Visit these wallet-friendly gems and discover mezcal bars, hidden waterfalls, and intriguing traditions.
While a trip south of the border has always been a favorite of budget travelers looking to get off the beaten track, improvements in security and tourist infrastructure in recent years means Mexico is more backpacker-friendly than ever. No longer stereotyped as just a locale for beaches and margaritas, this diverse country is becoming a must-see destination on the world stage. Luckily, Mexico also offers some of the best value for money in Latin America, with cheap hostels and posadas, five peso tacos and accessible pre-Hispanic ruins across the country.
One of the most picturesque beaches on the Oaxacan coast, Puerto Escondido has managed to retain its laid-back charm despite increasing popularity with families, backpackers and surfers since the 1960s. Its biggest claim to fame is the surf break at Zicatela Beach. Nicknamed the “Mexican Pipeline” after the Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu, Zicatela Beach hosts surf competitions every November. With a population of just over 20,000 permanent residents, the main town is home to a bunch of mid-size hotels and restaurants catering to tourists while the eastern side of the bay is the place to be for hostels and cheap eats. There are reasonably-priced flights to the Puerto Escondido airport from Mexico City, or you could work your visit into a larger trip through Oaxaca by bus.
If you’re interested in learning more about the indigenous peoples of Mexico, look no further than Oaxaca. Geographically isolated, Oaxaca City is the economic and social center of the state and offers a glimpse into the daily life of many Mexicans in the south of the country. (It doesn’t hurt that the street food is amazing, too.) Dominated by colorful colonial architecture, the city is also bursting with well-priced and unique artesanías (handicrafts) and affordable tourist attractions like the fascinating Museum of the Cultures of Oaxaca and the Instagram-worthy Ethnobotanical Garden.
No Mexican itinerary is complete without a visit to the complex, engaging behemoth that is Mexico City. While first-time visitors are sometimes put off by the traffic and pollution, taking the time to explore this city always pays off. Tick the historic center and the cathedral off your list early on, then dedicate your time to exploring the less-frequented neighborhoods like La Roma, Coyoacan, and Xochimilco. The metro is a great way to get around during daylight hours and is also astoundingly cheap at 25 cents a trip, so find a hostel or Airbnb near one of the central stations and take advantage of this sprawling metropolis’ diversity by visiting markets, touring Frida Kahlo’s house, or taking a boat ride through the city’s canals.
Only a couple of hours by bus from Mexico City, Cholula sits beside the larger city of Puebla but far outstrips it when it comes to fun on a budget. Thanks to its large student population, the town has an excellent nightlife scene as well as plenty of activities for during the day like climbing the pre-Hispanic Tepanapa Pyramid (ranked as the widest pyramid ever built) and traversing the tunnels underneath. Visit Container City in the afternoon or evening for a huge selection of cool cafes and bars at student prices.
Home to the most famous arts festival in Mexico, El Cervantino, in the fall, the historic wonderland of Guanajuato doesn’tdisappoint no matter what time of year you visit. During the fortnight-long festival, the streets and theaters of the city are filled with artistic performances and party vibes, but the celebratory atmosphere permeates the cobbled streets long after El Cervantino ends.
Guanajuato was also an important city in the history of the Mexican Revolution, and visitors can take a funicular up to the monument of local rebel hero Pípila for unparalleled views. Spanish-speakers and adventurous tourists should book a tour of the Callejon de Besos for an unforgettable evening of music and storytelling, while mezcal lovers should head to El Incendio, formerly an old-school cantina that now caters to a younger crowd.
Known throughout Mexico for its unusual landmarks, Xilitla is surrounded by the lush rainforests and rivers of the Huasteca Potosina region. Waterfalls and swimming holes abound, but the biggest draw is the once-abandoned garden of English millionaire and artist Edward James that was declared a national cultural heritage site in 2012. Between 1949 and 1984, James built dozens of surreal concrete structures in a beautiful garden called Las Pozas (The Pools), including spiral staircases to nowhere, decorated columns, windows, bridges, and other sculptures. The countryside around Xilitla is also worth exploring, as it’s dotted with small towns that have panoramic views over the Huasteca.
San Sebastián Bernal
The world’s tallest freestanding rock, La Peña de Bernal, towers over the small town at its base and marks the entrance to the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve. At 1,421 feet, La Peña is a challenging hike, and the summit can only be reached by experienced rock-climbers. The town of Bernal itself is a slow-moving, pretty pueblo known for its cheese and candies. Adventurous visitors would be better off camping or staying in the dormitory at Chichidho Eco Park outside town and getting a taste of the natural beauty of the Sierra Gorda.
Aguascalientes hosts a city-wide party during the Feria de San Marcos in late April and early May which is the biggest of its kind in Mexico. The festival takes place throughout the state of Aguascalientes but is concentrated in the city where free theater, concerts and bullfighting exhibitions draw thousands of visitors. For adrenaline junkies, Boca de Tunel, an oasis-like adventure park with hanging bridges and zip-lines, is an easy day trip from the city. Budget accommodation can be found around the Jardin de San Marcos near the historic center of the city, but book early during festival season.
A visit to Chiapas may have you feeling like you’re in a different country in comparison with the rest of Mexico, and that’s because you basically are. Bordering Guatemala and the state of Oaxaca, Chiapas and its major tourist town, San Cristóbal, have historically been a hotbed of indigenous resistance, most recently led by the Zapatista movement. Today, it is perfectly safe to visit the tourist areas, and San Cristóbal has become a backpacker magnet in Central America. Hostels abound, as well as textile markets, yoga studios, vegetarian restaurants, colonial churches and cafes selling locally grown coffee and chocolate. Visit Na Bolom, a museum and research center on indigenous cultures, and extend your stay to visit the villages that surround San Cristóbal.
While images of the glamorous Day of the Dead parade featured in James Bond’s Spectre dominate the popular imagination, the real traditions of this uniquely Mexican celebration are ancient and much more personal. The state of Michoacán is generally acknowledged as the place to be for the most colorful celebrations, and the tiny village of Tzintzuntzan on Lake P á tzcuaro, once the capital of the Tarascan state before it was colonized by the Spaniards, swells to accommodate thousands of visitors at the beginning of November. Book an Airbnb well in advance or share a taxi from nearby Morelia (a one hour trip each way), and check out the archaeological site and its yacatas (semi-circular pyramids) while you’re in Tzintzuntzan.
Known as the Lake of Seven Colors, Bacalar is often overshadowed by its beachside neighbors on the Yucatan peninsula. However, this little town and the natural beauty that surrounds it is the perfect place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the coast. Located a four and a half hour drive from Cancún, right near the Belizean border, Bacalar is a hippie hangout, where a brief stopover can turn into a week-long adventure filled with kayaking, swimming, and snorkeling in turquoise waters. The Yak Lake House hostel has a private dock on the lake with a chill atmosphere and is just a short walk from Bacalar’s other main attraction, the San Felipe Fort, built in 1733 to defend the settlement against pirates.