I am traveling to Mexico. Where should I go?
- Posted by: Nicolas
I am traveling to Mexico. Where should I go?
Most first time travelers and even returning ones face a tough question when planning their trip to Mexico: where should I go? For our very first blog post, we’d like to help you figure out the right trip for you by sharing a few, and we hope, valuable tips.
Before we even begin, it is important to note that however carefully you plan your trip, the sheer size of the country - about four times the size of France - makes it virtually impossible for any traveler to visit the entire country in one shot. With this in mind, your best bet is to break up the country into regions that can be visited in 1 or 2 weeks and to then focus on what really “floats your boat” when it comes to traveling. In other words, what do you really expect from your trip to Mexico? Is the primary purpose of your trip to rest, explore, discover or experience?
The good news is that many of Mexico’s regions offer visitors a wide variety of options that will satisfy the needs of even the most demanding travelers. There’s culture, landscapes, architecture, food and just about everything else that could possibly strike your fancy. As a result, when you visit Mexico you will easily be able to combine several points of interest in a single trip.
For the purpose of this post, we’ve chosen to highlight four of Mexico’s most frequently-visited regions: The Yucatan peninsula and Chiapas; Oaxaca and the Southern Pacific coast; Mexico’s heartland and its colonial cities; and Mexico’s northern mountains.
Many of you may have other ideas and preferences though and as this is a blog post, we invite all who those wish to add their own personal selection, favorite destinations and must see’s to the list.
The Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas
Although these are two extremely different regions both culturally and geographically, many travelers choose to combine them when they have at least two or preferably more weeks free. However they can also be taken as two separate trips. The Yucatan Peninsula, which is composed of three states, Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Campeche, has always been a major Mexican tourist hotspot because of its transparent blue waters, white sandy beaches and warm weather all year round. The fact that there are an abundance of cheap flight from the U.S., Canada and many European cities directly to Cancun International Airport make it Mexico’s most visited region. Most of the best beaches are located along the busy Riviera Maya stretch on the east coast of the peninsula in Yucatan and Quintana Roo. So if you don’t mind other tourists and are looking for some beach time head to the east coast of the Peninsula rather than west as the coastline there offers relatively little in the way of beaches although there are other things to see. The east coast’s Riviera Maya stretches from Cancun to Tulum and offers a variety of hot spots from somewhat tacky to the quite upscale (stay tuned for an upcoming post on the best beach spots on the Riviera Maya).
But while many travelers visiting the Yucatan peninsula stick to coastal areas, the region offers visitors far more than just a beach destination. Travelers interested in the pre-Colombian era will find dozens of Mayan ruins extending across Yucatan and further south to Chiapas, Belize and Guatemala. There are also some interesting colonial towns and cities such as Valladolid, Merida and colorful Campeche. For those of you who choose to venture inland there are plenty of cenotes (underwater caves) where you take a quick swim and cool down as it can get very, very hot!
In short, Yucatan is a good introduction to Mexico for those of you who want to take it easy. Although the landscape is flat and makes for long, and let’s be honest, quite boring drives, the Peninsula offers no shortage of things to do for those seeking a quiet yet entertaining vacation.
Further south, and with an entirely different feel, is the state of Chiapas, which borders the states of Tabasco to the north, Oaxaca and Veracruz to the west, Guatemala to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the south. While economically one of the country’s poorest regions, Chiapas offers its visitors a wealth of sites to discover and spectacular landscapes ranging from steep mountains and jungles to tropical Pacific beaches. Chiapas is without a doubt one of Mexico’s cultural gems. Home to one of the largest indigenous communities in Mexico, it is steeped in tradition and astonishingly beautiful. Chiapas also has its share of Mayan ruins: notably Palenque, an incredible site nestled in the tropical forest of the North of Chiapas, and lesser-known and visited ruins such as those of Tonina that overlook a valley near Ocosingo. Although Chiapas greets a fair number of foreign travelers, it is far less touristy than Yucatan, and provides travelers with a more genuine experience of Mexico. Some of the must see’s: the Sumidero Canyon which can be visited by boat from the town of Chiapa de Corzo; San Cristobal de las Casas, a busy and colorful little colonial city perched in the mountains, and Bonampak if you have the time.
For those of you who are driving, keep in mind that although distances may sometimes seem quite short, driving times are very long as the roads are windy and populated with “topes” or speed bumps (a Mexican specialty). This being said, the road from San Cristobal to Palenque is well worth the drive and will offer you plenty of occasions to stop along the way. The town of Ocosingo, located in the heart of Zapatista territory, is a quiet little town well worth a stop. The ruins of Tonina, which we mentioned earlier, are nearby. Further north are Agua Azul, the famous turquoise blue cascades, and Aguas Claras, the river running below, two must see’s on your way to the majestic ruins of Palenque. In summary, we have yet to meet someone who has not been enchanted by their trip Chiapas, but if you are not culture, nature or adventure-oriented this is perhaps not a destination for you.
The State of Oaxaca and the Southern Pacific Coast
Located in south-west Mexico, the state of Oaxaca is another major tourist destination. Like Chiapas, it attracts travelers interested in a genuine Mexican experience. Composed mostly of indigenous communities, it is a region of traditions that make it particularly attractive to those who like cultural tourism and for whom good food is a priority! Oaxaca’s cuisine is known as being one Mexico’s very best. Oaxaca de Juarez, Oaxaca’s state capital, has a multitude of restaurants ranging from family eateries to gastronomic restaurants where visitors can have a chance to enjoy a variety of local dishes. The city is well worth the visit and is a good stepping stone to visit the nearby ruins of Monte Alban.
The state of Oaxaca also has a coastline on the Pacific Ocean with lush tropical vegetation and numerous beaches. As a result, Oaxaca is a great destination for those who want to combine a cultural trip with some pleasant beach time. It’s only a three-hour drive from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido or Huatulco, two ocean front destination where you can chill out at the end of your journey.
Mexico’s Heartland and its Colonial Cities
It’s hard for us to be objective when writing about the colonial cities north of Mexico City. After all, it was after many trips there that The Traveling Beetle project was born. Located north and northwest of Mexico City, in the plateaus of central Mexico, are several cities and towns that are telling reminders of Spain’s 300-year-long rule over Mexico. Mexico’s vast resources in gold and silver fueled Spain’s often brutal occupation of the country. The legacy of Spanish occupation can still be felt today and perhaps nowhere more than in the colonial cities of Mexico’s heartland.
The main colonial cities of central Mexico include Santiago de Queretaro, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato and Morelia, all of which are listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. This distinction is well-founded for they are truly beautiful and unique, each in its own way. The best part of touring the colonial cities of central Mexico is that they are fairly close to one another and can easily be visited in a week.
For those of you landing in Mexico City you might want to start your journey in Santiago de Queretaro. The biggest of the four cities, Queretaro’s historic center is beautiful and lively with its many restaurants, cafes and stores. From Queretaro head to San Miguel de Allende a smaller city less than an hour’s drive away. San Miguel is known for its main square and church, busy little streets and active art scene. For the next stop, head to the colorful city of Guanajuato. Nestled between mountains at an altitude of 2,000 meters, Guanajuato with its big university is a young and lively town. It hosts several impressive churches, a theatre on the town’s main square, and many small parks and squares where you can sit and watch the locals go about their business. One of the best ways to enjoy Guanajuato is to simply stroll and lose your way in its narrow streets.
The last of the four is Morelia the majestic! Founded in the 16th century by the occupying Spanish forces, Morelia, quickly took over its neighbor Patzcuaro (known at the time as Valladolid) to become the regional power stronghold of the province. Today, the capital of the state of Michoacan, Morelia, although magnificent, has far fewer visitors than its sister colonial cities, in part because of sporadic outbursts of violence. Although we do not want to downplay the violence that occurs in some parts of Mexico, and in particular in some areas of the state of Michoacan, Morelia should not be considered a dangerous destination. Indeed, each year the city greets thousands of foreign and domestic tourists who travel to Morelia and the neighboring town of Patzcuaro (also well worth a visit) and have a great time. However, like any savvy traveler knows, it’s wise to check on local and current security conditions before heading off to some areas of Mexico, and this applies to almost any country in the world.
In conclusion, the colonial cities of central Mexico are well worth the visit for those interested in Mexico’s colonial heritage and the imprint Spanish occupiers left on the country. They also offer visitors valuable insight into modern Mexico’s provincial way of life. Those of you with a little more time to spare might want to head further north to the city of Zacatecas, a silver mining town lost in the mountains that is worth the detour.
Mexico’s Northern Mountains
Mexico’s northern mountain regions, in particular the state of Chihuahua, are located in a far more remote and what is considered by some as a far more inhospitable territory. While summer temperatures will have you simply roasting, in the winter temperatures will have you wondering why you even made the journey. Chihuahua is not a state for the faint at heart, but it will provide travelers with in search of adventure and wilderness the type of place they dream of.
Although the mountainous state offers lots to see we do not recommend Chihuahua as a first trip to Mexico. However if you have traveled the country already and want to discover yet another aspect of it, Mexico’s northern mountains will not disappoint you. If backpacking is not your thing, consider taking the train from Los Mochis in Sinaloa to make your way to Baranca del Cobre (Mexico’s equivalent of the Grand Canyon). The train ride lasts 2 days and offers fantastic mountain views and breathtaking scenery. In a way the Mexican version of the Orient Express…
In conclusion, Mexico is an incredible travel destination, but one that will require some planning to get your first trip right. If you don’t mind running into hordes of tourists and just want to chill out on the beach with a cultural outing or two, head to Yucatan. On the other hand, if you are interested in the less traveled and genuine Mexico prefer Chiapas or Oaxaca. If you are looking to find out more about the country’s Spanish heritage, opt for the Colonial Cities of central Mexico. You can extend your trip to Mexico City and the neighboring cities of Puebla, Cuernavaca or Taxco, or go to the Pacific Ocean (most of our road trips offer such extensions). And, if you are an aficionado of the great outdoors and enjoy your solitude, head north!
Regardless of the destination or region you choose, Mexico will enchant you with its spectacular landscapes and wildlife, rich culture and traditions, delicious food and perhaps most of all, its warm and friendly people.