Mexico is often associated with spring-breaking holidays and all-in beach resorts in Cancún or Cabo. These typical tourist enclaves are filled with hotels, clubs, spas and malls all catering to gringos flying in directly without venturing anywhere else.
But there is, of course, so much more to Mexico.
If you’re seeking a mix of culture, nature, and adventure, you’re in the right place. I loved how varied the country can be, with landscapes ranging from dense jungles in the south to snow-capped mountains and deserts with cacti in the north. And if you’d like to spend time on a beach that isn’t so commercialised as Cancún, there are plenty of beaches with a more laidback atmosphere.
Mexico’s sheer size can be daunting when planning a trip. The country is bigger than all of Central America to its south combined. When I first opened a Lonely Planet guide to Mexico, which is already several inches thick, it began by listing not just the usual top 10 but a whopping 40 top things to do. Clearly, you can spend much time here without even scratching the surface.
That said, a popular backpacking route runs essentially from Mexico City to the Yucatán Peninsula. It’s an easy itinerary to follow and also combines pretty well with other countries like Belize or Guatemala, if that’s something you want to do. It covers some touristy bits of Mexico but will give you a great combo of culture/food focused Oaxaca, budget friendly Chiapas, and the beach-life focused Yucatán.
I followed the popular route a few years back, though I also had the pleasure of poking around a few other parts of Mexico. On a road trip following the Pan-American Highway, I explored much of the Pacific coast. I also went north from Mexico City, up to Guadalajara and as far north as Chihuahua.
While I can’t claim to have seen or done everything, I’ll share a few tips here based on my experiences.
Going to the Yucatán?
Don’t miss our latest in-depth guide to the Yucatán Peninsula!
Where to go in Mexico
Yucatán & Oaxaca: main backpacker trail
The established backpacker trail runs through the regions south of the capital and through the Yucatán peninsula (on the map, that’s Mexico’s pointy bit in the east). Most backpackers will start their journey in either Mexico City or Cancún, as their airports are the most well-connected internationally.
While of course not everyone travels exactly the same way, many do inevitably hit up the same places. Towns that are firmly on the backpacker circuit include Oaxaca, San Christobal de las Casas, Puerto Escondido, Palenque, Merida and Tulum (amongst others).
The Yucatán peninsula is one of the most touristy regions. Places like Cancún and Playa Del Carmen are highly commercialized; expect beach promenades with souvenir shops, air-conditioned shops and over-priced restaurants, water activities like banana boat racing, and many bars and clubs. These places do still see their fair share of independent travellers, and you only need to check into a backpacker hostel to meet them. Nearby places that are a bit more laidback include the Cozumel or Holbox islands.
Thanks to being near one of the largest reef systems in the world, there are tons of snorkelling and scuba diving opportunities around the entire region. Another cool thing to do is to explore the inland cave systems known as cenotes. The mangroves and wetlands of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve are another highlight.
Long-term travellers, perhaps following the so-called ‘Gringo Trail’ through Central America, will usually make their way to Belize and northern Guatemala from the Yucatán region, or cross into southern Guatemala from San Cristobal.
Northern route: Copper Canyon and Baja California
This path is not as well-trodden but can make for a highly rewarding adventure.
Start in Mexico City and make your way up to Mexico’s second largest city Guadalajara – a great place to stroll around markets and plazas or to visit museums. You can then make a trip to Puerto Vallarta, a beach destination that’s somewhat upscale but with enough budget accommodation as well. Mazatlan is full of big hotels on one end of its bay, but has a pleasant old town on the other that seemed popular with surfers and expats. Mazatlan has a ferry connection to Baja California (La Paz) where you will find many spots for diving, surfing and swimming with whale sharks.
The true highlight of this route is the train from Los Mochis through the Copper Canyon – a jaw-dropping system of canyons that is by some measures bigger than the Grand Canyon in the US. You can spend some time hiking in this area as well, possibly using the quiet mountain town of Creel as your base. From Chihuahua, you can backtrack back to Mexico City (I flew back and then resumed travelling south from the capital).
If you start your journey in the US, it seems you could take this route north to south, then continue onto the main Mexico/Gringo trail. Do keep in mind however that cities north of Chihuahua (e.g. Tijuana and Cuidad Juarez) are known for drugs-related violence and are reportedly not as safe. You may find that Chihuahua City is already rough around the edges—I was slightly less comfortable around these parts than elsewhere in Mexico, but that might have just been subjective.
If you usually stay in hostels, I should mention there are plenty in Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta, just a couple in Mazatlan, but then very few or none along the rest of the route. Creel has many smaller guesthouses with private rooms.
Accommodation in Mexico
Enjoying your trip is as much about where you’re staying as where you’re going. Fortunately, you’re spoiled for choice in Mexico. To find the best hotels or hostels, you can read my tips for finding the best budget accommodation.
All of the popular places have good hostels. Outside of the big tourist resorts, smaller hotels and guesthouses can offer great value for money. Along the Gringo trail you could just wing it and show up to places without a reservation, but to secure the best accommodation it’s best to book ahead either before or during your trip.
|Rossco Backpackers Hostel||San Cristobal de las Casas||Homely hostel in the mountain town of San Cristobal. Great place to meet people thanks to the bonfire in the courtyard.|
|Mama’s Home||Tulum||My favorite hostel in Tulum. Dorms and private rooms. Rent a bicycle to get to the beach. Mama makes a free delicious breakfast every morning.|
|Hostel Rio Playa||Playa Del Carmen||Located close to the beach, and has a pool as well.|
|Hostel Che||Playa Del Carmen||Somewhat of a party hostel, with a rooftop bar. A good place to go if you want to make friends and go out in Playa del Carmen.|
|Mexico City Hostel||Mexico City||Big, spacious hostel with modern facilities. Just a few minutes walk from the main square.|
|Hostel Hospedarte Guadalajara Centro||Guadalajara||Nice, bright hostel in Mexico’s second city Guadalajara. Very central.|
|Nomadas||Merida||Fun hostel with a cozy maze of different areas/dorms. Free breakfast, and fun daily activities such as salsa dancing.|
Some of the highlights in Mexico
With such a big country it’s difficult to offer a complete list of highlights. To help you start off your trip research, here are just a few of the best places to visit and top things to do in Mexico.
Ride the Pacific Railway through the Copper Canyon
Wowza! The Copper Canyon (Barrancas del Cobre) will blow you away with its scale, especially when you stand on one of the vertigo-inducing cliffs.
The canyon can be seen from the comfort of the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railway line, which runs for 12 hours all the way through the canyon region. The views are at times stunning. You can get off at Divisadero and after a brief walk get an expansive vista.
The canyon is so big that at its bottom the climate can be almost tropical (as opposed to the desert climate at the top). Take a bus to Urique or Batopilas to get down into the lower areas.
Check out my photo impressions of riding the Pacific Railway and visiting the Copper Canyon.
Hike or mountain bike the valleys around Creel
The town of Creel, in the middle of the Copper Canyon region, is a good base for hikes in the area – don’t miss the Mesa to the immediate east of town which has lots of beautiful rock formations and various other sights (a great way to explore this area is by renting a mountain bike).
Experience the bustle of Mexico City
With 12 million inhabitants, Mexico City is a bit of a beast. Some of the outer neighborhoods may not be that safe or worthwhile for a tourist, but it’s a fascinating city with strong contrasts. In the main area around Zócalo main plaza, be sure to visit some of the countless museums, churches and historical buildings. A few blocks from the main plaza is La Lagunilla, a massive street market that’s well worth a stroll (beware of pickpockets).
Many day trips and tours depart from Mexico City including seeing Lucha Libre shows, trips to the town of Tequila (birthplace of… you guessed it) and the ruins of Teotihuacan.
Enjoy the incredible food
Mexico is a food paradise. You can get kinds of tacos from street vendors for next to nothing, and they’re guaranteed to be delicious. Be sure to try the tamales. And Chilaquiles. Or try the tropical fruits with chili powder on top (an odd but tasty combination). For breakfast, have some huevos rancheros. The list goes on! If you are in Oaxaca state, you must try the legendary ‘moles’.
Smell the fresh mountain air in San Cristobal
San Cristobal de Las Casas is a charming mountain town with lovely churches, markets and squares. In nearby Mayan villages in the surrounding mountains you can observe some traditional cultures. There’s also the Sumidero river canyon that you can take a boat down, which makes for a decent day trip.
Go to the nearby indigenous village of San Juan Chamula. You will find a church there where catholic and pagan rituals have been mixed in unusual ways; you may be lucky and see a live chicken getting ritually sacrificed at an altar in what is ostensibly still a catholic church. (This is perhaps not for the squeamish, but I thought it was fascinating.)
Snorkel or dive the cenotes in the Yucatán
The Yucatán peninsula is home to countless underground sinkholes, caverns and caves that stretch for countless of miles. Many of these so-called cenotes have been made accessible for swimming or scuba diving.
Dos Ojos near Tulum is a fantastic cavern that you can dive through if you have a basic Open Water certification. You will see beautiful sunbeams crossing past stalagmites from openings in the cavern roof. Angelita is another stunning cenote: it has a mystical layer of hydrogen sulfate that looks like a foggy cloud with various logs and branches passing through it—essentially, it looks like a planet in a sci-fi movie.
See Mayan ruins in the middle of a jungle
I like the Mayan archeological site of Palenque, where the ruins are tucked in among jungle-clad hills. Palenque is not as over-the-top as Chichen Itza with much fewer souvenir vendors and without the tourist entertainers. Stay in one of the jungle huts in El Panchan (near the park entrance) to wake up in the morning to the sound of howler monkeys. Don Muchos in El Panchan is the main place for entertainment including late-night salsa dancing.
But… Chichen Itza is so-so
The Mayan temples of Chichen Itza get hyped as one of Mexico’s main tourist sights, but I have a suspicion it’s mainly famous because it’s so close Cancún where most of the tourists are based. With souvenir vendors everywhere, costumed ‘Mayans’ for photo ops, and even a freaking laser light show (!), Chichen Itza can quickly feel like a Mickey Mouse experience. I should say that I’ve met people who went in the very early morning, and who did have a more quiet experience at the site, so if you’re intending to go it’s perhaps best to go at the crack of dawn.
If you want to see temples at a huge scale though, you might be better off going to the ruins of Teotihuacan near Mexico City. I also enjoyed visiting the ruins of Palenque, which are not as busy and surrounded by lush jungle. Better yet, visit Tikal in Guatemala for arguably the most impressive Mayal ruins anywhere.
Travel safety in Mexico
Mexico has become deeply associated with drugs-related crime and violence, but keep in mind that these issues are concentrated in specific areas and that they take place in the criminal underworld. It typically has little to do with tourists. Realistically, the safety issues you might face in Mexico are not all that different from other countries.
When I tell people I travelled through Mexico, the reaction I get is most often “cool! What was your favorite place?” But sometimes I’ll meet an American and their jaw will just drop when I tell them I went to Mexico and didn’t just stay in a resort, but actually explored the country. They look at me as if I must have truly lost the will to live.
Of course, anyone who’s actually travelled in Mexico will know that painting the whole country with one brush is ridiculously ill-informed. If all you hear of Mexico is negative reports on cable news, your perspective is going to be pretty skewed. A utopia it certainly isn’t, but visiting Mexico as a tourist is truly not that big of a deal.
Objective information on this topic can be hard to find, but if you’re curious, the Global Peace Index keeps a separate (and very handy) Mexico Peace Index. You may wish to select the ‘Violent Crime’ filter for a more relevant picture.
As you’ll see, the south-east parts of the country are the least troubled by crime, which includes the typical Mexico City to Yucatan trail. The map will also show you that Guerrero state has seen the most problems in recent years, so you may wish to steer clear. Then again, this is mostly due to the problems in Acapulco city. I stayed in Zihuatanejo in Guerrero state and it was absolutely lovely and I felt 100% safe there. (The only areas where I felt less at ease were closer to the US border: I went as north as Chihuahua City but then went back down.)
For a reassuring state-by-state take on this topic, you can also read this excellent post: Is Mexico Safe? From Someone Who’s Been at Indiana Jo.
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Cost of travelling in Mexico
Mexico is inexpensive by US or Western European standards, with basic hotel rooms starting at about $25 and dorm beds in hostels usually around half that price. Inexpensive food is easy to find in part due to Mexico’s fantastic street food culture.
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 favorites). While the transportation network is excellent, bus travel can get expensive especially considering some of the distances involved. 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. Of course, this is not a problem if you budget appropriately and have the necessary funds.
- 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 $5 in San Christobal.
- 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.
- A rule of thumb for bus travel is that it costs about $5 for every hour travelled.
English is not widely spoken in Mexico, though basic English is reasonably common in bigger cities, and in the most touristy regions such as the Yucatán. Learning some phrases in Spanish is nevertheless a good idea! If travelling Mexico and/or Central America for a while, it may pay off to dig in and learn some Spanish. See also: 5 Ways to Learn Some Spanish.
- Top 8 Things to do Around San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico
- Tequila-Fueled Street Parades on Day of the Dead – my photo report of seeing this festival in Oaxaca.
- Sneaking Into the Former Palace of Mexico’s Most Corrupt Cop – this was a fun little adventure in Zihuatanejo in Guerrero state, a nice pacific beach town south-west of the capital.
- My Road Trip Through Central America – the story of driving 6000km through Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico in a shitty 1983 Subaru, and just barely making it
Around the web
- Merida Mexico: Ultimate Travel Guide – legitimately in-depth guide to Yucatan’s main city
- An Unstylish (But Practical) Tulum Travel Guide – The Unconventional Route
- Things to Do in Oaxaca City – a wonderful in-depth visual guide
- The Sweetest Guide to Tulum – excellent tips for staying in this small beach town
- The best Tulum cenotes at Cheeky Jaunt
- Every Single Thing You Need to Know About Mexican Street Food at Eater.com. Amazing article, consider this required reading!