Mexico has a diverse landscape that covers vast expanses of land from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico with palm lined beaches, tropical jungles, soaring volcanoes, bone dry deserts, and plenty of wildlife. The country offers breathtaking views, which were once home to the Mayans and Aztecs with their stone architecture.
Mexico is located in the southern part of North America and is bordered by the United States, Guatemala, and Belize. The country is rather large with a population that rests just under 130 million people. Mexico thrives off of tourism and the locals are eager to show visitors what makes their country unique.
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What To Do in Mexico
Bienvenidos – Welcome to Mexico!
Mexico City is Mexico’s capital and it is densely packed with a population of 8,918,653 people, which also makes it the most populated city in North America. The capital is located in the south central in the Valley of Mexico. The city is central to Mexico’s finances, politics, and culture. The Federal Government houses all of their offices in the capital. Today, Mexico City is a rich urban area that is popular amongst tourists who are interested in viewing museums or galleries, shopping, eating, and exploring Mexican culture.
Culture and Language
Mexico has a rich history that dates back thousands of years. The Mesoamerican civilizations survived almost 4,000 years before they were contacted by the Europeans. Today, 13% of the population is still considered to be indigenous. After contact with the Europeans, Mexico’s national identity became ingrained in religion, family, and celebration. Catholicism is the dominant religion in the country, and it has shaped the culture too.
Family is a huge part of Mexican culture with multiple generations often living under the same roof. Families tend to be large and they uphold traditional gender roles. Parents are well respected and often the needs of the family come first. But Mexico loves to celebrate too. Families celebrate the daughter’s quinceañera, which is a girl’s most significant birthday. Celebrations are also popular on a national level with many holidays and festivals.
Alongside religious holidays, the country is well known for celebrating Semana Santa (Saints Week), Cinco de Mayo (5th of May, when the Mexican Army defeated the French empire), and Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
While Mexico is known for being a Spanish speaking country, it does not have one official language. Spanish is the most widely spoken throughout the country, but the government also recognizes 68 indigenous languages too. Though the government works exclusively in Spanish, Nahuatal is the most commonly spoken indigenous language with just over 1 million speakers.
However, the influence of immigrants on Mexico also means that you may encounter other languages throughout your travels. English, German, Italian, French, and even Chinese are sometimes heard in parts of the country. English is especially popular because of the strong influence of the tourism industry.
For US citizens who want to visit Mexico, you do not need a tourist visa if you do not plan to stay for more than 180 days. But you will need a Mexican tourist card or the Forma Migratoria Multiple (FMT).
The FMT states that you are in the country for tourism and that you do not plan to stay more than 180 days or work in Mexico. Tourists can easily apply and pay for the FMT beforehand if they like. However, be aware that you can apply at the border and pay $25 US dollars for your card. If you are traveling by air to Mexico, be aware that most airlines will include the price of the FMT in your airfare. A card will be handed to you on the airplane, which will ask you to fill out your personal information, including a destination address. The card is them stamped as you enter customs.
Other requirements to be eligible for the FMT and entry into the country include having a valid US passport with one blank page. US citizens with a passport card may not be allowed entry. A passport book is preferred, and it needs to be in a suitable condition without major damage or staining. It is also recommended that you are up to date on all your vaccinations before you travel.
You may be eager to relax in paradise, but first, it is important that you consider your spending budget when you begin to plan your trip. Mexico can be traveled on a backpacker’s budget, but it will take a little pre-planning. Important parts of your budget will include airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and entertainment. Transportation is another essential part of your budget which we will cover in the next section.
Airfare to Mexico can be found rather inexpensively with many airlines offering special deals for as little as $214 US dollars. However, the average cost of a plane ticket is $318 US dollars, if you are flying from Los Angeles to Mexico City. Most flights are direct and will take about 4 hours to fly from LAX to MEX for a non-stop flight. However, the time you travel and how far in advance you book your tickets can affect the price. Tourist season runs from about mid-December to Easter, so plane tickets will be more expensive.
Accommodation is another significant portion of your budget and it can be made affordable or expensive. Hostels are popular throughout the country and the average cost will range from $4-$17 US dollars per night. If you want a private room, expect to spend about $30 US dollars per night. If a hostel isn’t your preference, most mid-range hotels will cost $100-$200 US dollars per night. Mid-range hotels will provide you with an excellent experience and the full hotel service. If resort or luxury accommodation is your preference, the average cost is $200-$500 per night, but there are also options that can cost thousands per night.
Airbnb is another affordable option that can get you private accommodation in popular tourist destinations. There are even Airbnb accommodations offered for as little as $20 US dollars per night, though the average is $70 US dollars per night. But if you are traveling as a group, Airbnb would be the most budget friendly way to stay in Mexico and there are many clean or luxury accommodations offered for less than a resort or hotel.
If you decide to splurge on accommodation, you can save money with your food and drink budget. Local food is extremely affordable in Mexico with street food costing as little as $1 US dollar for at taco. For backpackers, eating with the locals allows them to save or stay on budget. If you want to eat out at a local restaurant, expect to pay about $10 US dollars per meal. However, if you are sticking to touristy areas or only eating at fancy restaurants, expect your budget to increase.
For drinks, you’ll find that those too are affordable, but the prices do differ based on your location. Tourist areas will be the most expensive with beers costing over $1 US dollar. In local restaurants, a beer would normally cost about 15-20 pesos or $0.79-1.05 US dollars. However, mixed drinks can be very expensive with the average cost about 138 pesos or just under $8 US dollars. If you want to drink, but need to stay on a budget, you should purchase your alcohol from a local store instead of at a restaurant.
But there are many tasty dishes that you can try, even on a budget. Tacos are popular because they are cheap and delicious. But there are well-known dishes like cochinita pibil, which is a pulled pork shoulder or ceviche, which is fresh seafood cooked in citrus. Pozole is a traditional Mexican stew that features pork and vegetables.
If you are looking to go to well-established bars, try checking out Jules Basement, which is located in Mexico City. The bar does take reservations and makes delicious cocktails. However, there are plenty of local bars throughout the country too and in tourist areas, they should be perfectly safe.
Overall, you should expect to find a budget that suits your needs. Backpackers can survive on a budget of about $30-$40 US dollars per day. A more moderate budget would be about $100 dollars per day, including accommodation. But as always, your budget can get rather expensive if you are on a luxury vacation.
How to Get Around
Mexico is a big country and getting around on a budget can be difficult. For travelers who can splurge, you can always fly between destinations by using a domestic airline, but the cost can be quite expensive with most costing about $120 US dollars per ticket. If you are traveling by bus, ADO is a good company that provides clean transportation for affordable prices. Most tickets between cities will cost about $20 US dollars. If you want to really save money, you can travel for as little as $1 US dollar by using local transportation. Often these are microbuses, which travel between various destinations.
Taxis, Uber, and Mexico’s version of Uber, called Cabify, are also options. Most will charge about $1.31 US dollars per kilometer, which makes them very affordable for short distances. However, if you prefer private transportation, you can rent a car. Car rentals for an economy car will cost about $25 US dollars per day.
You may also look into private transportation, which can be affordable. Some companies offer rides for as little as $14 US dollars per person, however the average tends to be about $70 US dollars per person. Luxury private transportation can be quite expensive with bookings costing up to $200 US dollars for a small group. Your hotel or accommodation may also provide you with transportation options.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
Mexico is a thriving landscape and the cities are the most popular tourist destinations. Here, we will give a brief overview of some of the most popular cities that tourists explore in Mexico.
With a high altitude, Mexico City is the densely populated capital of Mexico. The city has begun to create a new image for itself, as one that is safer and tourist friendly. Mexico City has revamped parts of the city and the culinary scene has become more popular.
The top sites in the city include the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Museo Nacional de Antropología, and the Templo Mayor. There are sightseeing tours within the city and just outside its limits, you can see the Teotihuacan pyramids. The historic city center is also popular amongst tourists and it is a 15-kilometer World Heritage Site with over 1,400 colonial buildings.
Oaxaca City is for the culture lovers who want to dive into Mexico’s historical architecture, Colonial, and Indigenous culture. The city is filled with colorful buildings like boutique hotels and artisan stores. Street art and bohemian bars are also popular attractions that make the city more unique. Oaxaca is also located close by to beaches, with Playa Zicatela and Carrizalillo as some of the most popular. The Guelaguetza is a popular festival that takes place every July and is filled with traditional music, dance, food, and crafts.
Cancún is located in the Yucatán Peninsula, part of the Mayan Riviera, and known for the pristine beaches, resorts, and thriving nightlife. With two distinct areas, Cancún is unique. El Centro is a more traditional area that is more local. Whereas most of the tourism is centered on the Zona Hotelera, which is beachfront and filled with hotels, shops, and nightclubs. The turquoise waters of the Caribbean make Cancún a huge resort destination that also has outdoor excursions like cenotes and underwater caves. The world’s largest underwater museum is also located here, where you can dive underneath the waves to view impressive works of art.
Located on the Pacific coast, Puerto Vallarta is famous for being located in the Bahía de Banderas which has shimmering blue water. The lush mountains make for a magnificent backdrop and tourists are eager to explore the sun kissed beaches. There is a full range of restaurants, shops, and bars for tourists to explore. El Malecón is a beachfront promenade, which is popular during both the day and night. Puerto Vallarta is also known for their adventurous activities like watersports and paragliding.
San Cristóbal de las Casas
San Cristóbal de las Casas is a unique location in southern Mexico, which is a highland valley surrounded by a pine forest. The cobbled streets lead paths to local markets, which provide endless goods for tourists to explore. The artisan markets are also popular for purchasing handmade crafts like basket or woven fabrics. The unique blend of urban and nature is present throughout the city, where just a few steps from the city edges are a beautiful countryside. The city has well-preserved colonial architecture and the bright yellow San Cristóbal Cathedral is a must-see attraction.
Tulum is a small town on the Caribbean coast of Mexico, which is also located in the Mayan Riviera. The city is infamous for their well-preserved Mayan ruins and was once a Mayan port city. El Castillo is the castle in ruins, which sits atop a rocky cliff. The white sand beaches and aquamarine sea also makes for a magnificent view. Parque Nacional Tulum is located near the ruins and popular amongst tourists for the mangrove and cenotes. The tall walls located around the city also make for a fortress-like feel, which brings tourists back to the past.
Cabo San Lucas
This popular tourist destination is located on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, and is often times simply called “Cabo” by tourists and locals. The city is one of Mexico’s top beach destinations which has a few different towns located in the Los Cabos Corridor. The corridor is a stretch of gorgeous beaches, which are where all the tourists flock to play in the ocean. Watersports like diving, snorkeling, and fishing are all popular activities. El Arco de Cabo San Lucas is a well visited natural landmark, which is an archway that has been carved out of the coastline. The arch also marks where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez.
Points of Interest
While cities are the main attraction, there are also many different points of interest throughout Mexico that draw tourists in for an adventure. You may find that there is a specific point of interest you would like to explore.
Chichén Itza is a Mayan city that was built in pre-Columbian times and is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Today, it rests as ruins with the Castillo Temple as one of the most famous parts. El Castillo was built to honor Kukulkan, the Plumed Serpent. But there are 5 stone buildings, which are all connected by pathways. Temple of the Warriors is a massive temple which is filled with stone carvings. Finally, the Great Ball Court is 545 feet in length and is where the Mayans used to play “juego de pelota” or an ancient type of ball game. The site is open every day from 8 to 5pm and there is a charge of $23 US dollars to enter.
A short ferry ride away from Playa del Carmen, Cozumel is a small island which is popular for tourists who want a little Caribbean getaway. The island is famous for their scuba diving around the coral reefs. Palancar Reef is for advanced divers, which has man-made objects sunken into the ocean. Some of the top beaches on the island are Playa San Juan, Playa Bonita, and Playa Santa Rosa. With plenty of resorts, Cozumel has become a world-renowned getaway. Chankanaab is also a popular eco park where you may encounter dolphins, manatees, and sea turtles.
The Copper Canyon is one of Mexico most visited natural attractions, which is located in the northern area of Chihuahua. Copper Canyon is actually deeper and bigger than the Grand Canyon and is named for the green colored canyon walls. A scenic rail, El Chepe, has become a popular way to see the canyon, but you can also take bikes or horseback ride. Summer is also the most popular time to visit with July and August reigning as the peak tourist months.
Playa Del Carmen
Another location on the Mayan Riviera, Playa Del Carmen is an infamous resort town that has beaches lined with palm trees and stunning coral reefs. The town is also known for its partying and it has a variety of restaurants, nightclubs, and dance clubs. While the town is less crazy than the nearby Cancún, there is still plenty of entertainment. Playa Akumal is a popular beach, where you can even swim with sea turtles.
Cenotes are natural pits or sinkholes that occur when the natural limestone bedrock is eroded until it exposes the groundwater. The groundwater is often pooled into the cenote and makes an excellent swimming location. The water is crystal clear because it has been filtered by the earth so that you can see all the plant and animal life in the pool.
For the Mayans, cenotes were important sources of water in times of drought and it was believed that the caves, which are part of some cenotes, were doorways to the Underworld. When first discovered, a few cenotes even held human remains that were left as sacrifice. But today, the most popular cenotes are clean and clear. In fact, you can find various cenotes throughout the Yucatán Peninsula with popular cenotes located at Chichén Itza, near Tulum and Playa Del Carmen.
Get Out and Go
While Mexico has an expansive and sometimes conflicted past, the country is still stunning and offers plenty of breathtaking places for tourists to escape into paradise. The country’s architecture, landscape, and history are all popular for curious travelers looking for an adventure. With a diverse terrain from high mountain landscapes to the blue Caribbean, Mexico is a top destination that will surely become your new favorite vacation spot.