When you first think of visiting Mexico you might think of a resort in Cancun or an excursion on a cruise ship. My first time visiting Mexico was the latter and I realized that one day wasn’t enough for me. So, I resolved myself to go back and truly explore the ins and outs of this beautiful country. Whenever I travel I usually have a few things I always try to check off my list: 1) see ruins/historical sites, 2) eat great food, 3) try to do something out of my comfort zone, and 4) experience time with locals. So here is a mixture of all of those things! I traveled to multiple cities in both the Yucatán Peninsula and around Mexico City. These regions are vastly different, with tropical climates in the former and valleys and deserts in the latter. I hope to share a bit of each region to inspire you to dedicate your next big trip to Mexico!
My friends and I flew into Cancun for our trip. Cancun is a great place to relax on the beach and take a break, but we were ready to hit the ground running! Our first stop was Tulum, a coastal town well known for its Mayan ruins. The ruins themselves are situated on the edge of a small cliff overlooking the sea and small beaches. The size of this site is impressive and breathtaking. Meander through the pathways and you will be in awe of the buildings that survive: Pyramid El Castillo, Temple of the Frescos, God of Winds Temple, and much more. This picturesque site is separated from any modern buildings and will transport you back to the 13th century when these ancient Mayans thrived.
Not far from the archaeological site is a great hostel that will make you feel like you are at a resort, but still with hostel prices! It is called the Humble Bumble: peaceful, great location, and free breakfast! You can also use their bikes to ride to the nearby supermarket. If you are like me and can’t ride a bike, there are also plenty of cheap taxis.
The capital of the Yucatán, Merida is a great place to see what city life is like after a leisurely stay on the coast. There are plenty of places to eat, local history/architecture, and a huge downtown open-air market. Overlooking the town square is the massive Cathedral of Merida, built in the 16th century on the site of an old Mayan temple. I personally am always down for a good cathedral. The architecture never ceases to amaze me! Another point of interest is the House of Montejo, also located in the town square. This site was built in 1549 and once the home of the conquistador and founder of Merida, Francisco de Montejo. Today it serves as a bank, museum, and boasts stunning Renaissance, Gothic, and Indian influenced motifs.
Merida also serves as a great hub for the famous archaeological site of Chichen Itza, which is one of the seven wonders of the world due to the captivating Temple of Kukulcan. This pyramid is massive and has continued to amaze people around the world, especially on the spring and autumn equinoxes. On these days the sun hits the northwest corner of the pyramid where two stone serpent heads sit at the bottom of the steps. The sun then casts a shadow that creates the allusion of two serpents traveling down the steps. Besides this temple there are numerous other impressive buildings on site, including a well-preserved ball court (anyone seen The Road to El Dorado?), Temple of the Warriors, and an observatory! It is well worth the visit, but it is a main tourist attraction so go early!
Northern Mexico: In and Around Mexico City
You will need to fly from Merida to Mexico City when you leave the Yucatán Peninsula. Thankfully this is very cheap; I only spent about $50 USD. Mexico City is the capital of Mexico and has so much to offer. Explore the numerous outdoor markets such as La Langunilla or Coyoacan food market. See artifacts from all over Mexico at the National Museum of Anthropology, including the Stone of the Sun and items from the ancient sites of Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza. Whatever you choose to do, you will fall in love with the rich culture of this metropolis.
In this region you can explore the other ancient civilization of Mexico, the Aztecs. The archaeological site is about an hour from Mexico City. A round trip bus ticket costs about 100 pesos, a little under $6 USD! This site is known for the two large structures known as the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon situated on the Avenue of the Dead. If you are up for it, you can climb both pyramids and get a great view! You can also see well-preserved and colorful frescoes in situ on the way to the pyramids and inside the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl.
San Miguel de Allende
Known as a Pueblo Mágico, or magic city, San Miguel de Allende is like a fairy tale. We rode on a bus for four hours from Mexico City, during which time we got to see the vast landscape of desert plains. Then suddenly you come upon a colorful town nestled into the hills and valleys. You see narrow cobblestone streets and in the midst of it all the towers of La Parroquia, the famous and uniquely pink church. The town has a colonial feel to it and half the fun is simply walking through its streets and outdoor markets. There are plenty of great places to shop for both tourist items and locally made crafts. You can also find a great rooftop bar for a view of the whole city. There are plenty of options, but my friends and I ended up going to Luna Tapas Bar, situated at the top of the Rosewood Hotel.
By far my favorite day of the trip was a spontaneous day at Ranch Xotolar, a family operated working ranch. I hadn’t ridden a horse since I was in middle school. I certainly had never ridden one as fast or on such hilly terrain as I did that day. The Morin Ruiz family has owned this property for four generations. They are self-sustaining and have opened their ranch to the public for people to experience their way of life. For no additional cost someone from the family came to pick us up from our hostel and took us to the ranch. We milked cows (much harder than it looks) and learned about the process of making cheese (with the milk we milked!). After this we went horseback-riding through roaming valleys. You don’t have to be a trained horseback rider to do this excursion. They taught us important lessons of riding a horse and most importantly to trust the horses on steeper terrain, because those horses know what they are doing! Once I got over my fear of heights I was able to enjoy the stunning views and galloping in a dried-up river bed. After three hours of riding we went back to the ranch and enjoyed a traditional home-cooked meal with our lovely hosts. They were so welcoming and excited to show us their home. I highly recommend booking a day with them and seeing what other adventures they have to offer!
Mexico is a great place to vacation, but I hope that you are also inspired to go on some adventures and truly get to know this amazing country and the generous people that inhabit it.