From Cabo to Cancún and everything in between, Mexico is a backpacker’s dream. The low cost of transportation and accommodation, coupled with the remarkably broad and enthralling experience of the country, makes it one of the best places in the world to travel. Explore Mexico with our extended itinerary.
Mexico is one of the most unique countries in the world. From a traveller’s perspective, it is also one of the most complete travel experiences possible, with ancient ruined cities, powder sand beaches, a rich cuisine, vibrant culture, pulsating cities, and a natural landscape ranging from humid rainforests to cactus-filled deserts via vast canyons and volcano-dotted sierras.
The country is small in comparison to its northern neighbour the USA, but large enough that you could travel for months and still have plenty to see. What follows is just one potential itinerary from innumerable options. This route winds down from hedonistic Tijuana in the Pacific northwest, to the dense jungle of the Yucatán Peninsula in the Caribbean southeast, taking in many of the major points of interest the country has to offer along the way.
As a general guide, this route would be best done over six to eight weeks, although sections, like Baja California to Chihuahua via the Copper Canyon, or the Yucatán Peninsula could easily be done on their own in a fortnight without having to rush. You will find that many backpackers commonly tread this particular route and it’s not uncommon to join up with other people or groups for sections of your trip. Ultimately, this is designed as a jumping off point that will help offer some ideas from which you can build and customise your own backpacking trip of a lifetime.
Arrival: There are many entry points to Mexico, including Mexico City International Airport, which welcomes flights from around the world. Puerto Vallarta is popular with tourists on package holidays, as is Cancún. However, one of the easiest routes into Mexico for many Americans, especially when backpacking, is to cross the border on foot, particularly from San Diego to Tijuana. That is where we begin this route.
On the face of it, Tijuana really isn’t Mexico’s finest introduction. It’s grimy, its pockets of sleaze are just a little too big, and despite there being a sizable population, it feels as though nobody is there to stay for long. In all honesty, American day trippers are the main clients for the sleaze. Not that Mexicans in Tijuana are innocent, but the cheap booze (and a lower legal drinking age), cheap drugs (both legal and over-the-counter), and even the cheap dental surgery, attract millions of people south of the border annually.
Those with good intentions tend to move quickly on to Ensenada, which is easily accessible from Tijuana and the first major stop on the way south into Baja California. Steep hills offer great views over the city’s waterfront area, which still retains that “in this country I’m old enough to drink legally” vibe. However, there is a much more sophisticated side to Ensenada too. The Valle de Guadalupe is one of Mexico’s main wine growing regions, and while not lauded in vintners’ circles, most people will find some very palatable wines here.
Head further south along the Pacific coast and you will enter a zone of protected natural areas when the terrain becomes more volatile amid arid mountains where large cacti stand like sentries. The warm Pacific waters around here attract grey whales for mating and calving each fall to spring. Seeing the whales is one of the world’s great natural experiences. Guerrero Negro (access to Ojo de Liebre) is still the best jumping off point for whale tours, but San Ignacio further south is also a decent option.
In a dusty little outpost, the first you reach after having crossed the peninsula over to the Gulf of California, is a church that can be linked to the Eiffel Tower. That is because Santa Rosalía’s Iglesia de Santa Bárbara was designed by Gustav Eiffel.
Down at the southern tip of Baja California is your first real Mexican resort town. Cabo San Lucas is unfortunately packed with resorts and timeshares. The town is also commandeered by Spring Breakers, so it may be best to avoid it at that time, although for some, that is the time to be there. There are plenty of hostels for backpackers too. Nevertheless, the area’s natural abundance is fantastic for diving, snorkelling and beaches.
From Cabo, head back north to La Paz. Take day trips on boats to local islands where you can snorkel with sealions or visit isolated beaches. There’s also a good natural history museum.
La Paz to Topolobampo or Mazatlan
From La Paz you can catch a ferry to either Topolobampo, for access to the Copper Canyon, or head further south to Mazatlan. While the Copper Canyon (Barrancas del Cobre) is more extensive than the Grand Canyon, the real draw is the train which runs all the way through it, along nerve-wracking hairpin turns and precarious bridges from the Pacific Coast town of Los Mochis to Chihuahua over the course of around 12-14 hours.
The Copper Canyon will bring you close to your first indigenous group in Mexico on this route: the colourfully-dressed Tarahumara, who survived Spanish colonisation primarily because they were largely cut off from the outside, thus protecting them from attack and contact with deadly diseases brought over from Europe like small-pox. The country’s indigenous populations speak a large number of languages, many of which are linked to Nahuatl. Indigenous culture is woven into the very fabric of Mexican identity, but less-so in the northern regions.
The alternative, or simply the next spot after riding the Copper Canyon back, is Mazatlan. The city became popular thanks to its long sweeping beach and colonial architecture. Plazuela Machado is a delightful leafy square surrounded by colonnaded restaurants. There are plenty of good value eateries in the streets around here.
San Blas, further south along the coast, is known for its great surfing. This is a small town, so the laid-back vibe is manifest. Surfing in some parts here is best reserved for the more experienced, but there are good surf spots all along this stretch of coast, and plenty catering to the backpacker scene.
Keep pressing on south and you come to Puerto Vallarta, made famous in the States by the Richard Burton film Night of the Iguana, after filming which, he and Elizabeth Taylor bought a house. They visited PV regularly during their tempestuous marriage. Package holidays by the beach are the main draw here.
Guadalajara is Mexico’s second city, and although very much in the shadow of Mexico City, it is this city, and in the surrounding Jalisco State, from which most of the culture considered quintessentially Mexican emanates. For example, charros, Mexican cowboys, mariachi music and tequila are all from this region. Indeed, the town of Tequila, surrounded by plantations of blue maguey used in the drink’s production, is just an hour to the west, and can be reached on the Tequila train.
Guadalajara will be the first taste of a heavily urbanised area in Mexico since Tijuana (or perhaps Chihuahua) on this route for backpackers. As such it is good to remind oneself that, as with all big cities, extra caution over belongings and drunkenness is beneficial. Most of the action takes place around the Catedral de Guadalajara, surrounded by its four pedestrianized plazas. Head east to the Instituto Cultural Cabañas to see the finest of Jose Clemente Orozco’s murals. Most of the hostels can be found to the south and west of the cathedral.
You will see plenty of fantastic mural work from this point onwards, with Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros joining Orozco to make up the main three muralists who have transformed many a Mexican wall. For a good sporting event, Chivas is one of the country’s main football (soccer) teams and tickets to games are excellent value. It is worth spending at least a couple of days in Guadalajara; this is a good place to meet other backpackers.
Much of Mexico’s mining belt lies northwest of Guadalajara, but for the purposes of this route, head to Guanajuato. The historic city has some beautiful colonial architecture, good theatres with reasonably priced tickets for most performances, and great nightlife thanks to the city’s sizable student population. The city is gorgeous, with its colourful houses sprinkled over the mountains, and the narrow winding streets are unlike many other cities in Mexico. Check out the Museo de las Momias, which houses a number of mummified bodies in glass cases.
The next major stop towards Mexico City is San Miguel de Allende, a pretty colonial town that is popular with artists and expats. Like Guanajuato there is something really special about the old winding cobblestone streets and fresh mountain climate.
While there are loads of lovely small towns and ancient ruins around here, the best move is to make straight for Mexico City next. Formerly known (and still popularly named) as DF, or “day-effay”, Ciudad de México is by far the largest city in the country. This is the seat of government, home of the finest museums and art galleries in country, and a living lesson in Mexican history. The Zócalo, in the Centro Histórico, is the city’s main square and a great place to begin any trip to Mexico City. There are a good number of backpacker hostels around here too. It was once the centre of Aztec Tenochtitlan. The site of the Aztec’s Templo Mayor, when the Spanish arrived, has been partially excavated, so that it sits beside the Metropolitan Cathedral in stark contrast. All of these sights are slowly sinking as the city’s demand for water outstrips the replenishment, thus reducing the water table.
The list of places to visit in Mexico City is seemingly endless, but a few of the highlights include: Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso to see great murals; the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a remarkable gallery built with a combination of Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles; the National Anthropology Museum, perhaps the best in the world, which really requires two days to fully appreciate; Bosque de Chapultepec, a vast park and garden filled with museums and attractions; Museo Soumaya housing billionaire Carlos Slim’s personal art collection; colonial Coyoacán, where you will find the Frida Kahlo Casa Azul museum.
Then of course there is the food and the nightlife. Cantinas are a traditional way to experience Mexican drinking culture, and most of them are now open to all. Although sadly in more rural areas they can be a bit seedy still and mainly for men, the best cantinas are places hosting live salsa and serving great food. Try La Faena or Bar Mancera. Check out the huge markets like Mercado Sonora for good street food, although this can be found all over the place.
Mexico City is also a fantastic base from which to explore Teotihuacán, the revered historical city with the temples of the Sun and Moon. The city was mysteriously abandoned around the 8th century. The fact that it has remained preserved is remarkable.
Xochimilco to the south of the city is known for its canals navigated by colourfully painted trajinera boats. When the conquistadors first arrived under Hernán Cortés, much of the area was submerged beneath a lake. The main city was heavily protected and accessible only via a series of causeways. The lake was later drained, allowing rapid expansion of the city soon after. Xochimilco is all that remains of that original Aztec system of canals.
Passing the two smouldering volcanoes of Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl, Puebla is a charming colonial city with some great cuisine. Although quite a large city, it may feel like a small town after the urban mayhem that is Mexico City. As with many cities in the country, the focal point is the Cathedral. East of here are a collection of museums showcasing local art and some lovely old houses. The main dish that all backpackers must try in Puebla is mole (pronounced moh-lay), which is a complex concoction of spices and chocolate often served over chicken or turkey with rice.
Passing into the south of the country, Oaxaca is one of the cultural highlights of any trip to Mexico. The city is popular for its colonial centre and regional handicrafts on sale at the markets south of the main square. You can find good bargains on locally made textiles here. A good overview of the region’s creative history is exhibited in various museums, such as the Museo Textil.
By the time you reach Chiapas state you will have passed into a very different Mexico to the one you have witnessed before. Boasting primarily indigenous populations, whose lineage hails from the Maya people, there are a whole host of regional languages and dialects spoken, often as a first language, particularly in remoter towns and villages. San Cristobal de las Casas is the main base for exploring the region, and here you will see one of the best examples of coexisting indigenous and modern-day Mexican cultures in the country.
The path has not been without its precarious twists, however. Chiapas is Mexico’s poorest state and many locals rightly feel as though their constitutional rights to have their own farmland have been ignored. The Zapatista uprising saw San Cristobal de las Casas fall into rebel hands back in 1994 for a brief period, after land rights were further infringed upon by the government’s implementation of the NAFTA agreement. The Zapatistas have been a humble presence in the region ever since, quietly running their communities independently of Mexico, with one of the world’s most egalitarian systems of governance.
The first major Maya site you will come across on this route is the phenomenal Palenque. Shrouded in jungle, there is something unmistakably wild about the ancient city, with large temples poking through the trees and much still left unexcavated beneath roots and soil. Nearby are the Agua Azul Waterfalls, which are a popular draw with backpackers. The waterfalls, contrary to their name, are not always blue, especially during the rainy season. There are plenty of other good waterfalls for swimming in the region too.
The Yucatán Peninsula
Heading north into the Yucatán Peninsula, Campeche makes for a great first port of call in the region. The walled old city, with its chunky bulwarks, have been rebuilt similar to the days when they served more than a quaint purpose to prevent the important city from pirates. Fuerte de San Miguel south of the centre along the coast has a good Maya museum, as does the Baluarte de la Soledad in the centre.
It is hard to believe that in the late 19th century, Uxmal was mostly overgrown. The reason why so many remarkable Maya cities remain intact today is that the Spanish did not colonise this region as heavily as they did the former Aztec Empire, where they routinely destroyed everything and built churches over former temples. Uxmal has some remarkable pyramids and some of the most exquisite Maya architecture.
The regional capital of the Yucatán is Mérida, a laid-back city with plenty of colonial charm. Palacio Cantón has an excellent collection of Maya and Aztec artefacts. But the main draw of the city is the cultural abundance. Regular free dance and music shows transform Parque de Santa Lucia (every Thursday evening) and much of the downtown area on Sundays; a great way to access local culture on a backpacker’s budget. The city also has great local cuisine. One dish to try here is cochinita, or pollo, pibíl, made with slow-cooked pork or chicken.
Deserving of its modern wonder of the world status, Chichén Itzá is a must for anybody in the area. Sure, it gets busy, but if you aim to arrive just as the doors open, you will get a good amount of time to explore the site without the crowds before the coach loads arrive from Cancún. El Castillo pyramid is the highlight, with its 91 steps on each of its four sides, plus the temple at the top totalling 365 steps, for each day of the year and demonstrating the Maya’s astronomical advancement.
The island of Cozumel is one of the main stops for cruise ships in Mexico, and with good reason. The beaches and the coral reef scuba diving are excellent. Inland you will find low-key ruins at San Gervasio, which was an important pilgrimage site for women, who came to worship the goddess Ixchel.
Most trips that begin or end in this part of Mexico usually wind up in Cancún, which is unashamedly touristy because, before the resort was built in the 1970s, there was little here aside from a few small fishing villages. As such, the whole Zona Hotelera is designed to meet the needs of package holiday tourists and partying students. The beaches are genuinely beautiful, with soft white sand lapped by the turquoise Caribbean. Most hotels in the main strip are all-inclusive, so for backpacker-friendly choices, head to the main city, where there are lots of hostels and cheaper hotels.
Hostels can be found all over Mexico. All major towns and cities, and most smaller ones, will have some form of hostel accommodation.
Domestic flights can sometimes be as cheap as some of the nicer long-distance buses, although this is not always the case since the airline Mexicana went out of business and took away much of the competition with it. Buses vary in quality, with the plusher services offering plenty of leg room, personal seat-back TVs and even snacks on board, much like on a flight. However, for shorter journeys of up to five hours, local services are bearable and far cheaper. Take a good pair of earplugs if taking the cheaper buses as movies or music are often played at high volume and hard to ignore otherwise. There are many different companies covering various sections of Mexico. Much of the north is covered by ETN (https://etn.com.mx). The south is covered well by ADO, and Primera Plus (https://ventas.primeraplus.com.mx) covers central Mexico.
Pick of the Food and Drink
There are so many delightful dishes and snacks in Mexico, and many areas have their own specialities. One that really stands out is the pollo pibíl of the Yucatán peninsula, a slow-cooked chicken dish with achiote paste. Beer is often excellent in Mexico, with the highlight being one called Noche Buena, a beer made and released only around Christmas time.
If you have read any news at all in the last decade you are very likely to have come across reports of Mexico’s ongoing and very chaotic drugs war. While it has been a disaster for the nation in many respects, it’s still important to understand what is going on in context: Civilians with no connections to the drug cartels have been caught up in the violence only on very rare occasions. Tourists have had even less trouble. It would be naïve, and wrong, to suggest that anyone is ever completely safe though, but the chances of encountering problems are slim. The usual common-sense rules apply, don’t get involved with drugs in Mexico and you are likely to be safe. Take precautions to avoid getting too drunk or out of control, and avoid walking around unfamiliar places at night.
Solo women travellers do get a lot of unwanted attention sadly. Similar common-sense rules apply, as above, but be aware that there is a very small, but very real danger of sexual abuse that can often be avoided by taking precautions to avoid getting into situations where you don’t feel in control. For men and women alike, it’s important to always keep an eye on your drink; if you’re at a crowded bar or approached by unknown people simply sliding you had over the top of your bottle or glass is a subtle way to keep things safe.
Avoid taking unmarked taxis or hailing them in the street wherever possible. Instead ask your hotel concierge to contact a local company by phone.
It might be tempting to hitchhike, but that would be a risky move in some areas of the country. Many Mexicans are often reluctant to pick up strangers in the first place. If you do hitch a ride, be aware that outsiders stick out and can attract unwanted attention. Certainly don’t try it at night. Transportation is very reasonable in Mexico, even on a backpacker’s budget, and there’s little reason why people who can afford to travel there in the first place can’t then afford the bus fare.
A Little Light Reading
Of Mexico’s literary bounty, great things were initiated by Juan Rulfo, with his book Pedro Páramo, which is considered to be a key influence on Latin America’s magical realists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Laura Esquivel delves into the restrictions of tradition and the liberation of food in Like Water for Chocolate. Octavio Paz wrote a series of interwoven essays called The Labyrinth of Solitude which offers remarkable insight into Mexican identity and society.
Carlos Fuentes is considered one of the country’s foremost novelists. Of his oeuvre, The Death of Artemio Cruz is one of his most inventive.
By Paul Stafford