Top 19 absolutely unmissable experiences in Mexico

Mexico is a wonderland. One moment you’re sipping smoky mezcal, and the next you’re floating in a natural pool a new shade of blue or being serenaded by mariachi singers while Frida Kahlo peers down from a mural.

Things feel even more fantastic when you find the tastiest food while discovering plumed serpents, pyramids and millennia of history around the next corner. No matter how many times you visit, Mexico’s stunning nature and its vibrant towns let you find an everyday life steeped in surrealism, natural wonders and incredible history. Here are some of the best experiences in Mexico.   

Learn history through botany

History is palpable at the Jardín Etnobotánico. You can stain your hands bright red with cochineal from the prickly pear cactus. At its height, the smooshed-bug blood was used to dye garments for Europe’s elite, giving the Spaniards wealth second only to silver. The storyteller guides at the garden explain how indigenous people used plants for clothing, shelter, food, rituals and medicine. A fascinating story brings to life Mayan mythology, which saw the ceiba tree as the universe itself. Its roots in the underworld and the peculiar thorns on the trunk representing the people.

Close up of a Trumpet player in a Mariachi band
Mariachi bands are not a mere tourist attraction, they’re integral to many milestone events for Mexicans © Gable Denims / 500px

Mariachi

Mariachi bands have a song for every mood and life milestone. Happy, more trumpet. Sombre, more strings and a heartfelt bolero style. Mexicans hire the singing troupes for the big events – birthdays, weddings and funerals. They are not a mere tourist attraction, but a way to tap into the songs of Mexico. You’ll find them roaming around major plazas from Mérida to Cuernavaca. A top choice is Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi, which has been bringing together restaurants and music since 1925. Get serenaded in mariachi’s heartland in Guadalajara, which holds the world’s largest mariachi festival each September at the Encuentro Internacional del Mariachi y la Charreria

Reforma avenue in Mexico city and people in bicycles
Cycling along Reforma Avenue is now possible by car-free times in Mexico City’s tree-lined neighborhoods © fitopardo.com / Getty Images

Cycle around Mexico City’s leafy neighborhoods

Bike lanes are plentiful across the most fashionable neighborhoods of Condesa, Roma and artsy Coyoacán in Mexico City.  Archways of trees guide you down streets lined with elegantly tiled houses and boutique stores. Parks are alive with young families or teenagers practicing dance moves, while around their edges, the well-dressed lounge about at cafes.

Every Sunday, the main avenues of the country’s capital turn into a car free zone. Cyclists go for pleasure rides, and you can join in any time with a free or low-cost bike rental.

Learn to dance

Mexicans have the music in them and just trying to dance is a part of the Mexico experience. Dressed in hats and heels or casual clothes, couples take to the outdoor Plaza Ciudadela in Mexico City every Saturday to dance, mingle and learn to salsa and do the danzón. It’s open to the public, but if you need some courage, there are also bars around town to learn to dance for the cost of a tequila. PataNegra Condesa is small and intimate, just the way the sociable dancers like it, while Mama Rumba turns out a show with its live big band. 

If you want to seriously move, Salón de Bailes Los Ángeles is part school, part legend and where stars of Mexico’s Golden Age of cinema, like Cantinflas and María Félix, went to boogie.

Trajinera or punt on the canals and floating gardens of Xochimilco Mexico City
Colorful wooden trajinera boats glide across the canals and floating gardens of Xochimilco © Getty Images

Glide along the canals of floating Aztec gardens in Xochimilco

Xochimilco, south of Mexico City, is the only remaining part of pre-Hispanic waterways. Colorful wooden trajinera boats glide across the canals, passing chinampas (floating gardens). Fruit, vegetables and flowers grow atop garden beds constructed from reeds.

Over 500 years ago, the mighty Aztec city of Tenochtitlan ruled from an island in interconnected lakes. The Aztecs balanced a complex system of brackish and fresh water. As you float by, imagine Xochimilco in Aztec times, with gardeners tending to the plots of green bean-vines, furry purple amaranth and plump chilis and tomatoes to feed the city, as it still does today.

Sip artisanal mezcal

Mezcal is a smoky rich elixir that is drunk in warm-lit bars by dreamers, artists and the heart broken. The older sibling of fast-living tequila, mezcal is distilled from the same agave plant but is hand roasted under volcanic rocks. For a long time, visitors to towns in Oaxaca would smuggle back flasks of the potent stuff from mom-and-pop farms.

Now mezcal has hit the heights in the cities and small artisanal distillers are revered in mezcalaría bars like Mexico City’s hidden Bósforo and Mano Santa with its tasting flight of drinks. You can learn all about the agave drinks at Museo del Tequila y el Mezcal in the capital.

Much of the mezcal is created in small batches and available only in Mexico. Artisanal producers with further reach are the upmarket and impressive Los Danzantes. Oaxaca is the capital of mezcal. 

A perfect mezcal day starts with a guided distillery visit, taking you through the process of slow cooking the agave piñas (hearts) in a volcanic-rock pit with the smell of roasting catching the air. Continue at one of the many tasting rooms. Cuish has drinks that look as good as they taste. Later in a warmly lit bar, like well-stocked In Situ, perfect your mezcal knowledge and learn your Tobalá from your Espadín. Drink the traditional way with a slice of orange sprinkled in sal de gusano (agave worm salt with mild chili) on the side. 

Mexican sauna hut (temazcal) in a jungle
So much more than a sauna hut, temazcal is a full shamanic experience handed down through the generations © Hvoenok / Shutterstock

Experience a 3,000 year old temazcal ceremony

A temazcal is more than a sauna, it’s an ancient Mayan–Zapotec ritual that uses 3,000 years of indigenous cultural knowledge as medicine. It’s the kind of experience that friends will swear is life-changing. A shaman guides you through a ceremony inside a dome, sitting in a circle.

In the semi-darkness, the shaman throws a herbal infusion sizzling on the pit of hot rocks at the center. The dialogue begins between the shaman and other few participants, thanking the earth, acknowledging our connection to the villages of animals and nature. Sometimes the guide intones words in the indigenous Nahuatl language.

This is no touchy-feely session. Warriors endured this ritual before battle to steel them. After 90 minutes of building resilience and releasing toxins, both physical and mental, you emerge and dip into cold pools, cleansing yourself. 

For a real temazcal experience (not just a sauna), follow spirituality seekers to Tepotzlán, or get the full picture on the Zapotec civilization in Oaxaca. We love Xquenda in Huatulco for its full pre-Hispanic ceremony and mural.

Float in blue subterranean cenotes

To the Mayans, the cenotes were a portal to speak to the gods, so they built villages around them. For a visitor today, the natural limestone swimming holes are wonderous hidden pools to cool off in the jungle. Cenotes are formed by the collapse of porous limestone bedrock, forming pools that are filtered to crystal clarity.

Underwater photographers, cavers and snorkelers revel in the clear cenotes, and so do swimmers who want a peaceful swim shielded by the glorious tree canopy. Unlike the beaches, the turquoise water in cenotes is fresh and wonderfully mineral-rich. 

Floating in these still waters feels like slipping into prehistory. Look up at the columns of vines and the shafts of sunlight drifting through. Hummingbirds zig zag by and it seems like little has changed since the Maya were here.    

Kitchen in the Blue House (La Casa Azul), a historic house and art museum dedicated to the life and work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
Detail from the kitchen in the Blue House, part of the museum dedicated to the life and work of Frida Kahlo © Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock

Glimpse Frida Kahlo’s artistic life

Bottles filled with paint glisten in their tray next to an easel. It feels like the artist has just stepped out. Artesanías (handicrafts) from across Mexico sprawl out across the rooms, waiting – clay fertility figures, papier mache skeletons and dangling cherubs.

This Blue House is where Frida was born, lived and spent her last days, with everything as she left it. The artist’s silver jewelry, short bed, crutches, wheelchair and prosthetic leg are here. Frida had a lifelong disability and channeled her physical and emotional pain into her art, while showcasing pre-Hispanic art and traditions.

Frida famously wore traditional dresses and shawls from Oaxaca to summon the female power of the women of her mother’s hometown. Her life was her performance art. There are other interesting places in Mexico City to trace Frida’s life. To be here, though, in her house, and courtyard of volcanic stone, is to feel her passion for Mexico and its people. It’s an unmissable insight into her life, her art.

Get cultured at a museum

The headline act is Museo Nacional de Antropología, which is one of the best in the world with a dramatic giant water feature at the center of its Mayan-inspired courtyard. 

Other museums cater to specific tastes, like the Museo del Calzado shoe museum, which displays the trainers of Mexican fútbol heroes, and replicas of Neil Armstrong’s lunar boot.

Dancer in a Purple Skirt at the Dia de los Muertos Festival in Oaxaca
A woman dances in the square in front of a cathedral for the annual Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival © drferry / Getty Images

Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead)

Once a year, the spirits of the dearly departed can follow a path of marigold petals back to their loved ones. Altars are piled with their favorite dishes and objects and photos of the deceased are lit by candlelight and shrouded in incense smoke. Far from a withdrawn sad time, Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a time of remembrance through joy. It’s been this way for over 3,000 years and the tradition can be traced back to Aztec customs and the even more ancient Olmecs.

Visit Mexico at the end of October, and you’ll see the nights turn festive as people crowd the squares, businesses and museums to judge the best-decorated altars.

In towns like Naolinco, Pátzcuaro and Mixquic, mass processions drift to the cemeteries for a night of drinking and singing. Tagging along at respectful distance is accepted and the sight of thousands of candles and marigold flowers glowing orange into the night is a true Mexican experience.

Feel the monumental power of a pyramid

Pyramids humble you. Gaze skywards at the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán and it’s easy to feel tiny. It’s the third largest ancient pyramid in the world, bringing the ancient priests closer to the heavens at its summit. No wonder the pyramids at Teotihuacán were chosen as temples for human sacrifices to the gods. The Aztecs did the same at the fascinating Templo Mayor at the heart of their empire, Tenochtitlán, modern day Mexico City.

Other pre-Hispanic civilizations like the engineering Mayans constructed pyramids to also be the center of public life. At Chichén Itzá and Palenque they buried their powerful leaders inside them and used the monumental structures, pushing above the forest canopy, to navigate their lands. Similarly, in Tulum a Mayan pyramid squats over the turquoise waters and was used as a lighthouse.

Yet there is one even mightier pyramid in Mexico, the largest by volume in the world. The Pirámide Tepanapa is bigger than the Great Pyramid in Egypt. Outside, it looks like a grassy hill, which fooled the Spanish conquistadors, sparing its destruction. Inside, it takes 15 minutes to walk through the cool tunnels crossing through the Pyramid of Cholula, and with each tight turn, you feel miniscule.

Chef making a mole amarillo (yellow mole) quesadilla
A chef making a quesadilla with the rich complex flavor palate of a yellow mole (or mole amarillo) in Oaxaca © fitopardo.com / Getty Images

Devour some mole

Of all the attention-grabbing Mexican dishes, mole is the most intriguing for its complex mix of herbs and spices. Cocoa and three kinds of chilis give the sauce a chocolatey warmth, but mole contains a checklist of over fifteen ingredients including sesame seeds, aromatic herbs, peanuts and cumin. In Puebla it is eaten in restaurants tiled in hand-painted blue talavera.

Oaxaca is known for its seven multicolored moles. The star is mole negro, a smoky ‘black’ sauce that differentiates itself with a hit of hoja santa “sacred leaf”, which tastes somewhere deliciously between licorice and eucalyptus. Mole is best smothered over chicken or enchiladas (tortillas filled with cheese or chicken).

Mexican street food

Do you want to know where to get the best tacos? It’s not in a white-tablecloth restaurant. It’s on the street. There is something special about feeling the red-hot embers on the pyramid of char-grilling pork that makes tacos al pastor tastier at places like El Vilsito. It could be the sizzling hot plate that gives handmade quesadillas stuffed with zucchini flowers or nopales (cactus) the perfect bite. Or the tubs of self-serve salsas that make sopes (sprinkled with white panela cheese and lettuce) and tlacoyos (diamond-shaped blue-corn parcels of beans and meat) much feistier (and tastier) than you had intended. It’s definitely the freshly cut limes and impromptu chats that give eating Mexican street food that extra zing.

Mexican foodie capital Oaxaca squeezes some of the best street food into market stands at Mercado 20 de Noviembre. 

To find the freshest and tastiest street food, pause at a stand and observe: the best have a hissing comal (hot plate) where even the smoke smells alluring. Home-made sauces will be on display that glisten with life. And customers who have barely finished one taco will eagerly order another. You can see all of this on display at Los Cucuyos and the vegan Por Siempre Vegana Taquería in Mexico City. 

Experience Mexican life in a market

Boisterous piñatas dangle above you. Flowers and mangos perfume the air, while fat sacks of spices and mounds of dried chilis beckon you. On a balmy day, the cool of a Mexican market is an inviting wonderland of fruit-salad stands, old-world barber shops, and storekeepers touting woven baskets and Virgen candles. A mercado (market) is where every day Mexican life happens without the airs and graces, no matter if you’re in a posh neighborhood or mountain village.

In the one market you might smell wafts of incense float and pork crackling glistening under heat lamps. This is where you can eat alongside families or get nuts and chili-lime grasshoppers for the road. Discover Mexican fruit like honey-almond flavoured mamey, and tuna (prickly pear fruit) blended into juice. Every walk through a Mexican market is an adventure.

Traditional handicrafts known as alebrijes (brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures) from Oaxaca
Traditional handicrafts known as alebrijes (brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures) for sale at a market stall © Jess Kraft / Shutterstock

Artesanías

Mexican artesanías (handicrafts) can be gorgeous or just charm you with their sweetness. Hold up a piece at a workshop and you are also grasping centuries of skill and traditions. A psychedelic beadwork mask leaps out at you. The pulsing colors carry on the mythology of the Huichol of Jalisco. Or look into Taxco silverware, which shimmers with history, first as silver gifts to Aztec gods, then ransacked for Spanish pockets. The kaleidoscopic work of generations of embroiderers, pre-Hispanic weavers, Oaxacan potters and metalsmiths tell the diverse story of Mexico. It’s worth picking up a piece from an artisan to contribute to their stories.

Visit a magic town

Mexico has over 132 pueblos mágicos, and they truly feel like “magic towns”. In each place you can still experience the beauty of traditional Mexican life. Many of the towns have a leafy zócalo piazza or square at their center where families or lovers laugh, whisper and enjoy a weekend or long summer evening outdoors. What makes them “magical” is not just that they’re lookers – most are – but they maintain some natural or historical charm. Take Taxco, where silver was mined by Aztecs and Spaniards alike, and today its all-white retro VW taxis criss-cross its cobblestones. In magic Papantla, people come for the spectacle of seeing the voladores whirl around a maypole, attached only by their feet.

People enjoying the sunset over a beach in Tulum with palm trees and waves, against a sunny clear blue sky with white clouds
It is possible to escape the crowds in Tulum: head to the waves at sunrise for clear skies and empty beaches © Eduardo Fonseca Arraes / Getty Images

Beaches without the crowds

If you want to swim alongside Mexicans, not just tourists, head to the coast of Oaxaca. Huatulco has 36 golden sand, warm beaches to enjoy in peace. In Puerto Escondido, Playa Carrizalillo beach is a jewel in a sheltered cove, reached by steep steps to deter most tourists.

Maybe it just has to be the Yucatán Peninsula’s Riviera Maya. We get it, the clear blue ribbon of water and white sand is enticing, and you can still escape the crowds. If you’re stuck in the overdeveloped parts of Cancún and Tulum, follow the locals to a spacious public beach, especially in the morning when many are hungover. At Playa del Carmen, the beach runs adjacent to “5th Avenue” where all prices are in US dollars, yet step back a mere two blocks away from the souvenir strip and life seems preserved from another era. Eat at an unpretentious garden restaurant, drink at a wooden shack bar and stroll across squeaky sand into the warm arms of the Caribbean.

Torillerías 

One of Mexico’s simplest pleasures is hearing the squeak of a neighbourhood tortillería (tortilla maker). Mesoamericans unlocked the secret of nixtamalization over 3,500 years ago, ramping up the nutrition and turning corn into tortillas. For a passerby, the magic is in seeing the steaming hot tortillas parade down the conveyor belt and bundled up in paper for a waiting line of locals. There are tortillerías every few blocks in most neighbourhoods. You can count on a mercado (fresh produce market) to have at least one on the streets immediately around it, such as Mercado Medellín, which is surrounded by a few.

Amelia J. Bell

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