Mexico travel tips, what to know when traveling to Mexico, best places to visit in Mexico, and more!
From Mayan ruins and margaritas to a robust art scene and endless tacos, Mexico is a big country with a lot to offer visitors. The warm ocean waters and endless beaches and ancient stone temples breaching the jungle canopy is only one stroke of the diverse and colorful painting that is Mexico.
Each city and local community has its own unique personality that builds on local influences and diverse cultures from the Olmec civilization to the Spanish Empire. Spanning arid deserts and tropical jungles home to ancient cave drawings and festivals that captivate audiences worldwide, the best way to understand Mexico’s bounty is to step in and experience it firsthand.
Road Scholar offers many Mexico travel guides and tours, including archeological dives in Southern Mexico, whale migration excursions in Baja, and the art of San Miguel de Allende. Follow along as we give you the exclusive Mexico travel guide with all the travel tips you will need for your trip. .
Mexico is the 14th largest country on Earth, so keep in mind which region you are in and what they are known for. What are the common foods enjoyed in that region? It may be enchiladas and tacos in one part of Mexico and mole in another.
What is the temperature in the area you are visiting? Many travelers visit Mexico for its beautiful beaches, while others travel to inland cities and will experience colder climates. Checking the weather forecast is one of the most important things to do before you go to Mexico.
In addition to doing your research on food and weather, there are other Mexico travel tips noted below to make your expedition to the land of white sand beaches and colorful culture a great one.
While Mexico is home to world-class restaurants run by master chefs, do not forget to explore the street food and local markets. Here, you will be able to find fresh and cheap alternatives to sit-down restaurants while still experiencing local flavors and family recipes. When looking for a stand to eat at, choose the ones that are crowded — the high turnover means that the food will be the freshest.
If you are thirsty and in need of a drink, stick to bottled water. Tap water in Mexico has bacteria in it that often gives travelers digestive issues — even locals frown on the idea of drinking tap water. If you are not able to use bottled water when brushing your teeth, make sure to spit the water out instead of swallowing. Bottled water can be purchased at local stores for affordable prices in various sizes from .5L to 2L bottles. When dining out, be sure to ask for “agua pura” (pure water).
Mexico’s 5,700 miles of coastline draw travelers from around the world in search of fun in the sun, and the area’s popularity has ensured that their prices are among the highest. To get the most bang for your buck, venturing inland is your best bet. Plus, you’ll have a better opportunity to meet locals and enjoy authentic experiences.
Don’t be surprised when locals are wearing long sleeves and pants but it is hot and humid out. Traditional clothing is made from breathable, natural fabrics like cotton and linen as opposed to heat-trapping, synthetic materials. Blending in by wearing local clothing will help keep you cool while also reducing your chances of being identified as a tourist in more popular areas.
Don’t let Mexico’s reputation scare you off — much of Mexico is safe as long as you are smart. Avoid cameras hanging around your neck or holding guidebooks that designate you as someone from out of town. Wearing local clothes will help keep you cool and blend in with a crowd. Watch how much you have to drink and keep your important documents — wallet and passport — someplace safe to protect against pickpockets. Talk to the hotel staff to learn about the best places to explore or where to avoid.
The Spanish word for women is “mujeres” so when you see the letter “M” on the restroom door, it is a women’s restroom and not for “males or men.” Men’s restrooms are marked with an “H” for “hombres” or “C” for “caballeros.”
Mexico’s immigration service (INM) has started cracking down on visitors. When you are at the airport they will ask you exactly how many days you will be visiting Mexico, and if it’s longer than a month you may have to provide proof about when you’re actually leaving. Proof can be in the form of accommodation reservations or outbound flight tickets.
In addition, the INM is now conducting random checks of non-Mexicans on the street, especially in Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Always be carrying your passport.
This is going to be a very foreign concept for Americans and Europeans that will take getting used to, but your toilet paper goes in the trash can rather than the toilet. Do NOT flush toilet paper in Mexico. An exception would be that toilet paper flushing is acceptable in some resorts. Always assume that you will not be flushing your toilet paper unless otherwise noted.
During a pandemic is not the time to travel without travel insurance. Travel insurance in Mexico isn’t different from other places but very valuable while traveling in these uncertain times. Road Scholar offers its own comprehensive travel insurance packages that covers emergency medical evacuation, 24-hour emergency assistance, lost, stolen, damaged or delayed baggage insurance, and limited medical coverage for accidental injury or sickness.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is becoming essential for travel because it prevents theft of online and personal information. VPNs allow you to create a secure connection over a shared connection.
Mexico is a large country and getting around can be tough — cities are often far away from each other and separated by natural barriers including deserts and mountain ranges. The two most common modes of transportation through the country are flying and buses. The Ferrocarril Chihuahua Pacifico is Mexico’s only remaining passenger railway connecting Los Mochis and Chihuahua through the Sierra Madre Occidental. There are, however, two tourism-focused railways: the Chihuahua al Pacífico, through the Copper Canyon, and the Tequila Express, from Guadalajara to the town of Tequila.
When traveling to Mexico, most visitors fly into one of Mexico’s major airports; Benito Juárez International Airport (MEX), Mexico City; Cancún International Airport (CUN), Cancún, and Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla Guadalajara International Airport (GDL). Los Cabos International Airport (SJD) is Cabo San Lucas and the Baja Peninsula's popular gateway. Benito Juárez International Airport — colloquially known as Mexico City International Airport — is the country’s busiest airport and the major hub of Mexico's flag carrier, Aeroméxico. Several smaller domestic airlines offer budget flights connecting most cities. Domestic flights between large cities fly serval times per day and are w priced. One-way flights from Mexico City to popular destinations like Oaxaca and Cancún are as low as $40USD. One-way flights to Cabo San Lucas cost as little as $60 USD.
When traveling shorter distances, buses are the most common and efficient form of transportation. Most large cities have a modern bus station — often located a distance from the city center — known as the Central Camionera or Central Autobuses. There are two classes of buses in Mexico. First class buses often feature reserved seats, entertainment options and air conditioning. Second-class buses nowadays include many of the same amenities but call at more stops along the way. Tickets are best purchased ahead of time at the bus stations to ensure a seat, especially if picking up the bus mid-route. If you cannot make it to the bus station ahead of time, tickets can be purchased online through the provider’s website.
Spanning tropical forests, arid deserts, snow-capped mountains and sandy beaches, weather in Mexico varies greatly by the region and elevation. Despite this, Mexico only has two main seasons: the rainy season and the dry season. The rainy season begins in May and lasts until September and the dry season lasts from December through April. The Pacific, Caribbean and Gulf coasts are susceptible to hurricanes from June to November, but many destinations offer cheaper flights and hotels with fewer crowds during these months.
Ranging in latitude from San Diego to Jamaica, the greatest range in temperatures can be felt in Mexico City and areas of higher elevation. These regions often have warm days and cool nights with relatively low humidity but can experience drastic temperature changes throughout the day. Year-round temperatures and humidity slowly rise as you come closer to sea level and towards the Yucatán Peninsula, where even in January — the coldest month of the year — the average high is 74°F. Temperatures across the Baja California Peninsula are fairly consistent with those of the Yucatán, though with lower humidity. The climate is divided between the hot, dry deserts and the cooler coastal areas with a short rainy season that occurs in short periods of rainfall in August and September.
The grand plazas and historic monuments of Mexico City rest at an elevation of 7,350 feet above sea level as one of the highest capital cities in the world. Built upon the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the sprawling metropolis is an amalgamation of Aztec ingenuity and European classicalism. Journey through Mexico’s storied history in the heart of the downtown hearing the Aztec legends of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan; embracing a beautiful performance at the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts); and stand in the Aztec center of the world and across from the National Palace at the Zócalo (Plaza de la Constitución). Now in a renaissance of its own, Mexico City is bursting at the seams with artistic innovation and culinary ambition. The city is second in the world — only behind Paris — for its number of museums and will satisfy the most diverse of palates at street-side food stands and top-tier restaurants alike.
Also known as the Maya Riviera, the gleaming Yucatán Peninsula is home to ancient jungles lined with stunning beaches and colonial cities. As you journey inland, the jungle reveals legendary Maya ruins and hidden cenotes right out of an Indiana Jones film, including the iconic Chichén Itzá. Vast wildlife preserves protect colorful coral reefs, endangered sea turtle nesting grounds and rainforests home to colorful birds, boisterous monkeys and elusive jaguars. Isla Holbox, an island to the northeast of the peninsula, is known for the peaceful whale sharks that arrive each summer to feed in the shimmering waters. Lining the brilliant blue waters of the Caribbean, the Mexican state of Quintana Roo is home to the popular beach destinations of Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, the latter known for its well-preserved Maya site overlooking the water. The sleepier Gulf of Mexico side — comprised of the Yucatán and Campeche states — is home to the elegant cities of Mérida and Campeche, offering a more relaxed atmosphere among colonial architecture and more authentic, local cuisine.
Extending south into the Pacific Ocean from Tijuana, the 750-mile-long Baja Peninsula rises across the Gulf of California from mainland Mexico. The year-long warm weather makes it an ideal destination during any season and a popular destination for those looking to escape winter weather. During the winter months, Pacific gray whales conclude their two- to three-month migration — the farthest of any mammal — in the coastal lagoons for the calving season and one of the best opportunities to marvel at these colossal cetaceans. At the southernmost tip of the peninsula, Cabo San Lucas is a resort city lined with white sand beaches and stunning sea cliffs and is highly regarded for its nightlife. Away from the serene beaches and vibrant coral reefs that dot the extensive coastline, spine-like mountain ranges are home to vast cave networks and UNESCO-listed cave drawings thought to have been created by the Cochimí people nearly 7,000 years ago. Farther north near the port city of Ensenada, the Valle de Guadalupe contains historic missions established by Spanish colonialists who brought vines and began wine production — today producing the largest proportion of Mexican wine.
A place unlike any other, the state of Oaxaca (pronounced wah-hah-kah) embodies the best of Mexico’s diversity. The state’s rugged terrain — the convergence of three towering mountain ranges — helped indigenous cultures survive to this day. The Oaxaca Valley is home to the well-preserved archeological sites of Monte Albán and Mitla, as well as the capital city Oaxaca de Juárez. More commonly known as Oaxaca, the capital city is a stunning mixture of indigenous and Spanish culture and architecture. More than a dozen indigenous cultures — the best known of which are the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs — have contributed to the state’s renowned culture and cuisine that has captured the world’s attention. Celebrated each year from October 31 to November 2, the vibrant and colorful festivities of Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) embodies the magic felt by locals and visitors alike. Oaxacan cuisine draws from the state’s diversity as “the land of the seven moles” and largely varies depending on the region. From the flat coastline to the mountainous interior, Oaxaca geographic diversity also makes it the most biodiverse in the country and home to seven officially protected natural areas.
Along the Pacific coast to the west of Mexico City lies the state of Jalisco with the motto “Jalisco es México” (Jalisco is Mexico). Much of what is associated with Mexico claims origin in Jalisco: Mariachi music, sombreros, bull riding and tequila. The capital, Guadalajara — the country’s second-most populous city and a cultural hub — is home to many of Mexico’s greatest poets, writers and painters. Guadalajara’s historical center is a textbook of Mexican architectural styles from colonial neoclassical with indigenous influences to the vibrant Art Deco. The town of Tequila — the birthplace of the popular spirit bearing its name — and fields lined with blue agave lies in the highlands to the west and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006. The region has been experiencing a renaissance due to the growing popularity of tequila in the United States and you can visit many of the original distilleries along the Tequila Trail. Jalisco’s pace of life slows down along the Pacific Coast and the Bahía de Banderas, where Puerto Vallarta’s malecón (boardwalk) and palm tree-lined beaches form one of Mexico’s premier resort destinations.
Opposite San Diego across the San Ysidro Point of Entry — one of the busiest border crossings in the world — is Tijuana, a uniquely Mexican city with an international flair. Founded by the Spanish while mapping the Pacific coast, the city attracted visitors from across the border as pioneers journeyed west and settled Southern California. A melting pot of West Coast mentality and Mexican culture, Tijuana is a dynamic and emerging city with a vibrant culinary and artistic scene. Telefonica Gastro Park while vast displays of color capture the eye with zebra-painted donkeys on the street corners and colorful murals watching over the plazas. Fortunately, Tijuana has left behind much of the crime that that city was known for in the early 2000s — much of Tijuana is just as safe as many American cities.
The soft crashing of waves and sun-drenched boardwalks of Mexico’s Pacific coast are embodied by Puerto Vallarta. Perfectly situated between the azure Bahía de Banderas and the lush Sierra Madre Mountains, Puerto Vallarta is the perfect getaway enjoyed by Guadalajara residents looking for a weekend trip and American retirement communities alike. By day, enjoy lazy time on the beach or a casual stroll along the extensive malecón. By night, the city transforms into one of the county’s nightlife capitals. Seemingly endless beaches provide limitless opportunities to enjoy the beauty of the water from snorkeling to parasailing while the looming mountains offer a different set of thrills including zip-lining and UTV (Utility Terrain Vehicle) rides. Puerto Vallarta’s relaxed lifestyle has helped the city become a popular LGBT travel destination and the proclaimed gay beach capital of Mexico.
Less than 30 miles outside of Mexico City, the City of Teotihuacan (“teh-oh-tee-wah-kahn”) was one of the largest ancient cities in the Western Hemisphere. Meaning “the place where the gods were created,” the city was built into the natural features of the Teotihuacan Valley and based on geometric principles. The towering Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon form the bookends of the Avenue of the Dead and the city became the model for Mesoamerican urban planning. The Temple of the Feathered Serpent (Temple of Quetzalcoatl) was the political and religious center of the powerful city and is believed to have served as a solar calendar for early Mesoamerica.
One of Mexico’ iconic sites, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Chichen Itza is an architectural marvel and a live demonstration of the Maya astronomical prowess set among the Yucatan Peninsula’s dense jungle. El Castillo — also known as the Temple of Kukulcan — is the 98-foot flagship pyramid standing above the Temple of the Warriors and the unique observatory, El Caracol. The stunningly preserved ruins capitalize on the sun’s movements during the spring and autumn equinoxes, capturing the sun’s shadow in the form of a snake on the stairs of El Castillo. Chichen Itza is located nearby several cenotes — a sinkhole with a collapsed ceiling, forming an underground swimming hole — that were sacred to the Maya, including the renowned Ik-Kil.
Just off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula’s eastern coast rests Isla Cozumel, a relaxing alternative to Cancún’s more boisterous atmosphere known for its plentiful ecotourism opportunities. The gentle energy of downtown San Miguel de Cozumel only scratches the surfaces of the islands true allure. Lazy iguanas cling to the centrally-located Maya ruins at San Gervasio while endemic wildlife can be spotted while zip-lining through the jungle forest but Cozumel’s true treasures lay beyond the shore within the warm, Caribbean waters. Popular parks include Palancar Beach Reef and Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park are paradise for water enthusiasts seeking to swim with dolphins, snorkel and dive among colorful coral reefs. At the island’s southern tip, Faro Celerain Eco Park offers a little of everything from sea turtles and exotic birds to Maya Ruins and the Celerain Lighthouse.
Known as Tlachihualtepetl (“man-made mountain”), the Great Pyramid of Cholula is the largest monument ever constructed. The pyramid — with a base four times larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza — has been covered in vegetation for over a thousand years and is the oldest continually-occupied building on the continent thanks to the Church constructed upon its peak. First constructed in 200 BCE, the pyramid’s origins remain a mystery.
One of the world’s most unique holidays, Día De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated all over Mexico. The holiday combines the beliefs of the indigenous people with the Catholic Spaniards that arrived in the 15th century. Indigenous peoples believed that each year, the souls of the dead return to eat and drink with the living as they would have before their deaths. This belief was combined with the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars called ofrendas, honoring the deceased using calaveras, aztec marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts.
Our trip to Oaxaca, Mexico for the Day of the Dead was fantastic! We had some prior knowledge about Dia de los Muertos from our Spanish class at home, but we learned so much more. The Mexican people were so warm and welcoming, and interacting with them made the trip even better. We have traveled quite a bit and this was definitely one of my favorite trips. I would highly recommend it to everyone.
— Anita from Mt. Pleasant, Wis. —
The three staples of Mexican cuisine — corn, beans and chilies — can be found in a number of forms throughout the country that has been shaped by the region. The Pacific coast is dominated by seafood while the Yucatán expertly embraces tropical fruit flavors. Mexico’s culinary mecca, Oaxaca is known as the land of seven moles (a type of sauce based on a combination of chili peppers) and was one of the first places in the world to grow cocoa beans — used as food, drink, medicine and even currency.
Chocolate is perhaps Mexico's most under-appreciated contribution to world cuisine, dating to the Olmec civilization and consumed by the Maya and the Aztecs as a beverage. When the Aztec king Montezuma welcomed Hernan Cortes, he shared the sacred beverage with the conquistador — introducing the cocoa bean to the rest of the world.
Today, the Paloma is Mexico's preferred beverage in place of the more widely-known margarita, which was not created until the mid-1920s. A wonderful mistake, a Tijuana bartender mixed the first margarita when he accidentally grabbed a bottle of tequila while crafting a Gin Daisy cocktail for an American seeking a reprieve from Prohibition. Tequila, and its smokier cousin mezcal, are distilled from blue agave and can only be produced in certain Mexican states.
Offering a dish for every palate, Mexican cuisine has taken on a new life with the growing popularity of street food. Whether at vendors lining the streets of Mexico City, food trucks encircling Tijuana’s Telefonica Gastro Park or enjoying family recipes at a stall in Puebla City, traditional foods are mixed with new ingredients and creatively prepared. Letting your taste buds savor the exciting flavors of the local cuisine is one of Mexico’s authentic experiences.
“If you are interested of getting a true perspective on Mexico, this is an absolute must and a delight for you. At every step of our journey we enjoyed the warmth of the Mexican people and we are amazed by the rich culture and history of this great country.”
— Peter from Sudbury, Ont., Canada, —
Mexico’s tropical waters are breeding grounds for both whale sharks and gray whales. Whale sharks breed each summer in the waters of Isla Holbox and grey whales calve in the coastal lagoons of Baja California Sur.
“What a terrific experience! So much more than we had expected. We learned that Baja, Calif., is a unique and complex natural, physical, historical and cultural environment. It was challenging and a whole lot of fun. And the whales… what can I say? They are beyond incredible — it was a completely thrilling and unforgettable experience to see them! Thank you!”
— Mildred from Berkeley, Calif.
Six species of wild cats can be found in Mexico’s diverse landscapes: Jaguars, cougars, ocelots, jaguarondi, margay and Mexican bobcat.
The critically endangered Axolotl can be found in the rivers and lakes of central Mexico. With its external gills, this salamander has become the face of Mexican wildlife conservation efforts.
Taking us deep into Mexico City, Goldman explores his relationship with the megacity of 22 million souls, comparing its approaches to death, friendship and grief with attitudes in the United States.
This classic survey of Mexico's ancient civilizations by a leading archaeologist, now in a seventh revised edition, covers in concise, illustrated detail the Olmec, Zapotec, Toltec and Aztec civilizations.
These essays by the Nobel Prize-winning poet address Mexican culture and character. The chapters on the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead and the conquest are especially memorable.
The history of the Maya, as it was recorded in the previously undecipherable hieroglyphs of the Maya. This excellent account traces the kingships and politics of the Maya, and features narratives recreating scenes of burials, blood sacrifices, battles and other events.
A coming-of-age tale set in modern-day Yucatan that draws on Mayan lore and tradition. Tigre, a 12-year-old boy, must sow and harvest the crops to support his family and appease the gods after his father is injured.
From the Olmec Civilization to the Mexican Revolution, Mexico has a long and varied history.
First populated over 13,000 years ago, Mexico's written history stretches back thousands of years before Spanish colonization. The mysteries of the Mayas and the Aztecs stand quietly within rainforests resting between serene beaches and the mountainous highlands. Centuries of Spanish influence created imposing cathedrals and open plazas within ancient Meso-American cities.
Mexico’s earliest known society traces its roots back to the Olmec Civilization, thriving on the Gulf Coast near present-day Veracruz and Playa del Carmen. The Olmecs thrived for 600 years from 1200 BCE until roughly 600 BCE and mysteriously vanished around 400 BCE. While the civilization remains an enigma, this culture and religion shaped much of Mesoamerican history. Nearby population centers built upon the legacy of the Olmec people, infused their religious beliefs and made groundbreaking accomplishments in the arts and sciences.
Powerful civilizations grew and collapsed; their origins and collapse remain a mystery that continues to intrigue. As the Olmec civilization declined, the curious city of Teotihuacan in south-central Mexico established its roots and the Maya people began to prosper in the Yucatán peninsula. Both civilizations’ influence stretched across Central America and reached their peak in the fifth century CE: Teotihuacan was the largest city in the western hemisphere (an estimated population of 200,000) before its collapse in the seventh century and the Maya established more than 40 cities with a total population of 2 million. The Maya are highly regarded for their achievements in architecture, mathematics and astronomy — their calendar is one of the most accurate ever created, accurately predicting lunar and solar eclipses. Their civilization declined through the ninth century CE, eventually collapsing due to overpopulation and environmental damage.
Everything changed when the Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernán Cortés, arrived in 1519. Due to his light skin, the Aztec King Montezuma believed Cortés to be the physical manifestation of the god Quetzalcoatl. Cortés managed to overthrow the Aztec empire within two years with the assurance of superior arms and disease that ran rampant, claiming the land of Nueva España in the name of the Spanish Crown. As Cortés and his men sent their newfound wealth back to Europe, missionaries and new settlers began sailing west to make their home in the New World. From the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the newly established Mexico City became the center of power for Nueva España, stretching from California to Argentina. The territory remained firmly under Spain’s control for 250 years until its grasp was significantly weakened by Europe’s political turmoil and the Napoleonic Wars.
Miguel de Hidalgo y Costilla, a Catholic priest from eastern Mexico, issued a call to arms in 1810 after Napoleon placed his brother on the Spanish throne. More than a decade of fighting ended in 1821 with the Treaty of Cordoba declaring Mexican independence. However, the next 100 years would be plagued by turmoil and corruption, the Mexican-American War and a second French occupation by Napoleon III from 1861-67. The tumultuous period and rampant corruption sowed the seeds for the 10-year Mexican Revolution in 1910, finally resulting in a period of careful stability. Advancements in agricultural practices and urbanization brought new wealth into Mexico but did little to fight the imbalance of wealth. The implementation of new trade agreements and broad natural resources have helped Mexico’s economy slowly develop with the influx of tourism. Today, Mexico’s serene beaches, stunning ancient ruins deep in the jungle and unique culture mixing indigenous and Spanish influences enchants and draws in travelers from around the world.