It’s a country with caves, canyons, cenotes, coast, cities, culture, crafts and a top cuisine; spending only a month in Mexico is a tough ask.
Mexico gives you countless opportunities to interact with the welcoming locals – on the ubiquitous public transport, and at its many sites and attractions. You’ll never be too far from a good meal, or a decent place to rest your head for the night.
This route showcases how to spend a month in Mexico in the south of the country – taking you from the Caribbean to the capital.
A month in Mexico – the route
Cancún – Tulum (Cobá) – Valladolid (Chichén Itzá) – Mérida (Uxmal) – Palenque (Yaxchilán & Bonampak) – San Cristóbal de las Casas (San Juan Chamula) – Oaxaca (Monte Albán) – Puebla (Cholula) – Taxco – Mexico City
Day 1 – Cancún
Fly into Cancún for convenience, then – unless you’re into all-inclusive hotels – move on. Fast. If you need to refresh, head to Centro for a cheap sleep. Buses run regularly between Centro and the Hotel zone if you need a beach fix.
Day 2 – Tulum
Buses head to Tulum from Cancún’s main bus station. It takes a couple of hours. Whether you stay in the small town of Tulum or on the beach is up to you, but either way don’t miss the Mayan ruins of Tulum. You will see more spectacular ruins during your time in Mexico, but Tulum’s setting over the turquoise blue Caribbean waters is hard to beat.
Whilst you’re here, make a day trip on the bus to the ruins of Cobá. Hire a bike to cycle around – the ruins are dotted through the jungle on well-marked paths. Add a day or two more in Tulum if beach-lazing’s your thing.
Day 4 – Valladolid
Welcome to the real Mexico. I remember stepping off the bus here and being overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle on the narrow pavements (sidewalks) in the 37 degree (99 degree fahrenheit) heat of May.
Valladolid is a small town, with a pretty central square where on a Sunday locals dance, kids whizz round in mini electric cars, and young couples sit and eat beautiful ice-cream together. It’s a little slice of Mexican reality.
It’s also a wonderful base for visiting the Yucatán’s cenotes, underground limestone caverns which the Maya believed were a link to the underworld. If you’re up for a short sharp cold shock, you can swim and dive in many of them. Don’t expect fancy changing rooms.
Valladolid is also a great base for visiting the Yucatán’s most famous of sites, the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá. Visit Chichén Itzá on a tour from the coast and you’ll spend 8 hours of your day on a bus. From Valladolid it’s less than an hour away on a regular service bus.
Be prepared for the crowds at Chichén Itzá, and for politely turning down the seemingly hundreds of sellers who are trying to make a living peddling stone and wooden carvings of everything pyramid-esque. It should definitely make your itinerary, and you can pause in wonder at the intricacy in which these great temples and pyramids were constructed, and the marvels of the ancient ball courts.
Day 7 – Mérida
Merida is a big city with some wide boulevards and a buzzing central square, and makes a handy base for a couple of days. Try hammock shopping (if you’ve not already succumbed), and visiting the Mayan ruins of Uxmal around 50 miles from here and accessible via a tour or local bus. In my view Uxmal is an absolute must-see.
Day 10 – Palenque
Palenque town itself isn’t a lot to right home about. I’d recommend staying in the jungle in El Panchán – a complex of assorted backpacker and flashpacker accommodations and a few casual restaurants on the road to the must-visit Palenque ruins. Fall asleep listening to the sound of howler monkeys, which sound like an other-worldly cross between a donkey braying and a frog croaking.
Palenque is a good place to arrange a transport tour to Yaxchilán. If you fancy releasing your inner Indiana Jones jungle, the ruins at Yaxchilán are the ones for you. The site sits on the Guatemalan border a couple of hours south of Palenque, and is reached by road and river launch.
Day 13 – San Cristóbal de las Casas
Ah, it’s cooler up in the mountains. San Cristóbal is well on the beaten tourist trail, but it makes a top spot for a few days of exploration into the surrounding countryside and for learning more about the indigenous Mayan culture. Caves and canyons are all easily do-able on day trips, with the Sumidero Canyon about an hour west best seen by boat. Sheer cliff faces, birdlife and crocodiles abound.
San Cristóbal is full of young children (aged four and upwards) selling friendship bracelets and other small crafts. One of my most poignant memories of Mexico was the sight of these young kids being given balloons – they were transformed again into children, running around with laughing with joy.
If you’re prepared to expand your comfort zone and expose yourself to a little culture shock, then San Juan Chamula, an indigenous Tzotzil village near San Cristóbal, is the place to do it. The sheer unfamiliarity of what I saw here brought several tears to my eyes.
Day 17 – Oaxaca
It’s a looooooong bus journey from San Cristóbal to Oaxaca – an overnighter and earplugs are a good option. If you’re into arts and crafts, Oaxaca is a top place to stay for a few days. Indigenous crafts abound, including woven rugs, which you can see being made at local villages such as Teotitlán de Valle (accessible via tour or on the local bus). Wares are also on sale at numerous craft co-operatives in the city itself.
Other must-see sights in Oaxaca include Monte Albán, the Zapotec ruins on the edge of the city; and the excellent Oaxacan cultural museum. The latter houses many of Monte Albán’s artifacts, with explanations by way of audio guide.
Day 21 – Puebla
Puebla is a much bigger city than any visited so far, and in my view has a European feel about it. Churches with Victorian-era tiling abound, with pretty squares, museums and raucous markets in between.
From Puebla, you can make a lovely day trip to the town of Cholula, which is only about 7 miles away. Cholula’s claim to fame is that it’s home to the world’s second largest pyramid – Pirámide Tepanapa. Seemingly innocuous at first, it’s now grassed over with a church on top, but you’ll certainly feel it in your legs if you take the well-established path up there. You can explore inside the tunnels and the remainder of the ruins too. Great fun, but not for the claustrophobic.
Day 24 – Taxco
Taxco was founded on silver mining. There’s not much silver left now in the surrounding mountains, but there are loads of lovely craft shops selling some very nice pieces. You can catch a combi out to the local caves, with the catchy name of Grutas de Cacahuamilpa – which feature spectacular stalactite and stalagmite formations.
Days 27-31 Mexico City
A great place to round off your month in Mexico. Mexico City was much cleaner, cheaper and friendlier than I expected from a city this size. You can get pretty much anywhere on the metro. Only catch pre-booked taxis here.
There’s enough here to keep you occupied in Mexico City for weeks – the Zocalo, Templo Mayor, the National Anthropological Museum, the Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacán (this one’s an hour’s bus ride), Frida Kahlo’s house and much much more. Have fun, keep an eye on your stuff, and take it all in.
Alternative option – West of Mexico City
If you fancy an alternative to Puebla, Taxco, or perhaps fewer days in Mexico City; I personally loved Morelia, Pátzcauro, Uruapan and the nearby Volcán Paricutín – all in the state of Michoacán. These places all see local and foreign tourists, but you may feel more comfortable checking out the security advice on Michoacán on your own Government’s foreign office website before you make your decision on whether to go. Here’s the advise from the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
Top tips for a month in Mexico
- Learn a bit of Spanish before you go. English isn’t widely spoken outside the main tourist centres. I found Mexicans to be incredibly friendly and supportive of my Spanish-speaking efforts.
- Get out and about on a Sunday. Sundays are the day when Mexican families have a day out. They’re brilliant for interacting with the locals – I found it common for Mexicans to approach me without agenda: to practice their English if they knew some (don’t count on it), to ask if I’d take their picture, or – once we’d established where I was from – to ask about life in the UK.
- Shorts are for the beach. Locals don’t wear skimpy attire when wandering around towns or cities, so personally I’d steer clear of it too. Cut-off trousers or knee-length skirts are fine.
- Get to grips with collectivos (minibus type vehicles also known as combi vans or combis). They travel fixed routes in towns/cities and between towns/cities and nearby attractions, and will stop anywhere en-route. Flag one down by waving your arm in a downward motion from parallel-with-the-road to the ground – though they’ll probably spot you first! Don’t be surprised if you’re the only foreigner on board. As well as being super-cheap, combis provide great opportunities to have a natter with local people.