Sustainable tourism in Mexico is a natural fit. With vast landscapes, an abundance of wildlife, and a culture interlinked with nature, the country makes the perfect eco-friendly destination.
Snorkel on the Great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second-largest reef in the world, trek through one of the 40 UNESCO-designated biosphere reserves, and spot seven of the world's eight species of sea turtle.
Tourism hasn’t had only positive impacts on Mexico’s landscapes. In places like Cancun and Quintana Roo, mass tourism has had many negative effects in the past including the introduction of invasive species, pollution and litter, and large-scale habitat loss.
But the government and tourism sector have switched focus in recent years to offer a more sustainable way to visit Mexico. It’s now more important than ever to ensure that tourist dollars are supporting the right projects and places for the future of eco-tourism in Mexico.
Despite being a popular destination, there are many sustainable tourism options on the Yucatan Peninsula. Just off the coast of tourist haven Playa Del Carmen, the island of Cozumel is well known as one of the best places to dive in the world.
Visit the only active pearl farm in the Caribbean at Cozumel Pearl Farm. It’s constructed on stilts made from recycled telephone poles and is a family-owned project that cares for and gives back to the environment.
They have recently started coral reef gardening too, which has in turn encouraged an array of sea life. Enjoy a tour of the farm or go diving or snorkelling to find out more.
Puerto Morelos is one of Mexico’s “Pueblos Magicos” - towns and villages that are rich in Mexican legends, history, culture and/or natural wonders. It’s a great spot to get away from the tourist resorts of Quintana Roo, and spend some time watching the local stilt fisherman or explore the surrounding protected areas.
Another top eco-friendly tourist attraction in Quintana Roo is Aktun Chen, home to a cavernous underground cenote system with thousands of limestone stalactites. Set within a 400-acre preserve of virgin forest, the park is a Mexican-owned enterprise where 90% of the land is left for nature. You can also go zip-lining, explore the area on ATV tours, and explore part of the jungle by boardwalk.
Other eco-friendly places to visit in the Yucatan Peninsula include the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve (the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean), Isla Holbox, and the stunning Bacalar Lagoon - often called the “Maldives of Mexico”.
The Gulf of California is home to hundreds of islands, islets, and coastal areas that have earned it the nickname of the “Aquarium of the World.” See sea lions on Espiritu Santo Island, take a blue whale watching tour in Loreto, and swim with whale sharks in the waters surrounding the peninsula from October through to April.
If dry land is more your thing, the Sierra de la Laguna is a fantastic hiking destination in Mexico. It’s best known for its ancient woodlands, scrub and an abundance of endemic vegetation. Take a locally organised tour to learn more about conservation in the area.
The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve is the largest forest reserve in Mexico where you can explore Maya ruins surrounded by thick jungle. The gateway to the reserve is the small town of Xpujil, a 45-minute drive from the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Here you can support local communities by buying artisan wares like textiles, jewellery, and home decor, directly from the people that have made them.
Places like Mexico City are rich in history and culture and a must when travelling in the country. From here, a 4-hour bus journey into the state of Michoacán will take you to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
Visit these forests in the Western Central Highlands between December and February to see one of the most awe-inspiring natural spectacles on earth. Here bright orange butterflies arrive in their thousands as part of one of the largest migrations in the natural world. Some travel up to 3000 miles over the course of two months from the northern forests of Canada and America.
There has unfortunately been a lot of damage to the coral reefs and delicate ecosystems - especially in touristy places like the Yucatan Peninsula. When swimming anywhere in the cenotes, the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, and even water parks like Xcaret and Xel-Ha, only use 100% biodegradable sunscreen or wear UV clothing - a zero-waste non-toxic alternative that lasts a lifetime.
Although the capture of wild dolphins was outlawed in Mexico in 2002, there is still much debate as to the fairness of keeping them caged for tourism purposes. Although all animals since that time were born in captivity, many locals and visitors argue that the practice is still cruel. There are plenty of opportunities to see and swim with marine life in the wild in a responsible way in Mexico.
Many boat tours now focus on eco-friendly methods and put the animals' safety and comfort first. But it’s always best to do some research and choose reputable operators; many use greenwashing tactics like “no plastic” but still bait marine life to ensure encounters. The best time to see whale sharks in the Yucatan Peninsula and Riviera Maya is between the months of July and August.
Try to avoid foreign tour operators (where tourism money doesn’t reach the locals) and instead seek out ejidos and cooperativos (local cooperatives). These small-scale tourism services are run by the community and offer the same, if not better, tours to many of Mexico’s ecotourism destinations. They are available all over Mexico, but are especially easy to find in states like Chiapas, Oaxaca, Quintana Roo, and the Yucatán.
On the marine-life-rich Isla Holbox, you might be lucky enough to see whale sharks, sea turtles, and bioluminescent plankton. It’s also home to a swathe of birdlife like flamingos and pelicans and is part of the impressive Yum Balam Nature Reserve.
Stay at Hotel Casa Blat Ha, a sustainable hotel that runs on wind power and serves up produce from its very own orchard and medicinal plant garden.
A little further south, relax in style at MIA Bacalar Luxury Resort & Spa at the foot of Bacalar Lagoon. The eco-friendly hotel recycles its water to use for irrigation, composts food waste and also grows its own locally sourced chemical-free produce.
Stay at a luxury eco-camp with Journey Mexico in Magdalena Bay on the Pacific coast of the Baja California Peninsula. Here you can participate in a world-renowned sea turtle research and conservation project.
They also offer volunteer experiences researching whale sharks, and in other areas like the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan and the Sierra de la Laguna Biosphere Reserve.
Planning a trip to Mexico? Read our travel guides