Mexico is many destinations in one. It’s easy to imagine a traveler making a dozen visits to Mexico and only beginning to scratch the surface of possibilities.
If it’s a beach resort experience you’re looking for, there are numerous options on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of the country. Travelers can choose to go upscale with posh resorts or go to the other end of the spectrum and keep it simple by staying at funky beach boutique properties. In Mexico, it seems that as one beach region peaks in popularity, another one rises to take its place – this year it’s the Riviera Nayarit region that’s catching the buzz, although Los Cabos and the Riviera Maya are also still going strong.
If a cosmopolitan adventure is in the cards, head to Mexico City, the cultural and business hub of the country. Cities that have an intriguing dash of colonial history include Guadalajara, Puebla, Merida, Mazatlan, and Oaxaca. San Miguel Allende has an appeal all its own, having attracted generations of expatriates from the U.S., who have created a bohemian atmosphere that also shows respect for the local culture.
Mexico’s Maya heritage is also a major part of the country’s appeal and stirring archeological treasures like Chichen-itza and Tulum are must-sees. Accessing the living culture of the Maya offers unforgettable sensory experiences; including purifying yourself in a temazcal, a Maya version of a sweat lodge; swimming in a sacred cenote, a freshwater, lagoon-like well; or seeking out restaurants serving authentic Maya cuisine.
Active travelers will find a full range of watersports, with scuba diving primo on the island of Cozumel. Unforgettable experiences include swimming with whale sharks in Isla Holbox, snorkeling with sea lions in La Paz, or aiding endangered sea turtle hatchlings in Los Cabos as they make their way safely to the sea. On dry land there’s hiking, off-road adventures, cycling, horseback riding, and ziplining.
Mexico has had its share of bad press over the last ten years, and visiting the border cities should be left to the well-seasoned traveler. Mexico first timers may want to concentrate their initial journey in the most-visited resort areas of the country, such as Cancun, Riviera Maya, and Los Cabos.
No matter where travelers choose to stay, it would be a mistake not to venture outside the walls of the resort. Get out and order some street food, browse a local market, or make the effort to meet Mexicans who aren’t in a service capacity – it could be these off-resort adventures will end up being among your most cherished memories of Mexico.
Mexico is a huge country, with a varied geography, with high altitudes in the mountains and the capital, Mexico City, and sea level conditions on the country’s Pacific and Caribbean coastal regions. This variety also creates a range of weather conditions. Generally, Mexico’s rainy season is May to mid-October, with the dry season being mid-October to April.
Mexico’s high season kicks off around December 20 and continues through Easter week, which is also an extremely popular time for domestic travel.
Low season is right after Easter to mid-December, although August is also a popular month for domestic travelers. When you can expect to see budget and moderate priced hotels booked solid. Traveling in the low season has its benefits, since prices see a drop of up to 50%.
An exception to this is Mexico’s Caribbean coast, which has the popular beach destinations of Cancun, and the Riviera Maya. Expect to see high season rates in July and August.
While Mexico has moderate and even balmy temperatures throughout much of the country, it’s best to track the weather in advance of your trip to Mexico, since temperatures can get quite cool.
El Niño storms arrive on average every two to seven years, and when it does it can impact travel, bringing severe rainstorms in the winter months.
Travelers may also want to avoid traveling to Mexico during the hurricane season, typically the months of June through October (although bargain hunters may want to roll the dice, since special promotions are usually available).
Mexico spans three time zones, with a one hour difference between each of the zones: Eastern Standard Time (EST) in the northeast, Central Standard Time (CST) in the middle of the country, and Pacific Standard Time in the western region.
From the first Sunday in April to the last Sunday in October, most of the country is on daylight saving time. Mexico observes Daylight Savings Time (DST) in summer and standard time in winter. All except the state of Sonora, which does not observe Daylight Savings Time.
What a traveler chooses to wear will depend on the purpose of the trip. Business travelers should be prepared to don a suit and tie, although they may find business casual working just fine for most of their trip.
Throughout Mexico, casual works, and travelers will see lots of people dressed in jeans. Be sure to bring along comfortable shoes, and dress in cotton fabrics if heading for the country’s beach areas. The weather can turn cool, especially in the higher elevations, and during the evenings. Bring along a light jacket or sweater.
Mexicans love brands, so if you want to score points with the locals, pack some Ed Hardy, Polo, Hollister and Burberry. Mexican men are less likely to wear shorts, unless they’re engaged in a sport.
Always dress respectfully when visiting a historic cathedral. In general, women should cover up when away from the pool or beach, especially in a restaurant, and men should at least wear a T-shirt.
Hats and shades are essential when the sun shines bright. A very light foldable raincoat will also come in handy if visiting during the rainier months, which are generally May through September.
The currency in Mexico is the peso. Over the last several years, the exchange rate with the US dollar has shifted drastically, with very favorable rates of exchange for travelers from the US.
Many businesses in Mexico accept the US dollar when making purchases. Travelers will usually sacrifice a bit when paying with dollars, so using pesos is preferable.
The easiest way to exchange for pesos is at a currency exchange counter in the airport. It’s also possible to use an ATM, but unless a traveler’s bank has a partnership in place with a Mexican bank, you’ll take a hit in fees for the exchange, which can sometimes be hefty. (I remember taking $20 out of a Mexican ATM and finding out later I was hit with an $8 fee).
Credit and debit cards are widely accepted, but systems can sometimes crash. It’s best to always have some pesos on hand, especially when shopping in crafts markets or dining in small restaurants.
As far as tipping goes, 10% is customary for bellboys, taxi drivers, and restaurant service. Before tipping, make sure a service charge hasn’t already been added to your bill. Wages are low in Mexico, so stiffing these people on a tip is bad karma.
If you’re planning on doing a significant amount of shopping, you’ll want to look into Mexico’s tax refund program. You’ll need to fill out some forms at airport tax refund kiosks when departing Mexico, but you’ll receive a tax refund: 50% in cash right away, and 50% deposited into your account within 40 days. This is only for purchases made at stores affiliated with the tax refund program, and doesn’t apply to the cost of lodging and meals during your trip. For more information visit www.taxfree.com.mx
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $20 per person
$$$ => Tickets $25 per person
$ => Rooms less than $75 for a double
$$ => Rooms $75-150 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$ => $10 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $25 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $50 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $75 per person
$$ => Tickets $75-125 per person
$$$ => Tickets $125 per person
U.S. citizens must show a valid passport, or passport card to enter Mexico. Upon returning to the United States by air, you’ll have to have an actual U.S. passport book, since a passport card isn’t valid for entering the US by air.
Most visitors heading toward major tourist destinations fly into one of the country’s international airports. If they’re heading toward one of the less visited areas, most likely they’ll have to connect through Mexico City. Always make sure you have an assigned seat when you’re booking your flight, since overbooking is common.
Driving in Mexico can be a challenge. First, coming from the US, you’ll need valid Mexico car insurance, and in some cases a Temporary Import Permit. Once you’re on the road in Mexico, you’ll find that any time you leave the major highways, road conditions can go from bad to terrible in an instant. Even a modest rainstorm can play havoc with streets, since drainage can be minimal. If at all possible, don’t drive at night, especially in rural areas, where livestock might wander into the road. Also, be on the alert for “topes.’ These are speed bumps that can sometimes be huge – you don’t want to hit these at full speed.
If you run into trouble on the road, call the Green Angels at phone number (078). They can provide free emergency services, and first aid.
If you’re flying in and you want to rent a car, you’ll find the major U.S. car rental companies have counters in the larger airports.
Traveling long distance via bus is surprisingly pleasant in Mexico. Seats are comfortable, snacks are available, buses have restrooms, and movies are usually shown. Many buses are scheduled to leave late at night, putting passengers at their destination at dawn. If you’re traveling on a shoestring, this enables you to cut one night from your hotel budget.
Mexico’s main transportation hub is Mexico City. There’s a good chance that if you’re traveling domestically via air, you’ll first fly to Mexico City to make your connection. It’s a busy airport and is currently (20160 in the process of adding additional gates to handle the volume.
Many of the most popular tourist destinations in Mexico, such as Cancun, Los Cabos, and Puerto Vallarta, receive direct flights from abroad.
Mexico is a huge country, so if a traveler is planning on going to regions that are far apart, booking domestic flights may be their best option. The low cost carrier Volaris has attractive rates, and is usually running a promotion of some kind. For the time being, Mexico carriers are a lot more considerate when it comes to checked baggage, and the first baggage within a set weight limit is usually free of charge.
Here’s a tip for booking air travel within Mexico that I learned the hard way. At the time of booking your ticket, make sure you’ve been assigned a seat number. Some airlines make a practice of overbooking a flight. If you haven’t been assigned a seat, you’ll be shifted over to standby status. Then it’s a toss up if you’ll be one of those boarding the plane.
Spanish is the official language of Mexico. 63 distinct Amerindian languages are also recognized.
English is widely spoken, especially in the tourist areas. Even then visitors might find themselves in a situation where only Spanish is spoken. A smile, Spanglish and a little patience can work wonders.
Recommended Reading on Mexico
Insurgent Mexico by John Reed
2666 by Roberto Bolaño
The Children of Sanchez by Oscar Lewis
Murder City by Charles Bowden
Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera
Mexico Places & Pleasures by Kate Simon
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
The Plumed Serpent by DH Lawrence
Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes
The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes
Mornings in Mexico by DH Lawrence
Under The Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
Y Tu Mama Tambien
Like Water for Chocolate
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Family Friendly Mexico
Mexico’s Caribbean coast has grown over the years to become a superlative destination for families, with a range of all-inclusive hotels and lots of activities and attractions – especially those that are nature-based. Sights include Xel-Ha, a gorgeous natural lagoon; Xcaret, an eco-archaeological park with Maya cultural exhibits, and the Cancun Underwater Museum, located inside Cancun’s National Marine Park.
Mexico’s Archeological Treasures
Mexico is packed with archeological treasures. Chichen-itza in the Yucatan is a site is 1,500 years old site that contains the most famous Maya pyramids in the Yucatan. Tulum, a site on the Caribbean coast, offers one of the most dramatic and beautiful settings for an archeological site. South of Tulum is the jungle ruins of Coba. In Chiapas, there’s Palenque. Outside Mexico City lies the Maya ruins of Teotihuacan.
Culinary Travel in Mexico
Mexico has coast to coast culinary delights: From Baja California, to Mexico City, to Playa del Carmen. Tijuana is gaining fame for its cutting edge Baja Med cuisine, which utilizes techniques and ingredients associated with Mexican, Mediterranean and Asian cooking. In Mexico City, adventurous eaters can opt for fine dining in sophisticated venues, or change things up with indigenous Purépecha kitchen tours showcasing pre-Hispanic ingredients and cooking techniques. In the Riviera Maya on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, travelers can get a taste of Maya cooking, where they can try such dishes as tsic, a fried tortilla filled with fish and shrimp and marinated in sour orange juice, xcatic peppers and coriander. They can top off the meal with a tiny glass of xtabentún, a liqueur made from stingless bees’ honey.
Mexico for First Timers
First time visitors to Mexico may be hesitant about plunging into what they consider a daunting environment. A good choice for them would be Mexico-light destinations, such as Los Cabos and Cancun. These resort areas have a lot of U.S. touches – from familiar fast food and hotel chain brands, to an abundance of English speakers. Chances are on their second trip, they’ll want to explore more authentically Mexican destinations within the country.
Adventure and Ecotourism
Mexico has scores of challenging and exciting activities for nature travelers. Off the coast of Cancun, swim with the gentle giants of the ocean, huge whale sharks. In the Riviera Maya, explore cenotes, freshwater lagoons that often lead into dramatic river caves. In Chiapas, hike to waterfalls or get a blast of adrenaline ziplining above the jungle. Outside Mexico City, nature lovers can hike the hills to view the millions of migrating Monarch butterflies. In Los Cabos, join a whale watching excursion, or snorkel with sea lions in La Paz.