Cosmopolitan traditional. Mexico is as contradictory and hard to describe as it is colorful. This land of many people, stretching from California to the southeastern beach resorts of Yucatan province, is a feast for the senses. From the frenetic pace of metropolitan Mexico City to the indigenous people in the south, this is a country to be discovered step by step, region by region, and dish by dish.
Safety issues and the crazy capital of Mexico City scare a lot of people away from visiting (large parts of) Mexico. The reality, as often, is much less black-and-white: yes there are safety issues in some areas. And Mexico City is crazy. But that has its good sides as well.
Above all, Mexicans are a warm people, relatively relaxed and absolutely in love with their beers (cervezas) and their tortillas and chicken. The climate makes for a gentle vibe. So you will feel quite safe, unless you travel to the northern parts where dug gang-related crime is rife.
Even Mexico City is relatively safe, unless you travel to the favelas on the edge of the city. Metro rides can be a bit intimidating, but if you don’t flash your valuables and don’t walk through the streets after midnight, you will be fine.
The diversity of its people is one of its highlights. The further south you go, the more indigenous villages you will encounter. It all comes together in Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas, melting pots with proud but friendly people.
Apart from the archeological highlights, culture is a dominant factor in the country. Especially Mexico City has an impressive amount of museums. After visiting those, you have genuinely deserved to head for one of the many beaches (Puerto Vallarte, Acapulco, Cancun area, and many more) to enjoy the good life.
- CDMX: where else to start then in Mexico City? Ciudad de Mexico (hence CDMX) deserves the ‘city never sleeps’ moniker. The location, in between the hills at a height of around 2,200 metres, makes for a nice climate but also pollution problems. The undisputed capital of arts in Mexico
- GDL: Guadalajara, the second city of the country, is often ignored and overlooked by tourists. It’s a pity, because the birthplace of Mariachi has a much more Mexican corazon (heart) than the capital. Mainly known for some good museums and the Orozco murals, a visit to nearby Barranca de Huentitan canyon is also a healthy daytrip. And the village of Tequila, yes indeed, is around the corner
- Xilitla & Las Pozas: imagine being in a rainforest, in this case in heartland Mexico. And all of a sudden all kinds of strange, surrealist sculptures show up in the hills. That is Las Pozas, the not-so-very well-known gardens of British artist Edward James. He worked on his project for decades, and it still is literally a surreal experience to walk around there
- San Miguel de Allende: this colonial town has unfortunately been discovered by American pensioners. You will hear more English on the streets here than anywhere else in Mexico, real estate prices go through the roof and the city has become picture-perfect for tourists but pretty boring. The botanical garden is one of the highlights
- Guanajuato: the evening views from the steep hills surrounding this student city are unsurpassed. Guanajuato is vibrant, fun and compact
- Beaches: The beaches were an absolute highlight of the trip. Now, Puerto Escondido was an early contender for the main prize, a relaxed paradise far away from other Mexican hotspots like Puerto Vallarte and Acapulco.
- Oaxaca & Monte Alban: the most pleasant surprise was Monte Alban just outside lively and pretty Oaxaca. It is the oldest organized civilization ever found, on top of a mountain, and still holds several temples. The mix of location and the well-preservedness make this the number one attraction compared to even Teotihuacan and Palenque. And having the gastronomic centre of Oaxaca nearby is a great bonus of course
- Markets: To say they are an overload of the senses would be a laughable understatement. On my first day in CDMX I immediately went to La Merced, the local market. Thousands and thousands of shops segue into another, sometimes with daylight, sometimes without. The air is sometimes smoky from the barbecues, the walkways always too narrow. Oaxaca had a similar market, a maze where you can find ANYTHING. Work of genius!
- San Cristobal de las Casas: usually your last stop before the Guatemalan border, and a good base for a daytrip to the Palenque ruins or the Sumidoro Canyon. The colonial town itself, perched between the hills, doesn’t have a lot of attractions though
- Palenque: from nowhere this site shows up in the middle of the rainforest. The Mayan ruins of Palenque in the humid jungle are a must-see
- Teotihuacan: the biggest city in those days, until around 500 AD, Teotihuacan is world famous for its two huge pyramids and the Avenue of the Dead. Great daytrip from Mexico City
- Mexican murals: before this trip I had never heard of Orozco and Sigueiroz, the name Diego Rivera was only known to me as the husband of Frida Kahlo. So when I went to the Arte Carrillo Gil museum in Mexico City, I was blown away by the colorful and powerful paintings of this big-three of Mexico. Turns out they were especially known for much bigger paintings, namely the murals (wall and ceiling paintings) Mexico is apparently famous for. Rivera’s work is all over the capital, and the works of Orozco in Instituto Cabanas in Guadalajara are worth the trip to the city already. Mindblowing is an understatement.
- Puebla: the city has grown from a colonial town into a minor metropolis with more than three million inhabitants. Great historical centre, and the impressive new Museum of Baroque Art
- Chichen Itza: this Mayan city was built in Yucatan state, in the southeastern edge of the country (see all highlights of Yucatan peninsula here). The highlight of the area (together with the Uxmal ruins) and chosen as one of the new seven wonders of the world
- There is only so much you can visit in two times five weeks. So on the to-do/to-visit-list still:
- Train ride Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico: Also known as El Chepe, this one-day trip from the northern Mexican city of Chihuahua to the Pacific coastal town of Los Mochis is one of the most beautiful train trips in the world
- Monterrey: the biggest city in the north, also home to some of the best football clubs of the country
- Baja California: at the opposite end, in the northwestern corner under California, is a long peninsula called Baja California. Amongst others it has some holiday resorts, for example Cabo San Lucas
Food and drinks
It’s no surprise that the Mexican diet is based on flour, corn and chicken. The flour is converted into empanadas, tortillas, tacos, chilaquiles or tortas, combined usually with corn and either chicken or beef.
But you will find the kitchen has become much more international. The big cities obviously have any taste you can imagine, although there is a tendency towards western style food (pizzas, burgers) and less towards Asian or Spanish. Furthermore, Mexico is so ethnically diverse that every region has its own specialties. Oaxaca for example is proud of its mole dishes, where mole is a variety of sauces added to the dishes. Throughout the country you will find experimental cuisine as well, most obviously in the capital.
Drinkwise, Mexicans love their beer. Instead of tequila they nowadays tend to prefer mezcal, to be consumed with caution and in moderate amounts 🙂 Wine is not as common here.
Most tourists will arrive by air. The most common airports are Guadalajara, Cancun in the southeast and of course Mexico City. There are many direct flights to for example Europe and of course America.Another option is to take the road. From the north the most obvious points of entry are near San Diego in California, or in El Paso in Texas. Going from north to south is obviously easier as the other way round, because of the immigration and drug traffic problems.From the south you can enter from Guatemala or Belize. There are several border crossings. The easiest is probably to book a minibus transfer from for example Xela/Antigua/Guatemala City in Guatemala straight to San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico. There are other connections, also to for example the Puerto Escondido area in the southwest, but they are more difficult and border crossings might not be open 24/7.
The quickest and easiest way obviously is by plane. All the bigger cities have airports. Most are only served by domestic flights. AeroMex is the biggest company, but for example Volaris usually offers much better deals
There are hardly any railway lines in Mexico. The trip from Chihuahua to Los Mochis in the north is mainly there for tourists
The most common mode of transport is long-distance buses. These are usually well-equipped, with TV screens and toilets, and are not too expensive (though much more expensive than in most of Central America).
Finding out which buses are available is a major headache though. For the major companies and major routes you can buy tickets online. But a better way especially in smaller towns is to go to the local ticket offices and ask which options you have. In Xilitla for example were many more connections than the ones found online.
Some of the bus companies:
- Flecha Roja / Flecha Amarilla: has lots of buses in the regions north of Mexico City
- Primera Plus: luxury coaches. They serve the longer distances from for example Mexico City to Guadalajara, Queretaro and Guanajuato
- TF Frontera: they serve regions in the north from Mexico City
- ADO Bus: they seem to almost have a monopoly in the south, along the Pacific coast and towards Oaxaca, Tuxtla Gutierrez and San Cristobal de las Casas
- As said, there are many many more companies, depending on the region
Driving by car is obviously possible as well. Most roads in Mexico are well-maintained. When you get further to the south, beware of the speed ramps you will encounter every couple of hundred metres. These babies are no joke.
- Weather: the weather in Mexico overall is moderate to good. Temperatures during daytime rarely drop below 20 degrees, even in Mexico City at 2,200 metres. Winter nights at these higher elevations can get more chilly. On average, you can expect temperatures between 25 and 30 degrees almost the entire year. In rain season (april to september/october) there is usually a couple of hours of rain and things can get very humid. This humidity can be found throughout the year in the jungle and rainforest areas
- Safety: lots of violence in Mexico is drugs-related. The further you go up north, the more likely it is you encounter problems. Then again, in general drug gangs will leave tourists alone, but it apparently gives cities such as Chihuahua and Monterrey a violent, gritty edge.
- Because of poverty, robberies and muggings are not uncommon in bigger cities especially. Common sense should reduce the risks though. Don’t show your valuables (though I walk around with my moderate photo camera visible all the time). Avoid the edges of bigger cities. Be aware of pickpockets. And after midnight especially, take a taxi when going home if you don’t feel safe. For women and children Mexico City’s metro system has reserved coaches. When at a beach, use caution after midnight. As said, these are more or less common sense measures that you should use wherever you are in the world
- Gay travel: despite being mainly Catholic, Mexico is quite progressive regarding their attitudes towards gay people. Walking hand-in-hand for same-sex couples is not unusual in Mexico City and Guadalajara, both cities have a raucous gay club scene as well. In smaller cities, showing your affection in public is less likely but being gay is generally accepted. When dating through apps, use common-sense caution and meet in a public space
- Customs: you will not need a visum from most countries for the first three months in Mexico. If you stay longer than a week though, it is not unlikely you have to pay a tourist departure tax upon leaving of around 25-30 dollar. When you arrived by air, check your ticket receipt or ask your travel company, because it is not unlikely you have paid this departure tax already in advance. Don’t expect any help from the locals if you travel by minivan from the south of Mexico towards Guatemala or Belize
- History: to understand the country a little better, there is an article with a short history of Mexico