Mexico is a country of multitudes.
It’s teeming with authentic Native and Latin American culture, but swaths of its shoreline are given over to tourist-minded all-inclusive resorts that cater to spring breakers and snowbirds. It is a welcoming, warm and happy country that nevertheless has been rocked by corruption and drug trafficking. It is a deeply Christian country, but one which still weaves in the myths and rituals of indigenous Mexican cultures. You can find some of the best food in the world on the streets of many cities and towns in Mexico, and some of the worst in the expensive resorts.
All of these contrasts and contradictions are what make Mexico such a marvel to behold, and why it continues to attract travelers of all stripes. You can while away days lounging on the beach, or hit the streets of one of Mexico’s frenetic cities – or, as many do when they visit, you can have a mix of both.
In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at traveling to Mexico. We’ll discuss what you should know before you go; we’ll list a few of Mexico’s hot spots for travelers; and, finally, we’ll talk a little bit about what to pack (hint: merino wool travel clothing will feature heavily!). As always, if you’re reading through and want to add anything to the conversation, comment below. Now: let’s head to Mexico.
This section will offer a quick rundown of things you should know before you travel to Mexico. Think of it like the ‘Introduction’ section of a guidebook. We’ll look at Mexico from four different angles here: culture, climate, money and safety.
UNESCO is all over Mexico, like lime on a taco. There are more UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) sites in Mexico than anywhere else in the Americas, North or South, and it ranks an impressive seventh in the entire world (Italy takes the top spot). Among the honoured sites are the historic centres of Mexico City, Oaxaca and Puebla, and the Mayan city of Chichen Itza.
Of course, UNESCO isn’t the only indicator of culture, but by and large they do a great job singling out culturally rich hubs. You could do worse, on a trip through Mexico, than going through the organization’s list of 35 sites.
Mexicans are also big foodies. From modern, molecular gastronomic restaurants to the roadside taco stalls, Mexican food is delicious regardless of where it comes from. The cuisine is quite regionally specific, each region being influenced by both its climate and geographical neighbours. But some generalities exist across the board. For one, there is an emphasis on native ingredients, like maize, avocados, chocolate, chilli peppers, etc., cooked together with Spanish contributions like sausage, cheese and spices.
Another aspect of the culture worth mentioning is their love of festivals. You’re probably familiar with the bigger festivals, like the Day of the Dead and Carnaval, but those two only begin to scratch the surface of the innumerable local, civic, regional and national festivals Mexico has to offer. Just don’t expect much in the way of Cinco de Mayo, which is much more widely celebrated by Mexican Americans.
With a country as vast as Mexico, the weather isn’t really a homogeneous thing. For starters, the country is divided into two by the Tropic of Cancer, with the southern half enjoying a tropical climate and the northern half a temperate climate. The North tends to be dry, while the South sees an abundance of rainfall, a generalization that you should always corroborate with local weather reports before you go.
Mexico city, for instance, has a Highland climate marked by moderate year-round temperatures (we’re talking an average of around 15 degrees Celsius/59 degrees Fahrenheit) as well as the occasional hail, while a southern coastal destination like Tulum is far hotter, and far wetter. What this means for travelers looking to move around the country is that you need to pack smartly – our collection of merino wool clothing is perfect for the temperature variations, since it can be both breathable and insulating, and it dries rapidly.
Mexico uses the Peso, which (at the time of writing) is at about a 19-1 ratio with the American Dollar. You’ll find that things are quite a bit cheaper in Mexico than they are in the States, Canada or Europe, though Mexico City can be an outlier, since shops and establishments in its trendier neighbourhoods still exact high prices.
One of the best resources around for figuring out prices – not just in Mexico but worldwide – is Numbeo. You can check out the average prices of various common goods either in the country as a whole, or in specific cities. For instance, they list a meal in an inexpensive restaurant as being between 60 and 150 pesos on average, or around 3 to 7 dollars (of course, street food is still less expensive). If you are budget conscious and want to plan in advance, Numbeo is a really helpful resource.
As for tipping, the etiquette is pretty much the same as it is in the US or Canada. Give roughly between 10-20% for service. Some differences do apply though: for instance, cab drivers don’t normally receive tips, whereas baggage clerks at supermarkets normally get a few pesos.
It’s best to assume that the water isn’t potable, and stick to the bottled stuff; we know, it’s not great for the environment, but it’s better that you stay alive to keep recycling than get sick on principle, right?
Tetanus, Typhoid and Hep A are all recommended as vaccinations prior to traveling to Mexico, and if you’re headed off the beaten track, you might as well throw in Hep B, Malaria and Rabies for good measure. Stay sun safe as well with ample sunscreen, sunglasses and sweat wicking clothing, like – you guessed it – our fantastic merino wool underwear for men and women.
Before you book your tickets, look for travel advisories. There are towns and cities around the northeast, in places like Durango and Chihuahua that are really dangerous, especially to tourists. Some official government guides recommend you stick to the touristy areas in most places, which isn’t bad advice, but it can be limiting. In any case, use your common sense, don’t wander around alone at night and if you run into an issue, don’t escalate it.
Sure, there is something to be said for that all-inclusive resort in Puerto Vallarta, but it’s not going to be on this list. Not that there’s anything wrong with these package resorts – they can be relaxing – but they lack the authentic Mexican culture. You could be on a beach anywhere in the world. You want travel to excite and challenge you; read this great travel advice from a seasoned pro Kurt Caswell, who makes the eloquent case for traveling off the beaten path.
With that in mind, we’ve steered clear of the resorts, while still offering relatively tourist-friendly destinations. Our picks are mostly coastal, and often mix great weather with interesting culture.
Mérida: The largest Yucatecan city is also one of the state’s most beautiful, with an amazing colonial city centre. As an added bonus, it’s only about an hour and a half drive to Chichén Itzá, the famous, ancient Mayan city
Tulum: A paradise for beach bums, yogis, artists and surfers around the world, Tulum is a modern spot surrounded by 1,000-year-old ruins. A pre-Columbian Mayan walled city in the southeast state of Quintana Roo, Tulum is good if you want to slow the pace a bit but still see some cultural history.
Puebla: Inland, around east-central Mexico, you’ll find this cultural hub. Famous for its historic architecture, its delicious mole poblanos, its jubilant festivals and taste-making literary scene, Puebla is perfect for travelers looking for a hit of distilled Mexican culture.
Oaxaca City: The food is unreal in this capital of Oaxaca, and the views aren’t half bad either. Pick up a bottle of mezcal while you’re there – Oaxaca is the biggest, and regarded as the best, makers of the stuff.
Guanajuato: Who needs the beach when you’ve got buildings that look like that? Seriously, the narrow, winding streets, small plazas and dramatic colonial architecture are amazing in Guanajuato. But if you go, you’ve got to check out the mummies at the Museum of Mummies – at 111 of them, it’s the largest collection this side of Egypt.
Places You May Want to Avoid: As mentioned, it’s not all sunshine and fantastic architecture in Mexico. The states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango and Tamaulipas are best avoided, mostly because of cartel violence, and elsewhere in the country, especially up the western coast, it pays to research local advisories.
Packing for Mexico is really about packing for the specific climate into which you are traveling (see the climate section above, or visit this site, which lists climates according to location and time of year).
If you are traveling to multiple locations – coastal and inland, north and south – you should honestly think about packing merino wool, since it is by far the best material for handling temperature extremes. If you’re unconvinced, check out this ultimate guide to merino wool clothing we posted recently.
Breathable t-shirts are a must, as are a couple pairs of functional, light shorts (or skirts). For breezy nights, or days spent inland, pack a versatile pair of jeans, as well as a light merino wool sweater. To wear under the hood, check out our popular black boxer brief and merino wool ankle socks. Depending on local forecast, it might also be a good idea to pack a rain jacket or poncho. Swimwear is also a must for Mexico. Get in touch with us today if you have any questions about our line of merino wool clothing, and visit our blog for more packing tips.
In most places around Mexico, you can get away with sandals and running shoes, though if you are planning on hiking, you will of course need a breathable hiking boot.
The usual suspects – deodorant, toothbrush, shampoo, razor, hair product, makeup, etc. – should be supplemented with a few specific items, like bug repellent, sunscreen and probably a few medications in case of stomach illness or headache. Packing some Imodium can be a real lifesaver, especially if you plan on being an adventurous eater.
If you are eco-conscious, and plan on swimming in one of the oceans, consider picking up a bottle of biodegradable sunscreen, which spares the marine ecosystem the harmful chemicals and oils found in conventional sunscreen.
It’s a wise idea to make a copy of your passport, and carry it separately from your passport, that way if the latter gets stolen you have recourse to easily replace it. Have some travel insurance handy, as well as an itinerary and any necessary booking info (you can probably keep these on your phone, but making physical copies at least covers you if you lose your phone). How much cash you carry is discretional: you probably want enough to last a day (especially in rural areas) just in case you don’t see a bank, but not so much that you risk being unsafe.
Mexico may be a country of innumerable complexities and contradictions, but that doesn’t mean traveling there has to be hard. Armed with a little advance information, and with the right itinerary and packing list, travel in this great country can be as breezy as the palm-fringed beaches.
As always, any Mexico-philes out there should feel free to leave us recommendations about places to go, sites to see and foods to eat, as well as any other tips or hacks you might have for traveling South of the Border. Viva Mexico!