Hire a set of wheels to explore this huge and varied country, and discover Unesco-listed nature reserves, dramatic landscapes, historic towns, Maya ruins and uncrowded surf spots.

Hire yourself a set of wheels to explore this huge, varied but eminently driveable country, and discover some of its best-kept secrets.

Copper Canyon
Formed by the confluence of six rivers, Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) is so vast it could swallow the Grand Canyon whole. Unlike its better-known cousin in the United States, Copper Canyon is verdant with pine, fir, oak and fig trees. The best way to see it is via a 600km, 12-hour train journey, the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifoco. Most visitors content themselves with the 20-minute stop in the town of Divisadero to take vertigo-inducing photos. More intrepid travellers can venture deeper into the canyon floor to meet the indigenous Tarahumara people who, due to the terrain, have become excellent endurance runners.

Espíritu Santo, Mexico
This Unesco-listed nature reserve situated off the coast of Baja California is a must-see for its breathtaking sheer red cliffs, windswept sand dunes and flawless turquoise bays. The wildlife that inhabits this otherworldly landscape is similarly extraordinary. Day-trippers can view grey whales, swim with manta rays and sea lions, and then sleep at the island’s only lodging, the seasonal Baja Camp (operational from June to September), which offers sybaritic delights like good wine, gourmet meals and all the stargazing you can handle.

The second-largest historic centre outside of Mexico City, Merida’s streets are lined with grand mansions from the town’s boom years as the centre of the sisal trade in the early 20th Century. Some are little more than crumbling ruins, others have been renovated into stately homes and hotels. Take a walking tour of some of the grandest interiors every Wednesday, departing from the Merida English Library. The Cathedral of San Ildefonso, built in 1599 over an ancient Maya temple, is also a must-see with its rare pipe organ.

Chiapas is a land of lakes and waterfalls, an image not normally associated with Mexico. The Reserva de la Biosfera el Triunfo is home to remarkable birdlife like the Respendent Quetzal. The cultural heart of the state is the ancient Maya city of Palenque. While not as large as some Aztec and Toltec ruins, the remarkable detail of the carvings and frescoes have taught archaeologists much of what they know about Mayan life. Take a dip in the nearby Cataratas de Agua Azul waterfalls, where the high mineral content makes this water run a preposterous blue and, over many years, has encased fallen logs in a white crust of stone.

Many visitors pass over Unesco World Heritage city Guanajuato in favour of nearby expat haven San Miguele de Allende, but in truth, Guanajuato is far more charming and lively. The city was founded in 1559 due to the region’s rich silver and gold deposits, and today you will find opulent colonial buildings, stunning tree-filled plazas and brightly-coloured houses crammed onto the steep slopes of a ravine. Beneath the city, a catacomb of mining tunnels act as roads and byways to avoid the cobblestone streets above.

Lesser-known than its flashy coastal counterparts Acapulco, Cancun and Cabo, Mazatlán offers more subtle charms for the intrepid traveller. This central Pacific coast port city – located in the state of Sinaloa parallel to the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula – is finally shaking off its slightly tacky reputation thanks to a large-scale restoration of the historic centre to its original Spanish Colonial glory. Stroll the Centro Historico, watch cliff divers launch themselves off the craggy headland containing the lighthouse El Faro, or take a boat trip to one of the city’s three islands, the most popular of which is Isla de Venados (Deer Island).

Isla Holbox
Formerly a shark-fishing town, the tiny barrier island of Isla Holbox is on the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. It is home to the largest migration of whale sharks on the planet, with more than 2,000 passing by every summer (May to August). Small runabouts ferry snorkellers to the feeding grounds to swim with the placid filter feeders. It is worth paying the extra propina (tip) to swim with the manta rays, which are often spotted on the return journey. Their loop-the-loop feeding is enchanting.

Sian Ka’an
A 1.3 million acre conservation area on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, close to the town of Tulum, Sian Ka’an was established in 1986 as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve and happily, more land keeps being added under this protection all the time. The Mayan name translates to “where the sky was born”, and the place lives up to its lofty title thanks to seemingly endless lagoons, mangroves, jungle and cenotes (underground rivers unique to the Yucatan Peninsula). The reserve is renowned for its biodiversity and many of the plants, animals and birds cannot be found anywhere else. The site also contains well-preserved 2,000-year-old Mayan archaeological ruins, and several tour companies, like the Mayan-run Community Tours Sian Ka’an, offer day trips into the reserve for swimming, kayaking, bird watching and hiking.

Puerto Escondido
This low-key fishing village and port in the state of Oaxaca, on Mexico’s mid-Pacific coast, has remained fairly under-the-radar with travellers apart from one crucial demographic: surfers. That is largely because of a little beach break called Zicatela – also known as the Mexican Pipeline, after the legendary Hawaiian break – which put Mexican surfing on the map. In season, from May to July, waves can reach 30ft or more. The experience here is all about the beach, whether you are surfing yourself or just watching the pros. Do not let the legendary waves intimidate you though: several Puerto Escondido beaches, like Playa Carrizalillo, offer ideal conditions for beginners.

This small bohemian seaside village north of Puerto Vallarta in the Pacific state of Nayarit used to be the province of a small group of in-the-know surf buffs who gathered for the dependably good north swell from December through April. But that is beginning to change as travellers from all the over the world discover the town’s charms. Visit while Sayulita is still low-key, all unspoiled beaches, charmingly rustic seafood restaurants on the sand and quirky cafes and boutiques.

The article 'On the trail of Mexico’s best-kept secrets' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.