Temple Touring, Cave Diving and Turtle Spotting: The Best Things to Do in Mexico

Mexican street scene with colourful buildings and stalls. Credit Richard Cawood via Flickr

It’s a country with beaches, tropical rainforests, mountains and deserts, dotted with Mayan temples and vibrant cities; yes, Mexico is anything but one-dimensional. One minute you could be listening to a mariachi band in a zócalo (town square), the next you could be wandering through a national park or getting to grips with water sports.

With so much to see and do, it can be hard to build your perfect itinerary. So, to kick-start your Mexican holiday inspiration, I’ve narrowed down some of the best things you should do during your trip.

Mayan temple in lush valley
Swot up on the Maya with a trip to Teotihuacan. Credit: Jose Luis Ruiz – flickr.com/photos/bdebaca

Explore Ancient Ruins and Celebrate History

From the Olmecs and the Maya to the Aztecs and the Spanish colonialists, Mexico has lived through some interesting times. There are loads of UNESCO World Heritage Sites across the country, from prehistoric caves to pre-Hispanic cities and incredible monuments. Many of the best preserved Mayan sites, including Chichén Itzá with its famous temple, are easily reached from Cancun, whilst Teotihuacan isn’t far from Mexico City – the capital that was built by Hernán Cortés in the 16th century.

If you’re lucky enough to visit the country during an annual festival, like Cinco de Mayo (5th May), Mexican Independence Day (16th September), or Dia de los Muertos (1st and 2nd November), you’ll get to know even more about its traditions. In fact, the whole month of September is known as Mes de la Patria, or the Month of our Nation, and involves plenty of live music, street parties and traditional food.

Traditional Mexican market in Oaxaca with stallholders
Browsing a food market for bargains is sure to get your appetite going. Credit: Karen Corby – flickr.com/photos/scorbs

Eat More Adventurously

Street food here is colourful, delicious and incredibly cheap. Make a beeline for elote (corn on the cob, topped with anything from chilli to sour cream, butter and lime), tamales (doughy pockets, cooked in leaves, with sweet or savoury fillings) or gorditas (fried corn patties, packed with ingredients like cheese, beans and salsa). As a snack, try an Alegría bar, made from amaranth – a grain that’s a bit like popcorn. The bar might also contain seeds, chocolate, honey or molasses.

Oaxaca city is seen by many experts as one of the top foodie destinations in the country, as it’s incredibly diverse. Specialities in Oaxaca include mole (sauce), dishes with frijoles negras (black beans), and even chapulines (fried grasshoppers). Chocolate is taken very seriously here, so you can’t go wrong with a cocoa-based dessert. The best local market to visit for inspiration is 20 de Noviembre, where you can buy unusual ingredients and grab a delicious meal.

Diego Rivera multicoloured mural in palace
A whole wall of Rivera’s work at the Palacio Nacional. Credit: Jay Galvin – flickr.com/photos/jaygalvin

Discover Art and Handmade Crafts

Mexico City is perfect for art fans, as many of its streets and important buildings are decorated with murals by the likes of Diego Rivera (husband of art icon Frida Kahlo). Kahlo’s childhood home now acts as a museum, called La Casa Azul, dedicated to her work.

Okay, so you can’t afford to take world-famous art home, but make sure you’ve got enough room in your luggage to bring back some bargains from local markets, where handcrafted pottery, textiles and jewellery will be more than enough to tempt you. A traditional shawl, or rebozo, will keep you wrapped up warm on the plane home and will brighten up your post-holiday wardrobe as well.

Crater or sinkhole of Ik Kil with divers showing Mesoamerican landscape
This cenote, or sinkhole, attracts quite a few tourists. Credit: Vicente Villamon – flickr.com/photos/villamon

Be Wowed by Nature

Look out for cenotes, or open water pools, that the Mayan people believed were sacred. Today, brave tourists can go cave diving in the cenotes, mostly near the Chicxulub Crater, Merida, which is the impact site of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs roughly 65.5 million years ago. The Rio Secreto, an underground river found inside a cave network, is similarly impressive. A guided tour involves hiking and swimming past stalagmites (definitely something to brag about).

To slow the pace of your trip, visit one of the country’s countless hot springs and enjoy a spa trip in the open air, or try sitting in a temazcal – a traditional steam bath or sweat lodge, made from stone and mud, which the Aztecs and Maya were fond of.

Yucatan Peninsula beach with Mayan architecture
Tulum combines history with natural beauty. Credit: Dennis Jarvis – flickr.com/photos/archer10

Unwind on World-Famous Beaches

Nature loving aside, it’d be rude to ignore the lure of sun, sea and sand as a setting for doing… well, absolutely nothing. A little downtime by the ocean can be a great stress reliever. The two most popular areas for beach breaks are the Yucatán Peninsula and the Baja California Peninsula, though celebrity spotters should hone in on popular resorts such as Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta and Cancun, where you might get to sunbathe next to a world-famous singer or actress.

For something a little more cultural, combine sunbathing on Playa del Carmen with a visit to the nearby ruins of Tulum. Alternatively, look out for sea turtles by the shore and at coastal turtle hatcheries; Olive Ridleys and loggerheads are just two of the species to spot.

Whether you want to taste your way around the country or explore its most Instagram-worthy landscapes, there’s a way to get to know Mexico on your own terms. And, if you’re lucky enough to have visited already, I’d love to know your recommendations and top tips – add them below.

Disclaimer: Thanks to Thomson Flights for the destination inspiration!

[Featured image: Viva Mexico by Richard Cawood – flickr.com/photos/cawood]