The home of tacos, Aztecs, sombreros and tequila, almost everyone on the planet knows something about Mexico. Yet there’s a lot more to this country beyond the stereotypes. One of the world’s great civilizations, Mexico travel offers a tantalizing blend of Mesoamerican cultures, Spanish traditions and contemporary arts.
Its landscapes range from the shimmering blue coastline of Baja California and the cactus-strewn deserts of the north, to the Maya villages and palm-smothered beaches of the south. You can climb volcanoes, watch whales and tour agave farms. And sprinkled throughout you’ll find richly adorned colonial churches, giant pyramids and a sophisticated cuisine. Read our Mexico guide for everything you need to know before you go.
This incredibly diverse country stretches from the deserts and canyons of the north to the grand colonial cities of the centre and the Maya ruins, beaches and jungles of the south. Given the vast breadth of Mexico, it’s more sensible and rewarding to concentrate on one or two sections of the country when planning your travel. Here are some of the best places to visit in Mexico:
Mexico City, though a nightmare of urban sprawl, is totally fascinating, and the capital of the nation in every way – artistic, political, cultural. It is one of the world’s mega-cities, with over 25 million people occupying a shallow mountain bowl at over 2400m above sea level. Spreading out beyond the federal district which is supposed to contain it, the city is at once edgy and yet laid-back at the same time. Around the city lie the chief relics of the pre-Hispanic cultures of central Mexico: the massive pyramids of Teotihuacán and the main Toltec site at Tula.
East of Mexico City is the elegant city of Puebla, known for its colonial architecture and fine cuisine. The republic’s fifth-largest city is an easy 40-minute trip from Tlaxcala or a couple of hours by bus from Mexico City, with glorious views of snow-capped Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl on the way. Puebla has a remarkable concentration of sights, including a fabulous cathedral, a “hidden” convent, museums and grand mansions, while the mountainous surrounding country is in places startlingly beautiful.
To visitors, Tulum can mean several things. First, it’s one of the most picturesque of all the ancient Maya sites, poised on 15m-high cliffs above the Caribbean. Tulum also refers to a stretch of white beach, with turquoise water and candlelit cabañas. Finally, it’s a booming town (often called Tulum Pueblo to distinguish it from the beach) that has evolved from roadside waystation to real population centre with a thriving tourism core.
The state of Oaxaca is one of the most enticing places to visit in Mexico. The state capital, cosmopolitan yet utterly Mexican, encapsulates much of what the region has to offer. Nowhere else in the country are the fiestas so exuberant, the markets so colourful or the old languages still so widely spoken. There are indigenous traditions in the villages that long predate the Spanish Conquest; yet the city can also offer sophisticated modern dining, great accommodation and wild nightlife.
The journey north from Acapulco to Puerto Vallarta, some 800km along the Pacific coast, is defined by languid beach life at its finest. There’s history here, to be sure, but it’s the buttery sands studded with palms, the makeshift bars on the beach, lagoons and torpid villages that dominate. Separating these stretches of wild, untouched coastline are some of the most popular and enjoyable resorts in Mexico.
Few tourists venture over to the Gulf coast, despite the attractions of Veracruz and its mysterious ruins. A pity, as for music and general bonhomie, the city’s central plaza is one of the finest places to visit in Mexico. The fertile, tropical coastal plain gave rise to the earliest Mexican civilizations: Olmec culture thrived in southern Veracruz from 1200 BC, while Classic Veracruz flourished between 250 and 900 AD at centres such as El Tajín. Today, Huastec and Totonac culture remains strong in the north.
Independent travellers often find the glitz of Mexico’s mammoth resort city off-putting. Certainly, all the concrete can be a downer. But a night spent in Cancún doesn’t have to be wasted, so long as you appreciate the energetic city as a successful frontier experiment, rather than lament its lack of history. A closer look reveals hidden beach bars and inexpensive taco stands frequented by friendly cancunenses.
Once a soporific fishing village where travellers camped out en route to Isla Cozumel, Playa del Carmen is now a hot spot with pretensions of being the next Miami Beach. Mexico City’s elite pop in to “Playa”, as do day-trippers from Cancún and passengers from cruise ships docked on Cozumel. The quieter north side is relatively cosmopolitan and calm, and the nightlife, in particular, has a hip edge.
Mexico’s second city, easy-going Guadalajara is packed with elegant buildings and vibrant little squares. One thing no visitor should miss is hearing mariachi in its home town, specifically at the Plaza de Los Mariachis. Outside the city, the land is spectacularly green and mountainous, studded with volcanoes and lakes, most famously Laguna de Chapala.
Graced with tantalizing desert landscapes, lush oases and rich marine life, Baja California is one of the most compelling places to visit in Mexico. Its human history is no less enticing, with a legacy of remote cave paintings, crumbling Spanish missions and fabulous seafood. Among the most magical sights in Baja is the annual grey whale migration from December to April. Spot the magnificent creatures at the Laguna Ojo de Liebre, just off Guerrero Negro, or the lagoon near San Ignacio.
In the Yucatán, traditional indigenous life sits side by side with massive tourist attractions such as the great ruins of Chichén Itzá and the super-resort of Cancún. Once the province of Maya rebels and palm-plantation owners, the Caribbean coast is now the so-called Riviera Maya, which includes the towns of Playa del Carmen and Tulum. But beyond these big centres, you’ll discover underground springs known as cenotes to the north, along with flocks of flamingo and sea turtles along the coast.
Chichén Itzá is the most famous, the most extensively restored and by far the most visited of all Maya sites. It lies conveniently along the main highway from Mérida to Cancún, a little more than 200km from the Caribbean coast. Arrive early to wander in relative peace around the extraordinary ruins, with its vertiginous temple, Chac-mool figures and dramatic, snail-shaped observatory.
Rich in legends of the country’s revolutionary past, Mexico’s north has a modern history dominated by its relationship with the neighbouring United States. Though the region is far less visited than the southern states, cross-border trade – as much about the movement of people as goods – means it’s one of the most dynamic parts of Mexico. It’s not all business, though. Rugged and untamed, the north is home to deserts, mountains, seedy frontier towns, archeological remains and modern cities, as well as a rich ranching culture.
Mexico is a year-round destination, with most visitors sticking on the whole to the highlands in summer and the coasts in winter. June to October is generally the rainy season, though the intensity of rainfall varies from place to place. Late winter is the traditional tourist season; December through to April the busiest months. November is probably the best time to visit Mexico, with the rains over, the land still fresh and the peak season not yet begun.
Read our guide on the best time to visit Mexico.
It is possible to travel to Mexico overland from the US via train, bus or car, though be prepared for long and often uncomfortable journeys. It is much quicker and easier to get to Mexico by plane. There are plenty of direct and connecting flights from major cities in North America into Mexico City and other popular resorts. Canada is not as well connected as the US, though Air Canada and Aeroméxico serve Mexico City. Several direct flights run to Mexico City and Cancún from London, Birmingham and Manchester, though you will have to change planes if you fly from anywhere else in the UK or Ireland. The same applies to passengers flying to Mexico from Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. Read our full guide on how to get to Mexico.
Bear in mind Mexico is a large country, and journeys between key destinations can be very long. Although public transport is frequent and reasonably efficient everywhere, taking an internal flight at least once may be worthwhile for the time it saves. If you’re travelling around Mexico on a budget, buses are your best bet. Only a couple of tourist train routes exist: the Copper Canyon railway in Chihuahua and the Tequila Express from Guadalajara. Ferries connect Baja California with the Pacific mainland, and smaller boats serve islands off the coasts. Driving in Mexico requires care, but renting a car is often an extremely good way of quickly seeing a small area that would otherwise take days to explore using public transport. Read more travel advice on how to travel around Mexico.
We’ve expanded our Mexico travel guide to include an example of our Tailor-Made Trips service. These Mexico itineraries will take you to every corner of the country – and you’ll learn plenty about Mexico no matter where you want to go or what you want to do. You’re unlikely to complete the list, but it will give you a flavour of how to travel around Mexico and a deeper insight into the country’s natural and historic wonders. Below is a sample itinerary, ideal for the first-time visitor to Mexico, but you can see all our itineraries here.
This three-week tour focuses on the southern and central parts of the country, traditionally the most popular targets for independent travellers.
Soak up the museums, murals and markets of the nation’s crazy, high-octane capital, leaving a couple of days for Cholula and Teotihuacán.
Head to Mexico’s most enticing state, its capital the best place to sample mole, mescal and indigenous crafts.
Heading east into Chiapas this colonial city is worth at least two days, plus a day or two to take in the remarkable Maya villages nearby.
Heading north, these are some of the grandest jungle-smothered Maya ruins in the country, all easily accessible.
From Palenque you can strike out into the Lacandón Maya heartland and these more isolated, romantic ruins.
Hit the Caribbean coast for the spectacular diving from this offshore island.
Back on the Yucatán mainland enjoy the balmy beaches and nightlife of the Riviera Maya.
End your trip by soaking up Mexico’s most magical Maya ruins followed by a dip in the cooling waters of a giant sinkhole.
Finding accommodation in Mexico is rarely difficult. In areas that are not overly touristy, the inexpensive places to stay are usually concentrated around the main plaza (the zócalo). Others tend to be near the market, train station or bus station. In bigger cities, you’ll find the cheaper accommodation clustered in a relatively small area. The more modern and expensive places often lie on the outskirts of towns, accessible only by car or taxi. The only times you’re likely to have problems finding somewhere to stay for your Mexico trip are in coastal resorts over the peak Christmas season, at Easter, on Mexican holidays and almost anywhere during a local fiesta, when it’s well worth trying to reserve ahead.
Food in Mexico bears very little resemblance to the concoctions served in “Mexican” restaurants in other parts of the world – you certainly won’t find chile con carne outside the tourist spots. Nor, as a rule, is it especially spicy. The basic Mexican diet is essentially one of corn (maíz as a crop, elote when eaten), supplemented by beans and chiles. These three things appear in an almost infinite variety of guises. Traditionally, lunch is the main meal of the day, taken around 2pm or later. Eating a large meal at lunch time is a money-saver – almost every restaurant serves a cut-price comida corrida (daily-changing set meal).
A great deal of coffee is produced in Mexico, and you’ll be served superb coffee in the growing areas, especially Veracruz, as well as in the traditional coffeehouses in the capital. On any visit to Mexico, you have to try the country’s most famous spirit, tequila, distilled from the cactus-like agave plant in Jalisco and usually taken with lime and salt.
Read our full guide to food and drink in Mexico.
Visit Mexico and you’ll be rewarded with long-standing cultural traditions, such as the popular spectator sports of bullfighting and lucha libre (masked wrestling). For action, the pristine coastline offers sea-based adventures galore, from surfing on the Pacific coast to snorkelling and diving offshore islands.
Mexico’s chief spectator sport is soccer (fútbol). Mexican teams have not been notably successful on the international stage, but going to a game can still be a thrilling experience. The capital and Guadalajara are the best places to see a match. Baseball (béisbol) is also popular, as is American football (especially on TV). Jai alai (also known as frontón, or pelota vasca) is Basque handball, common in big cities and played at a very high speed with a small hard ball and curved scoop attached to the hand; it’s a big gambling game.
Mexican rodeos (charreadas), mainly seen in the north of the country, are as spectacular for their style and costume as they are for the events. Bullfights remain an obsession, with every city home to a bullring – Mexico City’s Plaza México is the world’s largest. The country’s toreros are said to be the world’s most reckless, much in demand in Spain.
Masked wrestling (lucha libre) is very popular in Mexico, too. During this curious sport, the participants, Batman-like, are out of the game for good should their mask be removed and their secret identity revealed.
Originating in Mexico, mariachi bands comprise a mix of violinists, trumpeters and guitarists, headed up by a vocalist. You’ll find mariachi played the length and breadth of the country but most notably in Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi. Here, bands compete for your attention in a frenzy of music and singing.
Diving and snorkelling are big on the Caribbean coast, with world-famous dive sites at Cozumel and on the reefs further south. Over on the Pacific coast is something of a centre for surfing, despite few facilities as yet, though you can rent surfboards in major tourist centres such as Acapulco and Mazatlán. Nonetheless, plenty of Californian surfers follow the weather south over the winter, crowding the waves at Baja California, Oaxaca and Lázaro Cárdenas in Michoacán.
Despite soaring crime rates and dismal-sounding statistics, you are unlikely to run into trouble in Mexico if you stick to well-travelled paths. Even in Mexico City, which has a dangerous reputation, the threat is not that much greater than in many large North American and European cities. Obviously there are areas in cities where you wander alone, or at night, at your peril; the best precaution is common sense.
Some basic Mexico travel tips include avoid hailing a cab in the street in Mexico City (phone for a radio cab instead); don’t leave cash or cameras in hotel rooms (use the safe), and never leave valuables visible in your car. Drug offences are the most common cause of serious trouble between tourists and the authorities, and if you’re caught with quantities reckoned to be for distribution you can wave goodbye to daylight for a long time.
Read our guide for more travel advice for Mexico.
Citizens of the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and most EU countries do not need visas to enter Mexico as tourists for less than 180 days. Other Europeans can stay for ninety days. Non-US citizens travelling via the US, however, may need a US visa, even if they will only be in the country in transit. Citizens of the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and most Western European countries can enter under the Visa Waiver Program. South African citizens need to obtain a visa. Visit the website of the US embassy in your country of residence for further details.
Read our Mexico guide for more information on entry requirements.
Top image: The Zocalo in Mexico City with the cathedral © dubassy/Shutterstock
The colour and bustle of Mexico’s markets is hard to beat. Even if you’ve no intention of buying, half an hour is always well spent meandering through narrow aisles surrounded by heaps of perfectly ripe fruit and stacks of nopal cactus leaves (though stay away from the meat sections if you’re at all squeamish). In small villages, like those around Oaxaca, inhabitants still recognize one day of the week as the traditional market day.
Towns of any size will have a market, usually daily, an important centre of local life and source of cheap eats (San Cristóbal de las Casas and Papantla are good examples), while in the cities, each barrio has its own vibrant mercado: among the best are Mexico City’s La Merced and the arts and crafts-oriented Ciudadela. Markets in San Miguel Allende are also better known for arts and crafts, as are Oaxaca’s city mercados. Toluca is the mother of them all, Mexico’s largest market held every Friday.