Updated February 2020.
It’s a country with caves, canyons, cenotes, coasts, 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.
Cancún – Bacalar – Valladolid (Chichén Itzá) – Mérida (Uxmal) – Campeche (Edzná) – Palenque (Yaxchilán & Bonampak) – San Cristóbal de las Casas (San Juan Chamula) – Oaxaca (Monte Albán) – Orizaba – Mexico City
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.
Buses head to the small town of Bacalar from Cancún’s main bus station. It takes about five hours. Bacalar sits on a beautiful lagoon of seven colours, in which you can swim, take catamaran tours, kayak and more. Do your bit in helping to preserve the laguna’s eco system by avoiding sunscreens when in the water and using non-motorised water transport. Bacalar has a good foodie scene, and if you fancy a break from laguna-lazing you can hop on a bus to nearby (very-untouristed) Chetumal.
In years gone by this post recommended Tulum, but it felt waaaaaay too overtouristed when I was there again in January 2020.
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 way back in May 2007. It’s definitely more on-the-beaten-track now, but still a lovely place to hang out for a few days.
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, substantially increased fees enacted by the Yucatán State Government, and to politely turn down the seemingly hundreds of sellers who are trying to make a living peddling stone and wooden carvings of everything pyramid-esque. Despite the crowds 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.
Mérida is a big city with some wide boulevards and a buzzing central square, and makes a handy base for a few 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, even though the fees here have also gone up.
A large Mayan site with well-preserved architecture, it’s busier than it once was but still positively peaceful compared to Chichén Itzá.
There are a tonne of other day trip – or longer – options from Merida: the yellow town of Izamal, the flamingos at Celestún, or the beach at Progreso. Just avoid cruise ship days at the latter.
Ah, Campeche. Colourful buildings. Sea breezes. Forts, ramparts, stunning seafood, and a great base for visiting the positively peaceful nearby ruins of Edzná on a day trip.
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.
The ruins are remote, fully jungle-shrowded, and with trees growing through them. A tour can also take in the smaller ruins at Bonampak, which is known for colours of its well-preserved murals.
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.
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 del 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.
Oaxaca is also great for foodies, and the more adventurous of you may wish to give the chillied grasshoppers a try. Wash them down with a drop of Mezcal.
Orizaba is possibly one of the prettiest Mexican towns you’ve never heard of. It’s known to Mexican tourists, but is definitely off the beaten track for most Western visitors. There’s plenty to keep you occupied for a couple of days: a cable car with stunning views at the top, buildings designed by Gustav Eiffel (yup, the same), museums and galleries worthy of far larger towns, fabulous coffee, and wonderful street art on the Paseo del Rio river walk.
An alternative to Orizaba is Cholula (near Puebla), home to the world’s second largest pyramid – Pirámide Tepanapa. It’s grassed over with a colourful church on top, making from some insta-worthy photo opps. You can explore inside the pyramid’s tunnels too. Great fun, but not for the claustrophobic.
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. I like it so much I’ve now been four times! 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.
If you fancy an alternative, I personally loved Morelia, Pátzcauro, Uruapan and nearby Volcán Paricutín in the state of Michoacán; and the old silver town of Taxco in Guerrero.
These places all see local and foreign tourists, but you may feel more comfortable checking out security advice on Michoacán and Guerrero on your Government’s foreign office website before you make your decision on whether to go. Here’s the advice from the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
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