Tired of the stuffy resorts? Ready to do something different, like go backpacking in Mexico?
Backpacking Mexico is an incredible experience with endless options. In just one trip, you can wander around ancient Mayan cities, stroll through colorful colonial towns, explore one of the biggest cities in the world, and wind it all down on a pristine beach.
In 2016, 35 million people traveled to Mexico, making it the 8th most visited country in the world! Unfortunately, many of these tourists never see Mexico outside of their resort walls. That’s not you, though. You’re here for an adventure, and an adventure is exactly what you’ll get.
While most visitors stick to one of the country’s coasts, there’s so much more to Mexico than its beaches and all-inclusive resorts. Get out of that tourist bubble and dive into what makes this one of the most unique countries on the globe.
This backpacking Mexico travel guide will introduce you to all that this fascinating country has to offer and provide you with several options for the trip of a lifetime. Vamos, amigos!
Table of Contents
- Where to go Backpacking in Mexico
- Best Travel Itineraries for Backpacking Mexico
- Places to Visit in Mexico
- Backpacker Accommodation in Mexico
- Top Things to Do in Mexico
- Mexico Travel Tips
- Staying Safe in Mexico
- Travel Guide to Getting Around Mexico
- Mexico Backpacking Costs
- Must-Try Experiences in Mexico
- A Brief History of Mexico
- Final Thoughts on Backpacking Mexico
Where to go Backpacking in Mexico
You’re really spoiled for choices when it comes to planning your Mexican backpacking adventure. When looking at a map, Mexico looks deceivingly small. Did you know that traveling from one corner of Mexico to the other is about the same distance as going from Ireland to Turkey? That’s right – going across Mexico is basically the same as traversing all of Europe!
With that in mind, time and geography will be your biggest concerns when backpacking Mexico. If you’re limited in time, it’s best to stick to one region and do it properly. You’ll have to decide what your priorities are when choosing where to go and where to stay in Mexico. Are you interested in cultural sights, adventures, beach time, or big cities? We’re here to help you make sense of it all with some ideas for how to route your trip.
Unless you’re planning on staying for a couple of years, you won’t be able to see all of Mexico in one trip. Here are a few different ideas for Mexico itineraries that cover several regions.
Backpacking Mexico 14 Day Itinerary #1: Riviera Maya
14 Days: Riviera Maya
So you’ve only got two weeks to spend in Mexico? My first piece of advice to you would be to change your flight. That’s not always possible, though, so let’s see how we can maximize your minimal amount of time.
With just two weeks in Mexico, your best bet is to fly into Cancun. Spend a night there if necessary, but stay somewhere downtown so you don’t feel like you’re in a Disneyland version of Mexico to start your trip. Eat a bunch of tacos and grab a cerveza or two at a local joint where you’ll be introduced to mariachi music.
From Cancun, it’s just a few hours by bus to Chichen Itza. You can stay at a hotel just up the road from this ancient Mayan city to ensure you can get there early and beat the crowds. It’s worth it to splurge on a guide here so you can learn all about this awe-inspiring place that’s one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Next up, spend some time walking the cobblestone streets of Valladolid. This colorful colonial town is gorgeous and super laid back with access to plenty of cenotes (freshwater sinkholes and clear blue pools only found in Mexico). If you need some more excitement, you can easily reach the ruins at Ek Balam. Unlike Chichen Itza, you can still climb to the top of the main pyramid here. You can also visit your first cenote (sinkhole) to cool off in the intense afternoon heat.
After a few days in Valladolid, head back to the coast to the trendy town of Tulum. Hopefully, you’re not sick of ruins because the ones here are probably the most beautiful. You can spend the rest of your time bumming on the beach and bouncing around the excellent restaurants and bars.
Continuing back up the coast, you’ve got a few choices for where to stay. Playa del Carmen is a popular beach town and a great place to party. If you’re looking for something a bit quieter, you might want to check out Puerto Morelos. Enjoy a few relaxing days before you have to get back to Cancun to catch your flight.
Backpacking Mexico One Month Itinerary #2: The Yucatan and Chiapas
1 Month: The Yucatan and Chiapas, Mexico
With a whole month at your disposal, you can follow the 2-week backpacking Mexio route above, and then tack on a few more spots. Once again, where you go depends a lot on geography and your onward travel plans. For this first one-month backpacking Mexico itinerary, let’s assume you’re either headed back to Cancun or south into Guatemala or Belize.
The city of Merida makes a great addition to your Mexico itinerary. It’s a popular destination for expats and digital nomads, so if you’re thinking about relocating to Mexico it’s a good spot to check out. There’s a beach just up the road and the city is rich in culture, so you can easily spend a few days here taking it all in.
Since you’ve got time on your hands and you’ve headed south anyway, you might as well stop by Palenque ruins to visit some more Mayan leftovers. These ruins are still surrounded by jungle, so you’ll still feel that sense of wonder that the Spanish must have felt when they arrived. Other activities in the area include an eco-park with rescued animals and a hike to a waterfall.
It’s impossible to make a day trip here due to its remote location, so plan to spend 2 nights here.
After that adventure, you might want to chill out a bit. The perfect place to do so is San Cristobal de las Casas. This beautiful colonial city in the state of Chiapas is surrounded by mountains and has plenty to see and do. From here, you can catch a bus to Antigua, Guatemala to end your trip in Mexico. Those going back to Cancun will want to head to nearby Tuxtla Gutierrez to get a cheap flight.
Backpacking Mexico 4 Week Itinerary #3: Central Mexico
4 Weeks: Central Mexico
We’re going to take a different approach to backpacking Mexico in this 2nd one-month itinerary. Rather than starting out in Cancun, this trip starts in the capital. Fly into Mexico City and dedicate at least a few days to this mega-city. Did you know that Mexico City has more museums than any other city? You can visit a couple each day and barely scratch the surface.
Whether you’re a wrestling fan or not, be sure to set aside at least one night to see lucha libre. This high-flying style with masked wrestlers is one of the most popular sports in Mexico, with fights taking place every Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday. With ringside tickets going for just $30, why not check it out?
While there’s a lot to see and do in the city, you’ll want to get out on a day trip or two. The ancient city of Teotihuacan is a must. Also known as the Birthplace of the Gods, it was once one of the biggest cities in the world, extending its influence across the region and beyond.
After taking in all that CDMX has to offer, it’s time to chill out a bit. A short bus ride will take you to the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende. While it’s most definitely a bit of a “Gringolandia,” this stunning town is still well worth a visit. This is also a great place to stick around for a while and study Spanish if you’re planning on travelling extensively in Latin America.
From here, you might as well check out Guanajuato as well. This city is known for its silver mining history and colonial architecture. It’s also famous for its mummies, which you can visit if you’re into that sort of thing. Be sure to join a Callejoneadas tour in the evening where you’ll follow students dressed in traditional clothes as they sing songs and tell the history of the city.
Now it’s time to head back to the big city – Guadalajara. While GDL lives in the shadow of its older brother, it’s got a lot to offer travelers as well. There are plenty of churches, museums, and parks to keep you busy. The nightlife is great in Guadalajara, so go ahead and party it up here.
Just an hour or so down the road from the city is Lake Chapala. There are plenty of villages around the lake where you can stay, including Ajijic. Spend a couple of days here chilling out and enjoying the natural beauty in one of Mexico’s top expat destinations. Who knows – you might end up moving here someday too!
After that action-packed trip, it’s time to head to the beach. Puerto Vallarta and the surrounding area is the perfect spot to end your month-long adventure backpacking Mexico. In addition to PV, you can easily visit the towns of Bucerias, Sayulita, and Yelapa.
Backpacking Mexico Three Month Itinerary #4: Mexico’s Highlights
3 Months: Mexico’s Highlights
Those who can pull of three months in Mexico can traverse the country if moving a bit quickly. Of course, with this much time, you always have the option of lingering a while in places you like.
A good strategy would be to start in one corner of the country and book your flight out of another. For example, you could start off in Cabo and end in Cancun. I could think of worse places to bookend an extended backpacking trip!
With three whole months, you can visit all the places mentioned in the itineraries above and add a few others. Definitely go ahead and add some time in Baja California and Oaxaca. Between the two you have tons of beaches, gorgeous colonial towns, and abundant nature. If you’re into surfing, you’ll love both of them as there are plenty of waves.
Having so much time in the country means you can check out some places that are a bit more off the beaten path. Cities like Monterrey (way up north) and Puebla (near Mexico City) get way less foreign visitors, so these are cool places to visit if you’re interested in seeing the less touristy side of Mexico.
There are so many quaint little towns, remote beaches, and natural wonders across Mexico that you’ll easily be able to fill three months. Slow down, take it all in, and enjoy – you’re on Mexico time now, after all.
Backpacking Mexico City
Mexico City is home to over 20 million people, making it one of the largest cities in the world. Many travelers choose to skip it and head straight to the coast. Backpacking Mexico just wouldn’t be the same without backpacking Mexico city as well! Plus, with its great hostels, street food, and nightlife, why in the hell would you skip it!?
Start your trip in DF (short for Distrito Federal) in the Zocalo. Around this main square, you can see plenty of historical and cultural landmarks. Mexico City’s National Palace is home to some famous Diego Rivera murals and is free to visit. You can also check out the stunning Metropolitan Cathedral and then visit the ruins of the main Aztec temple – Templo Mayor.
What Central Park is to New York, Chapultepec is to Mexico City. This massive green space is an excellent place to spend a leisurely day. There’s a zoo, botanical gardens, and even a castle. Be sure to head inside to explore the only royal castle in the Americas, but get there early; the lines are crazy by the afternoon.
No trip to Mexico City would be complete without a bit of mariachi and tequila. You can easily get a dose of both by visiting the Museum of Tequila & Mezcal and then getting dinner in Plaza Garibaldi. Here, roaming mariachi bands are available for hire. Order up some tacos al pastor and a cold one and enjoy this traditional Mexican music.
Backpacking the Riviera Maya
The Riviera Maya may be famous for its flashy resorts, but that doesn't mean it's not for backpackers! As a matter of fact, there are plenty of hostels in places like Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum. That means you can still enjoy the white sand beaches and turquoise waters even on a backpacker's budget.
Cancun is the biggest city in the area and is also the most touristy. While you may be tempted to skip it entirely, it's worth it to spend a couple of nights here. After all, the beaches are world-famous for a reason. You can still find super cheap and tasty local food and catch public transport to ensure you don't spend a fortune here.
Nearby Playa del Carmen is a great choice for backpackers. Not only are there plenty of epic hostels to choose from, but the nightlife here is the stuff of legends. There are often big shows and festivals that pass through town as well, so be sure to check the calendar when planning your trip.
Tulum has become the trendy hotspot in the Riviera Maya, but thankfully it's still backpacker friendly. You can easily find a cheap dorm bed and rent a bicycle for your stay to explore the ruins and beaches, but the affordable accommodation is in the town (about a 10 minute bike ride from the beach).
Make sure you try the fish tacos here - they're the best I've ever had.
There's a lot more to the Riviera Maya than just lounging on the beach, though. Several of the best Mayan ruins can be found in this area, including the absolutely incredible Chichen Itza, which is inland. There are also plenty of cenotes, botanical gardens, caves, and national parks to explore.
With a week or two in the area, you can easily bounce around between the beach towns and the Mayan ruins. Bus travel is safe, comfortable, and affordable in Mexico so you can get everywhere without even renting a car. However, if you do fancy your own set of wheels then Riveria Maya is a good place to pick it up and there are quite a few Cancun Car Rental options.
If you've got a bit more time in the area, you might want to consider adding a trip over to Cozumel or Isla Mujeres. Both are accessible by ferry, so you can easily tack that island getaway onto your Mexico trip.
This entire area is known for some of the best scuba diving in the world! Cozumel has great access to the Mesoamerican Reef, and Mexico is the only place in the world you can dive in the unique cenote cave systems. Check out this post to track down some of the least crowded cenotes in Mexico.
When it comes to a backpacking trip to Mexico, few places are as awesome as Oaxaca. This state in southern Mexico is famous for its mouth-watering cuisine and indigenous cultures. Several indigenous languages are spoken here, but your broken gringo Spanish will still get you by.
The hub of Oaxaca City is where your trip here will likely begin. You can easily spend a couple of days here strolling around the tranquil downtown streets and sampling the local cuisine. Here you'll find numerous epic hostels as well. Be sure to add a day trip out to Monte Alban - one of the most impressive ruins in the country.
If it's a beach you seek, you'll want to head to the coastal town of Puerto Escondido. This is a great spot to surf, and lessons are available if you're like me and can't stand on a board to save your life. There's plenty more to do here, including fishing trips, skydiving, and swimming in a bioluminescent lagoon.
Find out where the best places to stay in Oaxaca are so you can be as close as possible to the attractions (or parties for that matter).
Backpacking Banderas Bay
Located on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, Banderas Bay is one of the biggest tourist draws in the country. Here you'll find plenty of beaches and chilled out Mexican towns. You could spend your entire trip in Mexico bouncing around the bay. Just be warned that you may love it so much that you decide to just move there. Trust me - I know from experience.
Puerto Vallarta is the main city in the area and is where you'll fly into. While it's famous as a Spring Break and retiree destination, PV is definitely not only for drunk American high school kids and old farts. There are many amazing neighborhoods, each unique and different.
This popular beach town still retains much of its charm. Just go to the main square on a Sunday night and dance with the locals, and you'll forget that you're in a super popular tourist destination.
From PV, you can catch a bus up and down the bay to visit several different towns. Bucerias is located just an hour up the coast and it's a much smaller, more chilled out spot. Keep going and you'll reach Sayulita, which attracts surfers, yogis, and hippies alike.
Head in the other direction from PV and then catch a boat to Yelapa. It's not an island but it sure feels like one! This town has attracted the likes of Bob Dylan and members of the Grateful Dead. Come check it out for a few days and you'll see why.
Puerto Vallarta is one of those places that just grabs you and makes you want to stay. We went there for a month last year and ended up staying for seven, and we're back for another six as I write this. If you make it to Puerto Vallarta this year, drop us a line. The first taco is on me!
Backpacking Baja California
The wonders of Baja California have long been known to surfers making their way south of the border from the other California. This peninsula extending into the Pacific Ocean is home to some epic waves up and down the coast. Popular spots for surfing include Rosarito Beach and Ensenada.
On the other side of the peninsula, you can find beaches better suited for sunbathing and relaxing. Most towns in the south also have diving, kayaking, fishing, and even whale watching from December to April. The most booming tourist towns on the peninsula are located in the Los Cabos area, including Cabo San Lucas. Check out this post for things to do in the provincial capital, La Paz.
In between the coasts, Baja California is home to some pretty wild, and almost alien landscapes. Here you'll find vast deserts and dormant volcanoes. The peninsula is also home to some very famous and thought-provoking cave art. The best place to check it out is the Sierra de San Francisco, which was even declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Off the Beaten Path Travel in Mexico
In a country this massive, it's really not that hard to get off the beaten path in Mexico. Even in popular tourist destinations like Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, all you need to do is walk a few blocks away from the beach and you'll be surrounded by locals.
Generally speaking, the further away you are from la playa, the less gringos you'll see.
A great city to explore that's off the beaten path is Monterrey. It's the third biggest city in Mexico and the closest to the US, yet very few foreign tourists make it here. Once an incredibly dangerous city, Monterrey has undergone quite the transformation in recent years. It's surrounded by mountains and full of culture, making it a great base for a couple of days.
Another fun city that's worth checking out is Mazatlan. While it's true that Mazatlan is a popular spot for retirees, not that many travelers make it here. The city hosts one of the biggest Carnaval celebrations in the world, so try to time your visit to be here then. You can drink margaritas as big as your head while stumbling up and down the Malecon listening to live bands.
Not far from Mexico City, you can visit the city of Puebla. You may know of Cinco de Mayo as a day to drink margaritas and eat burritos, but the people of Puebla celebrate it as the day they defeated a French expeditionary army. Here you can visit the forts where the legendary battle took place.
Finally, there is an incredible spot in the state of San Luis Potosí called Huasteca Potosina. One of our writers, Ana, said it was her favorite spot in Mexico and she didn't see one other international tourist.
When backpacking Mexico, you're spoiled for choices as far as accommodation goes. In popular tourist areas and the big cities, you've got plenty of great hostels to choose from. It's also easy to find a decent hotel without spending too much.
To make sure find the absolute best places to stay in Mexico during your backpacking adventure, check out the best hostels in Mexico. Rest your head in a comfy bed while keeping the travel costs low!
|Location||Accommodation||Why stay here?!|
|Mexico City||Mexico City Hostel||What an awesome location! You're just steps away from the Zocalo.|
|Cancun||Mezcal Hostel||This place has a great pool with plenty of chill places around it.|
|Cozumel||Beds Friends Hostel||It's a Caribbean house with a beautiful garden.|
|Tulum||El Jardin de Frida||This hostel is inspired by Frida Kahlo and Mexican culture in general.|
|Playa del Carmen||The Yak||They have a mojito making class here. How cool is that?|
|Isla Mujeres||Poc na Hostel||You can actually camp here! Just bring your own tent.|
|Valladolid||Hostel La Candeleria||Take a siesta in their hammocks and listen to the birds sing.|
|Merida||Nomadas||Learn how to cut a rug at their free salsa lessons.|
|San Miguel de Allende||La Catrina||Chill out on their roof terrace.|
|Oaxaca||Casa Angel Youth Hostel||The staff are amazing, the hostel is clean, and there is a rooftop bar with an overall great and social atmosphere.|
|Puerto Vallarta||Oasis Hostel||Beautiful rooftop view, friendly staff, feel safe and clean, though need to walk or catch a quick bus to beach!|
|Cabo San Lucas||Ocean Tigers Dive House||Good atmosphere. Great to stay here for surf and dive!|
Top Things to Do in Mexico
Mexico is a huge country with a vast array of wonders, both natural and manmade. There's also just about every landscape imaginable and any type of adventure travel you could possibly want. It's not easy making a Top 10 list for backpacking Mexico, but let's give it a shot.
1. Visit Chichen Itza
This ancient Mayan city is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and one of the most incredible places you can go in Mexico. You can visit the ruins easily from anywhere in the Riviera Maya. Definitely be sure to spend at least half a day here taking it all in. The highlight is the impressive Temple of Kukulkan, which was built to honor a Mayan feathered serpent god.
2. Eat all the Tacos
That's right, all of them. There are so many different types and flavors of tacos it'll make your head spin. Whether you're eating them at a street vendor or in a beachside bar, delicious tacos will be there to join you. Forget about tacos with ground beef, lettuce, and cheese. Those aren't real tacos. Instead, try the local specialties such as tacos al pastor or fish tacos on the coast.
3. Museum Hop in Mexico City
I always blow peoples' minds when I tell them that Mexico City has more museums than any other city in the world. At over 150+ by last count, CDMX really is a city full of museums. Some of the best include the Museum of Anthropology and the Frida Kahlo Museum. Be sure to spend at least a few days in the capital and check out a handful of museums while you're there.
4. Swim in a Cenote
A cenote is a natural sinkhole that's formed when a cave ceiling collapses. They were considered sacred to the Mayans, and were often used for sacrificial offerings. You can find cenotes all over the Yucutan peninsula, so you've got plenty of choices. These are also great places to go snorkeling or scuba diving.
5. Listen to Mariachi
Mariachi is a traditional type of Mexican musical group. It's popular all over the country. In addition to their great music, the mariachi bands are famous for their traditional outfits. Mariachi bands are not that hard to find, as they play in restaurants, bars, and live music venues all over Mexico. Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City is one of the best places to hear some mariachi.
6. See the Lucha Libre Fights
The high-flying, colorful mask-wearing luchadores of Mexico's famous style of wrestling put on an amazing show. Lucha libre is a huge part of Mexican culture and thus a can't-miss when backpacking Mexico. The best place to see the fights is Arena Mexico in Mexico City, but there are also great fights in Guadalajara. Check out our in-depth guide to seeing lucha libre in Mexico for more information.
7. Hit the Beach
Most travelers to Mexico have some beach time planned, and for good reason. Mexico is home to every kind of beach you could imagine. There are white sand beaches with turquoise water. Others have great waves for surfing. Hell, there are even nudist beaches if that's your scene! Go ahead and order up a margarita, kick back, and relax.
8. Drink Tequila (and Mezcal)
Nobody does tequila like Mexico! This world-famous booze is distilled from the blue agave plant and is known to be the start (or end) to wild nights. It actually comes from the town of Tequila, which you can visit easily from Guadalajara. You'll also want to try some mezcal, which is kind of like tequila's older, more civilized cousin. Whichever one you order, don't try to do it as a shot with salt and lime. That's insulting to good tequila. Just sip it casually and enjoy!
9. Visit a Colonial Town
There are beautiful and well-preserved colonial towns all across Mexico. Many of them have been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Some of your best choices include Guanajuato, Morelia, and San Cristobal de las Casas. Definitely be sure to visit at least one on your trip.
10. Experience a Local Festival
Mexicans know how to party, plain and simple. There's no better way to experience the fun-loving nature of the people in Mexico than by taking part in a local festival. It could be the Day of the Dead celebrations in November, a regional cultural event, or even a music festival in the capital. There's something different going on every month, so check the calendar before you book your trip.
Below I have highlighted everything you need to know before backpacking Mexico, including how much things cost in Mexico and how much to budget, when is the best time to visit Mexico, and a guide to Mexico's food and culture!
Best Time to Travel to Mexico
The most popular time to visit Mexico is generally between December and April. These are the driest and coolest months in coastal destinations like Puerto Vallarta and Cancun. Of course, this is also high season.
That means the biggest crowds and the highest prices. Consider travelling in the shoulder season if you don't mind a little heat and possibly rain. Your wallet will thank you.
Be sure to book your accommodation well in advance if you're headed to popular places over any holidays. This includes Christmas, New Year's, Holy Week, and Mexican Independence Day. Holidays get very busy, especially at the beach. Unless you love being around hammered drunk teenagers, you'll want to avoid American Spring Break at all costs.
Keep in mind that Mexico is a huge country with diverse landscapes. While it's always hot on the coast, it can get downright chilly in Mexico City and other places at a higher elevation. You may actually need some warm clothes for the winter months.
What to Pack for Mexico
What you decide to pack will depend on where you're going, what activities you have planned, and what the weather will be like. If you're just going to hang on the beach, you can just show up in your swimsuit and tank top and be ready to rock. Bring a pair of nicer clothes if you want to go out to the clubs.
Be sure to pack some decent shoes if you plan on exploring the cities, and hiking shoes/clothes for any outdoor activities. It's also a good idea to bring an extra day bag, besides your big Mexico backpack, to carry with you to the beach or for big sightseeing days.
Depending on the time of year, you'll probably want a hat and sunglasses or an umbrella.
On every adventure, there are five things I never go travelling without:
1.Security Belt with Hidden Pocket: I never hit the road without my security belt. This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off. This is hands down the best way to hide your cash.
2.Travel Water Bottle: Always travel with a water bottle – it’ll save you money and reduce your plastic footprint on our planet. AR bottle are tough, lightweight and maintain the temperature of your beverage – so you can enjoy a cold red bull, or a hot coffee, no matter where you are. For every AR bottle sold, we donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org – an initiative to reduce plastic in our oceans!
3.Microfibre Towel: It’s always worth packing a proper towel. Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if needs be.
4. Headtorch: Every backpacker should have a head torch! A decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples, or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must. Currently, I’m using the Petzl Actik Core rechargeable headlamp - an awesome piece of kit! Because it’s USB chargeable I never have to buy earth polluting batteries.
5.Hammock: Taking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy (chicks dig hammocks) and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere. Right now, I’m rocking an Active Roots parachute hammock – it’s light, colourful and tough.
6. Toiletry Bag: I always travel with a hanging toiletry bag as it’s a super efficient way to organise your bathroom stuff. Well worth having, whether you are hanging it from a tree whilst camping, or a hook in a wall, it helps to have quick access to all your stuff.
For plenty more inspiration on what to pack, check out my full backpacking packing list.
Books to Read While Traveling Mexico
- The Backpacker Bible – Get it for free! Learn how to ditch your desk and travel the world on just $10 a day whilst building a life of long-term travel with an online income. To inspire and help the next generation of Broke Backpackers, you can now grab ‘How to Travel the World on $10 a Day’ for free!
- Lonely Planet Mexico Travel Guide: Read up on the history and culture of Mexico and get tons of tips on where to stay and eat in the newest Lonely Planet guide.
- Lonely Planet Cancun, Cozumel, and the Yucatan Travel Guide: If you'll be spending your trip in this corner of Mexico, you can get more specific info in this regional guide.
- Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler: Mexico City can be an overwhelming place for a first-time visitor. Thankfully longtime resident Jim Johnston has put together this excellent guide to the Mexican capital to help you make the most of your trip.
- Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs: If you're hoping to learn about Mexico's ancient civilizations, this is the book for you.
- Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent into Darkness: A fascinating look into the drug trade in Mexico from a journalist who had his life threatened as a result of his reporting.
- Under the Volcano: If you're looking to find some great books set in Mexico, start with this one. It was called "one of the towering novels of the (20th) century" by the New York Times and remains a fascinating read.
Useful Travel Phrases For Mexico
Mexico is the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, but it's also home to nearly 70 native languages. While all 123 million of its inhabitants are considered Mexican, this is an incredibly diverse country. The culture and customs of Mexico change as you move across the country, ensuring there's something new to discover everywhere you go.
Below are some useful Spanish phrases for backpacking Mexico. While many people speak English in the touristic areas and cities, once you get outside these areas, Spanish will carry you a long way!
Apps to download before travelling to Mexico
- Uber - Forget haggling with cab drivers and make sure you have Uber on your phone. Although it's kind of in a gray area, it's very common in most places you'll visit in Mexico.
- Maps.Me – Prone to getting lost or taking that ‘shortcut’ that adds another few hours onto a simple walk? This app is definitely for you. You can download your map and route before you venture out to keep you on track.
- XE Currency – This app is the best way to track exchange rates in real time. Be sure to download it and compare the rate shown on there with the one you're offered.
- SpanishDict - If your español is no bueno, you'll want to make sure to have this great English to Spanish dictionary on your phone.
- HIDE.ME – I always have a VPN ready to go on both my phone and laptop, I personally use Hide Me which is one of the fastest and most reliable options out there. This particular VPN allows for up to five connections which is handy for keeping all your devices connected without having to purchase multiple VPN packages.
Staying Safe in Mexico
If all of your opinions on Mexico are based on what you hear on the news, you'll think Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. While it's definitely true that the drug cartels are ruthless and that there are plenty of places you don't want to travel to, most places of interest to travelers are quite safe.
Sure, bad shit happens occasionally - like the shooting at a music festival in Playa del Carmen - but the same is true for places like Paris, Las Vegas, and Bangkok.
For the most part, travelling in Mexico is quite safe. Even in Mexico City, you're fine walking around by yourself as long as you exercise some common sense. Don't wander around sketchy neighborhoods on the outskirts of town late at night, or walk around staring down at your brand new iPhone. Don't leave your wallet sitting in your back pocket full of cash. And try not to get hammered drunk and walk home. Savvy travelers who know how to handle themselves will be just fine.
One thing to watch out for in Mexico is taking random taxis. They're not all legit, and there are plenty of stories of people getting ripped off and robbed. Uber is big in most places you'll likely visit and is super cheap, so just get a local SIM card and stick with that. Try to find an official taxi stand if you need to just hail a cab, or have someone call one for you.
If you do find yourself in a situation where someone is trying to rob you and they are armed, don't try to be a hero. Give up the bag and don't put up a struggle. It's not worth getting stabbed to save a phone or a few bucks.
There have been several horror stories in recent years of people getting drugged in all-inclusive resorts. Many have been hospitalized and a few even died as a result. If you're going to stay at an AI, be sure you research it before booking to see if they were involved in any of these cases.
Wherever you go, always keep an eye on your drink. Even better, just stick to beer and ask them not to open the can or bottle until it's in your possession.
Pick yourself up a backpacker security belt to keep your cash safe on the road. I strongly recommend travelling with a headlamp whilst in Mexico (or anywhere really - every backpacker should have a good headtorch!) - check out my post for a breakdown of the best value headlamps to take backpacking.
Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'N Roll in Mexico
One thing's for sure about Mexicans - they like to party, and they like it loud. Regardless of what day of the week it is, you'll find people out and about enjoying drinks and music with friends. You're never too far away from a cold cerveza, whether it's a Pacifico, Modelo, Victoria, or Corona. If you want to go local, try a michelada. It's basically a Bloody Mary but with beer instead of vodka.
Those looking for something stronger can opt for tequila or mezcal. After all, the best stuff in the world comes from right here in Mexico. Forget about doing shots with salt and lime. That's for high school kids on Spring Break do who don't know any better.
Good tequila and mezcal doesn't need any of those bells and whistles. Just sip it straight, no chaser.
In places like Mexico City, Cancun, and Puerto Vallarta, it's not hard to find a party that's going all night long. Mexicans love their music, so there's usually a band or a DJ playing. It might be a local mariachi band, it might be a heavy metal band from the US, or it might be a German house DJ. If you're looking to rock out and dance the night away, you've come to the right country.
As far as drugs go in Mexico, they're obviously around. As a gringo tourist, don't be surprised if people approach you to offer you drugs. I don't recommend buying drugs from a random guy on the street anywhere, but I know some of you will probably do it anyways. Just exercise caution and don't be surprised if you get ripped off.
Having a small amount of weed technically isn't a big deal in Mexico. However, if a cop finds you smoking a doobie in a local park, they'll most definitely shake you down for a bribe. The best way to get stoned and not get in trouble for it is to make local friends and just hang with them.
I've smoked plenty of joints in Mexico and have never had any problems. My only complaint is that the weed is usually quite shit. You'd think someone would have learned how to grow something decent by now.
If you're looking to roll, trip, etc., it's definitely possible. Again, be extremely wary of buying anything off the street. A better idea is to find the places where the hippies, stoners, punk rockers, and the like hang out. They should know where to find something and there's less likelihood of you getting ripped off or busted.
Travel Insurance for Mexico
A wise man once said that if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t really afford to travel – so do consider backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure! Traveling without insurance would be risky. I highly recommend World Nomads.
I have been using World Nomads for some time now and made a few claims over the years. They're easy to use, offer the widest coverage, and are affordable. Also, this is the only company I know of that lets you buy travel insurance after leaving on a trip.
If there’s one insurance company I trust, it’s World Nomads. Find out why I recommend World Nomads, check out my World Nomads Insurance review.
Getting an estimate from World Nomads is simple - just click the button or image below, fill out the necessary info, and you're on your way!
Travel Guide to Getting Around Mexico
Arriving in Mexico
There are plenty of major international airports in Mexico that you can fly in and out of. Popular tourist areas such as Cancun and Puerto Vallarta each have lots of options for direct flights from the US and Canada, and even some from Europe.
Obviously, Mexico City has the largest international airport. In this section, we'll take a look at the entry requirements for Mexico and how to travel around the country.
Entry Requirements for Mexico
The entry requirements for Mexico vary depending on your nationality. Citizens of 65 different countries are allowed to visit Mexico visa-free. Typically, tourists and business visitors can stay up to 180 days. Make sure you read up on the visa policy of Mexico if you're not clear.
One thing that's important to note is the tourist card you'll be given at the airport. You need to hang on to this and present it upon your departure, or you'll be hit with a fine. It seems unimportant and chances are nobody will alert you, but be sure to keep it safe.
How to Travel in Mexico
Many of the places you'll want to visit in Mexico will have an airport, or at least one within a few hours. Thanks to budget airlines such as Volaris and Viva Aerobus, flying around Mexico doesn't have to break the bank. You can find very cheap fares, especially when booking in advance. Just keep in mind that you'll have to pay extra for a checked bag. It's worth it to try and go carry-on only if you plan on taking a few flights.
I always like to joke that bus travel in Mexico makes the US look like a third-world country. Compared to the hell on Earth that is a Greyhound, bus travel in Mexico is quite comfortable. I'm talking comfortable reclining seats, TV screens, and even a free bagged lunch! Some of the best companies include Primera Plus and ETN.
For travelling around a destination, you've always got the option of super cheap local buses. Taxis are plentiful but are known for price gauging in many places. A better idea is to have Uber ready to go on your phone or arrange a cab through your accommodation. If you are staying in Rivera Maya, then your biggest challenge will be getting from the airport to your accomodation. You can arrange Cancun Airport Transportation ahead of arriving to ensure a smooth journey.
In the big cities of Monterrey, Guadalajara, and Mexico City, there's a metro system as well. Even in the capital, rides are super cheap at around $0.25. Women should be aware that there's a special car for women and children at the end of the line. It's a wise idea to make use of these, especially at rush hour. Mexican men can be a bit "grabby" when the crowd is pushing on and off the train.
Many people choose to rent a car in Mexico. You should be safe driving around tourist areas, but be aware that muggings and robberies are very common when gringos are driving outside of these comfort zones. Wherever you are, be sure you've got good insurance on the car and know all the details of the plan.
Hitchhiking in Mexico
It might be a usual thing to do in other countries, but hitchhiking like we know it isn't that common in Mexico - but it's definitely an option. It's also pretty safe, even when you're backpacking Mexico alone; just avoid it in the border states. People in pickup trucks will usually offer you a ride, so jump in the back and hold on to your sombrero! Payment is usually expected, so be sure to have some smaller change. It also helps to speak some Spanish, obviously.
Onwards Travel from Mexico
Mexico is the perfect jump-off point for your adventures in Latin America. Those looking to travel by land have the option of heading into Guatemala or Belize. It's not hard to arrange bus trips into these neighboring countries.
Alternatively, cheap flights are available to most countries in Central America or the northern part of South America. If you're looking to visit Caribbean countries like Cuba, you can find good deals on flights out of Mexico City and Cancun.
Daily Budget for Mexico
Mexico can be an incredibly cheap place to travel. It can also be incredibly expensive. It largely depends on where you stay, what you eat, and how you get around. If you do everything the local way, your money will go very far here.
Those who prefer all-inclusive resorts and taxis will obviously spend a lot more. It's definitely possible to get by on $40-50 a day and live quite comfortably.
As I've mentioned, flights around Mexico can be quite cheap. It's possible to fly for $50 or even less, but remember you'll probably have to pay $25 or so for a bag. Long-distance buses usually cost between $25-50 and are super comfortable. Taking the subway in Mexico City or the local buses in other cities usually costs less than $1.
If you're into street food and hole-in-the-wall local joints, your food bill in Mexico will be very small. It's totally possible to fill up on delicious tacos for just a couple bucks. Many local restaurants often have a set menu at lunch for just $4-5 that will keep you full for a while.
A great thing about travelling in Mexico is the wide array of cheap or free activities. It costs nothing to sit on the beach, after all. There are plenty of parks, town squares, and beautiful churches you can visit for free. Museums are less than $10 and even the amazing Chichen Itza only costs around $12.
Money in Mexico
Mexico's currency is the peso (MXN). As of May 2018, the exchange rate hovers between 17-19 MXN to $1 USD. There are 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500 peso notes and 10, 5, 2, and 1 peso coins.
It’s not hard to find ATMs in Mexico, but you may be charged a fee by both the local bank and your bank. If you’re American, you can sign up for a Charles Schwab checking account and have ATM fees reimbursed at the end of the month.
You'll need cash for things like local bus rides, street food, and tips. You'll be able to use a credit card easily, especially in the big cities and beach towns. Make sure you have a card that has no foreign transaction fees and don't forget to tell your bank where you're headed.
You should always have some emergency cash hidden on you and I’ve written an entire post on the best places to hide your money. If you want to carry a fair bit of cash safely on your body, your best bet is to get hold of a backpacker belt with a hidden security pocket.
Top Tips for Broke Backpackers
- Camp: Camping in Mexico isn't very common, but there are definitely places where it's an option. Your safest bet is to travel in a campervan and find official campgrounds. Tent camping is possible in some places, including the beach towns of Bucerias and Sayulita a bit north from Puerto Vallarta. Check out this post for a breakdown of the best tents to take backpacking. Or, if you’re feeling real adventurous and want to save some cash, consider picking up a backpacking hammock.
- Cook your own food: If you are on a tight budget, you can save money by cooking your own food – I recommend bringing a portable backpacking stove.
- Book your transportation early: Plane tickets are much cheaper if you purchase them in advance, especially with Mexico's budget airlines.
- Couchsurf: Especially in the big cities in Mexico, it’s not too hard to find a host whose couch you can crash on. They might be expats who are working there or locals. Check out Couch Surfing to make some real friendships and see this country from the perspective of locals.
- Pack a travel water bottle and save money every day!
Joining an Organized Tour in Mexico
For most countries, Mexico included, solo travel is the name of the game. That said, if you are short on time, energy, or just want to be part of an awesome group of travelers you can opt to join an organized tour. Joining a tour is a great way to see a majority of the country quickly and without the effort that goes into planning a backpacking trip. However—not all tour operators are created equal—that is for sure.
G Adventures is a solid down-to-earth tour company catering to backpackers just like you, and their prices and itineraries reflect the interests of the backpacker crowd. You can score some pretty sweet deals on epic trips in Mexico for a fraction of the price of what other tour operators charge.
Volunteer in Mexico
Long term travel is awesome. Giving back is awesome too. For backpackers looking to travel long-term on a budget in Mexico whilst making a real impact on local communities, look no further than World Packers. World Packers is an excellent platform connecting travelers with meaningful volunteer positions throughout the world.
In exchange for a few hours of work each day, your room and board are covered.
Backpackers can spend long periods of time volunteering in an awesome place without spending any money. Meaningful life and travel experiences are rooted in stepping out of your comfort zone and into the world of a purposeful project.
Worldpackers opens the doors for work opportunities in hostels, homestays, NGOs, and eco-projects around the world. We’ve tried and approved them ourselves - check out our Worldpackers in-depth review here.
If you’re ready to create a life-changing travel experience and give back to the community, join the Worldpacker community now. As a Broke Backpacker reader, you’ll get a special discount of $20. Just use the discount code BROKEBACKPACKER and your membership is discounted from $49 a year to only $29.
Travel Mexico for Free
Are you a native English speaker looking to earn cash whilst traveling the world? Teaching English online is a great way to earn a consistent income—from anywhere in the world with a good internet connection. Depending on your qualifications (or your motivation to obtain qualifications like a TEFL certificate) you can teach English remotely from your laptop, save some cash for your next adventure, and make a positive impact on the world by improving another person’s language skills! It’s a win-win! Check out this detailed article for everything you need to know to start teaching English online.
In addition to giving you the qualifications to teach English online, TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world. To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read my in-depth report on teaching English abroad.
Broke Backpacker readers get a 35% discount on TEFL courses with MyTEFL (simply enter the code BACKPKR), to find out more, please read my in-depth report on teaching English abroad.
Whether you are keen to teach English online or looking to take your teaching game a step further by finding a job teaching English in a foreign country, getting your TEFL certificate is absolutely a step in the right direction.
Internet in Mexico
The internet is generally quite good in Mexico. Most big cities, tourist hot spots, and expat favorites have high-speed internet readily available. Your accommodation will most likely have free WiFi, unless you're staying in a fancy resort. Isn't it funny how the places that cost hundreds a night don't have free WiFi while the budget hostels do?
If you need to get some work done on your trip, it's not hard to find a cafe with solid internet or even a co-working space. As digital nomadism takes the world by storm, more and more co-working spaces are popping up in Mexico.
Must-Try Experiences in Mexico
There's no shortage of must-try experiences in Mexico. In fact, there's so many of them that you'll just have to keep coming back. Even if you can spend a few months in Mexico, you won't be able to do it all. This country is just that big and has that much to offer.
Mexico has so many beautiful beaches and all the fun activities that come along with them. You should definitely be sure to do some snorkeling, diving, fishing, SUPing, surfing, and whatever else is available. If you're traveling in the Yucatan, be sure to check out some cenotes in addition to the beaches.
Wherever you travel to in Mexico, be sure to visit at least one or two of the ancient ruins. You can check out Teotihuacan on a day trip from Mexico City or visit Chichen Itza and several others in the Yucatan. These are incredibly important and absolutely awe-inspiring to visit.
Mexican cuisine is famous all over the world, and for good reason. Each region has its own flavors and unique dishes, ensuring there's something new to try everywhere you go. Make sure to find out what the local specialties are in each place you visit and give them a try. Eating your way across Mexico is a foodie's dream come true!
We can't mention Mexican food without talking about the drink as well. Obviously, you've got to try some real deal Mexican tequila and mezcal while you're here. If you're really into tequila, you may want to consider visiting the town where it got its name from. You can even take a train ride there called the Tequila Express. It leaves from Guadalajara on the weekends and includes snacks, live music, a tour of the distillery, and of course, lots and lots of tequila.
Sports are huge in Mexico, especially football and lucha libre. Check the schedule for the local football clubs and see if they do lucha fights where you're travelling to. Hit a local cantina before the game or the match and soak up the lively atmosphere. Joining the locals to cheer on their favorite team and luchadores is tons of fun and a great insight into local culture.
People in Mexico
Did you know that Mexico is the 11th most populous country in the world? As of 2018, the population of Mexico is estimated at just under 130 million. It’s also far and away the most populous Spanish-speaking country. Columbia comes in second and is home to only about 50 million people.
The population of Mexico is quite ethnically diverse. There’s a big mixture of indigenous peoples with Europeans as a result of colonization. A majority of Mexicans are known as Mestizos, which means they identify as having both indigenous and European elements. As the word has different meanings across Mexico, it’s tough to say exactly what percentage of the population this is.
Mexico is still home to many indigenous groups. The most common is the Nahua people, with a population of around 2.5 million. Did you know that there are still Mayans in Mexico as well? As a matter of fact, there’s almost 1.5 million of them! In total, there are 62 indigenous groups living in Mexico. They’re actually granted autonomy through the constitution to protect their language and culture.
Generally speaking, people in Mexico are very friendly and welcoming. This may seem a bit over the top in touristy places sometimes. Not everyone is trying to sell you something, though. It’s not uncommon to have locals just strike up a conversation with you on the street, usually in a nice mix of Spanglish. The best place to meet locals is around the main square or in parks, especially on the weekends.
Dating in Mexico
It's quite common for foreigners to date locals in Mexico. This is true for both men and women. Of course, there are plenty of older gringo men with younger Mexican girlfriends or 2nd wives. This is not nearly as common here as it is in places like Thailand though.
Mexicans are very sociable and fun-loving, so it's not hard to meet people of the opposite sex. Whether you're at a bar, a concert, or a festival, you'll have plenty of opportunities to mingle with local guys or girls.
When dating someone in Mexico, you need to be aware of the importance of family. If someone asks you to come meet their family, it typically means they view the relationship as getting serious. The best part about this meeting is that you'll probably be given a ton of awesome home-cooked food!
One thing to keep in mind is that gender roles are still very distinct in Mexico. It's still very much a macho culture where the man is more dominant and women can be quite soft-spoken. This usually causes issues when foreign girls date Mexican guys, but foreign men sure don't seem to mind. Also, it's not common for girls to hang out with the guys or vice versa. That means you'll still have plenty of chances for a guy's or girl's night out.
While Mexican men may seem to be quite flirtatious - don't be surprised to get some cat calls if you're a female walking alone - they are very chivalrous and respectful when it comes to dating (solo female travellers will probably have countless offers to test this.) It's far more typical for the man to strike up a conversation and make the first move. Sorry, shy guys, but you'll have to be the one to ask her out in your broken Spanish.
Although it's quite a conservative and religious culture, overall, Mexico is becoming far more accepting of gay couples. In particular, Puerto Vallarta is pretty open-minded and is often called the "San Francisco of Mexico." It's one of the most LGBT-friendly travel destinations out there. Even in conservative Mexico City, it's not uncommon to see gay couples comfortably together in public.
Food in Mexico
Eating will definitely be a highlight of your experience backpacking Mexico. This country takes its culinary arts seriously, and it shows. We could have a guide this long and just have it be all about Mexican food.
Here are a few of the highlights that you’ll just have to try:
Tacos - Obviously, we have to start with tacos. Everywhere you look, there are tacos in Mexico. Typically they’re pretty small and are served with two tortillas. Popular fillings include al pastor, chorizo, and steak. Load them up with onions, cilantro, salsa, and hot sauce and dig in.
Tortas - There are basically a Mexican sub sandwich. You’ll get a lot of the same fillings as you’ll find in tacos but in between two pieces of fresh bread instead. This is a great lunch as it’ll fill you up and not cost very much.
Ceviche - Peru may be more famous for its ceviche, but Mexico does this dish of raw fish, lime juice, and chillies quite well too. Of course, you’ll find the best ceviche in coastal towns.
Aguachile - This is kind of like ceviche, but with shrimp and far spicier. Cucumbers are usually added on the side to help you cool down. It burns, but it burns so good!
Mole - This is actually just a sauce that is used in several different dishes. Both Puebla and Oaxaca claim to have invented mole sauce and are excellent places to try it. You can find dishes with mole al over the country, though.
Chilaquiles - Ever had nachos for breakfast? Well, you can do that in Mexico! Chilaquiles are made by taking yesterday’s tortillas, cutting them up, and frying them. They’re then covered in a red or green sauce and given a side of beans.
Pozole - This is a traditional soup popular all over Mexico. It’s made with hominy (dried maize) and pork and topped with shredded cabbage, radishes, onion, chili peppers, and salsa.
Churros - When you’re ready for dessert, nothing beats a churro. These pieces of fried dough covered in cinnamon are delicious, especially when dipped in chocolate!
Check out this post for even more inspiration on delicious Mexican food to try on your travels.
Festivals in Mexico
There are several different holidays and festivals throughout the year in Mexico. It all starts with New Year’s, which is huge in the popular tourist towns on the coast and Mexico City as well. If you’re hoping to spend NYE in one of these places, definitely book your trip well in advance.
Two different Mexican cities host massive Carnaval celebrations - Mazatlan and Veracruz. While Rio and New Orleans may get all the hype, Carnaval in Mexico is a damn good time as well. There are parades, live bands, and margaritas as big as your head!
You may find it interesting to learn that Cinco de Mayo actually isn’t a huge holiday in most parts of Mexico. In fact, the only place that really celebrates it is Puebla. This is the city where the Mexican army defeated French forces in the city in 1862. Don’t expect a rowdy party full of tequila shots on May 5th in Mexico.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) is a big deal in Latin America. This is the week leading up to Easter, and it’s probably the busiest travel time for locals. I remember last year the beaches in Puerto Vallarta were absolutely packed full of people during that week.
If your trip falls around Easter, you’ll want to make sure to get your transport and accommodation booked early.
Mexico celebrates its Independence Day on September 16th. Obviously, this a major holiday all across the country. Nowhere is the patriotic fervor more on display than in the capital. If you’re in Mexico City at this time, expect to see very jubilant celebrations.
Although not an official holiday, the Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) on November 1-2 is a major part of Mexican culture. It’s believed that this goes back thousands of years to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess of the underworld. This is not a mournful time, though – it’s meant to be a celebration of the people and the lives they lived.
There are music festivals all over Mexico, with more and more popping up each year. We had a good time at the RHA festival in Riviera Nyarit last year, which had two nights full of international house DJs right by the beach. Mexico City will also host an Ultra festival this October if you’re into electronic music.
It’s not all button pushers though. There are rock, jazz, pop, and of course reggaeton festivals as well. These days, more and more American bands are hosting their own festivals at all-inclusive resorts in the Riviera Maya. Check the calendar before you book your trip to see if there’s going to be a festival.
Scuba Diving in Mexico
If you’re a diver, you’re going to love Mexico. There are several world-class dive sites around the country for you to explore. The best spot if you want to base your trip around diving is the Riviera Maya. There are several great dive sites around Cancun, and you can also easily visit nearby Isla Mujeres and even Cozumel for more.
For a unique scuba experience, why not go diving in a cenote? These underground sinkholes are fascinating to explore below the surface. It’s easy to arrange a cenote diving trip from major tourist hubs like Cancun or Playa del Carmen.
On the other side of Mexico, there’s diving available in Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, and Acapulco as well. Just be aware that the water over here can be quite cold and may require a warming dry suit. It’s worth it as you may see giant rays or even whales while diving on the Pacific Coast.
If you are looking to join a liveaboard and get to some amazing remote locations, check out Live Aboard for some great deals!
Surfing in Mexico
Mexico is an incredible destination for surfers. You’ve got a wide variety of breaks and lots of swell here. In many places, you can ride some epic waves with little to no crowd. It helps that there’s about 2,500 km of coastline along the Pacific Ocean. Surfing is also an option year-round in Mexico.
Some of the best places to go surfing include Baja California, Sayulita, and Puerto Escondido. You don’t need to bring your own board as there are always some available for hire. If you’re like me and can’t stand on a board of any kind, there are several options for surf classes in the more popular destinations.
A Brief History of Mexico
Mexico celebrates its Independence Day on September 16th. It was on this day in 1810 that Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla launched the Mexican War of Independence with his famous "Cry of Dolores." The war lasted over a decade, finally concluding in 1821 with the end of Spanish rule.
The short-lived Mexican Empire was created after the war. This included Central America all the way down to the current southern border of Costa Rica, as well as a large chunk of the US. The Catholic monarchy came to an end in 1824 with the ouster of Emperor Augustin de Iturbide.
The new federal republic experienced a lot of tension between Spanish elite and indigenous populations. Instability and armed conflicts would be fixtures in Mexico for many years as a result. The country then lost Texas, which seceded to the US in 1836. After the Mexican-American War, even more land was lost. Mexico was forced to sell its northern provinces to the US, which included California, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah.
Mexico would go through lots of changes in the 2nd half of the 19th century. Maximilian Hadsburg of Austria became the emperor with support from France, but his reign didn’t last long. He was executed by Republican rebels just a few years later. The country was then led by Porfirio Diaz for 35 years - a time marked by economic growth and political repression.
The Diaz years ended with the start of the Mexican Revolution, and a constitutional republic was established in Mexico. In the following decades, there were assassinations, resignations, and rebellions. There was also a new constitution established in 1917 that ushered in a new era in Mexico. By 1920, the three main leaders of the revolution (Madero, Carranza, and Zapata) were dead.
In 1929, the National Revolutionary Party was formed. It would later change its name to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI for short. Under several PRI presidents, nationalism reigned supreme. With support from pro-government unions and peasant groups, they were able to keep a stronghold on power.
In the following decades, Mexico experienced rapid industrialization with a lot of protectionism. Huge offshore oil reserves were discovered, which led to an unhealthy dependence on oil income. This resulted in several budget criseses over the years when oil prices fell.
Mexico City experienced tragedy followed by jubilation in the 80s. A massive earthquake rocked the city and killed thousands in 1985. The city then picked up the pieces, rebuilt, and hosted the World Cup the following year. Such is the resiliency of the Mexican people.
More turbulent times were ahead for Mexico as the country joined the US and Canada in the NAFTA agreement in 1994. An anti-government group called the Zapatista National Liberation Army protested in Chiapas against NAFTA and the government's treatment of Indian groups. The protest was brutally suppressed by government forces.
The bad times would continue in '94 as leading presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was murdered. As a result, the PRI continued their rule of Mexico with their candidate Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon becoming president. A dramatic stock market crash and devaluation of the peso soon followed.
Zedillo would go on to sign an agreement with the main opposition parties in a move towards political reform. However, the problems in Chiapas escalated when 45 Indians were killed by paramilitary gunmen. In the fallout, the governor of the state resigned and peace talks collapsed.
The PRI's grip on power began to loosen in 1997 when they lost their majority in the lower house of parliament. Finally, in the year 2000, an opposition candidate won the presidency for the first time ever. Vicente Fox became the new president of Mexico in an historic victory. The next year, Zapatista guerrillas marched from Chiapas to the capital to make their demands known. A bill that passed parliament was rejected, ensuring the uprising in Chiapas continued.
In 2001, Fox approved an investigation into the disappearance of left-wing activists through the 70s and 80s. Information came to light about the torture and killing of hundreds of political activists. Three army officers were charged with first-degree murder as a result. Even a former president was implicated in the shootings of student protestors, but a judge refused to order an arrest.
Throughout the aughts, drug violence soared in Mexico. The attorney general came out and said that more than 4,000 people had been killed in the 18 months since Felipe Calderon became president. Massive marches happened all across Mexico to demand action. The murder rate in the border town of Ciudad Juarez reached an all-time high in 2009 as rival drug cartels waged war with each other.
The PRI came back to the head of the Mexican government in 2012 with the victory of Enrique Peña Nieto. He began a policy of targeting the local bosses instead of the head honchos in the cartels. The violence continued, though, with vigilante groups launching strikes against the cartels. On a visit in 2016, Pope Francis urged the people of Mexico not to give up in the face of such violence.
Mexico is once again gearing up for elections in July. Only time will tell who will lead Mexico into the future. One thing's for sure - many people will be happy to see Peña Nieto go, as he has been one of the least popular and most controversial presidents of Mexico.
Final Thoughts on Backpacking Mexico
While Mexico definitely has its fair shares of problems (what country doesn't?), don't let that deter you from taking an extended backpacking trip here.
There's so much to see, learn, do and eat in this fascinating country that you'll probably begin planning your return trip before you even leave. Here you can explore ancient Mayan cities, enjoy world class surfing and diving, and eat some of the most mouth-watering cuisine on the planet. All along the way, you'll get to enjoy the vibrant culture of Mexico and its incredible, diverse people.
Just be warned that you might fall in love with this country and end up moving here. I know from experience! Now that you've learned so much about Mexico and seen a bit of what this amazing country has to offer, I hope to see you here sooner than later, amigos.
Being a Responsible Backpacker in Mexico
Here are some things you can do:
- Reduce your plastic footprint: Perhaps the best thing you can do for our planet is to make sure you do NOT add to the plastic problem all over the world. Don’t buy one-use water bottles, the plastic ends up in landfill or in the ocean. Instead, pack a tough travel water bottle.
- Go and watch A Plastic Ocean on Netflix – it’ll change how you view the plastic problem in the world; you need to understand what we are up against. If you think it doesn’t matter, get off my fucking site.
- Don’t pick up single use plastic bags, you’re a backpacker – take your daypack if you need to go to the shop or run errands.
- Bear in mind, that many animal products in countries you travel through will not be ethically farmed and won’t be of the highest quality. I’m a carnivore but when I’m on the road, I only eat chicken. Mass-farming of cows etc leads to the rainforest being cut down – which is obviously a huge problem.
Recently, my gear-venture, Active Roots has started to sell water bottles. For every Active Roots water bottle sold, we donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org – an awesome initiative aimed at educating people on the risk of single use plastic and helping to clean up our oceans. Help save the planet, whether you take an Active Roots bottle or not – TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for your plastic footprint, don’t be a dick.
Need more guidance? – Check out our post on how to be a responsible backpacker.
People in Mexico are generally quite welcoming and easy-going. They’re pretty used to seeing tourists and are happy to have you, so long as you don’t act like a total gringo jerk.
Especially in Spring Break hotspots like Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, locals are pretty sick and tired of hammered drunk foreigners and their destructive behavior. Go ahead and have a good time and party hard in Mexico, but keep it together and don’t be that guy (or girl, but let’s be honest it’s usually dudes).
A major pet peeve of mine (and other “Mexpats”) is tourists treating locals like dirt. If I had a peso for every time I saw a gringo yell at a waiter, driver, housekeeper, or other service worker, I could buy my own taco cart. Of course, they always seem to do it in English too. Remember, people, you’re in their country. Not everyone here speaks English, nor should they. Be polite to people or at least learn how to complain about your meal in Spanish.
When visiting the beach towns of Mexico (or anywhere, for that matter), please be aware of your use of non-recyclable materials. All those plastic cups, straws, water bottles, bags and to-go boxes really add up and create a ton of waste. Being a responsible backpacker means travelling with a reusable water bottle, straw, and shopping bag. These three items won’t take up any space in your bag but will cut down on a ton of waste.
While you can feel free to rock that skimpy tank top and booty shorts walking around Puerto Vallarta, don’t do that in Mexico City or small towns. People are typically pretty conservative when it comes to dress in Mexico. Don’t be that gringa with her ass cheeks hanging out walking around outside the town’s church.
If you’re going to do drugs in Mexico, you have to be aware of the dangers and also the industry you’re supporting. The cartels are no joke here, and the murder rate across the country is still quite high. Crossing the cartels in any way, shape, or form is one of the stupidest things you could ever do.
You could also easily get shaken down by the police, who will surely demand quite the handsome payout to not send you behind bars. My advice would be to make friends to help you buy something and stick to weed.
Want to learn how to travel the world on $10 a day? Check out the Broke Backpacker’s Bible for FREE!
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Sasha is an English teacher, language student, blogger, and video producer. He and his wife run Grateful Gypsies, where they write about life abroad, long-term travel, and live music.