Backpacking Mexico: Your Ultimate Travel Guide
If travelling was the lottery, Mexico would be the jackpot. Swimming with whale sharks, exploring underground caverns, trekking up mountain ranges and sipping on the freshest margaritas are just some of the delights that are offered up in this mesmerising country. Mexico is a place with endless possibilities, so to help you get to grips with the country that has it all, we’ve put together this handy backpacking Mexico guide. Happy travelling!
Jump straight to:
- Best Time to Visit Mexico
- Do You Need a Visa for Mexico?
- Travelling Around Mexico
- Travel Costs to Mexico
- Where to Stay in Mexico
- Mexico Itinerary
- Mexican Food
- Mexican Culture
- Is It Safe to Travel to Mexico?
- Mexico Travel Advice
Best Time to Visit Mexico
Mexico is a brilliantly diverse country with a range of climatic zones and conditions, so the best time to visit will really depend on what you want to get out of your trip. Half of the country sits below the Tropic of Cancer where the weather is typically very tropical. North of this line lies mostly harsh desolate deserts. Typically, the most popular time to visit Mexico is from December to April, where there is virtually no rain. Naturally though, this also makes it the busiest time to visit. From June to October, short-lived downpours will occur nearly every day in the heart of the country, so you’ll need to pack a poncho. November is a top contender for the best month to travel to Mexico: the land is fresh from the rain and the peak season has not yet begun. The next section will break down when to visit by region.
The Best Time to Visit Mexico City
To avoid the crowds and peak pricing it’s best to visit Mexico City from April to November, with April and November seeing the best of the weather. The Day of the Dead festival occurs at the end of October / early November and if you find yourself in the region at this time, it’s a spectacle not to be missed. The streets come alive (no pun intended) with vivid colours, elaborate decorations and public displays of emotion to celebrate the lives of deceased family and friends.
The Best Time to Visit the Yucatan Peninsula, including Cancun
Often considered the golden child of Mexico, this region boasts some of the best weather, swimming holes and ancient lands which the country has to offer. Cancun has around 340 days of sunny weather per year but hit it up during August and you might find yourself faced with hurricanes and tropical storms. High season here is mid-December through to April, when the weather is the most consistent with the lowest chance of rain. The average high during this season is between 29° and 34°C which makes it the perfect temp for lounging around at the beach or spending the day exploring cenotes. Again, it’s suggested to visit during the shoulder seasons (November or May) if you can. The weather can be a little less predictable, but the smaller crowds, cheaper accommodation and chilled Caribbean vibes will more than make up for it. Check out this article for some more Yucatan Peninsula inspiration.
The Best Time to Visit Baja California
Baja California loosely covers everything above the Tropic of Cancer and is in some ways, a perfect example of a stereotypical desert. The land is dry and arid but unlike most deserts, Baja California is entirely surrounded by water. As such, the number of water activities which are on offer in this area is astounding. From swimming with whale sharks to surfing, kayaking, snorkelling and everything in between, this is an area of Mexico where it’s virtually impossible to be bored.
The most popular time to visit Baja California is, again, between December and April. During this time, the temperature still maintains highs of 25° to 30°C, offering up perfect conditions for exploring. Top tip: from mid-January to mid-March the grey whales migrate to the lagoons to give birth, so you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a peek at them if you take a boat ride during this time.
Cabo San Lucas is one of the most popular spots in Baja California and for good reason. With rugged coastline, incredible beaches and activities that will satisfy the biggest adrenaline junkies, you can see why travellers come from every corner of the earth to experience this hot spot. For the budget conscious, the best time to visit Cabo San Lucas is mid-April to July. At this time, the winter crowds will have disappeared, and the summer storms are yet to hit.
Do You Need a Visa for Mexico?
It’s best to get yourself ahead of the game when it comes to sorting your visa. Luckily, many nationalities are exempt from requiring a travel visa for Mexico. If you have a passport issued from the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand or the European Union (amongst others) you won’t need to apply for a visa before you leave. You’ll simply need to complete an immigration form which will be available on the plane or at the border crossing once you arrive. This exemption only applies for holidays or business trips which are less than 180 days. To find out whether you’re exempt you can check the list.
Additionally, if you don’t hold a passport from one of the countries on the list but have permanent residency or hold a multiple entry visa for Canada, Japan, UK, USA or any EU country you do not need to apply for a visa either.
Travelling Around Mexico
Travelling Around Mexico Alone
Despite what you might read in some news reports, I have always felt safe travelling around Mexico and you shouldn’t face problems as a solo traveller. The biggest obstacle which you might find yourself up against is the language barrier. While English is fairly widely spoken, in certain regions it will be necessary to speak at least a small amount of basic Spanish. If your skills don’t stretch that far, you can use a translation app like Hostelworld’s Speak the World. Thankfully, Spanish is one of the easiest languages to learn and if you have a basic understanding of French, Italian or Portuguese then you should pick it up quite easily. One of the bonuses of travelling alone is that you’re likely to polish up your language skills pretty quickly by getting lots of practice in.
Solo female travel in Mexico is picking up speed and although it’s important to keep your wits about you (which applies to both genders), there is no reason why females should experience any issues. Common sense is key when it comes to travelling alone as a female – don’t draw attention to yourself with inappropriate clothing and avoid getting drunk in unknown territory. You might get the occasional cat caller, but it shouldn’t amount to anything if you avoid engaging with the suspect. If you’re not feeling totally confident in travelling around Mexico as a solo female traveller, then you’ll be happy to hear that Mexico is one of the best places in the world to meet new people. Fellow travellers, expats and friendly locals adorn the streets, and the mix of ages and backgrounds will have you feeling like you’re a part of the furniture in no time at all. Check out this blog post for more on solo female travel in Mexico.
All of the standard safety procedures are applicable to travelling in Mexico as they would be anywhere else in the world. Respect cultural differences, trust your instinct, don’t take unnecessary risks and don’t advertise your valuables. Extravagant jewellery and the latest DSLR around your neck will attract sticky fingered individuals like moths to a flame. Be street wise and no harm should come of you.
Cost of Travelling Around Mexico
Travelling around Mexico is extremely affordable, and there are many options for getting from A to B.
Although most of the cities in Mexico are fairly large, the main tourist hubs are concentrated within one area, and you’ll find that the best way to find your bearings is simply by walking around. The most frequent way to travel around Mexico is by bus, closely followed by the metro. Taxis vary slightly in price from city to city, but if you do find yourself wanting to go 5 or more kilometres from where you’re staying you can expect to pay a starting price of 50-100 Pesos one way. Taking one of the Colectivos (shared buses) is a savvy way to get to the tourist attractions which are located out of town. With prices starting from just 20 Pesos, it’s worth having to get up close and personal with your neighbour so that the driver can pack everyone on like sardines !
Travelling Around Mexico by Bus
For me, taking the bus is the best mode of transport for soaking up the culture and experiencing awesome views, but it isn’t without its pitfalls. Do not expect buses to run in a similar fashion to the likes of Greyhound in Australia or Flixbus in Europe! Be prepared for long delays and questionable safety standards and make sure you stay alert when it feels like you might be coming to your stop. Local bus drivers might need an extra prompt to hit that brake!
In practical terms, Mexico has reasonably priced and frequent buses that join cities all over the country. Mexico City is the central hub for almost all buses in the country and from there you can get to most places. Outside of Mexico City the bus lines become regional and the major cities in each region become the central hubs. Here is a quick break down of the regions and best places to take buses from:
Yucatan Region: Merida and Cancun are the two main hubs
Southern Central: Oaxaca, San Cristobal and Tuxtla Gutierrez will be your big stations
Central Gulf Coast: Veracruz and Xalapa are your connection cities
Central Western Region: Guadalajara is Mexico’s second largest city and services all western areas of Mexico
Pacific North West: Mazatlan and Los Michos will deliver you to all the northern regions of the Pacific Coast
Travelling Around Mexico City
For one of the biggest cities in the world, getting around Mexico City is incredibly easy and surprisingly cheap.
Travelling Around Mexico City by Metro
You’d be hard pressed to find a cheaper metro system in the world that services all the most popular parts of the city. Tickets for the metro cost just 5 Pesos each (around 25 US cents) and can be purchased at all stations – an absolute steal! The maps are easy to follow, and everything is well sign posted. Metros run every 5 to 6 minutes and rarely will you find yourself walking more than 10 or 15 minutes to get to any major site from the closest station.
Travelling Around Mexico City by Bus
Bus travel in Mexico City will set you back around 5 Pesos per ride. At least basic Spanish is going to be required for catching buses or you might find yourself in neighbourhoods you were not really trying to get to. This can work out well if you’ve got the time to explore surprise destinations, but isn’t so ideal if you need to catch a flight .
Travelling Around Mexico City by Taxi
Travelling by taxi is also a fairly cheap option and you can expect to pay roughly 10 Pesos (50 US cents) per 1.5 kilometres. Load a map on your phone to ensure that you don’t get taken for a ride (pun intended).
Travelling Around Mexico City by Bike
Bike rental is another option and is an amazing way to see the city. The only downfall to this is that, unlike Copenhagen, Mexico is not the most bike friendly city in the world. If you’re not very confident on a bike, then Mexico City might not be the place to test the waters. However, if you don’t find traffic too daunting then jump on a bike and start exploring! Bike rentals are around 200 Pesos per day depending on who you talk to. Your hostel may know where to get the best deals or might even have bikes available to hire too.
Travel Costs to Mexico
Daily Travel Costs in Mexico
Mexico is an extremely budget friendly destination if you want it to be. Food, drinks, alcohol, taxis and entrance fees are all very affordable for the average backpacker. The average price for a meal in Mexico City will set you back around 70-100 Pesos (around 5 USD) but if you’re only after tacos you can easily find small hole-in-the-wall joints or street vendors selling them for around 10 Pesos each.
The Mexican Peso has been sitting between 18-20 Pesos to 1 USD for all of 2018. Translated into items, this means that a 1 litre bottle of water for 10 Pesos will cost you around 50-55 cents and a can of coke for 13 Pesos is around 60-65 cents. If you’re struggling with the maths, think of 20 Pesos as 1 USD and by the end of the day you should only be out by a few dollars.
The easiest way to access money while travelling in Mexico is by using your credit or debit card in the ATM’s. A lot of places will accept card, but you should also be aware that small restaurants, shops, taxis and admission fees for museums and archaeological sites will be almost exclusively cash. Personally, I found that the Santander ATM’s had the best rate when it came to fees, charging 30 Pesos (around $1.50 USD) per transaction, where as some of the others wanted up to 90 Pesos per transaction.
If you want to exchange money your best bet would be to do it before your trip. This may not get you the best exchange rate, but it will save you some hassle upon arrival. There’s nothing worse than arriving in a new destination completely strapped for cash! Once in destination, your best option is to exchange your money in a Casa de Cambio rather than a bank: the queues are generally shorter, and they tend to stay open for longer.
Average Prices for Common Items are:
1 litre of water: 10 Pesos / 50 cents USD / 40 p GBP / 45 cents EUR
1 beer in a store: 20 Pesos / $1 USD / 80 p GBP / 90 cents EUR
Standard meal: 60- 120 Pesos / $3 USD – $6.20 USD / £2.40 GBP – £4.80 GBP / €2.70 EUR – €5.40 EUR
Street Tacos: 10-20 Pesos each / 50 cents – $1 USD / 40 p – 80 p GBP / 45 -90 cents EUR
Can of Coke in a restaurant: 15-20 Pesos / 80 cents – $1 USD / 60 P – 80 p GBP / 70 – 90 cents EUR
Shot of Mezcal in Oaxaca: 70 – 120 Pesos (for the fancy stuff) / $3.60 – $6.20 USD / £2.80 – £4.70 GBP / €3.15 – €5.40 EUR
Mexico uses the Mexican Peso. While some more touristic resorts and restaurants may accept US dollars, it is highly likely you will end up paying more than you would have if you paid with Pesos. The exchange rate for 2018 sits between 18 and 20 pesos to 1 USD / 80 p GBP / .90 EUR.
Where to Stay in Mexico
Where to Stay in Mexico City
With over 40 hostels listed for Mexico City on Hostelworld alone, I would challenge anyone who says that it isn’t easy to explore this place on a budget. Prices vary depending on the season but with dorm rooms as low as $10 USD per night there should always be somewhere backpacker friendly to rest your weary head. Mexico City is an uber trendy, artistic city and this is often reflected in the places to stay. Here are a few handpicked hostels in key locations around the city:
Located super close to two metro stops and only a short walk from the Palacio de Bellas Artes, this hostel is in a prime location. Housed in a grand building with a lively bar, beautiful restaurant and a spacious common area, you’ll not want to miss out on these community vibes. The bathrooms are clean and there is hardcore 24-hour security, so make sure you keep your wristband on at all times. Dorms start at $10 USD per night.
With a 9.7* rating on Hostelworld, it’s pretty hard to go wrong with this hostel. The location is amazing, within walking distance to lots of museums and tons of great monuments. The only slight downfall is that dorms start at $21 USD, but if you’re willing to splash the cash then I wouldn’t give it a miss.
Located in the penthouse of a central historic building is another extremely well rated hostel. After more than 750 reviews it maintains a 9.2* rating, so they are clearly doing something right! There is an incredible terrace overlooking the city and everything you will need during your stay is within walking distance. Dorms start at $10 USD, so it is an amazing choice for the budget conscious backpacker.
Where to Stay in Cancun
If you stayed at the Selina hostel in Mexico City and loved it, chances are you’re going to love this one too! The vibe is similar in the set up and organisation but being in Cancun you can be sure that there is a little more of a beach/party vibe going on here. Basic dorms start at $11 USD leaving a little extra room for your cocktail budget.
This hostel’s motto is “From Siesta to Fiesta” which filled me with confidence that I’d made the right choice before I’d even stepped foot in the building. Complete with pool, bar and beautiful outdoor area, this is the perfect place to relax during the days and gear up for the nights. Basic mixed dorms here start from $13 USD per night.
The rooms at this hostel are somewhere between pop culture and rustic wooden beach shack, making them visually stunning from the off. The views from some of the dorms over the bay add a whole new level of visual impact to your stay. The atmosphere here is amazing and the common areas are well styled and super fun. It is a little pricier with dorms starting at $16 USD, but everything is brand new and totally worth it.
This was the most budget friendly hostel out of the bunch. They offer a nice stay in a 6-bed shared dorm from $6.80 USD during rainy season, which increases to around $10 USD during peak season. Free Wi-Fi and breakfast are included.
I’ve been to Mexico a few times, but this year I spent 6 months there to really get to know the place – starting from Tijuana in Baja California and exiting through the border to Guatemala. Once I departed I soon realised that 6 months was not quite enough and returned a few weeks later. I’d completely fallen in love with the country, the people, the culture, the history and the landscape. What I’d thought of as obstacles before my trip began (long bus rides, not being fluent in the language, crime rate) all became trivial details. From its beaches, to its mountains, to every waterfall, cenote and temple, I honestly think you could spend a year or two here and still not see everything. The below itineraries will help to get you started on ticking off the must-see places to visit. But please, bear in mind that this is not an exhaustive list by any means!
Mexico Itinerary 2 Weeks
Days 1-4: Mexico City
Mexico City is extremely charming and will quite possibly become one of your favourite cities in the whole world. The list of possibilities here is almost endless: the food, the art, the culture, the museums and cathedrals are all on a level that will leave you astounded.
Depending on when your flight arrives make your way straight to your hostel and then hit the streets asap. If you are staying at one of the hostels listed above, you will be close to the Palicio de Bellas Artes which is well worth a walk around. 5 blocks to the east of that is the Catedral Metropolitana which is the largest cathedral in the Americas.
The next day you will want to head to the Frida Kahlo Museum. Heads up – you are going to want to buy tickets online and get there as early as possible. I had an advanced ticket and I still spent about 20 minutes waiting in a queue. The queue for on-the-door tickets didn’t seem to be moving at all! Your hostel should be able to help with tickets and transportation and you could take a taxi with a few others for around 20 to 30 Pesos each.
Afterwards, head back into the city and take a stroll around the centre. I particularly enjoyed Museo Nacional but as there are so many museums it’s best to look up any prominent exhibitions that might interest you once you arrive.
Evening plans – head to a Lucha Libre show! There are performances each Tuesday and Saturday night, and although it might sound cheesy at first, it’s an incredibly entertaining way to spend a night. The crowd is energetic, and you choose a side to cheer for which will make you feel instantly involved. The costumes, lights and acrobatics are all astounding and even though it’s not a real fight (I’m sorry to break it to you), the opponents are still flying through the air a few metres at a time and flipping / spinning their way to victory.
The following morning head to the Tiotihucan Pyramids which are located 40 kilometres north of the city. Again, your hostel should be able to help you sort out transport. These pyramids are a UNESCO listed world heritage site and as you stroll through the avenue of the dead and climb the pyramids of the sun and the moon you will understand why. When you arrive back to the city in the afternoon you should have time to squeeze in a few hours in at the Anthropology museum. It is enormous, and you could easily spend an entire day or two here. You’ll leave with an amazing run down of the history and culture of different regions and epochs throughout Mexican history. It’s not to be missed!
Day 5: Nevado De Toluca
Nevado De Toluca is an incredible stratovolcano and crater lake located about an hour from Mexico City. It sits at around 4500 meters, so hopefully after a few days in Mexico City you will have acclimatised slightly. It is incredibly beautiful and a relatively easy hike to the edge of the lake and around a certain section of the crater.
Getting there couldn’t be easier. You will want to leave early and will need to take a bus from Central Del Norte bus station for around 80 Pesos. Buses leave every hour or even slightly more frequently. From there you can either take a taxi or another bus which will cost less than 40 Pesos. The bus will drop you at base camp and then you’ll need to take a van for about 50 Pesos. Once there, it is just a short hike to the volcano craters.
I’d suggest that you head back to Mexico City after your visit and take an overnight bus (to save on a night’s accommodation) to Oaxaca. Buses leave from the Mexico terminal TAPO and will cost from 400-800 Pesos depending on the class of ticket.
Day 6: Hierve el Agua
When you arrive in Oaxaca you can spend the day exploring the city OR (and this would be my choice) you could get on another bus or colectivo to Hierve el Agua. This is like an infinity pool from another planet. Natural rock formations have been created by water bubbling up from calcium saturated pools and the end result is mind blowing.
Days 7-9: Chiapas
Chiapas is an incredible region which is quiet and less discovered than everything else on this itinerary. The waterfalls here were like nothing I’d ever seen before. They were on such a grand scale and so undiscovered – I was completely blown away.
The first waterfall I visited was El Aguacero. This is a beautiful hike through dense rain forest, down 750 stairs and then along a river until you arrive at the falls. It is a series of falls with small caves behind them and lush rainforest all around.
The second waterfall (which you absolutely must visit) is Cascada El Chiflon. These are a series of waterfalls that run for well over a kilometre. The water is some of the bluest water you could ever imagine and there are petrified rock falls everywhere! This is another walk-through rainforest, up a series of stairs before you finally come out at Velo de Novia. It’s so enormous that at first you can’t really fathom where all the water is coming from. On the walk back down, you will 100% want to take a dip in the incredibly inviting blue water and try to get a few photos. If you have time, it’s also well worth taking a walk through (or rather climbing over) the Palenque ruins.
Days 10-14: The Yucatan
There are two options to arrive in the Yucatan from Chiapas. If you fly, a direct flight from Tuxtla Gutierrez to Cancun will take less than 2 hours. Depending on the time of year, flights are only between $100-150 USD which is by far the most time efficient choice. The other option is a bus which will take around 17 or 18 hours but will only cost $25-50 USD depending on the bus class. You do have to consider the fact that you will lose almost an entire day of your trip with this option – time which could be better spent lying on the beach in Cancun!
You can spend your last few days here relaxing on the beaches around Cancun, browsing markets, sipping margaritas and enjoying the night life, or you can try and pack just a few more things in before you return home. Personally, I reckon a good mix is important here – top up that tan and then get exploring. There are ancient temples which line the beach and you should head to the famed Playa del Carmen where you can spend another day enjoying the good life or strolling across La Quinta Avenida. This is also a major party spot during the night.
The next day I would head down to Tulum because no trip to Mexico is really complete without visiting at least one Cenote, right? Begin with a visit to the ruins of Tulum while the day is still cool and then head to some cenotes in the afternoon. There are dozens of different cenotes and a little research into which one to visit will not go a miss. However, I would suggest Cenote Dos Ojos, Cenote the Pit and Cenote Pet Cemetery just to name a few.
And this, sadly, takes you to the end of the two weeks. Head back to Cancun and prepare to take your flight home. You will never leave Mexico with the feeling of having seen it all, but you will be able to share some pretty incredible memories you have created in just over a two-week period.
Mexico Itinerary 4 weeks
4 weeks is a great amount of time to explore Mexico and will allow you to see quite a lot of this enormous beautiful country.
Days 1-4: Mexico City
As with the two-week itinerary I would still suggest the same 4 days and things to do, so head back up to the two-week guide!
Days 5-7: Grutas Tolontongo and Las Pozas
These two destinations are more off the beaten track, but if you do decide to make the journey you will be greatly rewarded with incredible waterfalls, mind blowing hot springs and incredible structures built into the rainforest.
As these destinations aren’t on the typical tourist trail, I’d suggest renting a car for 3 or 4 days and driving up there with a couple of friends or people you’ve met at the hostel in Mexico City.
Start with Tolontongo as it is the closest spot to Mexico City, roughly around a 5-hour drive depending on traffic and how much you stop. You will want to get there early as this place is still very much on the radar for Mexican tourism and is also quite popular with the local people.
We arrived as soon as it opened and had it to ourselves for about an hour before people started to trickle in. The pools themselves are like infinity pools built into the side of a mountain, overlooking an incredible valley with natural hot water. You will want to walk up to the grutas (cave) and take a look behind the massive waterfall. The river coming from the waterfall is an incredible blue and it’s impossible not to want to swim in it.
There are a huge number of places to swim and incredible things to see here, so I would suggest spending most of the day here or you risk missing something you will see photos of later.
Next up you will want to head to Las Pozas. Take the road on google maps to the west. You might be tempted to go another way as the distance looks shorter on the map but trust me – we made this mistake and turned a 6-7-hour journey into a 14 hour one (complete with terrifying nightmare dirt tracks). You will be thanking yourself later.
Las Pozas is a surreal series of structures built in the middle of the rainforest, in the San Louis Potosi region. As you wind your way through waterfalls and pools, you will be in constant awe. This is another full day activity so take advantage and get there first so that you can have it to yourself for at least an hour.
If you find yourself with an afternoon free, there is a spot called Puente De Dios which is a beautiful waterfall with multiple swimming spots that is well worth the short drive too.
Day 8: Nevado De Toluca
After you return to Mexico City I would head to Nevado De Toluca for a day of incredible hiking through crater lakes and a volcano. See the two-week itinerary for more tips!
Day 9-10: Iztaccihutal
This is another volcano hike which is on the way to Puebla. After visiting Nevado de Toluca you should be acclimatised and getting there is pretty simple. You will want to take a bus from the TAPO bus station in Mexico City to Amecameca, which leaves every 15 minutes from 4 in the afternoon. From there, you can either take a taxi (about 300 Pesos) or a colectivo (which is far cheaper) up to Paso de Cortez. This hike is fairly challenging but extremely rewarding and even if you only go to the hut at about the 2/3rds point, you will have incredibly worthwhile views over the still active volcano Popocatepetl.
Day 11-12: Puebla
Puebla has an extremely beautiful old town, filled with some of the best architecture in all of Mexico. The Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, Casa del Alfenique and Talavera tiled Casa de los Muñecos are all must-sees. The biblioteca Palafoxiana and the Cathedral are a little more traditional but still really impressive and well worth taking the time to explore.
Puebla is also filled with an incredible amount of super cute restaurants and cafes. Murals line the streets and there are antique stores everywhere, so you will never be left with a shortage of things to do.
Day 13-15: Acapulco
After Puebla take the bus to Acapulco and enjoy a couple of days on the beach. Acapulco is world renowned for a reason. The beaches are gorgeous, the snorkelling is amazing, and you can release sea turtles…actual life goals! Visit the Diego mural and if you’re into it there is a multitude of cliffs to jump from into the ocean. On top of all that, Acapulco is famous for its nightlife so if you are down for a boogie, then this is a perfect spot to do it!
Days 17-19: Puerto Escondido
The next spot you should hit up is Puerto Escondido – only a few hours south by bus from Acapulco. This town revolves around surfing so if you like to catch a wave then you will have an amazing time. If you’re not yet into surfing, but want to be, there are a bunch of amazing spots to learn. You will be able to find at least a dozen places on the main street that give surf lessons with board rental.
As this spot is home to one of the most famous waves in the world, tourism is strong here, but it is mostly surfers and hippies. The town has an amazing laid-back vibe with great night life and a host of healthy, organic, vegan, gluten-free places to choose from for lunch and dinner. If you time your visit for the right time of year, you might be lucky enough to see some of the best surfers in the world.
Day 20-21: Oaxaca
After a few days on the beach it’s time to head back into the mountains and cool down a little. Buses from Puerto Escondido to Oaxaca are frequent and the bus ride is not too long (around 7-8 hours). From there you can see what to do in the two-week itinerary section.
Day 22-24: Chiapas
Again, I would follow the same route as above from Oaxaca to Chiapas and then onto Cancun.
Day 25-28: The Yucatan and Cancun
You have a few options for where to spend the last 4 or 5 days of your trip. You can hang out around Cancun or you can explore a little of the Yucatan. I covered some of the cenotes and a few other things in the above 2-week itinerary, but I am going to focus more on Cancun for this one.
Cancun is incredibly popular for a reason. The nightlife, the shopping, the beaches all make for an incredible destination, but it is things like Chichen Itza that make the place so incredibly special.
Chichen Itza is a large Mayan archaeological site that is probably the most iconic landmark of the Yucatan. This is both a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the new 7 wonders of the world.
Make sure you swim in the underwater museum which lies between Cancun and Isla Mujeres. There are over 500 hundred sculptures by 6 different artists and it was designed to help encourage the growth of coral and replenish habitats for tropical marine life.
Only a 20-minute ferry ride from Cancun is Isla Mujeres (Island of Women). The island is a sleepy relaxed alternative to the crazy nightlife of Cancun – a great place to relax for the day and wash away a hangover. There is a huge amount of sea turtles so take your snorkels. You will also want to check out Punta Sur and the ancient temple honouring the Mayan moon goddess.
Make sure you leave some time in your schedule to visit the cenotes – a quick list of notable places are the El Ray Ruins, Isla Contoy and Playa del Carmen.
If possible, try and fly out of Cancun to save yourself half a day’s travel back to Mexico City.
Mexico Itinerary 10 days
10 days is a perfect amount of time to get a real feel for a place, but it can also leave you wanting more of your new-found way of living! This list will get you excited for a trip filled with museums, restaurants, beaches and wild nightlife.
Days 1-5: Mexico City
The majority of Mexico City recommendations have been covered above in the 2-week itinerary, but here are a few other things that are worth checking out while you have an extra day.
Palacio Nacional is famous for its Diego Rivera mural “The History of Mexico” which portrays its history of the nation from the Aztecs through to conquest, revolution and industrial development. It is enormous, and hours could be taken studying each section. It is also a fantastic (and free!) way to learn about Mexican history through art.
Templo Mayor sits in the heart of the historic district. It was originally an ancient Aztec temple which was destroyed by the Spanish to build a cathedral. It is well worth checking out!
Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico is an absolutely mind-blowing building with antique elevators, a beautiful curving staircase and an incredibly grandiose ceiling. If you’re into contemporary art, then Museo Jumex located in the heart of the Polanco district is one for you.
Days 6-10: Cancun, Yucatan
These areas have been pretty well covered off in the last two itineraries. The biggest decision here is to work out whether you want your experience to be dominated by incredible beaches, mind blowing nature and time defying ancient history, or whether you want to party and sip margaritas all day long. If you can manage to do both then kudos to you!
Traditional Mexican Foods
Mexico has such a high number of traditional dishes that if you type “10 best Mexican dishes” into google you’re unlikely to find a single list that comes up with all of the same foods. The other amazing thing is that due to the different climates and altitudes throughout Mexico, the food becomes regional. One day you could be sipping coconuts and eating mangos, the next day it could be rice, beans and carne asada. It’s a foodie’s paradise!
The best way to find out what you like and what to avoid is to visit as many Mexican street food vendors as possible. You’ll try a huge range of traditional foods and you’ll eventually figure out whether you’re more inclined towards gorditas or sopes (for me, it’s gorditas all the way!).
If you have dietary restrictions you’re also in luck in Mexico. Vegetarian food is super easy to come by, with rice, beans and corn as major staples of the Mexican diet. You can also access fresh fruit and vegetables almost everywhere. Vegan is a little harder as there is still a lack of understanding that fish is a meat or that butter is a dairy product. It’s still totally possible though, especially in the cities, as there are a good amount of vegan and vegetarian restaurants. If you’re gluten free, you’ll normally be able to pick up corn tortillas rather than the regular ones – so you won’t need to miss out!
Gorditas top my list of delicious traditional foods. It’s a pastry made from corn dough and either baked or fried depending on the region. It’s stuffed with cheese, meats or beans (amongst other things) and is oh-so-tasty. Disclaimer – if you do happen to stumble across the fried ones, you will probably want to get your hands on more than one!
Tamales are amazing for your taste-buds: made from dough, wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaves and steamed. It’s filled with meat or cheese, chilli and fruits or vegetables. The best thing about it is that unless you are returning to the same place, you will experience new flavours every time you bite into a fresh one.
Carne Asada is literally just grilled meat, seared to a certain degree to give it that perfect charred flavour. It is typically marinated with salt, pepper, garlic and lime before being grilled. If you love meat, you’ve gotta give it a go!
You will see signs for “Barbacoa”s everywhere as you drive through Mexico. It is more often than not lamb, which is slow cooked over an open fire. Typically, the meat has a strong flavour and is generally complimented with onions and cilantro. If you are a meat eater, then it’s certainly worth the pit stop.
If you have a sweet tooth, then the panadarias (bakeries) will be your salvation. While they’re not historically traditional (baked goods were introduced by the Spanish to the local Mexican population) they have become a major staple as far as sweet foods go.
Churros will become a frequent sight when you’re travelling around Mexico. They are long, star shaped cuts of dough that are deep fried and covered with cinnamon and sugar.
Conchas are a sweet bread roll traditionally covered with cookie crust and flavoured with either chocolate or vanilla. These tasty little rolls are also Mexico’s most popular sweet bread.
Donuts and muffins are two things you will see constantly, and at about 5-10 Pesos each they are very hard to walk past.
Food is taken fairly seriously in Mexico, and it is as wonderfully diverse as it is tasty. If you don’t know what something is and you’re not fussy, then the best thing to do is just dive right in!
If you’ve skim read this entire backpacking guide to get to this point, then fair play – I’d have done the same! Here is a list which covers the range and prices of traditional Mexican drinks.
Undoubtedly the most iconic Mexican beverage of the bunch. While tequila is actually a type of mescal, it has a reputation all of its own, and not always for the right reasons! I’m sure I’m not the only one who has woken up at least once saying “I am NEVER drinking tequila again!”. However, a trip to this country without at least one shot of tequila just wouldn’t be complete. If tequila is really your thing I’d suggest a trip to its town of origin Tequila, which is only 65kms north west of Guadalajara. Shots of tequila in Mexico range from about 50 pesos to 120 for the fancy stuff. ($2.50-6 USD)
Have you really been to Mexico if you haven’t had a margarita? These super refreshing cocktails are the perfect way to round off a day in the Mexican heat. The flavour will vary slightly from bar to bar so don’t let yourself be content with trying just one .
Sangria is traditionally a combination of red wine, brandy, chopped fruit and some kind of sweetener. Not generally as common as tequila or margaritas, but still well and truly worth a try if you happen to see it on a menu somewhere.
Corona and Tecate are the two beers which initially come to mind when tasked to think about Mexican beer, but as you travel from region to region you will actually find that Mexico has a pretty strong beer culture. Similar to in the west, most decent sized towns and regions will have their own beer. Just ask the bar tender if they have anything local and you may be pleasantly surprised.
Mexican people are some of the kindest, friendliest people you could ever hope to meet. They are inviting and hospitable and they’ll instantly make you feel like you’re a part of their extended family. We met one man from a small village who invited us into his grandfather’s birthday party. We spent the next two days in a small village spending time with the locals, before spending time with their other family members in Puebla and Mexico City. Each time we met a new family member we were greeted as if we had known them for 10 years!
Unfortunately, Mexico has been met with problems with the cartel which has led some travellers to be more stand offish with the locals than they need to be. The best advice I can give is to interact with the locals as much as possible, practise your Spanish and be open to letting them show you their side of Mexico.
Language in Mexico
While Spanish is the official language of Mexico, there are officially 68 spoken languages – 63 of which are indigenous. The other main language is Nahuatl which is spoken by over 1.3 million people. This statistic blew me away because it is not a language which you hear about very often and people envisage Mexico to be a strictly Spanish speaking country. Other major languages are Yucatec Maya and Mixtec, which together are spoken by another 1.3 million people.
While there are quite a few English speakers in Mexico (especially amongst the younger population), knowing the basics from the official languages will make your stay far more enjoyable.
Religion in Mexico
Mexico has the second largest number of Christians in the world and it is predominantly Catholic. Much of Mexican culture revolves around the church and religion so it is not surprising that you will find amazing churches and cathedrals everywhere you go. You won’t be able to miss the intricate architecture and incredible works of religious art at the turn of every corner.
More traditionally, the Nahua religion which was formally practiced in Mexico was an extremely complex religion and followers had a profound understanding of astronomy and mathematics.
Mexican Holidays and Traditions
Mexican people love to celebrate: whether it’s a birthday, religious event or public holiday, it’s not hard to get the fiesta started for almost any occasion! Here are a few of the bigger holidays and traditions that are highly celebrated throughout the country.
Day of the Dead
With a name like “Day of the Dead” it’s hard for this festival not to stick in your head. But, as with most things, you need to see it to truly understand it. The tradition is rooted in both native and catholic origins and celebrates the souls of ancestors passed. Festive ceremonies and dances are held all over the country, speciality foods are put back on the menu and houses are filled with shrines to honour departed relatives. If you want to experience this festival in its greatest form, then Oaxaca has one of the more elaborate celebrations in the country.
The celebration of independence has become a major public holiday in Mexico. For Mexican people, this day falls on September 16. To find the celebration, head out into the street and the party will find you! Mexican flags cover the streets and music will be blasting out from all avenues.
This is one Mexican tradition I think everyone can get behind! It’s not every day that you’re rewarded for destroying something with a ton of candy. Most fiestas in Mexico will involve a pinata and it’s now considered a corner stone of Mexican culture.
Is It Safe to Travel to Mexico?
While it is true that Mexico has had problems with the cartels in the past, these issues have almost never spilt over into tourism. As with most places in the world, it’s possible that you might encounter pick pocketing or petty theft, but this is often down to simple luck (or lack of luck). It’s important to keep your money safe and have your wits about you. Trust your instincts and you should be fine. I’ve been lucky enough to never encounter any kind of problem with safety while travelling in Mexico. You’ll find that it often comes down to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Check out the full guide here.
Is It Safe to Travel in Cancun?
If you’re drunk and flashing your phone about at 3am then you’re asking for trouble, but on the whole, Cancun is a safe place to travel. As with anywhere, an entirely hassle-free trip is never guaranteed but if you keep your head about you, you should be fine. As a major tourist destination, Cancun is a little more prone to scams than other parts of Mexico but if you do find yourself feeling uncomfortable, remove yourself from the situation.
At the risk of sounding like your Mum, it’s really important to remember that you should never take drugs in an unknown environment. There’s nothing which leaves you more vulnerable than being high and it’s easy to lose control if you take something which you’re not comfortable with. There are tons of scams associated with drug deals, and it’s not uncommon to hear of people handing over large sums of money at the hands of a dodgy dealer. Be street smart and avoid being that person!
Mexico Travel Advice
Mexico Travel Vaccines
It isn’t mandatory to have specific vaccinations before travelling to Mexico, but it’s good practice to be up to date with your tetanus and hepatitis shots before you head off. You should visit your doctor at least a month before your trip to double check the latest advice and organise your vaccinations.
Not Getting Sick
Unfortunately, there isn’t a fool-proof formula to avoid getting sick (if there is, please let me know!) but having some basic rules in place should minimise your risk of picking up a bug on your travels. Don’t drink the tap water (even if the locals do) and always carry hand sanitizer with you. Use basic hygiene rules and avoid ordering food from anywhere which doesn’t look clean. Stock up on dehydration sachets in case you do get sick and know that getting sick happens to the best of us! It will pass, and once it does you’ll be feeling on top of the world!
Travel Plugs for Mexico
The travel plug for Mexico is the same one used in the United States: two narrow, straight prongs. It is the same plug which is used throughout all of Latin America. If you don’t have these plugs back home, then any standard universal travel adaptor will have you covered.
Travel Insurance for Mexico
If you’re on a tight budget then travel insurance can sometimes seem like the last of your priorities, but do not get on that plane without it! If you can’t afford insurance, then I’m sorry but you can’t afford to travel. Before you go, check whether travel is covered within any of your other insurance plans – sometimes home insurance or car insurance will include travel as part of the scheme.
Basic insurance should cover your medical costs, theft and damage up to a certain amount. If you’ve got some nifty gadgets, then you might want to consider taking out specialised cover. Never think that you’re invincible – accidents can happen to anyone and you’re never going to look back and regret the $100 or so which you spent taking out insurance. Get yourself covered!