A beach in Mexico as beautiful as this can be found — and can be yours. (Photo: Getty Images)
When I was 9 years old, my family got in our big yellow station wagon nicknamed the Banana Boat and drove from Sonoma County, California, to the southern tip of Mexico. It was an experience we’d repeat in later years, and even though not every minute was idyllic (yes, we drove through abject poverty, as well as lightning storms and stifling tropical heat), those were some of my best childhood vacations.
To this day, although I love Los Cabos and Cancun — the spectacle, the party atmosphere, the theme parks, and the luxury resorts — the funky little beach towns of Mexico call to my true inner escapist.
For cultural adventurers, surfers, and vacation junkies, Mexico can still be a low-key paradise, if you know where to look.
Surfer girl in Sayulita (Photo: Corbis Images)
A good place to start is Sayulita. Beloved by California road trippers and artsy expats as far back as the ’90s, this beach village outside of Puerto Vallarta was a colorful boho getaway when adjacent mega-resort destination Riviera Nayarit didn’t even exist. And yet, in the shadow of Riviera Nayarit’s mega all-inclusives, somehow funky little Sayulita, with its taco stands and surf schools and inexpensive rental condos, continues to thrive — with personality intact. From the gated mansions on Gringo Hill to the inexpensive beachfront flats, lodgings span the star-rating spectrum, but they’re never generic chain resorts. (For those, Punta Mita holds the five-star torch, and Nayarit offers everything else.)
Relaxing in a palapa by the beach (Photo: Getty Images)
Farther south, a short drive from overdeveloped Zihuatanejo, on Manzanillo Bay (roughly midway between Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta), the village of Troncones offers everything that adventuring gypsy-surfer adventurers want in a beach retreat. It’s an eco-tourism destination that thus far has avoided the eye of major developers. Instead, haciendas and small inns like Hacienda Eden and Present Moment cater to a barefoot, suntanned, and eclectic crowd.
Relax in one of the many hammocks at Hacienda Eden. (Photo: Hacienda Eden)
Margarita time at the beach in Troncones (Photo: Getty Images)
The coastline in this area is actually better for surfers than for swimmers. Check out the action at La Saladita or start out at Playa Manzanillo, where the smooth, clean-breaking waves are typically safe for swimmers and bodyboarders as well as seasoned surfers.
Man cuts open a coconut in Huatulco. (Photo: Lorena Pajaras/Flickr)
And then there’s Huatulco. Ask Latin America travel experts to name their perfect Mexico resort town, and they will likely name Huatulco with a sigh: “It’s better than you even know.” Truly, many U.S. vacationers will never go that far south down the Pacific Coast — all the way to the state of Oaxaca — but those who do will fall in love with the culture, the food, and the spectacular beaches. It’s a region rich in culture and cuisine, while the town of Huatulco is a movie-set-caliber beach paradise, laid-back and lovely at the foot of the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range.
With no fewer than nine bays for beachfront resorts, this region is distinguished by golden sands, private coves, and clear water. The jewel of luxury resorts in the area is Secrets Huatulco, flagship property of Mexico’s most successful hotel group, AMResorts. This adults-only all-inclusive resort offers open-air rooms and incredible views of Conejos Bay, perfect for enjoying unlimited premium cocktails at sundown.
The Secrets Huatulco resort (Photo: Secrets Huatulco)
Only 10 years ago, Puerto Morelos was a tiny, unglamorous fishing village whose only tourist attraction was a crocodile park. It was 45 minutes outside of Cancun — 45 uncertain minutes of winding roads through thick mangrove forest. If you were staying at one of the few resorts, your options were to remain on-property or taxi into the fishing village for cheap, simply prepared seafood followed by karaoke with the locals.
Scuba diving in Puerto Morelos (Photo: Corbis Images)
The fishing village still remains, but Puerto Morelos has turned into the development Cinderella story of the Cancun area for multiple reasons: Puerto Morelos Reef, located just offshore, is a national park renowned among divers and snorkel operators. And the nearby fishing isn’t just good — it’s international tournament caliber. Finally, Puerto Morelos’s beaches are simply stunning. The overall area of Puerto Morelos is larger than one might have guesstimated — large enough to enfold a dozen mega-resorts like Azul Sensatori and the soon-to-open Royalton Riviera Cancun within its jungle setting.
Couple walks along the harbor in Puerto Morelos (Photo: Corbis Images)
The massive Azul Sensatori resort (Photo: Azul Sensatori)
As heavily touristed as Cabo San Lucas is, multiple beach towns in Baja California Sur have retained their natural charm while benefitting from Los Cabos’s tourism overflow. Everyone knows the hot spot, so now regular visitors are looking for the next “it” place. Experts predict that it might be Todos Santos, a town 45 minutes north that’s home to a burgeoning arts and wellness scene. This fall, an ambitious “mindful village” holistic community — featuring residences, a boutique hotel, and farm-to-table restaurants — will begin to roll out under the umbrella brand Tres Santos.
Woman meditates overlooking the beach in Todos Santos. (Photo: Getty Images)
Sustainable tourism professionals also recommend La Paz, located 2.5 hours north of Los Cabos and still quite sleepy in terms of development: “Protected areas harbor great wildlife including visiting whales, whale sharks, and a resident sea lion community,” reports local adventure tour company RED Sustainable Travel.
So there you have it. Whether you’re seeking a surf getaway, an artistic coastal villa, a jungle retreat, or a beachfront shack selling cervezas for a dollar, Mexico’s still got it. Like a tabloid star who has seen glamorous times and scandal and even fallen into the gutter a time or two, this beauty continues to dazzle once you give her a chance to show you something new.
Kayaking in La Paz (Photo: Getty Images)
Lena Katz is a writer, sometime book author, and development producer for unscripted TV. She goes cuckoo for big characters and stories that seem too wild to be true. She’s never where you think she is.