Some kind of Shamanic ritual dance and not necessarily for tourists, central Mexico City.
Vacations in Mexico
This brilliant Central American country has been a vibrant and multifaceted tourist destination for many years, loaded with landscapes of every description from bleak deserts to dramatic mountains while superb beaches range from activity-stuffed, all inclusive holiday resorts to stretches of sand devoid of packaged life forms.
Then there are the chart-topping ancient pyramid sites, strange and colourful festivals, varied wildlife, terrific weather (if you get your timing right), excellent public transport systems, superb undersea life on one coast (the Caribbean) and great surfing on the other (Pacific), good food and booze, pleasant colonial towns and all at a reasonable prices.
• Sometimes it’s perhaps not quite as colourful as the myth of Mexico might suggest; there is no lack of dull towns and dreary landscapes.
• Banditry and thievery are not a myth.
• Many Mexicans are resolutely uncommunicative (unless you’ve got $ in your hand) and taxi drivers in particular are a disgrace.
• Handicraft quality has gone down the toilet. However! Good handicrafts and people seem to have migrated out to the coastal resorts. . . try Mexico City and find out why!
Worst: June-October (wet, hot); the Yucatan Peninsula especially is susceptible to hurricanes during this season but even if the big H doesn’t strike the seas around may be rough and unclear, the skies cloudy and the beaches less pleasant to hang out on, though prices will be down. The month of March delivers US College kid overload during the Spring Break (various schools, various dates).
Hospicio Cabanas mural in Guadalajara. Photo by Jim.
**Mexico City. Visit excellent museums, see superb murals at the Palacio Nacional, frolic around the Zocalo, take a little canal boat ride on the watery ‘gardens’ of Xochimilco and do day trips out to the magnificent pyramids of Teotihuacan, perhaps the city of Puebla, the Cholula pyramid and maybe the volcano of Popocatepetl 45 miles (70 kms) away.
For families or young thrill-seekers Six Flags Mexico is just south of Mexico City, a massive US-owned theme park with plenty of wild rides, water features, glitzy shows.
***Oaxaca, a large city with a relaxed, pretty old town centre, lovely main square and the ancient Zapotec site of Monte Alban nearby. A great location for Dias des los Muertos festivities.
The origins of the Day of the Dead Festival can be traced back as far as the indigenous people of Mesoamerica. The modern day festivities take place on 1st /2nd November each year when relatives gather in cemeteries in Oaxaca where they build altars and bring along food and party with the souls of their dead.
***Monarch Butterfly Breeding Sites. Nature reserves in the highlands of the state of Michoacan host millions of butterflies between November and March of each year, although numbers have declined sharply recently so don’t leave it too late.
**Merida, a small, delightful old town with agreeable free, daily concerts and dance, good restaurants and good access to the ancient Maya site of Uxmal.
**Barranca Canyon del Cobre, Copper Canyon. A stunning 6 hour train ride from Los Mochis on the Pacific coast up the mountains to Divisadero or Creel drops you on the edge of Mexico’s Copper Canyon. This is makes a great region for those who wish to escape extranjero overload – hiking (tho’ trails are not well marked), horseback riding, birding, and Tarahumara Indians.
Jose Cuervo train from Guadalajara on a teqila voyage, Mexico
**Guadalajara – A traditional city that is the home of mariachi music and tequila and enjoys perpetual spring weather. Guadalajara’s colonial downtown is pleasant and sophisticated and all-inclusive Tequila Trains from there wobble up to José Cuervo distillery serving fee Margaritas all the way, followed by tours, shows and more tequila.
*Tijuana – Mexico’s busiest border crossing with the USA and a long-standing target for bargain shopping for southern Californians due to its proximity with San Diego.
Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Sun. Photo by Jim.
*** Teotihuacan pyramid complex just outside Mexico City. Apart from being relatively easy to get to this pyramid group is huge, entry is free and you can climb the pyramids, unlike those in Chichen Itaza and Uxmal.
***Uxmal, a good warm up for Chichen Itza: a pleasing and unusually rounded Magician’s pyramid with other interesting and well-preserved Maya buildings. Makes a perfect day trip from Merida.
***Chichen Itza. A sensational Maya pyramid and many other strange and unusual structures in the middle of a large (tho’ quite dull) expanse of greenery. Stay 2 nights nearby and do it properly, but sadly it is now forbidden to climb pyramids and other attractions are roped off to prevent access.
A typical Cancun view by Mauro Barea.
Maya Riviera(Caribbean Coast)
Getting seriously busy and built up these days, this relatively short coastal strip offers very little chance of tranquility, solitude or real ethnic interest, but very soft white sands, plenty of family-friendly attractions such as Xcaret ‘eco-park’, Cozumel coral, serious pyramids not far away and of course superb beaches.
**Cancun is known for its spectacular powder sand beaches, clear blue waters and hectic nightlife but little culture. During America’s Spring Break (mainly during March) it’s famously rowdy, with binge drinking, drug use and casual sex.
**Playa del Carmen for a lively beach scene, also brilliant stretches of powder sand and excellent bars/restaurants/shops though getting overdeveloped.
Icacos Beach in Acapulco. Photo by Andrew Raleigh.
***’Los Cabos’ (‘Cabo’ in the USA) is a lively 20 mile beach resort area at the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula. The warm Pacific waters and massive stretches of soft yellow sand backed by sophisticated hotels and cantinas (bars, bars with snacks or restaurant/bars) and other attractions run from raucous Cabo San Lucas (another spring break vacations target, along with Cancun) down to quieter, colonial San José del Cabo.
Apart from wild nights and wet, sandy daze, the main activities along this Cabos corridor are golf, sport fishing, some snorkeling and desultory surfing.
Los Cabos International Airport serves the region, or drive Highway 1 (Transpeninsular Highway) that runs 794 miles (1277 kms) from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas.
**Sea of Cortez – to see whales, swim with dolphins and sea kayak in the warm waters along the eastern coast of Baja California near La Paz.
*Mazatlan is an interesting port town, both a transport hub with ferries to Baja California, and a beach destination with huge stretches of sand. Mazatlan is a popular Spring Break destination due to its variety of low-cost accommodation.
**Acapulco, a lively 20 mile bay of beaches, bars and hotels that has entertained Elvis, Sinatra and Kerouac but still has space for budget travellers. A bit brash, decaying and with and nightmarish traffic, but quiet spots survive, as do most of the famous (45m/148ft) cliff divers at La Quebrada.
** Ixtapa. Visitors to the Zihuatanejo region have a choice of more than 20 miles of beaches that are still reasonably uncrowded, laid back and clean, though high-rise resorts are inevitably popping up as the years advance, like concrete acne.
Oaxaca Riviera/Costa Chica (still the Pacific)
Hiding in the shadow of their brash brothers further up Pacific coastline the laid back Mexican beach dream is still alive (just! ) along Oaxaca’s southwestern coast where beaches such as Puerto Escondido, Mazunte and Zipolite are known mainly to middle-class Mexicans and western backpackers and surfers who enjoy the relative tranquility, the rich bio-diversity, the low cost vacations and of course – in season – the brilliant surf.
This string of Costa Chica beaches is still largely unspoilt by high-rise resort developments, partly due to the distance by road from central Mexico, partly local poverty and partly by developers being discouraged from investing due to events such as rioting in Oaxaca City several years ago, a Zapatista rebel uprising in neighbouring Chiapas state and regular hurricane damage.
Chichen Itza’s Castillo pyramid that – sadly – tourists are no longer allowed to climb.
Here’s a possible 2 week ‘Yucatan in ruins’ itinerary containing some of Latin America’s prime sights/sites:
Fly to Cancun – to Chichen Itza via Ek Balam ruins – to Uxmal via Mayapan – to Edzna – to Palenque – to Bonampak and Yaxchilan – to Chamula and San Cristobal de las Casas via Agua Azul and Tonina – to Calakmul and Becan via Balamku – Tulum – Cancun.
Getting away from the crowds
This is one of the world’s most popular vacation destinations with over 20 million foreign visitors a year, though most Mexico vacations are centred around all inclusive holiday beach resorts as well as the central part of the country.
American tourists tend to cluster on the Baja peninsula and the modern beach resorts such as Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, while European tourists gravitate around smaller resort areas in the south like Playa del Carmen. The least busy part of Mexico is probably the northern interior or the far south in the vicinity of Guatemala.
The best way to stumble across less tourists is to visit Mexico in the low season months but when the weather is still good, such as November, April-June.
A turtle hatchling angrily being assisted into the sea near Mazunte. Photo by claudio giovenzana.
Hiking, Biking and Horse Riding: All over the country but especially well developed in Baja California and Copper Canyon (Barranca del Cobre), an awesome gorge that’s bigger than the USA’s Grand Canyon.
Climbing: Mountains are not the only climbing option in Mexico, volcanoes are also hot and there’s a fine pair less than 100 kms south of Mexico City – Iztaccihuatl (5, 255m/17, 342 ft) and Popocatepetl (5, 420m/17, 887 ft).
White Water Rafting: Veracruz, Chiapas, Oaxaca and Morelos states.
Scuba diving: Best dive spots are around Cozumel island and Cancun on the east side and the Pacific coast between Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco, Manzanillo and the Sea of Cortez, Baja on the west side.
There are also some spooky dives available in the shape of caves and cenotes (natural, underground wells).
Snorkelling and swimming with dolphins: Off ‘Maya Riviera’, especially Cozumel, Isla Mujeres.
Sea Kayaking: The Baja peninsula.
Wind Surfing: Puerto Vallarta, Los Barriles, Manzanillo.
Whale, dolphin and seal watching: off Baja California’ sCabo and Puerto Vallarta. Grey whales are especially visible in February.
Sea Turtle laying/hatchlings: Mazunte.
‘EcoParks’: The Maya Riviera is site of several Ecological Parks, such as Xcaret, Xel-Há and Garrafón; aimed at conserving flora and fauna of the region, as well as being tourist attractions. At these parks tourists can learn about the Mexican culture, and also enjoy activities like swimming with dolphins and snorkelling.
Golf: With well over 100 courses around the country there’s plenty of choice though Baja Sur’s Los Cabos is reputedly Mexico’s best golfing destination with Puerto Vallarta area a close second.
Millions of monarch butterflies migrate to the high forests around Michoacan for the winter. Easiest to view by hiking up from El Rosario village. November – March. Trivia: did you know that butterflies taste with their feet?
Mexico City and some large towns endure fairly high levels of crime, most of it petty, but armed robbery and even rape is not unknown, though major tourist locations such are generally well protected. As usual take special care in busy places like bus and metro stations, when using ATMs and at night. Location is important as safety changes from place to place. Areas close to downtown (el centro) are safer to walk at night, especially in the Zocalo or Jardin (main square) and areas nearby.
Stay in populated areas, avoid poor neighbourhoods and don’t walk there at any time if you are alone.
Cruising taxis are better avoided if possible as they have been implicated in serious assaults. See more under Transport/Taxis, above.
Police in tourist destinations often speak English and are reliable, though this does NOT apply to Mexico City.
See Bugbog Safety pages.
Drugs and bribery
A strict anti-drug policy exists in Mexico. Take great care, even with weed. Local police are hopelessly corrupt, and like nothing better than to catch unwary tourists with small quantities of marijuana. Threatening long prison terms their main aim is to extract bribes, usually half of all the foreigners money. Caution is particularly advised on long bus journeys across state lines, as police or military checkpoints ask for identification and may search passengers. In general, however, these checks seem to be aimed at locals – particularly in the Zapatista homeland in Chiapas.
Mexican currency is the peso, usually marked as $, though in major tourist attractions they distinguish between the two by marking pesos as MN (moneda nacional) and dollars as Dlls.
Small peso change is useful but hard to come by so hoard it.
Banks and casas de cambio (exchange offices) give similar rates of exchange but always check rates first and precise money received immediately after (i. e. at the counter! ).
$100 bills are tricky to unload, $1 bills excellent.
ATMs work well but take care, especially in Mexico City, at night, or both.
Credit Cards are widely accepted though some establishments add a hefty surcharge when paying by card.
Many service personnel depend on tips so assuming their service is adequate you should tip waiters in the region of 15%, bellboys and porters up to $1 per bag. Taxi drivers do not require tipping.
Time Share bores
When visiting touristy cities it is common to be approached with offers of gifts, free rental cars, free nights, free dinners, free anything that may appeal to you, just for visiting and listening to a presentation to buy a timeshare. Unless you are severely desperate for something to do, you should probably ignore them and save yourself a high-pressure marketing situation.
110v, 2 flat pins (same as USA, Canada)