Despite spending three months in Mexico, I have only scratched the surface of what this country has to offer. From beautiful beaches and colonial towns to deserts, lakes and rain-forests, this country has so much to see. However some places I remember more fondly than others, largely because these cities were the places where I wandered from the tourist track. Not to say that there is no merit to popular locations, obviously visitors come for a reason, but they can sometimes feel a little overwhelming and they did leave me craving a quiet place I could explore without having overpriced menus or tacky souvenirs pushed under my nose (looking at you Playa del Carmen). These are three of my highlights for escaping the hoards and, as much as I hate to resort to a cliche, seeing the real Mexico.

Ciudad Valles, in the extremely diverse but seldom visited state of San Luis Potosí was my first stop after Mexico City and it provided exactly the peace and tranquility I was craving after the chaos of the capital city. Lonely Planet provides a pretty grim review of Ciudad Valles, suggesting visitors shouldn’t expect too much from the place and use it only as a base for exploring the Huasteca region. So that was the picture I had in my mind when I arrived and while yes, I did use it as my base while I saw the Huasteca, I was surprised at how charming the city actually was.  While the rising popularity of the Huasteca as a tourist destination has seen an rise in tourists coming to Ciudad Valles, it still remains tranquil and the only signs of tourism to be seen are the odd tour agency or souvenir shop. Having caught a night bus from Mexico City, I arrived in the early morning when the streets were quiet and the only sound was the cooing of doves, and I immediately felt that this was a calm and welcoming place. Like any city, the day brings traffic and, in the case of the Huasteca, strong sun and humidity, but the afternoons and evenings are extremely pleasant and the perfect time to wander the plaza and riverbanks. The main square, Parque Urbano Luis Donaldo Colosio is a great spot to people watch and on busier nights a whole range of people, from young families eating fairy floss to indigenous Tenek women selling craft to seniors playing bingo and dancing can be seen. You may even get lucky and be pulled into a dance by a local caballero!

Anyone who has seen my last post will have read my glowing review of Ciudad Cuauhtemoc, in the northern state of Chihuahua. It’s historic Mennonite settlements do make it an attraction to visitors on the Chihuahua Pacific Railway (Chepe), however you will not find the swathy, sunburned hoards of the Riviera Maya here. Chihuahua has received a lot of bad press over the years for the violent drug war which still affects parts of the state and I feel like it has scared off a lot of international visitors. However, by sticking to the established route of the Chepe, travelers can experience this beautiful location safely (aside from the local bars, which are best off avoided). It feels as though Cuauhtemoc sees few foreign visitors and it mercifully lacks the Americanized feel of the attractions in the south of the country, making it one of the most appealing towns along the Chepe route. The “Municipality of Three Cultures”, so named for its Mestizo Mexican, indigenous Rarámuri and Mennonite populations, is a quiet, charming place with friendly locals which is a perfect place to spend a night on the way to Creel or Divisadero.

Xalapa, the capital of the gulf state of Veracruz is not on the list for most visitors to Mexico. It doesn’t have much going for it in the way of attractions, it rains often and you need hiking boots just to go for a stroll through the streets, but overlooking all this Xalapa is actually not a bad place to relax for a couple of days. The Veracruz University is based here and the city certainly has a youthful, student-oriented vibe with bars and tattoo shops dotted around the city centre. Part of what made my stay so pleasant were the guests and staff at Catre de Mi Corazon, some of the friendliest I have met on my trip who always happy to provide advice about local attractions or go bar hopping. Xalapa is also a great base for exploring nearby Coatepec and Xico, “magic villages” famous for flowers, coffee and vanilla. Visiting Coatepec’s botanic garden is definitely a highlight, with the beautifully manicured lawns and exotic flowers providing the perfect antidote to the noise and traffic of Xalapa. The garden also has a display of carnivorous plants, complete with a few unlucky ants and flies who had become the flowers’ lunch. Visitors should also stay on the look out for gourmet produce fairs in and around Xalapa, which due to it’s location and climate, has an abundance of coffee and chocolate related products which are definitely worth trying. This is definitely a place for travelers looking to get off the beaten track… and for those who don’t mind a bit of rain!

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While frequently visited locations like the Riviera Maya do have a lot to offer visitors, traveling to lesser known places can be equally, if not more rewarding. I am glad I ventured away from the tourist track to visit these interesting cities and experience a different side of Mexico.