While most people visit Mexico for its resorts and big tourist centers like Tulum, Cancun, Cabo, or Cozumel, the rest of the country has way more to offer.
I admit. I was late to visiting Mexico.
But when I did, I fell in love with it. Mexico — and its people — is an incredible place with a rich history and wonderful food.
Mexico is an incredible country to backpack around, drive through, or just vacation in. There’s a ton of stuff to do here, and the locals are some of the friendliest people on the planet.
From Mayan ruins and lush jungles to pristine Pacific Coast surf beaches to Mexico City’s art and food scene to Mezcal to beautiful Oaxaca, Mexico is just amazing. Gorge yourself on delicious tacos, tostadas, tamales, sopas, seafood, and mole (to name a few items from Mexico’s very long list of traditional dishes).
I could go on forever as to why I love this country but, I will simply say, that whatever amount of time you’re planning to visit for is not enough! You’ll leave wanting more.
This Mexico travel guide will help you get out of the touristy towns, explore the country, and fall in love with what you discover.
Table of Contents
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Top 5 Things to See and Do in Mexico
2. Visit Mexico City
3. Relax on the Pacific Coast
4. See the Mayan Ruins
5. Visit a volcano
Other Things to See and Do in Mexico
1. Wander through Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park
Chapultepec is one of the largest city parks in the world, spanning almost 700 hectares. It encompasses the Mexico City Zoo, La Feria amusement park, and the Museum of Anthropology. The museum houses a vast collection of sculptures, jewels, and artifacts from ancient Mexican civilizations. It costs 70 MXN to visit. You can also rent a rowboat or paddleboat and go out on Chapultepec Lake for 60 MXN.
2. Visit the markets
Just about every town in Mexico has a busy, diverse market for you to experience traditional food, pick up some bargain items, and purchase souvenirs. Two of the best are the Mercado Ciudadela in Mexico City (for handmade textiles and artwork), and Oaxaca’s Mercado Benito Juárez (for local foods like fresh ground coffee beans, juices, and grasshopper tacos). If you’re in Merida, check out Mecardo Santa Ana for their Yucatecan cuisine, like cochito horneado, a marinated pork dish that is slow-cooked in underground pits, or head to El Mercado Lucas de Galvez for their specialty seafood cocktails (the locals swear by it to cure your hangover).
3. Explore Zócalo (Plaza de la Constitución)
Zócalo the main plaza in the heart of Mexico City. It dates back to the Aztecs, encompassing both the Templo Mayor (an ancient Aztec temple) and the Palacio Nacional (a colonial palace with offices of Mexico’s president). Situated just off the Zócalo is La Catedral Metropolitana, a magnificent cathedral with a gold altar. It’s a perfect example of Spanish colonial architecture.
4. Go diving
The seas surrounding Mexico have some of the world’s best diving spots thanks to their diverse marine life, large coral reefs (including the second largest reef system in the world, the Great Maya Barrier Reef), and excellent visibility. The Gulf of Mexico is home to five different species of sea turtles, blue whales, lemon sharks, and dolphins, and so much more! Aside from diving, the waters are popular with snorkelers, sports fishermen, waterboarding, surfing, and more or less any other watersports enthusiast. A two-tank dive starts at 2,700 MXN. Some of the best places to dive in Mexico are Discovery Bay, Cenote Dos Ojos, Revillagigedo Islands, and Isla Mujeres.
5. Relax in Cancun
Depending on what you’re looking to do, Cancun can offer you a crazy-fun party in the sun or some quiet and hidden local markets and restaurants. On the one hand, you have spas, resorts, and picturesque beaches. On the other, you have Mayan ruins, archaeological sites, and little nearby villages.
6. Get lost in Guadalajara
Guadalajara is the second-largest city in Mexico and known for its tequila and mariachi. It’s chock full of museums, such as Cabañas (a UNESCO building with incredible murals), MUSA (paintings & sculptures by local artists), and the Páramo Galeria (contemporary art); nightlife venues, and a labyrinth of old colonial streets. Visit the Hospicio Cabañas, a hospital built in the 19th century, and then spend some time at the Guadalajara Cathedral. The cathedral’s Gothic interior features artworks from famous Mexican artists like Murillo.
7. Hang out in Oaxaca
The state of Oaxaca is known for its strong arts scene, food, and, of course, mezcal. Oaxaca city itself is a beautiful old colonial town with a thriving expat community and countless restaurants, bars, and cafes to explore. I loved my time there! Down the coast, be sure to visit Puerto Escondido and Mazunte, two coastal towns famous for their surfing, seafood, and easy living.
8. See Teotihuacan
The Aztec empire left an enormous mark on Mexico. Don’t miss the awe-inspiring Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacan, located 30 miles (48km) outside of Mexico City. Teotihuacan was founded as early as 400 BCE, but its biggest structures weren’t completed until around 300 BCE. Its three giant pyramids are known as the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of Moon, and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, and they dominate the landscape. If you’re going to visit just one Aztec site, this is it. It’s unsheltered here, so bring sunscreen and a hat. Admission is 75 MXN. Full-day guided tours from Mexico City cost 940 MXN.
9. Visit the bizarre Island of Dolls
Known as “La Isla de la Munecas” in Spanish, this is perhaps one of the creepiest tourist attractions in the world. Decades ago, a hermit named Don Julian Santana moved here, learned a girl drowned in the nearby lake, and started collecting and hanging dolls all over the island to please the drowned girl’s spirit. It’s creepy. Like beyond creepy. You’ll have to hire a boat from Xochimilco (200 MXN) to get there.
10. Honor the Day of the Dead
Yearly on November 1st and 2nd, Mexico celebrates a major festival: Dia de Los Muertos. The festival is a vibrant and lively affair with celebrations for those who are gone but not forgotten, including parades of elaborate and colorful costumes. Families also commemorate their dead relatives by setting up ofrendas, or altars, with pictures of the deceased, candles, yellow marigold petals, and food. This meant to encourage the deceased to cross back over into the land of the living and join in the celebrations. Oaxaca or Mexico City are the two best places to experience this celebration.
11. Visit the UNAM Botanical Garden
If you need to escape the hustle and bustle of Mexico City for a little while, the Botanical Garden at the National Autonomous University of Mexico is the perfect place. Keeping with the Aztec traditions of having gardens for both medicinal and ornamental purposes, there is also an added focus on conservation and environmental education here. Built on top of and around lava formations from the eruption of the volcano Xitle, visitors can explore the naturally formed grottoes, ponds, and waterfalls. This garden has the most diverse cactus collection in the world (800 different kinds!), and ponds full of koi and turtles, an orchidarium, and a medicinal garden. Admission is free.
12. Relax on Isla Holbox
Holbox is an island located off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and is home to white sand beaches and crystalline waters. It is a relaxing, slow paced island that’s easy to get stuck on. One day can easily turn into a week. It’s an island paradise where you can relax in a hammock on the beach, hike in the jungles, swim, dive, snorkel, and everything in between! While it used to be a hidden gem, it’s slowly becoming more and more popular (and developed). Be sure to see bioluminescent waters here. From Cancun, you can get to the ferry port in around two hours by bus. The ferry takes 25 minutes and costs 220 MZN. If you just want to visit for the day, full-day tours from Cancun/Play del Carmen cost 3,000 MXN.
13. Visit Merida
Merida is one of my favorite places in all of Mexico. It is a safe and wonderful city filled with history, cool mezcal bars, and some of the best food in the country. Some of my favorite places to eat and drink in town are La Chaya Maya Casona, Acervo Mezcalero, La Negrita Cantina, and Café Créme. Also, don’t miss the nearby Uxmal ruins, which are just one-hour away. There are also some cool museums here, like the Folk Art Museum of Yucatan, the Yucatan Music Museum, and the City Museum (which has all kinds of Mayan artifacts).
14. Enjoy San Cristobal de las Casas’ architecture
San Cristobal is a highland town known for its charming colonial architecture. There are narrow cobblestone streets, local craft markets, and the entire area is enveloped in pine forests. Don’t miss the town’s 16th-century cathedral, and if you want to get out and explore the nearby nature, take a boat tour of the Canyon de Sumidero. You’ll see tons of birds, monkeys, and crocodiles. For a view of the town and surrounding area, visit the Guadalupe Church and pay 5 MXN to enjoy the view from the roof.
15. Sample the Cenotes of Yucatan
Cenotes are natural sinkholes that are full of groundwater. They were used by the Mayans as sources for freshwater, however, today they are popular swimming holes for locals and tourists alike (you can even scuba dive in some). There are tons of them all around the Yucatan Peninsula. Some are completely exposed, some are walled in by cliffs, and some are covered entirely by caves. Calavera, Cristalino, Casa Cenote, Yaxmuul, Choo-Ha, and Escondido Cenote are some of the most popular cenotes in the region. If you’d rather do a tour, you can join a cenote tour for around 1,300 MXN.
16. Visit Sayulita
Located on the Pacific coast, Sayulita is a hip beach town with a lively community of expats and surfers. The town has a laid-back vibe owing to the sizeable surfing and yoga community. It’s a great place to surf and there are plenty of yoga retreats available here. You can also take a jungle trek, go zip lining, ride ATVs along the coast, and simply soak up the sun on the beach. It’s the perfect place to chill for a few days. Canopy tours start at 1,750 MXN.
17. Explore Campeche
Campeche is located just south of Merida on the Yucatan. It’s home to UNESCO World Heritage colonial architecture, including fortified walls and over 2,000 historic buildings. Visit the Museo De La Arquitectura Maya for Mayan history and antiquities, see the Mayan ruins at Edzná (which is just 45 minutes away and see very few tourists), and wander the old city wall to take in the view.
For information on specific cities in Mexico, check out these guides:
Mexico Travel Costs
Accommodation – In Mexico, hostels start at 160 MXN per night for a dorm bed, but the average is closer to 200 MXN. Free Wi-Fi and free breakfast are both common, as are self-catering facilities. Private hostel rooms average about 500 MXN a night.
For budget hotels, expect to pay 700 MXN for a basic room in a two-star hotel. These two-star rooms typically include an ensuite bathroom and free Wi-Fi, but not always air conditioning.
Airbnb is also an option in Mexico, with private rooms starting around 305 MXN. Entire homes and apartments start at 815 MXN.
Food – You’ll find a lot of rice, beans, fruits, and veggies like tomatoes, corn, avocado, and peppers in Mexican cuisine. Typical Mexican dishes include tacos, mole (a sauce with lots of ingredients, often including chocolate), salsa, enchiladas, tamales (stuffed corn pockets), pozole (hominy stew topped with onion, avocado, and chili) guacamole.
Street stalls and markets are the best way to go for authentic and inexpensive food. Tacos, quesadilla, sopas, tortas, and other street foods are generally 15-45 MXN. Sometimes, you’ll find tacos for as cheap as 10 MXN. In Mexico, the street food is the best — and most affordable — option.
A meal at a local Mexican restaurant serving traditional cuisine costs around 75-135 MXN. Look for the ones filled with locals as that is generally a sign that the food is really good.
A beer is about 20 MXN in the street but double that at a restaurant, while a cocktail shouldn’t cost more than 77 MXN in most places. A combo meal at McDonald’s costs around 110-120 MXN.
Tap water is not safe to drink in Mexico. Bring a portable water purifier or use bottled water (LifeStraw makes a good one.
If you plan to cook your meals, expect to pay between 500-585 MXN per week for groceries that will include rice, vegetables, chicken, and beans.
Activities – Activities in Mexico are generally quite affordable. Admission to historical sites, like Tulum or Chichen Itza, ranges from 80-250 MXN per person. For museums and other city attractions, prices are usually between 60-100 MXN. Diving costs around 2,400 for a multi-tank dive while a hired boat to the Island of Dolls costs around 200 MXN.
Backpacking Mexico Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking Mexico, you will spend at least 950 MXN per day. This budget will get you a hostel dorm, street food and self-cooked meals, local transportation, and a few attractions (such as museums and galleries) each day. If you plan on eating out more or drinking, you’ll need to add another 100-300 MXN per day.
On a more mid-range budget of about 1,600 MXN per day, you can stay in a budget hotel or Airbnb, eat at restaurants serving cheap traditional cuisine for every meal, visit more attractions, have a few drinks, and take the occasional taxi.
A luxury budget will cost you at least 4,925 MXN per day and up. You will stay at a four-star hotel, eat out for all your meals, have plenty of drinks, take taxis everywhere, and do some guided trips.
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages – some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might pay less every day). We want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in MXN.
Mexico Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
Mexico is incredibly budget-friendly. Unless you’re out spending lots of money in touristy areas, it’s really easy to visit Mexico on a budget. It was hard to spend money here unless I was doing something geared towards tourists. Even so, here are some ways to save money in Mexico:
- Shop at the markets for food – Mexico’s markets are a great place to eat inexpensively and also to stock up on food for day trips. Most towns will have a local market selling fresh fruits, veggies, and other goods with many items under 19 MXN.
- Eat street food – Street food is the best food in the country — and the cheapest too. Stick to street stalls to save money and enjoy the country’s best eats.
- Take a free walking tour – Many cities have free walking tours that will give you a solid introduction to the main sights. Both Mexico City and Oaxaca have excellent free tours — just be sure to tip your guide!
- Travel off-season – By traveling between late April and early December, you can pick up bargain accommodation, food and travel rates as this is low season.
- Venture inland – Mexico’s coasts are the most famous, most touristy parts of the country, but the interior has an amazing amount to offer. Prices are cheaper, and you’ll be more likely to meet some locals if you head away from the coast.
- Couchsurf – Use Couchsurfing to stay with locals and meet the great people living in Mexico. When you get to see a home in a country you’re visiting, it’s a very unique experience and gives you a whole different perspective.
- Embrace “comida corrida” – This hearty mid-day meal option is usually available between 2pm-4pm and is often quite affordable. It will be a set menu, but you’ll find it much cheaper than most lunch or dinner options. If you plan on eating out on a budget, aim for places that offer comida corrida.
- Drink less – Alcohol is cheap in Mexico, but it’s definitely more expensive at bars and clubs. Try to buy your alcohol from a local store instead of drinking at the bar if you’re on a budget.
- Take public transit – The Metro is the most affordable way to get around. You can purchase a rechargeable Smartcard at any of the Metro stations for 16 MXN (this includes the first 5 MXN ticket), and you can use the card for the metro and metro buses.
- Skip the taxis – Taxis are overpriced and not always safe. Skip them. If you do need a taxi, don’t just hail one on the street. Head into a nearby hotel/hostel and ask them to call one for you. Only get in taxis that use a meter.
- Being a water filter – Since the tap water here isn’t safe to drink and single-use plastic is bad for the environment, bring a water filter. LifeStraw makes reusable bottles with a built-in filter so you can ensure your water is always clean and safe.
Where To Stay in Mexico
Still need a place to stay on your trip? Here are some of my favorite places to stay in Mexico:
How to Get Around Mexico
Public Transportation – Public buses (also known as camiones) are the most common way to get around in cities and towns (and nearby villages). These buses are also the cheapest, costing no more than a few pesos per journey. In some cities, smaller microbuses have replaced the older buses, but the cost is still the same.
Mexico City and Guadalajara also have subway systems. One-way tickets for the subway and the bus system are around 5 MXN ($0.25 USD). In Mexico City, you’ll have to buy a rechargeable smart card at any of the Metro stations for 16 MXN (this includes the first 5 MXN ticket), and you can use the card for the metro and metro buses.
Bus – Most of Mexico is served by buses. On longer journeys, make sure to take an express bus (called a “directo”) if you can as they are much faster and stop less. A bus from Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara (5.5 hours) costs around 480 MXN. A bus from Cancun to Mexico City (15 hours) costs around 1,450 MXN. A bus from Puebla to Mexico City (2 hours) costs around 190 MXN.
Some of the biggest and most reliable bus companies include:
- Primera Plus
- Estrella de Oro
- Omnibuses de Mexico
- ETN (Enlaces Terrestres Nacionales)
Most cities will have a central bus terminal from where all long-distance buses depart. You can show up to buy your ticket, or research routes and ticket prices via each company’s website.
Fly – For long journeys, consider flying. The route from Cancun to Mexico City by bus takes 15 hours and costs around 1,450 MXN but a flight starts around 550 MXN and only takes 90 minutes. A one-way fare from Mexico City to Guadalajara is about 905 MXN. Even a 4-hour flight coast to coast from Cancun to Puerto Vallarta is just 1,200 MXN one-way.
Aeromexico is the biggest airline in Mexico, but low-cost carriers are becoming more popular. These include:
- Mayan Air
Train – There is no rail network in Mexico.
Car rentals – Car rentals are surprisingly affordable in Mexico. You can find week-long rentals for around 1,500 MXN. Renters must be 21 years of age and have had their license for at least two years. Some companies require renters to be over 25. Avoid driving at night, when crimes against drivers are more likely to occur. Also, don’t leave any valuables in your vehicle overnight.
Hitchhiking – Hitchhiking is not advised in Mexico. It’s not very common and it’s very unsafe. Avoid it.
When to Go to Mexico
Summer (June to October) is rainy season in Mexico, but mostly in the center of the country. You can expect it to rain each day heavily, but the downpour is usually short. It hardly ever rains in the northern part of the country, and humidity is thick in the south and along the coastal areas. Temperatures during this time are somewhere between 79-90°F (26-32°C). September to the middle of October is hurricane season and is not a good time to visit.
December to the end of April (winter) is the busiest tourist season as temperatures are hot, but the coastal areas provide plenty of relief for vacationers. This is the best time to visit if you’re looking to take advantage of Mexico’s tropical environment. It’s the dry season, so you’ll experience very little rain. You can expect big crowds as people flock to the resort areas around Cancun and Puerto Vallarta. The average daily temperature during this time is 82°F (28°C). But if you’re in the mountains, pack lots of layers! It can get frigid, especially in the evenings.
How to Stay Safe in Mexico
The media (especially the American media) likes to paint Mexico as a dangerous place to visit but the reality is far more complex. While petty theft is very common here in Mexico, most of the serious conflict is between the authorities and Mexican drug cartels. The people who do tend to be involved in some sort of major incident are usually doing drugs or taking part in sex tourism.
Moreover, where you are greatly influences your dangers. Yucatan and Oaxaca are incredibly safe states to visit while states near the US border are less so and more likely to experience violence and crime. Officials looking for bribes are pretty common in Quintana Roo as is drug related violence due to tourists looking for drugs there. States near the southern border can also be sketchy and it’s wiser to keep an eye out on your stuff there thought violent crime is pretty uncommon.
So don’t believe the media that “Mexico is unsafe.” Mexico is like any big country – some parts are safe, some parts aren’t. Use some common sense when you travel: don’t flash your money, avoid wearing expensive watches or jewelry, don’t walk along drunk at night, make copies of your passport and official documents, and tell people where you are regularly.
If you are traveling during COVID and need a Health Visa, this post has more information on that process.
If you wouldn’t do it at home, don’t do it here! Follow that rule and you’ll be fine.
Another important safety tip to keep in mind is the drinking water. While Mexico’s water purification and treatment systems have improved, it still is not safe to drink ordinary tap water when visiting. Luckily, bottled water is available everywhere. Bringing water filter like LifeStraw is advised.
Keep an eye out for common scams against tourists, such as fake ATMs, taxis that don’t use a meter, and questionable tour operators.
The emergency services number in Mexico is 911. However, if that doesn’t work (since it isn’t in use in every region of Mexico), try 066.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past.
Mexico Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel. They consistently have the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the companies I use the most and are always the starting point in my search for travel deals.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do group tours, go with Intrepid. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get exclusive discounts with them too!
- Get Your Guide – Get Your Guide is a huge online marketplace for tours and excursions. They have tons of tour options available in cities all around the world, including everything from cooking classes, walking tours, street art lessons, and more!
- SafetyWing – Safety Wing offers convenient and affordable plans tailored to digital nomads and long-term travelers. They have cheap monthly plans, great customer service, and an easy-to-use claims process that makes it perfect for those on the road.
Mexico Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of TNN+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Mexico Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling Mexico and continue planning your trip: