When you’re planning a trip to Mexico, its sheer size can be daunting. Just pick up any travel guide to Mexico and it will easily be inches thick, listing dozens upon dozens of top places to see.
So… where the heck should you start?
Luckily there are several areas of Mexico that offer a great mix of destinations to tackle on a single trip, which I’ll share with you here. The first two routes are particularly known as safe areas to travel in Mexico (while the third route comes with a couple of asterisks).
Mexico is bigger than all of the Central American countries to its south combined. Because of its size, I think it can help to focus on specific regions within it and cherry-pick some of the best Mexico has to offer.
Plan your Mexico backpacking trip
Travel itineraries for Mexico
If it’s your first time in Mexico, then focusing on certain popular areas can make things a lot easier. Even if you don’t have time to follow these itineraries in full, you can do them in part.
Classic Route: Mexico City to Yucatán
This is the classic itinerary for backpackers and independent travellers wanting to see a variety of places in a relatively safe part of Mexico.
I loved travelling this well-known Mexico itinerary as it packs a ton of variety all rolled into one big enchilada. It will truly give you a bit of everything while also keeping the route manageable.
What’s also great about this route is that there are great backpacker hostels everywhere. If you’re on a budget, you can keep things cheap by spending more time in the Chiapas and Oaxaca regions, which are among Mexico’s cheapest, and avoid upscale tourist towns like Tulum.
First, you’ll have the ultimate city experience in Mexico City. Then, move to the Oaxaca region which is world-famous for its food, and to Chiapas, which has some amazing scenery and Mayan ruins. Finally, to recover from all that adventuring you can chill in the Yucatán, a region famed for its beautiful beaches, reefs, and islands.
To do this route justice you need at least 3 weeks, but more is always better.
Typical stops include: Mexico City, Puebla, Oaxaca, Puerto Escondido, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Palenque, Mérida, and Playa del Carmen. But plenty of variations are possible.
If you have only 2 weeks, you could adapt the route. For example:
- Focus on Mexico City and Oaxaca city (more culture and cuisine)
- Focus on the Yucatán peninsula (more nature and beaches)
The route is point-to-point and doesn’t form a circle. However, you can easily fly into Mexico City and fly out of Cancún in the Yucatán.
Travel on this route is not too strenuous, but you might still have to endure a 10-hour bus journey here and there. The leg between San Cristóbal de Las Casas and Oaxaca, with its countless twists and turns in the road, is a particularly wearying one! Fortunately, the distances in the Yucatán are much easier to deal with.
If you’re backpacking solo, it’ll be easy to meet other travellers along this well-worn trail. Besides backpackers on a Mexico trip, you might meet quite a few long-term travellers on their way to (or on their way from) Guatemala, Nicaragua, and onwards — often following the popular Gringo Trail backpacking route.
There is only one downside to this route: a few parts of the Yucatán can be super touristy and maybe a bit less interesting if you’re there to soak up the culture. Cancún and Playa del Carmen are basically just big commercial resorts; expect beach promenades with souvenir shops, luxury condominiums, over-priced restaurants, bars and clubs, and entertainment activities like bar crawls and banana boat racing. They can be fun places to mess around for a while though.
If you’re more into authentic culture and nature or chilled-out vibes, then there are also plenty of other places to pick from. Our Yucatán guide will tell you much more.
Central Mexico Route: Discover Colonial Cities
Another option is to focus your itinerary on the centre of Mexico. If you’re looking for a travel route that focuses a bit more on the culture, history, and charming colonial towns, then it’s worth looking closer at exploring the regions of Puebla, Guanajuato, and Jalisco.
All of these regions are near to Mexico City, so your route can begin and end in the capital, creating a circle. It’s possible to create a fairly compact itinerary, making this a good area to hit up if your time available isn’t infinite.
I think it’s best to have at least 2 weeks to explore the key locations here, but more is always better.
Focusing on these colonial heartlands of Mexico will let you take a deep dive into its architectural and cultural heritage. Many places around here played a major role in Spain’s colonial advance and are characterized by the silver mining that took place here throughout the centuries. Historic churches, colonial plazas, great food, and a lot of Mexican folklore are all on the menu here.
There’s less of a typical route to suggest here, as you can connect the dots in many different ways. From Mexico City, many travellers like to visit Guanajuato, a vibrant city typified by its numerous underground tunnels, creating a sort of three-dimensional maze of passageways.
Another favourite is the beautiful city of San Miguel de Allende, which is somewhat known as being gringo central (i.e. filled with U.S. expats and retirees) but also has a fantastic art scene and has an old town that received UNESCO World Heritage status.
The rich mountainous silver-mining regions of central Mexico lend themselves well to a culturally-focused trip, but if you’re also craving a beach, then you can add this in too. The beach resort of Puerto Vallarta is not too far away — though it’s far from a funky backpacker haunt (expect to find a modern beach resort with many 5-star hotels).
If you’re after a beach resort that’s less famous but packs a lot of charm, I can recommend visiting Zihuatanejo. It has a beautiful bay and mostly low-rise development. It’s not yet on the radar so much, so you’ll find mainly Mexican holidaymakers here and maybe a few lost backpackers. (I do recommend checking the latest security status for this place, as it’s changed a few times over the years.)
Northern Route: Copper Canyon & Pacific Coast
Okay, this route from Mexico City to the north of the country is something a bit different.
To be honest, it might be all just be one big excuse to see one particular highlight, namely the spectacular Copper Canyon (or Barrancas del Cobre).
This jaw-dropping system of canyons is by some measures bigger than the Grand Canyon in the US. A train runs through the national park, giving you some spectacular views and getting close to the canyon edge about halfway through at Divisadero station. This train ride is easily one of the best things I have done in Mexico.
First, a little disclaimer. If you want to go this way overland, you’ll have to go through Sinaloa state, which at the time of writing has a few safety issues. Chihuahua City is also relatively close to the US border and seems a bit rougher around the edges. It’s an amazing part of Mexico but, for what it’s worth, the vibe can be subtly different from the super-tourist-friendly Yucatán. I’m mentioning this only if you have not much travel experience or specific concerns — I still felt safe around these areas myself when I went a few years ago, but it’s always worth checking the latest updates.
Wait, where were we? Right — for this route, you can start in Mexico City and then make your way up to Mexico’s second largest city Guadalajara.
This is a great place to stroll around markets and plazas or to visit museums. I loved Guadalajara and found its size to be a bit less overwhelming than Mexico City. From Guadalajara, consider taking a side-trip to Tequila, the birthplace of the drink and where you can take tours out into the agave fields that are on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
You can then make a trip to the beach resort of Puerto Vallarta, or head straight for Mazatlan. This expat and tourist city is full of big hotels at one end of its bay, but also has a pleasant old town on the other that seems pretty popular with surfers. Mazatlan has a ferry connection to Baja California (La Paz) where you will find many spots for diving, surfing and swimming with whale sharks. Another northern beach place to go is Puerto Penasco.
Then make your way up to Los Mochis. This is where the Copper Canyon train starts! Los Mochis itself is a totally unremarkable industrial place, so there’s no need to stick around. But the train ride is amazing, first going through flat lands at first but soon going through mountainous landscapes surrounding the Copper Canyon. Be sure to get off at the town of Creel, which is the base around here for trekking, cycling, and other activities inside the national park and around the canyons.
The train continues to Chihuahua City, but you can also easily take the bus from Creel as the landscapes are less interesting along this part. From Chihuahua, you can take a cheap flight back to Mexico City.
If you just want to see the Copper Canyon and don’t mind taking a flight or two, I suppose you could also fly straight to Los Mochis from Mexico City.
Despite these parts being much less visited, I think the route is totally worth it — especially for Guadalajara and for the Copper Canyon.
Travel budget for Mexico
Mexico is a fantastic place to travel as a backpacker or just traveling ‘budget-style’. It’s very inexpensive, certainly by Western standards.
That said, as a developed middle-income economy, Mexico is also not as inexpensive as, say, Southeast Asia, the Balkans, or countries like Nicaragua and Guatemala (just to name a few ultra-cheap backpacker favourites). So just make sure you budget appropriately.
Accommodation: A budget private room will typically cost 300 pesos ($23) though you’ll sometimes find them for 200 in less touristy places ($15). Hostel dorm beds will typically cost around 120 – 180 (or $9 to $15 – more expensive in cities and near Cancún). The lowest I had was around $6 in San Cristobal.
Food: Thanks to Mexico’s fantastic street food culture, cheap food is always easy to find. Expect 40 – 50 pesos (around $4) for a solid breakfast or lunch. 6 – 12 pesos for a taco ($0.50 – $1.00), with prices depending on where you are. 3 or 4 tacos can fill you up pretty well.
Transportation: the transportation network is excellent, but given the distances involved, the costs can still add up. A good rule of thumb for bus travel is that it costs about $5 for every hour travelled. To give one example, a 7-hour bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca can cost around $40 US, which could be two days worth of travel budget in a country like Nicaragua.
Safety in Mexico
It’s surely not news to you that Mexico has become deeply associated with drug-related crime and violence. Certain documentaries or TV shows can also remind us that many bad things do take place in Mexico.
But does that mean Mexico is unsafe to travel? Well… not really.
Generally speaking, the worst news tends to come from the areas closest to the US border, or a few specific regions within this very large country, which are rarely visited. But in parts of Mexico that are visited by tourists, such as the ones mentioned above, the personal risks to you are quite small.
Yes, you can go backpacking safely in Mexico! And keep in mind that anything that happens in the criminal underworld may be totally invisible to you as a tourist.
Basically, it’s like this: you are not Walter White from Breaking Bad. You’re not coming to Mexico to meet with cartel members, smuggle cocaine, or to set up a production laboratory — or at least, I hope you’re not! So you won’t be meeting Tuco Salamanca. The security risks in Mexico are not unusual as long as you’re smart enough to avoid a few problematic regions.
The reality is that most parts of Mexico are very safe — and you certainly don’t have to stay in some walled-off resort. Just remember to pack your brains and use the normal cautions you would apply anywhere. Yes, there could be pickpocketers in Mexico City. And yes, your shit might get stolen if you leave it unattended. This is also true in Paris or Barcelona.
Of least concern, if you ask me, is backpacking to known destinations in Mexico, or going on a holiday to a specific area like the Yucatan. The only caution I would give is if you’re going to be road-tripping randomly through Mexico. In this case, it’s essential to be well-informed on safe areas to go and roads or regions to avoid. There are many Facebook groups for motorcyclists, campervanners, and overlanders going through Mexico that are excellent sources of up-to-date information.
Regardless of your type of trip, it’s a good idea to comprehensive travel insurance before traveling to Mexico. You can view my comparison of travel insurance with my recommendations.
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