MexicoTravel diaries

Wonders of Mexico – An introductory guide for first timers

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Mexico is a country of a million wonders. It’s quickly become one of my favorite countries in the world, in fact I left a little piece of my heart there. I feel like I’m saying this for a lot of places, but I hadn’t felt so strongly about a country probably since Japan.

I was in Mexico for 4 weeks and I only saw a tiny fraction of the country, so I’d recommend taking your time to really appreciate all that it has to offer.

Let’s start with some basic info you need to know in the planning phase, before diving into specific posts about cities, ruins and a lot of Mexican awesomeness. 🙂

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Getting there

By air

Flying into Cancun is usually the cheapest option both from Europe and from most places in North America. You can also consider combining Cuba and Mexico in a single trip, since flights from Havana to Cancun can cost as little as $50 (that’s what I paid with Aeromexico, checked bag included). If you want to see more than just the Yucatan peninsula, my advice is to fly to Cancun and leave from Mexico City (or viceversa), so that you won’t have to waste any time to circle back to the starting point.

By bus or by car

There are a few bus companies that cross the border from and into the US, Guatemala and Belize. As far as I know from other people’s experiences, crossing the US/Mexican border by land can be fairly time consuming and not always recommendable, but it’s an option. Entering from Guatemala and Belize, on the other hand, is quite easy and, for additional peace of mind, there are tours that offer this service as well and will assist you throughout the whole process.

When to go

Being such a huge country, the climate changes quite a bit depending on where you’re headed. As a rule of thumb, December through April is the best time, because it’s dry season. Keep in mind that temperatures change depending on the altitude, so you can go from the 35 degrees of Merida to the 10 of San Cristóbal very quickly.

Visa

As of February 2018, EU, US, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and most South-American citizens do not require a visa to enter Mexico as tourists and can stay up to 180 days in the country (6 full months!!).

Important: hold on to the card you receive during the immigration process as you will need it to exit the country. Make sure you don’t lose it.

Currency

The currency in Mexico is the Mexican peso. In the most touristy places like Cancun and Playa del Carmen almost everyone accepts US dollars, but the exchange rate is not competitive at all, so it’s better to change money or withdraw some cash from an ATM.

Canadian residents: there are HSBC and Scotiabank branches in Mexico, so if you have a card issued by one of these banks, you can withdraw money without paying any fees 😉

Language

The farther you go from touristy places, the fewer English speakers you’ll find. English is actually not as mainstream as you think. People will make an effort to understand you, but they really appreciate you trying to speak some basic Spanish.

Safety

As a female solo traveler, I always felt safe in the Yucatan, Campeche and Chiapas states. There’s a noticeable presence of military around and the Zapatistas are a reality, but they don’t harm people and in the worst case scenario they will ask for money. The situation, however, is different in the northern and western states of the country, where non-essential travel should be avoided mainly because of the high levels of violence linked to organized crime. This is the latest advisory released by the Canadian government.

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Transportation – Getting Around

Buses

The bus system in Mexico is very efficient, fairly cheap and comparable to the European one.

ADO is the main company that serves the Eastern and Southern part of the country: their buses are on time, air-conditioned, with plenty of leg room, movies and sometimes even Wi-Fi. It’s the most reliable company to travel with on long-haul trips. Their schedule is available online and theoretically you should be able to book your tickets online (spoiler alert: online booking with credit card doesn’t work).

Second class buses (Oriente, Mayab, ATS) are a bit cheaper, they stop more often and serve less traveled destinations. Schedules for these buses are rarely available online, so the best option is to go directly to the bus terminal and ask “What’s the cheapest option to go to X

Pro-tip: ADO has great discounts on tickets with the “comprada anticipada” if you buy yours up to the day before traveling. Check their website a couple of days before moving to your next destination and you’ll find discounts up to 50%. Since they don’t let you pay online, my go-to strategy was: choose the most discounted ticket, go to the bus terminal and show them my phone with the discounted trip I wanted to book. I traveled at half price most of the times 😉

Colectivos

Colectivos (also called combi) are minivans that serve villages and are widely used by locals. I found the concept somewhat weird at the beginning, but I got used to them soon enough.  Basically, colectivos have no set schedule, they leave when they’re full. So, you find the van going to your destination, hop on and wait until it’s full. You pay the driver before getting off. Colectivos are on average cheaper than buses and faster (the drivers are pretty crazy), but sometimes you may have to wait quite a bit before they have enough people. You can’t bargain to lower the price, but the fare is really cheap, since it’s a mean of transport meant for locals.

Taxis

Taxis, on the other hand, will always try to get as much money out of your pocket as they can. Ask for the price first, then start walking away saying it’s too expensive. The price will magically go down. Always agree on a price before getting in the car to avoid unpleasant surprises.

Accommodation

As you may know, accommodation for me means hostels. Hostels in Mexico are cheap (5-9 euros per night on average) and the quality is usually very high. Breakfast is often included and sometimes hand-made by the hosts. The Wi-Fi is not super fast, but stable enough to work. Some have swimming pools, terraces, barbecue areas and more. The value for money is really good and it’s a great opportunity to practice your Spanish!

I’ll give more specific recommendations for each city I’ve been to in my next posts, but in the meantime feel free to use my booking.com discount code (it works only if you complete your booking through this link).

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Food

I’m far from being a foodie, but for cheap and authentic food I can’t recommend local markets enough. Find the local market, wander around, do some shopping, buy cheap fruit and sweets for later and then eat at a local stand side by side with the locals for as little as 1$. It may not be glamorous, but the food doesn’t get more authentic than that.

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Where to go

If you like partying and shopping: Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Personally, I hated them precisely for those reasons. Also, the beach is nothing special and they are way more expensive than anywhere else in Mexico.

If you are in Mexico for the Mayan ruins and the cenotes: Tulum, Valladolid and Merida are good places to use as base.

If you are in Mexico for its nature (waterfalls, canyons, lakes and more) and for the Mayan villages with their art, culture and traditions: the state of Chiapas is for you. Palenque and San Cristóbal de las Casas are great for that. They are also good bases to cross into Guatemala if you’re planning on going east.

Unfortunately, I didn’t make it further up, but I heard lovely things about Oaxaca and Mexico City, so as an itinerary I would recommend taking the time to end the trip in Mexico City and fly out from there instead of going back to Cancun.

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I hope you got a general idea of what to expect logistically. The next posts will all be focused on single destinations with pictures and tips about cenotes, Mayan ruins, colonial architecture, museums, events and more.

If you have any questions in the meantime or other tips, drop them in the comments!

Other useful resources:
Lonely Planet Mexico 15th Ed.: 15th Edition

Lonely Planet: Cancun, Cozumel and the Yucatan 7th Ed.

Lonely Planet Mexican Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary 5th Ed.

And here you’ll find more destinations 🙂

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