Mexico is hands-down one of the most vibrant countries in the world. From the beaches to the mountains, from the deserts to the lively cities, one could spend a lot of time here and still not get to see it all. Adding to that, travellers who visit Mexico generally only stick to one of a few areas – resorts in the world-renowned beach towns like Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, or Cabo. While these spots are certainly nice places to spend a vacation, they tend to be expensive, overcrowded, and fail to capture Mexico’s real gems.
So, what if you could visit Mexico without the comforts of a beach-side bungalow? What if you had the opportunity to explore this rich Latin American country like a true local? Here’s where you can experience the “Real” Mexico … Would you do it? If the answer is yes, but you’re unsure of where to start, this should point you in the right direction…
For History and Culture
“Culture” is a word often associated with Mexico, and this country’s cultural roots run a lot deeper than the average traveller might think. Those who live here are able to recognize that one city in Mexico can have an entirely different feel to another city just down the road, as indigenous communities have held on to their unique and special traditions – even after the Spanish arrived. That being said, the Mexico as we know it today has a shared culture among its people, derived from a common history. This can be seen in many of the holidays and festivals celebrated throughout the country.
One holiday that comes to mind is El Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. If you visit Mexico during this holiday (October/November) there are a few places from which this festival can be best experienced. The states of Chiapas and Oaxaca are amazing towns on their own but are truly remarkable during this holiday. You’ll be able to see the towns decorated in marigolds, altars arranged for the dead, and children with sugar skulls painted on their faces.
If your planned holiday doesn’t coincide with the Day of the Dead, Chiapas, located on the border of Guatemala, is a great place to check out the Mayan culture, as is Oaxaca, where you can visit the ruins at Yagul and Monte Alban.
If you want to get a taste of pre-Hispanic Mexico, you should no-doubt visit one of the many pyramids. Most people know about the pyramids at Chichén Itzá, Tulum, and Teotihuacan, but why not head to Mexico State to visit Malinalco, the pyramids of the Eagle and Jaguar Warriors, or the Aztec ruins of Templo Mayor in Mexico City? La Ciudad de Mexico has a ton of history on its own, which you can experience at the Anthropology Museum or via a boat ride on the canals at Xochimilco.
Otherwise, head to cities like San Miguel de Allende, Zacatecas, Guadalajara, or Leon, to see places alive with stunning architecture, colourful homes, friendly people, and delicious food.
And, speaking of food…
For Food and Drink
If one of your favorite things about Mexico is the cuisine, be aware that the bar in Cancun is probably overcharging you for your tacos, and you can most likely get more authentic food away from the tourist hotspots (and for cheaper).
Each region of Mexico has its own flavour, and there isn’t anywhere where this rings more true than the city of Morelia in the state of Michoacan. This is one of the most colourful destinations in Mexico, and the food is just as pleasing to the eye. Try the enchiladas morelianas, or sopa tarasca, which were born here!
Next is Puebla. Although Puebla has a lot to offer food-wise (especially anything with mole poblano) this is the place to taste chillies en nogada, an interesting dish featuring a deep-fried chilli poblano stuffed with meat, covered in a delicious cream sauce, then finally topped with pomegranate seeds. It might not sound too appetizing, but I promise you that it is.
A few other places worth mentioning are Toluca, home of the chorizo verde (Green Chorizo) which you can get in the historical downtown district. Or try fresas la crema, a strawberry and cream dessert which you can get at La Marquesa, a town halfway between Mexico City and Toluca.
When you’re finished there, head to Pachuca for incredible pasties (similar to empanadas). Pasties were introduced to Mexico when Cornish miners came to this area to mine silver in the 1800’s. Nowadays the pasties have a bit of a Mexican twist to them and each year near Pachuca, the town of Real del Monte holds the International Pasty Festival to celebrate this delicious gift to Mexico.
Also, while you’re in Real del Monte, you might want to visit the Cornish Pasty Museum.
And, we can’t forget tacos – specifically barbacoa tacos. Although barbacoa (a slow-cooked meat) can be found pretty much anywhere in the country, it’s believed that the most authentic barbacoa comes from the city of Actopan in the state of Hidalgo. Don’t miss an opportunity to have a local cook this up for you, deep in the ground in the wee hours of the morning, so it’ll be ready by lunchtime!
Last but not least, you’ll need something to wash all that food down with. There is definitely no “real” Mexico without real tequila, which can be found – believe it or not – in the city of Tequila, located in Jalisco. This is where the Blue Agave plant (from which tequila is made) is harvested. To see for yourself how the process is done, visit the La Rojena Tequila Factory.
If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, try Mezcal, which is made from distilling the heart of the agave plant. This is done primarily in the state of Oaxaca, where you can do a tour through some of its most famous distilleries. Just be careful – this stuff is lethal.
For a Nature Retreat
Mexico has some breathtaking landscapes which, obviously, can only be seen if you’re willing to venture beyond the walls of your fancy hotel in the Yucatan Peninsula.
First and foremost, head to the little town of Tepoztlan, located just south of Mexico City. This is the reputed birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec feathered serpent god and the town is known for its many healing centres. Tourists come here to experience the spas, holistic clinics, and yoga sessions. Take a hike up to the El Tepozteco Pyramid on a clifftop above the town, and from here you can enjoy spectacular views and maybe even catch sight of some wildlife!
Valle de Bravo is another pretty town in the State of Mexico where you can do water sports or take a boat ride on the lake. There are “rumours” that only half of this lake is real, but that hasn’t stopped some of the wealthiest Mexicans from buying property here.
Although valleys like this are certainly sunny, they can get cold, too. If you need to warm up your bones, then visit Tolantongo or “Las Grutas,” located in Hidalgo. Here there are incredible hot springs perched on the side of a mountain which have become increasingly popular with travellers over the last few years, and for good reason too.
A few hours away is Huasca de Ocampo, also in Hidalgo, where you can enjoy the waterfalls and canyon views. And, speaking of canyons, let’s not forget that Mexico has tons of them. Hike Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon) in the Sierra Tarahumara, or Nevado de Toluca in Toluca, which is one of the only places in Mexico where you might actually witness snow at its peak.
Finally, if the beach is your mecca, visit Huatulco in Oaxaca State. This resort region consists of nine bays which are popular cruise ship ports of call. Puerto Escondido is a port town here and is known for its many palm tree-lined beaches and a buzzing nightlife. Then head to Zihuatanejo or Manzanillo – also located along the Pacific – where sun, sand and sea are the order of the day.
After you’ve experienced all these authentic Mexican sites, it would be a shame if you didn’t get to bring a little piece of Mexico home with you. Visit the town of Taxco, famous for its silver jewellery sold in stores that surround the beautiful Santa Prisca de Taxco church. Then head off to find incredible handicrafts in Pátzcuaro and San Miguel de Allende, and for textiles, Oaxaca is your best bet. Tlaquepaque and Tonalá in Guadalajara have hundreds of local artisans selling their work, too. Typically Mexican touristy stuff also includes ceramic pottery, handmade tote bags, jewellery, clothes, paintings, and perhaps even a bag of avocados.
Of course, Mexico City has a blend of all these things, importing the best goods from elsewhere in the country, making this city the perfect place to shop if you want to get all your souvenirs in one mad shopping spree.
So, where will you go?
Feeling a bit overwhelmed now? There is so much more to see in Mexico beyond the blue coastlines traditionally frequented by the masses, and yet in this article, we’ve only just scratched the surface. Whether it’s the food, the scenery, the local culture, or just the experience of being somewhere completely new, Mexico definitely won’t disappoint – and whether it’s going to be your first time here or your tenth, consider swapping the tourist-trap destinations for something a bit more “Mexican” at the core.
You’ll be glad you did.
Story by Hana Larock