Mexico has a vast and complex history and it was the cradle of many pre-Columbian civilizations including Maya, Aztec and Teotihuacan, centuries before the Spanish conquistador conquered and colonized the territory of today’s Mexico.
With such an eclectic mix of cultures and influences, Mexico has become a striking blend of large cities and beautiful resorts perfect for tourists in search of an exotic vacation.
Mexico City, the state’s capital, is one of the largest and busiest cities in the world with over a quarter of the country’s population speeded through its 16 boroughs. However, the many world renowned resorts on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea are the places that have put Mexico among the most visited countries in the world.
With a tropical climate, the seaside resorts are the epitome of a perfect exotic vacation year-round, with numerous opportunities for snorkeling, scuba diving and many other water sports. Most seaside resorts like Cabo San Lucas, Cancun or Acapulco have mastered the art of tourism and thus they’ve turned the Mexican beaches into the most beloved vacation destination in the world.
However Mexico is also famous for its many archeological sites, where history buffs can explore the remains of ancient civilizations like Maya, the Aztecs or Zapotec. The pyramids of Teotihuacan are still an architectural wonder, while the ancient city of Palenque arouses the curiosity of every visitor who dares to explore the old ruins hidden in the jungle.
What is more, Mexico is the birth place of Mariachi music, tequila and Lucha libre which should be reason enough to explore this mesmerizing country, filled with welcoming locals and breathtaking landscapes.
Despite its diverse cultural heritage, Mexico remains one of the most exciting places to visit, with large, noisy metropolis, beautiful seaside resorts, lush jungles, snowy mountains and exciting historical sites.
1. Mexico City
The heart and soul of Mexico is its capital – Mexico City. One of the largest cities and financial centers in America, Mexico City is also the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world.
This enormous metropolis is the perfect place to start a trip through Mexico, even though the capital itself can keep a tourist busy for weeks. The capital has 16 boroughs, similar to New York City, which in turn are divided into neighborhoods. In fact there are about 1700 neighborhoods in Mexico City, with a population of about 26 million people.
Since this is a massive metropolis, it’s very difficult to explore it by foot. And while driving can be quite difficult in Mexico City, the public transportation system is probably the best option.
With so many touristic attractions spread throughout the city, the downtown area, more precisely Plaza de la Constitucion, is the best spot to start your journey. This square is one of the largest ones in the world and is also referred to as Zocalo. The plaza is surrounded by several historic buildings including the City Hall and La Cathedral, the biggest cathedral in America. This building is well worth a visit, particularly for its principle altar, made out of solid gold.
Around Plaza de la Constitucion, within walking distance, tourists can spot several other important landmarks, including the National Palace, the seat of the federal executive in Mexico, and Templo Mayor, the ruins of an ancient Aztec temple. Templo Mayor or the Great Temple was the most important Aztec temple in the capital of Tenochtitlan, which is now the city of Mexico.
Mexico is a deeply religious country and, therefore, there’s a large number of churches and cathedral scattered throughout the city, most of them Catholic. They are all extremely beautiful, but if you have to choose only one then Basilica de Guadalupe is the place to see. This is the holiest spot in America and a very important destination for pilgrims from every corner of the world. The church can be found in La Villa de Guadalupe in the northern part of the city. Here the famous pictorial image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is housed, and the church is also the most visited Catholic site in the world.
Another important landmark in Mexico City is Paseo de la Reforma, a wide boulevard known for the most recognizable symbol of this city – the Angel of Independence. Paseo de la Reforma is also an important financial district, and some of the tallest buildings can be found here.
Despite its always busy traffic and high level of pollution, Mexico City has many parks and gardens scattered throughout its neighborhoods. The most popular one is definitely Xochimilco, in the southern part of the city, a system of canals and gardens which date back to the Aztec period. Usually, tourists prefer to hire a trajineras, a colorful gondola-like boat, which usually carry Mariachi bands and floating bars. This area was declared a UNESCO world heritage site and it’s the last piece of the old Mexico City, before the Spanish conquered the region.
Mexico City’s rich history can best be explored in one of the largest museums in the world, the National Museum of Anthropology. Here tourists can learn more about the ancient Aztec civilization and admire the famous Aztec calendar stone, known as the Stone of the Sun.
Acapulco is one of the most popular vacation destinations in America thanks to its glorious beaches, vibrant nightlife and warm locals who know how to properly greet tourists. Located in the picturesque Bahia de Acapulco, this city is a perfect spot for an exotic vacation by the beach.
The first thing any visitor does once they have arrived in Acapulco is to explore the wide breathtaking beaches. The area enjoys year-round tropical weather, which means Acapulco is a perfect destination every day of the year. The majority of the beaches are fronting Acapulco’s main boulevard, La Costera. This is where you can find the most popular spots for sun bathing, including Papagayo, Tamarindos and Hornos beach. Here locals and tourists alike love to practice different watersports, while beaches like Playa Caleta and Caletilla are more suited for families with children thanks to their shallow waters and gentle waves.
At night, La Costera comes alive with music and lights. This is where the heart and soul of Acapulco is, alongside a myriad of restaurants, shops, bars and nightclubs. During the day, fashionable tourists indulge in some retail therapy, while at night the party spills into the street and lasts until the early hours of the morning.
For a more quiet time, visitors can explore the historical part of Acapulco. Unlike other beach resorts in Mexico, Acapulco is an actual Mexican town with old plazas and imposing cathedrals. The old city center also known as Zocal is the perfect place for a quiet afternoon in the shade of the trees lining the Plaza Juan Alvarez. Here tourists can visit Acapulco’s cathedral and many local shops and traditional markets.
Whether you’re planning for an adrenaline filled vacation or you simply want to admire other daredevils, you should definitely check out the famous Acapulco divers at La Quebrada. Skilled swimmers, these people launch themselves from a height of over 100 feet into the shallow stream of dangerous tides at the foot of La Quebrada cliffs. The divers must time their jumps perfectly in order to coincide with the incoming waves. The popular divers perform five times a day, and the last “show” is at 10.30 pm when the cliffs are beautifully lit. If the heart stopping jumps are not on that interesting for you, then the exquisite views over the Pacific Ocean should be reason enough to search for this landmark.
Another popular attraction in Acapulco is the glass-bottom boat rides to Isla La Roqueta. Starting from Palya Caleta, these boats allow tourists to admire the underwater universe hidden deep in the sea. La Roqueta Island is an ecological reserve with beautiful beaches and snorkeling spots. Here, nature enthusiasts can take trips through the island to explore the beautiful lush nature. However, the best part of the tour is definitely the boat ride. Through the glass bottom, tourists can admire a submerged statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe while divers feed colorful fishes for the enjoyment of visitors.
3. Cabo San Lucas
Beach lovers should not miss the opportunity to enjoy life by the beach in Cabo San Lucas. The epitome of exotic vacation, this town has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. And they cater to every tourist’s needs, from secluded coves to wide, mile long strips of sand. Such beautiful surroundings offer great opportunities not just for swimming in the ocean, but also for snorkeling, sport-fishing, parasailing, scuba diving and many more water sports.
Three decades ago Cabo San Lucas was just a tiny fishing village, until it was discovered by tourists in search for new vacation destination. Nowadays, the resort is one of the most sought after vacation sports with luxurious hotels, high-end restaurants, and lively nightlife.
Located in the southern part of Baja California Sur, Cabo San Lucas is surrounded by some of the most dramatic landscapes in Mexico. However, at night is when this city really comes to life. Cabo San Lucas has one of the busiest nightlife in America thanks to its large number of bars and night clubs.
Even though it’s known as the party city of Baja Peninsula, Cabo San Lucas also boasts a great number of natural landmarks and important monuments. One of the most beloved activities here is whale watching. From January to March, visitors can take a boat trip to the Sea of Cortez in order to admire these magnificent creatures up close.
A popular place in the city is Land’s End, a large area filled with massive rock formations carved into different shapes by sea and wind. This area is one of the most photographed in the entire peninsula, especially Playa del Amante (Lover’s Beach), where, during low tide, tourists love to take romantic strolls by the sea. From there, visitors can also see Los Frailes, two enclaves that are usually popular resting places for sea lions.
Fishing is one of the most favored sports on the peninsula, and Cabo San Lucas hosts one of the most well-known marlin tournaments in the world. Another beloved activity here is golf. The area boasts six major golf courses, popular among celebrities who love to spend time in Cabo San Lucas.
A more unconventional way to explore the surroundings of the city is by hiring an ATV in order to discover the desert, the sand dunes and all the wide beaches, around Cabo San Lucas. Tourists who prefer a quieter trip can take a buggy through the Boca de la Sierra mountain range, following one of the many marked trails, lined with hundreds of cacti species. This is one of Mexico most important UNESCO protected biosphere reservations, and it also offer visitors the opportunity to swim in several fresh water pools hidden among the rugged landscape.
History buffs who want to find out more about the Maya culture must take a trip to the ruins of the Maya city Palenque. Located in the southern region of Chiapas, Palenque ruins date back to about 600 AD to 800 AD.
Hidden deep into the lush jungle, this archeological site is relative medium sized, but it boasts some of the most exquisite sculptures, architecture and carvings this ancient culture has ever produced. In order to reach the site tourists usually take a minibus from the town of Palenque which is about 4 miles from the site.
During its glory days, this Maya city was one of the most important religious sites in Mexico, and, even though the excavated site today is about 1 square mile, it is thought that less than 10% of the entire ancient city has been discovered, and thousands of structures are still hidden deep in the Mexican jungle.
The tallest building in the site is The Templo de Las Inscripciones, the funerary monument for of Hanab-Pakal, which was erected around 657. This structure house one of the longest glyphic texts known from the Maya era, which records about 180 years of the city’s long history.
The Palace, a complex of several connected buildings and courtyards, which used to be the rulers’ residence, is located right in the center of the ancient city. This buildings house a large number of sculptures and carvings that have been almost perfectly preserved. The Palace can be seen from almost any spot in the site thanks to its Observation Tower, a four stories high tower.
There are several temples scattered throughout the city of Palenque, the most interesting being the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Cross and the Temple of the Foliated Cross. These threes structures were built atop step pyramids, and all of them are decorated with intricate carvings depicting figures presenting ritual objects to a central icon.
It takes at least one day to explore all the beautiful ruins of Palenque and visitors are advised to wear comfortable shoes. Those who want to explore the lush surroundings can take a detour to the Mishol-Ha waterfall, a high waterfall which ends into a natural pool, which is perfect for swimming, so don’t forget your bathing suit. Behind the waterfall there’s a path that leads to a cave which can also be explored.
The second largest city in Mexico, Guadalajara is a colonial city known as the birthplace of tequila and mariachi music. With beautiful architecture and a more relaxed feel, this metropolis is a perfect alternative to the stuffier Mexico City.
Though many of its old buildings were demolished during the 20th century to make room for wider boulevards, shopping centers and more green spaces, the most beautiful edifices are still intact and perfectly conserved.
The best place to start exploring the city is from the historic center which can be visited by foot. The main edifice here is the Guadalajara Cathedral, an imposing edifice which was erected at the beginning of the 17th century and it took about 50 years to be finished. The cathedral style is an eclectic blend of gothic, palladian and neoclassical style and its twin towers are one of the most recognizable symbols of this city.
The cathedral is surrounded by seven large plazas all decorated with magnificent fountains and sculptures. The historic center is also home to some of the most interesting museums in the country including the Regional Museum and the Instituto Cultural Las Cabañas, which houses the famous Jose Clemente Orozco’s murals. Right behind the cathedral, near Plaza de la Liberacion, the gorgeous neoclassical building of Teatro Degollado houses performances of the beloved Ballet Folclorico.
Plaza de los Mariachis is a fitting spot to end a trip through the historic center, where visitors and locals alike gather in the evening to listen to the mariachis play and have a drink at one of the bars nearby.
Tourists who want to get a taste of the real culture of Guadalajara should definitely make a point to visit Mercado Libertad also known as Mercado San Juan de Dios. This enormous three stories market where you’ll be able to find anything from fresh fruits and vegetables, to handmade objects, clothes, musical instruments, computer programs, car parts, sombreros and many more things. The market is always bustling with thousands of people and the food section serves some of the most delicious street food in the city.
Outside the historic center this metropolis has many other interesting touristic attractions including the Templo Expiatorio, a neo-gothic cathedral with a mechanical clock and an impressive collection of stained glass windows.
One of the largest parks in the city is Parque Agua Azul, an enormous green space which boasts a butterfly enclosure, an aviary and many open air concerts. There are also tow museums on the premises of the park: a museum of paleontology and a museum of regional archeology.
About 30 miles from Mexico City, Teotihuacan, a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican city, offers visitors the opportunity to explore some of the largest ancient pyramids in the world. Also known as the City of Gods, the archeological site used to be the one of the biggest pre-Columbian cities in America, but they were inexplicably abandoned hundreds of years before the Aztecs arrived.
The city is thought to have been established around 100 BC and it probably lasted until the 8th century AD. It had thousands of edifices including multi-floor apartments that were erected to accommodate the about 150.000 of people who is thought to have been lived there during those times.
Because of its many architectural marvels, Teotihuacan is thought to be the birthplace of Gods. These massive ruins were built according to precise astronomical measurements and they were filled with the bodies of sacrificial victims. In fact, it is thought that human sacrifice was performed in correlation with astronomical events.
The site is over 30 square miles and it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In fact, thanks to it many interesting pyramids and structure, Teotihuacan is the most visited architectural site in Mexico.
The site is crossed by a main avenue called the Avenue of the Dead, which is lined with some of the most important structures here, including the Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest one in the world after the Great Pyramid of Cholula and the Great Pyramid of Giza. The actual structure of the pyramid is not the only interesting thing here. Those who manage to climb the pyramid will be rewarded with amazing views of the site and the mountains around it.
The most sacred temple in Teotihuacan is the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. This structure is flanked by several upper class apartments and it is the main feature of the Ciutadela compound, a ginormous compound capable of holding over 100.000 people. The entire complex of buildings was designed to astound visitors.
The site also has a museum with the same name which houses a miniature recreation of the entire archeological site and many other interesting displays about the mesmerizing culture of the pre-Columbians.
Though in order to explore these incredible ruins, tourists must walk among the pyramids and admire all the beautiful frescoes and carvings, there’s another way to take in the entire site – by flying over the area on a hot air balloon. A company which operates nearby offers such astounding trips every day, and it’s definitely a once in a lifetime experience.
The island of Cozumel in the Caribbean Sea, just off the eastern coast of Mexico is another popular vacation destination. With a tropical climate and many wide beautiful beaches, this island is a perfect alternative to the more upscale Acapulco and Cabo San Lucas. There are 12 towns on the island and the largest one is San Miguel de Cozumel which is also the main touristic attraction.
The entire economy of this island is based on tourism so it’s no wonder that tourists from all over the world flock to this tiny island which is a perfect vacation destination all year round thanks to its tropical climate.
The best way to explore the island is by hiring a scouter or bike so you’ll be able to take in the lush nature. The main touristic attraction on the island of Cozumel is the large beaches and the possibility of scuba diving and snorkeling. The western side of the island is more populated and most tourists choose to spend their time on the beaches there. However, the eastern coast is well worth a visit for its rugged terrain and more secluded beaches, with waves perfect for watersports.
Cozumel Islands also has several Mayan archeological sites that make for a great day trip. The largest one is San Gervasio, just 11 miles from San Miguel de Cozumel. The site is believed to be a former religious center that paid tribute to the goddess Ixche. El Caracol temple, which used to be a lighthouse during Mayan times, on the southern part of the island, is another interesting landmark.
At the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains, another important Mexican city, Oaxaca, attracts thousands of visitors every year, thanks to its colonial buildings and its unique mix of Zapotec and Miztec cultures.
One of the largest cities in the southern part of Mexico, Oaxaca is home to sixteen recorded tribes of indigenous people. Though this city has plenty of touristic attractions, the best way to take experience it is by strolling along the wide boulevards of the city center and admiring the locals going about their day from a small cafe.
Once you reach the city the first place you should visit is definitely the Zocalo, the main square in the heart of Oaxaca. The most upscale restaurants and bars can also be found here, alongside Palacio de Gobierno and the city’s main cathedral.
Just like most Mexican cities, Oaxaca has a large number of cathedrals and churches. The most impressive one is Santo Domingo Church and Former Convent. Though from outside, it looks just like most Catholic churches, once you step inside you’ll be able to discover the actual treasure of Santo Domingo Church. The dazzling interior of this building is completely covered in art pieces and gold. The former convent has been transformed into a museum dedicated to local culture and one of the most popular displays is the treasures found in tomb 7 from Monte Alban, an archeological site near Oaxaca.
The city has several large markets that are well worth a visit especially if you want an insight into locals’ daily lives. The busiest one is Benito Juarez Market with over 700 stalls and thousands of people roaming and sampling the delicious products. The maze of colors, smells and noise is definitely overwhelming but the fresh produce and handmade products are definitely worth the visit. Brave visitors can also sample the local cuisine including a snack of toasted grasshoppers.
Though tequila is the national beverage in Mexico, Oaxaca is famous for another liquor also made out of distilled agave – mescal. Make a point of visiting one of the mescal distilleries in Oaxaca for a lesson into how this beverage is made. And, at the end, you can even sample it.
About 5 miles outside of Oaxaca there is another important Zapotec archeological site – Monte Alban, which dates back to 500 BC. Here tourists can learn more about Zapotec civilization while taking in the surroundings from the highest point atop of the main pyramid. This is where Mexican archeologist uncovered a treasure filled tomb at in the 30’s. Most of the artefacts found there can be studied at Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, near Santo Domingo Church.
One of the most popular vacation spots in the world can be found on the easternmost point of Mexico. Cancun was built exclusively for tourism and boasts several pristine beaches perfect swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving and many other watersports. Thanks to its near perfect weather, this sea resort is a year round great spot for a vacation at the beach and that is why more than 3 million visitors arrive in Cancun every year.
Cancun is not only a beloved resort in Mexico but also one of the most beautiful and luxurious places in the Caribbean with upscale restaurants and luxurious hotels which cater to its guests every whim. Alongside a wide variety of touristic attractions like bars, shopping centers and night clubs, Cancun also boasts several Mayan archeological sites.
The most popular spot in Cancun is Laguna Nichupte, a breathtaking lagoon on the inland side of the city, in the touristic area, where visitors can spend time at one of the numerous shops, golf courses and waterfront restaurants.
Those who want to discover the real Cancun should definitely see the mainland area of the city also known as El Centro. Though this area is not as popular as the touristic side of the city, it is a great place to buy handmade products and eat at small, family restaurants where you can sample the true traditional cuisine.
Cancun is mostly famous for its amazing white sand beaches which stretch for miles along the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. Though most visitors flock on the most popular spots in order to sunbathe and swim, visitors can still find some more isolated spots away from the noisy crowds.
Those in search for a little adrenaline can venture into the deep waters for snorkeling and scuba diving, while tourists who simply prefer to swim into shallow waters should take a trip to the little Isla Mujeres (Island of Women) just 8 miles off the coast of Cancun. Here, visitors not only can enjoy the beautiful beaches but they can also visit the turtle farm on the island where they can admire endangered sea turtles, or visit the 19th century Hacienda Mundaca built by pirate Fermin Mundaca. The farmhouse boasts many exotic plants, orchards, birds breeding places and several gardens.
Another noteworthy touristic attraction in Cancun is the Museo Subacuatico de Arte. This contemporary underwater museum of art was set up in the waters near Cancun, Isla Mujeres and Punta Nizuc. The museum boasts many sculptures embedded into the seabed and they are all made out of materials used to promote coral life. The museum occupies a 420 square meters of empty underwater area, which be best explored by snorkeling or diving.
The city of Merida is mostly famous for its large number of Maya descendants, but its strong British, French and Dutch influences have shaped the culture of this large city into a very different one from those in most Mexican cities, which is be easily spotted in the local dress, language, holidays and cuisine.
Compared with cities like Guadalajara and Mexico City, Merida is a lot cleaner and quieter. Dubbed as “the white city” because of its buildings made out of white limestone, Merida was built by Spanish Conquistadors during the 16th century on top of an old Maya city named T’ho.
Due to its colonial atmosphere and tropical climate, the city of Merida offers a very different experience to its visitors. The first thing everybody how visits Merida for the first time will notice is the local dialect. Locals in this area have a very distinct accent, while a third of the population of the city also speaks Yucatec Maya.
One of the most famous buildings in Merida is Casa de Montejo, built by the founder of the city, Francisco de Montejo, during the 16th century, in Plaza Mayor. The edifice was home for the Montejo family for almost three centuries, and it’s one of the best examples of Plateresco style architecture. Near Casa de Montejo is the cathedral of Merida, an imposing 16th century colonial church inaugurated in 1598. This is the oldest cathedral in the Americas and it stands on a former site of a Maya temple. The actual cathedral is an interesting blend of Baroque, Renaissance and Moorish architecture.
The main boulevard of Merida is Paseo de Montejo which stretches from Plaza Mayor all the way towards the end of the city. This striking tree-lined street was modeled after the Champs-Elysee in Paris, and it can also be admired from a horse drawn carriage, called. El Paseo Montejo is lined with some of the oldest and most beautiful colonial buildings in Merida, like Palacio Canton or Quinta Montes Molina.
A very important part of Merida’s culture is its traditional cuisine which can be quite different from the regular Mexican food. Thanks to its many European, Caribbean and Middle Eastern influences, this city have developed a unique cuisine that must be sampled at one of the many traditional restaurants in the city center.
Since the city boasts such a large Maya community, is no wonder one of the most important museums in the city is Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, which offers a unique insight into the Maya culture and identity.
Merida also houses several large parks scattered throughout the city. One of the most popular ones amongst the locals is Las Americas Park, which boasts a large square where many performances and shows take place in the evenings, an amphitheater, a public library and a playground. Here, visitors can take romantic strolls near the monumental stone fountain representing the Mayan deity Kukulcan, or they can explore a replica of a Mayan hut, where they can find several murals depicting important Latin American historic events.