How many people have you met, especially if you’re from the states, that visit Mexico only to see the resort beaches on the Yucatan coast? Most likely, more than half of your inner circle has been here and go at least once a year or so. It may even be dozens of people if you count friends of friends!
The worry-free draw of all-inclusive resorts is great for many Americans after all, as most of us only get a 1-2 week vacation per year. Most who are lucky enough to get time off at all don’t want to spend their precious vacation time being adventurous and worrying about what could go wrong.
There is a reason destinations in Mexico like Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Puerto Vallarta to the west are some of the top tourist destinations in the country. The beaches are gorgeous, and it is surely possible to take excursions away from the resort to get some cultural immersion going. Wandering about the town centers, horseback riding through the countryside, and visiting tequila- making haciendas are just a few, despite (perhaps) being a tad overcrowded and overpriced.
Still, are the most expensive areas of Mexico really an accurate depiction of what the country is truly like? Mexico is HUGE. You could spend a year there and find new places to explore regularly, and experience completely different landscapes and terrains along the way. We spent two months in Mexico when we departed on our never-ending journey. Primarily traveling by first class bus, we visited over 10 cities across central and eastern Mexico.
If there’s one thing we realized about this fetching country during our travels, it’s that Mexico in its entirety is much different from the well-traveled Yucatan coast, and has SO much more to offer than what’s normally seen on news feeds.
1.) OAXACA CITY – A CULTURAL EPICENTER
After renting a car from the Mexico City airport and traveling around that region for a few days, we made our way south to Oaxaca City for the much anticipated Dia de Los Muertos festival. The second we set foot onto the cobble stone streets of the city, Scott and I felt the stress of Mexico City and the past months of intensive planning simply fade away.
The traditional feel of Oaxaca City was the breath of fresh air we had been waiting for since we had decided to leave home. Our hostel was fantastic and held lively social events every day. Through festive reenactments and traditional undertones, the city quickly opened our eyes to the residual Aztec culture of the region.
Oaxaca state was the most budget-friendly area we visited in Mexico, and the historical influences were thick. Many of the local women in Oaxaca dress in vibrant handmade attire. Colorful textiles covered the towering walls of markets and small shop stalls.
Oaxaca has been world famous for their handwoven fabrics as far back as 1400 BCE. Traditionally, dye was made naturally from plants and insects. By their very nature, the handwoven fabrics and textiles constructed in Oaxaca come in every hue and design imaginable. Every single piece is unique, and no two are the same.
I was especially hooked on Oaxaca culture the second I experienced the next traditional draw – Oaxaca cheese. If it was up to me, I would live solely off of cheese, every day until I died. This Oaxaca cheese I could definitely see myself living off of for the next 60 years or so, and then have the last of my stash buried with me to take into my next life. This homemade mozzarella-type cheese can be found at a reasonable price everywhere, and is sometimes placed in beautiful handwoven molds for selling.
“Visiting the mountains in nearby Benito Juarez, a family of women whipped us up creamy hot chocolate and tlayudas for dinner each night.”
Along historic streets lined with centuries-old cathedrals, street food stalls incorporated the cheese into nearly all of their dishes in some way or another. Visiting the mountains in nearby Benito Juarez, a family of women whipped us up creamy hot chocolate and tlayudas for dinner each night. These are pizza-sized, crunchy-shell quesadillas that can contain things like carne asada, lettuce, tomato, and avocado, and long stringy pieces of Oaxaca cheese known as quesillo.
They are folded in half like a massive pizza slice, and are so big they overflow across the edges of your plate. We had absolutely no complaints on any aspect of our lives when having these, especially when topping it off with smoky sips of local mezcal (a strong tequila-type liquor).
Oaxaca offers affordable everything, and a very deep culture that can be intoxicating in itself. Not to mention, the lofty cactuses and rough mountains surrounding Oaxaca City provide a natural aesthetic that can’t be beat, or ever forgotten.
2.) PUERTO ESCONDIDO – THE LOW-KEY PARADISE
If sun tans and beach life is what you’re after, Puerto Escondido is the place to be. Situated on the southern coast of Oaxaca, Puerto Escondido is world renowned for its surfing swells. During a few of our 9 days there, a prominent surfing competition was going on amongst the waves of Playa Zicatela, with surfers coming to compete from all over the planet. Most stretches of beach have waves too relentless for swimming safely. However, to the direct south of downtown lies little slices of paradise like Playa Carrizalillo and Puerto Angelito, which offer spectacular views and swimming holes to enjoy.
Even in early November, Puerto Escondido was scorching hot. Luckily, our hostel was one of the best we have ever stayed, and came equipped with a pool, a bar, and extremely kind hosts. A pool is pretty much essential in Puerto Escondido as it gets hellaciously hot at times. You’ll find traditional cafes and restaurants everywhere, and ecofriendly wildlife tours to the Manialtepec Lagoon, which shines with bioluminescent plankton at night.
The Sea Turtle Liberation in Puerto Escondido
Find yourself there in early November as we did, and it’s sea turtle hatching season. The Oaxaca coast is actually one of the largest nesting sites in the world for Olive Ridley turtles and other species. After making our way to Playa Bacocho one evening, we silently meshed into a group of people listening to a foundation rep give a speech (all in Español) about the sea turtles. We paid 50 pesos, approximately 2.50 USD, and were given small bowls made of dried gourds. After the speech ended, we were motioned to line up in front of a woman standing over a giant metal container with a spoon.
Feeling like orphan Oliver Twist in the soup line, and unsure of what we were supposed to do, when it became our turn the volunteers gently scooped tiny baby turtles flailing their flippers into our bowls. We were then directed to the shoreline to set them free. Por favor señorita, may I have some more?! The little guys were so determined to make their way to the ocean that half the work was making sure they didn’t heave themselves out of the bowls! We were instructed to toss handfuls of sand at pesky crabs along the beach to make sure the babies made it safe, and we watched in bliss as the dozens of tiny turtles made their way into the ocean for the very first time.
The organization on the beach that helps the turtles (no website) works to protect them by relocating the eggs into enclosed nests after they are laid. They protect the eggs and babies from land predators and smugglers, and do their part to optimize the number of eggs that hatch. We were restricted from touching the babies with our hands for ecological reasons, and could only use the edges of our gourd bowls to redirect them to the water when they got confused. Despite a few stragglers losing their way, all of the babies in the batch made it to the sea.
This monumental experience in Puerto Escondido, combined with all of the amazing people we met there, make this place one of our most memorable yet. Just as with all of Oaxaca, Puerto Escondido is affordable and a fabulous alternative to a resort on the Yucatan coast. You won’t find any towering hotel skyscrapers here – just positive vibes, a great mix of people, and memorable experiences.
3.) SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS – MEXICO’S HIGHLAND CITY
A perfect way to cool off after being in the intensive heat of the coast, San Cristobal de las Casas lies in the lower eastern portion of Mexico and is nestled in a valley surrounded by the Chiapas mountains. We substituted our swimsuits and shorts for hoodies and jeans, and the chilly mountain climate and fresh air were much appreciated.
Founded as far back as the 1500s, San Cristobal de las Casas prides cobblestone streets full of neoclassical architecture and a cool, laid back hippie vibe. Expats and slow travelers wandered about the streets, and artisan markets and craft stalls dotted the more touristy restaurant districts. Restaurants ranged from the gourmet expat-owned to quiet and traditional mom and pop cafes just off the beaten track.
Just outside of town, the Grutas de Rancho Nuevo caves are an intriguing place to explore along with the surrounding park. They can easily be reached by a 20-minute colectivo ride as a day trip from San Cris, just be absolutely sure to keep your valuables securely tucked away and you’ll have no problems.
During our time in the beautiful mountain mecca that is San Cristobal de las Casas, a local celebration surrounding a traditional drink of the area, pox (pronounced “posh”), was sparking fiestas all around town. Thanks to a good friend we made at our hostel, we were able to experience this corn whiskey liquor in all its flavors at a local hideout bar, authentic style.
San Cristobal de las Casas is the perfect town for aimless wanderers who wish to immerse themselves in the unique and rugged culture of the Chiapas. You’re bound to make friends, and find the perfect nook to sip on a hot drink and take in the vibe.
4.) EL PANCHAN AND THE PALENQUE RUINS
It was inconceivable to us to visit Mexico without witnessing the mysterious ruin site of Palenque. Along with a viewing of the controversial sarcophagus carving of King Pakal driving a spacecraft-like apparatus into the heavens, our trip there was surreal. Though Palenque town itself seems to only cater to the more touristy wanderer with lots of pricey restaurants and upscale accommodations, the nearby village of El Panchan is a rare gem amongst the countless ruin site villages in Mexico.
The village lies at the mouth of the road to the Palenque ruins, and is surrounded by beautiful and dense jungle. No one is permitted to stay in the immediate vicinity of the ruin site, but staying in El Panchan village gets you away from the busy streets and tourist track. It’s easy to walk the mile or so to the ruins, or simply flag down a colectivo along the way for just a few pesos.
Your neighbors will be howler monkey families grumbling into the night like distant thunder, and leaf cutter ants hauling cargo along narrow paths. If staying at the hostel we did, you’ll have a nice cold pool to cool off in after trekking the ruins. Nearby Don Mucho’s restaurant and bar has an excellent variety of dishes and regularly has live music and dancing events going on in the evenings.
If there’s any ruin site to pick out of the hundreds in Mexico, Palenque is assuredly one of the best. These mysterious Mayan ruins seem to have a unique energy about them, almost as if its walls capture the essence of the surrounding jungle itself. It’s possible to obtain guides and venture off into the less documented ruins of the jungle, or there’s plenty of trails throughout the ruin site to explore for an entire day. Giant iguanas and colorful butterflies inhabit the grounds, and beautiful waterfalls dot the surrounding jungles.
The mystery and history of Palenque is enough to remind you of the unique Mayan culture of Mexico, and how curious it is that the Mayan people were so technologically inclined and centuries ahead of their time. The backdrop of the ruins is a rare site, and shouldn’t be missed.
5.) VALLADOLID – CENTOES AND JAGUAR JAWS
Though it’s common for travelers to see the UNESCO world wonder of Chichen Itza from the city of Merida or Cancun, we found Valladolid to be less than an hour away and an intriguing pivot point. This small(er) town is filled with conquistador history, and is surrounded by epic cenotes across the landscape. There’s even a large cave-like cenote right in the center of the city! Just outside Valladolid, spectacular cenotes like the Xkeken cenote take you just beneath earth’s surface to swim in indigo blue waters, with tiny catfish nipping at your toes and squeaking bats flying in the stalactites overhead.
After visiting Chichen Itza early one morning, we knew we were getting close to the Yucatan coast as we watched bus load after bus load of tourists in high heels and Panama Joe button-ups unload outside the Chichen Itza gates at lunchtime. We were grateful to have gotten there early, just in time to see the sun rise above the crest of El Castillo. Not long after, we continued our ruin hopping at the less-known ruin site of Ek Balam.
Chances are, Ek Balam is an unknown name to most people in relation to other ruin sites in Mexico, and this is both fortunate and not-so-fortunate. Being less well known, visitors are able to climb the steps of all 45 structures and monuments of the ruins. Dating as far back as 770 CE, the stone monuments used to be completely white washed and must have been a spectacular sight against the wooded backdrop. At the main structure’s center, an enormous chiseled entranceway depicts jaguar jaws and teeth, lined at the base with large stone skulls.
Clearly, the jaguar structure and skulls reflect the sacrificial nature of Ek Balam’s first Mayan inhabitants. As if the site couldn’t be more peculiar, a large open-air cenote is present on the site as well. Deep blue waters are surrounded by overhanging vines and tree roots, and miniature black catfish swim along in the shallows.
We were sure that if Ek Balam been discovered before Chichen Itza, it definitely would have taken the cake as the great world wonder of the area. The quaint colonial town of Valladolid only adds to the charm, and is uniquely characterized by its cenotes and colonial architecture.
6.) TULUM – WORTH THE SACRIFICE
Nearing Cancun and the tourist epicenters of Quintana Roo, we noticed prices of goods and services had spiked. We also saw why. The teal blue waters and powdery white sand beaches that Mexico beholds on that side of the coast are some of the most spectacular in the world. We seriously couldn’t resist walking with the crowds at the Tulum Ruins either. We knew them as they appeared in the last scenes of Robert Rodriguez’s bloody b-movie Planet Terror and had wanted to visit them ever since. Wandering as part of the tourist herd was a small sacrifice to make to set foot in a place so spectacular.
We literally melted into the lazy beach days like everyone else during our time in Tulum, and didn’t feel the slightest bit of guilt about it. It’s safe to say we were rewarding ourselves (via the roles of typical vacationer) for embarking on our journey that we had planned for the past year and a half, and for traveling throughout Mexico for the past two months.
Though Tulum is one of the most well-known destinations aside from Cancun, we felt the compromise was just fine. The beaches weren’t as packed to the brim, and there were plenty of seats available along the beach to enjoy a cerveza. There were lots of activities to partake in too. For Scott’s birthday, I surprised him with a snorkeling trip, where we got to swim right alongside sea turtles and giant manta rays.
Tulum offers the smaller-hub feel to it that Cancun doesn’t really exhibit being such a large city. Though popular, the curious ruins and lively city of Tulum are well worth the jaunt.
7.) PUERTO MORELOS – THE QUIET NEIGHBOR
Puerto Morelos lies just 45 minutes south of Cancun and is less than half the size. This is where we spent our last few days in Mexico, and we weren’t disappointed. Though not much of an adventure destination, the place is relaxing. If you’re truly looking for a nearby alternative to Cancun and the other main drags, Puerto Morelos is your place. Fresh seafood restaurants are in abundance and are within eyeshot of the boats that reel in the catch. The beaches in Puerto Morelos are equally beautiful compared to its northern counterparts.
There’s nice, simple hotels to stay in along the beaches, and plenty of fishing and snorkeling trips to be had. Puerto Morelos is a great place to relax over micheladas (spiced beer) and spend the evenings watching the sunsets on the beach. Its small size is ideal for less crowds, and therefore less chaos. Being so close to Cancun, it is easy to base yourself here and still make it to Cancun in time to catch your flight.
Mexico is a country of diversity, which is why we love it. Virtually every type of landscape can be found in Mexico, and the culture is both ancient and intriguing. From Oaxaca to Tulum, we were thrilled to see the cities in Mexico that don’t get enough attention, and realize there is much more to this place than what is generally heard about.
Amazing places can be traveled in Mexico without having to spend a massive amount of money in the major tourist hubs. Though all of these places are beautiful, it helps to go off the main track and experience the true nature of the country and learn about the culture first hand. Experiences become more genuine, and a greater understanding of the people arises. Mexico is a massive place, and one that deserves to be seen in its entirety.