Because of its location, Mexico has long been a popular travel destination for Americans and Canadians alike. While the ongoing drug war might dominate headlines, the fact is that Mexico is a very large country with many regions that are perfectly safe to visit. If you do head down south, you’ll be treated to fabulous beaches, great food, a vibrant culture that blends indigenous and European elements, and a number of historical sites dating back to pre-Columbian times. We’ll cover some of the best examples of where to go in Mexico so you can start planning your getaway today!
Want to learn more about Mexico?
The transportation network within Mexico is extensive so you’ll have no trouble getting where you want to go. However, while the major expressways are well maintained, some roads in more remote areas (especially mountains) might not be of high quality. Trains are a great way to travel between major cities. A trip from Mexico City to Guadalajara is 5 hours hours faster by train than car and more scenic. Air travel is the most advanced in Latin America and you can often fly into smaller hubs direct from the United States. It is recommended you fly into Mexico as opposed to driving in from the US since the border regions are considered the most dangerous parts of the country.
Most of the touristy, coastal areas will have pleasant weather year round. Deserts can be found in the north while more lush, humid regions can be found further to the south. The main thing to take out of this is that trips are viable at any time, especially if you plan on hitting up the beach. In hotter places like Copper Canyon, visiting during the cooler spring or fall is often more pleasant than summer.
Where to go in Mexico
It’s been accused of showcasing the worst of urban sprawl in the past and while Mexico’s capital is indeed intimidating due its sheer size, that doesn’t mean you should give it a pass. On the contrary, Mexico City has been enjoying an explosion of culture and activities. From historical relics dating back to the time of the Aztecs to cantinas and canal boat trips (à la Venice), there’s more than enough to occupy your time. There’s famous plazas and squares and some of the best museums in the country to visit but wandering around and seeing what you find can be just as fulfilling of an experience. If you can figure out the sometimes confusing mega-metropolis, Mexico City will be one of the highlights of your trip.
The Yucatán Peninsula
Separating the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico, this southeastern peninsula is the home of many of the top tourist destinations in the country. We can’t go through them all, but here’s a taster of some of the popular sights (that will appeal to history buffs and spring breakers) found on the Yucatán (pictures correspond to location detailed below).
We’ll get Cancún out of the way first. It’s grown from a small fishing village to arguably the spring break mecca of the world. This city was basically designated and grown by the government in order to bring in tourists, so this is not the place to go if you’re looking for an ‘authentic’ experience. Still, if you want top-class resorts, long white sand beaches, and bars and restaurants – it’s worth a visit (just expect university students abound especially in March). If you’re of college age and looking to party, we really don’t need to sell Cancún any more as I’m sure you’ve already made plans for your pilgrimage of debauchery.
Another tourist hotspot worth a look is Playa del Carmen. This idyllic beach city offers scuba diving, snorkeling, bars, and nightlife all in a relatively trendy package. Playa del Carmen has a distinct European air about it, thanks to many foreign (especially Italian) businesses. Be warned, cruise ships dock nearby as of late, so many of the main beaches and streets will be packed. Still, there are less crowded side streets worth a look if you want to get a break from the crowds.
Close to Playa del Carmen lies the Cozumel. Diving and snorkeling are the reasons most people put this island on their list, but there’s also more to see. Outside of the main touristy areas, the island has a more authentic atmosphere. Exploring the coastal scenery of the island on a scooter is a worthwhile way to get a feel for Cozumel.
If you want to head slightly inland, the largest city on the peninsula, Mérida, offers a different type of excursion. The city has a great mix of historical buildings and areas (it has the largest historic centre in the country behind Mexico City) as well as a modern, cosmopolitan atmosphere that everyone can enjoy. Once again, you’ll find a lot of tourists here, but Mérida is large enough that you won’t be sidestepping crowds everywhere you go.
Last but certainly not least, there are the numerous Maya sites and ruins spread throughout the region. Some of the most well known are Chichen Itza (the home of the famous pyramid that is one of the new seven wonders of the world), Tulum, and – further inland at the beginning of the peninsula – Calakmul and Palenque. Any of these are worth a visit, with Chichen Itza and Tulum easy day trips from Cancún.
This historic city offers a great window into the colonial era of Mexico. Churches spanning centuries of different styles are prevalent throughout the centre and beyond. Known as Puebla de los Ángeles (the City of Angels), the city’s religious heritage is certainly a big draw, but it’s not all there is. Puebla is renowned as one of the best cities for food in the country. The traditional mole poblano – sometimes called the national dish of Mexico – is one of the cities most famous ‘attractions’ as it were. All in all, you’ll get a much more authentic taste (get it?) of Mexico here than in some of the hotspots on the Yucatán.
Located in the state of Baja California Sur (it’s that strip of land jutting out into the Pacific), the seaside city of La Paz offers a cosmopolitan atmosphere while remaining distinctly Mexican. Unlike the better-known Cabo (also in Baja California Sur), tourists generally stay within a few beachfront areas. This does make it tougher to book any sort of tours or organized trips, but wandering around La Paz offers a much more authentic Mexican seaside experience than you would expect to find this close to the US. There are many expats from the US, Cuba, Europe, and more here but that only adds to the flavour of La Paz.
As Mexico’s ‘second city’, Guadalajara has an abundance of cultural sights and sounds to offer travelers who are looking to get a taste of urban life. While there are remnants of the colonial heritage of the city, much of it has been revamped in the past few decades, giving Guadalajara a very modern feel. Many restaurants, bars, and nightclubs can be found, making sure you’ll have something to do all times of the day. Guadalajara is also famous as the birthplace of tequila, mariachi music, and the wide sombrero, as well as offering great food and numerous other cultural traits and activities we commonly associate with Mexico.
This stunning natural region is a must if you plan on venturing to Northern Mexico. Seven different canyons connect to form a complex that is four times as large as the Grand Canyon. In addition, the canyons feature a copper/green colour (earning its name) thanks to an abundance of shrubs and trees that cling to the cliffs. There are numerous ways to take in Copper Canyon such as by foot, car, or horseback but the Chihuahua-Pacific Railway is the most popular – and for good reason. The train snakes its way up, down, and through the canyon for over 650 km. It’s worth stopping along the way and checking out some of the quaint towns such as Urique or Batopilas. Copper Canyon is relatively safe, however northern Mexico is a major drug trafficking area. In the more isolated regions there are even marijuana and poppy fields. Make sure you take a trustworthy guide if you plan on doing some exploring.
How much does it cost?
Flights to Mexico are relatively inexpensive (at least compared to what it costs to cross the Atlantic). A round trip flight from Pearson to Mexico City can cost between $300-$500 Canadian. If you are flying in to Mexico from some cities in the United States, you can find even cheaper and more direct flights. Be sure to check different airlines as well as adjust your arrival and departure dates to get the best rates possible. All in all, Mexico is one of the cheaper international trips you can make from Canada.
Depending on what you’re in Mexico for, it could be a relatively cheap trip. Expenses for an average day will likely run about $62 with a budget of $30 for accommodation and $16 for food. If you’re thrifty, you could likely get by on $24 per day while traveling on the higher end of the spectrum will set you back about $167 per day. These numbers can change significantly with the nature of your trip. If you’re down in Mexico for spring break or to enjoy any of the popular resorts, expect to spend significantly more money. If beach parties and resorts what you’re there for however, this shouldn’t be a surprise.
Health and Safety
Trips to Mexico are extremely common every day for Canadians and especially Americans. That being said, violence in Mexico is in the news for a reason, and there are parts of the country that are best avoided. There is no nationwide advisory in effect for Mexico according to the Canadian government, though a high degree of caution is recommended throughout. There are regions (especially in the north along the border and the south west) where travel is not recommended for non-essential reasons. In some places, military and federal police have been deployed to combat the cartels and will set up roadblocks and perform vehicle searches. Violence between security forces and criminal organizations can break out without warning as well.
Not recommended for non-essential travelers:
- Northern States: Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, Nuevo León (except the city of Monterrey), Sinaloa (with the exception of Mazatlán), Sonora (except the cities of Hermosillo and Guaymas/San Carlos), and Tamaulipas
- Southwestern States: Michoacán (excluding the city of Morelia) and Guerrero (excluding the cities of Ixtapa, Taxco and Zihuatanejo, as well as the tourist zone of Acapulco)
In addition, you should exercise extreme caution in the states of:
- Baja California (North), Morelos, Nayarit, Jalisco, San Luis Potosi, Veracruz, and Zacatecas
Most of the major tourist zones have not been affected by the drug war that much, though you should use caution if venturing outside of the urban and populated areas.
Beyond organized crime, other types of crime are common including armed robbery, assault, and petty crime (such as pickpocketing). Keep your valuables secure in your hotel, don’t advertise your wealth, and avoid carrying large sums of cash around with you. People have been known to be followed after getting cash at airports (either through an exchange or ATM) so avoid using these unless it’s absolutely necessary and only then for a small sum of cash. Don’t wander around alone at night, and stick to populated areas for the most part. Be wary of accepting drinks, rides, or invitations from strangers.
Kidnappings of Canadians and Americans do occur throughout the country, especially in rural areas. Express kidnappings have been known to occur in urban areas. Criminals will often pose as or work with taxi drivers and force the victim to withdraw money from an ATM. Do not hail cabs on the street, instead call a reputable service or use taxis located at major hotels.
Be aware of scams, some involving police officers or criminals posing as police officers. Even legitimate police might attempt to extort money for minor traffic violations. Do not give them your money or passport; instead ask for the officer’s name, badge and patrol car number, the location of the arrest, and the written fine payable at a later date
Almost 2 million Canadians visit Mexico each year, and most experience no trouble whatsoever. Use common sense when travelling, even in touristy areas and avoid the violent hotspots mentioned above. Cities along the US/Mexico border such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez are very dangerous as are the surrounding regions, so it is highly recommended to fly over these areas instead of driving through them. Be sure to do some extra research before choosing your destinations in order to understand the current situation. Check the Canadian and American travel advisories for more detailed information about health and safety in Mexico.
These are just a few examples of where to go in Mexico, there’s tons more to see and do. If you think somewhere else should be on the list, let us know in the comments. Check out our Country of the Week for more general information about the history and culture of Mexico, as well as out Currency Spotlight for a breakdown of the Mexican peso.
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