Top places in Mexico – based on our experience after one year

Top places in Mexico – based on our experience after one year

Without one week we spent one year in Mexico. People often ask us about advice where to go, what to see, what’s worth it. So we thought back and replayed in our mind our route, all the places we’ve visited and what left the deepest impression. And with great effort we’ve put together 15 most interesting places in Mexico (ok, 14 places and one occasion). With great effort because we could have easily written an exhaustive list of 47 top places, but even I won’t be able to finish reading it…

Unfortunately for most people Mexico is still mainly reduced to Yucatán peninsula and Riviera Maya. But you won’t find the essence of Mexico here.

What you’ll get once you leave the hotel pool is crowds of people on vacation and tourist trappers who are willing, for the right price, even sell you their other kidney.

We know more of you are heading down there this year so we took care writing down the best we have experienced in Mexico and what is definitely worth visiting. Colorful colonial towns with amazing markets and great food. Natural wonders – waterfalls, volcanos, lakes. Unique wildlife encounters. Mayan ruins where you won’t get overrun by ten tour buses. It’s likely you won’t be able to visit all the places during one visit and you’ll need to rent a car or use public transport.

We’re happy to help you with itinerary and more detailed tips, just send us a message or drop a comment below.

Let’s do this!

1. Baja California

Baja California could be a chapter on it’s own. You will surely be able to plan a great roadtrip full of swimming (or surfing) in the Pacific and Sea of Cortes, breathtaking views over the myriads of different cacti. More tips what to think about if you head out to Baja are in separate article. There are two special places we want to highlight for you here.

Bahía Concepción is a bay full of unbelievably beautiful beaches and crystalline water. Most beaches have chilled atmosphere and despite the presence of the snowbird RVs, retain the tranquility. It’s easy to spend couple of weeks here moving from one beach to another.

Crystal waters of Bahía Concepción and chill on the beach

The second experience awaiting you here, if you come in the right season, is meeting the gray whales and their babies. Unfortunately we were on Baja in December and the high season is in February. Gray whales come to the lagoons of Baja California (San Ignacio, Bahía Magdalena, Ojo de Liebre) to mate and give birth to their offsprings. You can get in these lagoons on a boat. The guide will then turn the motor off and you wait for the whales to show up. Gray whales in these lagoons during this time show a unique behavioural pattern when mothers actively bring their small ones close to the boat to meet the people. Often they come close enough to be touched. You probably can’t experience this on any other whale watching tour.

We are very conscious and suspicious about any tourist activity involving wildlife and animals. So we made a research to try and find out if they aren’t exploited for the tourism needs. We strongly recommend reading online reviews and finding out how exactly the trip is operated before booking a tour. If you want to find out more, also opinion of marine biologist and CEO of the World Cetacean Alliance, click here. This experience is so strong, that in the past it convinced Mexican president to keep the protection status of these lagoons and not allow salt mining operations there wheh he visited with his family.

2. Espinazo del Diablo

Muscle ache is made better by these views

It is a mountain road in Sinaloa and Durango states comparable with the epic road trips in the US and over the alpine passes. On 170km you climb from sea level to over 2800 meters above sea level with amazing views over Sierra Madre Occidental. You need to drive the old road 40 (libre – toll free). In the valley few hundred meter below is a new cuota (toll highway) 40D, which boasts the North America’s highest bridge. Thanks to this smoother faster ride, the old road is almost traffic free. But drive carefully! Based on the number of crosses along the road, it just doesn’t forgive mistakes.

You can either drive it in one go all the way to Durango city and pick one of the many accommodations. Or if you’d like more interaction with locals and find out how the life is here, you can split the drive into several days and stay with locals in small hotels along the road.

Detailed post about Espinazo, with lots of accompanying photos.

3. Zacatecas

The town of Zacatecas was the biggest surprise of Mexico for us. Capital of the state holding the same name is listed in the UNESCO World Heritage list. The city center is a gem with narrow streets and beautiful cathedral as its dominant. Cerro de la Buffa is a hill with the view over the whole city and you can either walk or take a cable car to get to the top. In the evening the centre comes alive. We’ve seen a traditional band walk around followed by a crowd of people. They’ll stop every once in a while and play their music. People dance and drink mezcal from a small shooter everyone is carrying.

View of the Zacatecas cathedral

Foodwise you should try gorditas – think filled tortillas. Just careful that when even the vendor tells you some are spicy, it’s better to believe it. We were doubtful (and also wanted to try how tough we are, especially me) and we’ve never had anything spicier up to date. After her first bite Luba spent 5 minutes, tears filled eyes, salivating profusely into the plate…

4. La Huasteca Potosína

It’s a whole area in San Luis Potosí state. You can find waterfalls, rivers, endless sugar cane fields, jungle or mystic garden near town of Xilitla. We recommend setting aside at least 3-4 days, to play in the water to your hearts content. For more freedom it’s better to rent a car, but it’s also doable by local “colectivos” (public transport mini buses). In this detailed article you can find what to see and what’s better avoided.

This is fun for those who are not scared to put their head underwater

5. San Miguel de Allende

Smaller town in Guanajuato state. UNESCO World heritage site. Colonial architecture, pleasant walks, wide variety of local and international restaurants. Full of “snowbirds” during winter season. One of the best places to combine your visit to Mexico with learning Spanish. We attended a basic course at Warren Hardy’s school and can’t recommend it enough.

Evening atmosphere in San Miguel

6. Guanajuato

Lego town

Another colonial city and states capital not far away from San Miguel. Also UNESCO site. We call it a town built of Lego. Once you climb to the viewpoint above the city (or take a funicular), you’ll understand. Colourful houses built in the hill side one next to another. Guanajuato is also a city of tunnels as there’s an extensive network under the city centre.

7. Monarch sanctuaries

One of the strongest wildlife experiences we’ve ever had. Visiting one of the Monarch butterflies reservations is mindblowing. That’s why immediately after the trip we wrote this article with recommendations and extra info about these amazing creatures. This stands very high in top places in Mexico list, of course if you’re there in the right season.

it looks like this in the sanctuary

8. Nevado de Toluca

Volcano in Central Mexico. Its altitude of 4680 m.a.s.l. makes it 4th highest peak of Mexico, right after the “wife” of famous Popocatépetl – Iztaccíhuatl. This couple can be seen over the eastern horizon if the weather allows. The peak is towering 2210 meters above the surrounding plains and can be hiked on a path starting at around 4100 m.a.s.l. You can ride all the way to the trailhead from a nearby time of Toluca (last 14km is on a beautiful dirt road) – most of the people in a car, but we recommend a bicycle.

View from Nevado de Toluca down into the caldera

9. Paso de Cortes

Mountain pass between already mentioned volcanos Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl. It’s altitude over 3600 m.a.s.l. indicates that the surrounding giants deserve the 2nd and 3rd places in the list of Mexico highest peaks. Dazzling camping spot, where if you have a bit of luck, you’ll be in the first row for a spectacular show. Just like we were.

Camping under the active volcano

It’s called after the (in)famous Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortéz, who passed here in 1520 with his army before ultimately causing the fall of the great Aztec empire.

And why did I call Iztaccíhuatl Popocatépetl’s wife? According to the Aztec legend, Iztaccíhuatl was a princess who fell in love with one of her father’s warriors, Popocatépetl. The emperor sent him to the war in Oaxaca with a promise to give him his daughter as a wife after his return, which of course he never expected to happen. Soon after Popocatépetl left, emperor told his daughter, that he died in battle. Iztaccíhuatl believed her father’s lie and died of grief shortly after. When Popocatépetl returned and found his lover dead, he took her body outside of the capital Tenochtitlan and kneeled by her grave until the gods covered them in snow and turned them into mountains. Iztaccíhuatl in native language means “white woman” because it resembles a woman lying on her back. Popocatépetl (translated as “smoking mountain”) on the other hand became an active volcano and in his blind rage at the loss of his loved one rains fire and ashes on Earth until this day.

10. Oaxaca

Probably our favourite city in Mexico. Colonial historic center is one of the two UNESCO sites in the city (the other being Monte Albán ruins). For us cities are strongly connected with good food and from this point of view, Oaxaca didn’t disappoint. We even had to choose where to go and what to try. Coffee and cocoa from surrounding mountains was a great cherry on top.

Botanical garden in the city centre

What we really liked about Oaxaca was its close proximity to nature. Just outside the city doors are picturesque mountains, where you can easily spend few days just wandering around. But you can also find nature right in the city heart. In the botanical garden, which has an amazing variety of cacti and other native plants from all around the state.

11. Dia de los Muertos

It’s not a place, but refers to a week of festivities taking place at the same time as Halloween. People build small altars in their homes, decorate them with pictures of their deceased loved ones, traditional orange flowers, sweet bread and whatever the people liked while they were alive – often tequila, cigarettes, fruits… For the night they decorate the graves with the same flowers and candles, which should work as beacons for the souls of deceased to find their way back to the world of living for this one night, to reunite and celebrate with their families. Whoever still hasn’t seen the movie Coco from Pixar, go and watch it. Even Mexicans who saw it approve of how it shows the spirit and essence of this fiesta.

One of the best places to experience Dia de los Muertos is Oaxaca. Yes, there is about 368543 people everywhere you go, but the atmosphere and the cultural experience is absolutely worth it (and this is coming from two chronic resenters of all mass tourism). We were lucky and had the opportunity to be there for the fiesta.

We tried to capture some of the atmosphere in a short video.

12. Hierve el Agua

Which means “boiled water”. Petrified waterfalls and most impressive natural infinity pool not far from Oaxaca. We couldn’t have missed this in top places in Mexico article. To get here you can join an organized tour or get here on your own by a car. Which of the two options we’d recommend I hope I don’t need to stress out. Ideally you should plan to arrive before the sunset, enjoy the golden hour and sleep over. You can either camp or rent a cabin/room. The biggest advantage is, that in the morning, before they open the gates at 8am, you have the whole complex for yourself.

Natural infinity pool and Lolo

13. Waterfall El Chiflon

The highest waterfall here is called Bridal veil

Series of waterfalls in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas. The water falls more than 120 meters at the tallest one. You can reach it by following the paved path along the river. There are food stalls and restaurant, picnic tables and in some parts of the river it’s allowed to swim. Not our ideal environment with all the development, but the waterfalls are really impressive and worth it. And for those who don’t want to walk the same way back, there’s a zip line.

All and all it’s a nice place where you can spend the day walking, taking pictures, swimming or just relaxing by the river listening to the waterfall’s thunder.

14. Lagunas de Montebello

National park with 59 multicolored lakes and two Mayan ruins at the border of Mexico and Guatemala. One of the lakes is actually half in Mexico half in Guatemala. The different colors of the lakes are given by the various minerals the water in each lake contains and the light conditions of course.

15 of the lakes are easily accessible by car or foot and in some of them is allowed to swim, canoe and kayak. By most of them there are food stalls, where you can buy local specialties.

Lagunas de Montebello in top places in Mexico. View from above on dark blue lake.
Lake La Cañada from the viewpoint

Chiapas is packed with unique places, here we’re telling you more about what to see there.

15. Yaxchilán

The best ruins in Mexico! Seriously. It definitely deserves to be amongst top places in Mexico. Accessible only by boat on Usumacinta river or by plane (there’s a small airstrip next to the complex). There is no land access. And of course, we took the……boat. Night before we arrived to a small town of Frontera Corozal and found a room in one of local hotels. We arranged the departure for the earliest time possible, 7am. The river and surrounding jungle were covered in mist through which we occasionally caught a glimpse of the rising sun. It was like a fairy tale.

Magical ruins Yaxchilán

But for the true magic we had to wait until we walked between the ruins. Moss covered Mayan ruins built of dark stone, huge trees towering to the white distance in the mist, impenetrable green wall of the thick jungle undergrowth. Almost deafening concert of insects, birds and monkeys. The feeling the time moved back and any second you expect a Maya warrior emerging from around the next corner, surprised, looking at you what the hell you are doing there.

Furthermore for almost a whole hour, we were the only ones there. Making an early start paid off. And by the time other people showed up, the mist started to clear and THE magic was gone. On the other hand we could watch all the critters high in the tree tops – howler and spider monkeys, toucans and many other colorful birds we’ll probably never learn the names of.

For those of you who’ve already been to Mexico, let us know your top places in the comments. And you, who are getting ready to go or are thinking about it – Mexico is a unbelievably diverse country where apart from glaciers and tundra you could probably find every other environment and ecosystem – so get on the road and step out and explore!

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