Mexico Guide and Travel Tips

destination guide mexico

Mexico is one of my favorite destinations because of  all that it offers: Mayan ruins, beautiful colonial cities, and diverse landscapes including volcanoes, jungles, deserts, canyons and fantastic beaches. It is a colourful country with friendly people and great food. Mexico surprises the visitor; it is not the 3rd world country most expect. It is in fact booming economically and has a tourism infrastructure that exceeds what you get back home; what amazes me more than anything is a transportation network far superior of that found in Canada or the US. I’m not going to tell you that Mexico is perfect and that it has no problems. But as a traveller I’ve become a huge fan of this country. On top of all the above, it is a country that  offers incredibly good value for your money.

 

Costs

Currency (pesos): about 18 Mexican Pesos to the US dollar (Jan 2016).

Lodging:  You can find something in all price ranges in Mexico, starting around the $15 range for a simple room with private bathroom. I paid 250 pesos for a pretty little hotel right next to the Zocalo in Mexico City – you can’t find that kind of price, for that kind of location, in many major cities around the world! For those looking to relax at an all-inclusive resort, Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsular is home to some of the Caribbean’s premier all-inclusive resorts on arguably the best beaches in the world (more below). For all-inclusive options on both the Yucatan and on Mexico’s west coast, check out First Choice.

Food: You can get by on $15 to $25/day buying food in  markets or eating in local restaurants. This being Mexico, you’ll have an incredible variety of fantastic foods. Stick to cooked foods, stay away from salads unless staying at a reputable resort.

Transportation: Modern buses with movies, bathrooms, free snacks. A plethora of companies covering the whole country. Sample fares: Mexico City to San Miguel de Allende – 4 hrs, 365 pesos, Mexico City to Puerto Vallarta – 11 hrs, 1076 pesos.
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views from the Latinoamericano tower, mexico city (2)

Above: Mexico City
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Top Places to see

Mexico City

Mexico City is one of the world’s most densely populated cities. It is also one of the most vibrant and colourful. Despite its high crime rate (which has come down since 2011) the capital is a fun place to be and nowhere near as intimidating as you might expect. It’s also very easy to find your way round, with an efficient metro system, and generally easy-to-navigate grid of streets. Highlights: Zócalo square with Metropolitan Cathedral, Palacio Nacional, and Templo Major (and the largest flag you’ll ever see in the square). Chapultepec Park, has the Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City Zoo, Atlantis (marine life park), and La Feria amusement park. Go to the Latinoamericano tower for the best views of the city from the 42nd floor.  Take the Hop On, Hop Off Turisbus – they have two different circuits, take you to all the sites, and show you the whole city from a different perspective. Stop at Museo Nacional de Arte and Palacio de Bellas Artes (which is right next to the Latinoamericano tower) on the ‘Centro’ route, see the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera museums if on the ‘southern’ route. Mexico City is the city with the most museums in the world – more info here.  Walk the streets of the Centro Historico, especially  Francisco I Madero Street which leads from the Zócalo to the Latinoamericano tower, you’ll see many old churches and interesting buildings along the way.
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Central Mexico: Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende and Querétaro

Central Mexico has some beautiful towns with incredible architecture. Guanajuato city (Guanajuato is also the name of the state in which all 3 towns are located) is located in the mountains and is regularly voted as one of the most attractive Mexican towns. Hilly, full of churches, plazas and monuments, you would think yourself in Southern Spain instead of Mexico. Many foreigners come to learn Spanish at the local university. San Miguel de Allende is another very pretty town and is popular as a retirement spot for many retirees from the USA and Canada. It was recently voted the No. 1 city in the world by Condé Nast – a ridiculous assertion. Still, it gives you an idea what a pretty town it is. Querétaro has a bustling arts and music scene and its old section is a wonderful place to explore on foot. All three of the cities are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Below: Guanajuato

incredible views in guanajuato, Mexico (1)
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Yucatan Peninsula

The Yucatan Peninsula offers both the best beaches mayan-ruins-yucatan-mapin Mexico as well as the most impressive Mayan archeological sites in the country. Cancun consistently ranks number one as America’s choice in international vacation destinations. Resort towns like Playa del Carmen, Playacar and Cozumel each year welcome over 3 million visitors. Almost everything focuses on water activities, including jet skiing, snorkeling and scuba diving. Visitors can also explore the nearby site of Chichen Itza – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the top 3 Mayan sites (along with Copán in Honduras and Tikal in Guatemala). The nearby ruins at Ek Balam and Uxmal are also worth a visit. Further south Tulum and Cobá are equally impressive sites with less tourists. Great info here on all the sites.

Below: Cancun (photo credit: First Choice)

Cancun-beach, mexico

 


Oaxaca

Oaxaca is what many associate with Mexico; nowhere else in the country are the markets so full of  colour or the fiestas so exuberant. This region is poorer, there is little development and industry is virtually nonexistent, the economy primarily dependant on tourism. You’ll see a high concentration of indigenous people in the region, the most numerous being the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs  – the nearby ruins at Monte Albán were founded by the Zapotez empire around 500 BC and are a ‘must see’. Oaxaca’s cobblestone streets are lined with galleries, excellent restaurants (many say Mexico’s best food is in Oaxaca), and churches – there are over 20 churches in town including the church of Santo Domingo, one of the region’s most magnificent examples of Baroque architecture. Nearby: visit the Monte Albán (mentioned above) as well as the impressive sites at Yagul and Mitla. All the above are set among spectacular mountain scenery where the Sierra Madre del Sur meets the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, the continuation of Mexico’s central volcanic belt.

Below: Alcala, Oaxaca

Alcala in Oaxaca, Mexico

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Puebla

The elegant colonial city of Puebla, the country’s fifth largest city (after Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey and Tijuana), is a couple of hours by bus from Mexico City – with glorious views of the snowy heights of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl on the way. Known for its fine cuisine, Puebla has a remarkable concentration of sights – a fabulous cathedral, a “hidden” convent, museums and colonial mansions. The mountanous countryside is startlingly beautiful. The city centre and Cerro de Guadalupe, where all the sights are to be found, form quite a compact area and is easy to get around. You can see the best of the city and nearby Cholula in a couple of days.

Below: Puebla’s beautiful zocalo

Zócalo on weekend in Puebla, Mexico

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Copper Canyon

Everyone knows about the Grand Canyon but few have ever heard of Mexico’s Copper Canyon. It is located in the southwestern part of the state of Chihuahua and is a beautiful (and isolated) mountainous region containing six rivers and over eleven major canyons. Although covering a larger area than the Grand Canyon, with deeper gorges (of up to 2000m), it’s hard to compare this region with the great canyons of the southwestern US because you’re more likely to get an overall perspective over the Copper Canyon once, at the small lookout of Divisadero (where there are several hotels located on the canyon rim). Nature lovers and eco-tourists enjoy hiking, camping and bird watching in the area, which is still home to the Rarámuris and Tarahumaras, indigenous peoples who live in the mountains. BUT the major draw among travellers is Chihuahua al Pacífico train (commonly known to tourists as the Copper Canyon Railway), which runs through 390 miles of the canyons. The journey takes 14 hours and the experience is enhanced with breathtaking views and scenery. Another tourist attraction is the 807-feet tall Basaseachic Falls, the second-highest waterfall in Mexico.
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Guadalajara and Tequila in Jalisco

Mexico’s State of Jalisco, home to mariachi music and tequila, provides a strong taste of Mexican culture. Guadalajara is considered to be the cultural center of Western Mexico and the city’s famous historic downtown is home to Plaza de Armas, The Metropolitan Cathedral and The Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustres, among several other museums and historical sites including Hospicio Cabañias, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Travelers also enjoy the city’s music culture, ranging from sidewalk Mariachi bands to the Philharmonic Orchestra of Jalisco. Also in Jalisco is the town of Tequila and its surrounding agave fields, listed as a World Heritage Site. Some tourists take the popular Tequila Express and tour tequila country, seeing a number of haciendas and stopping for a tasting along the way.
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Chiapas: San Cristobal de las Casas and the ruins at Palenque

San Cristobal de las Casas, a city of over 200,000 inhabitants, is the cultural capital of Chiapas. The city has preserved its century-old houses, cobbled streets and colonial buildings, the most central being the main plaza or the Zócalo, around which tourists find local peoples selling handmade crafts and textiles in open-air markets. Surrounded by dozens of Tzotzil and Tzeltal villages, San Cristobal is one the most deeply rooted indigenous areas in the country and a central starting point for exploration of Chiapas, the southern-most state in Mexico. In the area, the ancient Mayan ruins of Palenque (9km from the town of Palenque – which can be used as a base) are some of Mexico’s finest Maya sites: less crowded than Chichén Itzá, larger than Uxmal, and with the most spectacular setting. It is a relatively small site (you can see everything in half a day) but a fascinating one, strongly linked to the lost cities of Guatemala while displaying a distinctive, unique style. Tip: arrive early in the morning for great views over mist filled treetops.
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Puerto Vallarta

Fantastic  sunsets, kilometres of sandy beaches and a laidback, colonial centre, Puerta Vallarta is a small city almost entirely dependent on tourism. It attracts a mixed bag of North American retirees, Mexican families, spring breakers, cruise-ship day-trippers and gay visitors (it’s become one of the more popular  gay centres of Mexico). Puerta Vallarta  is smaller and more relaxed than Cancún and Acapulco, and its location, surrounded by mountains, is spectacular. Behind the beaches there’s a lively Mexican city which means a great choice of tasty street food (especially tacos). This stretch of coast, similar to the Yucatan, is a favorite of travelers looking to stay at some of Mexico’s finest all-inclusive resorts.

Below: Puerto Vallarta (photo credit: First Choice)

Puerto-Vallarta1

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Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo

A resort town approximately 150 miles north of Acapulco, the bayside city of Zihuatanejo and the nearby modern resort of Ixtapa make up the third most visited tourist destination in Mexico after Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, especially for sports fishermen. Once a sleepy fishing village, Zihuatanejo gained international popularity in the 1970s after the Mexican Government built the nearby resort of Ixtapa with the aim of establishing a Cancun-like resort on the country’s Pacific coast. Easily accessible to travelers by way of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo International airport, Zihuatanejo continues to be popular with tourists because of its homegrown feel and overall charm. It’s is only about five minutes away from the beach resorts of Ixtapa, home to two world-class golf courses.
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Baja California Sur: Los Cabos and La Paz

With incredible desert landscapes, oases, and rich marine life, Baja California is one of the most popular destinations in Mexico. Isolated from the rest of Mexico, it is not a place conducive to quick exploration (the peninsula is 1300km west of Mexico City and covers a length of 1700 km, most of it desolated). The majority of travellers get to Baja California by flying into the town (and primary resort area) of Los Cabos, at the tip of the peninsula. It is a town known for fishing, golf, scuba diving & watersports, fine dining, shopping, and a ‘wild’ party scene. La Paz , 3 hrs north of Los Cabos, is more geared towards the independent traveller. More subdued, it is  great place to take a boat excursion and see some wonderful desert landscapes and marine life. The Sea of Cortez attracts divers, eco-tourists, and whale watchers from around the world: giant manta rays, whale sharks, colonies of sea lions, pods of humpback, blue, sperm, fin and seasonal migrating gray whales are very common sights here. Travellers also come here for language courses, homestays, and great beaches. Note: you can take a long ferry ride from Mazatlan on the Mexican Coast to get here – 17 hours, about $90 one way.
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.Have I convinced you to go to Mexico? If so check out my favorite affiliated companies. I book all my hotel stays with Booking.com (because you don’t have to pay upfront). I’m also a big fan of Lonely Planet’s guides because they have lots of detailed information that I can’t possibly cover on this page.  Book through the links below to get special discounts.

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Feel free to comment with recommendations, tips, or your stories on Mexico. I’m always looking to supplement/update the above and welcome all constructive feedback!

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Comments

  1. Baja sounds great. I’ve always wanted to hit the Baja 1000 but each year November rolls around and I don’t go. Maybe 2014. *grin*
    Maria recently posted…Halfway ThereMy Profile

  2. Great write up!! I love living in San Miguel de Allende and can’t wait to explore more of Mexico…
    Val-This Way To Paradise recently posted…5 Top Travel WebsitesMy Profile

  3. I love me some D.F.! Oh the al pastor and los alambres, mmmmm, que rico la comida. I’ll actually be visiting friends in Guanajuato this spring, and visiting my folks when they vacation in Merida next January, I’m also hoping to hit up San Cristobal as well.

    I love this country so much, it’s a pity that so many are scared to visit because of the Narco violence. Granted it is still going on, but there are so many places to go where you will never encounter such things.

    As of now, I would stay away from Guerrero (Acapulco), Juarez(that one should be obvious), Sinaloa, and anything border wise really. I mention this not to fear-monger but to inform. Just as I would tell someone visiting my hometown of Chicago that visiting Englewood would not be a good idea, not that I think anyone would want to outside of visit family within that neighborhood, heh.
    Devlin recently posted…Comment on The Business Side of Travel Blogging by T.W. AndersonMy Profile

  4. I honestly have zero interest in going to Mexico. I know there is SO much more than the border towns, but those visits and the years I spent living in the Southwest really left a sour taste in my mouth for the country.
    Jennifer recently posted…Gstaad: Skiing, Winter Sports, and Gourmet EatsMy Profile

  5. Great write up. We love Mexico and have no problem with the fact that some Americans have prejudices towards the country. Just means there’s less of them around ;) . Fantastic beaches, friendly people, and some incredible ruins. And the food is to die for. We’ve travelled both ways; independently (which is the way to see some of the towns of Central Mexico) as well as in resorts along both coasts. Also: Mexico City another place that people have biases against. Great city!
    Jack

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