Mexico seems to be repeatedly bedeviled by headline-grabbing convulsions of violence, yet tourism continues to boom. And little wonder: Mexico has heart—more than enough to share with everyone who makes the effort to visit. Here are some of the top Mexico vacation spots worth a visit, plus tips about staying safe in Mexico and around the world.
Mexico City is a true global capital, and enthusiastically embraces both its highbrow and not-so-highbrow sides. A day—or more—in the city’s historic district provides a taste of the entire sweep of Mexican history. At the excavated site of the 700-year-old Templo Mayor, you can ruminate on the gory sacrificial rites of ancient times that paid tribute to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, the Aztec gods of war and rain, and that helped restock a vast rack of skulls out front called the tzompantli. Nearby, the sprawling square called the Zócalo is the psychic center of modern Mexico. The National Museum of Anthropology is a world-class treasure trove of Mexican culture and history, and itself is reason enough to make Mexico City one of Mexico’s top vacation spots. The Frida Kahlo Museum in the lovely neighborhood of Coyoacán gives visitors an intimate glimpse into the artist’s life and loves. If you’ve got a yen for a more down-to-earth Mexico City experience, there’s always the raucous Mexican wrestling matches at Arena México. And if you’re feeling daring, try a taste of the latest ancient tradition to experience a renaissance: pulquerías, the traditional watering holes that specialize in the viscous, beer-strength beverage made from fermented agave.
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To the northwest of Mexico City, the vast region known as the Bajío—the lowlands—is indisputably one of Mexico’s top vacation spots. San Miguel de Allende, the longtime artists’ colony, holds visitors in thrall. The main church in town, La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, is a pink-hued, Gothic-revival sight to behold; and in 2008, San Miguel was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Roughly 60 miles to the west, the former mining town of Guanajuato—itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site—is a stunning gem of a Mexico vacation spot. Considerably less touristy than San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato’s narrow, winding streets are draped across the rugged mountainside, making the city an atmospheric place to linger for several days. Guanajuato’s mummy museum, populated by real mummies exhumed from the municipal cemetery, is not to be missed.
To the east, just a bit past the city of Querétaro and its iconic 18th-century aqueduct, lies the town of Bernal. The Mexican government has recognized 121 towns throughout the country as pueblos mágicos for their extraordinary cultural intrigue, and Bernal is widely regarded as one of the most charming. With just 3,000 inhabitants, the town lies at the foot of a majestic, 1,400-foot-tall stone sugarloaf called the Peña de Bernal, and gets rave reviews as an oasis of calm that’s well worth making the effort to get to.
On the western edge of the Bajío lies Guadalajara. It’s Mexico’s second-largest city, but you’d never guess. Juggling a cosmopolitan vibe with a laid-back twist, the city hasn’t lost touch with its roots. Join the locals as they stroll along the massive Plaza de Armas, and make sure to visit the Mercado Libertad, the largest indoor market in Latin America. Every August, Guadalajara hosts the International Mariachi Festival. Guadalajara is also an easy day trip to the nearby town of Tequila, the birthplace of Mexico’s most famous tipple—and which can be reached aboard an all-you-can-drink train called the Jose Cuervo Express.
And finally, if you’ve got the urge to push your limits, head for the city of San Luis Potosí, reprovision, and make the final push 150 miles north to Real de Catorce. A silver-mining-ghost-town-turned-pueblo mágico that lies about 9,000 feet above sea level, Real de Catorce is reached via 17 miles of cobblestone road and the mile-and-a-half-long, one-lane Túnel de Ogarrio. You’ll be far off the beaten path but in a transcendental space—helped all the more by the fact that the desert nearby is the source of some of the most coveted peyote in Mexico.
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In a culture that has traditionally revolved around market towns, the city of Oaxaca is the grandest of them all. The Mercado Benito Juárez, right off the Zocalo, is a veritable Mecca of mole, but the sprawling Central de Abastos is where the city really gets down to the business of keeping itself fed, and is a great place to watch the incomparable life of a working-class market. And while the state of Oaxaca hasn’t traditionally been thought of as a beach destination, Huatulco on the Pacific coast has nearly three dozen beaches, and a rising reputation as the next great beach vacation spot in Mexico. With a national park as a neighbor, Huatulco was purposefully developed to more harmoniously blend into the environment than some of Mexico’s bigger-name beach resorts.
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From the ocean sands of the Riviera Maya to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itzá, the entire Yucatán Peninsula is rich in sun, culture, and great food. The Yucatán is not only a top Mexico vacation spot but also Mexico’s undiscovered culinary motherlode, with insanely good Mayan delicacies like cochin pibil—whole pig seasoned with achiote, wrapped in banana leaves, and slow-roasted in the ground for hours.
Beach towns like Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum—together with the Mayan-ruin hotspots like Chichen Itza—have long been the main destination for travelers. But the entire peninsula is now booming with colonial-era haciendas that have been transformed into boutique hotels, which make great launch pads for exploring the dazzling beauty of the peninsula’s cenotes—the breathtaking azure, limestone sinkholes that dot the jungle. (And if you visit Chichen Itza, make sure to visit the nearby town of Temozón, a roadside carnival of succulent smoked pork from more than a dozen restaurants.)
Finally, if you want to spend time in the water but steer clear of the crowds, Bacalar, near the Belizean border, is home to a huge freshwater lagoon and former pirates’ lair; it offers enchanting turquoise hues and a take-it-easy rhythm.
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If you just want to get away from it all and soak up some sun, there’s always Baja—a longtime top Mexico vacation spot. Cabo San Lucas, at the very southern tip of the peninsula, has an outsized reputation, but the beach town of Todos Santos, just an hour’s drive up the coast, is the up-and-coming hot spot. More and more small boutique hotels are popping up in Todos Santos, but the town still hasn’t lost its scruffy, laid-back Baja vibe.
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Staying Safe in Mexico
Mexico has a dangerous reputation, but the odds are in your favor. Just make sure to keep them that way: Avoid the red zones.
For details, check out the U.S. State Department’s country information page for Mexico, and pay particular attention to the travel advisory section for individual states and cities. (Don’t be intimidated, though. While the entire country is under some level of warning, you’ll generally be OK steering clear of just the places with a Level 3 or 4 advisory.)
For U.S. citizens traveling not just to Mexico but any country abroad, it’s always wise to sign up for the State Department’s free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. STEP helps the local embassy or consulate contact you in case of an emergency, and will push security alerts to your smartphone as soon as they’re issued. Although the alerts can be maddeningly vague, they’re usually based on pretty solid information: Take them seriously.
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Matt Jenkins spent two years living in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. A former editor at Nature Conservancy magazine and the High Country News, he has also written for The New York Times, Smithsonian magazine, Men’s Journal, and Saveur.