While many people will visit Mexico for its incredible resorts and its big tourist centers like Tulum, Cancun, Punta Cana, or Cozumel, too often travelers ignore the rest of the country.
Each region in Mexico is incredibly diverse: Central Mexico is home to culture capitals like the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan and the bustling metropolis of Mexico City; the south has the perfect beaches of Quintana Roo, and the north has the forested mountains of the Sierra Norte just beyond Oaxaca (and so much more).
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 and the seediness of Tijuana — and everything in between! Discover Mexico City’s vibrant energy and artsy, graffiti-filled neighborhoods, learn about the Mayan civilization at Chichen Itza, and gorge yourself on delicious tacos, tostadas, and tamales (to name a few items from Mexico’s very long list of traditional dishes).
This Mexico travel guide will help you get out of the touristy towns, explore the country with your own eyes, and fall in love with what you discover!
Table of Contents
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Top 5 Things to See and Do in Mexico
1. Trek Around Tulum
2. Visit Mexico City
3. Relax on the Pacific Coast
4. See Chichén Itzá
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, encompassing 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, and is open daily (except Mondays) from 9am-7pm. It costs 70 MXN ($3.55 USD) to visit.
2. Visit the markets
Just about every town in Mexico has a busy, diverse market for you to experience traditional food, pick up a bargain, or purchase plenty of souvenirs. Two of the best: the Mercado Ciudadela in Mexico City for handmade textiles and artwork, or Oaxaca’s Mercado Benito Juárez for local foods like fresh ground coffee beans, juices, and famous grasshopper tacos.
3. Explore Zócalo (Plaza de la Constitución)
The Zócalo plaza is in the heart of Mexico City and dates back to Aztec times, 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. Aside from diving, the waters are popular with snorkelers, sports fishermen, and more or less any other watersport enthusiast. A day of diving starts from 2,400 MXN ($125 USD).
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 chocked full of museums, nightlife options, and a labyrinth of old colonial streets to wander. Visit the Hospicio Cabañas, a hospital built in the 19th century, and then spend some time at the Guadalajara Cathedral. The cathedral’s fine Gothic interior features artworks from famous Mexican artists like Murillo.
7. Hang out in Oaxaca
The state of Oaxaca is the epicenter of Indigenous culture, known for its strong arts scene and vibrant crafts community. There are festivals galore and lots of natural beauty – including the beaches on the Pacific Coast and the mountains of the Sierra Norte. Oaxaca city itself is a beautiful old colonial town with a thriving expat community and countless restaurants, bars, and cafes to explore.
8. See Teotihuacan
The Aztec empire left an enormous mark on Mexico. Check out the awe-inspiring Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacan, located 30 miles (48 kilometers) outside of Mexico City. Teotihuacan was founded as early as 400 BC, but it’s biggest structures weren’t completed until around 300 BC. Its two giant pyramids are known as the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of Moon, 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 70 MXN ($3.55 USD).
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. It’s creepy. Like beyond creepy. You’ll have to hire a boat from Xochimilco (about 500 MXN ($25 USD) to get there.
10. Honor the Day of the Dead
Yearly on November 1st and 2nd, Mexico celebrates this major festival: Dia de los Muertos. Contrary to its name 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. If you want a real taste of Mexican culture then the sights and sounds of this festival are an interesting experience. Mexico City is one of the best places to experience it, but really it’s countrywide.
Mexico Travel Costs
Accommodation – In Mexico, the lowest price hostels are about 125 MXN ($6.50 USD) per night for a dorm bed, but the average is more like 193 MXN ($10 USD). Private hostel rooms average about 478 MXN ($30 USD) a night.
In bigger or more touristy locations, expect to pay between 173-289 MXN ($9-15 USD) per night for a dorm, with 289 MXN ($15 USD) being the average. Private rooms in hostels start around 400 MXN ($20 USD) per night but average 578 MXN ($30 USD).
No matter where you are, most hostels offer free wifi and breakfast.
As for budget hotels, expect to pay about 385 MXN ($20 USD) for a basic room in a two-star hotel that sleeps two, but you can sometimes find one for 289 MXN ($15 USD) per night. These two-star rooms will typically include an ensuite bathroom and free wifi, but not always air conditioning.
Airbnb is also an option in Mexico, with most shared rooms starting at 193 MXN ($10 USD). In Mexico, shared rooms usually refer to dorms in hostels that are listed on Airbnb. Private rooms start from 231 MXN ($12 USD) but most are around 382 MXN ($20 USD). Entire homes and apartments start at 640 MXN ($33 USD) and go up from there.
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), guacamole.
By purchasing food on street stalls or in markets, you can expect to spend around 240 MXN ($12.50 USD) per day or less. You can get items like roasted corn, tamales, tacos, and tostadas all for less than 10 MXN ($0.50 USD) a piece.
If you want to eat at restaurants, a less restrictive budget is about 400 MXN ($21 USD) per day. A meal at a Mexican restaurant will cost you around 96-135 MXN ($5-7 USD), while properties near the beach will tend to charge more (like 154 MXN/$8 USD for a seafood platter). A beer is about 16 MXN ($0.85 USD) in the street but double that at a restaurant, while a cocktail shouldn’t cost more than 77 MXN ($4 USD) in most places. A combo meal at McDonald’s costs around 75-85 MXN ($4-4.40 USD).
If you plan to cook your meals, expect to pay between 500-585 MXN ($26-30 USD) per week for groceries that will include rice, vegetables, chicken, and beans.
Backpacking Mexico Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking Mexico, you will spend at least 860 MXN ($48 USD) per day. This budget will get you a hostel dorm, street food and self-cooked meals, local transportation, and a few attractions each day.
On a more mid-range budget of about 1,567 MXN ($85 USD) per day, you will stay in a budget hotel, eat at local restaurants, visit more attractions, take public transportation per day but also a few taxis or Ubers.
A luxury budget will cost you at least 5,960 MXN ($310 USD) 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 USD.
Mexico Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
Mexico is incredibly budget-friendly, even in the tourist hubs like Cancun and Playa del Carmen (if you’re not doing a resort vacation on the beach). Even so, here are some ways to save money in Mexico:
- Eat market 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 ($1 USD).
- 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.
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 for 10 MXN ($0.50 USD) at any station and then add credit to it.
Taxi fares start from 16 MXN ($0.85 USD) in most cities and then are 20-25 MXN ($1.05-1.30 USD) per kilometer. Uber operates in 30 cities in Mexico.
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 ($25 USD). A bus from Cancun to Mexico city (15 hours) costs around 1,450 MXN ($75 USD).
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 very long journeys, consider flying. The route from Cancun to Mexico City by bus takes 15 hours and costs around 1,450 MXN ($75 USD) but a flight starts around 720 MXN ($37 USD) and only takes 2.5 hours. A one-way fare from Mexico City to Guadalajara is about 905 MXN ($47 USD). Even a flight coast to coast from Cancun to Puerto Vallarta is just 1,695 MXN ($88 USD) one way.
Aeromexico is the biggest airline in Mexico, but low-cost carriers are becoming more popular. These include:
Train – There is no rail network in Mexico.
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 that most of Mexico is completely safe. While petty theft (including bag snatching) is really common here Mexico, most of the conflict is between the authorities and Mexican drug cartels, which will have little impact on your trip.
The people who do tend to be involved in some sort of incident are usually drinking or doing drugs or taking part in sex tourism.
Stay away from that stuff, and you’ll be fine.
Locals are friendly and helpful.
That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t take precautions. Some areas like Colima and Guerrero should be avoided due to high gang activity. Be sure to see if there are any travel advisories for Mexico on the U.S. Department of State website before you book your trip.
Always trust your gut instinct. Avoid isolated areas at night, and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID.
If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it here! Follow that rule and you’ll be fine.
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 to Mexico. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the ones I use the most and are always the starting points in my search for travel deals.
- Momondo – This is my favorite booking site. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engine which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments. (If you’re new to Airbnb, get $35 off your first stay!)
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and 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 a group tour around Mexico, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get exclusive discounts when you click the link!
- Rome 2 Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- EatWith – This website allows you to eat home cooked meal with locals. Locals post listings for dinner parties and specialty meals that you can sign up for. There is a fee (everyone sets their own price) but this is a great way to do something different, pick a local’s brain, and make a new friend.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Mexico Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading to Mexico, here are my suggestions for the best travel backpack and tips on what to pack.
The Best Backpack for Mexico
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, large 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 other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Mexico
- 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
- 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: Suggested Reading
Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest, by Mary Jo McConahay
Mary Jo McConahay has been living and traveling in the remote areas of Central America for three decades, so she knows a thing or two about the region. Maya Roads is her fascinating account of the people, politics, and archaeology of the rainforest, otherwise known as “the cradle of Maya civilization.” It’s a beautiful chronicle of not only the sheer beauty of Central America and the resilience of its people, but also the region’s harsher side – like drug trafficking and intense violence.
Walking the Americas, by Levison Wood
This is the true story of Levison Wood’s 1,800-mile trek across the Americas, through eight countries from Mexico to Colombia. He works his way down through Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama – meeting refugees in Nicaraguan camps, friendly locals, and dangerous wildlife along the way. Some of his tales are harrowing, but mostly you’ll want to be right there with Wood, enjoying secret waterfalls and making awkward negotiations with policemen.
The Conquest of New Spain, by Bernal Diaz Del Castillo
This is an actual first-person account of one of history’s most devastating military events, when Hernan Cortes and his crew violently overthrew the Aztec Empire. Bernal Diaz Del Castillo was a soldier of Cortes, and his storytelling is powerful and vivid. He describes what it was like for the Spanish arriving in Mexico in 1520, and their shock when encountering the city. He goes on to talk about the cruel treatment of the natives and the Spaniards’ exploitation of them for gold and treasure, and then the eventual conquest of the city. It’s a gripping read.
On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel, by Tony Cohan
Tony Cohan is an American writer from Los Angeles who moved to the quaint 16th-century town of San Miguel de Allende with his wife, Masako. Having fallen in love with Central Mexico on a previous visit, Cohan and his wife decided to sell off their house in California and head south to begin a new life amongst cobblestone streets and raucous daily fiestas. This is his memoir as the couple buy a fallen down 250-year-old house and begin to familiarize themselves with the ups and downs of living in Mexico.
Alone in Mexico: The Astonishing Travels of Karl Heller, 1845-1848, by Karl Bartolomeus Heller
Karl Bartolomeus Heller was a 21-year-old aspiring botanist from Austria who traveled to Mexico in 1845 to conduct research and collet specimens. This is the first English translation of his incredible memoir as he moves from living in the mountains of Veracruz to traveling onward to Mexico City, Puebla, and Cholula. Other adventures include journey by canoe through southern Tabasco and Chiapas, eventually returning home with thousands of samples. This is one of the very few accounts of travelers visiting Mexico during this time period, making it a very rare gem indeed.
My Must Have Guides for Traveling to Mexico
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Kristin Addis writes our solo female travel column and her detailed guide gives specific advice and tips for women travelers.
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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: