Cancun is the go-to sunny spot for Americans traveling abroad. Highly sought-after for white-sand beaches, turquoise waters, and a luxurious resort scene, it is expected to host a record number of guests this summer.
With a growing number of travelers seeking more meaningful experiences, however, the appetite for off-path, unspoiled Mexican destinations is growing, especially now that the Hotel Zone is getting a bit too wild and congested, particularly at peak weekends.
In this article, we bring you 4 beautiful small towns within driving distance of Cancun to escape its hustle and bustle when the crowds start surging:
Driving distance from Cancun: 3h43
Located in the neighboring state of Yucatan, Izamal is part of Mexico’s ever-expanding list of pueblos magicos, a special designation bestowed by the Ministry of Tourism upon towns with a vast tourist offer, and that have contributed in a way to the shaping of Mexican nationhood.
Izamal is best known for its ochre-colored Old Town – it’s nicknamed the ‘Yellow City‘ for a reason – and not only a rich colonial History but also a fascinating pre-Columbian heritage: many of the Spanish-era buildings in the historic center were, in fact, built from disassembled parts of far more ancient Mayan structures.
Strolling its cobbled streets, flanked by vibrant yellow facades, interspersed with Christian shrines erected on top of Mayan ruins, you will be transported back to the Mexico of old, when the Spaniards settled these lands and first came into contact with the well-developed native civilization.
Two of the main attractions in Izamal are the Convento de San Antonio de Padua, established in the 16th century and featuring an iconic arched terrace, and the archaeological zone of Izamal, where you will find a ruined Mayan step pyramid.
Driving distance from Cancun: 1h30
The one that’s closest to Cancun, it is perhaps the only destination to feature on this list that can be enjoyed as a day trip as opposed to an overnight stint.
Akumal is a small beachfront community housing a surprisingly dense resort zone, similar to Tulum, though they are polar opposites in terms of attractions.
While Tulum has become the Mayan Riviera’s party central, Akumal is a more ‘chill’ zone, where nature is at the front of the tourist offer.
It is primarily a snorkeling hotspot, inhabited by sea turtles and other marine life, and a more idyllic beach destination. The landmark Half Moon Bay is famous for its serene, translucent waters, and the hotel strip can feel more exclusive as accommodation options are more limited.
There are 23 five-star properties listed by Booking.com, against Cancun’s 48, and while they are not necessarily any cheaper, being comparable in infrastructure and service, the latter’s dangerous levels of over-tourism have not yet spilled into Akumal, though it is getting more popular.
Driving distance from Cancun: 4h30
In the deep south of Quintana Roo lies a lesser-known vacation spot straddling a scenic lake, where seven shades of blue can be appreciated. Welcome to Bacalar, one of the fastest-growing weekend getaways in the Mexican Caribbean.
It doesn’t offer direct access to the coast, but the aforementioned spot – Lake Bacalar – provides the perfect escape from the sargassum-hit beaches of Cancun, with its crystalline waters and shallow banks.
As it is not the ocean, you will find it is a lot more tranquil to swim in.
Numerous boutique hotels line the lakefront, and unlike Tulum, further up the coast, they are more geared towards wellness as opposed to entertaining the raucous American youth. With nightly rates starting at US$236.25 for the charming Casa Hormiga Hotel, it simply couldn’t be more inviting.
Other than some relaxation, you can step back in time and absorb the region’s enthralling History by visiting the imposing Fuerte de San Felipe, an 18th-century fort where a museum chronicling the development of piracy across the Mexican Caribbean is now housed.
Driving distance from Cancun: 2h18
Yet another pueblo magico, Valladolid takes its name after a Spanish city with whom its settlers had strong affinities and familial links with, and it’s a prime example of post-Columbian architecture in the Yucatan Peninsula.
The town’s grid-like structure is a major attraction, as well as the various colonial civic buildings scattered around its historic district.
The colonial ex-Convent of San Bernardino de Siena was one of the first built by Franciscan missionaries in the mid-16th century, while the stunning Cathedral of San Servacio was completed in the following century.
Other scenic, European-style points of interest around Valladolid include the Francisco Canton Rosado city park, bordered by alfresco dining spots and souvenir shops, and the Casa de los Venados folk art museum, located on a private property.
Nearby, tourists have easy access to the state capital, the enchanting Merida, 105 miles away, and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, the ruins of Chichen Itza, a legendary Mayan city that proved pivotal in the advancement of Mayan civilization prior to the arrival of the Spaniards (25 miles)
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com