'New' Mexico attractions: 5 alternatives to the heavy hitters

'New' Mexico attractions: 5 alternatives to the heavy hitters

Copper Canyon, Chichén Itzá, tequila -- they're all great. But these alternatives are as spectacular and a lot less crowded
The Grijalva River in Sumidero Canyon extends across the states of Chiapas and Tabasco and flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

By all means, check into a swanky Ixtapa resort, marvel at Mayan ruins in the Yucatan, gape into Copper Canyon from the train and sample tequila in Tequila.

Just know that when you’re hitting any number of Mexico’s “can’t-miss” tourist meccas you won’t exactly be winning points for originality, you certainly won’t be alone and that for every A-list site in this huge, varied country there’s an equally alluring, if somewhat lesser-sung, alternative.

Here they are: five traditional Mexican tourist attractions (that, yes, we recommend but who doesn’t?) coupled with five less obvious alternatives worthy of your consideration.

Go ahead and check off the starting lineup. Just don’t sell the backups short.

More on CNN: Insider Guide -- Best of Mexico City 

Archaeological site

The obvious: Chichén Itzá

Chichen Itza -Kukulcan templeKukulcan temple, also known as El Castillo (The Castle), dominates Chichen Itza archaeological site on the Yucatan Peninsula.Location: Northern Yucatán (about 115 miles -- 185 kilometers -- west of Cancún)

Claim to fame: Mexico’s most famous ancient Mayan city features the towering Kukulkan Pyramid (aka “El Castillo”), a recent New Seven Wonders of the World inductee, drawing about 3,000 daily visitors.

The alternative: El Tajín

El TajinBut you'll find far smaller crowds among the ruins at El Tajin in Veracruz. Location: North-central Veracruz

The scoop: If Cancún or Mexico City was just up the road from El Tajín (hidden away in a remote vanilla-growing region in northern Veracruz), this hauntingly spectacular World Heritage Site would draw more gawkers and press.

Home to the best preserved and most thoroughly excavated pre-Hispanic town of its period (according to UNESCO), the site’s main attraction, the 59-foot-high (18-meter) Pyramid of the Niches, is one of the great Mesoamerican masterpieces. It’s complemented by numerous columned temples and ball court sites (and leaner crowds) throughout an extensive archaeological complex. 

Throwback beach community

IxtapaNice, even without Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman ...The obvious: Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo

Location: Pacific Coast, 124 miles (200 kilometers) north of Acapulco.

Claim to fame: The mellowest big beach community on the Mexican Riviera -- and, of course, that blissfully untraceable, barely pronounceable hideaway where (spoiler alert?) Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman hug at the end of “The Shawshank Redemption.”

The alternative: Troncones

TronconesBut Trocones is quiet enough for a rock to impersonate a turtle. Location: About 18 miles (30 kilometers) north of Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo

The scoop: The idyllic shores of Zihuatanejo -- or (it was bound to happen in a place this sweet) “Zihua” -- are a mite more discovered these days than that closing image in everyone’s favorite period prison bromance would suggest.

Its resort-lined neighbor, Ixtapa, four miles (six kilometers) up the coast even more so.

Keep going 45 minutes up-coast from Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo International Airport, however, and you’ll find sleepy Troncones (population 600), a far less frenzied, three-mile (five-kilometer) stretch of surf-pounded golden sand that time has treated more gently.

Troncones and its neighboring village of Majahua is what every resort-studded Pacific beach community south of Malibu secretly wishes it still was: a high-rise-free ocean playground --with requisite seafood joints, sports bars, taco stands, surf breaks and guest bungalows that welcome every type of beachhead on virtually every budget -- that still somehow manages to stay pretty low-key.

Charming colonial town

The obvious: San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de AllendeScenic colonial churches are a big reason San Miguel de Allende is so popular with photographers.Location: Central Mexico, about 164 miles (265 kilometers) northwest of Mexico City.

Claim to fame: The most touristed small city in Mexico’s hilly heartland has also been called the country’s “prettiest town.” It’s a World Heritage Site, complete with narrow cobblestone streets, stunning colonial architecture, trolley tours and an entrenched expat artists’ colony.

The alternative: Guanajuato

GuanajuatoBut the basilica of Guanajuato makes the city just as stunning.Location: About 59 miles (95 kilometers) west of San Miguel de Allende.

The scoop: Nearby San Miguel may get more play with the international tourist and Mexico City weekender crowds, but the mountain-ringed state capital of Guanajuato -- a former New Spain silver mining boomtown turned World Heritage Site -- has more than its share of enchanting colonial street cred.

Tangled in labyrinthine callejones (alleyways) with tiers of brightly colored homes, shady cafes, theaters and quirky museums (including one dedicated to Don Quixote iconography), the city’s historic center can also claim some of the most arresting Baroque and Neoclassical buildings in the Americas.

Spectacular canyon

The obvious: Copper Canyon train ride

ChepeThis humble carriage will take you on an epic rail adventure ...Location: Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad (aka “Chepe”) between the city of Chihuahua and town of Los Mochis in Northwestern Mexico.

Claim to fame: It’s been called “the Western Hemisphere’s most dramatic train ride.” The 404-mile (650 kilometer) trip (traversing 37 bridges and 86 tunnels) passes through the heart of Copper Canyon, a system of monster, river-carved gorges in the Sierra Madre that dwarfs the Grand Canyon.

The alternative: Sumidero Canyon boat trip

Sumidero CanyonBut Sumidero Canyon in Chiapa de Corzo is worth a lot of photo memory, as well. Location: Chiapas, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Chiapa de Corzo

The scoop: Rising about a thousand sheer meters, the knee-wobbling, river-lined cliffs of Sumidero Canyon National Park in Chiapas are less news to Mexican tourists (who constitute about 80 percent of the area’s visitors) than international travelers missing out on some of the country’s most dramatic natural scenery.

From the highway above, half a dozen lookout points are spread throughout the canyon. But for an unforgettable, neck-straining experience, board a vessel in nearby Chiapa de Corzo where several boat operators run day tours into the heart of the canyon along the Río Grijalva.

Booze festival

The obvious: Feria Nacional del Tequila (National Tequila Fair)

Location: Santiago de Tequila, in central Jalisco (about 34 miles --55 kilometers -- west of Guadalajara)

Claim to fame: Mexico’s annual tribute to its most famous firewater typically runs from the last Saturday in November to the second Sunday in December in its UNESCO-recognized, regional birthplace (and namesake) Tequila, home to the Museo Nacional de Tequila (National Museum of Tequila), a local Tequila Express train and some of the world’s oldest tequila distilleries.

The alternative: Feria Nacional del Mezcal (International Mezcal Fair)

Feria Nacional del Mezcal (International Mezcal Fair)-Oaxaca, MEXICODel Carmen de Abajo church in Oaxaca -- here you may seek absolution for your mezcal sins.Location: Oaxaca de Juaréz, Oaxaca

The scoop: Tequila (made exclusively from the blue agave plant) may hog the spotlight and bar shelves in most of the country, but in Mexico’s deep south it’s all about mezcal, which is made from several kinds of agave.

Gaining a greater appreciation for the real mezcal -- no, it’s not just less-refined tequila with a worm thrown in -- can be done anytime.

But true fans will want to sample the goods during this savory spirit’s annual fair, held in mid-July in Oaxaca, the mezcal capital of world.

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