, is off most travelers' radar. It's a two-hour drive from Cancun Airport, followed by a short ferry ride from the town of Chiquila on the mainland of Quintana Roo.

The island has no cars or paved roads, but it does offer charming boutique inns, rustic seafood restaurants, a pizzeria famous for its lobster pizza and a lot of hammocks.

That combination spells paradise for a lot of travelers.

Zachary Rabinor, director general of Journey Mexico, a luxury holiday travel company that offers customized, crafted, authentic experiences throughout Mexico, offered his own favorites, culled from years of guiding travelers and exploring on his own.

His suggestions included Patzcuaro, a town founded in the 1320s in the state of Michoacan and recognized as one of the 100 Historic World Treasure Cities by the United Nations.

"I feel this is a hidden gem, especially the five-suite Casa de la Real Aduana boutique hotel," Rabinor said.

Cathedral of San Cristobal de las CasasThe Butterfly Reserves in the Michoacan highlands rated highly with Rabinor.

"These are largely undiscovered and still unvisited by the general public," he said. "In particular, I love the Rancho San Cayetano, an 11-room boutique hotel hidden away in the pine forests near the reserves."

For a true off-the-beaten-path slice of beach, Rabinor endorsed Barra de la Cruz, 45 minutes from Huatulco on the Pacific coast, where visitors can rent a thatched-roof bungalow on the beach or try the luxury beachfront Villa Escondida.

"While many people know about Mexico's Copper Canyon, it is largely unvisited by North Americans, aside from several bus groups," Rabinor said. "The potential for backcountry hiking, trekking, rock climbing, mountain biking, caving, spelunking and more should have this place firmly on the maps of adventure travelers."

The Copper Canyon, in the state of Chihuahua in northern Mexico, is four times the size of the Grand Canyon and offers some of the most intact indigenous culture in the world, Rabinor said.

"Most people think they would have to go to Nepal or Tibet to see this level of traditional subsistence lifestyle, unique dress, language and customs," he said.

In vibrant celebrations held several times a year, the communities dance, sing, drum and quaff potent corn beer.

Rabinor's other gems included the highland Shangri-La of San Cristobal de las Casas, the jungle-shrouded Mayan ruins of Palenque and Yaxchilan and the Sumidero Canyon, all in the state of Chiapas.

"Then there's the Sierra Gorda area in Queretaro, home to some of most remote villages and pueblos with towering mountains and rustic albergues (shelters)," Rabinor said. "I could go on and on. I love Mexico!"

Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.


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