By Namu Ju
Whether it’s your first time or your fifth, there is always something new to do in Mexico. While some Mexican cities are dangerous, travelling responsibly, respectfully, and with awareness can make way for limitless experiences.
With pristine beaches, ancient ruins, a world-renowned nightlife, and one of the best food cultures in the world, Mexico can honestly claim that there’s something for everyone.
As the most populous city in North America, Ciudad de México (or Mexico City) is steeped in history dating back to before the Aztec Empire. The first place to visit would be the historic Plaza de la Constitución, known as the Zócalo, the nerve of Centro Histórico. The Zócalo was the ceremonial centre of Tenochtitlán before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and is often marked with Náhuatl chants, the booming of drums, and dancers in historical Aztec wear, such as snakeskin loincloths, elaborate headdresses, and shell ankle bracelets.
Immediately northwest of the Zócalo is the Templo Mayor, the religious and social heart of the Aztec Empire, believed by Aztecs to be the centre of the universe. While the massive temple ruin is fully visible from the street, entrance costs only $75 MXN(equivalent to less than $4 USD as of December 2019).
While in CDMX, you can also visit the Museo Frida Kahlo, also known as La Casa Azul (translates as the Blue House), with weekday general admission beginning at $230 MXN (approximately $12 USD). The Blue House is located in one of the oldest and most beautiful neighbourhoods of CDMX. It features important paintings and personal objects of Frida Kahlo, one of Latin America’s most celebrated artists.
CDMX is also home to some of the most delicious food in the world. To eat without breaking the bank, grab some tacos al pastor for less than $150 MXN at El Huequito, which translates to “little hole-in-the-wall.” Or some late-night tacos de cabeza (‘beef head’) at El Borrego Viudo. But, if you do have a little money to splurge, make a reservation at Restaurante Nicos, hailed as the best restaurant in Mexico City.
The first place to visit when on the Yucatán Peninsula is Chichén Itzá, an ancient Mayan city. Another of Mexico’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Chichén Itzá’s most prominent ruin is El Castillo, a massive step pyramid in the centre of the archaeological site. El Castillo is also known as the Temple of Kukulcan, a place of worship dedicated to the Yucatec Maya Feathered Serpent deity.
After wandering El Castillo, head over to the coast of Tulum to see the Tulum Ruins, the remnants of the ancient Mayan city against the backdrop of the Caribbean Sea. Pre-Conquistion Tulum was the only Mayan city built on the coast and served as a significant seaport for trade. Entrance fees begin at $65 MXN for general admission with no guide. Once in Tulum, grab some cheap and delicious tacos at La Eufemia, a taqueria that allows its patrons to hang out all day at their waterfront location without the lounge chair rental fees of nearby hotels.
And if you made it all the way to the Yucatán Peninsula, you can’t leave without visiting Cozumel, an island off the peninsula’s eastern coast. Learn about Cozumel’s native stingless bees on a tour of the Mayan Bee Sanctuary for less than $5 USD. After, spend the rest of the day at the Punta Sur Eco Beach Park ($16 USD) to explore caves, encounter crocodiles, and hike the dreamy landscape.
Oaxaca (pronounced wuh-ha-kah) shines with traces of all of Mexico’s historical periods, including pre-Hispanic, colonial, contemporary, and modern. When in Oaxaca, explore the hub of entertainment, eateries, stores, and vendors at Oaxaca’s own Zócalo. Once you’ve had your fill of food and bustling crowds, head straight to the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán. The church and former monastery is a Baroque ecclesiastical building complex designed with incredible detail and seemingly endless gold gilding. To avoid crowds, try to visit the Rosary Chapel on the southern side of the complex before noon.
If you haven’t had enough ruins, Oaxaca’s got you covered with Monte Albán, the ancient capital of the Zapotec people. One of the most important archaeological sites in Latin America, Monte Albán sits atop a flattened hill with an incredible 360-degree view among the ruins of temples, palaces, excavated tombs, astronomical observatory, and an ancient ball court. Entrance fee begins at $70 MXN per person, and prices for tours start at around $250 MXN.
While Oaxaca is full of delicious eateries, the one to visit is Tacos de Comal Plaza del Carmen. Perhaps the most famous street stand in all of Oaxaca City, Tacos de Comal is a family-run operation serving cheap and unbeatable empanadas de Amarillo (corn quesadillas filled with tomato and chicken stew), tacos de chile relleno, and tacos— all cooked on the traditional Oaxacan clay comal.
It would take countless pages and multiple lifetimes to explore Mexico fully, and the places listed hardly scratch the surface of all the country has to offer. This culturally rich country is worth its space on any traveller’s bucket list, as well as the respect of its visitors. Remember: you have one life, and you’d be lucky to spend some of it in Mexico.