With slow economic growth persisting in many developed nations, investors have taken a shine to various emerging market economies. Featuring the right combination of fast-growing populations, fiscal responsibility and burgeoning middle classes, these nations have become portfolio necessities as investors seek to generate market-beating returns.

Much of investors' fascination with the developing world has been squarely focused on the big boys on the emerging market block. Nations like China and Brazil are often the first places portfolios look to gain exposure, and the broad-based funds - like the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets Index (ARCA:EEM) - that track emerging markets are often top-heavy in these nations.

By just focusing on the BRICs or other heavyweights such as South Korea, however, investors may be doing their portfolios a disservice. Some of the best emerging market opportunities lie within less-traveled nations. For those investors willing to go against the grain, these more promising picks could yield bigger fruit.

The Philippines
When investors look to Asian markets for growth, the Philippines probably isn't even on their radar. However, the nation is quickly emerging as one of Asia's superstars. First, GDP growth is moving at a scorching 7.1%, which bested economists' predictions by almost 2%. That growth is helping the Philippines increase its capital reserves and the nation is on the cusp of receiving an investment-grade debt rating from S&P and Moody's.

Second, the Philippines' ties to the United States and Japan are helping it grow its exports - even with these developed economies plodding along. Agricultural exports remain the top draw; however, the country has quickly become an outsourcing destination for call-centers and help lines. Either way, the emerging Asian superstar sent roughly one-third of its goods to the two trade partners.

All in all, the Philippines could be one of the best places to invest in 2013.

Much of Latin America's economic history has been tumultuous, and Peru is no exception. Both the 1980s and 1990s saw periods of violence, drug trafficking and high inflation. After a succession of fiscally responsible, pro-business governments, however, Peru has moved forward to the tune of an estimated 7% GDP growth in 2013 following the 6 to 6.5% seen in 2012.

Gold, copper and silver remain the nation's top exports, and with various monetary-easing programs still occurring in the developed world, these exports will continue to be in demand. This will benefit the Peruvian people, whose growing middle class is fueling a banking boom.

South Africa
As the gateway to the African continent, South Africa could be one of the best bets in 2013. Like Peru, South Africa is a huge exporter of various natural resources, including coal, gold and agricultural commodities such as wool and corn.

Also like Peru, South Africa's exports have fueled a growing middle class and a GDP expansion. That middle class helped South African stocks post a 22% gain in 2012 - one of the best annual returns since 2009. According to Thomson Reuters, South Africa was the 10th-best performer among 31 emerging stock markets in local currency terms.

Mexico was one of 2012's standouts in the emerging market sector. The Mexican economy has been benefiting from China's pain. As wages in China have risen, some manufacturers have moved those jobs to Mexico. At the same time, higher fuel prices have led some U.S. firms to buy more goods from Mexico instead of China, due to the high costs of shipping these goods overseas.

The aforementioned factors have helped move the Mexican unemployment rate downwards and to create more robust domestic demand. Add in Mexico's ties to the U.S. and Canada via the NAFTA trade agreement and Mexico is on track to being one of the best emerging market performers over time.

The Bottom Line
With many developed markets suffering from low growth over the last few years, investors have flocked to emerging markets in spades. While much of that attention has gone towards nations such as Russia or India, some of the best choices lie off the beaten path. The above-mentioned group of countries offers investors some of the better picks for 2013.

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