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Mexico: the Essential

Few days ago, a French friend told me that she is going to make a world tour with her boyfriend and that Mexico is on their list. They seem to have already planned a lot, saved money and so on, but she suggested me that maybe I could advise them on what to do in Mexico. And this is why I am writing this article today. I haven’t been everywhere in Mexico, yet! But in one year I did pretty much and I also spoke a lot with my Mexican friends who are not all from Monterrey. Here, and just in few words, is the essential of Mexico!

1 – Mexico City

I think that I don’t have to say that this is a MUST to do in Mexico. Even if we are not particularly attracted by the traffic, the crowd and the pollution, this cosmopolite capital is an experience. Here is an article that I wrote about the city. I plan to write another one with specific places to see there.

2 – The Yucatan

This is one of the most touristic state of Mexico and this is a paradise. Colonial architecture, history and traditions are on the menu. The most important city to visit is Merida. But I would advise to make the following road trip: Celestun, Mérida, Izamal, Chichen Itzá, Valladolid.

3 –The Riviera Maya

Just after the Yucatan this is the coast along the Caribbean Sea in the State of Quintana Roo. From North to South here are the main spots to discover:

-The island of Holbox which hasn’t been harmed by massive tourism, yet…

-Cancun: the most touristic city mainly appreciated by American (European tend to prefer Playa del Carmen which is more walkable). In Cancun you will mainly find important resorts and big cars as well as luxury stores. If you are not attracted by this lifestyle (like me!) you however need to know that the sea is simply wonderful and can be regarded as a turquoise lake.

-Puerto Morelos: halfway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, it’s a touristic area with different hotels. The Cirque du Soleil is implanted there.

-Playa del Carmen: the other main touristic city of the coast after Cancun and most appreciated by European. Hotels, houses, beach, bars, restaurants,…Touristic but enjoyable.

-Akumal: this is a village most in the south known for its turtles. But to have the opportunity to see them you need to go when they lay their eggs on the beach in July and August. You can see them all the year if you go snorkeling or diving.

-Tulum: a little paradise known for its ruins (see my article here).

-La Laguna de Bacalar: the lagoon is a bit apart, more in the South at 2 hours from Tulum. This is a Mexican Bora Bora.

4 – The colonial cities

Those cities were born under the Spanish colonization in Mexico between the 16th and the 17th century. They are the result of a fusion between indigene culture and Colonial Spain.

5 – Chiapas

Chiapas is a State located in the extreme South of Mexico which shares the border with Guatemala and houses a luxurious nature. The indigene traditions (which come from the Mayas) are strong and the State is reputed for its handicraft.

To give you an idea, Chiapas counts more than 1 million Indians on a population of 3.6 million: every people speak their own language and many of them don’t know Spanish. This is the poorest State of the country with 80% of Indigenes who don’t have access to drinking water and electricity.

The main things to do are to visit San Cristobal de las Casas which is a colonial city and go to the Cascades de Agua Azul and the Canyon del Sumidero which are treasures of nature. Visit also the ruins of Palenque and taste the local organic coffee as well as the local gastronomy which is highly printed by indigene influences.

6 – Oaxaca

As well as Chiapas, the State of Oaxaca is also known for its impressive nature, its Indigene culture and its handicraft. In the city of Oaxaca itself the markets of Juarez and 20 de Noviembre are prolific. You will find a multitude of objects but the State is reputed for its fiber and textile art: traditional rugs are simply wonderful and this is where you have to buy them because they are not that easy to find in the country. And if you find some, as it is the case in San Miguel de Allende for instance, they are extremely expensive: it seems a joke when we know that people who make them have nothing. So better to buy them to the source.

Things to do/to see:

-The Ruins of Monte Alban (the archeological site benefited of a whole restauration by the National Institute of Anthropology)

-Eating “chapulines” on the market, the famous roasted grasshoppers

-Enjoying mole (sauce made with cacao and chile) and tamales (meat or bean preparation cooked in vapor in a banana or maize leaf).

-Visiting a Mezcal distillery: to the contrary of the Tequila the Mezcal is not only made from Blue Agave.

-Going to Puerto Escondido if you want the beach and if you like surf.

7 – Acapulco

Acapulco, located in the State of Guerrero, seems to be an “inescapable” in Mexico: we saw it in movies and it makes dream. However, be aware that Acapulco is not really safe. Many Mexicans from Mexico City are used to go on vacation there but people from the North will prefer the Riviera Maya for instance.

After having spoken to different Mexicans most of them advised me against Acapulco for security reasons. This is one of the most violent city in the world regarding its homicide rate. As a matter of fact, tourism drastically decreased in the last years. When we know that there are plenty of wonderful places to discover in Mexico, I wouldn’t take the risk.

8 – Michoacán

As I mentioned it before, you will find the colonial cities of Morelia and Pátzcuaro with its lake, but the State is reputed for its Monarch butterflies (orange, black and white).

You need to go to the Reserva de la Biosfera which covers more than 16 000 hectares and houses the sanctuaries of El Rosario (in Ocampo) and Sierra Chincua (in Angangueo). To be able to see the Monarchs you need to visit the Biosfera between November and March. This is during this time that they reproduce to then go back to US and Canada.

8 – Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta, located in the State of Jalisco (known for its tequila production), is probably the most touristic spot of Mexico in the Pacific Coast. Beach, gastronomy, aquatic activities and extreme sports, parties,…everything is there. However, if you look for a quiet sea forget it: we are in the Pacific and it moves. If you are more an adept of the “farniente”, privilege the Caribbean Sea in the State of Quintana Roo.

The city is divided into two areas: the Antiguo Vallarta and the Nuevo Vallarta where a real estate boom is occurring with the construction of many new buildings.

Currently, the area is turning into a retreat destination. Many people (Mexican and retired foreigners) are buying a residency there for their old days.

If you want to escape from the agitation of the city, you can stay in Punta Mita, located on the North end of Banderas Bay. It’s in the State of Nayarit but you are only at 40 km from Puerto Vallarta and it’s quieter.

From there I advise you to reach Sayulita, the Hippie spot. People go there because they consider the beach and the city as a Hippie lifestyle destination. Of course, you can also find really nice hotels but you will see many young people camping and pretend that they live of nothing.

9 – Los Cabos

Los Cabos is the most famous spot of the State of Baja California. This desert area is known for its wine production, its starry skies and its luxury. Some call it “El fin de la tierra” because this is the ultimate portion of land of Baja California.

Going there between December and March seems the best time because it’s when you can observe whales. They come from Alaska in November looking for the warmth of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula to give birth. Of course, Baja California is not the only watching whale sport in the world but here is an article from The Telegraph, written by a passionate of whales, who states that among 50 places where he went in the world to observe whales, Baja California is the best. The region is highly prized by American for vacation and also for retired people. However, keep in mind that it’s an expensive destination.

10 – El Chepe

I will conclude by El Chepe which is the only train which transports people in Mexico.

This trail connects Chihuahua to Los Mochis and you will need between 15 and 16 hours to do it. Why doing it? For the incredible landscapes. The advice is to start from Los Mochis on the coast because if you start from Chihuahua the train will arrive to Los Mochis at night and you will miss the most beautiful landscapes.

The Chepe it’s: 37 bridges, 86 tunnels and 653 km of trail going through multiple canyons, precipices and mountains. Something to do for the adventure and the nature.

Of course, this list is non-exhaustive and there are many other places to discover in Mexico. But I tried to be concise on what is really essential if you plan to visit Mexico and to highlight what you will find in each region.

As you probably have understood it now, the South of the country (Chiapas, Oaxaca) is definitely a destination for the ones in love with nature. Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya is more adapted for “farniente”, beach and nightlife. In colonial cities you will be able to appreciate the architecture and the culture.

All depends on which type of trip you are looking for!

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