Mexico has 67 national parks across the country that have been selected due to their natural beauty, unique geological features, unusual ecosystems, and recreational opportunities. These parks are just waiting to be explored and marveled at and here are our top picks for the most beautiful national parks in Mexico.
Iztaccihuatl-Popocatepetl National Park
Two majestic volcanoes, Mexico’s second and third highest peaks, lie side-by-side at the junction of Puebla, Morelos, and Mexico State, but it’s possible to visit on a day trip from Mexico City. Enjoy the alpine landscapes and see if you can spot the currently in danger of extinction but super cute teporingo, also known as the volcano rabbit, because it lives on the slopes of the volcanoes. Some activities you can do include horseback riding and hiking, nature observation, and climbing to the summit of Iztaccihuatl. Popocatepetl is closed to hiking because it's active. The ascent to Iztaccihuatl is steep in some areas, so it’s recommended to go with a local guide. If you don’t come with an organized tour, hire a guide at the Paso de Cortes Visitors Center.
Travel Tip: Visibility of the volcanoes is best early in the day, so try to get an early start. Dress in layers, and be sure to bring a sweater or a jacket as the temperature varies according to elevation. If you’re going to be climbing, it’s best to take a few days in Mexico City (or Puebla) to get acclimated to the elevation before going higher.
Islas Marietas National Park
A group of uninhabited islands offering pristine natural beauty and scenic vistas lies off the coast of the state of Nayarit, just 5 miles southwest of Punta de Mita. There is abundant marine life surrounding the islands, with several different types of coral and colorful tropical fish. It’s common to see humpback whales during the winter months and dolphins year-round, often leaping out of the water or swimming alongside boats. Many species of seabirds, including Blue-footed boobies and Red-billed tropicbirds, use the islands as feeding and breeding grounds. Military testing took place on the islands in the early 1900s, creating caves and rock formations that had not existed previously. That, along with erosion, created “Secret Beach” (sometimes referred to as “Hidden Beach” or “Lovers Beach”) a picturesque underground crater only accessible at low tide, which gained internet fame in recent years, drawing a huge increase in visitors to the islands, which then prompted the government to take measures to reduce the number of visitors. It’s not permitted to explore the islands on foot and only a few tour companies have permission to take visitors to the famous beach. Snorkeling, kayaking, and paddleboarding around the islands are popular activities.
Travel Tip: You can visit the Islas Marietas on a day trip from the Riviera Nayarit or Puerto Vallarta. Vallarta Adventures offers an Islas Marietas Eco-Discovery tour as well as an Island Discovery tour which, depending on sea conditions, may include a visit to the “Secret Beach,” but be aware that you have to swim from the boat to the beach, and the currents are sometimes strong.
Lagunas de Montebello National Park
Located within an evergreen forest in the state of Chiapas near the border with Guatemala, this park is home to over 50 lakes, each containing water of a different color, from brilliant emerald to striking turquoise. The color variation is said to be due to several factors, including the depth of the water, the type of soil on the bottom, the vegetation growing in and around it, and the way the light refracts off the water. More than 150 species of orchids grow within the surrounding pine and oak forest, as well as some 93 species of fungi. There are three Maya archaeological sites nearby: Chinkultic, Tenam Puente, and El Lagartero. Rent a canoe for a ride on one of the lakes, or hire a local boatman to take you on one of the locally made pine log rafts. There are ample opportunities for hiking and camping. Photographers will enjoy capturing the natural scenery and the varied colors of the lakes.
Travel Tip: It tends to be misty and it rains frequently in this area, so take a rain jacket or poncho with you. Tour companies in San Cristobal offer day trips, but this makes for a very long day with a lot of driving and not much time spent at the destination.
Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park
Located off the coast of the island of Cozumel in the state of Quintana Roo, this national park forms part of the world’s second-largest coral reef, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, and consists of around 30 acres of sea and coastline. The park encompasses the reefs on the south side of the island and contains both shallow and mesophotic coral reefs. It’s currently home to over 100 different types of coral and 262 species of fish. You may also see sea turtles and starfish, as well as the endemic Splendid toadfish. In the winter months, there’s a possibility of spotting giant manta rays. You can go snorkeling in the park from the Parque Natural Chankanab as well as the ecological reserve Parque Punta Sur, or go on a diving excursion to venture farther out. The most famous dive site is the Palancar Caves which has huge brain corals and swim-through tunnels.
Travel Tip: Cozumel is most crowded between December and April when the weather tends to be sunny and warm. There are fewer crowds during hurricane season (May through October), but it can be rainy, and you face the risk of tropical storms, so check the weather reports before traveling.
Palenque National Park
Once you’ve explored the well-crafted architecture and beautiful sculptural art of Palenque’s archaeological site, you’re just beginning to discover the wonders to be found in this national park which covers more than 4,300 acres of dense tropical forest in the state of Chiapas. There are hiking paths and rivers, streams, and waterfalls with clear blue water. The wildlife you may be able to spot includes spider monkeys, toucans, and scarlet macaws. Take the path to the Baño de la Reina (“the Queen’s Bath”) where you’ll see a series of small waterfalls tumbling down to form natural bathing pools. Swimming isn’t permitted here, but afterward, find the path to the Motiepa waterfall where swimming is permitted. Both of these paths are well-marked and you can do them without a guide.
Travel Tip: The weather is usually hot and humid at Palenque. Wear natural fibers, carry water, and don’t forget to bring sunscreen and insect repellent.
Nevado de Toluca National Park
Just outside the high-elevation city of Toluca in the State of Mexico lies a dormant stratovolcano that is the fourth highest peak in Mexico. A climb up to the top takes about two hours, with spectacular views along the way, but should only be attempted by travelers in good physical condition. At the summit, there's a crater with two tranquil lakes. Archaeological remains were found on the site, including offerings of copal incense as well as ceramic objects and sculpted stone, showing that this was a place of ritual importance in ancient times and may also have been used as an astrological observatory.
Travel Tip: It can be quite cold at that altitude throughout the year, so make sure to pack a warm jacket, scarf, gloves, and a hat Spend a couple of days in Mexico City or Toluca to get accustomed to the higher altitude before attempting the climb.
Cabo Pulmo National Park
Jacques Cousteau famously referred to Mexico's Sea of Cortes as "the World's Aquarium," and this is very evident in Cabo Pulmo which is home to 226 fish species as well as sea turtles, dolphins, tiger and bull sharks, and migrating humpback and blue whales. In this stunningly beautiful natural area, you can appreciate a fantastic array of sea life while snorkeling, scuba diving, and sportfishing (outside the park boundaries), or you might choose to just enjoy the pristine beaches and gorgeous scenery.
Travel Tip: In order to protect the marine park, there are strict rules and regulations for all who make use of it. Fishing is prohibited within the park. Scuba divers must have certification from known associations on an international level, and it is forbidden to come within 8 feet (2.5 meters) of the coral reef. If you are caught breaking these rules, you may be sanctioned by the authorities.
Cascada de Basaseachi National Park
The second tallest waterfall in Mexico is the main attraction of this national park located in the state of Chihuahua in the heart of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range. This area is known for its pine-oak forest, rock formations, and scenic views from high cliffs. The climate in the park is varied depending on the elevation of the terrain, which makes for a variety of microclimates that harbor an array of plants and animals. Some of the animals you may spot here include the Mexican fox squirrel, Collared peccary, Antelope jackrabbit, and cougar. Visitors to the park enjoy activities such as hiking, camping, nature photography, as well as rappelling, and rock climbing.
Sumidero Canyon National Park
This long and deep canyon with high vertical walls is located in Chiapas state near the capital city, Tuxtla Gutierrez. The most popular ways to enjoy its natural beauty are on a boat ride of the Usumacinta River that flows through the canyon or by admiring the views from lookout points located above the canyon. You’ll see some interesting rock formations such as the Christmas tree and Cave of Colors, and you’re likely to encounter spider monkeys and crocodiles.
Travel Tip: Most of the organized tours to visit the Sumidero Canyon don’t visit the lookout points, so make sure to specify if you would like to do that, or you could rent a car to visit on your own. As for the boats, they don’t depart on a fixed schedule, so it’s good to arrive fairly early in the day to be sure you get a space on one.
Grutas de Cacahuamilpa National Park
Located in Guerrero state near Taxco, this national park has one of the largest cave systems in the world. It’s a live cave system with groundwater filtering through, so stalactites and stalagmites are still forming. There are several large chambers of between 100 and 250 feet (30.5 and 76 meters) in height and two underground rivers. A guided tour of the caves takes about two hours and you’ll be able to see a huge variety of rock formations, many of them named. If you’re looking for more adventure, after your tour of the caves, visit the Limontitla Canyon to do some rock climbing and rappelling.
Travel Tip: You can only visit the caves on a tour. They depart about every hour between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m, but once the tour is finished, you can explore a bit on your own, provided that you have a working flashlight.
Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas. “Parque Nacional Lagunas de Montebello.” September 9, 2019