Lately it seems that “Top-10” lists are a permanent fixture in travel literature. They are found in nationwide publications, popular blogs and the glossy, highly-pitched travel magazines out there. They all tout the “must-see”, “highly desirable” or “best places to retire” pieces. Of course they are subjective and reflect the author’s biases or personal reflections of a place. But, is there any value to be gained in these lists other than the entertainment element we oftentimes seek? Sure there is, and, as with any list, one can extract themes which may serve as a framework for further exploration of a city, country or region. Themes run the gamut and can be linked to budgeting, quality-of-life ratings, or even cultural diversity. Themes may even be used for building itineraries around a future trip.
In the case of Mexico, with its diversity in food, culture and geography, it also helps to tie such lists to a theme. After all, in a country with a population of over 110 million people where more than 60 dialects are spoken, there can be challenges in trying to capture its cultural essence and identity.
The following list provides a cursory overview of the multitude of attractions found throughout Mexico. It serves as a basis from which to gain a better understanding of the varied resources encountered within its borders and offers the visitor opportunities for unlimited discovery. It follows no particular order and hopefully presents a way to appreciate and grasp the country’s natural, culinary, cultural and historical treasures.
With far-reaching beaches draped along the Pacific Ocean, Sea of Cortez, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, the options are plentiful and appeal to a range of tastes. From the picture-perfect sunsets of Isla Mujeres near Cancun, to the marine-rich waters off Zihuatanejo, Mexico’s beach and coastal areas are truly a natural gift worthy of a visit.
- Puerto Escondido
- Puerto Vallarta
- Cabo San Lucas
Though turbulent and often controversial, one can’t deny or ignore Spain’s presence or its impact on Mexico. The colonial imprint it left behind is easily lifted from Mexico’s food, culture, language and most visibly, its architecture. Cities such as Puebla, Mérida, Campeche and Guanajuato have all maintained the grandeur of the period and preserved an era’s signature intact.
- Mexico City
- San Miguel de Allende
- San Luis Potosí
- San Cristobal de las Casas
Well before the Spanish arrival in the 1500’s, Mexico was occupied by several groups who thrived and lived in large settlements throughout the country. The remains of some of these great cities are now protected and prized as UNESCO sites and symbols of national pride. Whether one is visiting the enormous, ancient city of Teotihuacán, comes face-to-face with giant masks in Kohunlich or admires the intricate Mayan designs of Chichén-Itzá, it’s easy to reflect and almost feel and hear the voices of these pre-Hispanic cultures.
- Monte Albán
- El Tajín
Few countries are blessed to be in the path of natural migratory patterns such as Mexico. Endowed with an eclectic ecology and diverse terrain, it plays host to a variety of flora and fauna. There are ample opportunities to witness the natural migrations of certain mammals and insects which make their annual journeys to the waters and lands of this country. Seeing either the splashing convoy of gray whales in the nutrient-rich waters of the Sea of Cortez or the annual blanketing of trees by monarch butterflies in the state of Michoacán are both incomparable experiences.
- Sea of Cortez- Gray whale migration between Jan & Mar
- Michoacán- Monarch butterfly migration between Feb & Mar
- Puerto Vallarta & Riviera Nayarit- Humpback whale migration between Dec & Mar
- San Blas, Nayarit- Diverse bird migration between Nov & Mar
- Isla Holbox, Quintana Roo- Annual whale shark feeding between May & Sep
The rich veins of gold and silver zigzagging just under the surface proved to be too tempting for the Spaniards upon their arrival in New Spain. The tapping and extraction of many prosperous mineral deposits led the Spanish to plan, erect and build monumental cities surrounding their mining operations. Cities like Guanajuato, Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí with their opulent colonial mansions, impressive cathedrals, quaint alleys and cobbled streets epitomize the fruits of those early mining exploits.
- Guanajuato, GTO
- Zacatecas, ZAC
- San Luis Potosí, SLP
- Taxco, GRO
Often overlooked as travel “destinations” in favor of colonial cities or coastal areas, these cities have always maintained a solid Mexican identity with their unique foods, attractions and ever-present hospitality. From strolling along Piedras Negras’ just-christened multimillion-dollar Paseo del Rio, to taking in a cultural event in Nuevo Laredo’s Casa de la Cultura or just sampling the international cuisine in Tijuana’s gastronomy district, one can easily fill an itinerary without ever venturing further into the interior of the country.
- Piedras Negras, Coahuila
- Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila
- Matamoros, Tamaulipas
- Reynosa, Tamaulipas
- Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas
- Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua
- Nogales, Sonora
- Mexicali, Baja California
- Tijuana, Baja California
Finding a festival in Mexico during any month of the year is not a challenge. The true difficulty is narrowing down the choices to just a few and fitting those into one’s schedule. It may be celebrating the country’s largest festival in Aguascalientes, participating in some world-recognized fishing tournament, sharing a solemn night in Oaxaca during Dia de los Muertos or paying witness to the patriotic “Grito” the president delivers every Independence Day in Mexico City’s Zócalo, all examples of Mexico’s perpetual movement to display its colorful culture and zest for life.
- Día de los Muertos, November in Oaxaca, OAX
- Día de Independencia, September 16th in Mexico City, DF
- Feria Nacional de San Marcos, April/May in Aguascalientes, AGS
- Black & Blue Marlin Fishing Tournament, October in Cabo San Lucas, BC
- International Mariachi Festival, August in Guadalajara, JAL
- Cultural Festival, April in Zacatecas, ZAC
- Festival de San Luis, April/May in San Luis Potosí, SLP
Sometimes a feeling of wonder is provoked by a magnificent structure, an orderly and near-perfect pattern produced by nature, or a perceived, super-human act. Mexico does not fail to awe in all these areas. Whether one is taking in the sprawling scale of Mexico City’s Zócalo (central plaza), is speechless from witnessing the divers at Acapulco’s La Quebrada, is pondering the early architects of Chichén-Itzá, or is appreciating the Baroque interior of a centuries-old cathedral, the sense of an unfelt energy and inspiration is surely stirred.
- Zócalo, Mexico City, DF
- Chichén-Itzá, Pisté, Yucatán
- La Quebrada, Acapulco, Guerrero (Famous cliff divers)
- Los Voladores, Papantla, Veracruz (Totonac Flyers)
Encompassing an area of nearly 2 million square kilometers, Mexico is a blend of landscapes, from the rugged peaks in the northern reaches of the country to the Yucatán’s powdery soft beaches. The geography lends itself to the harmonious arrangement of nature in places like Chiapas’ Cañón del Sumidero, where steep cliffs plunge into endless waterways, or to lesser-known ones like Prismas Basálticos in Hidalgo, where one can admire a geometrical marvel.
- Prismas Basálticos, Huasca de Ocampo, Hidalgo
- Cañón del Sumidero, Chiapas
- Copper Canyon, Chihuahua
- Popocatépetl Volcano, State of Mexico
- Sótano de las Golondrinas, San Luis Potosí
- Cenote Dzitnup, Valladolid, Yucatán
- Cenote Azul, Quintana Roo
Recently awarded UNESCO’s honorable Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity distinction for its food, Mexico’s cuisine is made up of many influences. The flavors take on a combination of pre-Hispanic and European contributions. From the Mayan specialties of the Yucatán, to the complex moles of Oaxaca, or the spit-roasted cabrito from Monterrey, there is something to please any palate.
- Oaxaca, OAX – Mole, grasshoppers and tamales
- Puebla, PUE -Mole
- Veracruz, VER- Seafood
- Pachuca, Hidalgo- Barbacoa (pit-roasted lamb), pastes (adopted from British pasties)
- Monterrey, Nuevo Leon – Cabrito (spit-roasted kid goat)
- Mérida, Yucatán- Mayan-influenced dishes
- Ensenada, BC- Baja fish tacos
- San Luis Potosí, SLP- Enchiladas Potosinas
Themes certainly help in constructing an itinerary when visiting Mexico. One can plan a trip for the sole purpose to visit the magical wonders of Mayan temples in the Yucatan, traipse through “silver cities” in the interior of the country, lounge and soak up the sun on many of the world-class beaches, or enjoy a combination of all. The beauty of visiting a country the size of Mexico is contained in the abundance of choices as complex and varied as the culture within its borders.