The first time I visited Mexico, was in 2011 with my family. It was my first trip abroad (aside from going to the United States) and we stayed at an all-inclusive resort near Playa del Carmen, in the Mayan Riviera. Even though we didn’t stray too far from the resort, it was absolutely amazing!
Since then, I have been to Mexico two more times with family and once backpacking as a solo traveler. With every trip, I have fallen more and more in love with this beautiful country!
The beautiful beaches of Tulum
Mexico offers so much more than the all-inclusive beach resorts from Cancun to Tulum. The beaches are some of the most gorgeous in the world, but if you visit Mexico and stay on a resort property or the beach the entire time, you are missing out on so many amazing things. Mexico is a diverse country and there is a wide variety of activities to do and experiences to be had. You can swim, snorkel or dive in natural underground sinkholes known as cenotes, explore some of the many ancient Mayan ruins, see gorgeous waterfalls in the jungle, explore authentic Mayan villages, eat traditional Mexican food, engage in adventure activities like zip-lining over the jungle treetops, wander through colourful and colonial towns and cities, and much more. There are many things to do, both touristy and off the beaten path.
The country has an array of landscapes, from jungle to desert to mountains to beaches to colonial cities to traditional villages.
Mexico is definitely a country worth exploring. If you are staying at a resort, I highly recommend venturing into the “real” areas of Mexico in order to experience and interact with the country’s authentic culture, cuisine, language and people.
Backpacking through Mexico on my first trip as a solo female was an unbelievable experience!
Here are some of the reasons why I am in love with Mexico (in no particular order):
There is no question about it, Mexican and Mayan food is absolutely delicious. In the Yucatan Peninsula, you can find tacos, panuchos, sopes, salbutes, huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, guacamole, paletas, aguas frescas, cochinita pibil, poc chuc, and so much more. As a fruit and veggie lover, I was in heaven with the constant availability of fresh produce. If you want to read all about the various foods you should sample in the Yucatan, then check out this post.
Mexico has everything from street vendors, to family-run eateries, to upscale restaurants serving traditional and authentic Mexican cuisine and regional specialties. If you’re feeling adventurous, I recommend trying the street food at one of the many food carts everywhere. It is fresh, spicy, delicious and authentic.
My favourite foods would probably be tacos al pastor, panuchos, huevos rancheros and guacamole. I loved the fresh fruit popsicles known as “paletas” for snacks and desserts. And my favourite aguas frescas (a beverage made with water, sugar and fresh fruit) flavours were jamaica (hibiscus flower), horchata (made from rice, vanilla and cinnamon), and sandia (watermelon). Visiting the local markets was one of my favourite things to do and there were so many exotic and delicious fruits and vegetables to try!
I loved eating at the street vendors and small eateries or “loncherias” (lunch restaurants). I was often the only Caucasian female tourist eating at these places, and it was fascinating to just observe the daily life of the locals around me, practice my Spanish with the restaurant staff and immerse myself in the culture.
Healthy Greek Salad
Panucho, sope and taco
The majority of the locals that I interacted with in Mexico were super friendly, warm, welcoming and helpful; from the shop-owners, to the restaurant staff, to the bus/colectivo/taxi drivers, and more. They are so cheerful too! When I would go for morning walks and wander through the streets, the local people and shop-owners would say “buenos dias” (good morning) to each other and to tourists as they passed by on the streets and sidewalks. It felt really welcoming and I liked that everyone acknowledged each other, instead of just burying their faces in smartphones and keeping to themselves, as is the case in Western cultures.
I bought fresh coconut water from a local man in Tulum, during my walk through a residential neighbourhood near my hostel. He was so friendly and inviting, and offered for me to have a seat on a chair in his front “yard” (a cement block in front of his house). He spoke great English, as he worked as a scuba diving instructor at the nearby Dos Ojos Cenote, and we chatted about our lives. His mother (who spoke no English) also joined us outside. It was such a cool experience being able to interact and connect with the locals like that!
Compared to Canada, the weather is always warm in Mexico! I love the heat and visiting Mexico in May, which is one of the hottest months, was absolutely amazing for me. It can’t get much better than +35 to +40 degrees Celsius every day! Perfect weather for cooling off for a swim in the cenotes.
I am fascinated about culture, and the Mexican and Mayan culture is very interesting to learn about. I loved sitting in a park or wandering the streets and just observing the culture around me. If you want to read more about my cultural observations, check out this detailed post.
The mainstream media wants you believe that Mexico is a country that is much too dangerous to be visiting. However, they tend to generalize violence and crime in certain states (usually the central and northern border states) to the entire country, which is unfair. The three states that make up the Yucatan Peninsula, have some of the lowest violent crime rates in Mexico and is considered the safest region of Mexico. The crime rates are even lower than rural areas and large cities in the United States!
The Yucatan Peninsula is a very safe area of Mexico to explore, in addition to some other states. As a solo female traveler, I felt super safe there.
Visiting the vibrant local markets in Tulum and Valladolid was one of my favourite things to do in Mexico. The markets are colourful and a hub of activity, and most of the locals do all of their shopping here. They are colourful and busy and a great place to immerse yourself in and learn about the local culture while practicing your Spanish and getting off the beaten path. As I toured the markets, I was often the only Caucasian female tourist wandering around. It was such a cool experience!
Some of the markets are so big and it’s overwhelming at times, because there is just so much to see, smell and taste. The markets don’t just sell fresh fruits and vegetables, they sell everything you can imagine! There are toys, games, personal care products, shoes, clothing, handbags, spices, dry goods, herbs and more.
As a vegetarian (most of the time), walking through the meat section of the market was interesting and slightly nauseating. The aisles were lined with tables, with local men chopping up and portioning very fresh meat, and then bagging it up for customers. I saw almost every animal body part imaginable being sold to people… things that I had no idea people even consumed! There were animal eyeballs, heads, intestines (hanging from strings above the meat table), legs, hooves, and other body parts that almost induced vomiting as I walked by. There were so many flies sitting on everything, that I couldn’t imagine eating the meat… How is everybody not sick all the time? But it was definitely interesting to walk through the area.
My favourite sections of the market were obviously where the fruits and vegetables were! There were local Mayan women dressed in their traditional outfits selling their produce, which was fresh, local and ridiculously cheap. You could even buy freshly cut fruit pieces in a bag for only 10 pesos, which you could enjoy eating immediately! There was produce I was familiar with and then some exotic things that I had never heard of or seen before.
I recommend checking out some of the many markets when you are in Mexico!
Mercado Municipal in Valladolid
Market in Valladolid
The meat section of the local market
The Abundance of Retro VW Beetles:
Mexicans appear to have a fascination with brightly painted retro Volkswagon Beetles. They can be seen everywhere, and make for fantastic photo opportunities! I saw many different patterns and colours, including leopard print and hot pink.
Hot pink VW Beetle in Tulum
Cenotes are natural sinkholes in the ground filled with clear, fresh water. They are often connected to expansive underground river systems that run throughout the Yucatan. The porous rock has eroded over time and has caved in to form these beautiful natural wonders. You can swim, snorkel or dive in them. Cenotes are unique to the Yucatan and there are thousands of them all over the peninsula.
During my first solo trip to Mexico, I swam in eight different cenotes around Tulum and Valladolid. They are so refreshing (especially after climbing some Mayan ruins!) and the water is so clear. Little black catfish live in many of the cenotes and they will swim around you. There were a few cenotes I visited that had A LOT of catfish, which freaked me out a little bit. I swear I felt one of them brush against my leg (but I can’t be sure), which is a strange fear of mine.
Nevertheless, swimming in these natural wonders is absolutely amazing. I really enjoyed visiting the lesser known and off the beaten path cenotes, like Cenote X’Canche near the Ek Balam Ruins and Cenote Oxman near Valladolid (You can read more about the cenotes I visited in Tulum here, and near Valladolid here), because I (along with some friends from my hostels) were often the only people there. Being pretty much alone in such a gorgeous place, was magical and I loved the peaceful and relaxing atmosphere, and being surrounded by unspoiled natural beauty.
Getting to and from the cenotes is usually pretty straightforward and easy using local transportation (colectivos, taxis, bikes, etc.).
Swimming in the cenotes should be a must on your list of things to do in the Yucatan! They are all so unique and beautiful in their own ways, so I suggest visiting more than one to see the variety. I highly recommend seeking out some lesser known cenotes, by asking your accommodation staff or any local for their recommendations. Guaranteed, they will know of a place that only the locals know about and visit. Those are the places where you can really get a feel for the culture, interact with locals and have unique and authentic experiences.
Cenote Zaci in Valladolid
Cenote X’Canche near Ek Balam
Cenote Samula near Valladolid
San Lorenzo Oxman Cenote near Valladolid
Valladolid is one of my favourite cities in the Yucatan. It is a charming colonial city in the centre of the Yucatan Peninsula, with a laid-back and slow pace atmosphere. The narrow cobblestone streets are lined with pastel coloured low-rise buildings, all with such unique architecture and character.
I fell in love with Valladolid almost immediately after stepping off the bus. Most tourists only end up staying one or two nights in this city, in order to visit Chichen Itza and other nearby ruins and cenotes. But I believe that Valladolid is worth more than a two nights’ stay! There is so many things to do and see (check out my complete guide to Valladolid). There is a cenote in the middle of the city, colonial churches, a massive ex-convent to explore, a beautiful central park, delicious places to eat and much more.
I loved how prominent the Mayan culture was in Valladolid and it is a great place to immerse yourself in and learn more about the culture. Hardly anyone spoke English, and I enjoyed the challenge of practicing my Spanish and learning more of the language. I walked everywhere in Valladolid, and especially enjoyed wandering through quiet residential neighbourhoods where I was the only tourist around. It was fascinating to be able to observe the local life around me. I also loved admiring the beautiful colourful and colonial architecture.
Valladolid is a fantastic city, that is definitely more authentic of Mexico and further off the beaten path than Tulum and Playa del Carmen, which I loved. You will get a real feel for the culture here and have some pretty unique experiences.
Catedral de San Gervasio in Valladolid
Central Park in Valladolid
Colourful doors and wall in Valladolid
Cobblestone streets lined with pastel-coloured buildings
When you inform people of your upcoming travel plans to Mexico, most people will assume that you are going there for the resorts and beaches. This is what I went to Mexico for during my first three visits.
I have visited the beaches at Playa del Carmen and Tulum and they are absolutely gorgeous, and the water is a beautiful turquoise colour.
I am not a huge fan of beaches (I don’t enjoy the feel of sand or how it gets in everything), so beaches are no longer the primary reason why I visit Mexico. But if you love beaches, this is definitely a great place to find them!
The beach at the Tulum Ruins
Secluded beach below the Tulum Ruins
The Ancient Mayan Ruins:
Mexico is well-known for its many ancient Mayan ruins. There are so many of them in the Yucatan! Learning history behind these ruins and of the ancient Mayan civilization fascinate me, and the ruins are a huge reason why I love and continue to return to Mexico.
My favourite ruins that I visited during my first solo trip was Ek Balam, which is a site located about twenty minutes north of Valladolid. The ruins were lesser known and were surrounded by dense unspoiled jungle. Very little had been done to modernize the site (aside from the entrance area and washrooms) and you were free to explore and climb all of the structures. I loved how “undiscovered” these ruins felt and it was definitely an off the beaten path experience!
I have also visited the ruins of Chichen Itza, Tulum, and Coba, which are all unique and amazing as well.
The main pyramid at Chichen Itza
The main pyramid at Ek Balam
Mexico has an amazing public transportation system; definitely better than Canada’s! The ADO first and second class buses are convenient, safe, comfortable and reliable. The local colectivos (shared shuttle vans) are fast and air-conditioned and do not operate on a fixed schedule, so it is easy to catch one whenever you need.
Tulum is a small village located on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, along the Mayan Riviera. It has a relaxed and laid-back atmosphere, and the locals are welcoming and friendly. There is so much to do in and around Tulum! You can visit the Tulum Ruins, wander the residential streets finding colourful street murals along the way, visit the ruins of Coba, swim at the beach, check out some of the many wonderful produce markets, and eat lots of delicious authentic Mexican food! Here is my detailed guide to Tulum, with everything else you need to know.
Postcard scene from the beach at Tulum
A colourful mural on a quiet street in Tulum
Produce market in Tulum
The Amazing Hostels:
Mexico has so many amazing hostels! I stayed in hostels for the first time in Mexico during my solo trip. Of the three hostels I stayed at, they were all so unique and I had such positive experiences. I loved the colourful decor at the hostels, the extremely friendly and helpful staff and how easy it was to meet new people and travel friends. My favourite hostels were Mama’s Home in Tulum and Hostel La Candelaria in Valladolid.
Mama’s Home had a beautiful outdoor courtyard in the centre of the hostel, with colourful paintings on the walls surrounding it, a large palm tree in the centre and hammocks to relax in along the edges.
Colourfully painted floor and walls in the outdoor courtyard
View of the hostel from the street
The outdoor courtyard
Hostel La Candelaria was located in a colonial building and featured a rooftop patio, a beautiful treed garden with hammocks behind the building, and even an outdoor kitchen!
Colourfully painted outdoor washrooms and showers
The front of Hostel La Candelaria from the plaza/square
View of the hostel from the garden behind it
Mexico’s history is fascinating. If you are interested in the Mayan civilization, there is so much history you can learn about the ancient ruins, the cenotes and the towns and cities. I recommend reading about the history of the places you plan to visit before you get there, so you have some background knowledge.
The Local Shops:
Something I loved about Mexico, was the lack of big department chain stores (in small towns and cities, like Tulum and Valladolid) and the abundance of small specialty shops that were locally-owned. Every shop has its own specialty. There is the “papeleria” which sells stationary and paper; the “tortilleria” sells fresh tortillas; the “floreria” sells flowers; the “paleteria y neveria” sells popsicles and ice cream. There are so many more that I could list as well.
I love supporting local businesses and individuals, both at home and when I am traveling, and I loved how easy it was to do that in Mexico.
Local woman in Tulum selling fresh fruit from a bicycle cart
Local convenience store or “abarrotes” in Tulum
One of many paleteria and neverias in Tulum
The produce market in Tulum
When you hear people talk about traveling to Mexico, you might assume that it is an expensive luxury destination. While there are definitely some pricier areas and types of accommodation in Mexico, like boutique hotels and all-inclusive resorts along the Mayan Riviera, traveling in Mexico doesn’t have to be expensive.
If you are traveling on a budget and independently, you can travel for very cheap, especially if you are willing to stay in hostels, eat cheap and authentic local food and use public transportation. The total cost of my 12 day solo trip to Mexico was significantly less than when I stayed at an all-inclusive resort for 7 days. You can read a more detailed report about what exactly I spent in Mexico during my solo trip here. On average, I spent around $50 CAD per day, but I could have spent even less.
It is also worth noting that the slower you travel and the longer you stay in one place, the cheaper your travel is going to be. This is because you won’t be trying to cram a bunch of activities and sightseeing into a short period of time, but will be able to space things out.
Mexico may not be as bargain cheap as South East Asia or Central America, but it is affordable. If you travel in the off-season, you’ll find even better value for your money outside the November-March season. May is a great month to travel to Mexico because it is between high season and rainy season. For budget travelers, you can get by on very little. The food is cheap as well as the local transportation.
The Spanish Language:
I love everything about the Spanish language. It sounds gorgeous and it has a nice flow to it. The grammar rules make more sense to me than those in English and I like that everything is pronounced how it is spelled. Spanish is the primary language spoken in Mexico and aside from the touristy cities and attractions, it becomes increasingly difficult to find English speakers. Even in Tulum, which is pretty touristy, the minute you step off the main highway with all of the souvenir shops, there were not many people who spoke English! Thus, it is essential that you know the basics of the language and a few key phrases, so you are able to express yourself with words instead of relying on body language, charades and other non-verbal forms of communication. I enjoyed the challenge of having to practice my Spanish skills!
Everything is so colourful and vivid in Mexico! The houses, traditional clothing, the food and the colonial buildings.
There are so many cathedrals and churches in Mexico. The large cathedrals are often located on the main squares and parks in the city/town/village. They are all so unique, grand and beautiful with such detailed architecture. It was fascinating to wander around inside some of them and admire everything.
Catedral de San Gervasio in Valladolid
The cathedral across from Hostel La Candelaria in Valladolid
Catedral de San Gervasio at the main plaza in Valladolid
I hope that through this post, you can appreciate all of the amazing attractions, activities and gorgeous natural beauty that the country of Mexico has to offer!
No matter what kind of traveler you are – off the beaten path, independent, luxury, budget, family, solo female, adventure – there is something for everyone in Mexico.
It is definitely a country worth exploring!
Here are some other blogs that have written about their favourite things in Mexico:
Have you been to Mexico? What do you love about this country?
Let me know in the comments!