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Mexico Travel Guide: Culture, History, and Cuisine

Jun 2, 2022 | Destinations, North America | 0 comments

Cenotes. Ancient ruins. Unparalleled cuisine. Mexico is a dream.

This Mexico travel guide is a central place for travel tips to visit this beautiful country. Start here, then find specific travel guides, Chichén Itzá, Tulum, Oaxaca, and Mexico City.

Each and every year, Val and I fly somewhere neither of us has been before. Val is one of my best friends from church growing up, and next year is our 20-year friend-iversary.

We’ve come a long way since those two little girls that met a humid Tennessee August at the local Baptist church.

Now, we’re women with careers, love lives, ambitions, and ever-lengthening bucket lists. Mexico 2022 goes down in the books as the trip that got us back out there.

The world was waiting. After two long years, it was time to see it again.

2 weeks, 2 girls, 2 suitcases, 2 backpacks. 4,731 miles. 1 adventure.

Here’s how it went.

This post contains affiliate links. See more in the disclaimer.

Why travel to Mexico?

I’m on a lifelong journey to every country in the world. If you’re new here, you may not have known that. My reason for going to Mexico is easy: it’s a sovereign nation, therefore it’s on my list. Just in case you’re curious, Mexico is country #23.

After seeing this place for myself, my goal here is to convince you that Mexico should be one of your passport stamps.

Here are five quick reasons you should travel to Mexico, then I’ll go in more depth through the rest of this post:

  1. Cenotes.
  2. Mexican cuisine is a cultural heritage for all of humanity, according to UNESCO. France is the only other nation with this honor.
  3. Ruins of multiple indigenous groups are still intact, and you can see them with your own two eyes.
  4. Yucatán beaches.
  5. CDMX museums.

A (Very) Brief History of Mexico

Mayan Civilization

From 250-900 CE, the Maya civilization was the most powerful in Mexico and in Mesoamerica as a whole. The center of the Mayan universe was Chichén Itzá, now one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Their civilization spread from southeast Mexico into Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. They were one of the first indigenous groups to create cities that served as religious, political, social, and commercial centers.

The Mayans also wrote in hieroglyphics, some of whose meanings modern archeologists do not know.

Aztec Civilization

Succeeding the Maya by thousands of years is the Aztec civilization. This was the vibrant, prosperous indigenous kingdom in power when Hernán Cortés and his men invaded.

At their prime, the Aztec civilization was rivaled in its sophistication only by the Inca in Perú. Through war and conquest of other groups, namely the Toltecs (ancestors of modern-day Oaxacans), the Aztecs managed to become the kingdom that comprised of the majority of modern-day Mexico.

In what is now Mexico City, the Aztecs built a political, religious, social, and commercial center. Because Mexico City is prone to flooding, they designed a robust irrigation system.

Their architecture not only made Tenochtitlán a capital of trade and great wealth, but also allowed the Aztecs to protect themselves from invaders.

Colonial

When Hernán Cortés was sent to Mexico with 500 soldiers in 1518, the Aztec king Moctezuma believed he was the god Quetzalcaotl in the flesh. Cortés used this to his advantage to imprison Moctezuma, then conquer the Aztecs.

The Spanish ruled Mexico until 1821, instilling a rigid social hierarchy based on race and wealth. The conquistadors and later rulers brutally enslaved the indigenous people, forcing them to do hard labor in gold mines.

Once the Spanish had tight control over the country, more Spaniards began settling there and establishing a society according to their standards.

As Europe went through the Enlightenment all the way to the Napoleonic Wars, colonial society in Mexico was affected by anything involving Spain.

After centuries of harsh rule, those at the bottom of society that considered themselves Mexican instead of Spanish started rebelling.

Independence

Although there was pre-existing dissent in poorer, rural areas, Mexican independence came with less bloodshed than one would expect.

In 1820, Spanish constitutionalists rebelled and forced King Ferdinand VII to sign into law the Constitution of 1812, which was more liberal than its predecessor.

Mexican conservatives were alarmed at this, worried their own society would become too liberal and fall away from Roman Catholicism.

The Iguala Plan was drafted, a document stating Mexico was to be independent, Roman Catholic, and called for the unity of its citizens without division between indigenous and European.

The Spanish general sent to “New Spain” regarding this call for a Mexican constitution was severely outnumbered and under-resourced.

He had no choice but to sign the new Treaty of Córdoba on August 24, 1821, effectively ending Mexico’s status as a colony.

Modern

In the immediate aftermath of independence, the new country went through the growing pains of first-time self governance. There was infighting amongst monarchists and republicans, jeopardizing the stability of the new republic.

The rest of the 19th century brought war with the United States, the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, and the Mexican Revolution. (Of course, there is much more to the story than these three large events.)

Like many countries, Mexico was involved in WWII. Once Germans sank two of their ships, Mexico got involved on behalf of the Allies. The aftermath of the war completely remapped Mexico’s economy to one of industrialism. This led to political change, and the country ultimately left the single-party system in the 20th century.

Mexican society today is as diverse as the many groups that comprise it. A lawyer in Mexico City has a vastly different life than a Mayan living in the rural Yucatán. A nation as vast as this is bound to surprise.

Mexico Travel Tips: What to Know Before You Go

It’s been a long two years. Some of you reading this haven’t left your home country since before 2020. Things are still beautiful, but it will be different.

Visiting Mexico in 2022

  1. Masks are required in most businesses. They are available to buy, if you forgot yours at the hotel or need a fresh one.
  2. Temperatures are taken before you enter major attractions, like Chichén Itzá and Cenote Ik-Kil.
  3. Chichén Itzá is restricting its number of visitors to allow for social distancing.
  4. There are social distancing markers in public you’re likely already used to from home.

My best recommendation is to keep up with updates directly from the Mexican government and your own before traveling. This info can usually be found on the Mexican embassy’s website in your country.

Sherpa is another helpful tool for seeing travel restrictions globally.

2 Big Things to Know About Mexican Etiquette That Will Affect You on a Daily Basis

1. Tipping

Mexico has a tip culture. It is customary to tip servers at restaurants 10 to 20 percent of your bill.

Many restaurants have credit card machines, so tell them beforehand how much you want to tip in pesos if you’re swiping that Visa. Sometimes, the screen will allow you to choose 15, 18, or 20 percent before you sign.

The word for “tip” in Spanish is “propina,” pronounced pro-PEEN-ah. If you want your restaurant tab, ask for the “cuenta,” pronounced QWEN-tah.

2. Toilet paper

Toilet paper goes in the wastebasket next to the toilet, not in the toilet.

How to get around in Mexico

Domestic flights are the way to go. We flew with Volaris three times, and our main complaint is a 2-hour delay in Oaxaca. Aside from that, they’re your typical budget airline—seats were roomier than expected, but I’d compare it closely with Vueling in Spain.

If you’re on a tighter budget and have more time in Mexico, you can take advantage of buses. ADO is a company we saw often; you can learn more about traveling with them in this blog post.

How to get phone service in Mexico

My regular Verizon plan includes service in Mexico and Canada as if I were still in the States. This was a surprise to me, so check your domestic plan if you’re U.S.-based. You may not even need special phone service in Mexico.

If you do need an international plan, I loved Google Fi when I was in Southeast Asia. I wrote about how to use it in my Bangkok post.

Val used a local sim card once we got to Cancún, which was very cheap and easy. After getting off the bus in Downtown Cancún from the airport, we asked a guy on the street how to get a sim card. He told us about Oxxo, a small walk-in market that is everywhere in Mexico.

At the counter, I asked the clerk for a sim card. She showed us the options for a plan, and Val chose how many gigs of data she wanted for the trip.

She did have to re-up, but it wasn’t until our last 3 or 4 days in-country. The total cost was $20 USD or less, and getting it done was pretty easy.

Then again, I speak fluent Spanish. This helped tremendously in getting the service, but Google Translate, even in its mediocrity, can get this job done for you.

Mexico travel insurance

I used SafetyWing for this trip. Between my vegan food company, freelance writing, and this blog, life is crazy back home. I had zero time to prep for this trip—I didn’t even pack until the night before I left! (Of course, I’ve been doing this long enough that packing is quick and easy. All I need is a carry-on and a personal item.)

Always check with your insurance company before buying a supplemental policy. When I went to southeast Asia, my old insurance did cover me internationally. A letter saying as much was just a phone call away.

My new health insurance doesn’t cover international travel, so I bought a SafetyWing policy our first night in Cancún. It was $21 for two weeks.

Thankfully, I didn’t need to use it, so I can’t say what it’s like to file a claim. Here’s an in-depth review of one nomad’s experience with them.

All I can say is it was easy to purchase, I could use my credit card, and they were fine with me already abroad when I purchased. This is not usually the case with insurance companies, so that’s an excellent perk.

Learn more about SafetyWing if you need health insurance on your next trip out of the country—they may be the perfect fit for you. World Nomads is another travel insurance company people know and trust.

Places to go in Mexico

Cancún

Cancún is the starting point for many a Mexico adventure. It’s the main airport in the Yucatán, making it a great place to fly into the country cheaply if you’re based in the eastern United States.

The city is divided between Cancún city and the Hotel Zone (Zona Hotelera in Spanish), a narrow strip of land full of all-inclusive resorts.

The main attraction in Cancún is its pristine beaches, with white sand and aqua waters of the Gulf.

Chichén Itzá

Chichén Itzá is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Mayans believed it was the center of the universe.

In this ruin site is El Castillo, or The Castle, where religious and political ceremonies were held. If you’ve seen a photo of Chichén Itzá, it was El Castillo. But there’s much more to this site than its epicenter.

Within a three hour visit, you can see the Mayan ball courts, hieroglyphics etched into stones thousands of years old, and statues of figurine gods.

Tulum

Tulum is a lazy beach town just down the coast from Cancún and a short drive from Chichén Itzá. Aside from its own stretch of beach, Tulum has a ruin site you can visit.

Some of the best local vegan food we ate was in this town, and Tulum was Val’s favorite place from the entire trip.

Our main recommendation is to stay in Tulum city instead of its Hotel Zone, then drive or take a bus to the coastal area.

Oaxaca

Oaxaca is a cultural capital of Mexico. Known for ceramics and other handmade goods, it’s an artisan and design paradise.

The state of Oaxaca also has its own unique cuisine that is world-renowned. From its colorful buildings and cultural sites, to the best chocolate cake I’ve ever eaten, Oaxaca was my favorite place in Mexico.

Mexico City

Mexico City, commonly known as CDMX (an abbreviation of La Ciudad de México), is not a metropolis. It is a megalopolis. It is so massive that 22 million people live there. That’s larger than Paris, New York City, or London.

This city is known for its museums, and for good reason. If you spent days on end going to museums, you still wouldn’t see them all. Pair that with a delicious local culinary scene, and you’ve got an unforgettable city escape.

More places to go in Mexico

  • Baja California — gorgeous beaches and water with rock formations
  • Puerto Vallarta — lazy beach town
  • Mérida — the capital of the Yucatán
  • Puebla — a CDMX day trip for a glimpse of rural life
  • San Miguel de Allende — a cultural capital
  • Guadalajara — the beautiful metropolis known for tequila and mariachi

You can learn about all of these from a guidebook. I checked out Lonely Planet Mexico from the library and took it with me on this trip. They also have an updated 2022 version.

The only adventure that’s left on my Mexico bucket list is a car camping road trip in the lower half of the Baja peninsula.

If that sounds interesting to you, I found this car rental company that offers Jeeps outfitted with roof tents, cooking gear, and inflatable kayaks.

Things to do in Mexico

Swim in a cenote

Cenotes are underground chambers you can swim, snorkel, and even scuba dive in. Turquoise waters in limestone caves provide beautiful scenery to explore.

Relax on pristine beaches

The Yucatán Peninsula’s shores on the Gulf of Mexico are the perfect place to prop up your feet and stay a while. The best public beach I’ve ever been to after 23 countries is Playa Delfines in Cancún.

See ancient ruins

Chichén Itzá may be the most famous of Mexico’s ruins, but there are also the Tulum Ruins, Ciudad Azteca, Teotihuacán just outside Mexico City, and Monte Albán just outside Oaxaca.

Visit iconic museums

Mexico City has more museums per capita than Paris. Whether you enjoy ceramics, botanical gardens, contemporary art, history, or impressionism, there is a museum for you in Mexico.

Watch a lucha libre

This is one thing we didn’t get to do while in Mexico, but it’s a fan favorite for a reason. Lucha libre is a type of wrestling found in Mexico, where opponents are decked out in colorful garb from head to toe, complete with a matching mask.

Eat street food

Foodie travelers have our pick of the best that Mexico has to offer without even walking into a restaurant (which you should also do, by the way). Street food culture is particularly vibrant in Mexico City, but you’ll also find carts after dark in Oaxaca, Cancún, and Tulum.

What to eat in Mexico

Traditional Mexican cuisine is an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, designated by UNESCO. The only other nation to have this honor is France.

What sets Mexican cuisine apart, though, is its connection to the land and farming practices that their ancestors did thousands of years ago.

To eat in Mexico is to be part of a link they graciously share, a link that goes all the way back to BCE.

Mexican foods you must try

Take a screenshot of this list or come back later so you don’t forget any of these!

  • Tacos (props if they’re from a street food stand)
  • Volcanes
  • Quesadillas
  • Gringas
  • Gorditas
  • Pozole
  • Chilaquiles
  • Churros
  • Molletes
  • Tamales
  • Mole (especially mole negro if you’re in Oaxaca)
  • Horchata

Is Mexico vegan-friendly?

Mexico is very vegan-friendly. There were fully vegan restaurants in each place on this itinerary. For the entire two-week trip, I never went without a good meal.

In addition to many vegan restaurants (too many to count and too many to try, honestly), there are also many veg-friendly spots.

You don’t have to compromise on cultural experiences when traveling as a vegan in Mexico.

There are vegan street food stands, vegan tacos, vegan volcanes (my personal favorite!), and much more.

I ate Mexican food the entire time I was there with the exception of one or two meals. And all were delicious.

It seems that every time my soul is in need of some TLC, I’m not far from traveling to a Spanish-speaking country. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

Mexico was the perfect destination to dip my toes back into international travel. I made the most out of two years of madness, from taking the road trip I’ve always dreamed of to starting a new business.

But for these two weeks in Mexico, I felt more like myself than I have in a long, long time.

In 2022, here’s to more traveling, more clueless moments as a foreigner, more delicious foods I can’t name.

Here’s to more living.

P.s. My first steps off U.S. soil and the island with three of the world’s five bioluminescent bays.

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Hi, I'm Sarah

Girl on boat with turquoise water in background

Welcome to my oasis! I am a writer and budding entrepreneur with a love for caffeine, capital gains, and seeing the world. If I'm not writing, you can find me reading a good book, trying out a new vegan recipe, or adding to my coffee mug collection. My goal in life? To see every country in the world. Come along for the ride!

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