Mexico

by James Mostert, 18 Sep 2005

Quick facts

  • Capital: Mexico City
  • Population: approx. 106 million
  • Language: Spanish
  • Area: 1,972,550 sq km (approx. three times the size of Texas)
  • Currency: Mexican Peso (approx. exchange rate: 10 MXN = 1 USD)

Travel budget / daily costs: Alright. One night in a hostel will cost you about 70 Pesos on average. With a daily budget of 30 USD careful travellers should be able to get by. Because Mexico is such a big country, transportation becomes quite pricey if you move around a lot.

When to go: October - May. If you're able to travel outside of the rainy season (which is in the months May through October) this is probably best. Nevertheless, the rainy season is not as bad as it sounds; it'll rain for about an hour every afternoon/evening.

Introduction

What's described in this guide is only a small selection of what Mexico has to offer. The ultimate guide to this country does not exist: the country is absolutely enormous (it would take you about three days of non-stop travel by bus to cross the country from Baja California to Yucatán Peninsula) and is home to a rich variety of attractions: deserts, beautiful coast lines, one of the biggest cities in the world, Indian ruins, holiday resorts, local festivals, a colourful cultural heritage... All of this diversity makes Mexico a popular destination with travellers of all sorts.

Mexico City & Teotihuacán

Most travellers enter Mexico through the country's capital: Mexico City. This metropolis is absolutely huge, it is in fact the third biggest city in the world. It has an estimated 25 million inhabitants and they make the city just vibrant with life. The city centre is an everlasting market: from sunrise until sunset the streets are filled with many street vendors and little stalls, trying to attract the attention of all possible buyers by creating as much sound as possible in at times very creative ways. The city definitely has its charms, but it generally strikes people as an ugly, chaotic and dirty city. There's way too much traffic and the levels of smog are unbelievably high. Apart from a handful of museums, the city itself has relatively little to offer to the backpacker. Most people choose to stay in the city for a short time only, before exploring the rest of Mexico. The nightlife is best in Zona Rosa.

[ The easiest way to get around is by metro: cheap, frequent and fast. Recommended accommodation in Mexico City: Hostel Moneda and Hostel Cathedral ]

Pyramid of the Sun (Teotihuacan, Mexico)

One of the best things that you can do in Mexico City is actually a daytrip which will lead you out of the city and bring you to Teotihuacán, one of the biggest and best preserved ancient cities. The most important remaining landmarks on the 2,000+ year old site are the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon and the Ciudadela (the main plaza). The pyramids can be climbed and give the visitor - apart from the obligatory Kodak moments - some great views over the entire site. There's a museum with many excavated artefacts and interesting explanations on the ancient society that once dwelled here.

[ Entrance fee 50 MXN, and free with an ISIC card - if the guards are in a good mood that is. The easiest way to get there is through an organized tour from Mexico City. ]

The Pacific Coast

Mexico's west coast is huge, beautiful and has everything for everybody: mega tourist resorts with nothing but big hotels, restaurants and casinos (Acapulco), nice fishermen towns (Zihuatanejo), surfers' paradises (Puerto Escondido), quiet backpackers' relaxation heavens (Mazunte), tranquilo unspoilt beautiful tropical virgin beaches (Maruata). In short, the Pacific coast is definitely worth travelling along and spending a good amount of time on. You will without a doubt discover plenty of great spots to hang.

Zihuatanejo

This beautiful fishing port has a very friendly atmosphere and an authentic Mexican feeling. This makes Zihuatanejo a nice place to stick around for a couple of days. The beaches are beautiful, although the Playa Municipal is quite dirty. Luckily there are four other beaches on Zihuatanejo's bay, of which Playa Las Gatas is most secluded and most beautiful. It can be reached by a long walk along the bay's shore or by boat, and is an excellent spot for some snorkelling. The nightlife is calm, nice places to go are: the Jungle Bar for some drinks and the Black Bull for some dancing.

[ Recommended accommodation in Zihuatanejo: Angela's ]

Playa Manzanillo (Puerto Escondido, Mexico)

Puerto Escondido

Once a small attractive fishing village, nowadays a lively backpackers' hub. It's a very touristy place, yet the beaches are absolutely beautiful and make the town a great place for some good relaxation in the daytime. One of the most gorgeous beaches is Playa Manzanillo, a bit out of town. A lot of travellers come to Puerto Escondido for some surfing because the waves are great, especially at Playa Zicatela where the ocean is just brutal. At night there's plenty of entertainment in the bars and discos. Every day of the week there's at least one bar that has 'Ladies Night', which is usually where all gringos and locals converge in the evenings. These gatherings can end in beach parties, great fun.

[ Recommended accommodation in Puerto Escondido: Mayflower ]

If Puerto Escondido is just not for you and you want to escape the touristy atmosphere and find some true relaxation, go a bit further south towards Zipolite and Mazunte. These places are tiny villages, totally laid back, notorious for their beautiful beaches, and not yet disturbed by the mass tourism. All you can do is laze about in a hammock with a Corona in your hand, swim in the ocean or lie on the beach. Accommodation consists of cabañas on the beach where you sleep in hammocks.

Oaxaca

Oaxaca is a busy but pleasant town with nice colourful buildings, the big and abundantly decorated church Santo Domingo, and best of all with a number of markets where you can find just about everything: from cheap food, to weaving women in traditional clothing, to chapulines - fried grasshopper-like insects which are considered a local delicacy. There are four markets to be found throughout the city, all of which are definitely worth a visit. Mercado de Abastos is the biggest one, a true cacophony of sights, sounds and smells. Mercado 20 de Noviembre has many food stalls where you can get yourself a cheap dinner or lunch. Mercado Benito Juárez has a little bit of everything. And the Mercado Artesanal has, as its name suggests, local crafts (which is in many cases actually a synonym for tourist crap). While you're in Oaxaca, do not forget to try the chocolate which is one of the world's finest (best enjoyed as a hot drink) and of course try the mezcal (a highly alcoholic drink made out of cactus; you drink it in shots much like tequila).

[ Recommended accommodation in Oaxaca: Hostal Pochon ]

Hierve El Agua, Mexico

Oaxaca is also a place from which you can do many good daytrips. Monte Albán is the daytrip most frequently done by travellers: this ancient site has ruins, pyramids, walls, terraces, tombs, staircases and sculptures. Another good way to spend a day is to rent a mountain bike and simply bike through the stunning landscapes that surround the city. And about 50 kilometres out of Oaxaca you'll find Hierve El Agua, a beautiful nature park where minerals have petrified into what appears as a waterfall of stone. There are also some naturally formed pools to swim in, and some amazing views to marvel at.

San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

San Cristóbal de las Casas & Palenque

Situated in the province of Chiapas, built up in a very colonial style with low, brightly-coloured buildings and small one-way cobblestone streets, and one of the most beautiful and cheapest places within Mexico. Because of its altitude it's a lot colder than most other places in Mexico, a fact heavily exploited by the local handcraft market by trying to sell everybody one of their indigenous-looking sweaters. San Cristóbal de las Casas is also one of the biggest points of departure to Guatemala.

[ Recommended accommodation in San Cristóbal de las Casas: Backpackers Hostel ]

The surroundings of San Cristóbal have a lot to offer, and make great day trips. The most popular daytrip that can be done is an organized tour of sightseeing at Palenque and Agua Azul. Palenque is one of the most stunning Maya ruins in Mexico, situated in the middle of the jungle (bring mosquito repellent!) and should not be missed. Agua Azul is a series of impressive waterfalls and rapids. By the way, if you'd like to visit these sights on your own schedule, then it comes recommended to find some accommodation a bit closer by Palenque. For example in El Panchan - Maya for 'heaven on earth' - which is a fascinating hippie sort of town between Palenque town and the ruins.

Other daytrips. Sumidero Canyon, a spectacular boat trip through a gigantic high canyon. You'll see crocodiles and howler monkeys if you're lucky. Quite impressive. Another nice way to spend a day is to go horseback riding through the beautiful surroundings and/or visiting the lovely nearby villages.

Bits 'n pieces

  • When travelling by bus in Mexico, it's best to take an overnight bus if travel time is six hours or more. By doing this you'll save one night of accommodation and you won't lose a day to spend on more interesting things.
  • Mexico has a relatively warm climate, so most buses have air-conditioning. Unfortunately they're all set to a North pole like temperature. So bring a sweater, or you might freeze to death.
  • Mexicans eat chili on everything, and loads of it. Be prepared.
  • It's useful to have some basic knowledge of Spanish before arriving into Mexico.
  • Find and book hostels in Mexico.
  • For discussion and more information: the Backpacker Forums!

About the author

  • Author: James Mostert
  • From: The Netherlands
  • Website: James' travelog
  • E-mail: james @ worldbackpackers.net

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