Mexico’s most popular beaches can be paradoxical for travelers: Resorts like Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas instantly tempt us to fly south of the border while their popularity can discourage us from actually going. But avoiding the resort crowds doesn’t have to mean writing off Mexico’s coast. How could it when Mexico’s coastline stretches roughly 5,800 miles across almost 20 states? It all comes down to choosing the right beach town. And we just so happen to know where to find sun, sand, and surf sans crowds. These are nine of our top picks.

1. Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo

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Midway between Cancún and Playa del Carmen, Puerto Morelos shares the Yucatán Peninsula with some of Mexico’s busiest resorts. What it doesn’t share are their high-rises. And while the small-town seaport goes to bed well before its neighbors, its waking hours are no less exciting.

It starts with the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Feet from shore, snorkelers and scuba divers can swim the calm Caribbean waters with turtles and tropical fish that inhabit the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. Inland, swimmers can trade corals for cenotes, while the mangroves separating the beach from town make for pleasant scenery on a midday stroll. A walk through the local flea market is also recommended.

After long days outdoors, travelers have their pick of low-rise hotels, seafood restaurants, and beachfront bars to pass the evening. There’s even a surprisingly robust spa scene in Puerto Morelos if hours spent lounging by the ocean just isn’t relaxing enough.

2. Yelapa, Jalisco

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Yelapa sits just 15 miles southwest of Puerto Vallarta. It’s only accessible by boat, however, which has kept the resort crowds at bay. Or across the Bahía de Banderas as the case may be. To visit, charter a boat or hitch a ride on a water taxi from Boca de Tomatlan or Playa Los Muertos. Once there, you’ll be greeted by the Sierra Madres and find mountain passes where roads should be. Hike deeper into the jungle, and you’ll be rewarded with a world of waterfalls.

Yelapa’s crescent beach is small but inviting. Even more enticing is the smell of freshly baked pies that vendors peddle right on the shore. For a true taste of Yelapa, wash down a chocolate, coconut, or tropical fruit pie with a shot of raicilla, an agave spirit that’s similar to mezcal but even stronger. It’s a local specialty.

3. Isla Espíritu Santo, Baja California Sur

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Isla Espíritu Santo’s sea lion colony is as close to civilization as visitors will come. In fact, the archipelago’s animal populations are its only permanent residents.

A popular day trip from La Paz, the archipelago turned UNESCO site in 2005 and national park in 2007 can also be an overnight escape for glampers. All they have to do is book with a certified eco-camping outfit like Baja Expeditions or Todos Santos Eco Adventures. From there, it’s a quick trip to Los Islotes to visit the resident sea lions, particularly during spring and summer. The colony is in good company with the birdlife that perches on the archipelago’s cliffs, including blue herons, cormorants, and turkey vultures.

Hiking only reveals half of the archipelago’s fauna, however. Underwater is a world unto itself, teeming with turtles, dolphins, whales, sharks, eels, and fish species ranging from parrotfish to rainbow wrasse. Scuba divers are in for a particular treat. Wrecks like the 60-foot La Salvatierra and 70-foot Fang Ming may be the most exciting places to mingle with the marine life.

4. Maruata, Michoacán

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Wild, rustic Maruata has been called the most beautiful beach in Michoacán. It’s popular with beach campers who pitch their tents for as little as $1.50 per night. These same backpackers pass their days in hammocks, swinging gently in view of cliffs and cacti. Oceanfront cabanas are also available for roughly $15 per night. Eateries here are simple, primarily thatched palapas serving local catches in fresh-pressed tortillas. Campfire cooking is an alternative provided you hang your leftover grocery haul in food bags to avoid run-ins with free-roaming pigs.

Maruata’s beach is actually three. The eastern beach is best for camping. It’s also the most accessible for swimmers and snorkelers, with the waves getting progressively rougher as you travel west. Where it’s not advisable to swim, visitors can hike the craggy surroundings at low tide. Also worth admiring are Maruata’s handicrafts. The indigenous Nahuatl community is known for its pottery and textiles, producing some of the finest embroidery in all of Michoacán.

5. Barra de Navidad, Jalisco

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This one’s a twofer. An hour up the coast from Manzanillo, neighboring towns Barra de Navidad and Melaque split a sandy stretch of the Costa Alegre. One could argue that Melaque’s share of the shore is prettier, but as beach towns go, it’s all Barra de Navidad.

While much of its charm lies in its sleepiness, the livelier of the twin towns facilitates a variety of activities. Travelers can catch a boat off the boardwalk and test their luck sportfishing for marlin. They can cruise around the lagoon, ride a banana boat, or learn to surf on gentle swells. And at the Grand Isla Navidad Resort, the most luxurious hotel in town, golfers can enjoy a 27-hole course that’s been called one of Mexico’s best.

A moderate expat presence has also brought decent dining and drinking scenes. Think heaping plates of chilaquiles and open mics rather than prix fixe menus, tequila shooters, or DJ sets. But hey, we’ll take local haunt Señor Froy’s over Señor Frog’s any day.

6. Celestún, Yucatán

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Celestún’s appeal is simple: wildlife. The town is surrounded by the Ría Celestún Biosphere Reserve, a wetland of mangroves, dunes, beaches, and rainforest that’s chock-full of migratory birds. Most notable is the flamingo colony that winters there. Fauna like jaguars, ocelots, and spider monkeys also inhabit the jungly mangroves, which visitors can boat through for around $100. And while four species of turtle call the reserve home, Celestún’s own beach is a hatching ground for endangered sea turtles every summer.

Celestún itself is sweet, with a cute town square and a couple of lighthouses. It runs primarily on fishing and salt-making, as evidenced by the boats that float at sea and the salt flats on the outskirts of town. Expect a slow pace of life but prepare for moderate crowds during octopus hunting season, when the population of roughly 6,000 has been said to nearly double.

7. San Pancho, Nayarit

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San Pancho is among the busier beach towns on this list. Digital nomads and snowbirds who own winter homes here are to thank for that. But it’s still a far cry from nearby Puerto Vallarta or even neighboring Sayulita, whose crowd-free days are long gone.

The main beach in San Pancho is long and wide, providing plenty of personal space even during the busier months of November through April. The town is busy but not overly developed: Shops, art galleries, yoga studios, taquerias, and boutique hotels are strung together on cobblestone streets. There’s even a polo club. Travelers can also ride horseback on the beach when they’re not busy surfing, fishing, whale watching, or simply lounging.

Consider renting a vacation home in San Pancho rather than booking a hotel. And whatever you do, sample some birria, or stewed goat, which you’ll see on menus all over town.

8. San Agustinillo, Oaxaca

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San Agustinillo gets less press than neighboring Mazunte, which is not even a mile west but alone bears the distinction of being one of Mexico’s “magical towns.” It’s smaller, sure, with a proportional slice of coast. But its size keeps it quaint. In place of nightlife, there’s a cafe culture. A number of restaurants and hotels here are owned by French and Italian expats, giving this stop on the Riviera Oaxaqueña a lightly Mediterranean feel. Eco-tourism is also a focus.

Generally welcoming to beginner surfers and swimmers, San Agustinillo’s waves can be fickle and at times fierce. Stick to the coves on the west side where the current is most manageable. And at least once before you leave, pass through Mazunte to reach Punta Cometa, Oaxaca’s southernmost point and a stunning sea-view lookout. Sunset visits preferred.

9. Cabo Pulmo, Baja California Sur

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Marine conservationists know Cabo Pulmo as a success story. Once threatened by commercial fishing and pollution, the surrounding marine park was federally protected in 1995 owing to the efforts of local activists. It became a UNESCO World Heritage site a decade later and was named a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance in 2008.

The biomass of Cabo Pulmo’s coral reef has since seen more than 450 percent growth. This is good news not only for its sea life but also for those who want to see it up close. Snorkelers, scuba divers, sailors, sea kayakers, and stand-up paddleboarders will appreciate the healthy ecosystem, from turtles, whales, sharks, rays, and dolphins to sea lions and fish species that span the colors of the rainbow. On land, sea birds like osprey also thrive.

The town of Cabo Pulmo is simple but has a handful of haciendas and beach bungalows to accommodate travelers, as well as no-frills taco spots facing the Sea of Cortez. Although nobody would blame you if you forfeited your downtime for dune-filled hikes, appreciating the magic that happens where desert meets sea.