The Ultimate Guide to Ecotourism in Mexico
By Lauren McKown.
Once upon a time you could simply pack a bag, board a plane to Mexico or travel anywhere at your leisure. Then along came COVID; forcing travelers everywhere to retire their passports for masks and settle for 2019 highlights from IG travel accounts.
In addition to preventing us from a much needed adventure, the pandemic also has us clinging to our computer and phone screens in order to maintain our social health. Zoom fatigue, a recently coined term that describes the burnout associated with the overuse of virtual platforms, has become the new norm. A digital detox has never been more necessary.
While the outlook for 2021 still remains uncertain, progress is finally beginning to be made and safely resuming travel is definitely on the horizon. After an entire year's worth of travel opportunities missed, you may be wondering where to go next.
Now, what if there was a way for you to release your pent up cravings for adventure, combat screen fatigue, AND support the conservation of environmental areas and the well-being of its surrounding communities all in a sustainable fashion?
You absolutely can.
This conscious form of travel that combines the thrill of adventure with the support and conservation of your destination is known as ecotourism.
With ecological diversity ranked among the broadest of any other country in the world, featuring terrain ranging from dry deserts to dense rainforests, Mexico has become one of the most highly sought out ecotourism destinations. Historically, the combination of high amounts of tourism and vast amounts of diverse terrain has promoted the development of a number of alliances and organizations dedicated to supporting conservation efforts and establishing ecotourism opportunities. With 31 diverse states within the country, there are more than enough ways to get involved in ecotourism and indulge in what Mexico has to offer.
What is Ecotourism?
The International Ecotourism society defines ecotourism as, “The responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”
Traditional lodging leaves an environmental imprint on the Earth. While this imprint may seem less significant than the more traditionally known ways in which we leave our mark, its significance grows collectively when we all travel.
An ecolodge provides sustainability through a variety of practices. Some of the ways in which ecolodges practice sustainability include using renewable energy sources and energy efficient lighting for the lodges, preserving water usage of its guests, providing guests with organic cotton towels and linens, using non-toxic cleaning products, recycling, and even serving locally sourced food. Economically, the money you spend on these ecolodges goes towards the local communities they reside in and allows them to remain on their native land without tapping into natural resources. This can further allow them to preserve and have greater control over their culture. Even better, sometimes you can find ‘all-inclusive’ style ecolodging, which means all you can eat food, drinks and entertainment are included in the cost.
Ecolodges are often found in remote areas, allowing you to immerse yourself in the beauty of nature while preserving it and further bringing awareness to the conservation of the wildlife that thrives there.
A more hands on approach to tourism that allows you to immerse yourself in the day to day agricultural operations of local communities. Your involvement can range from as little (simply visiting) to as much (active involvement) as you’d like to commit. This form of tourism is great because it allows you to immerse in culture and learn from others, while also helping them by providing supplemental income and lending an extra hand.
One major perk of agrotourism is that it can also offer affordable options for long-term stays in which you can work in exchange for lodging and meals (see ‘Other Ecotourism Destinations In Mexico’ below).
Similar to agrotourism, community development includes volunteering and immersion in the surrounding communities of the area you travel to, but with a focus on off-setting the negative impacts made by modernization and mass tourism.
Community development can take form in many different ways from planting trees and building homes, to building cultural awareness by volunteering in schools, museums and research centers.
If agrotourism is not your cup of tea, try looking into community development opportunities. Community development may require a bit more commitment, but it also allows for lengthier stay options and an opportunity to maximize your impact.
Looking for something more adventurous?
Eco tours allow you to enjoy exotic and, often, protected areas in order to bring awareness to them and support conservation efforts. Booking with a local tour guide or consulting with tour operators can also help benefit the community economically and further support cultural awareness.
Eco tours can vary in length but are most commonly found as half-day and day trips and can range from snorkeling with sea turtles to hiking through a national park.
With all of these options, it’s easy to integrate sustainable tourism, in fact, if you’re really feeling green, you can combine some of the types highlighted above!
Still curious? Read this article on everything you need to know about ecotourism from its roots to its challenges.
So what does Ecotourism in Mexico look like?
As mentioned previously, there are many ways you can indulge in sustainable tourism, with as little to as much commitment as you would like. Mexico provides a wide array of options due to its variety of terrain and rich history and culture. It contains high mountains, deep canyons, dense rainforests, expansive deserts, and tremendous coasts.
Imagine trekking deep into the jungle and finding a natural, freshwater cenote to indulge in, or heading out into the rural Mexican state, Chiapas, to explore Mayan ruins after spending a day in the colorful town of San Cristóbal de las Casas full of locals marketing their handmade goods and food.
Sounds amazing, right?
Let's explore your options ...
Examples of Ecotourism Activities in Mexico
Mexico is full of opportunities and is not limited to any particular type of traveler, but we all have our preferences when it comes down to it, so here are a few ways in which you can explore these opportunities based on your travel preferences!
For the Adventure-Seeker
- Backpacking through the jungle
- Biking your way through villages
- Rafting through canyons
- Scuba diving to the ocean floor (remember to wear reef safe sunscreen)
For the Marine Maven
- Snorkeling and exploring coral reefs
- Whale watching
- Volunteering to protect sea turtles
- Visiting aquatic parks
For the Culture Connoisseur
- Visiting ruins and historical sites
- Volunteering to help restore and rebuild villages
- Agrotourism (reference above)
- Perusing food stands in the marketplace
For the Nature Lover
- Finding and trying new ecolodges
- Self-guided or guided walks and hikes through national parks and protected areas (see biosphere list)
- Exploring coral reefs and marine life
Sounds great, now where the heck should I go to find these activities?
Mexico is a big place with endless options, which means you’ll have to do a LOT of research.
Well, not quite.
COVID has caused you enough of a headache, so here’s a cheat sheet of some of the best destinations to save you the hassle:
Best Ecotourism Destinations In Mexico
Mexico can be divided roughly into six regions: the North, Central, Gulf and South, Pacific Coast, Baja Peninsula, and the Yucatan Peninsula. Each region contains its own hidden gems and a variety of sustainable tourism options.
- Copper Canyon
A region of six copper green canyons located in the southwestern part of the state of Chihuahua. The canyons were formed by six rivers that merge in Rio Fuerte and empty into the Gulf of California. There is plenty to explore!
A biosphere reserve located in Coahuila’s Chihuahua Desert that contains crystal clear pools and marshes in the middle of the desert.
- Grutas de Garcia
A cave complex outside of Garcia Nuevo Leon with incredible sights to behold.
- Samalayuca Dune Fields
Extensive stretches of dunes composed of almost pure quartz. A view which is sure to feed that crystal-loving part of you.. These dune fields are a great way to witness nature up close as they are a diverse habitat for many endemic species of animals and plants.
- Boca de Potrerillos
An archaeological site located in Mina, Nuevo Leon, that contains one of the largest concentrations of petroglyphs in the country, featuring one of the earliest horizon calendars in North America.
- El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve
A UNESCO World Heritage Site that borders the United States. It is one of the most significant landforms on Earth and is even able to be seen from space. El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar is made up mostly of a volcanic system that includes three peaks, and is home to over 540 species of plants, 40 species of mammals, 200 birds, 40 reptiles, as well as some species of amphibians and freshwater fish.
- Pegüis Canyon
A gorgeous canyon with breathtaking views left right and center. You can be as lowkey, or as adventurous as you’d like from simply driving through to take in the views, to canoeing or rafting through the rapids.
- The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve
A reserve made up of four sanctuaries that allow you to immerse yourself in some of the most incredible sites that nature has to offer: monarch butterflies. And no, we’re not talking about a chance encounter with a monarch butterfly, we’re talking MILLIONS of them! The best time to see the butterflies is in between January and February, although around late-November-December is also a great time to see them because there will most likely be less people, allowing you a more private experience.
- Mexico City
Mexico city is full of historical sites such as Zocalo, Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral, and the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan. This great city also offers a variety of ways to support locals through its incredible markets. Be sure to stop by La Ciudadela, the city's go-to market for handcrafted goods made all over Mexico.
- Santiago de Queretaro
This city is chop full of culture and history! Visit the historic center for neat architecture, street vendors, lots of restaurants, and beautiful churches, or support the community through a visit to the Querétaro Regional Museum.
Gulf and South of Mexico
A southern Mexican state that borders Guatemala. From mountainous highlands to thick rainforests, you can do just about anything from exploring Mayan ruins to jungle trekking to cenotes and waterfalls.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site home to culture rich sites such as the Macedonio Alcala Theater and a short drive to incredible natural rock formations that resembles cascading waterfalls. Sierra Madre de Oaxaca–a massive mountain range that contains the tallest Mexican peak, Pico de Orizaba, is another great place worth exploring. If you’re looking for some agrotourism, be sure to check out Finca El Pacifico, a full functioning coffee plantation.
- Aguas Termales Nuevo Ixtlan
A favorite, local hot spring residing in the mountains behind the city of Puerto Vallarta. A lot of tourists don’t know about this one … (;
The tenth largest hub in Latin America and home of tequila and mariachi music. This city is rich in culture with monuments and landmarks such as the Teatro Degollado, and Guadalajara Cathedral. Guadalajara is also home to the largest indoor market in Latin America, San Juan de Dios Market. If agrotourism is more your style and tequila is your drink of choice, be sure to check out the local agave fields and tequila tours.
A town on the Pacific Coast known for its marine life and aquatic opportunities. Its center features the embellished Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe church.
- Valle de Guadalupe
Often referred to as the Napa Valley of Mexico, this is a wonderful place for wine connoisseurs and agrotourists to explore.
Incredible marine life and amazing sites. Visit El Arco de Cabo San Lucas for whale watching and snorkeling, or Playa del Amor for swimming and snorkeling.
- Cabo Pulmo National Park
Incredible mountain ranges, beaches that give way to a bay that contains not one, but three living reefs, and plenty more to explore. From snorkeling to jeep tours, this is a great site for marine life lovers.
- La Paz
A laid back international town rich with history and aquatic adventure. Dive into a whale sharks snorkeling tour, or go spot some marine life during a gray whale sighting tour.
- Sierra De La Laguna
Home of the most prominent reproductive site of Latin America’s main hummingbird species. Its biodiversity is essential to its community and it contains the most important reservoir in the region.
- Flora Farms
An organic farm and hidden gem. Cooking classes, farm and plant identification tours, workshops, and community events. Hungry? Grab a bite at their self-sustaining restaurant that uses the fresh produce they harvest on the farm.
A beautiful town in the state of Quintana Roo along the Carribean coastline packed with stoke and some of the most incredible views. Some of the most popular adventures include exploring the Sian Ka’an Biosphere and its wildlife, swimming through Cenote Caracol’s cavern, or climbing the Tulum ruins. If you're craving more, check out a secret lagoon known as the Kaan Luum Lagoon a little ways South of the town. This lagoon is known for its alternating water color and a deep cenote in the center.
The capital of the Yucatan and a convenient location for day trips to UNESCO archaeological sites, wildlife reserves, and culture rich villages such as Izamal and Valladolid
A UNESCO World Heritage Site and an ancient Mayan city that houses some of the most important Mayan archaeological sites such as the Pyramid of the Magician, the Governor’s Palace, the Adivino, and many more.
- Chichen Itza
A city built by the Mayans that was once one of the largest Mayan cities. It contains a variety of architectural styles from the Temple of Kukulcán (El Castillo) to the Great Ball Court.
- Riviera Maya
Was originally called the Cancun-Tulum corridor, for it encompasses a fair sized district south of Cancun, including Tulum. Riviera Maya is home to a lot of tourism and resorts, but among the less sustainable lodging and heavy traffic you can find nearby ecotourism attractions such as Xcaret, and aquatic adventures and tours in Playa Del Carmen. If you feel like doing some shopping, head over to one of Playa Del Carmen’s local markets such as the Coco Beach Eco Market. You can often get a great price for the goods sold if you’ve levelled up your bartering skills..
White sandy beaches aren’t the only thing you can enjoy here. Home to Xcaret, one of Mexico's most well known parks full of underground rivers, Mayan ruins and delicious locally sourced mexican dishes, this is a must. Xcaret has a handful of other sister companies such as Xel-Ha Park, a natural waterpark with unlimited snorkeling options. Check out all of the other parks and adventures associated with Xcaret and Xel-Ha here
A mostly underdeveloped island off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula nested in the Carribean. Known for its scuba diving, especially at Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park, as well as Chankanaab, a popular eco park surrounding a lagoon full of dolphins, sea turtles and manatees.
- Maya Ka’an
An ecotourism region full of adventure from exploration of Mayan culture to the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve.
- Isla Holbox
An island north of the Yucatan peninsula in Quintana Roo State. This marine life rich island is part of the Yum Balam Nature Reserve and is home to bright pink flamingos and rowdy pelicans, as well as a great deal of whale sharks and sea turtles. Check out Holbox Village or Punta Coco Beach for a laid back type of day, or go wild and explore its local nature and marine life!
- Kíichpam K’áax
A center for eco tourism that focuses on preserving its local environment and Mayan culture. You can find a lodge here, go on adventures, or do both. These adventures range from bird watching to jungle trekking and bracelet making with the locals.
- Nuevo Xcan
A large village built on Mayan land full of incredible natural attractions such as hidden cenotes, caves and treks through thick jungle vegetation.
Other Ecotourism Destinations in Mexico
In addition to the regions and specific ecotourism destinations mentioned above, there are plenty more opportunities for ecotourism yet to be explored. Check out this additional list of ecolodges and resources.
Ecolodges Worth Exploring
- Azulik Hotel
- Harmony Glamping
- Haramara Retreat
- Sandos Caracol
You can also explore AirBnb or HostelWorld.com to look for one-of-a-kind, sustainable lodging options that support independent property owners and hostels.
Community Development Opportunities
A great platform that connects you with locals in need of an extra hand. From building schools to gardening to assisting locals with children and pet care, there's an opportunity for you! The best part is that in exchange for your work, the host provides you with a place to stay, and often other perks like meals and sometimes even transportation.
You have to pay for your experience but the planning is taken care of for you and the trip will cost you a fraction of the price!
How to be a Sustainable Traveller in Mexico
Ecotourism is just one of many ways that you can practice sustainability while traveling.
If you’re still unsure about ecotourism, or are looking for some ways to make your traveling practices overall a bit more eco-friendly, here are some additional ways in which you can:
- First off, be cautious of “greenwashing,” which is a term coined to describe fake sustainable operations/practices. If you are unsure, do a little research and see what you can find. Read our guide on how to do sustainable travel right.
- If able, choose carbon free transportation such as cycling, kayaking, and walking. If these modes of transportation are not an option, use public transportation.
- Avoid animal attractions. Captive animals being used to generate profit is never the move.
- When shopping at the markets, don’t buy wildlife trade products such as skins and hides (from handbags to shoes), bones, exotic meats, etc.
- If able, cut back on meat and dairy. Cattle ranching is the #1 cause of deforestation.
- Avoid single-use products like water bottles, plastic bags, and food utensils and containers. Read our Guide on 30+ Ways to Reduce Your Waste. Either purchase water purifier tablets, BPA free purifying water bottles (our favourite is the Grayl), or find safe places for refilling your water supply, shop with a tote bag when possible, and bring your own utensils and tupperware containers.
- Recycle when applicable (:
- Plan ahead and do your research. Understand the local laws and conservation policies.
- If able, book the most direct flight possible (unfortunately, this is not always the cheapest route).
- Offset your carbon emissions from your flight through companies like South Pole, a carbon management company that further supports sustainable projects such as wind power.
- Visit destinations rebuilding after disasters to support their local economy
- Shop local whenever you are able!
- Wear biodegradable, eco-friendly sunscreen (bonus points if you purchase it at a local market). A lot of places prohibit the use of sunscreen because it harms the aquatic life, but skin cancer is also terrible ...
- Practice the 7 ‘Leave No Trace Principles’
Ready to hit the road? We can help you pack.
What to Bring With You on Your Trip to Mexico
Before heading out on a trip, download our Ultimate Packing List.
and don’t forget your Mindful Travel Journal–your all in one source for planning and organizing your trip, as well as your mindfulness lifeline to assist you in your transformative travels. Traveling can take a toll on your mind and body and you shouldn’t have to worry about that while you’re trying to live your best life wandering the globe!.
Ecotourism has a positive impact on the environment and the communities that embrace it, but it does take a lot of research. Hopefully this guide will help you when planning your next ecotourism adventure in Mexico
Have a ‘wakeful’ time.