Over the 2018 Christmas holidays, my sister and I decided to ditch the tree and tinsel for tacos and tequila on a trip to North America. Together we went South to experience the very best of Mexico across seven different states. From ancient ruins and mouthwatering food to golden beaches with crystal clear oceans, Mexico never disappointed.
Here is a quick review and breakdown of everywhere we went.
MEXICO CITY ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Our journey began when I met my sister in Mexico City (also known as CDMX) after landing in Mexico City International Airport (Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez). Mexico City is home to over 20 million people, making it one of the biggest cities in the world. This means there’s no shortage of things to do including visiting the more tranquil, “hipster” neighbourhoods of San Angel and Coyoacan where artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo lived. Here you can catch your breath away from the city centre along the cobblestone streets and quaint cafes. Sadly, we only had one day to try and squeeze in as much as possible before leaving for our next destination but thanks to the efficient subway system we were able to cram in most of the cities best bits.
Where we went: Historic centre of Mexico City & Zocalo, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Frida Kahlo Museum, Coyoacan, and the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
From CDMX we moved on to the beautiful city of Puebla which was built by the Spanish as a brand new city way back when. The historical centre of Puebla is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site and it’s easy to see why. Puebla boasts a rich history and vibrant colonial architecture all at the foot of the stunning Popocatepetl volcano. It is definitely worth the visit if only to walk around for a few hours to admire some of the 2619 monuments or to visit neighbouring Cholula, a pueblo mágico thought to be the oldest in America.
Where we went: Zona Arqueológica de Cholula, Historic Centre of Puebla & Catedral de Puebla, Barrio del Artista, Casa De Los Hermanos Serdan, and the Teleférico de Puebla.
Oaxaca City (pronounced wa-ha-ka) was one of my favourite stops throughout our trip. Its colourful colonial buildings, powerful murals depicting regional history, and stunning mountainous skyline make Oaxaca’s capital city a must stop for anyone travelling the South. Although we weren’t able to venture to the beaches and explore the state in greater detail due to time constraints, I’ve heard their beaches are an undiscovered paradise…so, pretty promising? Personally, what made Oaxaca so special was its Mesoamerican history and palpable indigenous culture. If you’re also a history buff interested in ancient Zapotecan indigenous ruins then the archaeological site of Monte Albán is unmissable.
Where we went: Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude, Zócalo Oaxaca, Oaxaca Cathedral, Museo de Los Pintores Oaxaqueños, Monte Albán, Mitla, and Hierve el Agua.
After Oaxaca, our next stop was the state of Chiapas and its capital city Tuxtla. What made a trip to Tuxtla worthwhile is the Parque Nacional Cañón del Sumidero where we spotted crocodiles, pelicans and spider monkeys on a boat tour through the canyon. The boat tours leave from Chiapa de Corzo which is a short collectivo ride away from Tuxla city centre. We also experienced the stunning canyon from above at six different miradores (lookouts). If you also decide to do this just be sure to save the bracelet from your boat tour as it will provide entry to the miradores. Be aware that all boat tours are conducted in Spanish so brush up on your skills beforehand so you’re able to understand all the fun fauna and flora facts. Lastly, don’t forget to respect your surroundings! Sadly, we noticed a lot of rubbish floating along the river.
Where we went: Parque Nacional Cañón del Sumidero, Miradores cañon del sumidero
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS ⭐⭐
Nestled in the mountains San Cristobal de las Casas is a popular stop among travellers visiting Mexico due to its cooler climate and local art scene. This may be an unpopular opinion for travellers who have passed through, and presumably locals… but I felt that San Cristobal was a letdown. I’m not saying it’s not enjoyable with its brightly decorated streets and lively zócalo, but ultimately a surge in tourism over the years has worn away at its charm and left it unjustly expensive and crowded with tourists. Even the nearby indigenous village of Chamula felt like a tourist trap full of beggars and souvenir stalls. The only interesting attraction was the San Juan Chamula Church, which was definitely…unique. If you fancy seeing a chicken be sacrificed against the backdrop of hundreds of candles then this is the church for you. I’m sure plenty of people have been to San Cristobal and loved it – this was just my experience!
Where we went: Zócalo & Cathedral of San Cristobal, Sweets and Handicrafts Market Amber, Guadalupe Church, El Cerrillo and San Juan Chamula Church.
The town of Ocosingo is nothing to write home about and given that it was the only place where we were cheekily overcharged as tourists it didn’t leave the best impression. However, it is a good base to visit the beautiful Mayan archaeological site of Tonina, as it is only a cheap collectivo ride away from Ocosigno centre. Even if you couldn’t care less about the site’s history Tonina is definitely worth a visit to appreciate the stunning views of the Ocosingo Valley from the top.
Where we went: Zona Arqueologica Tonina
As a tourist, the sole purpose of visiting Palenque is to experience its outstanding ancient Mayan city just a short drive away. The site is considered to be one of the top destinations in Chiapas State as it’s basically an archaeologist’s Mecca. Going to the ancient city also means a trip to the heart of the lush Lacandona Jungle, where Saraguato monkeys and Jaguars have been known to roam. This World Heritage Site is absolutely massive so it’s well worth joining one of the many guided tours available to explore the site to its fullest. There’s also a museum at the beginning of the ancient city which depicts the religion, rituals, politics, and daily life of the Mayan people in great detail. Make sure to dedicate a day here as this is one attraction you don’t want to rush.
Where we went: Zona Arqueológica Palenque
By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around we had made it to the Northern seaside town of Campeche in the Yucatan Peninsula. Campeche’s sleepy historical centre is known as the rainbow city because it consists of pretty pastel buildings and is enclosed by the colourful walls of the Fuerte de San Miguel. However, while the centre is nice to stroll around it soon grows dull and tedious as there is next to no atmosphere given that most people live outside the fort walls. A mix up at the laundrette meant we ended up staying in Campeche longer than expected and were fairly bored for most of it. Thankfully New Year’s Eve provided some entertainment with a seaside concert, countdown and fireworks display but overall it felt like a ghost town the majority of the time.
Where we went: Fort San Miguel, Malecon Campeche, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Puerta de Tierra and Independence Square.
Like most colonial cities Mérida is full of character thanks to its spacious zócalo, beautiful cathedrals, and sugary building facades. Despite its abundance of colourful pastel architecture, Mérida is actually nicknamed the Ciudad Blanca (white city) because of the white limestone that remains from the ancient Mayan city T’hó, which Mérida was built upon. Overall Mérida was charming, clean, and felt very safe. It is also only an hours drive to Uxmal, one of the key Mayan sites in Mexico, making it the perfect base for day trips. It’s easy to see how it won the American Capital of Culture award twice and why so many expats decide to make it their permanent home.
Where we went: Plaza Grande, Palacio Canton, Museum of the City of Merida and Paseo de Montejo.
To be honest, Valladolid was a lot like Mérida which isn’t a bad thing at all but meant we didn’t dedicate too much time here because of our tight schedule. One of the reasons why it’s so popular among tourists is because there are many cenotes in the area and in the city itself. Like Mérida, it’s also a good base for trips to nearby attractions such as the Chichen Itza ruins and the northern town of Rio Lagartas. Heads up, Chichen Itza is EXTREMELY overcrowded, overpriced, and just not worth it in my opinion, especially in comparison with the beautiful ruins of Palenque and Monté Alban. If I could go back in time I would skip it altogether and visit one of the many gorgeous cenotes nearby instead.
Where we went: Iglesia de San Servacio, Francisco Canton Rosado Park, Calzada de Los Frailes, La Mestiza Park and the ruins of Chichen Itza.
RIO LAGARTAS (River of Alligators) ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Río Lagartos is a very small and sleepy fishing village with not much going on but make no mistake, it is worth the trip north to see its surrounding lagoon which has been declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Here we took a two-hour boat cruise with a local fisherman through the mangroves to Las Coloradas to see the famous flamingos as well as many local birds, reptiles and fish. This tour was definitely worth the time and money, I highly recommend it! You get to see so much wildlife and a stunning pink lake. Plus, when you’re done there’s no shortage of local restaurants offering fresh fish for lunch. Sardinas anyone?
Where we went: Las Coloradas
After Cancún, Tulum is arguably the most popular tourist destination in Mexico. Chances are if you have an Instagram account you’ve come across snaps showcasing its 1,000-year-old seaside ruins, infamous cenotes, and idyllic beach shores resembling paradise. Unfortunately, in person and filter-free, it’s not quite as stunning as expected. Don’t get me wrong it is beautiful, I mean how can a Carribean beach town not be? The ruins were unique and interesting and the sea made a nice change from the Mexican mountains. But, it was very congested with other tourists (finding accommodation was next to impossible), incredibly pricy compared to other towns, and felt very commercial overall.
Where we went: Tulum Archaeological Site & El Castillo, Paradise Beach, and the Cenote Azul.
Peaceful, relaxing, breathtaking, need I say more? Bacalar is a stunning southern town in the state of Quintana Roo located near the Belize border. Its crowning glory is a crystalline lagoon known as the Lagoon of Seven Colors because it features seven different shades of mesmerising blue. Despite being fairly well known as the Maldives of Mexico on social media, Bacalar has managed to maintain a traditional Mexican feel and is not overcrowded with tourists. On the contrary, Bacalar has a very laid back, tranquil atmosphere and is the perfect spot for water sports, cenote spotting, or just chilling by the lagoon. With reasonable prices for food and accommodation, Bacalar is truly a Mexican treasure and an unmissable experience. Go now before it gets too commercialised in the future!
Where we went: El Canal De Los Piratas, Cenote Cocalitos, Cenote Azul, Balneario Municipal de Bacalar, Balneario Ecológico, Cenote Esmeralda and Fort San Felipe Bacalar.
WOOO Spring Break! Ok, my sister and I are definitely past our student days but we felt a trip to Southern Mexico wasn’t complete without seeing why everyone’s so crazy over Cancún. After making a beeline to the beach from the bus station we soon reached the conclusion that Cancún is a dream destination for all-inclusive commercial holidays but if you’re looking for an authentic Mexican feel then this isn’t the place for you. If you come to Mexico and only visit Cancún then I’m afraid you’ve not seen the real Mexico. However, Cancún is a safe place for families and boasts some spectacular Caribbean beaches and fun water activities. There are definitely worse places to visit.
Where we went: Zona Hotelera and Chac Mool Beach.
From Cancún, we flew back to Mexico City and took a bus to Toluca, where my sister is currently living. Toluca is a colonial city and the capital of Mexico’s central State of Mexico. It’s known for its colonial architecture and famous Portales which are found at the heart of its picturesque old town. I only had a day to explore Toluca, or as I like to call it Madrid in the 80s, before flying out from Mexico City again. But I thoroughly enjoyed been shown around and soaking in the city’s impressive Cathedral, attractive plazas, and lively shopping arcades.
Where we went: Cosmovitral, Toluca Cathedral, Plaza Gonzalez Arratia and Los Portales.
For anyone who’s thinking about visiting Mexico check out the video below to see what could be in store for you!