Mexico travel guide: Everything you need to know before you go

Crescent-shaped and tapering like an ocean-flanked chilli pepper, Mexico has pure, tropical beaches fringing each coast, creative, colourful cities, unforgettable festivals and Mayan ruins worth the detour

Cindy Fan
Thursday 21 July 2022 16:44 BST
<p>Oaxaca, Mexico</p>

Oaxaca, Mexico

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With balmy beaches spread across 9,350 km of coastline, rich culture and history, beautifully preserved colonial towns, warm hospitality and mouthwatering cuisine, it’s no wonder that Mexico is one of the most visited destinations in the world.

The multifaceted country is bursting with life, flavour and diversity. Whether you crave nightlife, fun in the sun or spiritual solitude; jungle, mountain, ocean or desert; mellowing out in a charming pueblito or going full throttle in one of the greatest cities in the world: prepare to be astonished.

Current travel restrictions and entry requirements

There are no test or vaccination requirements for entry into Mexico.

Mask requirements vary by city and state. Currently, masks are no longer required in open spaces but are still mandatory on public transport, including in airports and airplanes.

Best time to go

There are good reasons to visit year-round. Generally, the best time is dry season (approximately November to April), when temperatures are at their coolest and there is little chance of rain. This is also the high tourist season, however: meaning elevated prices, busy resorts and the need to book in advance. Avoid beaches during Easter’s Semana Santa (Holy Week), when Mexicans head en masse to the coast.

Rainy season is June to October. If you can handle the humidity, the landscape is lush and there are low-season bargains to be snapped up. Summer is also the best time for surfing.

September and October are the wettest, stormiest months. Flooding can occur and it’s the most active period for hurricanes. November is the sweet spot, before the crowds arrive. Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated nationwide on 1 and 2 November; the most famous celebrations are in Oaxaca and Janitzio island in Lake Patzcuaro, Michoacan.

Top regions and cities

Mexico City

Dynamic, immense, vibrant, oh so cool – Mexico’s capital, the fifth largest city in the world, is a colour and taste sensation. Ornate colonial buildings mingle with 1960s-era apartments and soaring skyscrapers; leafy parks and boulevards are oases in a sprawling urban jungle. This megalopolis is in constant motion – though don’t be surprised to find yourself occasionally stuck in gridlock or lingering over dessert, like the locals. Mexico City is a mecca for art, fashion, design and food; the gastronomic scene is worth the trip alone. Bars and restaurants make the “world’s best” lists every year, while the antojitos (street food) need no accolades – just look for the carts with long queues. Visit one of the more than 150 museums, shop haute Mexican designers, or trawl flea markets. Marvel at the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacan. Cheer (and jeer) at a lucha libre wrestling match, before capping off the night with dancing and tacos.


The arid desert landscape of Mexico’s southwest belies Oaxaca’s embarrassment of riches. Gastronomy, architecture, handicrafts and ethnic diversity flourish in this southern city. Days should be spent wandering the neat grid of cobblestone streets lined with sun-baked, 19th century buildings in a riot of colours. Today, Oaxaca is something like an artist’s colony and there are gorgeous, inspired touches at every turn. Pop into courtyard cafes, galleries and boutiques before getting lost in the many markets, snacking from vendors along the way. People-watch in the bustling main square. Sip mezcal, the region’s famed distillate, on a rooftop bar before indulging in Oaxacan fare, arguably the most famous regional cuisine of Mexico. Day trips bring you into breathtaking countryside: roam the archaeological remains of Monte Alban; tour a mezcal distillery; and shop for exquisite handwoven rugs, pottery and mythical alebrije sculptures in rural artisan villages.

Jalisco and Nayarit

Located on the Central Pacific Coast, the neighbouring states of Jalisco and Nayarit deliver adventures on both land and sea. The mountainous, jungle-cloaked coastline, anchored by the small city of Puerto Vallarta, is a paradise for surfers and lovers of laidback public beaches. Whale watching is popular, as are spiritual retreats. Puerto Vallarta is also the gay capital of Mexico, with a whole district of hotels and restaurants catering to the LGBT+ community. Head north into Nayarit to discover a string of surfer towns: hop from beach to beach, enjoying fish ceviche under a thatched-roof palapa, or head into the highlands to Guadalajara, the burgeoning capital of Jalisco and heartland of Mexican charro (horsemanship), mariachi and tequila-making.

Quintana Roo

The state on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula is better known by its brand name attractions Cancun and Riviera Maya, which includes Playa del Carmen, Cozumel and Tulum. The appeal is obvious: white sand, Caribbean sea, all-inclusive resorts, nightlife and entertainment for all budgets and ages. Do venture outside of the resort: drink up Caribbean island vibes on Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox. Disconnect with a rustic retreat on Bacalar Lagoon. Swim in cenotes, natural limestone sinkholes filled with clear, turquoise water. There are dozens to explore, along with many Mayan ruins.

Los Cabos

With cacti-peppered desert coastlines and pounding azure surf, the towns of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, collectively known as Los Cabos, are an adventure sport playground for travellers with deeper pockets. Ultra-luxury resorts boast dramatic oceanfront locations at the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula. Both towns are a good base to explore the cape, and to golf, surf, sail, fish, dine, shop and party. Enjoy farm-to-table dining in spectacular settings. Scuba with whales and sharks in Cabo Pulmo National Park. Hike to the waterfalls Sol de Mayo and Canon de la Zorra, or the East Cape sand dunes. Drive to Todos Santos, then to the white sand and vivid blue water of Playa Balandra, before returning via the less developed eastern coast.

Best under-the-radar destinations


Mango, lemon, cherry, pistachio – no, not gelato flavours but the colours of the buildings in Merida, the largest city on the east coast Yucatan Peninsula. The region prospered in the 18th and 19th centuries, the wealth leading to a boom in manors and grand haciendas. The architecture is a delightful medley of Mayan with Old World Spanish, Italian and French-style, with beaux-arts wedding-cake facades. More colour can be found in the local markets bursting with exotic produce. Yucatecan cuisine is a distinctive mix of Mayan with European, Caribbean and Lebanese influences. Merida is the best place to try delicious slow-cooked, spiced pork cochinita pibil and sour lime soup. Outside of the Centro Historico, haciendas have been renovated into plush boutique hotels, while pretty beaches and cenotes offer a respite from Merida’s sweltering clime.

San Cristobal de las Casas

Nestled in a valley in the cool, hilly highlands of Chiapas, the southern-most state, San Cristobal de las Casa’s largely Indigenous population makes it one of the most unique places to visit in Mexico. The mountain town has a magical, lost-in-time quality. Ambling the steep cobblestone streets, broad plazas and hectic markets instantly transports visitors to another world; you’ll hear native languages instead of Spanish, see Tzotzil women in traditional embroidered blouses and black woollen skirts selling handwoven textiles and handicrafts.


The country’s fourth largest city would receive more attention if it wasn’t overshadowed by Mexico City, just 100km away. Puebla has all the enticing diversions of a large metropolis in Mexico, including a thriving gastronomy scene and street food galore. Two of the country’s most notable dishes, meat stuffed poblano chiles en nogada and mole poblano, a complex, earthy sauce made from ancho chile and chocolate, originated here. The towering 16th and 17th century Baroque-style cathedral is just one of countless well-preserved churches in the historic centre, declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

Best things to do

Eat your way through Mexico City

The world’s most exciting food city has gastronomic experiences for every budget, from family-run taquerias to Michelin stars. Do a street food tour; indulge in Pujol restaurant’s renowned taco omakase; and join the crowds for late-night churros dipped into hot chocolate. On weekends, sample edible insects and other popular snacks in Xochimilco market before hiring a boat and floating around the canal drinking michelada.

Drink mezcal and more in Oaxaca

Mezcal remains largely handcrafted by small artisanal producers, some of whom use modern machinery. Learn how it is made at a palenque, a traditional village distillery. Oaxaca also has an impressive lineup of non-alcoholic drinks to try. Refresh with spiced, sugary café de olla or horchata, a sweetened rice/nut drink. Cacao was revered by the Mayans and Aztecs; the custom continues with chocolate de agua, hot, frothed chocolate water, and tejate made of fermented cacao and maize.

Boat around Isla Espiritu Santo

The brilliant turquoise waters of Isla Espiritu Santo, a rocky archipelago in the Gulf of California, teem with marine life such as whales, sea turtles, manta rays and playful sea lions. The reefs, endemic flora and fauna, and virgin beaches are protected in this Unesco biosphere reserve. Kayaking, stand-up paddling, snorkelling, diving or hiking can be done through authorised tour operators.

Getting around

Taxis are widely available. Ride-sharing apps such as Uber are popular in Mexico City and other large cities. However, the legal status is touch-and-go in tourist destinations such as Cancun and Los Cabos. Check before arriving.

Buses are how most of the population move. The quality can range from poor (albeit cheap) to modern, air-conditioned intercity coaches. A six- or eight-hour coach journey can be your trade-off for a bargain bus fare.

Flying is the best option for longer distances. Multiple airlines service domestic routes. Unfortunately, it often requires connecting through Mexico City’s ageing airport, which is running well over capacity. Factor in a generous amount of time to change planes.

How to get there

Several UK-based or serving airlines operate non-stop flights to Mexico City and Cancun, including British Airways, Aeromexico, Virgin Atlantic and Tui.

Cruise ships frequent the Mexican coast from September to May. Cruises along the Pacific Coast usually depart from ports in California, while cruises through the Caribbean Sea/Gulf of Mexico depart from Florida.

Money-saving tip

Shops and restaurants in tourist areas often accept US dollars and other foreign currencies but at an exorbitant exchange rate; it is always better to use Mexican pesos. For domestic flights, especially travelling through Mexico City, buying your ticket well in advance can save upwards of 50 per cent.


What’s the weather like?

The weather varies greatly between regions. Generally, there are two seasons: dry (November to May) and rainy (June to October). For beach destinations, dry season is characterised by sunny, balmy weather. In the highlands and Mexico City, it can get extremely cold at night; and it is not unusual for northern states to have snowfall. It doesn’t rain persistently during rainy season – rather, there is usually an intense downpour before the sunshine returns.

What time zone is it in?

Mexico has four time zones, though not all states observe daylight saving time. A large portion of the country, including Mexico City, observes Central Standard Time (used by several US states).

What currency do I need?

Mexican pesos.

What language is spoken?

Spanish is the main language of Mexico. In tourist destinations and in Mexico City’s upscale neighbourhoods, some English would be spoken. That said, try to learn polite greetings and basic phrases in Spanish; a little goes a long way to break the ice.

Do I need to tip?

Mexico has a tipping culture. The minimum wage in the service industry is extremely low and workers rely on tips (propina). Leave 10-15 per cent tip, or 20 per cent if service is good.

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