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What To Do In Mexico For The First-Time Traveler


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Last year, 35 million Americans traveled to Mexico for their vacations. That number has basically doubled since 2000. That’s great for Mexico, America, and travel itself. It also means that if you’re thinking about going somewhere for the first time, Mexico is probably right at the top of your travel bucket list.

Thing is, Mexico is freakin’ massive. The country is basically one-third the size of the U.S. There are mountain ranges, deserts, rainforests, canyons, and two seemingly endless coastlines with more beaches and tropical islands than we have time to count. All of that means that the opportunity for error is much higher. What if you pick a crowded city when you wanted peace? What if you choose a played out resort town when you dreamed of hanging with young partiers?

The fact that there are so many options at play presents a clear problem: Where to even start? And, in reality, all of that leads to a lot of people settling for package resorts and disappearing into a sea of club foam for a week (which, if we’re being honest, has its advantages too). Still, it might be time to go a little deeper.

Below are six or seven ways you can dip your traveling toes into the wonders that await you in Mexico. Maybe you’re more of a city type — we got you covered. More of a beach bum? Mexico is gonna be your jam. Feelin’ some street food vibes? You are in so much luck. Mexico rocks. Let’s roll!

Basic phrases:

Hola (hello)
Gracias (thank you)
¿Cuánto cuesta? (how much)
No sé (I don’t know)
Perdón (sorry/excuse me)
Por favor (please)
uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete, ocho, nueve, diez (one through ten)

Average Exchange Rate: $1USD = $20MP

OPTION ONE: CHOOSE A CITY AND DIVE IN

Transportation-wise, this one’s the easiest for the first-time traveler. Most major American cities are going to get you to Mexico City (Ciudad de Mexico or CDMX) on a direct flight (relatively cheaply, too). Smaller cities like Guanajuato, Tampico, or Guadalajara are generally accessible through one quick stop. If you’re doing cities, pick one and spend your time digging into the food, music, art, culture, and people of that place. Really nail it.

Mexico City is the biggest city in North America with a massive population of Indigenous, European, Arab, Asian, and African cultures living side-by-side creating a scene unlike any other. You could spend a week just eating tacos on the streets and barely scratch the surface. You could also spend that week partying every night in a different bar or club scene and only start to get a handle on it. We did name Mexico City as one of our favorite party cities in the world, after all.

The point here is to make a conscious choice to really get to know one place. Bouncing from city to city over the course of a few weeks is going to leave you feeling harried and exhausted.

OPTION TWO: CHOOSE A STATE TO EXPLORE

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Pulling through the week like… 😎🤙

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Mexico has 31 states that are just as varied as our 50 states. Picking one or two to explore is going to give your trip a certain sense of focus and clarity. Here are four quick ideas worth pondering:

  • Rent a jeep and spend a week or two driving through the sand to beaches up and down the Baja California coast from Tijuana to Cabo. You’ll stuff yourself on fish tacos and drown in tequila between surf breaks and sand dunes.
  • Fly into Guadalajara and make your way through the blue agave fields of the Jalisco Highlands towards the “Riviera” of Puerto Vallarta. Make sure to hit as many tequila distilleries as possible and don’t sleep on the amazing food scene in Guadalajara before your beach holiday starts in PV.
  • Spend your vacation camping beneath ancient pyramids in the Yucatan before ending up on the pristine beaches of Tulum in Quintana Roo. This is paradise, baby. Perfect beaches, beautiful hippies, and massive pyramids hiding in rainforests is Mexico turned up to eleven.
  • Go deep and hike into Montes Azules National Park in the deep south of Mexico where the jaguars roam and the rainforest eats away more ancient history with every single rainfall. This is eco-travel and adventure to the max. Hire local guides and bring a great camera to capture a shot of an elusive jaguar in the wild.

OPTION THREE: BOUNCE AROUND THE WHOLE COUNTRY

This is a good option for those of us who want a little taste of everything AND HAVE TIME. Seriously, don’t attempt this on two weeks — you’ll need a vacation from your vacation. That said, Mexico is pretty well connected by a bus network and cheap internal flights. Avolar, Azteca, Interjet, vivaAerobus, and Volaris all offer discounted flights that’ll rarely set you back more than $100 each way.

Our advice, pick a destination in the east, west, south, and north — like Yucatan, Jalisco, Chiapas, and, maybe, Baja — and plan your route from there.

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It’s good to be back out exploring Oaxaca.

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OPTION FOUR: HIT THE FOOD TRIAL

There’s a trail you can take from Guadalajara south to Puebla and then further south to Oaxaca we like to call the Golden Food Trail of Mexico™. As mentioned above, Guadalajara has one of the most interesting food scenes in Mexico right now. Restaurants like Hueso and Alcalde are leading a veritable gastro-revolution that’s taking Indigenous Mexican cuisine to new heights.

Then there’s Puebla. After making a brief stop in Mexico City for some street tacos, spend time really digging into the scene there. This city had a vibrant street food scene that people traveled to before the Spanish even showed up. Earthy mole sauces dominate. Cemitas are the perfect piled-too-high sandwiches. Saucy chalupas are sizzling on grill tops over fires. Frying molotes waft through every alley with their corn and cheesy goodness undeniable. All of that is just scratching the surface. Walk around. Follow your nose and eyes. And, remember, if there’s a crowd waiting for a dish, that dish is likely amazing.

As a coup de grâce, end your trip in Oaxaca. Take a deep dive into mezcal. By all means, drink too much of it. Grab yourself a sleeve of chapulines (fried grasshoppers) with plenty of chili powder, lime, and salt as you walk the ancient streets looking for the perfect meal. The food here is very cheesy and often roasted, which creates an awesome combination of flavors. After you’ve “tasted” a little too much mezcal, find yourself a tlayuda. It’s like a massive open-faced quesadilla (or pizza if we’re being literal) melty cheese, guac, beans, shredded cabbage, and meat. It’ll cure a wicked hangover too.

OPTION FIVE: HIT THE BEACH

There are 6,000 miles of coastline in Mexico on two oceans. There are cold water beaches that give way to the tropical warm waters further south. So, really, Mexico is the best of all worlds when it comes to the sand scene.

The play here is a little harder to pin down. Most people go to the big, well-known beach spots: Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Cancun, Cozumel, Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and so on. Of course, there are literally thousands of other options depending on what level of comfort you’re looking for.

Smaller spots like Todos Santos draw in the art and surf crowd. Extremely hard to reach beaches like Playa del Amor draw in those seeking a unique Insta from Mexico. Then you have beaches like Playa Mismaloya outside of Puerto Vallarta which has hotels on a great little stretch of sand with plenty of local grills ready to cook you some amazing seafood.

It’s up to you where you end up. Just do a little research and find a place that’s calling you. Then go.

OPTION SIX: LOSE YOURSELF ON AN ISLAND

Islands are the ultimate escape. When you’re cut off from the mainland, all of your daily stresses start to melt away like an ice sculpture on a sunny day.

Look, Mexico has as many idyllic islands as it has sun-kissed beaches to choose from. Cozumel is probably the most known and visited. It’s also plush and ready to meet your every need. Other islands around the Yucatan like Isla Holbox or Isla Contoy are postcard-perfect slices of paradise where you can legit disconnect.

There’s also a favorite of ours, Isla de Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro which is close to the middle of the country. The whole island is an old colonial town on a hill with hidden pathways and little cafes. It’s great for an overnight or a long weekend.

On the Pacific side of things, spots like Isla Espíritu Santo are everything you want in an adventurous vacation with plenty of nature, wildlife, outdoor sports, and all the great food and tequila Mexico has to offer never too far away.

OPTION SEVEN: THE LAST RESORT

If all of this seems a bit too much to navigate, then hit a resort. We won’t judge. We promise. Cancun, Cozumel, Tulum, Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, and so many more destinations are set up to let you completely let it all loose for a week or two. The partying will be non-stop. The sex will be sloppy but great. The drugs will heighten everything. The food will still be there right alongside the tequila (if perhaps a bit more Americanized and therefore more boring).

It’ll be all about you — rather than intense cultural travel — but that’s okay… sometimes.

CAN’T MISS PARTY: DIA DE MUERTOS

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#diademuertoscdmx

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If you’re in Mexico around the end of October and first of November, you can’t miss Dia de Muertos. The Day of the Dead is a dope mix of Halloween and Mardi Gras that’s all Mexico. Skeletons and ghouls dominate the scene with a Catholic bent filtered through Indigenous Mexican life. Sugary snacks like Calaveras (sugar sculls) and pan de muerto (bread buns with orange blossom oil, covered in sugar) are a big draw with a sweet, sweet sugar high assured. Tamales are also a big part of the events with plenty for both the living and the dead. Pulque — an Indigenous predecessor to tequila — is very popular and will give you a sweet boozy buzz.

If you’re in the smaller towns and cities in the south or central countryside, expect parades and ceremonies to dominate the processions. If you’re in the bigger cities, the processions often lead to street parties and eventually huge club parties that last until the sun comes up. Get yourself a mask and join in the chaos. Just remember to be respectful of the customs, the living, and the dead.

EDITOR’S PICKS (by Uproxx Travel editor Steve Bramucci)

The Northern Baja: Tiajuana, Rosarito, Puerto Nuevo, and Ensenada have flickered on and off the tourist radar 50 or so times over the past decade. The second people start buzzing about them, cartel violence seems to leave mainstream travelers in a panic. As someone who visits the region often, I’ve seen plenty of projects abandoned when investors decided to cut their losses.

But the Northern Baja (or Baja Norte or Frontera Baja California) has always been relatively safe for casual travelers. Cartels, historically speaking, don’t like to ruin tourism — it puts more pressure on the government. And, sadly, violence is a problem just about everywhere the cartels roam.

If you’re headed to the Baja, you’ll find truly startling seafood picks, awesome clubs, and some of the best surf breaks on the west coast. My recommendation: Gorge yourself on lobster in Puerto Nuevo, surf at the famed K-38, party hard enough that you NEED five perrones at Tacos el Yaqui, and — when the need for cleaner living strikes — eat the Bourdain’s beloved ceviche tostadas at La Guerrerense in Ensenada. Sleep at Las Rocas (which is cheap but feels luxe) or K38-Surf House if you’re on a really tight budget.

Sayulita: An hour north of Puerto Vallarta, this has been the preferred west coast hippie haunt in Mexico since the era of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. These days, it’s a little more tourist-heavy — throngs of surfers and sexy young ravers always bring the crowds, after all — but it’s still worth your time.

Camp on the beach, longboard with the locals, and party literally all night. DJs are sure to hit the sand after the sun sets and from there the nights spin out ’til morning. This is the scruffy sort of city where an early AM coffee run might bring you face to face with a Canadian pro skater who got so drunk he decided to sleep on a park bench. No one will mind. It’s that sort of town and the people who love it LOVE it.

(If you want something more chilled, try San Pancho — just a few minutes north.)

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