Mexico map & highlights
MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TIME
In many ways, some of Mexico’s greatest landscapes are still be discovered by tourists, with most vacations following a cultural circuit. But watch this space, as improved infrastructure helps to put its 67 national parks on the map. However, it’s not all architecture and archaeology on Mexico vacations. Culture vultures will adore ancient Puebla, for example, but the backdrop of Mexico’s highest peaks of the Sierra Madre can’t be ignored. You will find Mayan magnificence on the Yucatán peninsula, but you’ll also fawn over flamingoes in the Celestún estuary or, after a day of tombs and temples, cool down in one of its prolific cenotes – surreal, subterranean swimming holes. Alternatively, skip culture and cities altogether, and bask in the beauty that is Baja. Another world altogether.
The Baja California Peninsula is actually in Mexico, so called because it separates the Pacific from the Gulf of California (aka Sea of Cortés). Although there are some strips of concrete laden coastline, eco explorers head to remote shores and waters beyond La Paz or Loreto in search of seriously sublime whale watching – Pacific grey, grey, fin, humpback, orca and sperm, the lot.
Mexico’s largest collection of Mayan ruins has Kukulkan Pyramid as the main draw. A UNESCO site, this was a sacred place for the Mayan people and Yucatán’s biggest city until the Mayans revolted against the leaders in 1221. The sacred cenote, or limestone sink hole, still feels ethereal, but you can’t swim here. You can at the nearby Ik Kil Cenote though. Get to both before midday to avoid serious crowds.
The Yucatán capital put on the map by colonial Spanish (albeit on top of the Mayan city of T'ho) who created elegant boulevards and masterful mansions. It retains a gentrified charm, with a Havana-esque, laid back feel to it, as you sip cocktails and feast on seafood while the Gulf of Mexico breeze adds the perfect dose of cool. Mérida is one of those ‘Oh I could happily live here’ types of places.
With a once-dodgy reputation, this vast capital has totally cleaned up its act. With an amazing food scene, going on a taco crawl around the street stalls is the way to go. You will also gorge on archaeological and architectural gems of course, the Centro Historico being a good starting place. The magnificent Museum of Modern Art brings you back to today, and immense Bosque de Chapultepec Park a welcome rest.
Culture vultures swoop and swoon here, as do foodies, as Oaxaca’s cuisine is UNESCO-listed as an ‘intangible cultural heritage’. Who needs Michelin, when you have that status? And that’s just a bonus to the archaeological delights of Monte Alban, Mitla and Yagul, all ancient Zapotec religious hubs. Today’s hub is the Zócalo or historic city centre, where markets and backstreets make for sublime sauntering.
Chiapas' Mayan ruins and national park are smaller and quieter than the more famous ones, and surrounded by jungle and flourishing fauna for a wilder, undiscovered feel. Indeed, many of the ruins are yet to be unearthed. You can also hear and see howler monkeys that inhabit the forests and ruins. Hike to Mishol-Ha waterfall where, depending on water levels, you can swim and explore the cave behind the falls.
Colonial architecture, superb food and a backdrop of volcanoes and snowcapped mountains in Izta-Popo Zoquiapan NP and Pico de Orizaba NP, Puebla is both culture and landscape lovers’ heaven. For spiritual followers, it almost is heaven, with its UNESCO city centre home to 70 churches and a tiled cathedral. Many indigenous groups live here; crafts and cuisine exquisitely capture their traditions.
San Cristóbal de las Casas
A colourful, colonial but also Mayan town, with cobbled streets and traditional architecture, this feels like Mexico of old. Indigenous people live here and in the mountain villages that envelop it, each with markets and cultural gathering places. This stunning region, where people maintain traditional mountain and Mayan lifestyles, is a world away from modern tourism. It is, literally, a breath of fresh air.
A perfect culture and Caribbean combo, this Mayan archaeological site is located on cliffs overlooking the cerulean siren. Tulum has a sleepy, bohemian feel, not yet ravaged by resorts. Mayan people still live here and fishermen still fish. But the word is that the golfers are on their way. Hopefully ignoring Akumal and Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, where blissful snorkelling and kayaking await. Great food, too.
More Mayan marvels, with the Pyramid of the Magician as the magical masterpiece, these ruins are still wrapped in jungle, adding to the mysticism. How much is still to be discovered? How many spirits hover? Spirits from the Nunnery, renamed by Spaniards, but probably a place of worship for shamans and priests. Or the Governor's Palace, a five acre sculpture park really, as well as a large games arena.
Fly into Cancún and keep going. Ideally by bike or on foot to see real not yucky Yucatán. Mayan magnificence is everywhere, such as the ancient city of Chichén Itzá, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. And the Celestún estuary is much loved for its flamingo and turtle populations. This peninsula is oozing with cenotes too, meaning ‘secret well’ to the Aztecs and sublime subterranean swimming holes to us.
This is how we dream of Mexico: palm-lined Pacific shores, dolphins playing, fiesta of food stalls, superb seafood, beach massages and a traditional hippy vibe that’s a bit more commercial nowadays, especially since featuring in hit film “Y Tu Mama También.” Famous also for having Mexico’s only nudist beach, although only on one section. Clothes are also de rigeur these days. Surf dude ones especially.
Mexico vacations itineraries
10 day food tour
Mexico City ► Puebla ► Oaxaca ► Zipolite ► Mexico City
15 day culture and beaches
Mexico City ► Pueblo ► Oaxaca ► Monte Alban ► San Cristobal de las Casas ► Palenque ► Merida ► Chichén Itzá ► Playa del Carmen
10 day family vacation
Merida ► Celestún ► Uxmal Mayan ruins ► Valladolid ► Tulum ► Chichén Itzá pyramids ► Akumal ► Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
Sample travel times in Mexico
- Mexico City – Cancún : 2.5 hours by plane
- Oaxaca – Zipolite : 9 hours by public bus
- Merida – Uxmal : 1 hour by car
- Mexico City – Puebla : 2 hours by car
- Cancún – Havana, Cuba : 1.5 hours by plane
- Chichén Itzá – Tulum : 2 hours by car