Photo Courtesy of Vicente Villamón
Imagine an ideal Mexico beach vacation: turquoise water, tall palms, and white sand, and a hammock swaying softly in the tropical breeze. Mexico has some of the finest beaches in the world, and you could spend a lifetime exploring the hidden coves and wild resorts of the country’s thousands of miles… of coastline. But this country is so much more: ancient Maya ruins and cool, clear cenotes; snowcapped volcanoes and misty mountain pueblos; desert canyon railroads and people watching in colorful colonial plazas. You can enjoy all these adventures and more with relatively little planning—and still have time to lounge on the beach.
What to know before you go to Mexico
If you’re headed to the beach, go during the Mexican dry season from November through April. The peak tourist season is December and January, when prices are at their steepest and hotels and transportation are heavily booked. Certain resorts will be full of raucous American college students during Spring Break, which may take place anywhere from late February to mid-March. Hurricanes do occasionally hit the Caribbean and Pacific coasts in late summer and early fall, and September is the heart of the season. The inland temperature is generally cooler than on the coast, and the northern half of the country can get downright chilly in the evenings from November to February. If you’re not fond of crowds, a perfect time to visit Mexico City is Semana Santa—the week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday—when many of the city’s inhabitants make a beeline to the coasts. In every part of the country, May to September is the hottest, most humid time, during which torrential rains are commonplace. Even so, July and August are popular summer holiday months for both Mexicans and foreigners—so plan accordingly.
The easiest way to navigate to your hotel upon arrival at the Mexico City airport is to take an authorized taxi to your hotel: just purchase a ticket from one of the authorized booths inside the airport. The price will be preset depending on where in the city you are going. There is also a Terminal Aérea metro station about 200 yards from Terminal 1—but unless you’re really pinching pennies, it’s easiest to take a cab into town and then explore the metro system once you're situated. Other airports across the country may offer authorized taxis, airport shuttles, and vans to town centers and hotel zones.
Mexico has a comfortable, efficient, and inexpensive intercity bus system—worlds away from the U.S. Greyhound experience. An extensive network of in-country flights connects major cities. If you rent a car, be sure to drive only on the nation’s toll (cuota) highway system, which offers the safest conditions for travel. If you’re in a resort area and want to explore nearby attractions, ask whether your hotel has its own transportation service.
There is one recurring note to Mexican cuisine: it’s absolutely delicious, whether you’re noshing on tacos de carnitas from a street vendor or enjoying alta comida mexicana in a posh Mexico City restaurant. Don’t take our word for it; the national cuisine has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. Typical dishes vary widely from region to region, and midsize towns and big cities always have plenty of options for vegetarian and “international food." Tequila, mezcal, and pulque may be the country’s famous agave-based drinks, but for a nonalcoholic treat, try a fresh juice, a licuado (a type of smoothie), or an agua fresca (a cold drink made from fruit and water). One fun twist on a cerveza is the refreshing michelada: a frozen-cold mug filled with beer, ice, and lime juice, then rimmed with salt and chili powder. Essential culinary experiences include tacos al pastor, huitlacoche, ceviche, local markets, and mole.
An art lover’s dream: World-class museums and famous murals in a country that has been home to some of the most famous artists in modern history. Ancient civilizations: Southern Mexico was the cultural epicenter of the classic Maya period, and the temples and cities left behind are awe-inspiring. Artisan crafts and folk art: From delicate silver jewelry to colorful alebrijes (sculpted fantasy creatures) to puffy-cheeked angel masks, it’s all wonderful. Colonial architecture: Mexico is home to no fewer than 10 UNESCO World Heritage cities—Campeche, Guanajuato, Mexico City, Morelia, Oaxaca, Puebla, Querétaro, San Miguel de Allende, Tlacotalpan, and Zacatecas. And there are even more UNESCO-designated Pueblos Mágicos, towns with cobblestone streets, charming architecture, and peaceful plazas that will charm and delight you. Mexico has a vibrant cinema dating from the Golden Age in the ’50s to today’s edgy directors, an extensive literary tradition, and a musical scene that’s both the birthplace of mariachi and the most important hub in Latin America for rock en español.
Día de los Santos Reyes: Three Kings Day, on January 6, is when children traditionally receive their presents, commemorating the Three Kings’ gifts to baby Jesus. Bakeries are stocked full of rosca de reyes, a sweetbread dotted with candied fruit and hiding a plastic baby Jesus in its bready interior.
Semana Santa: The week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday sees solemn processions in small towns and certain Mexico City neighborhoods, and large crowds leaving the big cities for a relaxing weeklong vacation.
Día de la Independencia: September 16 marks the anniversary of Father Miguel Hidalgo’s 1810 call to revolution against Spain. There is nothing quite like standing in the middle of a sea of people in the Mexico City zócalo on the night of September 15, with all of them shouting “¡Viva México!”
Festival Internacional Cervantino: Guanajuato’s two-week arts festival in October is one of Latin America’s biggest and best cultural events. Book early and expect crowds.
Dia de los Muertos: On November 2, the dead commune with the living among altars and cemeteries full of candy calaveras (skulls), candles, pan de muerto (traditional bread for the occasion), beer, photos of dead loved ones, and mounds of cempasúchitl (marigolds). Pátzcuaro and Oaxaca have especially vibrant celebrations.
- Safety concerns: Despite media hype, the vast majority of Mexico is safe for travelers. The drug violence generally occurs in isolated pockets of the country, and tourists are not a target. Use the same common-sense precautions you’d use traveling anywhere to avoid theft and robbery.
- Tipping: Loosely follows U.S. conventions.
- Money: Most every transaction outside of the major resorts will be in pesos. You can withdraw pesos from any ATM using your major-brand credit or debit card. (For safety, take out money only during the day, and preferably at ATMs inside hotels or banks.) Credit cards are accepted at higher-end hotels and restaurants. Currency exchange is available at most banks and casas de cambio (currency exchange centers).
- Cell phones: If you plan to use your phone at all during your trip, arrange ahead of time with your cell provider for Mexico roaming packages. Otherwise, you’ll be hit with an astronomical bill.
- Language: Outside of the major resort areas, it’s convenient to know at least a little Spanish. Don’t be shy; Mexicans are kind and appreciative when you attempt to speak to them in their native tongue.
read before you go
more about Mexico
Catherine Craddock-Carrillo has always been a Mexicophile, which led her to move to Mexico City in her 20s to work as an arts & entertainment reporter and business magazine editor. During that time, she traveled around the country, met and married a charming chilango, covered the historic 2000 presidential elections, and lived, breathed, and ate all things Mexico. After moving back to the US, she worked for several years as Lonely Planet's commissioning editor for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Nowadays, she's a college textbook editor living in the San Francisco East Bay with her husband and son. They make it to Mexico at least once a year in order to visit family and friends and eat proper tacos al pastor.