There’s more to Mexico than spring break, tequila, and beaches. And while tourist areas like Cancun and Cabo San Lucas are popular for a reason, all-inclusive resorts and overcrowded beach areas don’t always make for an authentic experience. The good news is, you can still make your trip to Mexico a non-touristy one. From Maya museums to historic festivals, the country offers a lot more than just palm trees and swim-up pool bars.
Tips for an Authentic Trip to Mexico
Read on for 10 insider tips that will lead to a more authentic trip to Mexico, even if you’re headed to a busy city or resort area.
Go for a Festival
Whether it’s for Day of the Dead or Mexican Independence Day, you’ll have a more culturally rich trip to Mexico if you visit during a celebration or festival. These events are an outlet to learn more about the country’s history and traditions, and are packed with exciting experiences.
Here are some popular holidays to plan a trip to Mexico around:
- Diez y Seis: Mexican Independence Day, September 16
- Dia de la Raza: Day of the Race (date Christopher Columbus arrived in North America), October 12
- Dia de Los Muertos: Day of the Dead, October 31 to November 2
- Dia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe: Our Lady of Guadalupe (patron saint of Mexico), December 12
- Las Posadas: Christmas Season kickoff, December 16
- Dia de Los Santos Reyes: Three Kings Day, January 6
- Semana Santa: Holy Week, Lent and Easter
- Carnaval: Mardi Gras, dates vary with the Easter calendar
- Benito Juarez Day: Third Monday in March
Be a Picky Eater
Don’t settle for the onsite restaurants at your resort. Instead head to a destination known for its food, like Oaxaca or Puebla, which are known for mole and chalupas.
If you’re in the Cancun area, book a dinner at La Joya at the Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun Resort. Unique to the restaurant, it offers a video-mapping culinary experience that is out of this world: The eight-course meal tells the history of Mexico through visual effects and food.
And no matter where you go, ask for the region or town’s local specialty—for Isla Mujeres its tik’n xic seasoned fish.
Visit a Museum
No matter where your trip to Mexico takes you, there’s a variety of museums worth visiting. Mexico City is known as the art capital of the country, with dozens of museums like the Museum of Popular Culture Coyoacan/San Angel and the well-known Museo-Estudio Frida Kahlo & Diego Riviera. Even Cancun has a newly opened (2012) Maya museum—Museo Maya de Cancun—complete with an archeological site and thousands of artifacts.
Go to a Small Beach Village
There are plenty of quiet beach towns left in Mexico, and some aren’t far from popular tourist areas. Sayulita in Riviera Nayarit is just north of Puerto Vallarta and known for its laid back surfing vibe, even though it attracts tourists. Or head to car-free Yelapa, accessible by water taxi from Puerto Vallarta.
If you’re looking for a trip to Mexico’s Riviera Maya, head to nearby Punta Allen, located in the Sian Ka’an Bioshperhe Reserve. Also in Quintana Roo, you’ll find Puerto Morelos in between Cancun and Playa del Carmen—it’s much quieter than its resort neighbors.
Shop at Markets
While it might be hard to skip out on the touristy gimmicks, your best bet for authentic Mexican markets are in Guadalajara and Mexico City.
In Guadalajara, Mercado Libertad can’t be missed—literally: The massive market is home to more than 2,800 vendors. For something smaller, head just outside the city to Tlaquepaque or Tonala, which are known for handicrafts and authentic Mexican art.
In Mexico City, you’ll find spectacular food and clothing markets, like Bazaar Sabado, Mercado de la Merced, and Mercado Artesanal de Coyoacan (located in Frida Kahlo’s home town).
Take the Bus
If you’re an experienced traveler who speaks some Spanish, taking the bus in most of Mexico’s tourist-frequented areas is safe and affordable. In Cancun, many buses are brand new and will get you to popular spots, as well as sights outside the main strip. Head to the local bus station ahead of time and ask for information on your desired route. In Yucatan for example, there are local buses, long-distance buses, and a mini-bus line. Depending on your trip, you can chose from first-class, second-class, plus class, and luxury buses. Find more specific information on Mexico buses here.
If you’re really looking for an authentic trip to Mexico, you can volunteer through a variety of programs. International Volunteer HQ has options ranging in length from one to 12 weeks. Participants are based in the popular city of Merida, and have the option of choosing from five projects, including animal care, childcare, and Maya agriculture.
Swim in a Cenote
Cenote, or swimming caves, are well-known in the Yucatan Peninsula, so you can easily get scammed into a tourist-packed trip. Instead, head to the city of Valladolid and venture to the area’s cenotes on your own—Oxman, Xkekhen, Samula, Zaci, and X’Chanche are all within driving distance (you can even walk to Zaci) and are less crowded than the ones tour operators will try and sell you on.
Bonus: Valladoid also has Maya ruins, Ek Balam, home to a taller step pyramid than the crowded Chichen Itza’s.
Explore a UNESCO World Heritage Site
There are 34 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Mexico, including 10 historical cities, making infinite options for an authentic trip to Mexico. From agave landscapes to the historic centers of Mexico City and Xochimilco, there’s plenty of ways to add culture into your trip to Mexico.
For a full list of historic sites, visit UNESCO’s website.
Speak the Language
While you can get by with English in most parts of Mexico, especially in resort areas, you should challenge yourself to speak Spanish. Ease your way into it by trying to order food in Spanish, and you’ll feel like a local before you know it.
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Editor’s Note: The U.S. State Department includes some of the mentioned states in its Mexico travel warning. You can read more about the travel warning to Mexico here.
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