Backpacking Mexico

Having spent the last nine weeks in Mexico I feel like I have gotten to know the country fairly well. Although there is still plenty I have not seen I would like to share with you the best parts of what I have seen. Mexico has so much to offer no matter what type of trip you are looking to take. Here is the route I took traveling through Mexico and the adventures I had along the way.

Table of Contents

  1. Mexico City
  2. Guanajuato
  3. Guadalajara
  4. Sayulita
  5. Oaxaca
  6. Puerto Escondido
  7. San Cristobal de las Casas
  8. Palenque
  9. Mérida
  10. Chichén Itzá
  11. Playa del Carmen
  12. Cancún
  13. Tulum

Mexico City

Mexico City was not only the starting point for my trip but also my favorite place in Mexico. It is like the New York City of Mexico. In fact, Mexico City is actually bigger than New York City making it the largest city in North America. Another fun fact – Chapultepec Park is four times the size of Central Park in NYC. This is a stunning city that you could get lost in for days on end. I spent two and a half weeks here exploring and taking spanish lessons and I could have easily spent plenty more.

Chapultepec Park

In addition to Chapultepec Park another highlight of the city that cannot be missed is the food. It may sound cliché, but yes you do have to try the street tacos here. I began my trip trying to make a mental note of where I had the best tacos, but by the end I had eaten so many tacos I lost track. However, I can say with confidence Mexico City had some of the best! If you want to get out of your comfort zone and try something you probably have never had before I highly recommend pozole. This is a traditional Mexican soup that I had honestly never heard of before coming to Mexico, but now I am in love.

Three tacos and a beer for $4.00

If you want to dive into the history and culture of Mexico I would suggest starting at the Museum of Anthropology. Here you can learn about the history of Mexico since the beginning of civilization. I have not met a single person that went and did not enjoy the experience. Although, I should warn you, the museum is so large and covers so much information that most people take at least two days to see it all. After getting a good basis of knowledge on Mexico’s history and culture at the Museum of Anthropology I visited Teotihuacán. Teotihuacán is an archeological site of ancient ruins that make an easy day trip from the city.

Guanajuato

Guanajuato was an unassuming but spectacular stop on my trip. The city is quaint and colorful with lots of charm. One of my favorite things in Guanajuato was the funicular. This small rail train takes you up to a beautiful panoramic view of the city, after which you can ride it back down or choose to take the scenic walk back.

Guanajuato from the funicular

From Guanajuato I spent an afternoon in San Miguel de Allende with a few other travelers I met in the hostel. If you are intrigued by exquisite architecture, authentic markets, and colonial era churches San Miguel de Allende would impress you as well.

Guadalajara

While all of Mexico was quite clean, I found Guadalajara to be the cleanest of all of the places I visited. This city is just northwest of Mexico City and Guanajuato and is brimming with history and culture. Because there is so much to learn here I believe that the free walking tour is a paramount activity. I enjoy doing free walking tours in most of the new cities I visit because I find it an easy way to learn about the city from a local and get to meet other travelers. Also, it is completely tip based, so every tour I have done has been remarkable. Guadalajara, of course, was no exception.

Guadalajara

From Guadalajara there are several easy day trips you can take. One of my favorites was the town of Tequila. As you may have already guessed, this is the birth place of tequila. On this excursion you can learn about the production from agave plant to tequila as well as taste some very high quality samples.

Sayulita

And finally to the beach! Sayulita is an hour outside of Puerto Vallarta, and has a small town hippy vibe in comparison to its neighbor which is famous for being a major all-inclusive resort destination. Many people visit Sayulita for surfing or just the beaches and vibes in general. However, my favorite experience in Sayulita was definitely a boat excursion to Islas Marietas, an island and national park off the coast of Sayulita.

Oaxaca

Getting from Sayulita to Oaxaca was the only time I had to take a flight; otherwise I was able to take the buses between cities. I took a bus from Sayulita and stayed the night in Puerto Vallarta before catching a flight to Oaxaca where my host mother from my Spanish school kindly picked me up from the airport.

Besides Dia de los Muertos the best time to visit Oaxaca is during La Guelaguetza. This celebration of the indigenous people is very important to the state of Oaxaca. It takes place on the last two Mondays of July, but the weekends leading up to the festival are full of celebration as well.

Guelaguetza

From the city of Oaxaca, Hierve el Agua and Monte Albán are both simple day trips and very much worth it. Hierve el Agua is a series of petrified waterfalls with fresh water pools that you can swim in.

Hierve el Agua

Monte Albán is one of the many archeological sites in Mexico that is worth a visit. It dates back to the pre-Colombian or pre-classic era. Although I found myself caught in the rain on my visit here I still found it fascinating.

Monte Albán

Puerto Escondido

From Oaxaca City I took an eight hour, very curvy shuttle ride to the coastal town of Puerto Escondido. Like Sayulita this town is also a well known spot to surfers. In addition to the many beautiful beaches in this town I would be remiss not to mention my absolute favorite highlight of this stop on the trip – Pepe’s fish tacos. This authentic no frills taco place had the best fish tacos and passion fruit mojitos. I came back here numerous times during my stay in Puerto Escondido.

Playa Carazillo

San Cristobal de las Casas

San Cristobal de las Casas is located in the highlands of the state of Chiapas. Chiapas is the southernmost state in Mexico, known for it’s incredible natural landscapes and large population of indigenous people.

One of the natural marvels that I witnessed in Chiapas was El Chiflon waterfalls. After a short hike through the forest along the river with many smaller waterfalls along the way you can reach the Velo de Novia waterfall which is about 120 meters tall.

El Chiflon

Another highlight in Chiapas is the Sumidero Canyon. The canyon can be seen from above via several viewpoints along the road as well as from inside the canyon. After driving to the viewpoints I boarded a small boat with a guide that went through the canyon to Chiapa de Corzo. During this hour and a half tour through the canyon you can take in the beautiful sites and probably even see some monkeys and crocodiles too.

Palenque

Sumidero Canyon is one of most visited tourist attractions in Chiapas and is eclipsed by only one – Palenque Ruins. These Mayan ruins are so large it is estimated that only about 10% has been excavated. You can tour this excavated portion of the ancient Mayan city and learn about this culture that is very important to and prevalent in Mexico. One of the unique things about Palenque that you are unable to do at many other ancient ruin sites is climb many of the temples and enter one of the tombs.

Palenque

While Palenque ruins are fairly well known the town also has the hidden gem of the Roberto Barrios waterfalls. It only costs about $2 to catch a colectivo to the site and $1 to enter. I spent several hours here among the series of waterfalls swimming, exploring, and having an amazing time.

Roberto Barrios Waterfalls

Mérida

I did not have many expectations when it came to Mérida, but this city was a wonderful stop on the trip. It is the biggest city in the Yucatán state and is full of delicious food and vibrant nightlife. For me, the best way to see the city was by bicycle. On Sundays a stretch of the city is shut down to cars from 8:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and everyone bikes around what they call the biciruta. It takes place along a stretch of road that includes the Paseo de Montejo, a well known and beautiful road in the center of Mérida. The whole route takes about 30-45 minutes. Of course you cannot come all the way to Mérida and not see one of the Seven Wonders of the World. From here Chichén Itzá is less than 2 hours away.

Chichén Itzá

Chichén Itzá is a famous Mayan archeological site. It’s fame grew in 2007 when it was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. For that reason you may be familiar with this famous temple that is the classic photo associated with Chichén Itzá. It is more expensive than the other ruins in Mexico, but it is also more expansive.

Temple of Kukulkán at Chichén Itzá

In order to visit this wonder of the world I stayed in Valladolid. There are many places to see Chichén Itzá from including Mérida and Playa del Carmen. However, Valladolid is less than an hour away from the ruins making it possible to get to the site by colectivo. I opted for this method in order to save money and downloaded a guided app to listen to during my visit. This also allowed me to arrive early when the site opened and avoid larger crowds as well as the heat of the day. In addition to the convenience Valladolid provides when visiting the ruins, it is well worth it to visit this town as it is a small colonial town with several cenotes nearby as well.

Colectivos – cheap and easy transportation around Mexico!

Playa del Carmen

Only 20 years ago, this now popular beach destination was a sleepy fishing town between Cancun and Tulum. Although now it is bustling with tourism. Due to tourism the Yucatan and Quintana Roo in particular have become more expensive destinations than the rest of Mexico, but you can still find budget places if you look hard enough. La Quinta Avenida is the heart of the city and is booming with activity. This pedestrian street two blocks back from the beach is full of bars, restaurants, and shops. It is probably the most well known thing about Playa del Carmen, but if you want cheaper and still delicious food I would visit the taco stands by the supermarket for food instead.

Scuba diving is one of my favorite things to do, so of course it was a highlight of this trip for me. The Riviera Maya has many great diving spots as well as snorkeling opportunities. Depending on the location and time of year you might be able to even see sharks or whales. Cozumel, right off the coast of Playa del Carmen, is famous in particular for swimming with whale sharks. On my dive in Playa del Carmen I saw several fascinating things including a very large stingray. After I had explored the saltwater I visited a fresh water cenote where I could also snorkel. There are many cenotes in this area of Mexico, but I visited Cenote Azul. It has plenty of space to swim, snorkel, and hang out.

Cancún

Cancún is well known for its reputation of resorts and parties. If that is what you’re looking for you will love it here. If not, it may just be a stopover place; especially since it is easy to fly in and out of Cancun’s airport. However, you can still find affordable accommodations as well as attractions outside of the nightlife scene.

I took a catamaran tour to Isla Mujeres which included snorkeling, drinks, and lunch. It was a great way to spend a day outside of the city, and the snorkeling was spectacular.

Tulum

Although I actually did not visit Tulum on this visit something would be missing if I did not include it here. I visited Tulum several months before this backpacking trip on a long weekend, and I enjoyed it very much. The town is easily accessible by bicycle with several cenotes within biking distance of town. Two of the biggest attractions to Tulum are the beaches and the archeological site. What I love about the ruins in Tulum is you can visit them as well as the beach in one stop. Tulum’s Mayan ruins are located on the beach which is very convenient after walking around in the hot sun admiring the site.

View of the beach from Tulum’s ruins

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