Mexico, somehow, is one of the world's best kept secrets. Sure, millions of Americans travel to Mexico each year, but most of us wind up in resort-filled beach towns like Cancun or Puerto Vallarta. But the country just south of the border is filled with geological wonders so beautiful it will make your head spin. And most people have never even heard of them.
Here are Mexico's most stunning hidden gems:
The Yucatan Peninsula has 300 miles of interconnected cenotes – sinkholes with caves and underground rivers, all with clear, fresh water that empties into the ocean. These unique swimming holes are great for snorkeling, exploring and swinging like Tarzan into natural pools.
Only a few are deep enough and vast enough for scuba diving, and Cenote Angelita is chief among them. The dive site drops straight down for 200 feet, with the first 100 feet composed of crystal-clear fresh water with 100 percent visibility.
The last 100 feet is salt water, and the two sections are separated by a layer of hydrogen sulfate, which looks like a cloud from the top and multicolored film from the bottom. This cenote also provides the rare chance to dive through underwater trees.
The Huasteca region of the state of San Luis Potosí is known for its canyons, waterfalls and impossibly turquoise rivers, but its most magical site just might be Xilitla. This municipality is filled with verdant landscapes, gushing rivers and rugged mountains. But most importantly, it’s home to Las Pozas, a “garden” that looks more like something dreamed up by Salvador Dali or Dr. Seuss than English artist Edward James.
The jungle garden is filled with natural pools, waterfalls and surrealist sculptures – including labyrinths, dreamlike towers and staircases to nowhere.
Nido de Quetzalcoatl
Winding an oak-filled glen with collapsed and preserved caves, this massive snake looks like somebody’s hallucinogenic vision come to life. In reality, it was a brilliant way for architect Javier Senosiain to create a home in a seemingly impossible area to build – especially when you consider he wasn’t allowed to touch any of the trees that densely populate the space.
So Senosiain did the only thing that made sense to him: build in the shape of a serpent (and name his creation after the snake/bird god Quetzalcoatl). In addition to being one of the most surreal architectural wonders on the planet, the home is also a prime example of how construction and nature can be harmonious. And yes, somebody actually lives here – you can spend a couple nights here, too, thanks to Airbnb.
Laguna Bacalar looks similar to countless other seaside destinations in Mexico. It’s just as blue and just as clear as the Caribbean waters of the Yucatan, but has one important difference: the water here is fresh. This massive, 60-kilometer-long lake is best seen by kayak or sailboat, but most visitors seems to be perfectly content to sit lakeside and do nothing but stare.
San José del Pacífico
When the clouds clear, the views from the mountains of San José del Pacífico are incredible. When the sky is filled with clouds, the views are even more magnificent. The tiny mountain town is often covered in mist, its peaks poking out through a rolling blanket of white.
With few amenities, the town chiefly attracts hippie backpackers and the sort of independent travelers who don't care whether the Wi-Fi is working. But regardless what type of traveler you are, watching the sunset from above the clouds is worth spending a night or two.
In the rich waters of the Pacific – home to an abundance of whales, dolphins and rays – this national park juts out of the water like a supervillain's hidden lair. It looks like plenty of other isolated rocks extending from the sapphire sea, but it holds a secret.
On the other side, through a hole in the rock, is a hidden beach surrounded on all sides by a circular wall, but the lack of roof lets visitors bathe in the sun. Trips to this secret beach are usually accompanied by whale watching (in the winter), as well as scuba diving and/or snorkeling.
Hierve el Agua
Only 10 miles from the ruins of Mitla, and 40 miles from the city of Oaxaca, Hierve el Agua towers above the valley below. The formation was created by thousands of years of natural springs bubbling over the edge of a cliff and creating a mineral formation that looks like a frozen waterfall. It’s an impressive sight from below, but nothing compared to the sweeping panoramic views visitors get while swimming in its temperate natural infinity pools.
Museo Subacuático de Arte
This is not your average museum. For starters, entrance requires a snorkel mask and/or scuba tank. The museum has seven exhibits comprising more than 500 life-size sculptures – including cars and houses, as well as people who provide satirical commentary on the human condition, such as a series of bankers with their heads in the sand.
The project started out as a way to detract divers in an effort to protect the Mesoamerican Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world, but the sculptures themselves have now become covered in algae and coral, not only creating a surreal site, but attracting marine life as well.
Surrounded by jungle, on the Mexican side of the border with Guatemala, this former pillar of Mayan greatness is only accessible by boat. The ancient Mayan city on the Río Usumacinta was abandoned more than 1,000 years ago, and is now inhabited by howler and spider monkeys.
The relatively well-preserved ruins of temples and palaces wind through the jungle approximate to the river, making this Indiana Jones-like forgotten city one of Mexico's most impressive sites for history-loving adventure seekers.
The Naica Mines in the state of Chihuahua look like something from an undiscovered planet. About 1,000 feet below the earth, inside of a silver mine, the crystals in this cavern reach up to four feet thick and 50 feet long – some of the largest crystals on earth.
The Cave of Crystals was only discovered less than two decades ago, a reminder of just how much we still have to learn about our world. Unfortunately, temperatures exceeding 136 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity of more than 90 percent make it off-limits to visitors.